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Meera Nair was born in India and moved to the US in 1997. Her first story collection, Video (Pantheon Books, 2003), received the Sixth Annual Asian American Literary Award for fiction, and was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year and a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book. Nair is also the author of the children's book Maya Saves the Day(Duckbill, 2013) and the forthcoming, Maya In a Right Royal Mess. Her fiction and essays have appeared on NPR, the Washington Post, and the New York Times among other publications. She has received fellowships from the New York Foundation of the Arts, MacDowell Colony, and the Queens Council of the arts.

What makes your workshops unique?
I've taught or continue to teach writing to undergrads and graduates at places like NYU, Brooklyn College, and Fordham, but recently I've had to rethink my pedagogy. Now I'm creating workshops for people who don't think of themselves as writers—who have no preconceived notions of craft, or conveyance, who have never agonized over choosing a point of view.

I'm currently doing a four-week workshop series for Nepali and Tibetan domestic and nail salon workers at Adhikaar, a nonprofit organization, where participants are writing personal essays on living and working as immigrant, POC workers in America. I want to give a big thanks to Muna Gurung, who has helped to interpret at the workshops, and Ryan Wong, and Kundiman who helped to set all this up. The challenge is to create a space where writing is no longer seen as “a mystery, a privilege of caste” as David Barthlomae called it. Which means I have to find methods by which participants are guided to privilege their own experiences, histories, oral testimonies, and the act of “talking to themselves” as something that is important and necessary.

I've tried to go back to the way South Asian people interact, how they are generous, expansive talkers and natural storytellers. The writers generate material using oral history methods, where I, as the facilitator, try to ask the questions and then disappear into silence while the participants talk. Once the words are said, once they exist in that shared space, once the writer has generated them, it's easier to take the next step—that of writing the words down in sentences. That step requires the writer to think about language and shaping the material, to think about rhythm and structure, but it also invites the writers to see that they already possess story, words, excitement, details, arcs—all those craft-y things.

What has been your most rewarding experience as a teacher?
I love that moment when the student understands that all writing is revision. It takes guts to revise and student-writers resist touching those initial, God-given sentences—but it's a beautiful thing when they look at that final draft and see that it's good because they learned to be brutal and ruthless with the work.

What affect has this work had on your life and/or your art?
I hear stories about people's lives that I would never have access to without the work I do outside the academic setting. Like all writers, I am a voyeur and a listener at keyholes, so to speak—and everything is material for my writing, whether I use it or not. I'm currently working on a collection of stories set in Jackson Heights, Queens, and I am getting insights and access into the lives of my characters I wouldn't have otherwise.

What is the wildest thing that’s happened in one of your workshops?
One semester I taught a workshop on writing about food and love, and three students, or maybe it was four, discovered for the first time in my workshop that they had issues with food/eating/body image and had to start therapy. I have retired that particular curriculum since.

Photo: Meera Nair.  Photo credit: Meera Nair.

Support for Reading & 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 form the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Many people experience seasonal allergies during spring caused by the increased amount of pollen and grass present in the air. Write a short story in which one of your characters is affected by seasonal allergies. Is it a condition that proves to have surprisingly dramatic consequences, or one that simply adds a layer of pathos, humor, or realism to the story or character?

The PEN/Faulkner Foundation has announced James Hannaham as the winner of the 36th annual PEN/Faulkner Award for his novel Delicious Foods. The $15,000 award is given annually for a book of fiction by an American author published in the previous year.

Delicious Foods (Little, Brown), Hannaham’s second novel, tells the story of an African American boy who tries to save his mother—who struggles with drug addiction—from a farm where she is held captive. Hannaham, who is interested in experimentation in prose, wrote the novel from the perspective of the boy, the mother, and crack cocaine. Hannaham lives in New York City and teaches at the Pratt Institute.

“This exceptional novel is impressive for many reasons and speaks to the American experience today in a variety of ways, from the entrapment of perspective because of poverty and drug use to the heroic perseverance of character even after the worst of choices and atrocities,” says Sergio Troncoso, who judged this year’s prize along with fiction writers Abby Frucht and Molly McCloskey. “Delicious Foods is a standout work of fiction that will surely expand a reader’s empathy for the struggles of a variety of groups and individuals freeing themselves from modern enslavement.”

The finalists for the prize were Julie Iromuanya for Mr. and Mrs. Doctor (Coffee House Press); Viet Thanh Nguyen for The Sympathizer (Grove Press); Elizabeth Tallent for Mendocino Fire (HarperCollins); and Luis Alberto Urrea for The Water Museum (Little, Brown). Each finalist will receive $5,000. The judges­ selected the finalists from nearly five hundred novels and story collections from 165 publishing houses.

