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Irene Sherlock's poems, essays, and short stories have been published in a variety of literary magazines and her poetry chapbook Equinox was published by Finishing Line Press in 2011. Since 2008, she has been writer-in-residence at the Adirondack Mountain Writers' Retreat. Sherlock is an addictions counselor in Danbury, Connecticut.

In the summer of 2008, I was asked to be the writer-in-residence at the Adirondack Mountain Writers' Retreat, organized by Perky Granger who directs an organization called Fiction Among Friends. Perky has been a recipient of grants from the Readings & Workshops Program at Poets & Writers for many years, and I was delighted to be paid to teach at this retreat. Never having done this kind of thing, I wondered if I’d be up to the task. I’d published work and had been an adjunct college writing instructor for years. Writing and being in the classroom were both a joy for me, but this would be something quite new: I’d be the sole developer of several workshops, leading a mix of both beginning and seasoned writers that I would weekend with, as well. Sounded fun. Sounded a little daunting.

The weekend Writers' Retreat experience, which sometimes lasts four days, is one of complete immersion. We discuss craft, writers, meals we’ve prepared, our love lives—even our kids’ lives. But mostly it’s about the thing that brought us together: what we’re writing now. The experience is both invigorating and somewhat exhausting and my guess is participants feel the same relief by retreat’s end. It’s like being at a wonderful but intense party that lasts for days, something I haven’t done since my early twenties.

I’m a therapist by trade and my day job demands that I listen well. These weekends require the yin and yang of when to listen and when to respond. Response is the trickier of the skills. When I lead a therapy group, I ask myself: Does it need to be said? Does it need to be said now? Does it need to be said by me?

Amazingly the process of leading a writing group and the process of doing therapy are quite similar. I wait and hope someone from the group will talk about where the piece comes to life, what needs to be cut. Who, I wonder, will address the writer’s aversion to letting us know how his or her character is feeling?

Both therapy and writing require courage, honesty, and a willingness to receive honest feedback. Both are connected to the process of self-expression, the work of creating art out of experience real or imagined, which oftentimes involves pain, confession, and sometimes transcendence.

Writing, like therapy, is a way to connect with the larger world. In an age of social networking and digitalized “sharing,” this weekend creates one of the most impactful ways to connect with others. It’s been my pleasure to act as writer-in-residence for eight years now, with support from the Readings & Workshops Program.  Much to my surprise, many of the same gifted participants come back each year. I really cannot take credit for that. Call it alchemy or just a stroke of luck on my part; whichever it is, I’ll keep returning, too, for as long as I’m asked.

Photo (Top): Irene Sherlock.  Photo (below):  Irene and Writer's Group. 

Photo Credit: Perky Granger

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.

Submissions are currently open for the Mark Fischer Poetry Prize. A prize of $1,000 will be given for a single poem written by a poet residing in the western United States that “best exhibit[s] the qualities of originality, novelty, complex meaning, linguistic skill, and wit.” Jack Mueller will judge. The winner will be honored in a ceremony during the Telluride Literary Arts Festival in Telluride, Colorado, on May 16.

Submit a poem of any length with the required entry form and a $6 entry fee by April 15. E-mail submissions are preferred, but writers may submit via postal mail to Telluride Institute PO Box 1770, Telluride, CO 81435. Multiple submissions are accepted. Poems of any length, form, and content will be considered. Visit the website for complete guidelines.

Now in its eighteenth year, the Mark Fischer Poetry Prize is cosponsored by San Miguel County Commissioner Elaine Fischer and San Miguel County Poet Laureate Peter Waldor. The prize pays tribute to the late Mark Fischer, a “much-loved poet, lawyer, skier, and raconteur.” The prize is hosted through a partnership with the Telluride Institute’s Talking Gourds poetry program, the Wilkinson Library, the Telluride Arts District, Ah Haa School for the Arts, and Arroyo’s Telluride. Art Goodtimes, director of Talking Gourds, said in a press release: “We’re pleased to be able to honor Mark’s memory with a contest that benefits Western poets.” For more information about the prize, e-mail Art Goodtimes.

Photo: Mark and Elaine Fischer

Sometimes you need to finish writing your piece before you can give it a proper title. This week, pick the title first and write your personal essay around it. If something doesn't immediately come to mind, try and model your title after one of your favorite stories, books, albums, or movies. Then, free write for twenty minutes on anything and everything that your title brings to mind. At the end, organize your notes and use them as a framework for your personal essay.

The PEN/Faulkner Foundation announced yesterday that Atticus Lish has won the 2015 PEN/Faulkner Award for his novel, Preparation for the Next Life (Tyrant Books, 2014). The $15,000 annual award is given for a book of fiction by an American author published in the previous year.

