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Poets & Writers Blogs

For the month of July, P&W–supported poet and director of literary events, Randall Horton, blogs about his work with various organizations and events throughout the northeast. Horton is the recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award, the Bea Gonzalez Poetry Award, and the National Endowment  of the Arts Fellowship in Literature. A Cave Canem Fellow and member of Affrilachian Poets, Horton's lastest poetry collection Pitch Dark Anarchy will be published by Northwestern University Press in Spring 2013.

In April 2011, during National Poetry Month, Poets & Writers funded Aquarius Press/ Willow Books to sponsor a workshop in Detroit, Michigan, at the Virgil Carr Cultural Center. The workshop participants included poets Victor Billione, Nadia Ibrashi, and Felecia Studstill, and began as an organic conversation on craft. We read from a wide range of poets, from Rachel Eliza Griffiths to Stephen Jonas to Evie Shockley. We looked at parallelisms in poems (cosmic nature versus the material world), the idea of “the definition” as a form poem, and the art of the line break, which we all concluded to be critical when fine-tuning the lyric qualities in the poem, and the poem as political mouthpiece.

I wanted to tailor each poet’s experience to suite his or her aesthetic intentions. For example:

Victor’s exercise asked: In what ways do you feel oppressed? Choose an object you own that seems to embody that oppression and/or privilege, and write a poem about it.

Nadia’s exercise asked: What communities of people do you identify with and feel you belong to? Write a poem from the voice of this collective “we,” talking about your troubles, your failings, celebrating your strengths…

…and Felecia’s exercise asked: Imagine someone who lives in another part of the world under very different economic and political circumstance. Have that person talk to you about your life in America from his or her perspective. You can also do this exercise by imagining someone else in America, but of a different class, race, and so forth.

Then they wrote. Here are excerpts from the poems created and used with their permission:

Victor: “I sleep well knowing these references are/Framed in revolution/Evolving into stories time has forgotten.”

Nadia: “Finally, we see the words,/the shape of mornings,/the secret place.”

Felecia: “Your anger is fear/you know. You know./You are as worthy of my life/As I am of yours.”

The idea of the workshop was to take writing samples from the participants and tailor each participant’s experience based on writing tendencies, likes, dislikes, and aesthetic intentions. This helped to create a multi-voiced workshop that paid close attention to the writer and ultimately asked the writer to expand beyond his or her imagination.

Photo: Randall Horton.  Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Detroit is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Black Lawrence Press is currently offering a reduced entry fee for the St. Lawrence Book Award, a prize given annually for an unpublished collection of poems or short stories. For today and tomorrow only, the fee is fifteen dollars; after tomorrow, June 30, the standard fee of twenty-five-dollars will apply.

The contest is open to any writer who has not yet published a full-length collection of poetry or short stories. The winner will receive $1,000, publication of her collection by Black Lawrence Press, and ten copies of her book.

Black Lawrence Press, an imprint of Dzanc Books, is an independent publisher of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. Based in New York City, the press hosts five contests each year—including the Big Moose Prize for the novel, the Black River Chapbook Competition, and the Hudson Prize for poetry and fiction—and accepts regular submissions year-round.

To enter the St. Lawrence Book Award contest, submit a poetry collection of 45 to 90 pages or a short story collection of 120 to 280 pages using the online submission system. The deadline for the prize is August 31.

Contest finalists will be announced by October 15, and the winner will be announced shortly thereafter.

For more information about Black Lawrence Press, or to submit to the St. Lawrence Book Award, visit the website.

Poet and fiction writer Tim Z. Hernandez blogs about two workshops he led on May 2 at libraries in Stockton, California, as part of a Rural Library Tour partnership between Poets & Writers and the California Center for the Book.
 
