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Revisit a poem of yours that is longer than one page. Try rewriting the poem by condensing it to ten lines or fewer. Cut and rearrange lines from the original poem, or write a completely new one that gives fresh attention to an evocative image or line from the original. 

Social justice activist and Cave Canem fellow Ama Codjoe blogs about participating in a P&W–supported Cave Canem regional workshop with formalist poet Marilyn Nelson in 2009. 

In fall 2009, Poets & Writers supported a Cave Canem regional workshop with Marilyn Nelson. Nelson is a goddess of formal poetics. Before taking a workshop with Marilyn I had little experience with sonnets, sestinas, or ballads. Through a series of lessons on meter, rhyme, and phrasing, I learned the arithmetic of formalism.

Nelson asked us to pay particular attention to the construction of the poetic line. Through a sequence of assignments we experienced how careful and intentional construction could lead to a meaningful, surprising, and exciting composition. Formal verse provides the writer with added parameters. Nelson’s poetry exhibits how such constraints used skillfully can produce poems that are wild, challenging, liberating, and free. Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Hayden offer examples of how constraint or restraint can be used to describe terror, horror, beauty, and oppression. In these ways formal poetry holds paradox with nimble hands.

To conclude our time together Marilyn asked us to write one sonnet. About two years later, a childhood friend reminded me of a series of poems that we read when we were teenagers. “Don’t you remember?” she asked. “Who touches this poem touches a woman.” I did remember. The last line of Julia Alvarez’s last sonnet was a line that moved my teenage-becoming-a-woman self. Rereading those sonnets from Alvarez’s first book, Homecoming, was a kind of homecoming. I admired the way her sonnets sounded both casual and intimate. The themes she was obsessed with: relationships, God, marriage, and womanhood resonated with the preoccupations of my thirty-something mind and heart.

By experiencing the resonance of a poetic line as a teenager and returning to that line as an adult, I began a process of constructing, revising, and building a sonnet cycle of my own. I am grateful for Nelson’s instruction and for an introduction to formalism that continues to shape and propel my work.

Photo: Ama Codjoe. Credit: Amanda Morgan.


Support for
Readings/Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, and the Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and Friends of Poets & Writers.

Poet and writer Michelle Tea has been both a P&W–supported writer and presenter of literary events. Her many books include a poetry collection, novels, and memoirs. Tea's novel, Valencia, won the 2000 Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction. Tea founded the literary nonprofit RADAR Productions and co-founded the spoken word tour Sister Spit. We asked her a few questions about her experience as a writer and reading series curator.

What are your reading dos?
Be relaxed! Audiences are as interested in YOU as they are in your piece. Ad-libbing through the work (if the work allows for it) is generally charming; some of my favorite readers will break off the page and address the audience in a spontaneous, natural way.

What are your reading don’ts?
Don't take it so seriously. You are not delivering a testimony to Congress. Don't speak in POETRY VOICE. You know what I mean. There are writers whose work I enjoy on the page, but I can't listen to them read it because that inflection makes me leave my body.

How do you prepare for a reading?
I don't, unless you count neurotically changing my mind about what I'm reading and wearing "preparation." I call it mental illness. Not everything works best aloud. I try to not feel the audience too much because it’s easy to mistake silence for boredom, and then I get nervous and start acting desperate. I try to read as if everything I'm delivering is AMAZING.

What’s the strangest interaction you’ve had with an audience member?
Sometimes a person thinks that just because you are comfortable reading something sexual in the very specific and controlled environment of a reading, it means you are down for discussing sex with random strangers. And I actually enjoy that no more than the average person, which is to say, not much.

What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why does it work?
They all seem to revolve around shock. In Rose of No Man's Land, it's when a character throws her dirty tampon at a boy who is harassing her. In Valencia, it’s an unusual sex scene. In Rent Girl, it’s a very funny fake orgasm contest between two prostitutes—which allows me to caw like a bird whilst performing, so I like it, too.

What makes the RADAR Reading Series unique?
My reading series has been running for almost nine years. I mix up my readers—unpublished, published, well-known, emerging, and I bring in graphic novelists, video artists, and photographers. It's free. There’s a Q&A  segment, and I hand out homemade cookies to whoever asks questions. (There are always questions!)

