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In their introduction to My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (Wesleyan University Press, 2008), Kevin Killian and Peter Gizzi write about Spicer's idea of the serial poem, "a book-length progression of short poems that function together as a single movement." Robin Blaser described the form as "a dark house, where you throw a light on in a room, then turn it off, and enter the next room, where you turn on a light, and so on." As Spicer's poetry "moves from dark room to dark room," Killian and Gizzi write, "each flash of illumination leaves an afterimage on the imagination, and the lines of the poem become artifacts of an ongoing engagement with larger forces." Read some of Jack Spicer's long poems, including The Holy Grail and Billy the Kid. Consider throwing a light on some rooms of your own.

P&W–supported Larry Colker blogs about successful poetry readings. He has co-hosted the weekly Redondo Poets reading series for about fifteen years. In 2006 he won the California Writers Exchange poetry contest, sponsored by Poets & Writers, Inc. His first book-length collection, Amnesia and Wings, was published by Tebot Bach in May 2013. By day Larry develops and delivers systems training for Kaiser Permanente. He lives in Burbank, California.

I am happy to have this opportunity, as the June Readings/Workshops Writer in Residence, to give something back to Poets & Writers. I have been the beneficiary of much largesse from P&W, in the form of remuneration for being the featured poet at readings and as poetry winner of the 2007 California Writers Exchange Award.

By way of introduction, I would like to share a few thoughts in no particular order. In subsequent blog posts I will be more essayistic. But to start off, maybe you are curious about what I think about poetry.

As cohost of a long-running open mic reading with featured poets (Redondo Poets at Coffee Cartel), I am biased in favor of poetry that reads well aloud, to a broad audience. That means that usually there is followable movement and memorable language, with at least some performance presence or awareness on the poet's part. That is not to say that some of my favorite poems do not come across well aloud. And that is also not to say that all styles of spoken word poetry appeal to me.

My two top criteria for a successful poem are: (1) you want to re-read/re-hear it right away, and (2) you want to tell someone about it.

When I am asked, “How do you know when a poem is done?” I answer that in the best cases it is when the hair on my neck stands up when I read it. In most cases, it is when the poem says what I wanted to say and it is as concise as I can make it (no unnecessary words). In most cases, what I end up saying in a poem has only a thin connection to what I started out to say, to what I thought I wanted to say. I write to put into words what haunts me emotionally, like trying to render in words the frustratingly ineffable emotions you may wake up with when a dream ends. But I also have a taste for wit.

Having heard eighteen thousand or so poems read over the last fifteen years, I realize that one's poetry is a reflection of one's identity, and by identity, I mean our personal mythology about what makes us who we are. And one doesn't always get at it at the outset. Of course we imitate others at the outset. But one of the greatest pleasures I have as host of a regular reading series is witnessing a poet coming into his or her own unique voice over time.

Photo: Larry Colker. Credit: Fred Turko.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Poet and artist Amanda Deutch blogs about her P&W–supported poetry and arts festival, Parachute: the Coney Island Performance Festival. She is the author of four chapbooks: Gena Rowlands, Box of Sky: Skeleton Poems, Motel Drift, and The Subway Series. She is also the recipient of a 2007 Footpaths to Creativity Fellowship to write in the Azores Archipelago.

“Long ago when I was a young man, Coney Island was a favorite spot. At that time, Coney Island had not the reputation it has now.”—Walt Whitman

I had an idea to have a free community-based poetry and arts festival in Coney Island, a neighborhood on the edge of a city. The festival would incorporate site-specific poetry, free workshops, and readings in a spectacular location. I wanted to create a space where people who had written about Coney Island could come and read and share their words about the place. Coney Island is a neighborhood with a vivid art and literary history, and for me it holds significant family history. My mother’s family lived in Coney Island, on 29th between Mermaid and Surf, for almost twenty years, from the 1920s to the 1950s. Ever since hearing my grandmother Betty first say the words, “Half Moon Hotel,” "Abe Reles," and "meshugana," Coney Island held a poetic resonance for me. I wanted to spend as much time as possible in the place where this Half Moon Hotel once towered with views of the Atlantic and a 150-foot ferris wheel could be landmarked.

