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Author of the novel Motown Burning, and the poetry collection Stone + Fist + Brick + Bone, Detroit native John Jeffire teaches English at Chippewa Valley High School where he’s organized P&W-supported after-school performances. Jeffire shared with us how these events have enriched the students’ lives.

What is your most successful literary program?
Our most successful program is our open mic performance night, which includes Rock the Mic events and the annual Motown Word Fest. We bring over 150 high school kids into our cafeteria on a school night to read, sing, play music, rap, and tell jokes. It's magic. It truly is amazing how diverse and talented the performers are.

What makes your programs unique?
We invite local metropolitan Detroit poets and musicians to perform, and then mix the kids and their acts in with them. Some, such as poet M. L. Liebler, actually bring kids up onto the stage with them to perform. It's a blast.

What are the benefits of your programs for your students?
The performers we've brought in have been very generous with the kids, encouraging them to write and express themselves and keep the faith. It's tough to be a teen today—they are expected to know and be so much more than the kids of my generation. I don't know how they keep up. And here in the Detroit area, times are tough. So many of the kids have lost their homes or their parents have lost their jobs. The world they live in is not always kind to them. It's nice to provide them some hours of sanctuary where textbooks, smart phones, laptops, problems, and pressures are put away, and language is their muse.

What's the craziest thing that's happened at an event you've hosted?
I'm proud to say that in several years of putting on these events we've only had one kid suspended for using inappropriate language. The kids are enthusiastic and eager to express themselves, but they've also been respectful. Most of them are not star athletes or members of student council—this is their one opportunity to shine in front of their peers and open up. They really are brave.

How do you find and invite writers?
I invite people I've heard before at the various literary venues around Detroit. John Lamb, Jabiya Dragonsun, as well as P&W-supported writers La Shaun phoenix Moore, Olga Klekner, jessica care moore, Aricka Foreman, M. L. Liebler, and others are all performers I've seen live and respect a great deal. Most of all, they are people who understand that their participation is going to help expose kids to the magic and power of language.

Has literary presenting informed your own writing life?
I've become more attentive to how emotionally significant and potentially powerful those first experiences reading in front of an audience can be. For some kids, this is the greatest act of courage they've ever taken. I relive that sense of fear and also triumph in sharing words for the very first time.

What is the value of literary programs for your community?
The community celebrates dunks and touchdowns—why not poems, stories, melodies, and words? We give a segment of our student population a chance to be heard and make an impact. This is their big moment and it's celebrated. Even the kids who don't perform benefit—they see poetry in a different light after they experience someone like jessica care moore. Attending just one event, they become turned on to literary art. Mission accomplished.

Photo: John Jeffire. Credit: Lea Jeffire.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Detroit, 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 Poetry Foundation in Chicago, supporter of emerging young poets through its Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowships, has announced that it will once again administer the Emily Dickinson First Book Award, an occasional prize for unpublished poets of at least forty years of age. The competition, which awards ten thousand dollars and book publication, is open to American poets who have not published a full-length collection of verse.

Graywolf Press will publish the winning manuscript, which must be forty-eight to eighty pages long and never before submitted for this particular prize. The Minneapolis-based indie also published the two previous winners' collections, Everything Preserved: Poems 1955-2005 by the late Landis Everson and The King's Question by Brian Culhane.

The Poetry Foundation will begin accepting entries on January 16, and the competition will close on February 17. The winning poet will be notified before the close of National Poetry Month on April 30.

For complete guidelines, visit the contest web page.

Write a story that opens with your main character doing something that is completely antithetical to his or her personality. Let the story be about how this character came to do what he or she did.

Once again in 2012 Amazon will partner with Penguin Group to hold a contest for early-career novelists. The two media giants announced last week that the fifth annual Breakthrough Novel Award competition, which offers an advance of fifteen thousand dollars and a publication contract with Penguin, will open on January 23 and close to entries on February 5—or once five thousand entries have been submitted in the general fiction category (a young adult competition is being offered as well).

