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In a radio interview this week on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, fiction writer Donald Ray Pollock, whose most recent novel, The Devil All the Time, was published this month, talked about how he learned to write by typing out a story by an established author once a week. Use Pollock’s strategy this week, typing a story by an author whose writing you admire. After typing it out, print out a copy and carry it with you, reading and rereading it, making notes along the way. Let the process reveal the story’s gifts to you. Then begin a story of your own.

The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest announced, for the twenty-ninth year running, the worst sentence submitted to its annual race for the most wretched first line of an imaginary novel. The writer of this year's worst opener is professor and admitted punster Sue Fondrie, who teaches in the curriculum and instruction program at University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh. She will receive as her prize "a pittance."

Fondrie took top honors for the line—the shortest to win in contest history—"Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories."

The sentence joins a cast of other misfits, run-ons, and purple prose creations in genres such as crime, historical fiction, and romance, as well as a collection of "vile puns," selected for this year's auxiliary honors. The notable lines are posted on the Bulwer-Lytton website.

The contest, established 1982 by English professor Scott Rice at San Jose State University, is named for Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton, the author of the familiar opening line "It was a dark and stormy night." Entries are accepted via e-mail throughout the year.

Poet Olga Garcia, author of Falling Angels: Cuentos y Poemas and the chapbook Lovely Little Creatures, blogs about her experience facilitating a P&W-supported workshop at Southwest Bakersfield Library in Bakersfield, California.

When the California Center for the Book's David Gernand first connected me with Southwest Bakersfield Library to facilitate a memoir writing workshop, I had a sudden flashback.

When I was eight, my parents packed all five of us kids into an old, avocado-green station wagon and drove us to Bakersfield to pick onions. Once there, we toiled in the vicious heat, snapping enormous green scissors, filling coarse brown sacks with dusty white onions. One foreman came by every so often to halfheartedly shoo us kids off the field. Within minutes after he disappeared, we’d run back to our parents to help with the onion picking or the dragging of sacks that inevitably grew heavier with each added onion.

We were supposed to work the fields for several weeks that summer, but at night while we camped out and fought over the bare mattress laid out at the back of the station wagon, we beseeched our parents to take us home. The smell of onions permeated our clothes, skin, and hair. It burned our eyes and lingered on our tongues. After a few days, my father shook his head in defeat, saying we were the worst workers he had ever seen. As we drove out of Bakersfield, we waved goodbye to the onion fields from the rear window, promising never to return.

Thirty-three years later I’m in Bakersfield again, standing before a group of workshop participants at Southwest Library. It’s a small, ethnically diverse group of nine and their ages range from twelve to sixty. Some of them have aspirations of memoir writing; others have come simply to practice writing. I share my onion story as a means to discuss memoir writing (how place, sound, smell, and taste trigger snapshots of what we’ve lived). We do several exercises to probe into the personal stories archived in their bodies.

One exercise asks participants to write about a memorable place. Another asks them to use one of Sandra Cisneros’s vignettes as a springboard to write about their names. Both exercises produce intimate recollections, and it is through the sharing of these intimate recollections that we connect with one another.

Maria, the library branch supervisor, reveals a long-kept secret. “Well, you see,” she says “my name isn’t actually Maria.” The name was given to her by a group of Catholic nuns in the Philippines and it stuck. A great beginning to a memoir. Maritza, from Guadalajara, Mexico, was named after a character in a Brazilian soap opera. And Gene, the middle-aged man whose Mexican parents didn’t speak a word of English, was named after Gene Autry, the American performer known as the "Singing Cowboy." As Gene shares his story, his wife leans into him and mumbles, “I never knew that.”

Photo: Olga Garcia. Credit: Weenobee.com.

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

Approach a poem (or revise an existing poem) as if you were writing a fable. Keep a third-person point of view. Address the anthropomorphic qualities of the objects you introduce. Invite an animal or creature into the poem. Allow an invisible force to alter time and space. Instead of ending with a lesson or moral, try closing the poem with a question.

