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P&W-funded Jamaal May is a poet from Detroit, MI, where he taught poetry in public schools and worked as a freelance audio engineer and touring performer. His poetry won the 2013 Indiana Review Prize and appears in journals such as Poetry, Ploughshares, and The Believer. Jamaal has earned an MFA from Warren Wilson and fellowships from Cave Canem and Bucknell University. His first book is Hum (Alice James Books, 2013), and he is founder of the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Press.
Most poetry readings happen on the heels of a new collection of poems. The question that’s come up lately as I give readings from my first book, participate in Q & A panels, and respond to interviews, is some version of “How did you put this thing together?” I’ve fussed and fretted over the manuscript, screened for multiple book prizes, looked over manuscripts for colleagues, and founded the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Series. After Hum won the Beatrice Hawley Award, I realized I had, in the process actually come up with some answers. What follows are considerations I wish I could share with my past self without breaking the space-time continuum. Hopefully presenting those thoughts here will grant them usefulness without the need of a scientific breakthrough at the Large Hadron Collider.

Writing Everything

Hum was written at different stages in different places through a variety of experiences. I figured out how poems spoke to each other way after the fact. Writing lots of kinds of poems early in your writing life can hone your voice and give you a broad body of work to draw from. Once you have a working manuscript, let new poems fill in various gaps or replace weaker poems. I’ve seen themed collections that felt over determined because there was no ebb and flow or tension between pieces. You’ll be surprised how poems that don’t seem to fit necessarily trouble the manuscript.

Aggressive Cutting

I’m not just talking about cutting failed poems or poems that aren’t quite there. Ask every poem in your book why they get a spot. “Because I was published” or “because I look like those other six poems” are not good enough answers. Try to get your book as close to the minimum page count as possible. If you still end up with a 110 pages, you’ll know it’s not just 60 strong ones and 50 pages of stuff you kind of think is ok, “but hey that teacher liked it so...” When you’re cutting poems you like because they do similar work to stronger poems, you’re close.

Also remember, most of us work in 8.5 x 11 word processor pages, so a single page poem may actually be two. I kept Hum just above the page minimum at 49 and I think the final version is somewhere around 75 pages.

Organic Ordering

A lot of books demarcate along logical lines: all the Goth sonnets in this section, all of the love poems about Magneto in this one, etc. Other collections may benefit from what C. Dale Young described to me as organic ordering. Look at images, tones, textures, recurring tropes, and other less expected elements that could link poems. It may be more exciting to see the third poem about Mussolini’s door knob if it surprises us in the last third of the book and has been further contextualized by your ode to Italian furniture.

Epigraphs

Be very picky about who gets quoted in your collection. I’ve seen many manuscripts over contextualize by heaping on epigraph after epigraph. One started with three lengthy quotes and then the opening poem had another. I’d read four paragraphs from a politician, two writers, and a philosopher before I saw a single line from the poet.

Fine-Tuning the Whole

Alan Shapiro pointed out that I had a habit of ending poems with three verb constructions. That's fine on its own but a bunch of poems in a row that end that will way feel samey. I recommend going through and reading the first two and last two lines of every poem. Do you always start with the same kind of syntax? Is the last line always a declarative sentence? How long are your first sentences? What about the last?

Personal Stock Language

I’ve started annoying myself with a game called “body count” where I count how many times the phrase “the body” appears at a poetry reading. I’m not trying to disparage its use, but to make sure what is repeated has resonance, we have to differentiate between recurring trope and default or placeholder words we instinctively latch on to. I searched Hum and asked myself if every “body” was absolutely not trying to be a “sternum” or “thigh” or “collar bone.” I had to ask every “something” in the book if it was sure it didn’t want to be a thing. Use wordcounter.com to find out what words you use the most in your manuscript. Like the poems that survive aggressive cutting, the “bodies” and “somethings” that stay will be vetted and necessary.

Photo: Jamaal May. Credit: Tarfia Faizullah.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Detroit is provided by an endowment established with generous contribution from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors, and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

There is truth in medicine cabinets. Despite the lies we tell ourselves and others, our medicine cabinets know us better than anyone. Medicine cabinets are full of worry, memories, encroaching death, and continued life. The prescription bottles, skin moisturizer, and frayed toothbrush reflect our humanity and vulnerability. Study your medicine cabinet. Write an essay about what is in it, and what it says about you.

The MacArthur Foundation announced today that authors Karen Russell and Donald Antrim are among the 2013 MacArthur Fellows. The five-year, no-strings-attached "genius" fellowships, which were increased this year to $625,000 each, are given to individuals working in a variety of disciplines to pursue future work. 

