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The Academy of American Poets announced yesterday the recipients of the 2015 Academy of American Poets Prizes, which honor poets at various stages in their careers. The organization awarded more than $200,000 in prizes this year to poets including Joy Harjo, Marie Howe, Kevin Young, Todd Portnowitz, Kathryn Nuernberger, and Roger Greenwald.

Joy Harjo received this year’s Wallace Stevens Award, given annually in recognition of “outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry.” The award, established in 1994, carries a $100,000 stipend. Past winners include John Ashbery, James Tate, and Adrienne Rich. Harjo is the author of several poetry collections, most recently Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (Norton, 2015). Harjo was chosen by the Academy’s Board of Chancellors; Academy chancellor Alicia Ostriker said of Harjo, “Her visionary justice-seeking art transforms personal and collective bitterness to beauty, fragmentation to wholeness, and trauma to healing.”

Marie Howe received the 2015 Academy of American Poets Fellowship, an annual prize of $25,000 given for “distinguished poetic achievement.” The winner is nominated and chosen by the Board of Chancellors. Howe is the author of three poetry collections, most recently The Kingdom of Ordinary Time (Norton, 2009). Academy chancellor Arthur Sze said, “[Howe’s] poems are acclaimed for writing through loss with verve, but they also find the miraculous in the ordinary and transform quotidian incidents into enduring revelation.”

Kevin Young won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for his collection Book of Hours (Knopf, 2014). The $25,000 prize is given annually for a poetry collection published in the United States during the previous year. Marie Howe, A. Van Jordan, and Donald Revell judged. Jordan said, “Book of Hours exemplifies what poetry can do in the world when language works at its full power.”

Todd Portnowitz received the Raiziss/de Palchi Translation Fellowship for his translation from the Italian of of poet Pierluigi Cappello’s Go Tell It to the Emperor: Selected Poems. The biennial fellowship recognizes “outstanding translations of modern Italian poetry into English,” and offers an award of $25,000 and a five-week residency at the American Academy in Rome. Adria Bernardi, Luigi Fontanella, and Giuseppe Leporace judged. “Portnowitz, in his tireless and remarkably refined effort," said Leporace, "has brilliantly grasped and then seamlessly transposed into English all the imagery and linguistic complexities contained in the work at hand.”

Kathryn Nuernberger is the recipient of the James Laughlin Award for her poetry collection The End of Pink (BOA Editions, 2016). The annual prize recognizes a “superior second book of poetry by an American poet,” and carries with it a cash award of $5,000, as well as a weeklong residency at the Betsy Hotel in Miami. Roger Greenwald won the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award for his book Guarding the Air: Selected Poems by Gunner Harding (Black Widow Press, 2014). Bill Johnston judged. The $1,000 award is given annually for a poetry collection translated from any language into English that was published during the previous year.

Established in 1934, the Academy of American Poets is the largest nonprofit organization supporting the work of American poets.

Photos: Joy Harjo, Marie Howe (credit: Benjamin Norman), Kevin Young

This week, think back to your childhood, and the teachers who taught you through elementary and middle school. Choose one of your former teachers and write a list of his most distinctive characteristics—maybe a bizarre hairstyle, his old blue car, or a rumor you remember about him. Write an essay reflecting on what makes this teacher memorable and significant in your life, what you might say if you bumped into him today. Would either of you have any regrets to discuss?

Louisiana poet Dennis Formento lives in Slidell, Bayou Bonfouca watershed, with his wife Patricia Hart, an artist and yogini. He has been published in the Lummox Poetry Anthology (Lummox Press, 2014), the Maple Leaf Rag V (Portals Press, 2014), and on the blog Water, Water Everywhere. Formento’s latest book is Cineplex (Paper Press, 2014). He teaches English at Delgado Community College and is New Orleans’s coordinator for 100 Thousand Poets for Change, a worldwide movement for peace and sustainability.

Poet and translator El Habib Louai, a resident of Agadir, Morocco, performed with a killer band of free jazz all-stars in a show produced by Surregional Press of Slidell, Louisiana. Poets & Writers partially funded the performance, which took place on July 31 at the Zeitgeist Theater in New Orleans.

While emigration proceedings in Canada prevented one member of Louai’s Neo-Beat Amazigh Band from arriving in New Orleans, and another member remained in New York City, Louai played on. He was backed by Ray Moore (saxes and flute), Jeb Stuart (acoustic bass), Will Thompson (keyboards), and Dave Cappello (drums). Louai also read from his book Mrs. Jones Will Now Know: Poems of a Desperate Rebel (Paper Press, 2015).

