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Choose a topic with currency that you feel personally connected to and want to explore through writing. Research statistics, facts, and events related to it. Weave these with personal anecdotes that are also related. For example, if the topic is gun control, write an essay that combines statistics about how many people own guns in the United States, factual stories about incidents of gun violence, and personal anecdotes about how you learned to hunt growing up. Strive to explore the complexity of the topic.

Ken Waldman has six full-length poetry collections, a children's book of Alaska-set acrostic poems, and a memoir about his work as a touring artist. His nine CDs combine old-time Appalachian-style string-band music with original poetry. A former college professor with an MFA in creative writing, he's made his living as a freelance writer, musician, performer, and educator since 1995.

This past November, Burlingham Books in rural Perry, New York, sponsored a Poets & Writers workshop and reading. At 5:30 on a chilly Tuesday evening, eleven of us gathered around a makeshift table in a corner of the bookstore. For ninety-minutes, we discussed our writing lives amidst four writing exercises. At 7:00 PM, I walked to another corner of the store, this time to stand before approximately thirty-five people, one of whom I'd learned was a local fiddler and violinmaker. To begin, I took out my fiddle, played a tune, then went into one of my collections and found a sonnet, The Violinmakers. After nodding to my new acquaintance, I shared the poem I'd written about his craft.

The fifty-minute reading was followed by a short question-and-answer session. All this was fine, but what made this event more special is that it enabled me to spend the following day at Letchworth Central High School, where I led a short assembly for 350 students, faculty, and staffers, then visited seven English classes. The daylong school visit, which was funded separately, would not have happened without the support of Burlingham Books and Poets & Writers.

What's instructive is explaining how the Perry bookstore event came to be.

Six months earlier I'd been invited by The Stage, a theatre in neighboring Warsaw, New York, for a Poets & Writers workshop and reading. Ahead of schedule that Sunday afternoon, I'd detoured through Perry specifically to stop in Burlingham Books, where I happened to meet a part-time employee, Melissa Stroud, an English teacher at a nearby high school. Before leaving the store, I gave Melissa a few of my books and CDs, as well as several sheets explaining my work in schools.

Later that month, when a library in Geneseo, in adjacent Livingston County, also secured Poets & Writers funding to host me, Melissa attended both the workshop and the reading. Subsequently, it was through her efforts that I was invited to Burlingham Books, and to her school, where I understood it had been five years since a visiting artist of any kind had come, and a longer time since a practicing, published writer had appeared. In this case, I not only stood answering questions in front of classes that had been reading my poems as preparation for my visit, but when I shared poems before the whole school, the assemblage included the high school principal and the school district superintendent.

One more thing about the Perry appearance. It was heartening that among the attendees of both the workshop and readings were folks who'd previously seen me in Warsaw. So, while I expect to return to the region in 2013, it's also my understanding that it won't be such a long time before another writer comes to Letchworth Central High School, perhaps again in conjunction with a Poets & Writers event.

Photo: Ken Waldman.  Photo Credit: Kate Wool.

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.

We each have our own approach to writing stories—some writers compose quickly and broadly, leaving the sentence-level refinements for later, while others labor over each sentence until its worded just right before moving on. Identify which kind of writer you are. Then revise a story you’ve been working on, applying the approach you don’t normally take. 

The Minneapolis-based publisher Milkweed Editions is currently accepting submissions for the second annual Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry. The prize, open to poets who live in the upper Midwest, offers an award of $10,000 and publication for a poetry collection. The deadline is January 31.

Poets who currently reside in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, or Wisconsin are eligible to submit a previously unpublished, book-length poetry manuscript by postal mail. There is no entry fee. Five finalists will be selected by the editors of Milkweed Editions, and the winner will be chosen by this year’s judge, poet G. C. Waldrep, whose most recent book is Archicembalo (Tupelo Press, 2009). Visit the Milkweed website for complete eligibility and submissions guidelines.

Founded in 1980, Milkweed Editions is an independent press whose mission is to “identify, nurture, and publish transformative literature, and build an engaged community around it.” The partnership between Milkweed Editions and the Minneapolis-based law offices of Lindquist & Vennum “celebrates poets for their artistic contributions, and brings outstanding regional writers to a national stage.” 

The inaugural Lindquist & Vennum Prize, judged by poet Peter Campion (The Lions, University of Chicago Press, 2009), was awarded in 2012 to Patricia Kirkpatrick of St. Paul for her collection Odessa. To hear Kirkpatrick read three poems from her winning collection, published this past December by Milkweed Editions, visit our podcast page or click on the Soundcloud player below. 