Years ago, when I told a good friend my idea to have a festival, he said, “Go for it.” That’s how a lot of things get started in my life, simply with an inspiration and a good friend saying, “Go for it.” I suppose I am lucky to have such good friends and perhaps a little bit of raw nerve. My idea has grown into a nonprofit, Parachute: the Coney Island Performance Festival. I have been able to invite some of the most innovative, incredible, and groundbreaking New York City poets and writers to come and read in Coney Island’s New York Aquarium in front of sea nettle jellyfish—not your typical space for a poetry reading—for an audience that is not your typical poetry audience. Our festival’s audience consists of “regular folks.” We invite mostly native New Yorker writers who are pushing boundaries in the field of poetry. I have had the opportunity, through Poets & Writers’ Readings/Workshops Program, to offer writers a small fee to read and to give a writing workshop during the festival. Brooklyn-based poet Patricia Spears Jones read at the debut festival and lead a free writing workshop for adults at the Mermaid Avenue Library. She enjoyed the experience so much that she came back again and would like to continue leading workshops for us. This symbiotic relationship between artists and the community is just what I was after. Award-winning poet Cara Benson recently said, “How could I ever forget reading there?” I have often thought, "Why can’t poetry readings be in incredible aesthetic environments? Why not have site- specific poetry?" So here you have site-specific poetry!

Many writers reading for the festival have already written prose or poetry about Coney Island. If they haven’t, I encourage writers to create a new Coney Island work especially for Parachute: the Coney Island Performance Festival. Edwin Torres (mentioned in a previous post) came and surprised everyone by reading a rare autobiographical poem, “Coney Island 1969,” that was more narrative than most of his experimental poetry. The poem spoke of his father coming from the Bronx to work as a manager at Nathan’s in Coney Island when he was a little boy growing up in New York City!

This past year we incorporated an audio installation of a poem by the world renowned Bronx born, architect, artist and poet Vito Acconci into the festival. With the help of the Aquarium staff, I placed it outdoors for two evenings in the New York Aquarium’s plaza, beside the penguins. One of the truly spectacular spatial relationships is that Vito’s firm Acconci Studios designed the sculptural art, “Wave-A-Wall,” on the West 8th subway station right across the street! So you could hear his poem “Antarctica” in a small nook beside the penguins while watching the sky change colors right across the street from one of his art commissions.

We also had the ticket-takers who work in the Eldorado Bumper Cars ticket booth on Surf Avenue Trudy and Louis read Coney Island poetry on the mic. Just yesterday Louis stopped me on the street and said, "Hey, when are we doing that again? I got some poetry I want to read and found some poets who would like to get on the mic, too."

Parachute: the Coney Island Performance Festival brings site-specific poetry, installations, symbiosis, and local New York City writers waxing poetic about Nathan’s—all for less than the price of a hot dog. It's free!

Photo: Cara Benson, Amanda Deutch, and Edwin Torres.

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 Cowles Charitable Trust, the Abbey K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Spend a few moments looking around your kitchen, office, or bedroom, and gather any found objects (not including books, magazines, or journals) that contain text: post-it notes, receipts, a piece of mail, the packaging of food or household products. Freewrite for fifteen minutes, recording as many words and phrases from the objects as you can, and taking note of any connections, associations, or themes that may arise. Then write an essay about what you find.

The National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) has announced the creation of the John Leonard Award, a new prize honoring a first book of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, biography, criticism, or autobiography. The recipient of the award—who will be selected by the NBCC’s member critics and editors—will be announced at the annual NBCC awards ceremony in early 2014.

The new award is named in honor of John Leonard, a literary critic and former editor of the New York Times Book Review. A founding member of the NBCC, Leonard (1939–2008) was known not only for his criticism of books, film, and television, but also for his encouragement of young critics and the attention he paid to debut writers. “One of the first American critics to write on Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Leonard shared his enthusiasms with a wide reading audience,” the NBCC reported in a press release. “In creating the John Leonard Award, the NBCC recognizes his commitment to nurturing new authors.”

Founded in 1974, the National Book Critics Circle Awards are given annually "to honor outstanding writing and to foster a national conversation about reading, criticism, and literature." The awards are open to any book in English, including translations, published in the United States in the previous year. Poet D.A. Powell and fiction writer Ben Fountain received the 2012 awards. The John Leonard Award will be the first award selected directly by the NBCC’s membership—which is comprised of nearly five hundred book critics, editors, and authors nationwide—rather than by its board of directors.