Judges Alexander Chee, Marc Fitten, and Dierdre McNamer chose Lish’s novel from 360 entries. “With ferocious precision, Atticus Lish scours and illuminates the vast, traumatized America that lives, works, and loves outside the castle gates," said McNamer. “The result is an incantation, a song of ourselves, a shout.”

Preparation for the Next Life, which tells the love story of a Chinese Muslim immigrant and an Iraq War veteran living in New York City, is Lish’s debut novel. The son of the renowned editor Gordon Lish, who famously edited the work of Raymond Carver, Atticus Lish spent five years quietly writing his novel before selling it to small press Tyrant Books for a modest advance of two thousand dollars.

The 2015 finalists for the prize are Jeffery Renard Allen for his novel Song of the Shank (Graywolf Press); Jennifer Clement for her novel Prayers for the Stolen (Hogarth); Emily St. John Mandel for her novel Station Eleven (Knopf); and Jenny Offill for her novel Dept. of Speculation (Knopf). Each finalist will receive $5,000.

Lish and the four finalists will be honored at the 35th annual PEN/Faulkner Awards ceremony at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. on May 2. The event is open to the public; tickets are available online.

C. S. Lewis used a wardrobe, J. M. Barrie used the second star to the right, and Lewis Carroll used a rabbit hole—each a gateway to another world. This week, pick an object that is important to you and transform it into a portal to an alternate world. Write a story about someone discovering the portal and adjusting to life where everything is foreign. Take into consideration where this secret passage is located and what it feels like to pass through it.  

Robert Frost wrote “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in one night while looking out the window by his desk. This week, allow yourself a moment to gaze out the window. Write a poem reflecting on what you see by creating a narrative around it. From the mailman dropping off a package across the street to the stray cat lounging on your sunlit porch, pick a character to observe and meditate on his or her perspective.

Best known for How I Became Hettie Jones (Grove Press, 1990), her memoir of the “beat scene” of the 1950s and 1960s, Hettie Jones is the author of twenty-three books for children and adults, including the award-winning Big Star Fallin’ Mama: Five Women in Black Music (Viking, 1974) and Drive (Hanging Loose Press, 1998) which won the Poetry Society of America's Norma Farber Award. Since 1979, Jones has taught creative writing at various universities, and is now on the faculties of the New School’s Graduate Writing Program and the 92nd Street Y Poetry Center. She was a member of the Literature Panel of the New York State Council on the Arts and subsequently served on the Board of Directors of Cave Canem. Jones was a NYFA Fellow in Nonfiction Literature in 2009, and a 2013-14 recipient of a Civic Engagement Grant from the New School as well as a grant from Poets & Writers for her work with New York City’s Lower East Side Girls Club. Love H, a selection from her forty-year correspondence with the sculptor Helene Dorn, is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Duke University Press. Full Tilt, a collection of new and selected poems, and In Care of Worth Auto Parts, a collection of linked short fiction, are also forthcoming.

There’s a danger, we’ve been warned, in knowing only “the single story.” Given any chance to change—or at least improve—this situation, I’ve jumped at it. But I’m certain I couldn’t have made those leaps without the help—and just as important, the validation—of Poets & Writers.

My first P&W-funded workshop took place in the late eighties at Sing Sing prison. A year later there were others, at the Bedford Hills women’s prison and elsewhere. By then I’d also taught writing in colleges for a decade and knew that a lot of voices were still to be heard. So over the years I’ve traveled, sometimes long distances, not only to prisons but community centers and senior centers and libraries and any other place set aside for a writing workshop. I’ve met all kinds of people and brought out their words.

But I’ve also been lucky enough to come home to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. And now—double luck!—I’ve been able to teach here, in my very own neighborhood, to both make a difference and keep it in view at the Lower Eastside Girls Club Center for Community.

And what a sight I was treated to when I arrived! A brand new building with a planetarium—moon and stars and space! A bakery and a sewing machine room for hands-on skills! A recording studio! A performance space! I had signed on to teach for a semester, but knew I was hooked. And when I discovered that I’d be teaching not girls but their mothers, I was thrilled. A mothers writing group, my first!

We began with poetry because most inexperienced people come to a writing workshop to write there—just as they’d go to woodworking with similar expectations—and it’s best to start short and provide a few relevant examples. But prose works, too (memoirs, personal essays). Such personal writing, as has been mentioned and I agree, should really not be called nonfiction but instead, non-poetry.

This past fall the Mothers Writing Group was into non-poetry. We wrote every Wednesday from 6:00-8:00 PM, in a large, high-ceilinged room on the second floor, with comfortable tables and chairs as well as a big couch where one of us might curl up and be alone with her pen and paper. Writing done, we read our work aloud, offered suggestions, and often were moved, sometimes to tears and always to applause.