Earlier this month the Guardian revealed the one hundred thirty-six nominees for its annual First Book Award, posing the question, "what have we missed?" After inviting readers to suggest fiction and nonfiction titles not yet entered by publishers—who must pay an entry fee of one hundred fifty pounds (nearly two hundred fifty dollars) to submit each title—the newspaper collected more than a hundred responses, but the forum for discussion is still open.

On Monday the Guardian posted responses from a group of literary bloggers weighing in on the question. Asylum's John Self named Teju Cole's novel, Open City (Random House) as his missing title, and Bookslut's Jessa Crispin suggested Vanessa Veselka's novel, Zazen, and nonfiction title Who Is Anna Mendieta? by Christine Redfern and Caro Caron (Feminist Press), among others. Nic Bottomley of Mr. B's Emporium of Reading Delights and Jonathan Ruppin of Foyles both called out the novel Snowdrops by A. D. Miller (Atlantic Books).

Fictionbitch blogger Elizabeth Baines, looking for "books that don't fit the conception of the 'market' but, with the oxygen of a prize win, have the power to capture readers' imaginations and indeed change the terms of the market," selected as one of her titles James Franco's "brilliantly written" story collection Palo Alto, published by Faber in the United Kingdom and Scribner in the United States.

For the bloggers' full lists and to offer your own nominations, visit the Guardian's website. The long- and shortlists for the prize, worth ten thousand pounds (roughly sixteen thousand dollars), will be rolled out in the coming months, with a winner announced in the late fall.

Create a main character assigning basic characteristics, such as gender, age, and physical attributes. Imagine this character having dinner with three other people. At the end of this dinner, the character will have lost something significant—a job, a partner, a home. Write this scene at dinner, and then use it as a turning point for a larger story

The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage in Philadelphia has announced its 2011 fellows in the arts. Poets CAConrad and Pattie McCarthy are among the twelve Philadelphia-area artists, musicians, and innovators awarded sixty-thousand-dollar fellowships.

Conrad, who has lived in Philadelphia for twenty-five years, is a self-taught writer for whom "poetry and other art disciplines are forms of courage.” Innovator of a type of writing he calls "(Soma)tic poetry""instructions and recipes that invite the reader-listener into deeply embodied experiences," Conrad is the author of six books including The Book of Frank (Chax Press, 2009), The City Real & Imagined (Factory School, 2010), Advanced Elvis Course (Soft Skull Press, 2009), (Soma)tic Midge (Faux Press, 2008), and Deviant Propulsion (Soft Skull Press, 2006). His latest, (Soma)tic Poetry Exercises & Poems, is forthcoming from Wave Books this fall.

McCarthy studied creative writing at Temple University, where she earned her M.A. in 1998. Experimenting with language and narrative, her collections include Table Alphabetical of Hard Words (2010), Verso (2004), and bk of (h)rs (2002), all published by Apogee Press, and she is currently at work on a project involving various Marys of history and fiction (from the Virgin Mary to Marys who figured into the Salem Witch Trials, for instance).

The awards, now in their twentieth year, are given to Philadelphia-area artists and writers at any stage in their careers. While there is an entry process for nominees, those who may apply for the annual fellowships are selected by an anonymous panel familiar with artists working in the region.

In the video below, Conrad reads from his most recent collection, The Book of Frank.

Poet Olga Garcia, author of Falling Angels: Cuentos y Poemas and the chapbook Lovely Little Creatures, blogs about her experience facilitating a P&W-supported workshop with young Latina women.

In July of 2008, I was invited by Calaca Press to facilitate a two-day workshop in San Ysidro with eight young Latina women. The goal was to nurture these emerging writers via an intense writing workshop, publication, and public reading. The participants ranged in age from eighteen to thirty-three years old, and came from a variety of communities in Southern California—San Diego, Los Angeles, Ontario, and Montclair.

