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Poets & Writers Blogs

In the profile “Emma Straub’s Life in Letters” (Poets & Writers Magazine, September/October 2012), author Emma Straub reveals that the genesis for her novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures was an obituary she read about a woman named Jennifer Jones. After reading the obituary, she wrote a fictionalized account of her life. Follow Straub’s example: Read the obituary section of a newspaper, and write a story with a main character loosely based on what you find.

The Rona Jaffe Foundation has announced the winners of its 2012 Writers’ Awards. The annual awards honor six emerging women writers of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. Each winner receives $30,000.

This year’s recipients include poet Lauren Goodwin Slaughter of Birmingham, Alabama; fiction writers Julia Elliott of Cayce, South Carolina, Christina Nichol of Sebastopol, California, and Rachel Swearingen of Kalamazoo, Michigan; and creative nonfiction writers Kim Tingley of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Inara Verzemnieks of Iowa City.

The late novelist Rona Jaffe established the awards program in 1995, in order to support women writers in the early stages of their careers. Since then, the program has given more than one million dollars in prize money to over a hundred women.

“This is an extraordinary and ambitious group of women writers,” Beth McCabe, the director of the awards program, said in a press release of the 2012 winners. “They are original, inventive, provocative, and daring. They are taking risks, challenging conventions, and tackling their material with a sense of humor, brio, and confidence beyond their years.” 

Recipients of the awards are nominated by writers, editors, teachers, critics, and other literary professionals. A selection committee is appointed by the foundation annually, and all nominators and committee members remain anonymous. 

“All of our winners are working to complete their first books and for many this will be the first opportunity in their careers to free themselves temporarily from financial worries to focus on their writing,” McCabe added. “This is what Rona had always hoped to achieve with her program and it’s wonderful to see the impact it has had on these writers’ lives.” 

Rona Jaffe was the author of sixteen books. Her most recent novel is The Room-Mating Season (Dutton, 2003). Her first novel, The Best of Everything, originally published by Simon and Schuster in 1958, was reissued by Penguin in 2005, the year that Jaffe passed away.

Past winners of the awards have included writers such as Eula Biss, Rivka Galchen, ZZ Packer, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, and Tracy K. Smith. The 2012 winners will give a reading at New York University in New York City on September 21. For more information about the winners, and about the Rona Jaffe Writers’ Awards, visit the website

Choose a poem that needs revising and transform it into a Shakespearean sonnet—a poem of fourteen lines, arranged in three quatrains (a rhyming stanza of four lines) and one couplet (two rhyming lines). The end of every other line in each quatrain should rhyme (or sound similar), and the end of each line in the final couplet should also rhyme (or sound similar). Visit the Academy of American Poets website and search "sonnet" for examples.

Literary agent Wendy Weil, who founded of The Wendy Weil Agency in 1986, died suddenly at her home in Connecticut on September 22, 2012. Atlantic national correspondent and author James Fallows posted a brief remembrance of her online at the Atlantic: "Wendy Weil, who has been my literary agent on all the books I have written, died suddenly while doing what she did most often, and best—reading manuscripts."

The Wendy Weil Agency represents books by authors such as Andrea Barrett, Rita Mae Brown, Alice Fulton, Mark Helprin, and Philip Lopate.

October writer-in-residence Sehba Sarwar blogs about P&W-supported Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB), an 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."

Sehba SarwarThis month, as Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB) launches our thirteenth season, I’m reminiscing about Fall 1999, when my friend Marcela Descalzi asked if I wanted to do anything before the start of the next millennium. At that time, Houston offered few options for new writers, performance artists, and grassroots activists.

“I want to create a space for artists to share work about issues that matter to us,” I said. “I also want to perform a poem about political events unfolding in Pakistan, my home.”