Karen Russell is the author of three books of fiction, including her debut story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006); the novel Swamplandia (2011), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and, most recently, the story collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove (2013), all published by Knopf. She was named one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 in 2009.

Donald Antrim is the author of the novels Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World (Viking, 1993), The Hundred Brothers (Crown, 1997), and The Verificationist (Knopf, 2000), and the memoir The Afterlife (2007). He is an associate professor of writing at Columbia University in New York City.

In the following videos from the MacArthur Foundation, Russell and Antrim discuss the inspiration for their work, and what receiving the fellowships will mean for their writing and their lives.




As children our imaginations ruled the land. However, years of life, love, and loss erode our creative shores and the rustling trees and vibrant animals that inhabited them. The unstoppable dinosaurs and steaming teacups in our small hands suddenly become pieces of plastic from a toy store. Write a short story through the eyes of a four-year-old child. Go on an adventure.  

Revisit one of your favorite poems by another poet. What appeals to you about this particular poem—the structure, the sound, the imagery, the subject matter? Write a poem dedicated to this poet and poem. Show your appreciation by instilling those same respected qualities in your own writing.

After a week of longlist announcements in the categories of poetry, nonfiction, and young people’s literature, the National Book Foundation wrapped up its announcements late last week with the much-anticipated longlist for the foundation’s fiction prize.

The finalists are Tom Drury, Pacific (Grove Press), Elizabeth Graver, The End of the Point (Harper), Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers (Scribner), Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland (Knopf), Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth), James McBride, The Good Lord Bird (Riverhead Books), Alice McDermott, Someone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge (The Penguin Press), George Saunders, Tenth of December (Random House), and Joan Silber, Fools (Norton).

As the foundation notes, the list includes “four [previous] National Book Award winners and finalists, a Pulitzer Prize winner and finalist, recipients of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship and a Guggenheim fellowship, and a debut novelist.” Among a list of favorites like Pynchon and Saunders, Anthony Marra’s debut, published this past May, has received much praise, and Lahiri has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Charles Baxter, Gish Jen, Charles McGrath, Rick Simonson, René Steinke judged.

Frank Bidart’s Metaphysical Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Lucie Brock-Broido’s Stay, Illusion (Knopf), and Brenda Hillman’s Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (Wesleyan University Press) topped a poetry longlist marked by debut poets. The lists in each category, including nonfiction and young people’s literature, were announced on the Daily Beast.

The foundation also recently named its annual 5 Under 35, and announced that E. L. Doctorow will receive the 2013 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and Maya Angelou will receive the 2013 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.

The National Book Award shortlists in each category will be announced October 16, and the winners will be named at the foundation's annual awards ceremony in New York City on November 20.

If you attend poetry events in California with any regularity, you are likely to see Joyce Jenkins, who—with her long, wavy hair and graceful demeanor—is unmistakable in a crowd. Jenkins is the editor and executive director of Poetry Flash, Literary Review & Calendar for the West and chair of Northern California Book Reviewers. She is also the author of Portal and Joy Road, a limited edition chapbook. Her poems have appeared in Parthenon West Review, Ambush Review, ZYZZYVA, Addison Street Anthology: Berkeley's Poetry Walk, The Place That Inhabits Us: Poems of the San Francisco Watershed, and elsewhere.

Jenkins received an American Book Award in 1994 and the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, among other honors. Poetry Flash received Litquake's 2012 Barbary Coast Award. For many years, P&W has provided support to the Poetry Flash Reading Series and Watershed Poetry Festival in Berkeley. We were thrilled to be able to ask Jenkins a few questions about her 40 years at the helm of the "Flash."

Joyce JenkinsWhat makes Poetry Flash and its programs unique?
Publishing Poetry Flash: Literary Review & Calendar for the West for over 40 years has been an unparalleled journey for myself and associate editor Richard Silberg. We’ve documented poetry and changes in writing over an incredibly turbulent and transformative time, and acted as both a forum and catalyst for the development of literary communities up and down the West Coast. Thoughout the years we've always remained open to all styles and poetics.

Poetry Flash evolved from its 1972 origins as a single sheet to a monthly tabloid to its current incarnation as an online magazine. Today, Poetry Flash publishes a literary events calendar for all of California, poetry and fiction book reviews, poems, interviews, tributes, essays, memoir, calls for submissions, news, and online archives. Other publications offer book reviews, interviews, and poems, but lack the same historical perspective and that certain Poetry Flash attention to detail. Also, everything we publish is entwined with our involvement in events and outreach (a legacy from years of distributing the Flash as a free paper).