We gathered at The Front, a San Ysidro art gallery exhibiting political prints. Zapatistas and workers in struggle from around the world peered at us from the gallery walls as we began our journey. Our objective: connect with our bodies and excavate poems buried therein.  On that Saturday and Sunday, for fours hours each day, we explored different concepts of the body. We read Lucille Clifton’s “Hips,” Elba R. Sánchez’s “Me Siento Continente,” Michelle Tea’s rant to America, “The Beautiful. Yusef Komunyakaa sang praises to the flesh in his sensational poem, “Anodyne.” tatiana de la tierra gave us “Visions of Colombia.” And, Sandra C. Muñoz gave us a body manifesto entitled, “For My Sister Who Thinks I'm Unhappy Because I like her Don’t Wear a Size Six.” The words of these writers were our guides, providing constant inspiration and great poetic models.

Aside from reading and writing, we also played. Using collage materials from recycled magazines and newspapers, we created poster-sized body maps. These body maps served as springboards into writing exercises, allowing us to venture into poems about flesh, memory, and body scars. Sara Eslava, one of the participants, for example, wrote a celebratory ode to her curves, while Patricia Beltrán birthed a prose piece about a lover who failed to see the beauty in her cesarean scar.

In the weeks following, I worked with Calaca Press to compile and edit a small chapbook consisting of the women’s strongest work produced during the workshop. The women were encouraged to revise titles, flesh out gaps, and polish images. All of the women proved themselves extremely committed to the process and to improving their craft. Being a part of this unique project and working so closely with these women gave me more than they will ever know. They gifted me with the opportunity to be part of their evolution as writers, which has fueled my creative fire.

Photo: Olga Garcia. Credit: Weenobee.com.

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

Focus this week on collecting images, drawing on as wide a range of sources as possible. Cull family albums for interesting photos, visit online archives of images, cut out images from magazines or newspapers, take photos of buildings, billboards, birds—anything that strikes you as you make your way through each day. At the end of the week, assemble these on a table or tape them to a wall in your work space. Write a poem inspired by this collage.

The shortlist for the twentieth annual Forward Prize for Poetry, the U.K.-based award given for a collection by an established writer, a debut book, and a single poem, were announced this week. Among the finalists for the ten thousand pound best-collection prize (worth more than sixteen thousand dollars) isAmerican poet D. Nurkse, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, for Voices Over Water (CB Editions; first published in 1996 by Four Way Books in New York City).

Criticized by the Guardian for its all-male composition, the shortlist also includes former winners Sean O'Brien for November (Picador) and David Harsent for Night (Faber and Faber), as well as John Burnside for Black Cat Bone (Jonathan Cape), Geoffrey Hill for Clavics (Enitharmon Press), and Michael Longley for A Hundred Doors (Jonathan Cape). While women writers have historically had a strong representation among debut prizewinners, only three women poets, including U.K. poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, have received the top award.

The debut collections cited for this year's one-thousand-pound honor are Rachael Boast for Sidereal (Picador), Judy Brown for Loudness (Sidereal), Nancy Gaffield for Tokaido Road (CB Editions), Ahren Warner for Confer (Bloodaxe Books), John Whale for Waterloo Teeth (Carcanet Press), and Nerys Williams for Sound Archive (Seren).

Nominated for best poem are R. F. Langley, who died in January, for "To a Nightingale," Alan Jenkins for "Southern Rail (The Four Students)," Sharon Olds for "Song the Breasts Sing to the Late-in-Life Boyfriend," and Jo Shapcott for "I Tell the Bees."

The winners will be announced in October 5, the eve of U.K. National Poetry Day.

In the video below, Nurkse reads an "ecologically correct love poem," "The Present," at popular New York City poetry venue Cornelia Street Cafe.

This August will mark the twelfth year the Readings/Workshops program has supported poets taking part in the Tuolumne Meadows Poetry Festival at Yosemite National Park. The event is cofounded by ranger naturalist Margaret Eissler, who leads the park’s interpretive program and directs the Parsons Memorial Lodge Summer Series, a forum for the arts and sciences. Eissler’s answers to our questions bring to life the profound experiences this festival provides for her as project director, the poets, audience members, and more than a few lucky hikers.

What makes your program unique?
First, to get to Parsons Memorial Lodge, we walk an easy three-quarters of a mile on a trail across the meadow. Parsons Memorial Lodge, an historic gathering place, is a simple, rustic stone building with lodgepole pine beams and casement windows that overlook the Tuolumne River meandering through broad subalpine meadows surrounded by granite domes and peaks—all this with open sky. The lodge breathes this in and out through the windows and arched door. The setting, the intimate space, the audience—a warm and enthusiastic mix of park visitors, park staff, and residents from surrounding communities—make the experience unforgettable for everyone involved.

What have been the most memorable moments?
The consistently rapt and respectful audience. Poet and festival cofounder Patti Trimble wrote, “When I read, in that small room in the middle of Tuolumne Meadows, I felt viscerally that everyone in that room was right there with me. We were all experiencing, at the same moment, our human connection, our shared unexplainable nature within nature.”

Poet Jerry Martien remarking that the experience seemed to him the essence of community in the largest sense of the word: the perfect balance and combination of people with place—the rocks, river, bears, trees….  

Gary Snyder reading his Yosemite trail crew poems within the building made of granite surrounded by the mountains and meadows he loves.

Dorianne Laux reciting, almost singing/dancing, a Li-Young Lee poem by heart during a workshop by the river.

Li-Young Lee, more accustomed to life in the city, saying in wonderment, “Margaret, there is something about this place that is so personal. It is almost haunting. It is sacred.”

David Hinton reading ancient Chinese wilderness poetry.

Brian Turner sharing poems he had written in Iraq—poems that observe the landscape, the war, the people (all people: men, women, children, taxi cab drivers, suicide bombers, soldiers, medics), their culture, history, and relationships—placing the war within a far larger context than we usually hear. He was a messenger from a place most of us know so little about.

The student intern who told me after a presentation by Terry Tempest Williams that he wavers between hope and despair, but the event pushed him towards the side of hope.

The two young women coming off the trail to find themselves unexpectedly at Terry’s event—their eyes bright with excitement.

Cofounder Patti Trimble remembers other moments: “Coleman Barks reading Rumi's poems from seven hundred years ago, and later, saying ‘It's all about love, isn't it?’;  Pattiann Rogers’s long detailed list poems of nature's complexity; David Mas Masumoto’s connecting in a real way the Yosemite watershed with the Great Central Valley; the open mike: Parsons Lodge packed to standing room, fire blazing in the fireplace….”

And I will add, the working together that makes all this happen. That includes Poets & Writers, Inc., to whom I give many thanks for their very existence and long-time support. 

How do you find and invite readers?
I look for diverse voices that complement each other. It’s like planning a menu. I spend blissful hours in bookstores. I subscribe to magazines and investigate ideas. Friends recommend writers or books. I attend readings when I can. YouTube videos or recordings are helpful. When I send an invitation, I feel like I am casting a line. I wait for a response, hoping to get a bite. I love that I can offer an experience that is a gift to the writers and audience alike.

What is the value of literary programs for your community?
The intent of the Parsons Memorial Lodge Summer Series is to inform and inspire, to enrich the visitor’s park experience through a variety of perspectives, and to realize the possibilities inherent when connecting people with a magical place. Poetry fits perfectly within these parameters. I witness people—often people who say they don’t like poetry— discover the beauty and power of poetry for the first time. Ah! What more? Poetry gets to the essence of what it is to be alive, how to be in this world, how to live on this Earth. That’s why I do this.

Photos: (Top) Project director Margaret Eissler; (bottom) interior view of Parsons Memorial Lodge before a reading/presentation by Gary Snyder and Tom Killion. Credit: Arya Degenhardt.

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

Choose a unique historical moment, the first that comes to mind: the Crimean War, the first lunar landing, the invention of the wheel, or something seemingly less dramatic, such as the building of the first traffic light. Then spend some time researching the moment you chose—dig into a few sources, make a page of notes. Create a character who lives on the periphery of the event—a witness or minor player, yet someone living at the intersection of history. The character can be swept up by the event or remotely affected, battle against it or be its biggest cheerleader. Write his or her story.