The assessment process for the contest is five-tiered. First, Amazon editors will select one thousand manuscripts from the total pool, and, with the assistance of seasoned Amazon reviewers, will whittle that group down to two hundred fifty. Those that make the cut will be reviewed and rated by Publishers Weekly reviewers, and the most favored fifty will be handed off to editors at Penguin, who will select three finalists.

The shortlisted writers will have their manuscripts reviewed by a panel that includes editor Anne Sowards, literary agent Donald Maass, and thriller author Linda Fairstein, and Amazon users will then be able to vote for a winner based on the reviews and manuscript excerpts. Amazon will reveal the winner on June 16.

For contest guidelines and the fine print, visit the Amazon website.

Look back through the poems you've written this year and make a list of images or words you've repeated. This list will guide you toward identifying your poetic obsessions. Choose one of your poetic obsessions and write a poem that fully explores it.

P&W-supported spoken word artist Mike Sonksen, author of I am Alive in Los Angeles, blogs about The Last Bookstore.

I first became familiar with Rothenberg, poet/publisher of Big Bridge and author of more than twenty books, after picking up his book The Paris Journals. The book's format intrigued me immediately, a hybrid poetic/prose travel journey novella about his time in Paris. Rothenberg has edited collections of Phillip Whalen and David Meltzer as well as written several songs for film and television. Rothenberg read this past Sunday at The Last Bookstore.

The Last Bookstore has emerged as a mecca for literary events in Los Angeles and has featured David Meltzer, Sesshu Foster, Pam Ward, the L.A. Noir Poetry Festival, Writers Row, and the site-specific play titled A Record of Light. Located on Spring and Fifth in Downtown L.A.'s Old Bank District, the space has 10,000 square feet, comfortable seats, thousands of titles, and low prices. (They also have several crates of vinyl records.) The ambiance is undeniable in the store and the block itself.

Spring Street is often referred to as the Wall Street of the West; it's a goldmine for architectural historians with the largest collection of pre-World War II architecture in America. The large old banks were all built in classical architectural styles like Beaux-Arts, Art Deco, and Italian Renaissance Revival—elegantly poured concrete gems about a dozen floors each. The Last Bookstore is on the ground floor of a Beaux-Arts building designed by John Parkinson, the architect of Los Angeles's City Hall, the Memorial Coliseum, Bullocks Wilshire, and most of the banks on Spring Street. A plaque in his honor is located on the west sidewalk of Spring near the bookstore.

Literary legends, high school poets, and college students alike speak at the bookstore's events. Their philosophy: three generations on the same stage, all the ancestors on the same page.

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.

Suzanne Lummis, poet and director of the Los Angeles Poetry Festival, blogs about the P&W-supported Lummis Day Festival in Los Angeles.

Now and then at a reading, you nab the whole audience. When the show is over they rush up to you, wild with joy. But other times, it's that reading where just eleven people show up, only one book is bought, and you drive home grumpy. Then much later, someone comes up to you at an event, kind of shy, and tells you how years back she'd been in a sparse audience at some now defunct café, and how that reading persuaded her to give up her career in advertising, which she despised, and become a writer instead. Now she's happy. And, you think, "Ah, so that's whom that evening was for."

On especially felicitous occasions, you get both, the audience and the person who walks away changed. Take last year's Lummis Day for example. The kick-off poetry reading for the annual gala, also know as the Festival of Northeast Los Angeles, has never failed to please a crowd. And, it does draw a crowd—as many as can fit comfortably into the spacious garden in front of El Alisal, the name Charles Lummis gave to the idiosyncratic house he built with river rock around the turn of the nineteenth century. Eliot Sekular, a champion of Northeast Los Angeles, founded Lummis Day, naming it after my grandfather, who Southwest history buffs remember for his advocacy on behalf of Native American and Spanish California culture. So every first Sunday of June, folks drive across the city, or walk over from around the corner, always in high spirits. It is after all, not only a lively reading with a social gathering afterwards, but the beginning of a daylong party, with bands, folkloric dances, and other entertainments.

