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Writer Patricia Roth Schwartz blogs about facilitating a memoir writing workshop series in historic Seneca Falls, New York.

It’s a beautiful spring day in historic Seneca Falls. We meet in the town Recreation Center, a low brick building on the canal, which connects to the Erie, where lazy houseboats drift by on the gentle green waters dotted with ducks and waterfowl. The room we have has one enormous windowed wall. Four participants, two middle-aged and two seniors, regulars at most of the literary programs held locally, have gathered.

We plunge into our topic: "Telling the Stories of our Lives: Writing the Personal Memoir." After some discussion, we start an exercise. Following the guided visualization, everyone is asked to write from a childhood memory. As we’re beginning, a woman and her twelve-year-old daughter join us, apologizing for their lateness. I initiate introductions, settle the latecomers into chairs, bring them briefly up to speed, then encourage them both to start writing. The mother goes ahead, but the girl just sits, looking scared and confused. We’d advertised the workshop to all ages, but she's the only youngster. Her mother said she loves to write, but right now I know exactly how she’s feeling, afraid of embarrassing herself, of doing it "wrong."

My background as a psychotherapist jumps into play. "I'll help you," I say, and hunker down beside her. "Who were you thinking of?" "My granddad," she whispers. "Okay—great. Can you write him a letter, telling him what you remember?" She thinks about it. "Yes!" Her pen leaps to the page. "Good—good—keep going," I say. "Put in a lot of details, like you were looking at it in a movie."

Before we knew it, everyone, including the girl, has completed a piece. One by one the writers read aloud. When it's her turn, the girl is pleased with and excited by her letter. She shares it willingly, how her granddad would hoist her up on his shoulders when she was really little and carry her around. The group loves it and tells her as much.

"Okay," I finish. "Now when you go home, write it up really nicely and mail it to him!" The young girl beams.

Photo: Patricia Roth Schwartz. Credit: Sandy Zohari.

Support for the Reading/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.

Transform one of your poems into an artisanal object of some kind using found or recycled materials. Send a photograph of it to editor@pw.org for possible inclusion in a slideshow. Include Artisanal Object in the subject line.

Poetry and art world icon John Ashbery will be honored in November with the National Book Foundation's twenty-first Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. The eighty-four-year-old author of Notes From the Air (Ecco, 2007), Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (Viking, 1975), Some Trees (Yale University Press, 1956), and dozens of other volumes of poetry and prose will receive the award along with the winners of this year's National Book Awards at the foundation's annual dinner on November 16.

Also recognized will be Mitchell Kaplan, one of the founders of the twenty-seven-year-old Miami Book Fair International and a former president of the American Booksellers Association. Kaplan will receive the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, previously awarded to advocates of the written word such as Dave Eggers, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Terry Gross.

The foundation will announce its finalists for the 2011 National Book Awards on October 12 at Portland's Literary Arts Center, with Oregon Public Radio broadcasting the event locally and online. The winning authors will be revealed on the night of the benefit dinner.

In the video below, Ashbery, who in 2008 won the international Griffin Poetry Prize (sponsored by the Canadian organization the Griffin Trust), reads "Interesting People of Newfoundland" from Notes From the Air.

Read Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” and Wells Towers’s story “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.” Both stories integrate the ancient and the contemporary in surprising and disturbing ways. (For another example read Matthew Sharpe’s novel Jamestown [Soft Skull Press, 2007]). Draft a story that does the same thing, blending the past and the present into the fictional elements of plot, setting, dialogue, and character.

This year's MacArthur Foundation Fellows, commonly referred to as recipients of the organization's "Genius" grant, have been announced. Among a class of fellows that includes a virologist, a cellist, an architect, a lawyer for elder rights, an evolutionary geneticist, and a silversmith, poet Kay Ryan is honored for her "deceptively simple verse of wisdom and elegance."

Ryan, who from 2008 to 2009 served as the sixteenth U.S. poet laureate, will receive the five-hundred-thousand-dollar prize, designed to encourage continued work, but with "no strings attached," over the next five years. Author of seven collections, she was honored earlier this year with the Pulitzer Prize for her latest book, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (Grove Press, 2010).

Translator and poet A. E. Stallings, whose work is influenced by her training in classical Greek and Latin, also received the fellowship. Currently living in Athens, Stallings is recognized for "revealing the timelessness of poetic expression and antiquity's relevance for today." Aside from her translations of Plutarch, Lucretius, and other classical writers, her original works include Hapax (2006) and Archaic Smile (1999). A new poetry collection, Olives, is forthcoming in 2012 from TriQuarterly Books. 