Tim Z. HernandezThe Maya Angelou Library on Stockton’s southeast side sits near a tired slab of old homes and pothole-ridden streets, but this is where my next workshop is, and I’m excited for it. By now I’ve learned that behind each workshop door are people whose stories and voices will stay with me for days, sometimes months after. Suzy Daveluy, librarian and my host, conveys her worry about the number of people in attendance. Before I can reply we are approached by two teenage girls, their younger brother, and their mother. The girls introduce themselves as Emilia and Yvette. Their brother is Jesus, and their mother is Gloria.*

They are here for the workshop, but their faces look grim. Right off, the girls let me know that they have no interest in pursuing writing as a career. In short, their mother makes them attend such workshops because she wants them to grow up articulate, well spoken. Jesus says nothing. Gloria tells me, in Spanish, that she is from Mexico but has been in the U.S. for over twenty-two years. She says the only reason she maintains a strong accent is because she’s always been reluctant to learn English. And this is it. This is my workshop.

We sit down and jump into a hearty discussion about memory. The girls giddily recall moments from their time growing up together, and there’s lots of laughing, and even a few tears, shed mostly by Gloria. I have them write those memories down, at the very least, I say, to capture them forever. “If we don’t tell our own stories,” I say, “who will?” When it’s time to share their writing, the girls go first, and then their mother, and now I’m staring at fifteen-year-old Jesus.

Finally he lifts his paper in front of him and glances over the words, then sits up straight and begins to read the memory he wrote about his father:

...the seatbelt, with its zigzag patterns
in blue, the shiny buckle, with its shiny button,
ahh, that little worn out button,
the sun, against the worn out button,
ahh, the sun and the worn out blue
of a button...

If I didn’t see him write those words out in front of me, I might have never believed he wrote it. His delivery is like a smooth Lenny Bruce, witty and sharp, confident. Suzy and I look at one another, and I know we’re thinking the same thing: We’ve found the future poet laureate of Stockton! Of California! Hell, of the United States!

“You’re a natural poet,” I tell him.

He lowers his eyes.

His mother feels the need to explain. “Jesus was picked on when he was in elementary school,” she says. Jesus rolls his eyes. “He had a bad teacher who put his English down in front of the other students, so he thought he was dumb. He used to come home saying he was dumb."

Jesus says, “Read and red.”

“What’s that?” I ask.

“Read and red,” he replies. “It was read and red. I didn’t understand the difference, so I always got those two words mixed up, and I always spelled them wrong.”
 
I tell him spelling doesn’t matter. I think of what the poet Maria Melendez says from the moment she enters a clasroom of children: YOU ARE THE BOSS OF YOUR OWN POETRY! And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen adults steal away this possibility from children.

I tell them about California’s newest poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera—the son of migrant farmworkers, selected by Governor Jerry Brown himself. And then I recite a line from one of Herrera’s poems: I didn’t start out as a poet, because I was silenced. I started out with something I wanted to say. Jesus smiles now, and so does his mother.

“You see,” she tells him in Spanish, “One day you could be a famous poet too!”   

He grins and looks over at his sisters. “That would be cool,” he says, folding his poem and sticking it into his back pocket. 


*Family members’ names have been changed.

Top photo: Tim Z. Hernandez. Credit: David Herrera. Bottom photo: Jesus (left) and librarian Suzy Daveluy. Credit: Tim Z. Hernandez.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Writing fiction in the first-person plural is notoriously tricky. Challenge yourself to write a short story—or a section of a short story—from the first-person plural. Read Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” for insight on how a collective narrator can enhance a story and/or produce unexpected effects.

In a 2008 Paris Review interview with Kay Ryan, she explains her neologism “recombinant rhyme”—a craft technique of stashing “rhymes at the wrong ends of lines and in the middle.” According to Ryan, “snipping up pieces of sound and redistributing them throughout a poem” allows her to “get the poem to go a little bit luminescent.” Take a poem of yours that could use more musicality, and revise it to include recombinant rhyme.

The erasure is a poetic form created by obscuring words and phrases from an existing text and using those that remain to construct a poem. Apply the erasure to an essay. Make a copy of three or four pages of your favorite essay. Then, using a black marker or Wite-out, compose a short lyric essay by selecting certain words on the pages and erasing the rest.

The American Library Association awarded its inaugural Andrew Carnegie Awards for Excellence in Literature at a ceremony last night in Anaheim, California. The organization that has for decades awarded the Caldecott and Newbery medals for children's and young adult literature is honoring for the first time books of fiction and nonfiction for adult readers.