We have published 302 print issues of Poetry Flash that will continue to echo and provide future generations with essential literary documents that detail the history of poetry on the West Coast. We have that deep well to draw from in our efforts to further our collective understanding of the present.

Our other projects include the Poetry Flash Reading Series at bookstore venues in Berkeley and Oakland, and the annual presentation of the Northern California Book Awards in San Francisco—now in its 33rd year. Also, there is the annual Watershed Poetry Festival, directed by Mark Baldridge and supported in part by Poets & Writers, which will celebrate its 18th year on September 28, 2013, in Berkeley.

What recenJane Hirshfield and Joyce Jenkinst project have you been especially proud of?
I am proud of Watershed. It is a real statement to be there, to take part, and “stand up for the earth” as a poet, through poetry. I’m proud of the gorgeous hand-printed broadsides that commemorate and support the festival, the annual “Creek Poem” installation on the grounds of the festival, and the event for high school students at Berkeley High, which is held the day before the festival.

I’m also gratified and humbled by the number of incredible poets we have hosted in our reading series, from Czeslaw Milosz to Louise Glück. Furthermore, we have had the honor of recognizing amazing poets and writers through the book awards—talented writers from Al Young, Kay Ryan, and Adrienne Rich to Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Maxine Hong Kingston.

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
There are too many to choose from! My favorite was when Kenneth Rexroth escaped from the hospital, or said he did, to read at the San Francisco International Poetry Festival in 1980—an event that I directed and Poetry Flash co-sponsored. I had an image of him ripping tubes out of himself! Anyway, he arrived in a great flourish and gave me the critical once over. Then he extended his arm, and we promenaded about the lobby of the Palace of Fine Arts.

Other moments include a choral reading of “The State of the Planet” at Watershed by Robert Hass. There was Joy Harjo’s saxophone and “Eagle Poem” wafting across the park at another Watershed. And the time that Wanda Coleman read so fiercely and beautifully that she... well, she didn’t levitate, but it was close. We are talking a higher vibration. And maybe for just a moment there was a kind of translucence—her movements and language were so concentrated she almost became pure energy for a moment there.

How has literary presenting informed your own writing and/or life?
Literary presenting, whether through live events or through publishing Poetry Flash, either online or in print, is my life. I have learned so much—I’ve felt like I’ve been in graduate school for 40 years.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
Poetry Flash’s mission is to build community through literature, and that’s exactly what readings do—event by event. They give poets especially the sense that someone is listening, someone cares, and they are appreciated. It feeds back into better work and more awareness. We learn so much about other poets and writers whose work we may not have delved into. At the Poetry Flash Reading Series, we present many fine younger or emerging poets whose names may not yet be widely known. Our audiences hopefully will trust our curatorial instincts and try our readings, even if they don’t yet recognize the names. Our readers are excellent!

What are you most excited about in today’s changing literary landscape?
I’m most excited about the fact that—whatever changes technology or society brings us, whatever new forms poetry and writing take on—creative writing and reading willl continue to flourish in an amazing variety of ways. The explosion of readings, access to evolving modes of publication, and writing “springboards” and shelters provided by universities have all contributed to the preservation and continued growth of the literary arts. No matter what, poetry and writing will always remain central to human consciousness and our culture.

Photo 1: Joyce Jenkins. Credit: Mark Baldridge. Photo 2: Jenkins (at right) with Jane Hirshfield at the 2011 Watershed Poetry Festival. Credit: Sharon Coleman.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Attics are often the most compelling rooms in our homes. Attics are where we store important parts of the past that are only tenuously connected to the immediate present. Visit your attic, rummage around the dusty boxes, and find something that belonged to one of your parents. Bring it to your writing desk. Start writing.

The Durham, North Carolina–based Carolina Wren Press has launched the new Lee Smith Novel Prize, which will include $1,000 and publication for a novel by a Southern writer, or about the American South. The deadline is October 15.

Novels by an author originally from, currently living in, or writing about the South are eligible. Original and previously unpublished works of at least 50,000 words, written in English, may be submitted via Submittable by October 15.

The prize was established in honor of award-winning Southern writer Lee Smith, the author of ten novels and four story collections, whose forthcoming novel, Guests on Earth, will be published in October by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

“It is our hope to find and promote novelists from the South and their novels,” the Carolina Wren Press editors write on the website, “and, in the process, to explore and expand the definition of Southern literature.”