Last year, in my opening comments, I mentioned that I felt lucky that my parents had been poetry readers, and therefore I'd never in my life lived in a house that did not have poetry on the bookshelves. Steve Kowit then delighted fiesta-goers with his humor and embracing energy, followed by Mariano Zara, who read a moving personal piece, and poetry-loving actor Dale Raoul (Maxine Fortenberry in True Blood), who presented selections from Poems of the American West. While the assembled gathered in the reception area for a "noise" (Lummis disdained the term "salon" and was bored by "party"), a fellow approached me with a title he'd just purchased from the book table, Poems of the American West.  He was beaming. "Could I please write 'For Alfredo?'"  I asked him to tell me a little about himself so I could personalize the dedication. "Oh, it's for him," he said, and pointed to a stroller holding a boy of about two. Then his wife appeared by his side. And I was, well... I don't want to get sentimental. The English have a word for it—I was chuffed. This little boy would grow up in a house with poetry... it's not everything, but it seems to have the makings of a promising start. 

Photo: Suzanne Lummis. Credit: Penelope Torribio.

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


The Center for Fiction in New York City has announced the winner of the 2011 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, formerly the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize. The ten-thousand-dollar award went to Colorado author Bonnie Nadzam for Lamb (Other Press).

The story of a middle-aged man who develops a friendship with, in the words of the author, a "poor and rather dull eleven-year-old girl" and embarks on a road trip with her, Nadzam's novel has drawn comparisons to Nabokov's classic, and controversial, story of intergenerational relations. But, "while kneejerk comparisons to Lolita are inevitable," says Drew Toal of the Daily Beast, which counted Lamb among its "Great Weekend Reads" earlier this fall, "David Lamb is playing a different game than Humbert Humbert.”

Nadzam's novel won out over debuts by finalists David Bezmozgis for The Free World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Sarah Braunstein for The Sweet Relief of Missing Children (Norton), Carolyn Cooke for Daughters of the Revolution (Knopf), Ida Hattemer-Higgins for The History of History (Knopf), Shards by Ismet Prcic (Black Cat), and Touch by Alexi Zentner (Norton). Each of the authors shortlisted received an award of one thousand dollars.

At the award ceremony on Tuesday, the Center for Fiction also awarded Scribner editor in chief Nan Graham the Maxwell E. Perkins Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Field of Fiction.

Write a story structured around a series of vignettes based on the descriptions of imagined photographs. For an example, read Heidi Julavits's "Marry the One Who Gets There First: Outtakes From the Sheidegger-Krupnik Wedding Album," included in The Best American Short Stories, 1999 (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).

About six weeks after the announcement of the finalists for this year's T. S. Eliot Prize, a fifteen-thousand-pound award (approximately $23,500) given for a poetry collection, two poets have dropped off the shortlist. Australian writer John Kinsella followed British poet Alice Oswald, who won the award in 2002, in withdrawing from the running, both taking issue with the recently-established partnership of the Poetry Book Society, the prize administrator, with Aurum, an investment firm. Aurum signed on earlier this fall for a three-year sponsorship of the prize after the Poetry Book Society got word that it would lose funding from England's Arts Council effective in 2012.

"I am grateful to Alice Oswald for bringing the sponsorship of the T. S. Eliot Prize to my attention," said Kinsella, shortlisted for Armour, in a statement issued by Picador, his publisher. "I regret that I must do this at a particularly difficult time for the Poetry Book Society but the business of Aurum does not sit with my personal politics and ethics."

Oswald, shortlisted for her book Memorial (Faber and Faber), withdrew on Tuesday, citing Aurum's involvement in the management of hedge funds. "I think poetry should be questioning not endorsing such institutions," she said.

Following Oswald's announcement, Chris Holifield, director of the Poetry Book Society, said the poet would not be replaced on the shortlist with another contender. "It's too late to do that, which is unfortunate as there were other good people who would have liked to be on the shortlist," she told the Guardian. The Guardian reported that the Poetry Book Society declined to comment on Kinsella's withrawal.

Remaining on the shortlist are John Burnside's Black Cat Bone (Jonathan Cape), Carol Ann Duffy's The Bees (Picador), Leontia Flynn's Profit and Loss (Jonathan Cape), David Harsent's Night (Faber and Faber), Esther Morgan's Grace (Bloodaxe Books), Daljit Nagra's Tippoo Sultan's Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!! (Faber and Faber), Sean O'Brien's November (Picador), and Bernard O'Donoghue's Farmer's Cross (Faber and Faber). The winner will be announced on January 16.

Tonight in Santa Monica, California, United States Artists (USA) fetes fifty American artists, including three poets and a fiction writer, awarding them no-strings grants of fifty thousand dollars each. Among the winners are Terrance Hayes, who received the National Book Award in poetry last year for Lighthead (Penguin Books); poet Campbell McGrath, who won a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship in 1999; 2011 MacArthur fellow A. E. Stallings, a poet and translator; and fiction writer Karen Tei Yamashita, whose novel I Hotel (Coffee House Press) was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award.

The writers are recognized along with, among others, playwright Annie Baker; choreographer Liz Lerman; musician George Lewis; visual artist Lorraine O'Grady; and John Collins, the artistic director and founder of the Elevator Repair Service theater company, which has created literary productions such as Gatz, a marathon performance of The Great Gatsby, and the Hemingway-inspired The Select (The Sun Also Rises). Complete profiles of all fifty fellows are posted on the USA website.

The USA fellowships have been awarded since 2005 in an effort "to close the gap between the love of art and the ambivalence toward those who create it" (the grant program was created in response to the results of a study done by the Urban Institute showing that while 96 percent of Americans say they value art, only about a quarter believe that artists contribute to the good of society). Over the past six years USA has awarded fifteen million dollars directly to artists.

In the video below, 2011 fellow Campbell McGrath, who lives in Miami Beach, reads at the O, Miami poetry festival last spring.

Think of a person from your past, someone you wish you'd gotten to know better and have always remembered. Think about why you wish you'd gotten to know this person better—did he or she do something that intrigued you, did he or she have a particular way about them, did you share an important moment together? Write a poem to this person, exploring what it was about him or her that has remained with you, even though the person hasn't. 

P&W-supported spoken-word artist Mike Sonksen, author of I am Alive in Los Angeles, blogs about poetry and activism.

Whether MFA candidates, avant-garde scribes, spoken-word artists, or traditional poets, there are more bards alive now than ever before. But, what exactly does it mean to be a poet? I think of a quote from Los Angeles poet Kamau Daaood. Daaood told Erin Aubry Kaplan in the L.A. Weekly, "When people run to open mics these days, it's mostly about ego–getting fifteen minutes... I [see] it as a jam session, swapping ideas, getting inspiration from other people."

In 2005, Daaood's The Language of Saxophones was published by City Lights Booksellers & Publishers. Daaood never pursued being published because he was too busy working in the community. Daaood has performed for more than four decades at festivals, galleries, jazz clubs, churches, schools, prisons, or wherever duty calls.

Another poet with the same commitment is Lewis MacAdams. MacAdams studied with Robert Creeley at the University of Buffalo in the 60s and hung with New York School poets. MacAdams became an environmental activist/poet in Bolinas, California, during the 70s and was a fixture at the San Francisco State University's Poetry Center. In 1980 MacAdams landed in L.A. There he discovered the Los Angeles River, and was outraged by the concrete channel housing the watershed. He decided to begin a forty-year performance piece dedicated to returning the river to its natural state.

One night in 1986 he performed a suite of poems dedicated to the Los Angeles River while being dressed up as a totem of flora and fauna specific to the river. This was the birth of the Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR). Twenty-five years after FoLAR's founding, the River has had several stretches restored back to its natural state. MacAdams started the river's resurrection with poetry. His new book Dear Oxygen, published by the University of New Orleans Press collects forty-five years of his life's work. MacAdams like Daaood has spent a lifetime using poetry to improve his community. Their work reminds me of the benchmark for which poets should aim.

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.

Just ask William Carlos Williams (or Jenna Lê), medicine and poetry have long fed one another, but perhaps it takes a little competition to draw the poet out of the physician. Yesterday the New York Times Well blog reported on the noteworthy response to a poetry contest held last spring for students of the Yale University School of Medicine and the University College London (UCL) Medical School.

The response by would-be physicians in the two sponsor programs exceeded the expectations of the judges, a panel of doctors of medicine and the humanities who anticipated receiving a handful of entries—more than one hundred sixty entries came in. “It was rare in my generation for doctors to write poems," contest organizer John Martin, who teaches cardiovascular medicine at UCL, told the Times, "but I think there’s a new interest in poetry and how it can arise from what we do."

There's no doubt the fifteen-hundred-dollar first prize, funded by a donation from an anonymous patient, provided an added dose of inspiration. Impressed by the caliber of submissions, the judges—with the help of an additional prize contribution from one of their own—chose to award the prize to two poet-physicians, UCL students Gabrielle Gascoigne for "Mastectomy" and Daphne Tan for "Apices." Noah Capurso of Yale received a three-hundred-dollar runner-up prize for "Aphasia."

The Fellowship of Postgraduate Medicine, based in London, also runs a poetry contest for physicians and medical students in the United Kingdom, but with a second "open international" competition for poems on a medical theme written by anyone from anywhere in the world. The Hippocrates Prize, first given in 2010, awards five thousand pounds (approximately $7,800) to a winner in each category, as well as publication in an annual anthology.

Entries are now open for the 2012 Hippocrates Prize, and the deadline for submissions is January 31, 2012. More information is avaialable on the prize website.

And each spring, Bellevue Literary Review, based at New York University's Langone Medical Center, holds its annual poetry (and fiction, and creative nonfiction) contest for works on health and healing. Stay tuned for more on the BLR Literary Prizes in 2012. In the meantime, be well and write strong!

In October, the Alvar Library in New Orleans hosted a fiction workshop with P&W-supported writer Lee Meitzen Grue. Branch Manager Mary Ann Marx reports.

The Alvar Library is located in a very unique neighborhood in New Orleans called Bywater.  Many poets, writers, musicians, and artists reside here. Because of this, the library applied for and received a grant from Poets & Writers, Inc., to present a series of five fiction workshops conducted by Lee Grue, a poet, writer, and teacher who lives in Bywater.

Her themes come from that unique urban culture of New Orleans: its customs, its culture, and her everyday experiences of living here. Her published books are: Trains and Other Intrusions: Poems; French Quarter Poems; In the Sweet Balance of the Flesh; and Goodbye, Silver, Silver Cloud, a collection of New Orleans stories. Lee is the longtime editor of the New Laurel Review.
 
The writing workshops were a wonderful asset to the community and to the city. Writers came from all areas of the city to participate in these workshops. It was wonderful to hear and see the enthusiasm expressed by the participants. As I watched them listening to Lee’s instructions with concentrated attention, I could see that they could not wait for the time when they would be able to read their own work to the group. As each took his or her turn, the others listened and made suggestions for improvements. The ideas for improvement were discussed and rationale explained. Then Lee gently presented her own suggestions for improvements.

As one participant stated, “This writers' workshop is important to me because writing is my passion. To master this art, I have to surround myself with those who have already done so.”

It is only with the support of P&W that these writing workshops can be made available to the public. Funding for programs like this is scarce in New Orleans.

As the sponsor of the program, we have seen a whole new dimension of the work we do. Meeting these writers has influenced our collection development and expanded our network sphere. On occasion, workshop participants have developed poetry and writing programs themselves, which we have also presented at the library.

Photo: Lee Meitzen Grue (second from left) with workshop participants. Credit: Shannon Aymami.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in New Orleans 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.

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