For biographies of and interviews with the 2011 fellows, who range in age from twenty-nine to sixty-seven and represent ten states, plus Washington, D.C., Greece, and British Columbia, visit the MacArthur website.

In the video below, Ryan describes the impact of the MacArthur grant, especially for a writer at sixty-five, and where she is in her work, "always just beginning."

Ruminate on the following lines by Greek poet Aeschylus: "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget / falls drop by drop upon the heart, / until, in our own despair, / against our will, / comes wisdom / through the awful grace of God."

Use these lines as the epigraph to a poem. Once you've finished the poem, delete the epigraph.

Longtime P&W-supported writer Patricia Roth Schwartz blogs about the literary happenings across Seneca County, New York.

What can you say of a region that boasts scenic views rivaling those of England's Lake Country? Where grapevines laden with fruit slope down to lakeshores in late summer? Where over one hundred wineries offer tastings, lakeside cafés? Eleven lakes offer angling, paddling, and sailing. Mennonites’ horses and buggies traverse country roads creating a landscape that seems over a century old.

It's a poet’s world. Making connections with other poets and writers, though, isn't easy. Without the kinds of venues more urban areas can sustain, this loose collection of hamlets, villages, townships, and two small cities, Auburn and Geneva, has had no central clearinghouse for writers.

Still, we're out here. Some at local colleges, some transplanted, educated and polished, others untutored having written secretly for years. We are seniors eager to write memoir, teens braving an open mic, mothers with toddlers and manuscripts in tow, retirees finally finding time to write.

The number of literary events, and venues for them, has grown in recent years. Public libraries offer most of the literary programming: readings by published authors, writing workshops, poetry readings. An evening at Seneca Falls Public Library on April 1st, with featured readers and an open mic, was particularly successful. The Seneca County Arts Council which maintains a small space in Seneca Falls full of vibrant artwork, has also hosted literary-based workshops.

Mary Genter, aka "Marabee, your hometown muse," has started a reading series at Riverbend Café in Auburn. Charlotte Dickens of Watkins Glen has curated a P&W-supported reading series, now held in Montour Falls near the southern tip of Seneca Lake, for twenty years. I've begun an open mic series at ZuZu Café in Seneca Falls. Writer/ publisher Steve Tills sponsors events at Buffalo Bill's Family Restaurant and Tap Room in Shortsville; John Cieslinski of Macedon, uses his charming bookstore, Books, Etc., for readings and author appearances. Fatzinger Hall above Waterloo Library, a Victorian lecture hall where Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglas both appeared, hosts a reading series.

We learn about what’s happening through e-mails, fliers, news articles, and word of mouth. As a sense of community begins to gel, Tills and I have formed a grassroots organization, the Literary Guild of the Finger Lakes, hoping to bring all of this together. Our inaugural P&W-supported reading, "An Evening of Poetry," at Fatzinger Hall, was attended by poets from Auburn, Geneva, and Rochester.

Should you travel here, look for me lakeside, sipping wine and writing poems.

Photo: Patricia Roth Schwartz. Credit: Sandy Zohari.

Support for the Reading/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.

We've caught some buzz over the past few days about an organization called the World Poetry Movement holding a Bill Murray Poetry Contest. While there's no promise on the contest website that the beloved actor will actually read the poems written "for" him, our friends in the poetry world are embracing the challenge with whimsyafter all, the competition, which promises one thousand dollars and publication (plus possible "recording"), is free.

Blogger Kelly C at Videogum, who pens a wonky sonnet for the actor, breaks it down, "Well, I don’t know. Obviously this raises a lot of questions that I wasn’t able to answer with a quick look at the website. Publication where? Who would record it and for what? What is this thing even about at all? But it doesn’t matter, because when you win it you will win one thousand dollars apparently, from someone, and who couldn’t use an extra one thousand dollars from someone?"

The Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog gave the contest a shout-out too, though, unlike Ms. C, no staffer took a stab at a Murray tribute poem. However, someone does hope to have arrived at the winning title, courtesy of Murray's Herman Blume: "Yeah, I Was in the Shit."

Whether or not you get in on the action (entries are due on September 30), check out Murray's poetry reading for construction workers on a break from building a new home for New York City's Poets House in 2009. (Perhaps the Rushmore-esque music will inspire a your Murray muse.)

Rachel Sussman and Terra Chalberg befriended each other a decade ago as young editors at Scribner. Later, Chalberg joined the Susan Golomb Literary Agency as an agent and director of foreign rights. (Susan Golomb is the long-time agent of Jonathan Franzen.) Sussman moved on, too, becoming an agent for the Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Agency, where she worked for six years.

Yesterday, the two peers announced the launch of a new literary agency, Chalberg & Sussman, which will offer an "unwavering commitment to helping emerging and established authors reach a broad audience across multiple platforms." With Chalberg managing the agency’s foreign rights alongside an international group of co-agents, the agency already has an impressive list of clients, including Margaux Fragoso, author of the New York Times best-selling memoir, Tiger, Tiger (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011); Hal Herzog, professor of psychology and author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals (Harper, 2010); and Andrew Porter, Flannery O’Connor Award-winner for The Theory of Light and Matter: Stories (University of Georgia Press, 2008), among numerous others.

P&W has supported poet John Murillo’s readings and workshops with organizations such as Page Meets Stage, the Gwendolyn Brooks Center, and Insight Arts. His first poetry collection, Up Jump the Boogie (Cypher 2010), was a finalist for the 2011 Kate Tufts Discovery Award and runner up for the PEN Open Book Award. This fall he joined the University of Miami as visiting assistant professor of creative writing. Murillo generously shared some of his experience as a writer with us.

What are your reading dos?
Always be considerate of your co-features and adhere to schedule. It's never a good look to read so long that other readers have to decide, on the fly, which of their poems to cut from their set.

… and your reading don’ts?
Don't ignore your audience. Sounds like a no-brainer, but I've suffered through too many readings where poets simply read poem after poem without any interaction with the crowd. Hearing poems read aloud and reading from the printed page are different experiences—each offering something you can't get from the other—and should be treated as such. Introduce poems, tell a joke or two. Let the people get to know you a bit, spend some time. If we (the audience) wanted only the words printed on the page, we could read to ourselves at home... for free.

How do you prepare for a reading?
The first thing I need to know is how much time I have. Then, I plan my set—not just timing the poems themselves, but allowing time for interaction—to fit within those parameters. I'll spend time with the poems I've chosen, reading them aloud, listening for the music or lack therein. I imagine how certain poems may land with certain listeners—emotionally, sonically, etc.—and try to create an arc that provides them with an experience worth leaving the house for. I sometimes do breathing and voice exercises too, to keep my “chops” up.

What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why does it work?
In the past, I've read poems I myself didn't care for too much, simply because of the way I knew audiences would react. I'd get a laugh or two, maybe some applause, but nothing like a real connection. I've realized over the years that people just want to hear good poems. Typically, the same poems that “work” on the page also read well live. No matter the venue. The danger for me lies in relying too heavily on these poems, becoming too comfortable reading poems I know will go over well. There's very little vulnerability in that and if one isn't careful, that laziness can creep into the writing, and then the poems themselves become safe. To hell with that.

How does giving a reading inform your writing and vice versa?
I believe poems are meant to be shared, read, and listened to. From one's lips to another's ear, or from one's hand to another's eyes, no matter. The live reading is something that never lets me forget that I am a human being reaching out to, trying to communicate with, other human beings. This definitely affects the choices I make when writing and revising.

What’s been your most rewarding experience as a writing teacher?
What I love most is when students begin to claim their own voices. In a society that cultures young people into silence and, by extension, apathy, there are few things as powerful as a young writer asserting her right to be heard. And there are few things as satisfying for the teacher as knowing you had a little hand in the midwifing of this new and necessary voice.

Photo: John Murillo. Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

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.

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.

There is someone inside a house at night who is startled by a knock at the door. Outside the door are two people. Complete this scene by considering the following questions: Who is the person inside the house? What is he (or she) doing when he hears the knock? Does he know why the pair are at the door? Who are the pair? What do they want? After completing the opening scene, write the story of what happens next.

The Association of German Publishers and Booksellers Foundation (Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels Stiftung) has announced the five finalists for its 2011 German Book Prize. The winning novelist will receive twenty-five thousand euros (approximately thirty-four thousand dollars).

The shortlisted books are Against the World by Jan Brandt, Das Wunderhorn by Michael Buselmeier, The Girl by Angelika Klüssendorf, Blumenberg by Sibylle Lewitscharoff, In Times of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge, and The Hurtress by Marlene Streeruwitz. None of the shortlisted books have yet to be translated in the United States—after all, the art of translation takes time—but given the track record of German Book Prize honorees, perhaps these authors will appear on this side of the Atlantic in the near future.

It may have taken a few years, but 2007 winner Julia Franck saw her winning novel, Die Mittagsfrau (Lady Midday), published in English last year as The Blindness of the Heart (Grove Press). And 2006 winner Katharina Hacker's novel Die Habenichtse was published as The Have-Nots two years after her award by Europa Editions. Just this past April, inaugural 2005 prizewinner Arno Geiger saw his novel Es geht uns gut appear in English as We Are Doing Fine (Ariadne Press).

The 2011 winner will receive the award in mid-October at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where finalists will also receive prizes. The five remaining authors will take home twenty-five hundred euros (roughly thirty-four hundred dollars) each.

Zócalo Public Square, a Los Angeles–based web forum for ideas and literature, began accepting entries last week for a poetry contest sprung from Zócalo's mission to further understanding of citizenship and community. The "living magazine," which combines online journalism with lectures and other real-world events, will consider poems that evoke a sense of place for a one-thousand-dollar prize and publication on the Zócalo website.

“'Place' may be interpreted by the poet as a place of historical, cultural, political or personal importance," say the guidelines on the contest page. "It may be a literal, imaginary or metaphorical landscape. We are looking for one poem that offers our readers a fresh, original, and meaningful take on the topic."

Poets may send up to three poems via e-mail by November 5. There is no entry fee.

The winner will be announced next March in conjunction with the recipient of Zócalo's second annual book prize, a five-thousand-dollar award recognizing a work on the topic of community published in the United States. (There is no submission process for the book award.)

Write an ars poetica, a poem that conveys your perspective on the art of poetry, how it works and its value. Visit the Academy of American Poets website to read more about ars poetica, and for examples by other poets.

Writer Patricia Roth Schwartz blogs about facilitating a P&W-supported workshop series at the Terwilliger Museum in Waterloo, New York.

A graceful Queen Anne structure, the Waterloo Library & Historical Society, which opened in 1880, is the first building in New York State built as a library. In 1960 a local businessman donated funds to open an attached museum of Waterloo history, which bears his name: Terwilliger. The Terwilliger Museum’s a spooky place. It is low-ceilinged, dim, and its two floors are partitioned into several areas filled with antique dolls, guns, china, vintage fire-fighting equipment, musical instruments, Native American artifacts, and the replicated interiors of both a pioneer cabin and a country store.

I’d written a grant proposal to Poets & Writers for a three-week workshop: Writing Your Way Through History, the first program ever held in the museum. I showed up at the appointed time, fully expecting no one to be there. In semi-rural areas, the hardest aspect of putting on an event is publicizing it, and we hadn’t done much. Even so, right on the dot, several people climbed the stairs to meet me. A short while later a few others arrived. In all, seven people attended at least part of the program, including a fourth-grader, granddaughter of a Terwilliger Museum member. Armed with a sheet of writing prompts I’d given them, participants explored the museum, searching for characters and stories amongst the museum’s holdings. After an hour, we retired to a cozy nook with tables and chairs in the library adjacent to the museum, an ideal writing space.

Everyone was busy except Mary Alice, a feisty, intelligent woman in her 70s who used to write a column for a local paper but stopped. She’d been suffering from writer’s block, she told me, but arrived to the workshop with a brand new baby blue journal. Now she sat frozen before a blank page. I walked up to her and asked quietly, "Who's your character?" "Grandma," she said. "Okay–What's happening? Tell the story," I eagerly replied. A heartbeat passed. Her pen rose to the page. "It's Midge." And out the story poured. Inspired by the exhibit of a 1920s dressed mannequin doing laundry on a washboard in a galvanized tub, Mary Alice told the story of tomboy "Midge" (herself), getting her clothes dirty and "Grandma," instead of getting mad, simply offering, "I'll teach you how to wash them."

Everyone else in the group (as if by some alchemical change that affected them all simultaneously) wrote astonishingly excellent stories, each set in an historical context. Eagerly they read aloud to each other. By the end of our sessions, a writers’s group of five of the attendees had formed and continues to meet, planning a blog and a chapbook to showcase their work. Best of all, Mary Alice called to tell me she’d resumed writing her column and even received a raise in pay for it!

Photo: Patricia Roth Schwartz. Credit: Sandy Zohari.

Support for the Reading/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.

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