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Poets & Writers Blogs

Start with a quotation that stirs you. It can be a passage from a book, a line from a letter, or a statistic from a newspaper. Use this as a springboard for the rest of your writing this week. Do you agree with the quotation? What role does it play in your life? Do you feel indignation at the statistic? Explore your own opinions and values through the words of another writer, or by confronting the implications of a primary source.

Think of a deceased historical figure and make a list of his or her qualities and attributes. Then try to conjure a modern version of this person in a five-hundred-word story. For instance, a character based on Jean-Jacques Rousseau might be on a walking tour of a city; a character inspired by Marie Curie could be working in a lab. Make this figure your own by weaving in imagined details and context.

In an effort to celebrate great books of long ago that were overlooked by major American literary prizes such as the National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prizes, online literary magazine Bookslut has launched its own new award.

The Daphnes will posthumously honor books published decades ago, starting with the year 1963, in order to “right the wrongs of the 1964 National Book Awards," editor Jessa Crispin writes on the Bookslut blog. “If you look back at the books that won the Pulitzer or the National Book Award, it is always the wrong book. It takes decades for the reader to catch up to a genius book, it takes years away from hype, publicity teams, and favoritism to see that some books just aren’t that good.”

The Bookslut team has begun compiling nominations of some of the best books published in 1963—very few of which even made the NBA shortlist—which in fiction included The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, V by Thomas Pynchon, and Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, among others (John Updike's The Centaur took the fiction prize that year). Notable nonfiction works of the year included Fire Next Time by James Baldwin and Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt (the award went to a biography of John Keats); and while a John Crowe Ransome anthology took the prize in poetry, other 1963 collections included 73 Poems by E. E. Cummings, Reality Sandwiches by Allen Ginsburg, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law by Adrienne Rich, and All My Pretty Ones by Anne Sexton.

The editors are currently seeking more nominees for the best books of 1963, in the categories of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children’s books. Nominations can be sent via e-mail to Jessa Crispin.

A panel of judges in each category, comprised of writers chosen by the editors, will read each nominated book and vote on the winner.

Stay tuned to the Bookslut blog for more updates about the award, and in the meantime check out an interview with Crispin by Dustin Kurtz of independent publisher Melville House.

“The poet is the priest of the invisible,” wrote Wallace Stevens. This week, try to write about an invisible force that affects you deeply. For example, it could be your DNA, music, or the smell of your childhood home. Try to imagine the complexity of the invisible (at least to the naked eye) structure that you are describing. Integrate all of your senses to navigate its visual formlessness.

Look up the etymology of one of your favorite words and consider its complex and surprising history. The word clue, for instance, developed from the word clew, a ball of thread used to guide a person out of a labyrinth (literally or figuratively). In a page or so, try to weave your personal past with a word while incorporating elements of its etymological development. When did you pick up on a clue that would help you out of a figurative labyrinth?

Writer, vocalist, and sound artist LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs is the author of TwERK (Belladonna, 2013), as well as the album Television. She has received scholarships, residencies, and fellowships from Cave Canem, Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center, VCCA, the Laundromat Project, the Jerome Foundation, New York Foundation for the Arts, the Eben Demarest Trust, and Millay Colony. As an independent curator and artistic director, she has directed literary/music events at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Symphony Space, Bam Café, the Schomburg Research Center for Black Culture, Dixon Place, El Museo del Barrio, The David Rubenstein Atrium. A native of Harlem, New York, LaTasha, along with writer Greg Tate, is the founder and editor of yoYO/SO4 Magazine, which has been funded by the Poets & Writers Readings & Workshops Program.