Hannaham and the four finalists will be honored at an awards ceremony at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., on May 14. Recent winners of the prize include Atticus Lish for his novel, Preparation for the Next Life; Karen Joy Fowler for her novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves; and Benjamin Alire Sáenz for his story collection Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club.

Matthew Zapruder, poetry editor for the New York Times Magazine, says of Eileen Myles’s poem “Summer”: “Its drifting, elusive movement defines and also conjures the feeling of experiencing summer itself.” This week, make a short list of adjectives and phrases that signify to you the feeling of experiencing summer. Then write a poem that mimics the motions, rhythms, or sensations of the season. Be sure to include personal impressions or events that make your observations unique.

The Asian American Writers Workshop (AAWW) has announced the ten recipients of its 2016 Margins and Open City Fellowships. The fellowships are given to emerging Asian and Asian American creative writers and journalists based in New York City. Fellows receive $2,500 to $5,000, publication in one of AAWW’s online publications, and career development.

The 2016 Margins Fellows are poet Jen Hyde, fiction writer Vt Hung, fiction writer and filmmaker Steven Tagle, and nonfiction writer Wei Tchou. The fellowships each include $5,000, publication opportunities in the Margins, a residency at the Millay Colony for the Arts, writing space at AAWW’s offices in New York City, and guidance and mentorship from writers and editors in the AAWW community.

The Spring 2016 Open City Fellows are nonfiction writers Jai Dulani, Rahimon Nasa, and Thanu Yakupitiyage. Each fellow receives $2,500, publication in Open City, and career development opportunities to “craft narratively driven creative nonfiction and reportage about issues that matter to the 1.6 million Asian immigrants who call the five boroughs home.” This year, AAWW also awarded three Spring 2016 Open City Language Justice Fellows to Liz Chow, Yichen Tu, and Rong Xiaoqing. The fellowships, which offer the same benefits as the Open City Fellowships, are given to Asian-language immigrant journalists. The inaugural fellows will spend six months developing stories from New York City’s Chinatowns and beyond. All three fellows are journalists who have covered New York City immigrant communities for Asian-language media outlets.

The Margins and Open City fellows were selected from a group of more than a hundred applicants by a panel of writers, AAWW board members, and former fellows. The Language Justice fellows were nominated by members of the AAWW community. Applications for the Fall 2016 Open City Fellowships will open in April; applications for the 2017 Margins Fellowships will open in July.

Established in 1991, the AAWW is devoted to advancing the creation and publication of Asian American writing. Read more about the AAWW, which celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary this year, in Arvin Temkar’s article “AAWW Continues the Conversation” in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Photos, top row from left: Jen Hyde (Patrick Delorey), Vt Hung (Diana Mai), Steven Tagle (Christopher Smith Photography), Wei Tchou. Middle: Jai Dulani, Rahimon Nasa, Thanu Yakupitiyage. Bottom: Liz Chow, Yichen Tu, Rong Xiaoqing

 

Industry is one of the greatest factors contributing to the unique character of a place. Deep coal mines and narrow hollers made much of Appalachia feel like an isolated labyrinth. Western Pennsylvania’s steel mills, with their raging blast furnaces and endless soot, created a real-life inferno. The logging industry turned the Pacific Northwest into a land ruled by mist, danger, and falling giants. What industries have shaped the people and landscape of your home? In an essay, explore the philosophical implications an industry can have on towns and the character and psyche of its inhabitants. 

On March 8, 1941, Sherwood Anderson, author of the American classic Winesburg, Ohio, died from peritonitis. An autopsy later revealed that a swallowed toothpick was to blame. Craft a story in which a seemingly benign object, like a toothpick, ends up as the catalyst for some great change or tragedy. The object can be the focus of the story, as you track its movements through space and time, or it can appear in a brief moment, only to rise back up with great consequence. Think about how the tiniest details can give a narrative a new spin.  

A recent issue of the New Yorker includes poet Timothy Donnelly’s wild ode to one of his favorite guilty pleasures, “Diet Mountain Dew.” The poem barrels along, exploring all the qualities of the less-than-quality beverage, including its radiant green, prominent logo, and commercial history. Write an ode to one of your own culinary guilty pleasures that engages directly with its unsavory elements, such as its ingredients, appearance, and origin. Use your imagination to transform these details into avenues for lyrical observations. 

The Academy of American Poets has named Mai Der Vang the recipient of the 2016 Walt Whitman Award, the largest prize in the country for a debut poetry collection. Vang’s winning manuscript, Afterland, will be published in 2017 by Graywolf Press.