Think about something that you did or said to someone that you regret. Write a poem of apology, comprising five four-line stanzas, with the same number of stressed syllables in each line. Avoid sentimentality. Rely on images, rhythm, and structure to convey your regret.

PW-funded poet Camille Dungy blogs about the daily life of writers and the role Poets & Writers' Readings/Workshops program plays in that life. Dungy is a professor in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University. She has published three collections of poetry—Smith Blue (Southern Illinois University Press), winner of the 2010 Crab Orchard Open Book Prize; Suck on the Marrow (Red Hen Press); and What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (Red Hen Press).

Camille DungyIf you are reading this post you may be interested in understanding more about the life of the writer. What is it we do all day?

I'll tell you: We answer questions.

That's about all we do. We see something and we ask a question about it, and then we write towards our best answer to that question. Or, someone asks us a question, and we don't know the answer right away, and we write toward our best answer. Or we get angry, or sad, or irrationally happy, and we want to work our way away from or back into that emotion. Did JFK really love Jackie? What color would you say is prominent in that sunset? Why don't they understand climate change isn't a joke? We wouldn't be writers if we didn't live with a stockpile of questions awaiting our response. What was she thinking when she drove away from that job? What was she thinking when she drove into the valley. What was she thinking? What?

The Poets & Writers Readings/Workshops program is all about helping writers. When P&W co-sponsors a program, community arts organizations kick in a portion of a reader's fee and then P&W matches that sum. Have you ever wondered what was in those white envelopes people hand to workshop facilitators at the end of a seminar? I'm telling you the secret now: At the end of every Poets & Writers co-sponsored program, writers receive a check stapled to a questionnaire printed on salmon-colored paper and an envelope in which to return the questionnaire. P&W asks writers a slew of questions, and they encourage them to write their answers down.

Questions, questions, questions. These are what we writers dream of all day.

The front side of the questionnaire is easy. Did you get paid? How many people attended the event? Your audience was made up of people representing what ages, ethnicities, etc.? Were your books sold? Was the publicity acceptable? Would you work with these people again? One-word answers can suffice: yes, 5049, mixed, yes, yes, yes. There is no room for elaboration on that first page.

But that's one of the most important things writers do all day, we have to develop elaborate answers. Writers read more into the world than is immediately evident. Vanilla ice cream only has to be plain if you do not push yourself to taste the nuances of the vanilla bean, the variations in the consistency of the cream, to feel the coldness on your inner cheek, and conceptualize the heat transference that made the bite you just took melt over your tongue. Do I like vanilla ice cream? Yes, I could write. Or I could write much, much more.

So, it's generous that Poets & Writers, as part of their mission to support writers, provides a second page on their questionnaire with a series of complicated questions requiring elaboration: Describe the event, including the event program and the audience response. How effective was the sponsoring organization in presenting this event? Are there ways the organization could better assist readers or workshop teachers? What was the impact of receiving support from Poets & Writers on your experience of this event, your career as a writer, your relationship with your audience, etc?

If I could figure out really good answers to these questions, I could write a whole book.

That's what we do all day as writers. We ask ourselves, how am I going to write a whole book? Then we go looking for answers.

Photo: Camille Dungy.  Photo credit: Marcia Wilson/Wide Vision Photography.

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

Meridian, the literary journal of the University of Virginia, is currently accepting submissions for its annual Editors’ Prize. Two awards of $1,000 each and publication are given for a poem and a short story. The deadline is January 8.

Emerging writers who have published no more than one full-length book, and who are not current students, staff, faculty, or recent alumni of the University of Virginia, are eligible to enter. Using the online submission system, submit up to four poems totaling no more than ten pages or a story of up to 10,000 words with an eight-dollar entry fee. Writers may submit two entries per genre, and all entrants receive an electronic subscription to Meridian. Winners will be announced in late March. 

Founded in 1998 in conjunction with the MFA program at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Meridian is published twice yearly, and has featured such writers such as Richard Bausch, Ann Beattie, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Rita Dove, Seamus Heaney, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Charles Wright. The 2012 Editors’ Prize winners were poet Laura Davenport for “Apology for a Horse” and fiction writer Janet Hilliard-Osborn for “Easter, 1954.” Both winning works were published in the May 2012 issue of Meridian. In addition to the annual prize, the journal accepts general submissions of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction year-round. 

For more information about Meridian, and for complete submission guidelines, visit the website

Think about an aspect of your life story and rewrite it, telling the tale from another angle or perspective. For example, if your family always considered you to be a difficult teenager, write about other interpretations of your behavior. Or if you've always been considered successful, write about the fear of failure that lurks beneath the facade. Find a way to reconstruct an aspect of your personal narrative that explores the complexity of who you are.

P&W-supported writer Melissa Petro recently led a memoir-writing workshop for current and former sex workers at Red Umbrella Project in New York City. Petro’s work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Daily Beast, Salon, Jezebel, Guardian, and elsewhere. She lives in New York City and teaches for Gotham Writers Workshop.

Melissa PetroWhen people with no experience or personal knowledge hear the phrase “sex work,” one media misrepresentation may spring to mind: Julia Roberts in a cut-out mini dress and patent leather knee-high boots or—just as bad—that floor-length red velvet gown.

This is not an accurate picture of people who trade sex for things they need—or of what happens when people do—according to Red Umbrella Project, an organization that provides storytelling, media, and advocacy training and support for people in the sex trades who wish to speak out about their experiences.

On December 6, 2012, Red Umbrella Project celebrated the graduating class of the Becoming Writers Workshop, an eight-week memoir-writing workshop for individuals with experiences in the sex trade, made possible in part by a grant from Poets & Writers. The evening was part one of a two-night event (the second will be on January 3, 2013) and featured one half of the class sharing original material conceived in class, which was published in the inaugural issue of PROS(E), the literary journal of Red Umbrella Project (available for sale at http://www.redumbrellaproject.org/buy-prose-issue-1/).

The purpose of the workshop, like all Red Umbrella Project programming, was to challenge common misconceptions and erroneous representations of sex workers by allowing individuals with experiences in the sex trade to represent themselves publicly and in print.

The organization combats stigma and discrimination while providing people in the sex trade with communication and transferrable job skills. People turn to the sex trade to generate income for as many reasons as there are sex workers, and yet given the prevalence of misinformation about the trade, sex workers’ personal stories are oftentimes surprising.

Red Umbrella staff and workshop participantsIn 2010, I lost my job as a public elementary school teacher after it was discovered that I was writing and speaking about my past experience moonlighting as a call girl on Craigslist while earning my masters in creative nonfiction from the New School. Since losing my job, I have dedicated myself to the task of changing people’s negative perceptions of current and former sex workers by continuing to tell my story in all its richness and by teaching other individuals with minority experiences to tell theirs.

At the event, readers included “Dominick,” a former gay male escort; Aimee Herman, a queer performance poet living in Brooklyn; Essence Revealed, whose story chronicles the highs and lows of being a black woman working in Manhattan’s gentlemen’s lap dance club scene; as well as eighties porn actress and activist Veronica Vera, who recreated for a raptured audience the moment she became co-star to her then-friend Annie Sprinkle.

The January 3 event boasts an equally diverse line-up. Expect anything and everything—anything and everything, that is, except just another “Pretty Woman.”

Photos: Top: Melissa Petro reads from the anthology PROS(E). Bottom: Red Umbrella staff and participants (left to right): Melissa Petro, Veronica Vera, Niesha Sharay Davis, Aimee Herman, Essence Revealed, Dominick, and Audacia Ray at Happy Ending Lounge. Credit: David Kornfield.

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 Cowles Charitable Trust, the Abbey K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Freewrite for ten minutes about the most significant events that happened in your life during the past year. Choose one of these events and use it as the basis for a story. Write about it from an imagined character's perspective and/or change how the event transpired.

Start the year off with one of Shakespeare’s favorite forms. Write a sonnet, a poem comprising fourteen lines that incorporates the following rhyme scheme: a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g. (For example, the words at the end of the first and third lines rhyme, etc.) Before you begin, flip through any book and select seven words at random. Use these words, or variations of them, in the poem.

The Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts, presented the inaugural “Tell it Slant” award to poet Kay Ryan earlier this month, during a two-day celebration of Emily Dickinson’s birth.

The annual award was established this year by the Emily Dickinson Museum’s Board of Governors in order to honor an individual in any field “whose life work is imbued with the creative spirit of the Amherst poet.” The award takes its name from the well-known Dickinson poem which begins: “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—/ Success in Circuit lies / Too bright for our infirm Delight / The Truth's superb surprise.”

Ryan, the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2008 to 2010, published her first book of poetry, Strangely Marked Metal (Copper Beech Press), in 1985. She went on to receive the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2004, and her seventh book, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, published in 2010 by Grove Press, received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She was awarded a MacArthur "Genius" Grant in 2011.

According to a recent press release from the Dickinson Museum, “Kay Ryan’s style has often been compared to Emily Dickinson’s for its originality and knotted syntax. Dickinson’s poems powerfully convey observations about the natural world, pain and suffering, ecstasy and contentment, and the nature of mortality and immortality. Ryan’s poems are likewise compact, uncluttered, and crackling with wry amusement that belies their density of meaning.” Presenting the award, Gigi Bradford, a member of the Dickinson Museum’s Board of Governors and chair of the Folger Shakespeare Library Poetry Board, said, “Unlike any other poet writing today, Kay Ryan takes Dickinson’s sense of how poetry—sometimes playfully and lightly but always from a slant—helps us to answer the central questions of what it means to be human.”

The award was presented on December 6, a day that marked the 182nd anniversary of Emily Dickinson’s birth. To find out more about the “Tell It Slant” award, and for more information about the Emily Dickinson Museum and Homestead in Amherst, visit emilydickinsonmuseum.org

Write an essay about a trip that you've taken during which you were in search of something. What were you in search of—family connection, relaxation, adventure? What did you find? Was it what you expected?

In November, P&W-supported writer Douglas Kearney gave a reading at The Art League and led a workshop at Project Row Houses in Houston, which he writes about below. Kearney is a poet/performer/librettist based in Southern California’s Santa Clarita Valley, where he lives with his family and teaches at California Institute of the Arts. His second collection, The Black Automaton (Fence Books 2009), was a National Poetry Series selection. Red Hen Press will publish Patter in 2014.

Douglas KearneyBack in April, I had a Skype exchange with poet/activist John Pluecker and a poetry group he led at Project Row Houses in Houston’s Third Ward. It went well enough that JP decided to get me down there to do a reading and workshop. Cool. I hadn’t been to Houston in a minute and hadn’t done much touring in the South to promote The Black Automaton. He was awarded funds from the Readings/Workshops program, which, with help from Project Row Houses, was enough to fly me down and provide a stipend. The reading was slated for Kaboom Books and the workshop, for Project Row Houses. Straightforward. But. BUT! It just so happened Houston was a great big X on the African-American Arts treasure map on November 16, 2012. Contemporary Arts Museum Houston was opening “Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art” and The Art League was opening STACKS, a group exhibition of emerging artists curated by Robert Pruitt for five week-long residencies.

JP has his finger on the pulse of such things and wondered whether we might be able to tap in to the visual arts audiences and more of the African-American folks he hoped would come to my reading at Kaboom. So, with a week to go before the reading, hatched a plan, he did. He asked Kaboom whether they might be willing to give me up that evening. With their gracious permission, he contacted Pruitt about creating some kind of collaboration that would allow me to join the Art League artists for their opening. With his enthusiastic blessing, JP contacted me. It happened I know Pruitt’s work from a commission connected to Studio Museum in Harlem’s 2005–6 Frequency show.

So, yeah, I was interested.

The Art League opening, which featured artists Jamal Cyrus, Nathaniel Donnett, Autumn Knight, Phillip Pyle II, and M'kina Tapscott, involved a woodchipper and the woodchipper’s effect on objects that signify Blackness®. We decided I would perform eulogies for some of these objects. I thought it would be a nice processual kick in the behind to compose new work for the occasion. After all, preachers don’t get much time to write them. Ultimately, I eulogized a pair of sneakers, an afro pick, a box of Nag Champa, some bootleg t-shirts with hip hop memes on them, and a Malcolm X X-hat. You can see the ceremony here.

The next afternoon, I did a more traditional reading (with digital projector and audio) at Project Row Houses and then launched into a workshop with JP’s group, about twenty strong. The workshop—Unsung & Remixed: Using Song Lyrics in Poems—continued the multimedia/interdisciplinary theme of the visit, directing participants to write poems using Afaa Michael Weaver’s Bop form; integrate parodies of a song they were sick of; or compose a “cover” of a song they loved. An eight-year-old brought the house down and a sixty-something-year-old built it back up.

The Readings/Workshops program in conjunction with a coalition of Houston’s arts community made a fantastic trip possible. Excellent! Plus, I got to eat BBQ. Y’all need a Readings/Workshops/BBQ program. Trill.

Photo: Douglas Kearney. Credit: Eric Plattner.

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.

Write a story about the following scenario: One woman knocks on the door of another woman's house. She wants something. She lies to get what she wants. Who is she? Does she get what she wants? How does the woman who answers the door respond? Do they know each other?What happens next? 

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