Coon Bidness flyer

This is not an essay on self-publishing, but rather on what has been and what could be the motivation behind the act of publication—why we desire our words or the words of others to be read, shared, celebrated. When I returned from graduate school, Quincy Troupe was one of those few cats with whom I had permission to ask questions (often idiotic questions) and let him "call it like he sees it." Quincy’s stories brought me to the archives at the Schomburg for Research in Black Culture so that I could read Al Young and Ishmael Reed's work for a Cave Canem Legacy conversation I was invited to "moderate" between the two of them. There I discovered just how much their roles as editors and publishers were connected to David Walker, Frederick Douglas, Martin Delany, Margaret Walker, Sun Ra, Black Herman, Black Panther Party, Jayne Cortez, Eugene B. Redmond, Nation of Islam, E. Ethelbert Miller, Jessica Care Moore, Sylvester Clark Long, and the litany of street literature sold by vendors on 125th in Harlem. There is a history. Yet in 2009, for Greg Tate and myself, it appeared a handful of folks had forgotten.

Our little journey in creating a literary/arts journal began with a listserv post. The complaint had to do with the lack of publications supporting writers of African ancestry. What followed was a trail of debates, heated insults, and what I found to be no resolution. To Greg and myself, the answer seemed so simple. My previous research on Young and Reed’s work, their long history of editorial work and creating publications to support work outside of their own, was also part of that answer. To complain about erasure and/or exclusion of black and brown voices in major publications bored us. And in our rant over the rant, we decided to create a magazine. Our argument: If you have a problem with the absence of voices not heard, create your own shit. And thus, our first collective venture into creating a literary/arts journal was Coon Bidness.

SO4Cover

I will admit, we were challenging folks with the name. Taken from a Julius Hemphill album, we were paying tribute to the album and challenging those who felt themselves powerless in the realms of literary publications. Suffice to say, the political landscape of this literary universe can feel cryptic at times. During our call for submissions, it felt that only mainstream publications were more desirable than our meager DIY. Polite smiles don’t always tell you if someone respects you, your work, or your madness. Even so, they don’t tell you if you’re a member of their clan. Nonetheless, we insisted on making a point. We found a coalition with those bold enough to understand the initiative to create other avenues where artists and writers we believed in could be featured. The publication took a year to be produced. Greg brought on board LaRonda Davis to design the magazine and Sun Singleton to copy edit. As a bonus feature, Coon Bidness was two journals back to back. SO4 (a nod to a short lived rap/poetry trio in the late '90s and to Fader magazine) would consist largely of poetry and visual art. The tone between the two was also different. In order to print and distribute it, we decided on MagCloud, an online “self-service content publishing platform” that printed on demand.

On January 11, 2010, thanks to former associate curator Rashida Bumbray, we held our pre-inaugural launch party at The Kitchen Performance Space. The concept: a variety show featuring readings by contributors mashed up with performers and visual artists. Our little showcase would provide a preview for what we felt the journal could itself become: a baritone saxophone player and UK Punk veteran; Stevie Wonder covers in Maori; a text on Oscar Grant recited in French and created into a video performance; avant-garde Puerto Rican poetry; an opera singer performing a Debarge tune while accompanying a poet acting as comedian; a choreographer interpreting a painting and the visual artist functioning as music producer; traditional Tahitian dancers. And Quincy Troupe. No one saw this spectacle coming.

Coon Bidness flyer w/ Mr. Met

Quincy—because it was a launch party—did not expect compensation for everyone who participated. When I handed him two checks (one from our Kitchen budget and the other from Poets & Writers), he looked up at me and said, “Oh shit! I’m getting paid?” For some reason, he forgot, or I forgot to send the memo. It wasn’t a lot of money either. But the satisfaction in his tone told me how much he appreciated the gesture. A hard truth within the poetry community has to do with the absence of honorariums. Often poets are not paid for public readings. Often poets are expected to do so because that is what the landscape has established for so many years. And as much as our little journal was about the act of creating more publishing opportunities, one of our personal mantras has been Abbey Lincoln’s “You Gotta Pay the Band.” The ‘band’ is what we fashioned it to be. It included as many poets as there were dancers; as many musicians as there were video artists. And all of them deserved compensation. The time we dedicate to our craft deserves at least one bill to be paid (or any number of monthly, weekly Metro Cards) after we’ve shared ourselves with an audience.