Mai Der VangAs part of the prize, Vang will also receive $5,000 and a six-week paid residency at the Civitella Ranieri Center in Umbria, Italy, and her work will be featured on Poets.org as well as in American Poets, the Academy’s print periodical.

Award-winning poet Carolyn Forché selected Vang as this year’s winner. Of Vang’s manuscript Forché writes, “Afterland has haunted me. I keep returning to read these poems aloud, hearing in them a language at once atavistic, contemporary, and profoundly spiritual. Mai Der Vang confronts the Secret War in Laos, the flight of the Hmong people, and their survival as refugees. That a poet could absorb and transform these experiences in a single generation—incising the page with the personal and collective utterances of both the living and the dead, in luminous imagery and a surprising diction that turns both cathedral and widow into verbs, offering both land and body as swidden (slashed and burned)—is nothing short of astonishing. Here is deep attention, prismatic intelligence, and fearless truth.”

Vang, thirty-four, holds an MFA in poetry from Columbia University. Her poetry and essays have appeared in the Cincinnati Review, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere, and she coedited How Do I Begin: A Hmong American Literary Anthology (Heydey, 2011). A Kundiman fellow, Vang has also been awarded residencies from Hedgebrook, and is an editorial member of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle. Vang resides in Fresno, California, where she teaches and works as a writing and creative consultant.

The annual Walt Whitman Award was established in 1975 to encourage the work of emerging poets. Previous winners include Suji Knock Kim, Eric Pankey, J. Michael Martinez, and Sjohnna McCray, whose 2015 winning manuscript, Rapture, will be published next month by Graywolf. 

Caroline Brown is a teaching artist and educator who develops and implements community-based arts programming. Highlights of her work include collaborations with AIDS widows in rural Kenya, incarcerated individuals and those in reentry, military veterans and their family members, and women living with HIV. Most recently Brown has worked with Recovery Cafe, Path With Art, Senior Housing Assistance Group, and the Freehold Engaged Theater Program at the Washington Corrections Center for Women. She is also a faculty member at Cornish College of the Arts and the Art Institute of Seattle. She blogs here about her experiences teaching a P&W–supported workshop series for the Organization for Prostitution Survivors in Seattle, Washington.

Caroline Brown

As an instructor of Community Based Arts at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington, I teach students to use their artistic skill set to make a positive impact on marginalized communities. I tell them there’s no formula for our work; however, there are essential principles for building a successful project, two of which are trust and boundaries. We must trust ourselves, trust the community’s level of participation, and trust the ambiguity of the creative process. We must also keep our expectations realistic.

During my recent work with the Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS), I discovered I needed to relearn these principles. OPS was founded to address the damaging effects of prostitution and create opportunities for adult women to seek supportive services and heal from gender-based violence. My colleague and I were invited by the OPS staff to conduct an extended workshop using writing, storytelling, movement, and visual art as a form of personal expression and advocacy. For the sake of anonymity, we agreed to create a video with recorded narratives and abstract images chosen by participants.

From the start, I experienced a strong reticence from our workshop attendees. They repeatedly asked: What is the purpose of this video? How is it going to be shared? With whom and for what purpose? I reassured them that this project was theirs and they had complete ownership of the final product. As a population that has been consistently exploited, their reservations weren’t surprising. What was surprising was what it triggered in me.

I liked these women and wanted to help them engage in powerful and meaningful expression. I wanted them to be excited rather than reserved, to see this process as beneficial as opposed to threatening. If they didn’t welcome the work, my colleague and I had no right to be there. It was devastating to imagine that I might be harming people who’ve already been through enough.

Three weeks into the endeavor, my colleague and I reluctantly handed over the reigns, letting our participants decide when they wanted to meet. With this came a sense of panic that the video might not come to fruition. Then it happened. One woman expressed interest in recording her writing. I went out of my way to explain our intent: “I know a lot of women are apprehensive." She interrupted, “I’m not. I’m ready to record.” And so we began. Another woman soon stepped forward. Then another. Eventually we had an eighteen-minute piece of six women sharing their poetry, reflections, narratives, and visual imagery as survivors of prostitution.

Several weeks and countless hours of editing later, we presented the video at an OPS open house event. "Reflections of a Survivor" is a culmination of risk, vulnerability, triumph, conviction, and truth. As I looked around at the women taking in the success of their work, their willingness to trust me with their stories honored and humbled me. In short, each participant trusted the process in her own time. In that moment, I was reminded that I needed to do the same.

Amber Pauline Walker's "Kodiak Whispers," from the video project "Reflections of a Survivor," can be seen on YouTube.