It's queer like a queer bar—anyone can go in, but you know it’s a space that has prioritized queer people. As a queer person I spend tons of time in straight spaces where queers are welcome, but the spaces are straight, even though often they aren't designated as such because straight people aren't accustomed to thinking about space like queers are. RADAR uses that model—yes, of course everyone is welcome, but the space, the event, is queer.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
My immediate community is a queer community that still suffers from a lack of representation in all media, especially literary, even in San Francisco. The value of having a place you can go to see elements of your experience and community reflected back at you in a thoughtful, honest, artistic manner is HUGE. I was just passing through San Francisco when I came here in 1993, but the reason I stayed is that the work I do—writing, curating events, and promoting other writers—is so supported here. And it's supported in part by Poets & Writers, so thank you!

Photo: Michelle Tea. Credit: Food For Thought Books.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

The Poetry Foundation announced yesterday the winner of its 2012 Emily Dickinson First Book Award, given occasionally for a poetry collection by a writer over forty. Maryland writer Hailey Leithauser, born in 1954, received this year's honor for her collection, Swoop, which comes with a ten-thousand-dollar prize and publication of the book by award-winning indie Graywolf Press next year.

Leithauser, who returned to poetry in 2000 after taking decades off from writing post-college, has seen her poetry published in Antioch Review, Gettysburg Review, Poetry, and Sou'wester, as well as in The Best American Poetry 2010. In 2004 she won a "Discovery"/The Nation Award (now the "Discovery"/Boston Review Award). The poet, who studied English as an undergraduate and now holds a master's of library and information science, has worked most recently as senior reference librarian at the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., though she's also taken turns as a salad chef, purveyor of gourmet foods, real estate office manager, copy editor, phone surveyor, and bookstore clerk.

“Leithauser is a risk-taker," says Graywolf editor Jeff Shotts. "She is innovative—with spirited titles and musical outbursts—but also nods to poetic tradition with rhyming sonnets and other lyric techniques...I am engaged, throughout, and admire her wide-ranging talent.”

The Poetry Foundation will honor Leithauser along with 2012 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize winner W. S. Di Piero at a ceremony in Chicago on June 11.

The most recent episode of the literary podcast Other People with Brad Listi features novelist Emily St. John Mandel, whose new book The Lola Quartet, is just out from Unbridled Books. The entire interview is worth a listen—Emily and Brad discuss a wide range of subjects, including literary life in Brooklyn, Emily's career in dance, and taking language courses in French leading up to a book tour of France. However, around the twenty-five minute mark Mandel recounts her first experience with an agent—which entailed a rejection with generous notes, a massive revision that took six months, and a resubmission before she was taken on as a client. The agent was Emilie Jacobsen, who landed a job at Curtis Brown Literary when she was just out of college in 1946, and worked there until she passed away at the age of eighty-five, in 2010. At the time, Emily St. John Mandel wrote a remembrance of Ms. Jacobsen for the Millions.

Choose a topic that interests you—it could be an animal, a scientific process, or a historical event, for example—and research it. Next, think of an unrelated experience from your life—a particularly memorable moment from childhood, perhaps, or when a loved one passed away—and write an essay on the two subjects. Alternate between short paragraphs of factual reportage on the topic and brief, more lyrical vignettes about the remembered experience, with the end goal of finding a way to relate the two. 

Pick an overlooked, everyday object—a scarf, a carton of strawberries, a snow globe—and write eight different scenes or vignettes in which that object appears centrally. Have each scene take place in a different location and have the characters interact with the object in various ways. 

Make a list of commonly used phrases or idioms (e.g. “don't let the cat out of the bag,” “beat a dead horse,” “no strings attached”). Choose one or two and examine them closely, particularly their literal meaning. Write a poem in which at least one line attempts to reveal the strangeness of a commonly used idiom. Read Dora Malech’s “Love Poem” for inspiration. 

Social justice activist and Cave Canem fellow Ama Codjoe blogs about her work as a teaching artist with the P&W-supported Girls Educational Mentoring Services (G.E.M.S.), a New York City based organization that aims to support young women who have been commercially sexually exploited and domestically trafficked.

I teach social justice and poetry through asking myself the same big questions I pose to students. As a teaching artist I am invested both in my life as a teacher and in my life as an artist. These two pieces of my identity inform one another. When I assign the group a poem to write, I often do the assignment myself. While G.E.M.S. participants were interrogating what it means to be woman, I was asking myself similar questions in my artistic practice.