"As a reader, I have a favorite canon of ranters that runs from Dostoevsky to Thomas Bernard to the Philip Roth of Sabbath's Theater," says novelist Claire Messud in a profile by Michael Washburn in the current issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. "I love a ranter." Read some of the work of the authors Messud mentions and write a rant of your own.

In honor of the centennial anniversary of the birth of May Swenson, on May 28, read some poems by this award-winning poet (consult the Academy of American Poets website for a bibliography), then write a poem with her work in mind. Remember, this is a poet who, four months before her death on December 28, 1989, wrote, "The best poetry has its roots in the subconscious to a great degree. Youth, naivety, reliance on instinct more than learning and method, a sense of freedom and play, even trust in randomness, is necessary to the making of a poem."

American author Lydia Davis has won the fifth Man Booker International Prize. The award, worth £60,000 (approximately $90,000), was presented to Davis yesterday at an awards ceremony in London. 

Davis, whose recent prose chapbook, The Cows, was published by Sarabande Books in 2011, and whose collaborative work, Two American Scenes, is just out as part of the New Directions poetry pamphlet series, is best known for her short stories, which are often noted for their brevity. Christopher Ricks, chairman of the Man Booker International Prize panel of judges, said Davis’s “writings fling their lithe arms wide to embrace many a kind. Just how to categorize them? They have been called stories but could equally be miniatures, anecdotes, essays, jokes, parables, fables, texts, aphorisms or even apophthegms, prayers, or simply observations.”

Davis is the author of nine story collections and one novel, The End of the Story (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994). She is also a translator of French literature, most notably Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. 

The Man Booker International Prize is given biennially to a fiction writer from any country for a body of work. Living authors who have published fiction originally in English or whose work is generally available in translation in the English language are eligible. The winner is chosen solely at the discretion of the judging panel, which this year included Ricks, Elif Batuman, Aminatta Forna, Yiyun Li, and Tim Parks. 

The finalists were U. R. Ananthamurthy, Aharon Appelfeld, Intizar Husain, Yan Lianke, Marie NDiaye, Josip Novakovich, Marilynne Robinson, Vladimir Sorokin, and Peter Stamm. The previous prize winners have included Chinua Achebe, Ismail Kadaré, Alice Munro, and Philip Roth.

Often found in the work of Elizabethan and Romantic poets, anaphora—a Greek word meaning “the act of carrying back”—is the repetition of a word or expression at the beginning of successive lines, sentences, fragments, or verses. Write a short anaphoric essay beginning each sentence with the same word or phrase.

Imagine you are your main character (or just write from your own perspective). What do you really, really want? Now, start talking about that object of desire. Don’t keep saying, “I want X, I want X, I want X.” Rather, just talk about the thing you want, in all its desirable specificity. Let yourself get caught up in all that wanting.
This week's writing prompt comes from Eileen Pollack, whose most recent novel, Breaking and Entering, was published in January 2012 by Four Way Books. She wrote about desire and writing for Fiction Writers Review.

Poetry is all around you. Find a public place—a train station, a park bench, a street corner, a coffee shop, a bookstore, the line at the Department of Motor Vehicles—and listen to the people around you. Choose one quote from a stranger and use it as the first and last line of a new poem.

Independent poetry and fiction publisher Lynx House Press has extended the deadline for its seventeenth annual Blue Lynx Prize—which includes a cash award of two thousand dollars and publication for a poetry collection—to June 3.

The Blue Lynx Prize is awarded for a previously unpublished, full-length collection of poems by a U.S. author, including foreign nationals living and writing in the United States and U.S. citizens living abroad. Individual poems may have previously appeared in literary magazines or anthologies, but may not have appeared in a full-length, single-author collection

Poets may submit a manuscript of at least forty-eight pages with a $25 entry fee by postal mail to Lynx House Press, P.O. Box 940, Spokane, WA 99210, or online via Submittable (with a $27.50 fee) by Monday, June 3. 

Lynx House Press was founded in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1972 by Christopher Howell, David Lyon, and Helena Minton, and moved to Spokane in 1996. An independent nonprofit press, Lynx House publishes books by emerging and established poets and fiction writers. The editors look for “literary work that is highly resonant, work that, through the clarity of its vision and craft, results in a change in the emotional and intellectual temperature of whoever reads it.” The press has published books by Yusef Komunyakaa, Ray Amorosi, Margaret Robison, Carlos Reyes, Carolyn Miller, and Anthony Robbins, among many others. Recent prize winners have included Thomas Brush, Carolyne Wright, and Arianne Zwartjes. 