Irish author and Man Booker alumna Anne Enright took the Carnegie Award in fiction for her fifth novel, The Forgotten Waltz, published in the United States by Norton. Also shortlisted were Russell Banks for his twelfth novel, Lost Memory of Skin (Ecco), and Pulitzer finalist Karen Russell for her first, Swamplandia! (Knopf).

In nonfiction, Robert K. Massie's biography Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (Random House) won the Carnegie Award. The late Manning Marable's much-lauded biography Malcolm X (Viking) and James Gleick's The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (Pantheon) were also finalists.

Each winner, selected by a committee chaired by librarian Nancy Pearl, received five thousand dollars, and each finalist received fifteen hundred dollars. As with the Caldecott and Newbery medals, copies of the honored books will also be decorated with a seal announcing the award.

Australia's prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award went this year to debut novelist Anna Funder for her best-seller All That I Am (Harper). Funder, whose novel of the Nazi resistance in Europe also won her country's Independent Bookseller’s Award for debut fiction and was named Indie Book of the Year, received $50,000 Australian (approximately $50,355).

Funder is also the author of the Samuel Johnson Prize–winning nonfiction book Stasiland: True Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall, published by Granta Books in 2003, which the author wrote after making a shift from previous careers in international law and television production in Germany. Her award-winning debut novel also carries threads of the real, particularly stories of pre-World War II activists who opposed Hitler's rise to power, some culled from the author's personal relationship with a German refugee living in Australia.

The other contenders for this year's Miles Franklin Award are Blood by Tony Birch, Foal's Bread by Gillian Mears, Cold Light by Frank Moorhouse, and Past the Shallows by Favel Parrett. The award is given annually for a novel that "presents Australian life in any of its phases."

In the video below, Funder describes the challenges of shaping her novel, including the importance, while crafting fiction from historical events, of getting the story "morally right."

New York City's Center for Fiction, which annually honors writers with its Flaherty Dunnan First Novel Prize and the Clifton Fadiman Medal, is accepting entries for a new short story contest. One story will be selected to be published in the Literarian, the center's journal, and the winning author will receive one thousand dollars.

For the inaugural competition, stories of up to five thousand words may be submitted via e-mail by July 2. A fifteen dollar entry fee is payable via the center's online store.

The current issue of the Literarian features a story-as-slideshow by Roberta Allen, an essay by memoirist and fiction writer Esmeralda Santiago, a fiction translation from the Spanish of Raúl Ortega Alfonso excerpted from the Barcelona Review, and recommended reading from author Dan Chaon alongside stories by emerging writers. The magazine is accessible for free on the Center for Fiction website.

In the video below, featured in the latest issue of the Literarian, Joyce Carol Oates discusses the dream that gave life to her novel Mudwoman, published this past March by Ecco.

Write a nonfiction piece of no more than 500 words. It could be anything from a single scene to a complete micro essay—either way, try to utilize the same techniques and structure that you would for a full-length piece. For inspiration, check out Brevity, an online journal dedicated to the art of flash nonfiction.

Write a story in which the protagonist is "perfectly ordinary" (however you choose to define "ordinary") in every way except for one obvious trait. Follow how this one trait sets in motion the story’s central conflict or turn.

Choose one of your poems that needs revision. Give it to five friends and ask each of them to create an audio version of it by reading it into your telephone answering machine or recording themselves reading it and sending you the audio file. Listen to the five audio versions for places where the rhythm or musical qualities of the poem fall away or sound flat. Use these readings to revise the poem.

Cara Benson, author of poetry book (made)and the forthcoming "Funny. Considering how heated it was," and receipient of a Poetry Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, blogs about teaching poetry at the Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility.

The poetry workshop I facilitate at Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility, a medium security state prison in Wilton, New York,  began as a three month teaching practicum for my graduate degree. It became clear fairly quickly that three months wasn’t nearly enough to meet the interest and needs of the students inside. So we extended it to four months. Then five. Then a year. Now it’s been seven years and counting.

