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San Diego-based P&W-supported poet Ilya Kaminsky, author of Dancing in Odessa and co-editor of Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, blogs about Southern California's Red Hen Press

It is impossible to begin a conversation about literary presses and happenings in Southern California without instantly mentioning P&W-supported Red Hen Press, which is a great deal more than just a literary press. Red Hen’s Kate Gale and Mark Cull, both talented authors in their own right, have created something very special with Red Hen—it is a press, a community force, an organization behind several reading series in Southern California, an outreach program for writing in schools, and many other things.

One Red Hen book I read recently moved me, the new novel by P&W-supported writer David Matlin, “A HalfMan Dreaming”—a second installment in his epic trilogy about the beauty and violence of the American landscape. Lupe, a protagonist is taken from the world of rose farms and egg ranchers in post-World War Two America, from a town haunted by the Enola gay and the nuclear Bomb, to prison in Detroit. The book is as terrifying as it is gorgeous, with beautiful, sensuous prose.

Another book of contemporary prose that I have read in recent months that just won’t let me be is Garth Greenwell’s “Mitko”—winner of Miami University Press’s 2011 Novella Contest (one of the very few such novella prizes in the country), this is a book about betrayal, forbidden desire, where sentence structures are as engaging as the plot lines and prose is musical, meditative and evocative; this is the story of an American who finds himself in Sophia, Bulgaria. A new take on Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” Greenwell’s novella is able to ask hard questions about loss, sexual desire, and loneliness. In Southern California, where I have heard many a writer complain of loneliness and absence of literary community, this work, somehow, particularly resonates. Garth Greenwell will read from his new workon April 16 at San Diego State University.

Photo: Ilya Kaminsky.

Major support for Readings/Workshops events in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

The Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association has announced the winners of its 2012 book awards, honoring authors from Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, and Washington. Among the winning titles are a semiautobiographical novel by a Bosnian expat, a memoir by an Olympic hopeful swimmer, and a contender for last year's Booker and Giller prizes.

Patrick deWitt, born in Canada and now living in Oregon, won for his second novel, The Sisters Brothers (Ecco), which was shortlisted for last year's Man Booker Prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Ismet Prcic, who fled war-torn former Yugoslavia in the nineties and now lives in Portland, Oregon, won for his semiautobiographical debut novel, Shards (Black Cat). Prcic's novel was also shortlisted for a major award last year, the Center for Fiction's Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Award.

Washington author Jonathan Evison, whose first novel, All About Lulu (Soft Skull Press, 2008), received the Washington State Book Award, won for his second novel, West of Here (Algonquin Books). Portland-based graphic novelist Craig Thompson, author of Blankets (Top Shelf, 2003) and Goodbye, Chunky Rice (Top Shelf, 1999), won for Habibi (Pantheon Books).

In nonfiction, memoirist and lifelong swimmer Lidia Yuknavitch of Portland was honored for The Chronology of Water, published by Portland indie press Hawthorne Books. Washington State biologist Thor Hanson won for Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle (Basic Books).

The book awards have been given annually since 1984 and judged by representatives from regional booksellers. For the 2012 award, the nine-person jury considered more than two hundred ninety nominated titles.

The video below is a book trailer for Yuknavitch's winning memoir.

On November 30, 2011, Urban Possibilities held a culminating reading for Dorothy Randall Gray’s nine-week, P&W-supported poetry workshop, which served men and women living at the Los Angeles Mission on Skid Row.

Urban Possibilities, a nonprofit organization that brings inspiration and a variety of services to homeless men and women, held a reading for their Published Writers Program, taught by Dorothy Randall Gray. The event began with a warm reception and an introduction by Eyvette Jones Johnson, founder and executive director of Urban Possibilities.

There is a “sea of untapped potential in the inner-city,” Johnson said. “No matter where you are or what you’ve been through, [you] have gifts and talents to share.”

To write about their struggles, Johnson said, the participants had to have their “hearts wide open.” She asked that audience members reciprocate.

Gray was so proud of her students and the writing they produced that she said, “I feel like I almost gave birth.” She dedicated the piece she read, “You and Me, Me and You,” to her students. She described being “stranded at the corner of walk and don’t walk” and “invisible to those who will not see.” The poem repeated the phrase “they fly.”

All of the workshop participants came to the mission after living on the streets. Many have dealt with substance abuse, gambling, addiction, prison, and abusive relationships. “I felt like I was failing life,” participant Anthony Tate said. Another student said of the workshop: “It just sort of woke up my dream…I had put it on a shelf.”

