Fiction writer Susannah Risley blogs about her experience conducting workshops with diverse populations at Schenectady County Public Library in upstate New York.
I've taught in minimum security prisons, homeless shelters, rural libraries, and senior centers across New York State. Each group requires a slightly different approach to teaching. People in homeless shelters don't often write about their pasts, but respond positively to learning to observe the present. Prisoners need to feel great respect for their stories. They are hungry for knowledge and drink up the examples from literature that I bring to inspire their writing. Seniors need to be urged past their internal critics that say their lives have been unimportant. They feel a renewed sense of purpose in life as their stories pour forth. It is a joy to see people from all walks of life get excited about writing. It changes lives. It changed mine.
Recently, I wanted to try my hand at a different kind of writing workshop. I'd reread Jack Kerouac's On The Road to see if it held up for me. It did. I began to read some of the vast history of travel writing, and was delighted to envision solo travelers in distant times making their way across China, Afghanistan, Greece, or Persia. They recorded vital, specific details, just as a modern traveler must, to bring the world to life on paper. Wanting to share what I learned, I approached the Schenectady County Public Library about facilitating a travel writing workshop.
Twenty participants signed up for the five-session Travel Writing Workshop: Writing Your Own Road. People had traveled to, or were leaving for, Tanzania, Guatemala, Brazil, Italy, Scotland, India, and Paris. They had much to say, and, like many new writers, needed direction about how to begin and keep going.
An Indian scientist was overjoyed to break out of the strictures of science writing to describe her experience in Italy as colorfully as she wished. A college student did a performance poem about Times Square. A shy woman wrote about her first journey away from Guatemala as she watched houses and volcanoes appear toy-sized from her plane window. A German immigrant described her sister's spacious home in Albany from the perspective of someone who escaped great difficulties. A teen described going to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show in the Adirondacks with her family. An East Indian man, visiting his daughter, took us on a tour of Walden Pond and we learn of Gandhi's connection to Thoreau through civil disobedience. We see the old copy of the Bhagavad-Gita in Thoreau's reconstructed cabin and are astonished. The group was charged with new energy and decided to keep meeting. I was thrilled to have taught this class. Everybody won!
Photo: Susannah Risley and workshop participants. Credit: Karen Bradley.
The recently-released longlist for Canada's Scotiabank Giller Prize, worth fifty thousand dollars Canadian, has echoes of the Man Booker Prize shortlist. The two Canadian novelists, Patrick deWitt (The Sisters Brothers) and Esi Edugyan (Half Blood Blues), up for Britain's major book prize are also in the running for one of their home country's top literary honors.
Also longlisted for the Giller are: The Free World by David Bezmozgis (HarperCollins) The Meagre Tarmac by Clarke Blaise (Biblioasis) The Antagonist by Lynn Coady (House of Anansi) The Beggar's Garden by Michael Christie (HarperCollins) Extensions by Myrna Dey (Nunatak First Fiction) The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott (Doubleday) Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner (Hamish Hamilton) Solitaria by Genni Gunn (Signature Editions) Into the Heart of the Country by Pauline Holdstock (HarperCollins) A World Elsewhere by Wayne Johnston (Knopf) The Return by Dany Laferrière (translated from the French by David Homel) (Douglas & McIntyre) Monoceros by Suzette Mayr (Coach House Books) The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje (McClelland & Stewart) A Good Man by Guy Vanderhaeghe (McClelland & Stewart) Touch by Alexi Zentner (Knopf)
Dey's Extensions has already received a Giller honor of sorts, being nominated via public vote for a spot on the longlist. The debut novel had the most nominations out of the roughly four thousand received last month by the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), a sponsor of the Giller. (The CBC is now inviting Canadian residents to select their own shortlists from the semifinalists, for a chance at taking home some literary booty: a Kobo e-reader, a gift certificate to Canadian bookseller Chapters Indigo, and a set of the finalists' books.)
The shortlist will be announced later this fall, followed by the winner ceremony, broadcast by the CBC on November 8.
The video below is a trailer for deWitt's novel, set across the border in the American West of the 1850s.
Choose a page from a book, a magazine, or a newspaper and make a list of the nouns mentioned. Using free association, jot down a new noun for each noun in your first list. Using the second list of nouns, write a poem.
The shortlist for the 2011 Man Booker Prize was announced today, including first-time novelists Stephen Kelman and A. D. Miller. The two, along with four other authors, are in contention for a prize of fifty thousand pounds (approximately eighty thousand dollars).