We formed a collective, inviting three other women writers and artists—Christine Choi, Donna Perkins, and Jacsun Shah—to join us. Dedicating hours in coffee shops, we finally agreed on Voices Breaking Boundaries as our group’s name. Our logo was the globe viewed from the southern Hemisphere. We wanted to offer a new lens through which to experience the world and to create space for artists and audience members from different backgrounds to gather, share art, and learn from one another.

Without thinking of the outcome, I submitted a grant application to the Houston Arts Alliance and was awarded $4,500. We decided to use the funds to print postcards and pay honoraria to artists. Each of us was teaching at that time, so we didn’t pay ourselves even though we performed at the shows. During our first year, we created monthly lineups in a local bookstore, featuring performance poets, academics, high school students, capoeira dancers, and drummers. In February 2001, after our collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and Himal South Asia (Nepal) to offer a South Asian film festival, we knew we had to respond to our audience and incorporate VBB into a nonprofit arts organization.

VBB Living Room ArtFast forward to Fall 2012. I’m still writing and now draw a salary as VBB’s salaried artistic director. Over the years, VBB has received free performance and exhibition space and has collaborated with many other organizations, including Arté Publico Press, Project Row Houses, DiverseWorks, and Inprint, Inc., and has featured artists such as Arundhati Roy, Bapsi Sidhwa, and Patti Smith—all while continuing to tackle some of the most controversial issues of our times. We have carved a niche for our unique productions, living room art, through which we convert residential homes into art spaces and use the experience to create connections between Karachi, my home city, and Houston, where I’ve lived for some time. The productions, elaborate one night flares, meld spoken word, music, performance and videos with installations.

And around us, more communities of color and artist initiatives have sprung up. Any given weekend, one can cull from an array of choices to experience art. The city is “minority-majority,” serving as a prediction of demographic shifts across the United States. There’s still much work to be done and sometimes I feel challenged by how often we circle back to the same issues: immigrant rights, women’s reproductive rights, education awareness, racial stereotyping, and the United States' role in global conflicts. But at the same time, I’m grateful for the support VBB continues to receive from arts organizations like Poets & Writers. Looking back at 1999, I couldn’t have predicted where our collective would land. I do know, however, that in the wide expanse of Houston, the United States, and the world, there’s room for many more artist initiatives—and that our story speaks to the urgent need for more alternative voices to converge.

Photos: (Top) Sehba Sarwar. Credit: Emaan Reza. (Bottom) Fall 2011 living room art production Third Worlds: Third Ward/Karachi. Credit: Eric Hester.

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.

In early September, P&W-supported writers Alma García, Felicia González, and Emily Pérez read at Columbia City Gallery in Seattle as part of a collaboration between visual and literary artists. Project codirector Lauren Davis describes the event.

Rooted writersOn a hot summer evening in Seattle, four writers presented new works responding to Rooted: Latino/a Artists’ Connection to Native and Adopted Lands, an art exhibit at Seattle’s Columbia City Gallery. The exhibit, a partnership between Columbia City Gallery and La Sala, a nonprofit Latino/a artists’ network, brought together regional visual artists and writers exploring themes of roots, family, identity, and home.

“For those of us who migrate to a new home, we not only carry our culture and customs but also the sense that we are being, or have been by generations past, uprooted; replanted,” said Juan Alonso-Rodriguez, curator of Rooted. Inspired by the theme of the exhibit, writer Wendy Call invited José Carrillo, Alma García, Felicia González, and Emily Pérez to create new works responding to select artworks from the gallery exhibit.

The gathering crowd fanned themselves with gallery postcards while listening to flute music played by José Carrillo. Laughter filled the room as the crowd of artists, writers, observers, and people from the neighborhood welcomed each other. The Columbia City Gallery, a community-based arts cooperative, provides a vibrant arts center in the heart of South Seattle and supports a wide range of cultural programming for the diverse neighborhood.

As the final strains of music faded from the air, the writers gathered in front of the crowd with the Rooted art exhibit as their backdrop. First to read was Emily Pérez. Her poems “When Needed” and “Dear Dove” responded to paintings by artist Blanca Santander, images of dreamy earth goddesses rendered in bright colors. She finished her delicate set with the poem “Ambition,” inspired by images of clouds by photographer Eduardo Nuñez.