In that time we have covered such varied poets as Lu Chi, Rumi, Sappho, Amiri Baraka, Federico García Lorca, T.S. Eliot, Sonia Sanchez, EE Cummings, Audre Lorde, Muriel Rukeyser, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Alice Notley, Gil Scott-Heron, and CA Conrad. The list is growing like the years. Dozens of men - maybe a hundred - have come to and through the class. Some on the outside are now proud graduates of Higher Education. On the inside, a few lifers have been there since my first day. I have seen many things happen in that classroom, but fostering the dissolution of preconceived notions of what can be called “poetry” under the influence of poems like Joan Retallack’s “A I D /I/ S A P P E A R A N C E” or Douglas Kearney’s page work is particularly gratifying. I’ve seen, like realizing blondes aren’t the only beauties, the canon explode in front of our faces, and I tell you that this is a very right thing to be happening inside.

Last month we read Harryette Mullen’s Muse & Drudge and discerned a number of tactics worth replicating. The participants loved her multiple voices, taut quatrains, and ability to twist common sayings into such rhythmic, flipped scripts. This month we are working with Rob Budde’s Declining America. There is a section in this book that plays out in scenes he’s called “My American Movie” after Jean Baudrillard’s America. So we are writing our own American scenes under the influence of his text. His poems gyrate without punctuation and stream as one undulating and pullulating sentence in prose, and the task I’ve given us of emulating his approach has proven provocative and productive.

Eric Perez, one of the participants, has this to say about the class: “Our poetry workshop has given us a unique opportunity to liberate ourselves from an oppressive system, even if only for a brief time during the week. This helps us to reach a broader understanding of life and its circumstances and to push the boundaries of our intellect in order to build our self esteem.” I am very grateful to Poets & Writers for the support it gives for the class. It can be really challenging, the proverbial upstream swim, to be a volunteer poet for the New York State Department of Corrections. Poets & Writers not only provides remuneration, but it legitimizes the endeavor. It truly has helped me to show up week after week, year after year. And as the late poet and tireless prison educator/activist Janine Pommy Vega used to say to me whenever I complained about a seeming setback or “lost” student: “Cara, you just keep going in.” So I do.

Photo:  Cara Benson.   Credit: David Brinson.

Support for Readings/Workshops in New York is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, with additional support from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Poet and educator Carole "Imani" Parker blogs about her former student "Donald" at the P&W–supported Jobs for Youth Apprenticeship Program (JFYAP) at Medgar Evers College, a job readiness program she once directed.

"Donald" was a withdrawn seventeen-year-old boy when he came to JFYAP. His reading and math scores were extremely low and he had very low self-esteem. He had been expelled from high school, two General Educational Development (GED) programs, and was eventually expelled from the GED component of JFYAP for threatening another student. With the help JFYAP coordinator, Ms. B, "Donald" was able to enroll in a computer training course and continued to attend JFYAP job readiness/life skills training, counseling, tutoring and P&Wsupported poetry workshops. 

Although JFYAP is now defunct, I, with Ms. B, continue to follow up with and encourage "Donald." As a matter of fact, I spoke with "Donald" the other day. He said that he completed the computer course and received a certificate. He also plans to take the GED soon and is excited about participating in P&W's annual intergenerational reading later this month. Here are the first two lines from "What am I," a poem he hopes to read at the event: I am the sound that is heard from a mile away / I am that name you hear them whisper in the wind.

"Donald’s" story is not unique. There were many troubled and talented young people who walked through the doors of JFYAP. Most of them eventually passed the high school regents or GED exam and went on to college and, later, careers. JFYAP provided them with the necessary tools to become productive citizens. 

Photo: Carole Imani Parker.

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 Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and Friends of Poets & Writers.

Research the news for an event or incident that occured during your life or during the life of a close relative. It could be an historic sports event involving your home team, a crime that happened in your town or city, or something else that had a significant effect on the people nearby, such as the building of a major bridge or highway. Write an essay about this event, blending it with anecdotes from your (or your relative's) life that took place during the same time the event occured. Use the personal to elucidate the historic and vice versa.

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