The shortlisted titles, chosen from thirteen semifinalists, are The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape), Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch (Canongate Books), The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (Granta), Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Serpent’s Tail), Pigeon English by Kelman (Bloomsbury), and Snowdrops by Miller (Atlantic). DeWitt and Edugyan both hail from Canada, and the other four authors are British.
On October 18 the winner will be announced at London's Guildhall. The five runners-up won't leave the ceremony empty-handed; each will receive an award of twenty five hundred pounds (about four thousand dollars).
For the month of September, longtime P&W-suported writer Patricia Roth Schwartz blogs about her experience in Seneca County, New York.
October in the Finger Lakes flares out in a profusion of color: scarlet maples, golden beech, burgundy sumac. Deer leap across country roads. I drive to the tiny village of Ovid where history has left its imprint, especially in the form of a charming set of Greek Revival county courthouse buildings (now a museum) in descending sizes known as The Three Bears.
I eat my picnic lunch at a table outside the adorable structures (Baby Bear is as big as a child’s playhouse) savoring sunshine and drifting leaves. Spotting a tiny thrift shop across the street, I'm there in a flash. It’s full of almost all new clothes, each item a dollar! Soon, clutching five items, I approach a sweet-faced lady in her 80s who serves as volunteer cashier. Suddenly I realize I've left home with no cash! The thrift shop does not accept credit cards or checks. The cashier tells me I can come back later to pay. "We close at one.” I say, "But I'm doing a poetry reading at the Edith B. Ford Memorial Library." I point to the flyer in the store window.
Behind me another shopper speaks up. "Here—" she pushes a five dollar bill toward me. "I'll send you a check," I say and thank her profusely. She says, "No need." "I'll come over to the library," offers the cashier, Anna, who'd been telling me earlier about growing up nearby on a farm. "You said a friend of yours was coming." "Yes, I can borrow five dollars from her," I say. So it's settled; I go next door to a small supermarket. I need a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. (It's been that kind of day.) I have a little change; I'm sure it’s enough. But at the cash register I’m counting out pennies. Behind me, another Ovid angel appears. A young man plunks down coins, insists on paying for me. I walk across the street to the library in a pleasant daze, convinced I‘ve entered another plane of existence, one that is utterly charmed.
A small group gathers for my reading. I sit in a comfy rocker in the children's reading nook, encouraging everyone to sit in a semicircle around me. Halfway through the reading, Anna, the thrift shop cashier, enters. She's brought her lunch, a large submarine sandwich. Sitting discreetly at the back table, she eats it, crumples up the wrapper, then moves up to the semicircle. I read poems about my family, my childhood in West Virginia—memories, stories. Afterward we talk. "When I was married," the widowed Anna says, "I had a notebook I used to write in. My husband thought I was pretty good." I don't think Anna has ever been to a poetry reading before. We encouraged her to get another notebook and start up again.
From July 13 to 16, 2011, P&W-supported poets Mayda Del Valle, Oveous Maximus, and Shihan participated in inkSlam, Los Angeles’ largest spoken-word festival, held at the Greenway Court Theatre.
The four-day event featured daily writing and performance workshops and nightly showcases celebrating the creative landscape of artists on the slam poetry scene.
Over one hundred poets, including burgeoning rhymesters and veteran Tony Award winners, graced the stage of the Greenway Court Theatre, as a sold-out audience cheered them on night after night.
“InkSlam allowed L.A. residents to see poetry in a light different from the one they were used to,” said inkSlam director Shihan Van Clief, who performs as Shihan. He is also a founding member of Da’ Poetry Lounge, the nation’s largest ongoing open mic series, which takes place Tuesdays at Greenway Court. “Most people have a junior high or high school reference point for poetry, which was, for a lack of a better term, ‘old’… We offered poetry from a young perspective.”
The festival aims to re-brand poetry as something anyone and everyone can enjoy, according to Van Clief. There were craft workshops geared towards the youth as well as business workshops to better inform poets on how to make art their livelihood in today’s multifaceted market.
“[The poetry scene] had been defunct for years,” said Van Clief. “There was and is still a definite need for more art-based programs in L.A., and we figured this would be a good starting point; we wanted to create the best poetry festival Los Angeles has ever seen.”