The inspiration flows in both directions. Just as frequently as I find myself using my teaching practice to inform my artistic practice, I also bring strategies, poems, questions, and obsessions from my writing life back into the classroom. If I look back at periods when I have been teaching a particular group of students and then examine the poems that I wrote during that time I can often find traceable themes and continuities. For five weeks of teaching and five weeks of writing we seemed to return to these central questions: What do we invoke? What do we want? What do we dream?

To close our time together, young women who participated in the P&W-supported workshops read their poems at an art exhibit that also featured their visual art. Listening as their confidence, nervousness, clarity, and power filled the room, I was impressed by how these young women had turned to me, turned to each other, and turned to the page. The space where we write, discuss, reveal, and revel is a space of courage and power—is a political space. The work of self-reflection, writing, and creativity is worthy work, and as Audre Lorde insists, poetry is not a luxury. In other words the work of a poet is dangerous and life-changing work.

Photo: Ama Codjoe. Credit: Evelyn Bojorquez.

Support for Readings/Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, and the Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and Friends of Poets & Writers.

The Associated Press reported earlier today that short story writer Charles Baxter has been awarded the 2012 Rea Award for the Short Story, an honor that includes a prize of thirty thousand dollars. Given annually to recognize a writer's body of work, the Rea Award has been given in the past to writers such as Andre Dubus, Grace Paley, Eudora Welty, and Tobias Wolff.

A statement by the prize judges praised Baxter's "original mind and ironic wit" and "acute feeling for the landscape of marriage, childhood, and art." Baxter's most recent story collection is Gryphon (Pantheon Books, 2011). He has also authored several novels and books on craft, including Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction (Graywolf Press, 2008).

In the video below, Baxter discusses what brought him back to the short story after he published five novels, and how "to get a sense of wonder into a short story" in the modern age.

Marea Gordett, owner of Big Mind Learning, an educational firm serving students in the Capital region of New York, and author of the poetry book, Freeze Tag, published by Wesleyan University Press, blogs about her P&W–supported writing workshops at the Marillac Family Shelter in Albany.

When I moved from Boston to Albany, New York, in the 1990s, I was bereft at losing the teaching connections I had found in a large metropolitan area. While I knew there were various programs in the area—the New York State Writers’ Institute was one—I didn’t feel a part of the literary community. A friend recommended I apply to the Readings/Workshops program at Poets & Writers for funding, and I’ve been thrilled ever since to find this network again through my work in community centers, libraries, and senior centers throughout Albany County and at the beautiful Arkell Museum and Canajoharie Library in Montgomery County.

In these workshops, I am not only aware of what I receive from and give to writers, but also how the group itself develops its own identity and offers its own gifts. When we create a space that allows us to freely write about joy, pain, and longing and encourages others to listen to these often long-withheld emotions—amazing changes can happen. Regardless of differences in age and experience, we all write from a deep, secret place. And then we share, which helps us feel a growing sense of peace and helps to diminish loneliness.

This was especially evident to me this winter when I conducted a workshop at the Marillac Family Shelter in Albany. Part of St. Catherine’s Center for Children, this emergency housing program for homeless families meets the initial need for shelter and assists families in empowerment and education. I found a warm welcome when I proposed a writing workshop for teens and mothers called “You Are Unlimited.” In this pilot program, held once a week for five weeks, a core of eight people and a constantly-changing extended group gathered in a well-maintained recreation/computer room and wrote, shared, and performed their poems and life stories. As I entered the room every Thursday, mothers with babies and young children would clear the space and shut the door. The dedicated teens, with their mothers usually sitting on couches a few feet away, would be hushed and ready to write, even after a full day of school.

Participants wrote long Delight Chants in response to Nikki Giovanni’s poem, “Ego Tripping,” and celebratory litanies after hearing Nazim Hikmet’s poem, “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved.” After overcoming their initial resistance and with support from staff members, the writers eagerly embraced the free-form poems and wrote lines such as the following:

My real name is J.H.
I want it to mean beautiful. I am a tornado.
I am a spinner. I am a very big swirl.

The enthusiastic staff members wrote with the students and mothers, gently encouraging them. When one of the mothers shared her work, the others followed, and eventually everyone lined up to have his or her work videotaped, accompanied by the applause and shouts of an appreciative audience. When one staff member read her words, everyone nodded in agreement:

I didn’t know I loved the table
until I missed the love that surrounded it.
I didn’t know I loved rice
until we had to do without it.
I didn’t know I loved the tides
until they washed away my impatience.

This spirit of warmth and camaraderie vanquished pessimism and sadness, if only for an afternoon. I’m tremendously grateful to the support of Poets & Writers for letting my teaching come to life again, and helping me bring to various corners of my region workshops that help restore trust. Especially during this time of resignation, Poets & Writers gives solace and hope.