The Caine Prize for African Writing, a major award given annually for a single short story written in English by an African writer, has been awarded to Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo, the pseudonym of Cornell University instructor Elizabeth Tshele. Since earning her MFA at Cornell, Tshele has remained with the university teaching composition and creative writing under the Truman Capote Fellowship.

The ten thousand pound prize (approximately sixteen thousand dollars) was awarded for the story "Hitting Budapest," published in the November/December 2010 issue of Boston Review. Tshele received her award at a ceremony in Oxford, England, yesterday.

"The language of ‘Hitting Budapest’ crackles," said chair of judges Hisham Matar. "This is a story with moral power and weight, it has the artistry to refrain from moral commentary. NoViolet Bulawayo is a writer who takes delight in language."

Also shortlisted for the award were Tim Keegan of South Africa for "What Molly Knew," Lauri Kubuitsile of Botswana for "In the spirit of McPhineas Lata," Beatrice Lamwaka of Uganda for "Butterfly dreams," and David Medalie of South Africa for "The Mistress’s Dog." All of the finalists' pieces originally appeared in story collections.

Poet Olga Garcia, author of Falling Angels: Cuentos y Poemas and the chapbook Lovely Little Creatures, blogs about her experience facilitating the P&W-supported workshop at Robidoux Library in Riverside, California, during May 2011.

Anton Chekhov wrote, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” I often use Esmeralda Santiago’s “How to Eat a Guava” to illustrate Chekhov’s point. In addition, I lay out an altar of fruits, vegetables, and sensory objects—there’s labor in carting around pineapples, baby watermelons, and football-sized conch shells, but for me the altar is ritual, the first thing I put up and the last thing I take down. Nowhere has the altar proven more effective than it did at Robidoux Library in Riverside, California.

Imagine a stampede of thirty teenagers who gravitate towards the altar, handling radishes and jalapeños, asking “Are we gonna eat these?” One spiky-haired kid quickly falls in love with a coconut. “Can I have this? Please!? Please!?”  Others follow his lead. Luckily, I’m not the only adult in the room. Arlene Cano, coordinator of the Jurupa Reads program, two English teachers from nearby schools, and the library’s youth coordinator are also present. Together, we manage to get everyone seated.

We begin with a listening game. I read “How to Eat a Guava” as they jot down phrases from the text that trigger their senses. When I ask for volunteers to share, they respond with a manic show of hands. “Dark green guava,” says one student. “The size of a tennis ball” and “prickly stem end,” adds another. “It smells like summer afternoons and hopscotch under a mango tree.”

Next, they’re invited to visit the altar and choose an object for our first writing exercise. They swarm the table. The spiky-haired kid clutches the coconut. I encourage them to smell and taste some of the items. They cringe and say “Ugh!” at the small bag of salted dried fish. I give them chia to taste. When the tiny, flavorless seeds magically gel on their tongues, they describe the texture as slimy, soft, Jello-y. One student grimaces. “Gross!” She rushes to spit the seeds into the trash.

The writing exercises feel chaotic because they’re fidgeting in their seats, calling out, “Me! Me! Can you help me?” But when they share aloud... poetry comes alive. The coconut transforms into a brown, hairy sun in an alien world. A seashell triggers the memory of a day at the beach with a now-deceased father. A waxy green poblano sizzles on a mother’s stove.

At the end of the workshop, they beg to keep the altar items. “Please! ¡Por favor!” I say yes to the edibles. Coconut kid beams. Others seize the pineapple, bananas, even the dry hibiscus flowers, and the cinnamon sticks. When they finally disperse, I’m spent yet completely satisfied. On the table, they leave behind scattered shells and stones—skeletal remains of an altar well feasted on.

Photo: Olga Garcia. Credit: Weenobee.com.

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

Make a list of the names of your family members and friends. Use all of them to create a poem. Try writing a tiny letter to each name, using free association to link each name with another word, or describing each briefly as if it were a character or object.

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