Now inkSlam is making that dream a reality. A spoken-word competition was added to the festival’s agenda, making inkSlam a true poetry slam. In good fun, eight teams competed for the title of inkSlam champion over the course of the last two days of the festival.
Da’ Poetry Lounge, the seasoned home team, came in first, with a team from Santa Cruz finishing an incredibly close second.
“Santa Cruz Slam team snuck in under the radar and surprised a lot of folks,” said Van Clief. “Their group work was just very well thought out and executed to a tee; they made me rethink some of the group material our team had.”
To ensure that the festival would end on the most engaging, and humorous, of notes, the second place team received their $750 cash prize in quarters, leaving third and fourth place winners to receive theirs in dimes and pennies respectively.
Photo: Shihan at a workshop about the business of spoken word. Credit: Cheryl Klein.
Poet Rusty Morrison, also cofounder of ten-year-old press Omnidawn Publishing, has seen both sides of literary competition. Her first book, Whethering,won the Colorado Prize for Poetry (Center for Literary Publishing, 2004), and was followed a few years later by the true keeps calm biding its story, published in 2008 as part of the Sawtooth Poetry Prize from Ahsahta Press. The book went on to win the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. Morrison has also received the Poetry Society of America's Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award, Cecil H. Hemley Award, and Robert H. Winner Award. Her most recent collection, Book of the Given, was selected for publication by Noemi Press in 2010 a few years after she'd submitted a shorter version of the book to (but didn't win) the press's chapbook contest.
On the flip side, Morrison's press, which she runs with her husband, Ken Keegan, administers its own series of competitions, with two poetry book prizes (a new contest launched this summer) and one chapbook award. We caught up with her recently to discuss what it's like to have a foot in two realms, and to get her insider's take on using contests to find a place for one's work in the world.
What do you look for in a contest? What has inspired you to submit your work for particular awards? I enter contests for full books and for series of poems. Both kinds of contests excite my interest. Probably the most important criteria for me in choosing to enter a contest are my respect for—and feeling of kinship with—the publication or the press that is offering the contest. New presses and journals are as valid and worthy of my respect as older ones. But I want to feel that I admire the choices made by the press or the journal, and I want to see that their aesthetic is aligned with mine, regarding both the work chosen and the way it is presented.
How did you know your manuscripts were ready to go out? I am an avid believer in revision, so most all of my work has undergone distinct stages in the revising process. I believe that it's in the process of revision that I can bring the most excitement into my writing. Of course, I'm not talking about the fine-tuning that happens at the very end of the process. I'm talking about a wilder, riskier kind of revision, in which I attempt to open opportunities in the work that I can't see during the initial writing process.
I try to take most works through a few stages of revision, and then let the work sit for a few days, or a week, or more. When I return to it, I look again and attend to it with my most open-spirited perceptions, to see if something more might want to arrive in the work. And I let myself add and change quite radically, as I follow my intuitions. After I've done this a few times, I usually have the sense that a work has given me all the possible inspirational opportunities it has, or that I can glean from it. That's when I'm ready to hone it, and I let myself become more overtly conscious/critical, and I do the fine-tuning that I think helps finish a piece. Usually, I let it sit a day or two, and see how the 'honing' looks. I never send out a piece that I've just changed in any way. If I make a change, then I let the poem sit another day.
I've just described the way that I work with a poem series, but this is similar to the way that I perceive a full manuscript. I see a manuscript as a constellation of smaller units of difference. As I work on a manuscript as a whole, I want to bring my attention to those differences, as well as to the larger arc of alignments that will give the manuscript a sense of wholeness. So when I bring a number of these series together in the manuscript, they often change in ways I can't predict. When I am in this manuscript-creating process, I am often surprised by what emerges in a smaller series, once it comes into the manuscript. In this process, I am often revising again. I'm not after uniformity, but actually, I'm again seeking surprises. I want to let difference and surprise emerge in ways that provoke and challenge me, and, I hope, might excite a reader too. I suppose I begin to trust that a manuscript is ready to be sent out if I see that it has taken me through a process of evolution, and that it has constellated into a force that reflects that evolution.
Have you also submitted your manuscript to publishers outside of a competition? I have, but I haven't had any publications come from that process. Recently, Noemi Press published a new work of mine. But that occurred because I'd sent to their contest. My work didn't win, but the press was interested in publishing it.