Boris Gaviria and Alma Garcia“Hello, my name is Alma García, and I’ll be your fiction writer tonight,” the next writer announced upon taking the floor. García, exploring a series of screen prints by Boris Gaviria, read the short story “Harvest,” which depicted a day in the life of Octavio and Licho, two apple-farm workers in eastern Washington. Gaviria’s crisp images of stacked apple crates and farm trucks gave illustration to the sights, sounds, and smells of the world García’s characters inhabited.

The next writer, Felicia González, stirred the muggy room by requesting the audience stand up and come closer to view a series of small drawings by Arturo Artorez. The group formed a semicircle around the artwork, while Gonzalez stood in the middle of the room and read her poem “Stranger in a Familiar Land.”

The evening concluded with the magnetic José Carrillo reading a suite of four short poems “Rooted: in Four Movements,” inspired by the works of painter Consuelo Murphy and printmaker Gloria Garcia.

At the Rooted reading, four writers brought visual artwork to life in new ways. Reciprocally, the artwork provided a focal point for listeners’ eyes while the spoken words transported their minds. The blend of words, art, music, and community was a perfect union on one of the last warm days of the Seattle summer.

Photos: (Top, from left to right) Writers Felicia González, Alma García, José Carrillo, and Emily Pérez. Bottom: Alma García (right) with artist Boris Gaviria, whose work is behind them. Credit: Donna Miscolta

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.

The annual Troubadour International Poetry Prize, sponsored by the London-based Coffee-House Poetry and Cegin Productions, is currently open for submissions. The grand-prize winner will receive £2,500, or approximately $4,050.

The contest is open to poets from any country over the age of eighteen. Poets may submit two copies of previously unpublished poems of up to forty-five lines each, written in English, with a £5 ($8) entry fee. Submissions are accepted via postal mail only, and payments can be made by mail or through PayPal. The deadline for submissions is October 15.

A second-place prize of £500 (approximately $810) and a third-place prize of £250 (approximately $405) will also be given. Winning poems may also be published on the Troubadour International Poetry Prize website. Jane Draycott, whose latest work is a translation of the fourteenth century poem Pearl (Carcanet, 2011), and Bernard O’Donoghue, whose most recent poetry collection is Farmers Cross (Faber & Faber, 2011), which was shortlisted for the 2011 T. S. Elliot Prize, will judge the contest.

Founded in 1997 by poet Anne-Marie Fyfe, Coffee-House Poetry is a weekly reading series held at the Troubadour, a writers’ and artists’ café in London. The series hosts readings by both emerging and established poets throughout the year, and has featured poets such as Billy Collins, David Constantine, Stephen Dobyns, Mark Doty, Helen Dunmore, Jorie Graham, Jane Hirshfield, Michael Rosen, C.K. Williams, and C.D. Wright, among many others. The series also hosts book discussions, literary magazine launches, craft classes, and workshops taught by poets such as Sharon Olds, Tom Sleigh, and Matthew Sweeney. Contest submission fees are used to help support the series.

Winners of the 2012 Troubadour Prize will be notified by November 19, and will be honored at Coffee-House Poetry at the Troubadour on December 3.

For more information on Coffee-House Poetry and complete submission guidelines, visit the Troubadour Poetry Prize website.

Sometimes our dreams tell a story about our lives. Think about a dream you’ve had—it could be a recent one, one that you recall from your past, or one that recurs. Write down the details of the dream as descriptively as your memory allows, focusing on imagery, narrative, characters, and any odd or distinct details you can recall. Once you’ve written a description, freewrite about what the images, characters, and details remind you of from your waking life. Then, using the material you've generated, write a short essay about the dream. What do you think it meant? What experiences or emotions did it represent? Did it seem real or otherworldly? How did it made you feel upon waking? For future dream analysis exercises, keep a dream diary by your bed and record your dreams first thing each morning.