Coon Bidness existed as one issue and later transformed into yoYO. SO4 remains as the counterpart to whatever we decide the issue to be named. The beauty of this is freedom and improvisation. Time and deep listening will determine what aspects of ourselves will be represented and featured. CB, yoYO, and SO4 were for us examples of what is possible and what has always been possible, and perhaps the seed that brought forth a Fence, an African Voices, a New Yorker, a Callaloo. Someone decided to create a platform for what they felt was necessary, for what they felt was absent from the conversation of letters. Be it a cultural or aesthetic argument, the point (or goal) is not so much about longevity but that of being part of the conversation, showing through example what is possible and what builds that architecture. DIY is just that.

Two DIY journals to keep your eyes on:

Bone Bouquet, founded by Krystal Languell, a biannual online/print journal that publishes the new writing by female poets and artists both established and emerging.

As/Us, founded by Tanaya Winder, a literary and scholarly journal with an interest in publishing works by "underrepresented writers particularly Indigenous women and women of color."

Top Photo: Coon Bidness Invite Credit: Nevada Lightfoot. Second Photo: SO4 Cover. Middle Photo: Coon Bidness Invite with Mr. Met. Photo: yoYO/SO4.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional support is provided by the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Submissions are currently open for the annual Summer Literary Seminars (SLS) contests in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. Held this year in affiliation with Fence Magazine, the prizes in each category include an all-expenses-paid trip to attend one of SLS’s writing programs in Kenya, Lithuania, or Montreal. The deadline is February 28.

The winners in poetry and fiction will have the choice of attending a two-week program in Vilnius, Lithuania, from July 13–26, or in Nairobi-Lamu, Kenya, in December, and will have their work published in Fence Magazine. The winner in nonfiction will have the choice of attending either of the two-week programs or the annual SLS workshop in Montreal from March 27–30. The programs include writing workshops, seminars, readings, walking tours, and other cultural events. Each prize includes airfare, tuition, and housing.

Second-place winners in poetry and fiction will receive a full tuition waiver for the two-week program of their choice; third-place winners will receive a 50 percent tuition discount. All qualifying entries will automatically be considered for a variety of additional prizes sponsored by SLS. All entrants will also receive a yearlong subscription to Fence Magazine.

Dorothea Lasky will judge in poetry, Aimee Bender will judge in fiction, and Phillip Lopate will judge in nonfiction.

Submit up to three poems, a short story or novel excerpt of up to twenty pages, or a work of creative nonfiction of up to twenty pages, with an $18 entry fee, by February 28. Submissions can be sent via e-mail or by postal mail to Summer Literary Seminars, Unified Literary Contest, English Department, Concordia University, 1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W., Montreal, Quebec H3G 1M8 Canada.

Visit the SLS website for more information about the programs and complete contest guidelines.

“Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude,” said Martin Luther King Jr. Imagine a character who needs to forgive someone. Who does he or she need to forgive? What was the nature of the injury? What were its implications? Does forgiveness come easily to your character, or is retaliation a more natural impulse? Does your character try and fail to forgive initially? See how your character’s desire to forgive creates obstacles and ultimately fuels your plot.

"The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest," Martin Luther King Jr. said in a speech on December 5, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama. Poetry can be a powerful vehicle for protest and social change. Write a poem in which you confront a subject that inspires personal objection. The topic does not have to be strictly political. For instance, Dylan Thomas’s villanelle “Do not go gentle into that good night” protests the death of the poet’s father: “Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” See how you can wield and transfer oppositional energy into language and form.