The Blue Lynx Prize is typically open to submissions between January 15 and May 15 annually; open submissions are read between June 1 and August 1 each year.

For more information about the prize, contact editor Christopher Howell

Poet and artist Amanda Deutch blogs about her P&W–supported poetry workshop for young women at the YWCA in Coney Island. She is the author of four chapbooks: Gena Rowlands, Box of Sky: Skeleton Poems, Motel Drift, and The Subway Series. She is also the recipient of a 2007 Footpaths to Creativity Fellowship to write in the Azores Archipelago.

In late February 2013 I put out a call for poetry books to create a lending library for the YWCA after-school teen empowerment program where Parachute: the Coney Island Performance Festival leads a weekly creative writing workshop. The invitation to donate books was put on Facebook and sent out to previous Parachute Festival readers. The message soon went viral in the poetry world and was picked up by the Poetry Foundation and Best American Poetry. We have received books from authors as nearby as Coney Island and Park Slope and as far away as Madrid; Ontario; and Amman, Jordan. My intentions were truly modest. I just wanted to get some poetry books for the teenagers in the workshop that I teach and perhaps some extras to donate to the high school’s library. What we have now—a collection of diverse small press contemporary poetry from all over the country—has blown my mind (and renewed my faith in the power of poets).

In the weekly workshop I try to bring in poetry that reflects students’ surroundings. When I was a child growing up in New York City, we never read any poetry in school that reflected the world and sounds I saw and heard around me—the buzzing sidewalk, taxicabs, the multiphonic spree of languages that is home to me. It wasn’t until I found poets like Edwin Torres, Tracie Morris, Diane DiPrima, and Alice Notley (among many others) that I saw my words and worlds reflected in the pages of their books. I want teenagers to have that opportunity too. Up until now, for over a year, it has been a girls’ group. We recently opened it up to both genders. A boy, Montague, poked his head in the doorway a few weeks ago and said, “Miguel Pinero, he’s the realest.” I said, “Yeah, his poetry changed the course of my life. Before that all I ever saw was poetry about daisies, not that I don’t like daisies. We don’t have any books of his, yet, but why don’t you read Sheila Maldonado? She’s a local poet, born around here.” He checked her book out of our new burgeoning library (and made my day). There are so many interactions like this. Maya is a thirteen-year-old student at the writing workshop. She soaks up information and is very talented. One day she came in asking me about a poem she’d seen that looked like an eye. We had a conversation about the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and for the next week’s class I brought in one of his books. She poured over the pages and held it up saying, “This one is my favorite.” I instantly got chills and realized, here I was in a classroom in Brooklyn, in Coney Island, discussing surrealist French poetry with a thirteen-year-old girl.

The poetry library grew very organically out of an instinct to get the teenagers books they love and to show them that poetry can take all different shapes, sizes, voices, styles, languages. It doesn’t have to rhyme, punctuate, or tell a story. Poetry can speak the way we speak or speak a new language all its own. Poetry can break open language entirely and begin anew.

We now have over a hundred books in our growing library and one of the most unusual, extensive poetry collections in any high school in Brooklyn, maybe the whole country. In Montague’s words—“the realest!”

Photos: (Top) Workshop participant Maya peeking out from behind a poetry book by Jessy Randall. Credit: Amanda Deutch. (Bottom) A donated poetry book sent from Madrid, Spain. Credit: Amanda Deutch.

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 Cowles Charitable Trust, the Abbey K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

P&W–supported writer and presenter Kathleen Flenniken is the 2012–2014 Washington State Poet Laureate. Her books are Plume (University of Washington Press, 2012), a meditation on the Hanford Nuclear Site and a finalist for the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, and Famous (University of Nebraska Press, 2006), named an American Library Association Notable Book. Flenniken is bringing poetry events to all thirty-nine counties in Washington State, including readings, workshops, and school programs, and publishes Washington State poets on her blog, The Far Field. She teaches through Writers in the Schools, Jack Straw, and other arts agencies, and is an editor for Floating Bridge Press, dedicated to publishing Washington State poets.