Photo: Workshop participant. Credit: Marea Gordett

Support for Readings/Workshops in NewYork is provided, in part, by public funds from the NewYork State Council on the Arts, with additional support from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

The finalists for the thirteenth annual Caine Prize for African Literature, the ten-thousand-pound award (approximately sixteen thousand dollars) given for a short story written in English by an African writer, were announced last week. The shortlist of five was selected from 122 story entries by authors from fourteen African countries.

"This prize is more than just another award that will sprinkle fairy dust on a single, lucky writer every yearit is a force for change," says Bernardine Evaristo, this year's chair of judges, in a post on the Caine Prize blog. "I’m looking for stories about Africa that enlarge our concept of the continent beyond the familiar images that dominate the media: War-torn Africa, Starving Africa, Corrupt Africa - in short: The Tragic Continent. I’ve been banging on about this for years because while we are all aware of these negative realities, and some African writers have written great novels along these lines (as was necessary, crucial), isn’t it time now to move on? Or rather, for other kinds of African novels to be internationally celebrated."

Furthering the prize's goal to widen the global audience for new and innovative African fiction, the venues that originally published the shortlisted storiestwo U.S. magazines, McSweeney's Quarterly Concern and Prick of the Spindle, among themhave released digital editions of the works. Below is the list of this year's finalists, with first lines from each story, and links to the pieces in full (in PDF format).

Rotimi Babatunde of Nigeria for "Bombay’s Republic," published in Mirabilia Review, out of Lagos, Nigeria

"The old jailhouse on the hilltop had remained uninhabited for many decades, through the construction of the town’s first grammar school and the beginning of house-to-house harassment from the affliction called sanitary inspectors, through the laying of the railway tracks by navvies who likewise succeeded in laying pregnancies in the bellies of several lovestruck girls, but fortunes changed for the building with the return of Colour Sergeant Bombay, the veteran who went off with the recruitment officers to Hitler’s War as a man and came back a spotted leopard."

Billy Kahora of Kenya for "Urban Zoning," published in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, out of San Francisco

"Outside on Tom Mboya Street, Kandle realized that he was truly in the Zone."

S. O. Kenani of Malawi for "Love on Trial" from the his debut collection, For Honour and Other Stories (Random House Struik, Cape Town, South Africa)

"Mr Lapani Kachingwe’s popularity has soared."

Melissa Tandiwe Myambo of Zimbabwe for "La Salle de Départ," published in Prick of the Spindle, out of New Orleans

"Like so many omens, she had missed its significance at the time."

Constance Myburgh of South Africa for "Hunter Emmanuel" from Jungle Jim, out of Cape Town, South Africa

"Hunter Emmanuel shouldered his chainsaw and looked up at the trees."

If you're craving a little analysis with your reading, Aaron Bady, a PhD candidate in African literature at University of California, along with some choice friends, will be blogging about the Caine Prize stories for the next few weeks at the New Inquiry. (Thanks to the Millions for this tip.)

The announcement of the winner will take place at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England, on July 2. More details about this year's finalists and the past prize winners, who include Helon Habila, E. C. Osondu, and Binyavanga Wainaina, is avaialble on the Caine Prize website.

In Cheryl Strayed's new memoir, Wild (Knopf, 2012), the author recounts her months-long hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, a journey that she took entirely alone after life as she'd known it had fallen apart. "It was a world I'd never been to and yet had known was there all along," she says, "one I'd staggered to in sorrow and confusion and fear and hope. A world I thought would both make me into the woman I knew I could become and turn me back into the girl I'd once been." Write about a time when you got a little wild—when you embarked upon something new and challenging, maybe something frightening, or maybe even a little dangerous. Write about the wilderness itself, but also about what brought you there, and who you had become by the time you walked back out of the woods.

Write a piece of flash fiction or a short story that starts with an advice column. Use the advice column to introduce the story's protagonist, the central drama, or the back story of the characters. Alternatively, read through advice columns such as the Rumpus's Dear Sugar and Salon's Since You Asked and create a story based on the problem posed by one advice-seeker.

A cento, Latin for "patchwork," is a poem composed entirely of fragments and lines taken from other poems and/or written sources. Try creating your own patchwork poem by incorporating lines from various poems in a poetry anthology. For inspiration, read David Lehman's cento in the New York Times.

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