Has being a contest administrator changed the way you look at writing prizes or modified your practice of submitting work in any way? I have more appreciation for how much work goes into running a contest. I'm actually one of the manuscript readers, or screeners, so I do not manage the database or the contacts. This protects me from seeing anyone's names. But I know how vigilant Ken Keegan, my press partner, is in tracking work and contacting writers if there's anything amiss in their submission process. And, I can see how much time this takes him. So when I submit I try to get everything ready, and then let it sit a day. Then, the next day, I look over the work one more time and I check over everything that is required. I understand all too well that when I am nervous about my poems, and focused on the writing, I may be neglectful of the other details: getting my cover page right, getting my payment made correctly, etcetera. Getting these little things right will make a contest administrator's life much easier, and I want to be sure I'm sending in a submission that is easy to accept.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of receiving an award? Is there a prize that has been of particular value to you? It is such a shock and honor and pleasure to win an award. Every award has given me a sense of recognition that is deeply and powerfully moving. After each award, I've found myself in a haze of amazement for days. I suppose that winning a prize is both marvelous and a little frightening. Generally, in my creative life, I work very hard to trust within myself that the most important thing is to keep writing and to keep growing as a writer. I try to focus on that, and not upon how well the poems succeed in finding an audience. But then, if and when I win a prize, I feel such a thrill, such a rush of surprise to imagine that there is actual acknowledgement in the reading public for my work. It is a little scary because it broadens my trust in the work's ability to make contact and to give something to readers that they value. And it increases my hope that my future poems will have relevance for readers. It is such a different feeling from the one I can cultivate for myself, internally, as I do the work and acknowledge the risk and gratification of the work itself. So winning a contest opens me to more expectations, more awareness, and this is a good thing, as long as I keep it in perspective.
As both a writer and a publisher, what piece of advice do you have for writers looking to contests as a way to get their work into the world? I think that my best advice is to keep sending out the work. I know this seems obvious, but so many writers slow down, or give up on the submission process. I send my work to many, many, many contests each season. I try to do it without worry, without thinking about winning. I just do it as a step in my own internal process of poem development. I consider the moment of "sending something out" as an accomplishment. It marks the poem or the series or the manuscript as having come-of-age.
When the work returns to me, if it isn't accepted—which is so often the case—I just reconsider it, and often find myself entering into some bit of revision. The work continues to stay fresh to me that way. So submitting—to contests as well as other forms of submission—is a way to get some distance on the work, and then meet it again, when it returns. In that meeting, it might want to grow and might ask me to grow too, in some form of rethinking or revision. But it might also simply still feel "finished" and then I send it out again. And sometimes, the work is accepted somewhere or it wins a contest, and that is incredibly sweet!
In the video below, Morrison reads from her series "Necessities and Inventions" at a San Francisco salon last summer.
Correction: An earlier version of this post inaccurately stated that Morrison's Book of the Given had been a finalist for Noemi Press's poetry book award. The book was not a finalist for that award, but rather had been entered into Noemi Press's chapbook contest in a shorter form, and, though it did not win, the book was later published by the press in an expanded version.
Joining the ranks of Herman Hesse and Sigmund Freud, Syrian-born poet Adonis is the first Arabic-speaking writer to win the triennial Goethe Prize for literature. The eighty-one-year-old poet, whose Selected Poems in a translation by Khaled Mattawa (Yale University Press, 2010) recently won the 2011 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, received fifty thousand euros at a ceremony last Sunday, Goethe's birthday. (The prize is worth approximately $71,365.)
Goethe himself introduced aspects of Arabic literature to European readers—inspired by the Persian poet Hafiz, Goethe published the poetry collection West-östlicher Divan (West-Eastern Divan) in 1819. In a reversal, according to the prize judges, "Adonis has carried the accomplishments of European modernity into Arabic cultural circles, with great effect."
"I wanted to draw on Arab tradition and mythology without being tied to it," said Adonis of his process in an interview with the New York Times (via the Guardian). "I wanted to break the linearity of poetic text—to mess with it, if you will. The poem is meant to be a network rather than a single rope of thought."
Adonis, who adopted his pen name at the age of nineteen (he was born Ali Ahmad Said Esber), is the author of more than twenty books of poetry including Mihyar of Damascus (BOA Editions, 2008), A Time Between Ashes and Roses (Syracuse University Press, 2004), and If Only the Sea Could Sleep (Green Integer, 2002).
Washington, D.C.–based poet Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of Shahid Reads His Own Palm and the memoir A Question of Freedom, blogs about headlining at the P&W-supported reading series LouderARTS earlier this year.