Write a story composed entirely of letters from one character to another who never replies. The characters could know each other or could be complete strangers. For an example, read Claire Vaye Watkins's story "The Last Thing We Need" in her collection Battleborn (Riverhead Books, 2012).

Revisit one of your poems that needs revising, especially in terms of its length. Rewrite it on a postcard, including only what is most important, using the limited space of the postcard as your guide. When you've finished, consider mailing it to someone!

The Before Columbus Foundation has announced the winners of its thirty-third annual American Book Awards. The prizes are given for outstanding books of any genre that encompass themes of American diversity.

The winners are: Annia Ciezadlo for Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War (Free Press); Arlene Kim for What Have You Done to Our Ears to Make Us Hear Echoes? (Milkweed Editions); Ed Bok Lee for Whorled (Coffee House Press); Adilifu Nama for Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes (University of Texas Press); Rob Nixon for Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard University Press); Shann Ray for American Masculine (Graywolf Press); Alice Rearden for her translation Our Nelson Island Stories (University of Washington Press); Touré for Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What It Means to Be Black Now (Free Press); Amy Waldman for The Submission (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); Mary Winegarden for The Translator’s Sister (Mayapple Press); and Kevin Young for Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels (Knopf).

Eugene B. Redmond, the poet laureate of East St. Louis, Illinois, received the Lifetime Achievement Award. The award follows his first American Book Award, which he received in 1993 for his poetry collection The Eye in the Ceiling (Harlem River Press). An emeritus professor of English and founding editor of Drumvoices Revue at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, Redmond has written seven books of poetry and one book of nonfiction, and his work has appeared in over a dozen magazines and anthologies.

The American Book Awards, established to “recognize outstanding literary achievement from the entire spectrum of America's diverse literary community,” have been given annually since 1978 to emerging and established writers, for books published in the previous year. Winners are nominated and selected by a panel of writers, editors, and publishers.

Founded in 1976, the Oakland, California-based Before Columbus Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion of contemporary American multicultural literature. “Recognizing literary excellence demands a panoramic perspective,” states the organization’s mission. “American literature is not one tradition but all traditions. From those who have been here for thousands of years to the most recent immigrants, we are all contributing to American culture. We are all being translated into a new language.”

The winners will be recognized on Sunday, October 7 at the University of California in Berkeley. The submission deadline for the 2013 American Book Awards is December 31. For complete guidelines and more information on the awards, visit the Before Columbus Foundation website. 

Brendan Constantine, September’s Writer in Residence, was born in 1967 and named after Irish playwright Brendan Behan. An ardent supporter of Southern California’s poetry communities, he is one of the region’s most recognized authors. He is currently poet-in-residence at the Windward School and regularly conducts workshops in hospitals, foster homes, and with the Art of Elysium. His latest collections of poetry are Birthday Girl With Possum (2011 Write Bloody Publishing) and Calamity Joe (2012 Red Hen Press). He lives in Hollywood, California, at Bela Lugosi’s last address.

Brendan Constantine at HillsidesHow do you do? Brendan Constantine here with my last blog as “writer in residence” for P&W. Thanks for visiting with me today.

A while ago, I came across this comment in response to an L.A. Daily News article about efforts to appoint L.A.’s first poet laureate: “The economy is in shambles, people are looking for work and the city wants to hire a poet? This is the most absurd thing I have ever heard of! I am so glad that I moved away from Los Angeles!”

Wow. How do we begin to respond to that? How does a poet help a city? Isn’t it a waste of time and resources when people are desperate? Why do we need poets at all?

Those are worthy topics. But in the days since the story appeared I’ve noticed something else. Many of the poets I know have, or have had, reservations about identifying as such. Some of them seem to have internalized the prejudice displayed in the opening quote. More about that in a moment.