Writer, vocalist, and sound artist LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs is the author of TwERK (Belladonna, 2013), as well as the album, Television. LaTasha has received scholarships, residencies, and fellowships from Cave Canem, Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center, VCCA, The Laundromat Project, The Jerome Foundation, New York Foundation for the Arts, the Eben Demarest Trust, and Millay Colony. As an independent curator and artistic director, she has directed literary/music events at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Symphony Space, Bam Café, The Schomburg Research Center for Black Culture, Dixon Place, El Museo del Barrio, The David Rubenstein Atrium. A native of Harlem, LaTasha and writer Greg Tate are the founders and editors of yoYO/SO4 Magazine.

La Casa Azul Staff

The day is January 6, 2014. In all fairness, I have never attended the Three Kings parade organized by El Museo del Barrio in my many years as a Harlemite. What often gets attention is Thanksgiving followed by Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa. But the gold, frankincense, and myrrh I remember from childhood. Los Reyes found the divine child by following the North Star across the desert for twelve days to Bethlehem. Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar (aka Europe, Arabia, and Africa) travelled by horse, elephant and camel. When they arrived, they presented baby Jesus with three symbolic gifts. I remember the story but now in the context of Babaaláwo and the Yoruba tradition; how three Babas determine through long earned wisdom the means of acknowledging. Three is a magic number. I am equally curious about the parade since witnessing one year a long line of folks on 111th and Lexington waiting to purchase the sweet baby Jesus bread from a local shop. This year I make an effort to attend the parade now in its 37th year, not because I am Christian or I’m hungry, but to show support for La Casa Azul Bookstore.

There are days I stroll over to this tiny colorful bookstore, am greeted by the founder and owner Aurora Anaya-Cerda, and wonder, “Woman, do you ever sleep?” As an “educator and supporter of cultural events in the East Harlem community for more than eight years,” I wonder how she keeps motivated and remains passionate about literacy. I wonder, Why open a bookstore when between 2000 and 2007 more than 1,000 bookstores across the country closed? I find myself at this place often because of this tirelessness that drives both Aurora and her staff. Together, they maintain a calendar filled with monthly programming that often serves as a safe haven, a family reunion, a community forum, and a charge of intellectual and creative support.

Author's Day

I wanted to dedicate a post to La Casa Azul Bookstore to acknowledge a space committed to fostering exchange in East Harlem and Latin America and as an example of community building. If I were to imagine the architecture of La Casa Azul’s lineage, it may include Frida Kahlo, Tim Z. Hernandez, Julia de Burgos, Junot Díaz, Rigoberto González, Pablo Neruda, Yuyi Morales, Eduardo Galeano, and La Bruja, to name a few. When my book first arrived, one of my personal goals was that it be available in the community that I grew up with, who eat the same food I often relish about but must enjoy in moderation. It mattered that the place of my birth, my navigating of Central and East Harlem’s streets–switching back and forth from Black English to Broken Spanish to brief words in Walof or Arabic–be the place where I would see my book carried. And as independent bookstores are back on the steady rise–if you haven’t made it over to Berl’s Poetry Shop in Dumbo, it’s worth the visit–I want this little bookstore on 103 and Lexington to prosper.

It is Monday, and the downpour by 9 a.m. is pretty fierce. Aurora has been named one of the Honorary Madrinas for this year’s parade and has selflessly invited local authors and customers to walk with the store’s banner. I accept the invitation because my time living in Harlem has taught me a big lesson when it comes to local business. On June 1, 2012, La Casa Azul Bookstore opened it doors. And though its founder and staff have successfully created this “literature hub” for El Barrio, it will need the local community (along with those who live in Williamsburg, Kentucky, and Yonkers) to support it as well.