Founded in 1976 in Chapel Hill by poet Judy Hogan, Carolina Wren Press is an independent nonprofit press whose mission is, simply, “new authors, new audiences.” The press publishes poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and children’s literature, and sponsors two other annual contests, the Doris Bakwin Award for books by women writers, and the Carolina Wren Press Poetry Series, given for a poetry collection. Visit the website to read an essay by Hogan on the history of the press.

In the video below from Algonquin Books, Lee Smith discusses the inspiration for and creation of her forthcoming novel, which is based in part on historical events that occurred North Carolina.

People are complex. So are believable characters. Much of what comprises our characters stems from the writer’s knowledge of the universe and writing’s miraculous universality. Think of Don Quixote de la Mancha, Jane Eyre, and Oscar de León—or your own favorite characters. What about these notable literary figures gives them life and humanity? Write a paragraph that defines the complexities of each character you are developing. Tack these paragraphs to the wall beside your desk, and use them as guidelines for your characters whenever their voices are muted by the harsh winds of creativity.

People come in and out of our lives like passengers on a train. Some stay for much of our journey. Others get on and off, quickly disappearing into their own travels. Write a poem about someone who became part of your life, but left the train. Who were they? Why do you miss them? What happened? Focus on tone, voice, and imagery.

P&W-funded Jamaal May is a poet from Detroit, MI, where he taught poetry in public schools and worked as a freelance audio engineer and touring performer. His poetry won the 2013 Indiana Review Prize and appears in journals such as Poetry, Ploughshares, and The Believer. Jamaal has earned an MFA from Warren Wilson and fellowships from Cave Canem and Bucknell University. His first book is Hum (Alice James Books, 2013), and he is founder of the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Press.

More than half of my small income is generated by visiting schools, libraries, bars, backyard birthday parties, etc. Some of these have been soul-sucking experiences I would’ve passed on if rent didn’t depend on it. This fall, my income is entirely dependent on paid readings, which makes it tempting to say yes to everything. Here are some things we should all consider before saying yes.

Last Minute

A last minute request for a first time or onetime event is usually a bad sign. This is especially true if the event isn’t poetry related: “I just realized today that I need a poet for my company’s end of the quarter rainmaker soiree. We don’t offer an honorarium, but you can sell books.”

Last minute does not necessarily translate to poorly organized. Consider whether the organizer had another reader cancel or had to take over for someone else. Even the most well-run events are powerless to a poet catching the plague.

Free Gigs That Rock

Some of the best reading experiences I’ve had were for organizations that either couldn’t pay me or barely could. These readings are usually easy to spot. Organizers will be upfront about what they can or can’t pay, they’ll be enthusiastic about your work, and you’ll get a generally good feeling from the person contacting you.

Free gigs that absolutely do not rock will usually feel like they’re doing you a favor. “There’s a microphone here. You’re welcome.”

What Is Your Fee?

This question used to fill me with panic. How much are my poems worth? Too high and I might price myself out of the gig. Too low and I might not be able to replace my broken glasses. What I do now is lean on candor. I tell the organizer the upper range of what I typically get for similar events, admit that I have a sliding scale, and ask them not to lowball me. It’s rare for a decent person to read “don’t screw me please” and still try to screw you.

Bizarre Events and Locations

Someone thinks, “I like poetry. I like corn dogs. We should do poetry at the state fair next to the corndog tent!” It keeps happening, though poetry is an intimate experience that requires attention. A situation where people will accidentally stumble across your poem on their way to the tilt-a-whirl is not ideal.

If you can be sure there is a built-in audience coming to an atypical event specifically to see poems, it can be a good time. Also, some events use the unexpected presence of poetry as a feature, such as Pop Up Poets and Kiss Punch Poem. The difference is that these are well thought out, ongoing projects.

Good Organization Accidentally in League with Hacks

This is one of the leading causes of poorly organized readings in bizarre locations. I’ve seen this paradigm enough that I run the other way when the following list of factors present themselves: An organization I trust is tapped by another organization with a big name, usually a corporation or respected institution, to provide poets, last minute, for a one-off event. What happens here is a lazy employee at Massivecorporateco is charged with filling a program they don’t want to be organizing in the first place. They contact a poetry-related organization to get free entertainment. A bad time is had by all.

Someone Who Loves Your Poetry Doesn’t Realize Their Friends Won’t

Sometimes an audience member will be so enthralled with your poems they won’t be able to fathom their frat brothers not being similarly wowed by you. So they scrape together some university funds and find a dank room for you to read in. Their bros and sister sorority show up because they’re socially obligated to. You are a chore to survive before the drinking starts. The flipside is that there’s pretty much always someone in that kind of crowd that will connect to your work. They didn’t realize they would until you showed up. I often think of going into these spaces that we don’t fit as part of the job. It’s different from the corndog tent because they’re actually a captive audience. If you have them present and listening, do your job and make it damn hard for them to remain unchanged.