First, let’s face it, the term “poet” is pretty laden (indeed, even “leaden”) with associations. Even after I’d begun to write poetry in earnest, I shrunk from using the title. It sounded like bragging, or worse, likening myself to the most extreme stereotypes of self-absorption. To call myself a poet was like telling people I made a career of being tragically misunderstood.

Yesterday I had lunch with poet Mindy Nettifee. Like all the poets mentioned in this post, she’s received grants from the Readings/Workshops program to present her work—meaning that, on some level, she’s publicly owned the title of “poet.” But when I asked her if she’d ever had reservations about it, she said, “Are you kidding? I still sometimes feel like I’ve just told people I’m a really famous mime in Texas.” I laughed out loud for five minutes.

Today I started calling poets I knew and asked the same question. I caught poet Kim Addonizio in an airport—come to think of it, I never asked where she was going, oh well—and she said that for her, the title of poet was something that had to be deserved. Writing one poem wasn’t enough. Writing two or three was still tourism. “I had to earn my stripes,” she said.

But there’s no day that stands out as the one when she knew she’d crossed a line into the territory of legitimacy. She just noticed that she had been calling herself a poet.

“It’s a ridiculous thing to call yourself,” says poet Doug Kearney. “I mean, what does it actually say about what you do? A painter’s title contains a verb. So does ‘singer’ or ‘sculptor,’ ‘dancer,’ etc…. But a poet is a...what...a poem-er?”

Kearney does identify as a poet and began to do so around the time of his fellowship with Cave Canem, a renowned writer’s conservancy with a focus on African-American authors. At some point in his residency, being daily in the company of other poets who regarded him as one of them, he passed through an initiation. But again, he noticed only in retrospect.

So what’s the big deal already? Do you call yourself a poet? There’s no shame in it, is there? No licenses to practice, no tribe with the power to vote you off an island. Do you have associations with the term (or expect others will) that give it a bad light?

Poet Julianna McCarthy, who happens to be my mom, has been writing poetry for quite some time. She has a degree and body of published work. And yet, this evening, she said over the phone, “I still can’t do it. I have to change the syntax so that instead of saying I’m a poet, I say ‘I write poetry.’”

This isn’t going to end cleanly, by the way. I don’t have any answers and I’m not blaming poets for opinions like the one appearing at the top of this post.  I will say that whatever it is about poetry that inspired such passionate criticism may be related to whatever it is that stops some of us from going public.

In my first post I said: “People invent poetry as a means of expressing something they can’t easily say. The desire to talk about special things in a special way, the desire to change, elaborate, or deliberately misuse language for the purpose of greater communion is all but universal.”

I wish to add that when I say “people” I don’t necessarily mean poets. Poetry predates the job of poet. In ancient Greece and Rome, the words for poetry refer to something “made,” a thing, even a formula. In Arabic cultures it can mean to “ask” or inquire. It may also mean to “perceive.” In China and later Japan, poems are “sacred words,” “temple words.”

Who needs temple words? Everyone outside the temple. Who needs to ask or perceive? Anyone who would answer, who would face another questioner. Who needs to make a thing out of words? Anyone unmade by speechlessness.

Photo: Brendan Constantine talks with young poets at Hillsides in Pasadena, California. Credit: Nicola Wilkens-Miller

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

David Mills has taught several P&W–supported workshops at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center in Chicago. He is author of the poetry collection The Dream Detective (Straw Gate Books) and has poems in the anthology Jubilation! (Peepal Tree Press) and magazines, including Ploughshares and jubilat. Mills is also the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship.

What is your writing critique philosophy?
Most of the workshops I conduct are with kids, so I always write on the board “2+2=57,” which means for the hour that I am with them, I don’t want them to worry about spelling or grammar because obsessing over “crossed Ts” could mean losing a moment of genius.

How do you get shy writers to open up?
I try to present a model poem that will spark both conversation and creativity. I remind the students that poetry is not on Mount Parnassus. It’s right t/here, wherever we happen to be geographically and psychically. I make self-deprecating jokes to put them at ease and let them know everything is poetic fair game.