The LouderARTS reading series at Bar 13 is classic. Walking towards it, you could miss it if you weren’t paying attention. The stairs leading up to the entrance had me thinking of a horror film, where the expected becomes something frightening. The door opens to dim lights, a large space filled with people, a bar wet with alcohol, and poetry banging against the walls.
It’s only fair to admit that I’ve read at Bar 13 once before. Three, maybe four, years had passed since the last time I’d read there. The crowd seemed more aware of the little things that make a poet crave the mic. Patrick Rosal, author of the forthcoming Boneshepherds, was in the audience rubbing shoulders with young poets as they all enjoyed the moment with something cold to drink.
I sat at the bar for near an hour waiting for my turn, listening to the crowd scream out lines of their favorite poems. I get a little nervous reading after six or seven poets have read and the audience has already been read to for an hour or so.
That night I read poems I’ll likely never read again. A suite of sorts, and the intimacy of the space allowed it to happen. I get all these images in my head when thinking about poetry and poetry readings. The one that nestles most comfortably is my imaginings of Bar 13. It isn’t just the alcohol. It isn’t just that Lynne Procope and Marie-Elizabeth Mali are both electric poets and excellent hosts. It isn’t the slam competition. It’s that all of those things fit perfectly into this intimate space where people come to listen.
Photo: Reginald Dwayne Betts. Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths.
In honor of the birthday (August 30, 1797) this week of Mary Shelley, author of the classic Frankenstein, a novel she based on a dream, write a horror story, using material from your most memorable nightmares, should you need it.
New York City's Center for Fiction, formerly the Mercantile Library, has announced the seven-strong shortlist for its Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. The ten-thousand-dollar award will be given at the Center's annual benefit on December 6, where the organization will also honor Scribner editor in chief Nan Graham with the Maxwell E. Perkins Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Field of Fiction.
The shortlisted debut novels are The Free World by David Bezmozgis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), The Sweet Relief of Missing Children by Sarah Braunstein (Norton),Daughters of the Revolution by Carolyn Cooke (Knopf), The History of History by Ida Hattemer-Higgins (Knopf), Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam (Other Press), Shards by Ismet Prcic (Black Cat), and Touch by Alexi Zentner (Norton).
Your assignment is to go wild. Let the sacred and profane language spill from you without censor. Find the wildest part of your personality and give it full vent for five pages. Forget about obedience of language, of character, of form. Forget about what is proper. Write the feral sentences you've been afraid to say in public. Have no shame for a spell. Free yourself from the confines of a well-behaved syntax, of expected word choice. Here's my hell-bent, uninhibited narrator from Busy Monsters, Charlie Homar, after making a rather asinine decision involving a firearm: "My mission shat upon by the Miocene logic and cruel outcomes afflicting all those with pluck but no punctilio, with hearts that run on gasoline: okay, I overreacted, I admit it." Never rely on the available jargon. For five nonstop pages, surprise yourself with the ecstatic language you know is in you. This week's fiction prompt comes from William Giraldi, author of the novel Busy Monsters, published by W. W. Norton in August.
Washington, D.C.–based poet Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of Shahid Reads His Own Palm and the memoir A Question of Freedom, blogs about participating in a P&W-supported reading curated by the creative writing program at New York University in April 2010.
Raina J. Leon, January Gill O’Neil, and myself—I couldn't have asked for more. The three of us at NYU on a rainy Friday night. And, Cornelius Eady and Yusef Komunyakaa sat in the audience alongside emerging poet Rickey Laurentis and Catherine Barnett, a professor at NYU. The room was claustrophobic...in a good way. People squeezed in tight with nothing but poetry keeping them from going out into the rain.
I still remember Raina’s final poem about her brother. Haunting, the poem has left a lasting impression. Many of her poems do this, give me pause. And January, January read the best sex poem I’ve heard in years! A poem so filled with yearning and the unexpected that I thought the audience would soon depart to find love in the rain. The audience stayed, and allowed me to read a poem or two.
A few weeks before the reading, I Skyped with Catherine Barnett’s class. Some students from that class showed up, and one of the coolest things happened. Paul, one of Catherine's students, gave me The Prison Diary of Ho Chi Minh. He took the time to pass on the book and make some really humbling comments about my work. Folks read and write for millions of reasons, but the one that is most important to me is connecting with others.
Photo: Reginald Dwayne Betts. Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths.