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On November 13, 1797, poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge took a walk together in The Quantock Hills in Somerset, England, and came up with the idea of writing what would become Coleridge's famous poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." In honor of this anniversary, find time for a thirty-minute walk today, ideally in a natural setting. Afterward, freewrite for ten minutes, then use those notes to compose a poem.  

Write an essay about the five things that scare you the most. Structure it with numbered section headings that include each thing, such as 1. Fire, 2. Death, 3. Failure, etc.

In his essay “Don’t Look Back” (Poets & Writers Magazine, November/December 2012), fiction writer Benjamin Percy argues against including backstory when writing short stories. “It’s almost always unnecessary," Percy writes. "A reader intuits the history of a character by observing that character act in the present.”  Choose a story you’ve written and delete all of the backstory that you’ve included. Then revise it by describing the main character and having that description convey the backstory instead.

Select one of your poems that needs revision and transform it into a physical object, such as an imaginary map, a collage, a drawing, or a shadow box (for inspiration, check out Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes). 

Due to the recent effects of Hurricane Sandy, Ohio University Press has extended the deadline for the Hollis Summers Poetry Prize to November 15. The annual competition, which awards a $1,000 cash prize and publication by Ohio University Press, is given for a poetry collection.

Poets may submit previously unpublished manuscripts of sixty to ninety-five pages, along with a $25 entry fee, to Ohio University Press, 19 Circle Drive, The Ridges, Athens, Ohio 45701. The competition is open to poets who have published a full-length collection and those who have not. For more information and complete submission guidelines, visit the Ohio University Press website.

The annual prize is named for the poet Hollis Summers, who taught at Ohio University for many years and frequently wrote about the city of Athens in his poems. 

Poet Nick Norwood won last year’s prize for his third full-length collection, Gravel & Hawk, published this past April by Ohio University Press. In the podcast below from the PBS NewsHour program “Art Beat,” hear Nick read the poem “A.M.” from his winning collection.

Bard College has announced that author Brian Conn will be the recipient of the 2013 Bard Fiction Prize. Conn will receive a $30,000 cash award and a residency at Bard College during the spring 2013 semester. Conn received the prize for his debut book, The Fixed Stars, an experimental science fiction novel published by Fiction Collective 2 in 2010. As a writer-in-residence at Bard, located in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, Conn will meet with students, give public readings, and continue to write.

“What won the respect of the Bard Fiction Prize judges was the remarkable way the weird, perplexing bleakness of the imagined society is firmly held in place by a narrative style at once bewildered and lucid—it has the air of a kind of deadpan tragedy, of the sort Kafka scared us with, and made us yearn for more," wrote the Bard Fiction Prize committee in a statement. “The Bard Fiction Prize has been anxious to celebrate innovation in the novel—and in Conn’s The Fixed Stars we found a perfect match of inventive fable with disquietingly radical storytelling. The prose sparkles with unique images, and the narrative itself is wonderful, at times wondrous even, and a highly original formal work, full of life.”

Conn’s fiction has appeared in both genre magazines and literary magazines, and The Fixed Stars was named one of Amazon’s ten best science fiction and fantasy books of 2010. In 2008, Conn cofounded the fiction journal Birkensnake at Brown University.

Established in 2001, the Bard Fiction Prize is given annually to an emerging writer under the age of forty for a work of innovative fiction. Last year Benjamin Hale received the prize for his novel The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore (Twelve, 2011). The deadline for the 2014 prize is July 15, 2013. Visit the Bard website for guidelines. 

Poet and cultural geographer Eric Magrane writes about his recent P&W-supported reading in Tucson for the POG: Poetry in Action reading series. POG also announced the Tumamoc Hill Writing project at this event, which will gather Tucson writers to explore Tumamoc Hill, a long term ecological research site and a natural and cultural treasure in the heart of Tucson. You can see Magrane’s interview with Paul Mirocha, artist in residence at Tumamoc and his co-presenter at this event, on Magrane’s Proximities blog on art, science, and environment, which he writes for the University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment. Find Magrane’s Various Instructions for the Practice of Poetic Field Research here.

Eric MagraneWhat happens when we engage the spaces between poetry and science, between art and geography, between place and philosophy? What happens when all those categories get mixed up? I’d call the new arrangements that emerge a hybrid poetic geography, in which different fields of thought and knowledge collapse into each other.

A recent reading that I gave for the experimental poetics series POG: Poetry in Action revolved around these questions. As part of my reading, I surveyed the audience. While I read sections of my poem Symbiosis-Nothing Separate-Lyric Earth, I asked the audience to respond to a survey that I designed for the event. I’d like to share a few of the questions and responses: What is the difference between poetry and science?

live wine // I have no idea. // poetry doesn’t prove? // one looks from the inside and the other looks from the outside // nothing // the beat // the observer // use of words to describe the process // prediction // science <--- language ---> poetry // weather // Lichen = algae + fungus; Lichen = poetry + science // everything but “E” // tools

I culled these responses above completely on my own whim. In other words, the results are not generalizable and are completely subjective. (Subjectivity is another question, and exploring where subject-object duality breaks down is crucial to explorations of poetry and science. Poetry, I believe, can be a method to rigorously collapse subject and object in a way that’s different from the rigor of science.)

The following quantitatively details the responses to a single question from all thirty-seven completed surveys. (Responses that occurred twice are coded with a 2 x.)

What is the first nonhuman species that comes to mind?

Bird (redbird) // 2 x Snake // 2 x Amoeba // Roses // 2 x Aardvark // Rocks // Bear // 2 x Birds // Stool // Cat // Sea anemone // 2 x Cats // Cypress tree // Robots // Worm // Lemur // Porcupine // Stone people // Crow // Pig // Man and Woman // Palo verde // Rabbit // Nematodes // Liquidamber // Feline // Lizard // Half the people I see on the street // Scissor-tailed flycatcher // Lizards – but I had a gecko // Mesquite // Birds, Dogs a close second

I was very surprised that two people responded both for amoebas and aardvarks! I was struck also by the number of responses that stepped outside of a traditional definition of species to include other matter (Rocks, Stool, Robots, Stone people, Liquidamber). I attribute this to the creative audience and to the embedded vibrant materiality of poetry.

Photo: Eric Magrane reads with Lyric Earth. Credit: Samuel Ace.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Tucson 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 recently announced the winners of its 2012 literary awards, which offer ten grants of $50,000 to emerging poets, fiction writers, creative nonfiction writers, and playwrights.

The 2012 Whiting Award recipients include nonfiction writer Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts of New York City, whose first book, Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America (Little, Brown, 2011), was among the 100 Notable Books of 2011 by the New York Times Book Review and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award; poet Ciaran Berry of Hartford, Connecticut, whose first full-length collection, The Sphere of Birds, (Southern Illinois University Press, 2008) won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition in 2007; poet Atsuro Riley of San Francisco, whose first book, Romey’s Order (University of Chicago Press, 2010) won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, the Believer Poetry Award, and the Witter Bynner Award from the Library of Congress; fiction writer Alan Heathcock of Boise, Idaho, whose short story collection Volt (Graywolf Press, 2011) was a finalist for the Barnes and Noble Discover Prize; fiction writer Anthony Marra of Oakland, California, whose debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and short story collection, The Tsar of Love and Techno, will be published in 2013 and 2014, respectively, by Hogarth Press; and fiction writer Hanna Pylväinen of New York City, whose debut novel, We Sinners, was published this past summer by Henry Holt.

Four playwrights, Danai Gurira, Samuel Hunter, Mona Mansour, and Meg Miroshnik also received the awards. 

The "no strings attached" grants are given to writers whose early work suggests a promising literary career to come. Past recipients of the Whiting Award have included Michael Cunningham, Mark Doty, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Tracy K. Smith, John Jeremiah Sullivan, David Foster Wallace, Colson Whitehead, and C. D. Wright.

The New York City-based Whiting Foundation has given the Whiting Awards annually since 1985. Candidates are nominated for the award by literary professionals, and an anonymous selection committee of accomplished writers, editors, and literary scholars appointed by the Whiting Foundation chooses the winners. There is no application process.

In September P&W-supported poet Tim Toaster Henderson was the featured performer at Coast Slam in Fort Bragg, California. First-time slam judge Gene Lock blogs about the event (with a little help by series director Christina Perez).

Tim Toaster HendersonA poetry slam, we now know, has rules. Poems are orally presented, in front of a microphone. The poems must fit in a time slot of three minutes. Structure, rhyme, and meter are optional. Poets come to the front of the audience, one at a time, and deliver their work. Then the judges (there were five of us at the September slam) hold up cards ranging from one to ten, and fractions thereof. So, the poet might receive an 8.7 or a 9.3, a la Olympics. A time-/scorekeeper records the scores, discards the high and low, and averages the remainder.

In preparation for judging, my wife, Susan, and I learned that points are awarded for two components: 1) content—does the poem successfully use metaphor, alliteration, image, and tone? and 2) presentation—does the poet read the poem off paper (not so good), or deliver it from memory using voice, eye contact, and body language?

The roughly ten poets that night ranged from high school students to middle-aged folk. Some poems were funny, political, or whimsical. Some seemed highly personal—chronicling inner turmoil, thoughts of suicide, etc. These poems were especially moving. If nothing else, this contest gave the poets an appreciative, or at least open-minded, audience, and it let them communicate effectively, and get feedback in the form of applause.

The featured poet of the night was Tim Toaster Henderson. He is big, with a mess of huge hair constantly spilling from a grey knit hat. He spoke of being biracial and performed a poem about a man going back to 1968 and having a conversation with Martin Luther King Jr. Another poem was a satire about the unconscious racism of a classmate’s mother. Hilarity turned biting, leaving us all to question how we too, might display our unwitting racism. When Tim switched topics, we learned about the short lives of insects and roared with laughter at their sex lives.

If I’d never gone, I wouldn’t much think about how such an event benefited poets, especially those wrestling with demons past and present. Now I see that it takes quite a bit of nerve and public speaking ability to deliver these poems to strangers.

The moderator, a poet herself, kept the program upbeat, and moving along well. My wife Susan was so inspired that she wrote a poem about the slam:

Slam

A metal chair
unfolded, absorbing
cold from the night air.

A clipboard clutching woman,
a white blaze
adorning her black hair.

A confident couple
she white, he half,
his tallness topped
with twisted tendril hair
ease concealing the depths
they will soon share.

A freshman poet,
his proud family filling out a row.
A pink-haired poet,
bubbling with anger and woe.

A tortured young woman
pushing back.
A bitten camper,
repellent left out of her pack.

A writer
with language and humor
at her command.
A first-timer
with notebook trembling in hand.

Gutsy people
seeking community,
rebuffing society,
altering history,
exploring mystery,
resolving polarity,
evoking hilarity

Opening themselves
to us more timid.

Photo: Tim Toaster Henderson (with pizza box) at Coast Slam. Credit: Tony Greene.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

One of the most dangerous pitfalls of creative nonfiction can be chronology, and some of the best essays are written in a nonlinear fashion. Think of a story that you know by heart--maybe a memory from your childhood, of finding first love, or of the birth of a child--and try to retell it without using typical chronologically. Start from the end and work your way back, or alternate between scenes of present and past. The result should be an essay that keeps the reader always moving but never quite sure of what comes next.

Using magazine clippings; photographs; found or created notes, letters, and postcards; and other items, construct a story from ephemera. Put the items in box and add to it as the week goes on. When you feel that you've compiled enough, write the story relying on the ephemera as a guide.

Find a text that is completely unrelated to what you normally read—a how-to manual, a 1950s interior design book, an old encyclopedia, a white paper on social media— and use it as the source of an erasure poem. Read through several pages and underline words and phrases that appeal to you and that relate to each other. Using a marker or Wite-Out, begin to delete the words around those you underlined, leaving words and phrases that you might want to use. Keep deleting the extra language, working to construct poetic lines with the words you’ve chosen to keep.

Sehba Sarwar blogs about her role as founding and artistic director of P&W-supported Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB), a Houston-based alternative arts organization. A writer and multidisciplinary artist, Sarwar uses her poetry, prose, and video/art installations to explore displacement and women’s issues on a domestic and global level. Her first novel, Black Wings, was published in 2004, and she is currently working on a second manuscript tentatively entitled "Island."

On October 1, 2012, Inprint, Inc., and the Poetry Society of America in association with Nuestra Palabra presented a panel discussion, Red, White & Blue: Poets on Politics, featuring Sandra Cisneros and Tony Hoagland and moderated by the Poetry Society’s executive director Alice Quinn. The gathering, held at the University of Houston, drew a mix of students and community members and there was a rich conversation about the urgency of poets to speak in response to social issues. Both Cisneros and Hoagland read work by poets they admire, followed by a discussion about the importance of giving voice to community. Sandra closed with a poem by Amber Past, who lives in Mexico but archives stories of indigenous women.

The next morning, I had a spontaneous breakfast with Sandra, who I know because I’ve been part of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop for the past four years. The group, which began fifteen years ago with twenty writers gathering at Sandra’s kitchen table, long before a nonprofit was formed, gave San Antonio and Austin-based writers a space to gather and share their work. Once Macondo evolved into a nonprofit arts organization, annual summer retreats were organized in San Antonio. At its peak, Macondo had as many as 80 members. We gathered in San Antonio from around the United States and Mexico to workshop our writing or to gain time to write. Today, the Macondo Writers’ Workshop is going through a transition as Sandra steps back to focus on her own writing.

Many artists, like Sandra, initiate arts organizations because they have a passion for their work and want to share art and resources with a larger community. However, there is a natural tension between the creation of art itself and the formalization of an arts organization. Art is not a prescribed process. One begins the journey without knowing the ending and most artists who start arts organizations either give up their own art or step away from the formal structures they create. Next year, Sandra will be taking a year’s retreat in Mexico so she can write. “I’m going to Mexico for the same reasons you go to Pakistan each year,” she tells me. “I need to be reinvigorated.”

The act of writing is solitary. We need community for feedback and support, but to create work, we need time to be alone. As I reflect on my visit with Sandra, I remember a January 2012 New York Times opinion piece by Susan Cain, who talks about how “group-work” is over-emphasized in today’s world. “Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption,” Cain states. Her words make sense to me. In the flutter of our time, when to remain visible one must tweet or post on Facebook and always keep a product in sight, the need to slow down and reflect is underestimated. I applaud writers and artists who resist producing, and instead, dedicate time to the process.

Photo: Sehba Sarwar. Credit: Emaan Reza.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Houston 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.

Hilary Mantel, author of the historical novel Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate) has been awarded the 2012 Man Booker Prize. This is her second win. 

Mantel first received the prize in 2009 for Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate), the first book in a trilogy of which Bring Up the Bodies is the second installment. Mantel is only the third author—after Peter Carey and J. M. Coetzee—and the first woman to win the prize twice, and is the first to win with a sequel. She receives an award of 50,000 British pounds.

The Wolf Hall trilogy surrounds Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII, and the eventual death of Anne Boleyn. In an announcement made last week on the Man Booker website, the judges said of Mantel’s work: “Her resuscitation of Thomas Cromwell—and with him the historical novel—is one of the great achievements of modern literature.”  

The book was selected from a shortlist that included Tan Twan Eng for The Garden of Evening Mists (Myrmidon Books), Deborah Levy for Swimming Home (And Other Stories), Alison Moore for The Lighthouse (Salt), Will Self for Umbrella (Bloomsbury), and Jeet Thayil for Narcopolis (Faber & Faber). Peter Stothard, Dinah Birch, Amanda Foreman, Dan Stevens, and Bharat Tandon judged. 

Mantel is currently at work on the third and final installment in the trilogy, to be titled The Mirror and the Light, which will continue Cromwell's story until his execution in 1540.

In the video below from the Guardian, Mantel discusses her second Man Booker win. 

Dorothy Randall Gray is a certified life coach and best-selling author of Soul Between The Lines: Freeing Your Creative Spirit Through Writing (Avon/HarperCollins). In addition to six books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, periodicals, and theater productions. Gray’s creative writing and personal growth seminars have inspired thousands throughout the world, including the participants in her P&W–supported workshops with Urban Possibilities. She has also served on the faculty at New York University, as a commentator for National Public Radio, and as special guest delegate to UNESCO. She can be reached at DRGheartland@gmail.com.

What makes your workshops unique?
When I teach workshops I feel like I am in my glory. I am energized and in love. I’ve been told that my joy is infectious. As a spiritual activist I believe I was put on this planet to make a difference. The motto on my business cards reads: “Transforming the world one word at a time.”

I’ve served local and global communities from Mumbai to Manhattan, Compton to Connecticut. My spirituality studies in Eastern, Western, African, Native American, and Asian systems also add a distinctive flavor to the classes. So, when people attend my workshops I believe they can taste the love, the world view, the spirituality, and my years of experience. 

What techniques do you employ to help shy writers open up?
I’ve got a wicked sense of humor and we laugh a lot in my workshops. Laughter eases tension, relaxes the soul, and frees the imagination. Shy writers may lack confidence in their work, fear making a mistake, or feel intimidated in front of others. That’s why I create a safe, non-judgmental space in which writing is validated, not judged. I never ask people how long they’ve been writing or how much they’ve published. I often pair students so they can read to each other. A technique I developed over 18 years ago called “seeds” is also very helpful. Now many other writing teachers have found it useful to employ this nonjudgmental way of giving feedback that encourages and inspires.

Everything around us is inspiration for the creative spirit within everyone. I love finding different ways of stimulating that spirit—music, guided meditation, movement, visualizations, provocative exercises, inanimate objects, colors, artifacts found in an abandoned house, even a Scrabble board.

What’s been your most rewarding experience as a teacher?
I believe living on purpose is its own reward. I can hardly think of any teaching experience that hasn’t been rewarding. Over the years I’ve worked with postgraduate students, HIV positive men, battered wives, gay and lesbian populations, cancer survivors, mental health professionals, and writers from Iceland, India, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, and Trinidad. One recent experience almost moved me to tears. After weeks of teaching my writing class of 15-year-old boys at a juvenile detention center I walked in one day and they broke into a round of applause.

What affect has this work had on your life and art?
This work inspires me to seek as many opportunities to teach as I can find, and to write as much as I encourage my students to write. The joy that this purpose-filled life gives helps me navigate the challenging passages of my own writing life. It encourages me to push past rejection letters, ungranted grants, and bills that seem to multiply like gremlins fed after midnight.

Poets & Writers has been a consistent and invaluable supporter of my writing life. Its Readings/Workshops program enabled Urban Possibilities to offer my workshops to a homeless shelter on Los Angeles’ skid row. P&W has also lent its support to Women Writers and Artists Matrix in upstate New York. In addition, its Southern California Workshop Leaders Retreats provide excellent opportunities for writing teachers to exchange ideas.

What are the benefits of writing workshops for special groups?
I am moved to create new exercises and teaching methods. It keeps the teaching fresh and vibrant, and moves it toward the excitement of the creative unknown. This is particularly true of my work with incarcerated youth for Theatre of Hearts/YouthFirst.

What is the most memorable thing that’s happened as a result of one of your workshops?
One woman felt so empowered after one of my workshops that she stood up in the middle of a conference audience and announced, “I’m getting a divorce. Anyone know a good lawyer?” Another who hadn’t spoken to her mother in five years used my class exercises to write about the rift. At the end of the workshop series she called her mother and handed her those writings. They’ve been talking ever since.

Photo: Dorothy Randall Gray (center/foreground) with participants in a writing workshop sponsored by Urban Possibilities, which serves homeless men and women in downtown Los Angeles. Credit: Craig Johnson Photography.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. For Readings/Workshops in New York support 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, and the Abbey K. Starr Charitable Trust. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

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