To close the reading, the students stood together on stage and had the audience participate in an exercise. Each student said one word or phrase, and the audience said it back. After reciting the phrase “carpe diem” back, the whole auditorium burst into laughter when the voice of one young child echoed the phrase back a few moments afterward, provoking a whole new meaning and a sense of hope.

At the reception, participant Michael T. Williams reflected, “I was sleeping in graveyards, ‘cause I thought that was the safest place to be. Now I feel like Pinky and the Brain, and I’m ready to take over the world.”

Photo: Dorothy Randall Gray (center) with workshop participants. Credit: Craig Johnson Photography.

Major support for Readings/Workshops events in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

In honor of Robert Walser's Microscripts, write a story (in as small as print as possible) on previously used paper, allowing whatever use the paper previously served (letter from a family member, etc) be the inspiration for the new story.

Publishers Lunch reports today that literary agents Amy Hughes and Ethan Bassoff have moved to new agencies. Hughes moves from McCormick & Williams to Dunow, Carlson and Lerner where she will specialize in representing nonfiction writers, including memoirists; Bassoff moves to Lippincott Massie McQuilkin from InkWell Management and will continue to focus on literary and commercial fiction, as well as narrative nonfiction.

London-born poet Jo Shapcott has been awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, an occasional honor given since 1933 for either a single poem by a U.K. writer or a poet's entire oeuvre. Shapcott received the prize for her body of work, the most recent addition to which is Of Mutability (Faber & Faber, 2010), the poet's award-winning chronicle of her battle with cancer.

"The award of the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry is the true crowning of Jo's career," said U.K. poet laureate Carol Anne Duffy, who headed up the judging panel. "The calm but sparkling Englishness of her poetry manages to combine accessibility with a deeply cerebral engagement with all the facets of being humanalert to art and science, life and death."

Shapcott, who teaches at the University of London, is also the author of Her Book: Poems 19881998 (Faber & Faber, 2000); My Life Asleep (Oxford University Press, 1998), which won the Forward Poetry Prize; and Electroplating the Baby (Bloodaxe Books, 1988), which won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize.

In the video below, Shapcott reads from her most recent collection.

For the month of January (Happy New Year!), San Diego-based P&W-supported poet Ilya Kaminsky, will blog about the literary life in San Diego and Southern California. Kaminsky, author of Dancing in Odessa, was awarded an American Academy of Arts and Letters' s Metcalf Award, a Whiting Writers Award, and a Lannan Fellowship, among others. Kaminsky begins the series with new books by San Diego authors or authors who will soon visit San Diego.

Next month will mark the first year of the establishment of the new literary press based in San Diego, Calypso Editions, which has, in just twelve months, published such authors as Tolstoy, the great Polish poet Anna Swir, the lively anthology of New Romanian poetry edited by Martin Woodside, and collections of talented debut prose and poetry from Beth Myhr and Anthony Bonds.

The work the press has done in barely one year is really astounding. The Anna Swir book, Building the Barricade, is a brilliant translation by Piotr Florczyk, who is fast becoming one of the best Polish translators. This book is filled with eros and witness.

Of Gentle Wolves: An Anthology of Romanian Poetry edited by Martin Woodside is a wild book—probably the most wild book I have read this year—filled with tenderness and empathy and beautiful wordplay. Woodside is able in this small anthology to bring across the whole tradition of modern Romanian poetry, which is a huge undertaking.

Elizabeth Myhr’s debut collection the vanishing & other poems is special. Her language is filled with urgency of our moment, a dwelling in which the silence speaks.

In Anthony Bonds’s novella, The Moonflower King, the hero is forced to make a journey from New York City to his ranch home in East Texas, to find the meaning of death, in a beautifully written story. Bonds is able to pull off a wise, tender book that is both a literary novella and a page-turner. A wonderful debut.

On March 19, Myhr, Bonds, and Woodside will give a talk at the P&W-supported Living Writers Series at San Diego State University to discuss the challenges and joys of starting the co-op press and will also read from their new work. On the same day, Chris Baron, a brilliant poet associated for many years with City Works Press—known for its P&W-supported major event, the San Diego City College International Book Fair—will also read. City Works has done a great deal for literary life in San Diego, publishing both local and nationally-known authors.

Photo: Ilya Kaminsky.

Major support for Readings/Workshops events in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Make your New Year’s resolution the title of a poem. Write a poem exploring the dimensions of the resolution, perhaps considering what would happen if you kept to it strictly for an entire year or if you broke it right away. Read Mark Halliday’s “Refusal to Notice Beautiful Women” for inspiration. 