Photo: Caroline Brown. Photo credit: Emily Schoettle.

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Seattle, Washington 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.

The Whiting Foundation has announced the 2016 Whiting Awards winners, who were honored last night at a ceremony at the New York Historical Society in New York City. The annual award is one of the largest monetary prizes given to emerging poets and writers. Each winner receives $50,000.

This year's winners are LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Safiya Sinclair, Layli Long Soldier, and Ocean Vuong in poetry; Alice Sola Kim, Catherine Lacey, and Mitchell S. Jackson in fiction; Brian Blanchfield and J. D. Daniels in nonfiction; and Madeleine George in drama. Find out more about the winners at the Whiting Foundation website, and read excerpts from their work at the Paris Review.

Established by the Whiting Foundation in 1985, the Whiting Awards aim to “identify exceptional new writers who have yet to make their mark in the literary culture." More than $6.5 million has been awarded to over three hundred poets, fiction and nonfiction writers, and playwrights since the award’s inception.

Previous winners have included David Foster Wallace, Colson Whitehead, Tracy K. Smith, Jeffrey Eugenides, Lydia Davis, Denis Johnson, Mary Karr, Michael Cunningham, Alice McDermott, Jorie Graham, Mark Doty, Ben Fountain, Tobias Wolff, Jonathan Franzen, Terrance Hayes, and more recently Adam Johnson, Elif Batuman, and Anthony Marra. Visit the Whiting Foundation website for a complete list of past winners.

No submissions are accepted to the award; a rotating group of anonymous nominators and judges, made up of writers, editors, agents, critics, professors, booksellers, and other literary professionals, are selected each year by the Whiting Foundation.

Top row, from left: LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Madeleine George, Layli Long Soldier, Safiya Sinclair, J. D. Daniels, Mitchell S. Jackson. Bottom row: Alice Sola Kim, Catherine Lacey, Ocean Vuong, Brian Blanchfield.

Several years ago, after searching for more than two decades, Navy archaeologist Steve Schwartz and his team found what is likely the San Nicolas Island cave, which had been inhabited by the Native American woman who inspired the popular 1960 novel by Scott O’Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins. Choose a favorite book that is inspired by, or references, factual events and write an essay about what draws you to the topic. Include any further historical digging—whether at an archaeological site or in a library—that you might find particularly engaging. What is it about the specific subject matter that resonates with your personal interests or your own life experiences?

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice shrinks after drinking a potion labeled “DRINK ME,” and then later balloons in size after eating a cake labeled “EAT ME.” Write a story in which your main character is simultaneously confronted by these same two options and consequences. Which one does he choose? Does the sudden transformation in size help or hinder him as the story progresses? What aspects of his personality are brought to the forefront and magnified as a result?

This week, select a random year from the last five to ten years, and by combing through your memory, old notes, e-mails, and calendars, jot down a list of events in your life from that year. What were some of your reactions and emotions that accompanied those situations? Write a poem that encapsulates the ups and downs of that single year. Be sure to explore how the intervening years between then and now may have provided you with a wiser, refreshed perspective on past occurrences, and offers a reflective conclusion to your poem.

Submissions are currently open for the 2016 Indiana Review Poetry Prize, given annually for a single poem. The winner will receive $1,000 and publication in Indiana Review. Camille Rankine will judge.

Using the online submission system, submit up to three poems totaling no more than eight pages with a $20 entry fee by April 1. The fee, which includes a one-year subscription to the review, must be mailed separately to Indiana Review, Ballantine Hall 529, 1020 East Kirkwood Avenue, Bloomington, IN 47405. All entries are considered for publication. Visit the website for complete guidelines.

Judge Camille Rankine has written one poetry collection, Incorrect Merciful Impulses (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), and is the assistant director of the MFA program at Manhattanville College. “Poetry can say all the hard things, all the things that you aren’t supposed to say in polite conversation,” says Rankine in a recent interview with Indiana Review. “I’m drawn to poems that have something to say—it can be something large or small, but I want to read a poem that feels like it needed to be written.” Rankine’s full interview is available on the journal’s website.

Eduardo C. Corral selected Caitlin Scarano as the winner of the 2015 prize for her poem “Between the Bloodhounds and My Shrinking Mouth.” Eileen Myles selected Cecilia Woloch as the winner of the 2014 prize for her poem “2006.”

Established in 1977, Indiana Review is published biannually and edited by graduate students at Indiana University. The journal publishes poetry, fiction, essays, and art.

Listen to Camille Rankine read from her debut collection as part of the Poets & Writers’ Page One podcast series below.

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