Did I mention that, like any good mother, the Girls Club fed us snacks that were worthy of being called dinner?

Our chapbook of last fall’s work is still in preparation, but Poets & Writers will have their copy when it’s hot off the press. By the way, in our group photo below, the Airstream trailer we’re standing in front of is a recording studio where we recorded our first podcast. A trailer on the second floor? It was hoisted in before the roof was on. The Girls Club Center for Community is high-minded!

Photo Top: Hettie Jones. Photo Credit: Colleen McKay

Photo Bottom: Hettie Jones, WGRL station managers Kiya Vega-Hutchens and Odetta Hartman, and the Mothers Writing Group. Photo Credit: Amelia Holowaty Krales

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, A.K. Starr Charitable Trust and Friends of Poets & Writers.

Submissions are currently open for University of Utah Press’s Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize. The annual prize, which includes $1,500 and publication by University of Utah Press, is given for a poetry collection. The winner will also receive travel and lodging expenses and an additional $500 to give a reading at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Linda Bierds will judge.

Submit a manuscript of 48 to 100 pages with a $25 entry fee by April 15. Submissions can be made through Submittable, or via postal mail to University of Utah Press, c/o The Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry, J. Willard Marriott Library, 295 South 1500 East, Suite 5400, Salt Lake City, UT 84112.

Established in 2003, the Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize honors the poet Agha Shahid Ali (1949–2001). Ali taught at the University of Utah and published several poetry collections including Rooms Are Never Finished (Norton, 2001) and Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals (Norton, 2003). Recent winners of the prize include Sara Wallace for The Rival, Kara Candito for Spectator, and Mark Jay Brewin Jr. for Scrap Iron.

Judge Linda Bierds has published nine poetry collections, most recently Roget’s Illusion (Putnam, 2014). In Bierds’s 2009 interview with the Atlantic, Sarah Cohen describes the poet’s work as “distinguished by a precise and musical voice, a passionate eye for detail, and a distinctive, decades-long exploration of the lives and voices of well-known artists, scientists, and historical figures.” Bierds has judged several contests in the past; she selected Jonathan Thirkield as the winner of the 2008 Walt Whitman Poetry Award, and Anna Marie Craighead-Kintis as the winner of the 2012 Bellingham Review 49th Parallel Poetry Award.

British writer Will Self advises, “Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea forever.” This week, try carrying a notebook around with you. If you take notes on an electronic device, like your computer or mobile phone, try using old-fashioned pen and paper. At the end of the week, compile your notes into an essay about your day-to-day reflections.

Gold is one of the most valuable metals on this planet. People have been unearthing it, stashing it, and fighting over it for centuries. This week, write a story about a character who creates a large amount of imitation gold so convincing it passes for real gold. What circumstances compelled him to produce this form of counterfeit currency? What will he do with his “fool's gold?”  

Surprise a friend or loved one with a spontaneous poem today. Perhaps you've been very busy and haven't spoken to a friend in a while. Write her a little poem to catch her up on what's been going on with you and drop it in the mail. Or maybe your grandmother is in need of some cheering up. Read her a few lines over the phone to make her laugh. Don't put too much thought into rhyme scheme or structure; just go with the flow.

The Academy of American Poets announced today that Sjohnna McCray has won the 2015 Walt Whitman Award for his debut poetry collection, Rapture. McCray will receive $5,000, publication by Graywolf Press in 2016, a six-week paid residency in Umbria, Italy, and distribution of his book to all Academy members. He will also be featured on the Academy of American Poets website as well as in its print publication, American Poets.

Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Tracy K. Smith selected McCray as this year’s winner. Of McCray’s manuscript, Smith writes, “These poems are so beautifully crafted, so courageous in their truth-telling, and so full of what I like to think of as lyrical wisdom—the visceral revelations that only music, gesture and image, working together, can impart—that not only did they stop me in my tracks as a judge, but they changed me as a person. Sjohnna McCray’s is an ecstatic and original voice, and he lends it to family, history, race and desire in ways that are healing and enlarging. Rapture announces a prodigious talent and a huge human heart.”

McCray, forty-three, grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. He holds an MFA from the University of Virginia as well as a master’s in English education from Columbia University’s Teacher College. McCray received AWP’s Intro Journal Award and Ohio University’s Emerson Poetry Prize, and his poems have appeared in numerous publications including the Southern Review and Shenandoah. McCray currently lives and teaches in Savannah, Georgia.

Now in its fortieth year, the Walt Whitman Award is given annually for a first book of poetry. The prize was expanded last year to include the new partnerships with Graywolf Press and the Civatelli Ranieri Center. Earlier this month, the Academy also expanded eligibility criteria for all of its prizes to include non-citizens living in the United States. Previous winners of the Walt Whitman Award include Nicole Cooley, Suji Knock Kim, Eric Pankey, and J. Michael Martinez. 

The Academy of American Poets was founded in 1934 and is the “largest member-supported nonprofit organization fostering an appreciation for contemporary poetry and supporting American poets.” The Academy distributed over $200,000 in prize money to poets in 2014.

Photo: Sjohnna McCray (credit Aaron Mervin)

Caitlin Rother is the New York Times best-selling author and coauthor of ten booksfiction, nonfiction, and memoirincluding the forthcoming novel from Pinnacle, Then No One Can Have Her. A Pulitzer-nominated investigative journalist, Rother teaches narrative nonfiction and digital journalism at the University of California, San Diego Extension and San Diego Writers, Ink, and works as a book doctor and writing coach.

Caitlin RotherHow do you prepare for a reading or workshop?
I look for excerpts that are action-oriented, funny, hold some personal meaning or that I think will resonate with the audience. When I launched my mystery novel, Naked Addiction (WildBlue Press, 2014), at a library reading in La Jolla recently (thank you P&W), I chose one of my favorite passages, which describes a ceremony at Windansea beach that we locals call “Sunset.” The passage incorporates my personal connection with the beach and the ocean, and I hoped that reading it would help build a connection with audience members and entice them to read my book. I also read passages that were inspired by tragic personal events, including my late husband’s suicide. These provided me with a springboard to discuss how I draw from my own emotional knowledge and experiences when I create fictional characters, and when I write about the real people and events featured in my nonfiction books.

What’s the strangest comment you’ve received from an audience member or workshop participant?
Here’s one from a thirteen-year-old that made me laugh:
“Are you rich?”
“No,” I replied. “It is an urban myth that authors make tons of money on their books. That is really the exception. You should come outside and take a look at my car, which I’ve had since 1997.” 

What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why does it work?
I find that audiences respond to humor, honesty, and sincerity. One of my favorite jokes, which never fails, is when I tell audiences that I used to cover politics for a living, but I found that writing about murder felt, well, less dirty.

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve been a part of?
I was leading an exercise on how to tell true stories at a teen writing workshop recently (thanks again to P&W) and was amazed at some of the serious subject matter the participants came up with. One fourteen-year-old girl, whom I’ll call Marcia, volunteered in a quiet voice that a friend had confided to her that she’d been cutting herself. Marcia didn’t know what to do or how to help her. When I asked if anyone else knew about this, she said no, the friend hadn’t told anyone else and neither had she. I suggested that Marcia tell her own parents because that was a heavy burden to carry. It seems that everyone, at any age, has a deeply personal story to tell.

How does giving a reading or workshop inform your writing and vice versa?
It’s always rewarding and helpful to see what passages or topics resonate most with readers. And leading a workshop often reinforces the best practices to fix my own writing tics. 

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
I believe that sharing common or unique experiences through reading and writing is a good way to build a strong, supportive, and educated community.

Photo: Caitlin Rother    Photo Credit: Joel Ortiz

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

Submissions are currently open for Finishing Line Press’s 2015 New Women’s Voices Series Chapbook Competition. A prize of $1,000 and publication by Finishing Line Press will be given for a poetry chapbook written by woman who has not yet published a full-length collection. Leah Maines, poet and director of Finishing Line Press, will judge. Ten finalists will be offered publication in the New Women’s Voices chapbook series.

Submit a manuscript of up to 26 pages with a biography, acknowledgements page, cover letter, and $15 entry fee by March 31. Writers may submit entries through the online submission manager or via postal mail to Finishing Line Press, P.O. Box 1626, Georgetown, KY 40324. Multiple submissions are accepted. Visit the website for complete guidelines.

Finishing Line Press is an small poetry press based in Georgetown, Kentucky. Established in 1998 by C. J. Morrison, the press specializes in poetry chapbooks and publishes over one hundred collections per year. Finishing Line administers two annual competitions: the New Women’s Voices Series Chapbook Competition and the Open Chapbook Competition, which both offer $1,000 and publication. Sarah Green won the 2014 New Women's Voices prize for her chapbook Skeleton Evenings.

While building our vocabularies, we often learn new words based on the rest of a sentence or passage we’re reading. This can lead to some made-up definitions that can go uncorrected for years, even decades. This week, write an essay about a word or phrase that you thought you completely understood, yet recently found out meant something different. Has the habit of using this word become ingrained in your everyday speech? Do you prefer your own definition to the official one?

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