Using John Ashbery's poem "And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name" from Houseboat Days as a model, tell a story by telling us how to tell a story. Scaffold the narrative by meditating on the nature of storytelling.
This week's creative nonfiction prompt comes from Vijay Seshadri, director of the nonfiction program at Sarah Lawrence College and author, most recently, of The Disappearances (Harper Collins, 2007).

Ruminate on the past year, remembering both your achievements and your failures. Write a story about one of your failures or regrets from the perspective of someone other than yourself. Consider rewriting the past, to transform this incident into an achievement by changing the facts around it or by changing the way your protagonist perceives it. 

P&W-supported spoken word artist Mike Sonksen, author of I am Alive in Los Angeles, blogs about City Lights authors.

City Lights Publishing just released David Meltzer's new book When I Was a Poet. The work opens with the title piece, a reflection on a lifetime of poetry. Packed with pathos, precise syllables, and cacophonic crests, Meltzer's work has been described as "Bop Kabbalah." Thurston Moore says, "Enlightened by jazz, psyche/folk energy, the trees outside the academy, and a woozy sex drive, David's enchantment with dream/mystery/beauty make him a musician's poet."

Meltzer's lines maintain haiku density throughout the work. In "California Dreamin" Meltzer riffs on his Bohemian days in the Golden State, celebrating Anita O'Day, Lord Buckley, Miles Davis, Coltrane, the Troubadour, and Hollywood Boulevard.

City Lights also recently released a new book by Surrealist poet Will Alexander titled Compression & Purity. Los Angeles born, Alexander emerged from Watts in the 70s and has gradually emerged into one of the most avant-garde poets. I heard Alexander read at Beyond Baroque this past September. His thermonuclear images and electric vocabulary transmitted in the black box theater with such intensity that I bought two books.

 Ry Cooder's Los Angeles Stories, a collection of eight short stories, was also published by City Lights. The first of City Light's new "Noir" series, this collection of fiction exists in the old gritty Los Angeles of the 40s and 50s. Cooder's characters inhabit lost landscapes like Chavez Ravine, the Pacific Electric Streetcar, Bunker Hill, and Historic Filipinotown. Cooder captures the colloquial: "Sit down, take a load off, try some pork fried rice. Dig it and pick up on it, it happened like this."

The characters emit warmth similar to Fante's Arturo Bandini. There are unsolved murders a la Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain. Filipino poet Carlos Bulosan makes a cameo. Aficionados of Los Angeles letters will recognize Cooder's influences. Fortunately his synthesis is well-crafted. Cooder, a Los Angeles native, loves untold stories like the San Patricios or Chavez Ravine. Considering his many groundbreaking musical albums on such subjects, it's no surprise his first book upholds the same level of verisimilitude.

Photo: Mike Sonksen. Credit: Chris Felver.

Major support for Readings/Workshops events in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Write a poem that is an elegy for something or someone you've had to let go of this year.  

One-year-old literary app Storyville, which offers subscribers digital deliveries of new and archival stories, is holding its first one-thousand-dollar prize competition. The winner of the Sidney Prize, named for New Orleans politician Sidney Story—the app's namesake—will be published on the app, which is currently available on iPad, iPhone, and Kindle.

Selecting the winning story will be publishing innovator Richard Nash, former helmsman of Soft Skull Press who recently founded indie publishing platform Cursor and the literary prose imprint Red Lemonade.

For a $4.99 entry fee, the cost of a half-year subscription to the app, writers may submit a story of up to five thousand words (for current subscribers, there's no fee). The deadline is February 15.

For contest guidelines, and to sample the Storyville community's short fiction predilections via "top-ten" lists by authors such as Josip Novakovich and Emma Straub, visit the Storyville website.

Choose a place from your childhood—the house your grew up in, your grandparents' home, or another place you visited often—and draw a map of it, with as much detail as possible. Let the map ignite your memory about what happened in this place and who was there. Write a scene for a story based on a fictionalized account of one of your memories, using this place as the setting and your map as source of description. 

The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut, is looking for works of poetry and prose from collegiate writers whose literary work advances social justice, in the spirit of Stowe's activism through storytelling. Accepting all types of previously-published writing, from poems to stories to blog posts, the inaugural Student Stowe Prize competition will award twenty-five hundred dollars to a current college or university student.

The winning work will also be republished on the Stowe Center website, and the writer will be recognized at a ceremony on June 7, 2012, alongside a secondary school student whose writing also strives to make "a tangible impact on a social justice issue critical to contemporary society." Eligible works may touch on questions of, for instance, race, class, or gender equality, and must have appeared in a notable periodical or blog.

Student writers may submit entries, which should be accompanied by three references, until February 27. For complete guidelines, visit the Stowe Center website.

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