I sweat, so I’ll say: “I sweat while I swim. Use that. ‘How can this guy sweat while he swims?’”

I have abstract expressionist penmanship, so I’ll say: “I write like a blind man with five broken fingers. How’s that possible for a poet?”

I don’t want them to write about my idiosyncrasies, but I hope that by framing them as kooky koans the kids will access their own creative centers.

What has been your most rewarding experience as a writing teacher?
Workshops like the ones P&W sponsored at the Cook County Juvenile Detention come to mind. In one visit, I used Randall Horton’s poignant and ironic poem “Poetry Reading at Mount McGregor (Saratoga, NY).” During his own incarceration, he could never have imagined voluntarily returning to a prison, yet in the poem that’s exactly where he finds himself.

I discuss redemption.

What happens for Randall in his poem is what I hope will happen for these kids. Writing gave him a raison d’etre. Horton writes: “tonight poetry is a sinner’s prayer,” and reflects on how when he was incarcerated he “searched for the… alphabets to help me escape.” He concludes the poem: “How do I say welcome me, I am your brother?”

I got misty-eyed as I read those lines. I think the boys felt what the poem was meant to evoke: union, communion.

There were gangbangers in the class from opposing gangs—African-American and Chicano-American. The teachers had warned that certain guys had to sit on opposite sides of the room. As we discussed the poem, guys started talking across “colors,” opening up. Teachers who weren’t part of the workshop stepped in and stayed.

I asked the guys to write about returning to a place—physically or psychically--that might be filled with pain, fear, anger, or an unresolved question. I asked them to describe it physically, but to then address the wound or fear to a person who had something to do with whatever unresolved feeling was back there.

One Chicano student described a town center in Mexico where an incident had occurred that caused his family to flee to the U.S. What happened to his family is less important than what happened to his peers as a result of his avowal. His poem gave his classmates both insight into and greater empathy for him.

What do you consider to be the benefits of writing workshops for special groups (i.e. teens, elders, the disabled, veterans, prisoners)?
I have only worked with male populations where posturing and bravura run deep. But given an opportunity to see that their vulnerability will not be used against them, these boys will open up. I think some of these young men feel—and sometimes rightfully so—like the words in Patricia Smith’s poem, “CRIPtic Comment”:

If we are not shooting
at someone
then no one
can see us.

There is the sense that these boys feel both seen and heard during our time together. In one of the P&W–supported Cook County Juvenile Detention workshops, I used Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”:

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
     flow of human blood in human veins.

Hughes’s piece has an epic reach—bodies of water of mythic, cultural, and historic proportion. I talked about Hughes’s “knowing.” I got the boys to write about things they knew intimately, using Hughes’ structure to organize their “knowing.” One participant wrote about the various sneakers he has “rocked”:

I’ve known Nikes, shell-top Adidas...

You get the idea.

Another student had lived in Illinois and Indiana, so he wrote about “knowing” distinct parts of these two states, both in terms of geography but also the “temperature” of different communities.

What's the strangest question you’ve received from a student?
I am pretty zany so no question strikes me as strange. I do get a lot of “Why do you sweat so much?”

Photo: David Mills. Credit: Luig Cazzaniga.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Chicago 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.

Some of the best stories and essays revolve around the author's hometown. Spend fifteen minutes freewriting about the town or city in which you grew up. Focus on the people, the places, the landscape, and the memories surrounding them. Where was your favorite place to eat? Who were the most interesting characters? What did you do with your family and friends? What did the school look like? Where did you go when you wanted to run away?

In R. V. Cassill’s classic book Writing Fiction (Prentice Hall Trade, 1975), he describes “conversion,” a method for revision that he says is “vaguely comparable to transposing a piece of music from one key to another.” Try the following conversion exercise: Cut up a story into its paragraphs (using scissors). Rearrange the paragraphs, and add any connective writing needed to support the new structure.

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