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Poets & Writers Blogs

In July, P&W–sponsored poets Brendan Constantine, Nicelle Davis, Larry Eby, and Robbi Nester kicked off LitLandia, a new reading series in California’s Inland Empire region. Project director Cati Porter reports.

LitLandia readers with Cati PorterFor a number of years now, I had been contemplating the fact that there is no regularly occurring literary reading series in Riverside, California. This is not to say that there aren’t the occasional events, including an annual Writers Week at the local university, or other reading series in neighboring counties; just none in my city, or even the other cities in closest proximity. So, I decided to remedy that.

Starting a reading series can seem a little daunting, but in my case, I already had most of the infrastructure in place. I searched the two literary journals that I founded and edit (Poemeleon and Inlandia: A Literary Journey) for contributors, and I drew upon my work with the regional literary nonprofit, the Inlandia Institute. At Inlandia, we have been producing quality literary programming for years, including presentations during Riverside’s monthly ArtsWalk, but the offerings are diverse, and my vision was more focused: LitLandia was designed to bring to this region a regularly scheduled quarterly reading series that includes an open mic component so that attendees (mostly writers themselves) can participate.

I knew this series would be special because we have such a ridiculously amazing and talented pool of authors to draw from, but I really was not prepared for how much fun this first event would be. My first clue was when Nicelle Davis walked in carrying a frilly lump of fabric under one arm and an enormous colorful felt book under the other. Shortly thereafter, Robbi Nester and Larry Eby arrived, each with their entourage. We were chatting and going over the reading order when Brendan Constantine rushed in, absolutely certain he was late. (Fact: He was way early.)

Robbi Nester went first, reading an atmospheric poem about whale watching as well as several from a series on yoga poses that promote “emotional stability” from her aptly-titled book Balance. Larry Eby read from his manuscript-in-progress, including one titled “My Father’s Garage,” a moving villanelle titled “Pillow Talk,” and an ekphrastic piece after artwork by an instructor from the University of Redlands.

Nicelle Davis's felt boardThen Nicelle Davis read; I say read, but really, “audience engagement” is a more accurate description of what occured. Drawn from her collection Circe, which retells The Odyssey, Davis used puppets and props to invite readers to pluck the heart out of Odysseus the Pig, and to gouge out Circe’s eyes and pluck a booger from her nose.

Brendan Constantine, the final reader, read his usual unusually smart and witty poetry, including a cento comprised of lines from letters written to him by the legendary FrancEyE.

Afterward, we held a well-received open mic, with new work by talented local writers Mike Cluff, David Stone, Marsha Schuh, James Ducat, Pierce, Karen Greenbaum-Maya, Judith Terzi, and Richard Nester.

As everyone was leaving, the only child in the audience presented me with a glittering gummy worm, and I held in my hand a felt unicorn attached to a rainbow, a gift plucked from the froth of Nicelle Davis’s felt board book: fitting gifts for a delightfully surreal afternoon.

Photos: Top (from left): Larry Eby, Robbi Nester, Cati Porter, Nicelle Davis, and Brendan Constantine. Credit: Mike Sleboda. Bottom: Nicelle Davis's felt unicorn. Credit: Cati Porter.

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

The New York City-based PEN American Center recently announced the winners of the 2012 PEN Literary Awards. For over fifty years, PEN has given awards to the most promising and distinguished voices in the literary community. This year, eighteen grants, awards, and fellowships have been given to emerging and established writers from all over the country. The following are just a few of this year's winners.

Susan Nussbaum received the inaugural PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction for her manuscript, Good Kings Bad Kings. Founded by author Barbara Kingsolver, the $25,000 prize is given biennially to an author for an unpublished novel that addresses issues of social justice. The prize also includes a publishing contract with Algonquin Books. Rosellen Brown, Margot Livesey, and Kathy Pories judged.

Vanessa Veselka won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for her novel, Zazen (Red Lemonade, 2011). The $25,000 award is given to a fiction writer whose debut work, published in the previous year, “represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise.” Lauren Groff, Dinaw Mengestu, and Nami Mun judged.

Fiction writer E. L. Doctorow won the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. The $25,000 prize is given to a writer “whose body of work places him or her in the highest rank of American literature.” Don DeLillo, Jennifer Egan, and George Saunders judged.

James Gleick won the PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award for The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (Pantheon Books, 2011). The $10,000 prize is given for a book of literary nonfiction on the subject of physical or biological sciences published in the previous year. Elizabeth Kolbert, Charles Mann, and Dava Sobel judged.

The late Christopher Hitchens received the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay for his essay collection Arguably (Twelve, 2011). The $5,000 award is given for a book of essays published in the previous year that “exemplifies the dignity and esteem of the essay form.” Robert Boyers, Janet Malcolm, and Ruth Reichl judged.

Robert K. Massie won the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography for Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (Random House, 2011). The $5,000 award is given for a biography published in the previous year. Blake Bailey, Daphne Merkin, and Honor Moore judged.

Fiction and nonfiction writer Siddhartha Deb won the PEN Open Book Award for his memoir, The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India (Faber & Faber, 2011). The $5,000 prize is given for a book by an author of color published in 2011. Alexander Chee, Mat Johnson, and Natasha Trethewey judged.

Poet Toi Derricotte won the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry. The $5,000 prize is given to a poet whose “distinguished and growing body of work represents a notable presence in American literature.” Dan Chiasson, Aracelis Girmay, and A. Van Jordan judged.

Jen Hofer won the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation for her translation of Negro Marfil/Ivory Black by Myriam Moscona (Les Figues Press, 2011). The $3,000 award is given for a book-length translation of poetry into English published in the previous year. Christian Hawkey judged.

Bill Johnston won the PEN Translation Prize for his translation of Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski (Archipelago Books, 2011). The $3,000 prize is given for a book-length translation of prose into English published in the previous year. Aron Aji, Donald Breckenridge, and Minna Proctor judged.

Margaret Sayers Peden received the PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation, which is given to a translator “whose career has demonstrated a commitment to excellence through the body of his or her work.”

The winners and finalists of this year's awards will be honored at the 2012 Literary Awards Ceremony on Tuesday, October 23 in New York City. PEN will begin accepting submissions for its 2013 Literary Awards on October 1. For a comprehensive list of this year’s winners and finalists, and for information and guidelines for the 2013 prizes, visit the PEN American Center website.

 

Tell a story through the journal entries and/or correspondences of the central characters. Note how the switch between different perspectives and the reliability—or lack thereof—of the characters affect the way the plot is revealed to the reader. For inspiration, read Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story.

Spend a day at a museum or reading an art book. Choose a piece of artwork that you enjoy or that you find thought-provoking. Rather than composing an ekphrasis that comments on the artwork itself, try your hand at writing a poem in the “mode” of the artwork. This may mean writing a poem in the poetic style that you think is reflected by the artwork, or it may mean trying to write in what you perceive to be the “tone” or "voice" of the artwork.

Author Rick Moody will serve as the judge for the Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review’s inaugural Gertrude Stein Award for Fiction. The winner will receive $500 and publication in the Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review.

Eckleburg, the literary journal housed by the Johns Hopkins University M.A. Program in writing, launched the first annual competition, which is currently open for submissions, this past July. Writers, editors, publishers, and agents may submit short stories of up to 5,000 words, along with a $10 entry fee, by January 1, 2013. Second- and third-place winners will also receive publication in the journal.

Taking its name from Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the online quarterly publishes original fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and translation from emerging and established writers. In addition to work by Rick Moody, the journal has also featured original writing by Stephen Dixon, Moira Egan, and David Wagoner. The journal looks for character-driven storytelling that is eclectic and experimental; it welcomes magical realism, surrealism, metarealism, and offbeat realism, and "humor that explores the gritty realities of the world and human experiences.

“It is Eckleburg‘s intention to represent writers, artists, musicians, and comedians as a contemporary and noninvasive collective, each work evidence of its own artistry, not as a reflection of an editor’s vision of what an issue 'should' be," the journal’s website states. “It is our intention to create an experience in which readers and viewers can think artistically, intellectually, socially, and independently. We welcome brave, honest voices.”

Rick Moody is the author of five novels, including Garden State, which won the Pushcart Press Editors’ Book Award in 1992, as well as four short story collections and a memoir. He has received a PEN/Martha Albrand Award, an Addison Metcalf Award, the Paris Review’s Aga Khan Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

For more information on the Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review or the Gertrude Stein Award, visit the website. 

Compose a table of contents for your life. Include titles, subtitles, sections, and chapters that outline a period—or the entirety—of your life. Once you've finished the table, write a brief summary for each section.

Writer and literary organizer Rochelle Spencer blogs about P&Wfunded writers, Patricia Spears Jones and Tan Lin, and how they engage their audience. Rochelle teaches at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York, and is the author of the e-book Ella Jones and Her Magical Vagina.

"You can't just write for your own amusement."

Patricia Spears JonesOne of my writing mentors gave me this advice after I'd shared with her a story that I thought was quite clever. (It really wasn'tI just thought so.) But my mentor's pointthat writing should be an unselfish act, that we should seek to engage the outside world each time we pick up a pen or click on the keyboardmakes more sense to me these days. As I seek to reinvent my writing and move away from the random sexual puns and allusions that have dominated my style, I find myself drawn to hearing other writers' voices, to uncover how they've made their audiences part of their storytelling process.

Two writers whom I admire, Patricia Spears Jones, author of Painkiller (Tia Chucha Press, 2010) and three other collections of poems, and Tan Lin, author of HEATH COURSE PAK (Counterpath Press, 2012) and the recipient of a Getty Distinguished Scholar Grant, have each shared their work at LaGuardia Community College, where I teach. In addition, Patricia Spears Jones has received support from the Readings/Workshops Program at Poets & Writers for many years at venues including: The Dwyer Cultural Center, Poets Out Loud, The Coney Island History Project, and the Brooklyn Public Library. Tan Lin has also been funded through the Readings/Workshops Program for his readings at the Asian American Writers' Workshop.

After Patricia and Tan's reading at LaGuardia Community College, the audience flooded the writers with questions about their work.

How does a reading produce such an engaged audience?

When I spoke to Patricia, she laughed. "I'm trying to connect with as many different kinds of people and things as I can," she said. In poems like "Painkiller," Patricia shows how diverse groups are connected, how "the murderer and the martyr/the adulterer and the healer can at any moment change positions." Patricia says sometimes people are surprised by her diverse, universal themes, but they shouldn't be: "As an African American, I come from a huge, sophisticated culture, not one that has often been seen as one note or one idea. Our culture is a lot more heterogeneous than is often presented, and I feel I am part of that heterogeneity."

Tan also connects with audiences; in fact, he says that audience is so important to his work that he's uncomfortable with the term "author's readings." Embracing Roland Barthes's idea about authors and their demise, Tan argues that the reader, and not the author, performs the work and what interests him is the audience's reaction to that work.

"You try to get the audience to perform the book in as interesting ways as possible," Tan says. "At LaGuardia, I did a video presentation where you see one word and then another word over a seven-second sequence. It's reading in a wayit may not be a novel or a poem but it's how language is processed, one word at a time. I am really interested in what people may call the social production of language, language that is produced within some kind of environment."

Indeed. And, I think my old writing mentor would be delighted by both Tan and Patricia's workwriting that involves, engages, and interacts with their readers.

Photo: Patricia Spears Jones. Credit: Thomas Sayers Ellis.

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

The Center for Fiction and the American Booksellers Association have announced the short list for the 2012 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. Of the seven finalists for the prize, the winner—to be announced in December—will receive $10,000.

The seven short-listed titles include: Absolution (Riverhead Books) by Patrick Flanery; Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco) by Ben Fountain; The Dog Stars (Knopf) by Peter Heller; Girlchild (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Tupelo Hassman; The Snow Child (Reagan Arthur Books) by Eowyn Ivey; Seating Arrangements (Knopf) by Maggie Shipstead; and Alif the Unseen (Grove/Atlantic) by G. Willow Wilson. Each of the finalists will receive $1,000.

Established in 2005 as the John Sargent, Sr. First Novel Prize, the Flaherty-Dunnan Prize is given annually for a debut novel published in the previous year. Author and Center for Fiction board member Nancy Dunnan, who has supported the award since 2010, renamed it for her father, the journalist Ray W. Flaherty. 

In order to help promote the seven short-listed titles, the New York City-based Center for Fiction announced a new partnership with the American Booksellers Association this past January. The ABA will select 450 United States bookstores to receive displays, posters, and other promotional materials for the seven books. Additionally, sixty-five independent booksellers from across the country were asked to serve as first-round readers for the 2012 prize.

“We believe that there are no better readers than the people who continue against all seeming odds to own and operate independent bookstores,” Center for Fiction executive director Noreen Tomassi said in a press release. Once the first round of readers recommended a long list, a panel of judges comprised of distinguished American writers then selected the seven finalists.

The winner will be announced at the Center for Fiction’s annual benefit and awards dinner on December 11 in New York City.

Past winners of the prize include The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead Books) by Junot Díaz; Lamb (Other Press) by Bonnie Nadzam; Matterhorn (Grove/Atlantic) by Karl Marlantes; Woodsburner (Nan A. Talese) by John Pipkin; The Good Thief (The Dial Press) by Hannah Tinti; and Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Viking) by Marisha Pessl.

Compose a story by making a fairy tale or old folktale contemporary. Aim to retain the basic plot of the original tale, but have the characters' tensions and fears reflect twenty-first-century encounters and conflicts. For an added challenge, offer an alternate ending or tell the narrative from an unexpected perspective.

Write a poem that addresses a past or future version of yourself. Write in the second-person singular. Reassure a younger self, send warnings to a future self, or ask questions to which you don’t know the answers.

Author Tim O’Brien has been awarded the 2012 Dayton Literary Peace Prize’s Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. O’Brien, a Vietnam veteran whose work often deals with war, and who is perhaps most well known for his short story collection The Things They Carried, will receive $10,000.

Established in 2006 and inspired by the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war in Bosnia, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize is given internationally for literature that promotes peace, social justice, and global understanding. In addition to two annual prizes given for a work of fiction and a work of nonfiction published in the previous year, the Richard C. Holbrooke Award—named for the United States diplomat who played an instrumental role in negotiating the Dayton Accords—is given annually for a body of work.

"The Dayton Literary Peace Prize promotes the cause of peace by helping people understand the ugly realities of war on a deep, personal level, which is exactly what I strive to do in my work," O'Brien said. "Over what has been a long career, this award means more to me than any other—by far."

Originally from Austin, Minnesota, O’Brien served in the United States Army in Vietnam for a year, and later worked as a national affairs reporter for the Washington Post. His first book was the 1973 memoir about his experiences at war, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. He received a National Book Award in 1979 for his novel about Vietnam, Going After Cacciato (Doubleday); his 1990 collection, The Things They Carried (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and won the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger; In the Lake of the Woods (Penguin, 1995) received the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction. His most recent novel is July, July, published by Houghton Mifflin in 2002. The sixty-five-year-old O’Brien lives in central Texas and teaches writing in the MFA program at Texas State University in San Marcos.

Previous Peace Prize winners include Geraldine Brooks, Barbara Kingsolver, Studs Terkel, and Elie Wiesel. The awards will be presented at a ceremony in Dayton, Ohio, on November 11.

In the following 2010 Art Works podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts and Public Radio Exchange, O’Brien discusses The Things They Carried on the twentieth anniversary of its release.

Writer and literary organizer Rochelle Spencer blogs about the impact of P&Wfunded poets on other writers. She teaches at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York, and is the author of the e-book Ella Jones and Her Magical Vagina.

In 2001, I had just received my MFA and was the unhappiest I had been in my life.

9/11 had saturated the city with grief. Also, because of a problem at the financial aid office, I graduated so broke that I had to write a $10 check to myself to get money from the bank—I couldn’t even make a $20 ATM withdrawal.

That fall, PW-funded poets Lucille Clifton and Sonia Sanchez gave a reading, and while the venue slips my mind, I’ll never forget how grateful I was for the opportunity to see these poets together. There was no admission fee, and $3 purchased subway fare to and from the event.

Best $3 I've ever spent. It’s not enough to say that the reading gave me hope because it did something more: it gave me the opportunity to experience wonder again. In the years since, I’ve hosted readings, many of which were co-sponsored by Poets & Writers, to try to replicate moments like that. In honor of those moments, I asked my friends, writers themselves, about their favorite writers to hear read.

“[Amiri] Baraka brings a commitment to his reading and such a credo of revolutionary output,” says Treasure Shields Redmond, an Assistant Professor of English at Southwestern Illinois College and 2011 Pushcart Prize nominee. “I love Sonia Sanchez live—she’s a diminutive person but when she reads, she’s eight feet tall. Tyehimba Jess live—he has a certain soulfulness. And Jericho Brown always has outstanding figures in his poetry, figures you wouldn’t normally expect to speak, but they do.”

Amy L. George, author of DesAmy L. Georgeideratum (Finishing Line Press 2013), says she loves to hear Naomi Shihab Nye read “because she is very expressive and she takes her time with the text. Sometimes people just rush through and you can’t hear all of the nuances. For a good reading, you have to be committed to the integrity of the text and the overall message.”

Nicholas J. Beishline says simply, "Leonard Cohen... he was incredible."

I am fortunate to have experienced many wonderful readings, each special. Still, I think every good reading accomplishes the same thing—it allows us to focus on something outside of ourselves and our problems—and, as the writers’ words seep through, it allows us recognize the ways we are all connected.

Photo: Amy L. George. Credit: Calvin George.

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.

Karen Finneyfrock is a poet, novelist, and teaching artist in Seattle, Washington. Her second book of poems, Ceremony for the Choking Ghost, was published by Write Bloody in 2010. Her young adult novel, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door, is forthcoming from Viking Children’s Books in 2013. She is a former writer-in-residence at Richard Hugo House in Seattle and teaches for Seattle Arts and Lectures’ Writers-in-the-Schools. Last spring, P&W supported her reading with the Seattle Rock Orchestra.

What are your reading dos?
I try to remind myself that a show is primarily for the audience and not for me. When I think of the audience member's experience, it allows me to be less fixated on my own nervousness or a myopic concern for my work. I remind myself that stage fright is essentially selfish, and I can focus on connecting with the listener instead.

What are your reading don’ts?
I think of the idiom, "Never wear a hat that has more personality than you do." Never wear an outfit that will upstage you or shoes that might cause you to trip. With that said, I like to dress like I'm ready to be seen. My other big don't is: Don't exceed the time limit you've been given. Time your work and be respectful to organizers and audience.

How do you prepare for a reading?
If I'm performing poetry, I like to rehearse late at night or early in the morning before I even get out of bed. I envision myself on the stage, and I run through everything I will say, even my banter between poems. Then, I run my pieces again in the shower. If I'm reading prose, I like to read through the selection and consider the context the audience will need about the piece to appreciate it the most. I make bullet points to remember what I want to say to the audience, but I never read from a script when I'm speaking about the work or to the crowd.

What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why does it work?
My best crowd-pleaser works because it is imagistic, literal, and uplifting at the end. I wouldn't want this for all of my poems, and I do seek to challenge audience members with pieces that create discomfort, but I like to leave people feeling good. I think of Shakespeare playing to all levels of the house. I want some pieces that every listener—even those new to poetry or new to abstract work—can say, "I got it," after hearing.

What was it like to perform with the Seattle Rock Orchestra?
Performing with a rock orchestra is exactly as cool as it sounds. First, composer John Teske met with me and listened to my poem, then he created an original, experimental score, which included vocalizations as well as instrumental noise. For example, as my poem started, "Even the wet floor of the city bus...," musicians made slurping noises behind me. John's concept was out of the box and stretched the idea of what music and poetry can sound like together. It avoided the cliché of pretty words with some nice stringed instruments playing and took it to the place a rock orchestra should go.

Standing on stage surrounded by a group of musicians, all attuned to my performance, was like being the spider at the center of an artistically sensitive web. I got the feeling they were prepared to follow me wherever I was going to go.

Photo: Karen Finneyfrock. Credit: Inti St. Clair
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.

Willow Books is currently accepting submissions for its first annual Literature Awards. A prize of $2,000 will be given for a book-length work of literary prose, and a prize of $1,000 will be given for a full-length collection of poetry. The two winning manuscripts will be published in spring 2013 by Willow Books.

The Willow Books Literature Awards are given to United States writers from culturally diverse backgrounds. “Our mission is to develop, publish, and promote writers typically underrepresented in the market,” the press’s website states. Ten finalists will be announced on January 21, 2013, and the winners will be announced at an awards ceremony and reading in Chicago later in the spring. The remaining eight finalists will have selections of their work published in an e-book anthology. All finalists for the awards are expected to attend the ceremony and assist in future online publicity for the press.

Judges for the poetry prize include poets John Murillo, Ching-in Chen, and Naomi Ayala; judges for the prize in literary prose include fiction and nonfiction writers Pauline Kaldas, Latha Viswanathan, and Ana-Maurine Lara.

“We are excited about our new competition and the caliber of our judges,” says Randall Horton, editor of Willow Books. “We are also planning to host workshops during the awards weekend, so watch for updates.”

Poets may submit three copies of a collection between 50 and 125 pages, along with a $25 entry fee; prose writers may submit three copies of a novel, short story collection, memoir, or essay collection (totaling no more than 100,000 words), along with a $30 entry fee. The deadline for submissions is October 1. Submissions are accepted via postal mail only.

Willow Books, established in 2007 as an imprint of the Detroit-based Aquarius Books, publishes poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. Some of the press’s recent authors include Tara Betts, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Krista Franklin, and Tony Medina.

Willow also partners with the Cave Canem Foundation to publish the biennial Cave Canem Anthology, a collection of poetry by Cave Canem faculty and fellows.   

For the required entry form and complete submissions guidelines for the Literary Awards, and for more information about Willow Books, visit their website. 

Using the advice column as your form, write about a problem or challenge you have faced. Addressing a fictional recipient who is facing the same issue, offer your best advice on how to handle the situation. For inspiration, check out the Rumpus's advice column, "Dear Sugar," penned by creative nonfiction writer Cheryl Strayed.

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