Photo: Jamaal May. Credit: Tarfia Faizullah.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Detroit is provided by an endowment established with generous contribution from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors, and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

The New York City–based Academy of American Poets has announced the winners of the 2013 poetry prizes, an annual awards series through which over $200,000 is given to poets at various stages of their careers.  

Former United States poet laureate Philip Levine has been awarded the Wallace Stevens Award for lifetime achievement. The $100,000 prize is given annually by the Academy for “outstanding and proven mastery of the art of poetry.” Levine’s collections include Ashes, which won the National Book Award in 1979 and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1980; What Work Is, which won the National Book Award in 1991; The Simple Truth, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995; and, most recently, News of the World (Knopf, 2009). Levine, a former Detroit autoworker, was appointed to the poet laureate post in late 2011.

Carolyn Forché has won the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, which offers a $25,000 prize for “distinguished poetic achievement.”

Patricia Smith has been awarded the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, a $25,000 award given for the best book of poetry published in the previous year, for her most recent collection, Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, published by Coffee House Press in 2012.

Jillian Weise won the James Laughlin Award for her recent collection, The Book of Goodbyes (BOA Editions, 2013). The $5,000 prize is given to honor a poet's second book.

John Taylor received the $25,000 Raiziss/de Palchi Translation Fellowship for his translation of Selected Poems by the Italian poet Lorenzo Calogero.
 
Cynthia Hogue and Sylvain Gallais received the $1,000 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award for their translation of Fortino Sámano ("The Overflowing of the Poem"), by Virginie Lalucq and Jean-Luc Nancy.

Visit the Academy of American Poets website for more information and submission guidelines for the 2014 awards.

In the video below, Philip Levine reads a selection of poems, including "What Work Is." Also listen to a podcast of Levine reading his poem "The Mercy."

Bobby Gonzalez blogs about his P&W-supported writing workshops at the Betances Community Center. Gonzalez is a nationally known performance poet, storyteller, and multicultural motivational speaker. Born and raised in the South Bronx, New York City, he grew up in a bicultural environment. Bobby draws on his Native American (Taino) and Latino (Puerto Rican) roots to offer a unique repertoire of discourses, readings, and performances that celebrate his indigenous heritage.

In July and August, Gonzalez, author of The Last Puerto Rican Indian: A Collection of Dangerous Poetry, facilitated a series of workshops titled “Spoken Word 101” at the Betances Community Center in the Bronx. Attending the half-dozen sessions were neighborhood residents, teenagers, and middle-aged poetry enthusiasts. Typically, the stereotype of a writer’s creative process evokes a solitary figure holding a pen in a dimly lit room, slowly and painfully scrawling words onto a blank piece of paper. In contrast, in “Spoken Word 101,” the participants gather together in a small room  to read, discuss, and even argue about verses from poets such as Langston Hughes, Joy Harjo, and Woody Guthrie. (Despite the lively atmosphere, the group was stunned into silence by Guthrie’s description of the horrific 1935 great dust storm that swept across Oklahoma.)

After the readings and discussions came the real work: writing. Each workshop challenged the students with a writing prompt, and they were told to compose an original piece within ten minutes. The first prompt was "I wish I had told my mother… .” The students dug deep into the recesses of their memories and inner emotions. When the students read their writings to the class, each paused at least once to sigh or wipe away a tear.

An objective of the “Spoken Word 101” workshop is to teach students the basics of reading and performing at Open Mics. This means developing skills that create rhythm, pacing, pauses, and silence to enhance spoken-word presentations. The class also studied ways to utilize body movement, eye contact, and other techniques to better communicate the intended message though physical gestures and facial expressions.

The workshop series ended with an Open Mic event, in which the students performed for friends and family members. The younger poets bravely recited their personal and sometimes heartbreaking lines to an audience that beamed with interest and pride. “Spoken Word 101” transcended the original goal of teaching students to read, write, and perform poetry. The workshop empowered the students to understand their life experiences and artistic talents are special gifts that should be shared with the outside world. So thank you, Poets & Writers!

Photo:  Bobby Gonzalez and Betances' Writers.  Photo Credit: Maria Aponte

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 New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

In many ways you are everyone who came before you. Your uniqueness is your own spin on the DNA of your ancestors. Spend several minutes sitting quietly in front of a mirror. Reflect. Other than you, whom else do you see? Write 500 words about how you feel toward these people you’ve never met but who are part of you. Their story is yours, too.

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