About fifty-five people attended at Zeitgeist Multidisciplinary Art Center on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in the Central City neighborhood. Central City is downtown, and O. C. Haley was the main stem of African American business in town decades ago, before much business was diverted to the Canal Street district. Zeitgeist, its neighboring art center, the Ashé Center, and the now shuttered Neighborhood Gallery, came to O. C. Haley in the early aughts, spearheading a revitalization of the area.

Louai captured a diverse audience: Arab students from the University of New Orleans, African American and white scholars, and poets from various scenes around town. A “welcoming committee” of local writers began the session with poems of their own: Valentine Pierce, Scott Nicholson (backed by Will Thompson), Andrea Young and husband, Khaled Hegazzi—whose contribution was a handful of translations of contemporary Egyptian poets—and Jessica Mashael Bordelon. I joined in, reading a portion of Allen Ginsberg’s “America” before Louai’s translation into Arabic of that famed satire.

Andrea Young said she was gratified that poetry in Arabic and English had finally found a crossroads in the Crescent City. She and her husband publish a magazine called Meena, from their homes in New Orleans and Alexandria, Egypt.

The performance not only brought to the city Louai’s translations from the New American poetry and Beat traditions, but also helped open cultural dialogue and exchange. It’s been hard to find Arab poets and literati in New Orleans, despite the fact that it is home to thousands of Arabs, some of whom have had family here for decades.

Louai visited a number of poetry venues in the two weeks that he spent at my house in Slidell: the Tekrema Center for Art and Culture in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans; the famed Maple Leaf Bar Everette Maddox Memorial Reading; and a meeting of the St. Tammany Parish group, 100 Thousand Poets for Change: Northshore. He went on radio: Rudy Mills’s Gumbo Tapado Show on WBOK-AM and WWOZ-FM’s “World Journey” program with Suzanne Corley. On August 1, Louai performed at Fair Grinds Coffee House, accompanied on djembe, tambourine, and castanets by poet/percussionist Gamma Flowers and myself. Finally, he played a house concert at my place with backing by Jeb Stuart on bass—a first in Slidell.  

Photo (top): Louai, Moore, and Cappello. Photo Credit: El Habib Louai.

Photo (bottom): Louai and band. Photo Credit: El Habib Louai.

Support for Readings & Workshops events in New Orleans, Lousiana 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.

Designed by the French robotics company, Aldebaran, Pepper the robot is able to read emotions and respond accordingly, and has the ability to learn over time. Write a short story imagining that your protagonist has somehow acquired one of these highly sought-after robots. What plans or hopes does he have for Pepper? Will having the robot turn out to be a nightmare or a dream come true?

Choose a memorable character from a movie—someone from an old Western or a James Bond film, for example—and write a poem inspired by this on-screen persona. What are the most striking aspects of her style or demeanor? Focus on connecting specific details, like a certain way of walking or talking or dressing, to her emotional state to create a lyrical portrayal of this larger-than-life character.

In Mary Karr's new book, The Art of Memoir (Harper, 2015), she writes that "from the second you choose one event over another, you're shaping the past's meaning." Think of a significant event from your past that you've written about before. Make a list of three other events or changes that were occurring in your life around that same time. Write an essay about one of these "secondary" events, focusing on deriving personal or emotional meaning out of this seemingly less impactful event.

In the recent animated film, Inside Out, the main character’s mind is steered by five personified emotions—anger, disgust, fear, joy, and sadness. Imagine a scene in which your main character suddenly feels one of these emotions intensely. Jot down a list of colors, sensations, and personality traits you associate with this emotion. For example, if you choose anger, you might find yourself thinking of the color red, heat, erratic gestures and movements, and loud noises. Write a short story in which this emotion completely overtakes your character’s personality, using vivid sensory details to match the atmosphere and tone.

The Rona Jaffe Foundation has announced the six recipients of the 2015 Rona Jaffe Writers’ Awards, which are given annually to emerging women poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers. The awards “identify and support women writers of exceptional talent in the early stages of their careers.” Each winner receives $30,000.

The 2015 recipients are poets Ashley M. Jones of Birmingham, Alabama, and Britteney Black Rose Kapri of Chicago; fiction writers Vanessa Hua of Orinda, California, Amanda Rea of Denver, and Natalie Haney Tilghman of Glenville, Illinois; and nonfiction writer Meehan Crist of New York City. Visit the website for the winners’ complete bios.

The six recipients will be honored at a private reception in New York City on September 17. The Rona Jaffe Foundation solicits nominations for the awards each year from writers, editors, publishers, academics, and other literary professionals; a committee of judges selected by the foundation chooses the recipients.

Since writer Rona Jaffe established the awards program in 1995, the foundation has awarded more than $2 million to over one hundred twenty women writers. Past recipients include poets Erin Belieu, Tracy K. Smith, and Mary Szybist; fiction writers Rebecca Lee, ZZ Packer, and Tiphanie Yanique; and nonfiction writers Rachel Aviv, Eula Biss, and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts.

Clockwise from top left: Ashley M. Jones, Britteny Black Rose Kapri, Vanessa Hua, Amanda Rea, Natalie Haney Tilghman, Meehan Crist

Do your poems tend to be loud or quiet? Try your hand at switching up your writing's volume. Write a poem that's noisy and full of hard consonants and cacophonous sounds, or write a calmer poem that whispers with a softer rhythm and smoother pacing. Perhaps you can transform your piece by altering capitalization or punctuation, or by italicizing. When you increase or decrease the levels in your poem, are the types of images or emotions that come to mind drastically different?

Joe Young is the librarian for the Frandsen Library at the Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall and the Lesher Library at the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility, both in California's East Bay region. The Frandsen and Lesher libraries opened their doors in November of 2006, with the mission to promote a love of literature and reading, support educational curriculum, and encourage the development of a lifelong habit of self-directed learning. Young furthers this mission by working to bring a wide variety of authors, artists, and speakers to visit the young men and women his libraries serve. This post is a report on one such P&W-supported event—a visit to the Lesher Library at the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility from Coe Booth. Booth is the author of Tyrell (Push, 2007), which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Best Young Adult Novel and was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults and a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age.

Joe YouungIt was an unseasonably hot May morning in the San Francisco Bay when I pulled up to the Berkeley address where author Coe Booth was staying. Sweat dripped down my forehead and into my eyes as I anxiously knocked on the door. I was nervous!

In my world, Coe Booth is a big deal. Her books Tyrell (Push, 2007), Bronxwood (Push, 2013), Kendra (Push, 2010), and Kinda Like Brothers (Scholastic Press, 2014) fall into the sweet spot of urban fiction for young adults that is exciting, authentic, and has a positive message. Her books also happen to be some of the most consistently popular titles in my libraries.

Coe greeted me with a warm smile. After a quick introduction we loaded into my car and embarked on the hour-long commute to the Byron Boys Ranch.

Established in 1960 on the site of a converted cattle ranch in Byron, California, the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility (colloquially known as the Byron Boys Ranch) is a minimum security treatment center for adolescent delinquent youngsters, and the home of the Lesher Library. After a brief introduction and orientation from the probation staff, the sixty-three young men residing at the Boys Ranch were gathered and assembled in the dusty gym. Then, Coe took the stage and addressed the young men. 

She read and spoke eloquently, honestly, earnestly, with passion and poise. She spoke about being an author and a woman and an African-American. She spoke about where her stories come from, how her characters are born, what parts of herself she puts into her stories, and what she hopes to communicate to the reader. The young men sat and listened, some seemingly indifferent, some in eager, rapt attention.

After talking for the better part of an hour, Coe asked if anybody in the audience had questions. At first the young men were hesitant, but after a bit of coaxing the questions gleefully poured forth: "Are you famous?" "Where do you live?" "How do you come up with characters’ names?" "Are you rich?" "Why did you want to be a writer?" "Do you feel proud of the books you wrote?" "How can I get a book published?" "Could we write a book together?" Coe made sure to answer every question, connecting with each young man who reached out to her.

Coe BoothCoe spent just over two hours with the young men. As we drove back to Berkeley through the shimmering, midday heat, my car’s air conditioning sadly failing us once again, I was struck by how she was both down-to-earth and larger-than-life.

This woman—who I had talked with so comfortably during our car ride, sharing our small, personal thoughts and concerns—was transformed in front of my eyes during those two hours. She stood in front of that group of young men, who were a unique combination of worldly sophistication and childish naivety, and gave freely of herself. She gave them honesty and compassion. She held herself up as a role model—imperfections and all—and told them: "What I have done, you can do." She believed in them and believed in their ability to change and improve, and become the people they want to become. And, even if just for those two hours, the boys believed, too.

Photos: (top) Joe Young. (bottom) Author Coe Booth addressing boys at the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility. Credit: Amy Bowen, Joe Young.

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

This week, choose a pair of shoes that you own or have owned that has significance to you. Perhaps it's the first pair of dress shoes that you purchased, the well-worn sneakers that you wear over and over again, or a pair of shoes that you've never worn but can't bear to toss out. Write an essay about your connection to these shoes, describing them in detail and thinking about the specific qualities that drew you to them in the first place. What do they say about your personality? Where have they accompanied you already, and where might they take you in the future?

In the ​game of telephone, a sentence is whispered down a line from person to person until the last person says the sentence out loud, which oftentimes turns out to be humorously different, and distorted by misunderstandings, from the original. Write a short story that opens with a dialogue between two characters talking on the phone. After the conversation is finished, imagine that one character has completely misheard or misinterpreted something the other character has said. What are the consequences? Is the chain of events that the error sets off tragic or funny, relatively insignificant or life-changing?

In the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Dean Young talks about his earliest recollection of writing a poem as a child and the realization that, "you could make up reality with language.... You could write the words blue cow, for example, and there'd be a blue cow." Make a list of five vivid but nonsensical phrases describing things that don't exist in reality. Then, choosing one of the phrases to use as a first line, write a poem that is unrestrained by fact or conventional logic. Rather than focusing on consistency or reason, allow your imagination to quickly zigzag from one surprising image, sound, or emotion to the next.

Michael Kearns spent ten years as the artist-in-residence at the Downtown Women’s Center in Skid Row and currently helms Writing Works at Housing Works in Los Angeles on a weekly basis. He is the creator and Artistic Director of QueerWise, a collective of GLBTQ writers who have gained a reputation as one of Los Angeles’s stalwarts in the world of spoken word performance.

Michael KearnsWhat makes your workshops unique?
I really spend a lot of time on the prompt and aim for specificity—the same thing I ask of my students. In the case of QueerWise, which meets fifty-two weeks out of the year, it is my responsibility to mix the palette—from the political to the personal, from the past to the present, from the angst of day-to-day to the joy of living more than five decades. I am also very clear about feedback from the group, insisting that no one “rewrite” but rather offer positive comments that embolden rather than weaken each other. Criticism is contextualized in the form of questions that may be pertinent to understanding the material; no rewriting suggestions, please.
 
What techniques do you employ to help shy writers open up?
A writer must feel safe. I can’t say, “Abracadabra! You’re safe.” But I can create a tone. I stress that no one in the room is there to judge and if I get a whiff of it: “See you later, alligator.” While I look at grammar and punctuation (and provide assistance when needed), I also assure students that I’m looking for stories. And I want heart as well as blood and guts. Humor never hurts.
 
What’s the strangest question you’ve received from a student?
It likely had to do with sex, but I’m too old to remember.
 
What has been your most rewarding experience as a workshop leader?
There are so many. I had a man in his fifties come into my workshop, having never written a word. He had been on the verge of death for more than a decade, defying throat cancer on a daily basis. From the first few sentences he read aloud, I knew he was a natural born writer. He had only recently found housing, after living in his van. I looked at his work and simply gave it the attention it deserved. I forcibly made him acknowledge that he is indeed a writer. This led to him going to college to take a writing class and seeking other writing teachers (which I encourage as long as he stays with me). There are times when a person must utter the four scary words: “I am a writer.” That's when the real work begins.
 
What effect has this work had on your life and/or your art?
My life and art are virtually melded and QueerWise enunciates that marriage. I take this work as seriously as I do any other aspect of my varied career. What began as a group of seven or eight writers (GLBT and over fifty) sitting around a table has—in four years—evolved into a successful troupe of Spoken Word Artists. That couldn’t have happened without the support of Poets & Writers. I learn from each student’s particular perspective, and I also learn when I evaluate how the material is landing on various audience members. That synergy gives me and my art a true uplift of the spirit.
 
What is the craziest thing that’s happened in one of your workshops?
In our QueerWise sessions, everyone is encouraged to get up and read (with no apologies, by the way). One night, our senior member (a mere eighty-five years old at the time), walked up to the music stand, confidently carrying a notebook containing his work for the evening. I don’t think he’d uttered a complete sentence when his pants fell to the floor, like a Barnum & Bailey clown act. Since we all share a palpable closeness, it was permissible to laugh. And no one laughed louder than Joe who, for the record, was wearing his Calvins.

Photo: Michael Kearns     Credit: Lisa Palombi

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

When something major happens in our lives, we often put some time between us and the event before we write about it. But sometimes, when we let too much time pass, the intense emotion of the event fades and is replaced by a more analytic, objective memory of the incident. In order to channel that sense of immediacy, put yourself back at the scene of a significant incident, right in the middle of the action. Something life-changing is happening to you at this very moment. Report on it. Make your statements short, energized, and to the point. Be sure you cover the Who, What, When, Where, and Why of the story. Sensationalize at your discretion. Skim over nitpicky details if necessary in order to get to the heart of the story.

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