Papoleto

As we waited on 106 and Park Ave for the signal to begin, news came that the camels (yes camels…long before there were even sheep) had arrived. One of La Casa Azul’s staff members made makeshift maracas the night before out of tiny plastic cups, rice and tape. The Three Kings gladly take one and while the samba band is playing a few yards behind us, we giggle and shake our maracas. Poet, playwright, performance artist and long-time El Barrio resident Jesús ‘Papoleto’ Meléndez, the King Emeritus, holds his gift and waves from his bike driven carriage. Once we reached 116th, we turn west to Lexington where the parade ends. Aurora turns in her Madrina crown and robe to El Museo’s staff and we all gather to eat on 2nd Ave., still energized by the sounds, the walk, the children, the camels. As we sit there and eat our cubanos, maduros, tostones, and bacalao salads, I am still wondering how she does it all: From the selecting of books, the tin hearts with red ribbons, totes, and bright robellos to maintaining an online presence, programming events, book signings, workshops, and everything else that goes into being a community advocate. No, I really want this bookstore to have a long life for as long as Aurora will allow it.

aurora with camel

Group Photo: Aurora Anaya-Cerda and Staff at Three King's Day. Credit: Nevada Lightfoot. Middle Photo: LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs at 2nd Annual Local Author's Day. Credit: Aurora Anaya-Cerda. Photo: Jesus "Papoleto" Melendez at Three King's Day. Credit: Nevada Lightfoot. Photo: Selfie of La Casa Azul's Aurora Anaya Cerda with Camel.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional support is provided by the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is currently accepting applications for its annual creative writing fellowships. The $25,000 grants, which are given in alternating years to poets and prose writers, will be given in 2015 to poets. The deadline to apply is March 12, 2014.

Poets who have published at least one full-length poetry collection, or twenty or more poems or pages of poetry in five or more literary journals, anthologies, or publications, are eligible to apply. Detailed eligibility requirements are available here.

Complete application instructions, including all required materials, can be found on the NEA website. Applications must be submitted online through the Grants.gov website. Recipients will be announced in December 2014.

The annual fellowships are given in order to provide time for writing, research, travel, and general career advancement for poets and prose writers. Applications are reviewed through an anonymous process in which “the only criteria for review are artistic excellence and artistic merit.” The NEA assembles a different advisory panel each year to review applications.

This year, thirty-eight fellowships were awarded to fiction and creative nonfiction writers; forty poets received the 2013 grants. Fellowships in fiction and creative nonfiction will be offered again in 2016; guidelines will be available on the NEA website in the fall of 2014.

Questions about the fellowship program and application process can be directed to the National Endowment for the Arts by e-mail to litfellowships@arts.gov or by phone at (202) 682-5034.

Shin Yu Pai is the author of several poetry books, including AUX ARCS (La Alameda, 2013), Adamantine (White Pine, 2010), Sightings (1913 Press, 2007), and Equivalence (La Alameda, 2003). She has also published a number of limited edition artist’s books, including Hybrid Land (Filter Press, 2010), Works on Paper (Convivio Bookworks, 2007), and The Love Hotel Poems (Press Lorentz, 2006).

A visual artist, she has exhibited her work at the Paterson Museum, The McKinney Avenue Contemporary, and the Three Arts Club of Chicago. She is a former curator for The Wittliff Collections and has taught creative writing at Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas at Dallas. Pai received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and studied at Naropa University.

A recipient of awards from the Arkansas Arts Council, 4Culture, the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, and the Cambridge Arts Council, Pai has completed residencies at the Ragdale Foundation, Taipei Artist Village, Soul Mountain, and is a three-time fellow of The MacDowell Colony. Over the years, P&W has supported numerous events she has taken part in as a writer in the Seattle, Washington area.

Shin Yu PaiWhat are your reading dos and don’ts?
There are few things worse than not being able to hear the reader you’ve travelled distances to hear, so I almost always use the microphone if one is given, and I test it with the audience before proceeding with a reading. I also share information with an audience on the contexts of my poems to engage them in the process that informed the writing, so that my poems can be more accessible. I adhere to the time given to me and respect the time of my co-readers and audiences, and am conscious of listener fatigue. The don’ts are implicit in the dos.

How do you prepare for a reading?
When I started giving poetry readings fifteen years ago, I would practice reading my poems out loud and time the material, writing out comments in the margins of my work of information I thought might be helpful for an audience. Over time, as I’ve matured as a writer and grown more into who I am as a person (an unapologetic introvert with a penchant for occasional extroversion when it comes to poetry), this approach felt too polished or rehearsed, and less spontaneous.

While I never just wing an event with zero preparation, I do now often leave preparing for an event until the day of a reading to see what feels true to me in a given moment. I try to be who I am in front of an audience so that the poems can speak from my heart. I aspire to show up, instead of acting out a public persona.

I also give thought to the venue for which I will be reading. When I read recently at a P&W–supported event with The Wing Luke Museum in Seattle, I thought about the audience for the museum, which has a focus on Asian-American history and identity. I shared poems from my most recent book Aux Arcs on race and my experiences as an Asian-American woman living and working in the South. As a museum studies graduate student, I had spent time at The Wing cataloguing collections, including loaned items from the artist Roger Shimomura. So I also shared a poem that I had written inspired by contemplating Shimomura’s pop culture self-portrait of himself as “Washington Crossing the Delaware.”

Have the disciplines of photography and art curating crossed over into your writing, and the way you think about poetry and presentation?
Poetic presentation is not simply about an experience of activating randomly selected poems by reading them aloud to an audience. I think in terms of trajectories and sequences—images that talk to and across one another for specific audiences based on themes that can arc across different bodies of work from the present and past. I think in terms of editing/curating for presentation and making spaces for the listener to enter the stream of consciousness.

I have often been asked to give slide show presentations in which I talk about the influence of visual artists on my work in tandem with reading my poems. I do think that these sort of hybrid presentations can be a useful way to engage an audience in one’s creative and analytical process.

Presentations are really a kind of event or happening—for the book launch of Aux Arcs, I invited artist Whiting Tennis, who provided the cover art for my book, to perform his folk rock music at the event. Since the poems reflect on race and the experience of living in the South, I asked Whiting if he would perform some of his more lyrical folk songs, in particular a ballad about John Brown to create a bridge to the poems.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
You never know when something you read or say in a workshop will light a fire for someone and inspire them to explore their own story or creative expression. The value of literary programs is in providing a model for the community that individuals of all ages, experiences, and educational backgrounds might explore the richness, inherent worth, and complexity of their own vision—that audience members may see something of their own experience mirrored in my poems, and take that experience and run with it. Poetry is for the community and acts as tool to build community. When I say community, I don’t mean the literary audience of poets and writers, academics and peers. I mean everyday people engaged with the struggle and art of living fully from an authentic place that brings together mind, spirit, and heart.

Photo: Shin Yu Pai. Credit: Daniel Carrillo.
Support for Readings/Workshops events in Seattle is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Though people typically make every effort to appear confident, accomplished, and cheerful to others, we all have flaws and shortcomings. Many people, in fact, are defined on some level by their imperfections. From a fear of flying and substance abuse problems to shopping addiction and weight issues, the inner lives of the people you write about are just as compelling as how they dress or what they say. Write five hundred words about one of your shortcomings, and describe in detail how it affects your life and changed you as a person. Being honest about your life will make you a more empathic writer when characterizing the flaws of others.

Effective listening is imperative to effective writing. Listening carefully while sitting on a crowded subway, drinking coffee in a lonely diner, or asking a stranger for directions can lead to new characters, settings, and story lines. It is also important to listen to your own characters. Make a list of ten questions to ask a character you are developing. Listen to your character’s answers, diction, and inflection, and write down what you hear and see in your imagination. Most people, including fictional characters, will tell you who they are. You just have to ask.

“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” This quote from Robert Frost reveals the raw origins of poetry, and emphasizes the complex cerebral and emotional forces that inspire poems. Think of how poetry accommodates both the expansiveness and simplicity of our emotions. Use this unique and paradoxical phenomenon to write about a profound and complicated experience in your life: perhaps the death of a long-suffering loved one, or the graduation of a child, or the private self-confession of having fallen out of love. Start with a single emotion, and begin your journey there.

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