Kathleen FlennikenFor a relatively small city, Seattle has a thriving literary community. What do you attribute this to?
Seattle is a magnet city. Writers find themselves surrounded by other working writers and a strong literary infrastructure—the University of Washington with its MacArthur geniuses (Linda Bierds, Richard Kenney, Heather McHugh, and Charles Johnson) and graduates, who tend to stay; the Richard Hugo House, a wonderful and democratic incubator for new talent; an impressive public library system; a reputation as a reading city; the marvelous poetry-only bookstore Open Books; University Bookstore and Elliott Bay Book Company; a number of excellent small presses and magazines; and a varied lineup of readings on any given night. Not to mention lakes and mountains, a temperate and moody climate, and beer and coffee houses with Wi-fi.

What recent program have you been especially proud of?
I was very proud to bring Spencer Reece to Seattle for the first time with the help of Poets & Writers, Richard Hugo House, and Humanities Washington. Spencer was going to be in Portland for personal reasons. I was brazen enough to invite him, and he was brave enough to accept. The evening combined some of the poems from his first and forthcoming second book, The Road to Emmaus, and a film by James Franco based on Spencer’s poem “The Clerk’s Tale.” The evening began with a teaser for "Our Little Roses Film," a documentary about Reece's Fulbright year at a girls' orphanage in Honduras, where he is teaching his students poetry and creating a book of their poems about home. It was a beautiful evening and touched many people who came.

How does giving a reading inform your writing and vice versa?
Poetry needs to work out loud as a kind of music. Giving readings keeps me (and my music) honest.

If I know I don’t want to share a poem at a reading, and keep shying away from the opportunity, there may be a problem with the poem. It might be too raw, too personal, or lack nuance. Maybe there’s not enough good stuff going on—it’s boring and I don’t want to admit it. I have to face facts when I face an audience.

I think my perennial pursuit of the “funny poem,” successful or mostly not, is motivated in part by giving readings. It’s a powerful invitation to a new audience.

Reading and hearing the poems out loud sometimes calls attention to certain strategies I’ve used, maybe to excess. I might organize a reading around a subject and notice as I read before an audience: Oh, these three poems all rely on a surprising turn of phrase in the last line…hmm. Is that becoming a crutch?

What are your reading dos?
Remember it’s about poetry and the audience. Be respectful of both. Choose poems you can communicate effectively. Practice. Time yourself. Set up the poems that need it as simply as you can. Try to include a variety of tones. Give every poem its full due—reading slowly, with natural inflections. Learn to use the microphone.

Since I became poet laureate I’ve included poems by other Washington State poets. I’m their representative. When my appointment is over, I’ll continue that practice. It feels like good luck invoking another poet’s voice, and reminds me I’m part of a tradition and a community.

And your reading don’ts?
Don’t go on too long! Never, ever exceed your allotted time. Readings shouldn’t go longer than an hour, generally shorter if it’s one reader. Twenty readers? Three minutes each, and no meandering introductions!

Readings can be humbling. Don’t fall into despair after a reading that falls flat or feels, for whatever reason, embarrassing. Don’t forget, it’s about poetry. One for the cause.

As Washington State’s poet laureate, what do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
Stories and poems remind us what it might be to stand in someone else’s shoes, and what our lives can mean. Literary programs make that experience communal. They bring people together to share matters of deep importance. I was part of a recent program sponsored by P&W at the Sammamish King County Library (on the outskirts of Seattle). Our readers were ages fifteen and up, and included me and poet Michael Dylan Welch, a master of the Haiku form, local students, a software guy, a veteran, a professional in a suit and tie. Our readers brought poems they’d written and wanted to share, and a number of other community members—families, seniors, singles—came simply to listen. If you looked out at the crowd, it was a real mix, but we were sharing an important conversation.

Photo: Kathleen Flenniken. Credit: Rosanne Olson.
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.

Make a list of the physical objects you carry with you: a wallet and phone, a journal and pen, medications and mementos. Then make a list of the non-objects you carry: memories, ideas, dreams, scars (literal or figurative), the people or places of your past. Once you've created both lists, write an essay that incorporates and investigates the items on each. Why do you carry these things? What do they mean to you? Do the physical items relate to the mental ones? Use "These are the things I carry" as your opening line.

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