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Tension is critical in fiction. Tension is the difference between a story about a boy flying a kite and a story about a boy flying a kite in an electrical storm. Tension often is created through conflict—which means your character must want something desperately: an apology from a lover, respect from a father, a cup of water on a crowded lifeboat. Revisit your writing and read it carefully for tension, which keeps readers engaged and propels the story forward. If you stop reading, check for lapses in tension.

The Chicago–based Poetry Foundation has established a new annual award for poetry criticism. The $7,500 Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism will honor book-length works of criticism published in the previous year, including biographies, essay collections, and critical works that consider the subject of poetry or poets.

Submissions are currently open for the 2014 prize, which will be given for a work published in 2013. Publishers may submit books for consideration by February 1. There is no entry fee.

“This must be one of the great historical moments for poetry, as there are so many thriving poetry presses, reading series, and astonishing new poems,” said Poetry Foundation president Robert Polito in a press release. “The Poetry Foundation supports poets through Poetry magazine, our website, and a Chicago reading series, among numerous other ways, both public and behind-the-scenes. But we also are deeply engaged by conversations about poetry, and this award for an outstanding critical book is an exciting addition to our roster of poetry prizes.”  

Books may be submitted for consideration using the online submission form, and must include the author name, title, publisher, and publication date. Two copies of the final book should be mailed to the Poetry Foundation, Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism, 61 West Superior Street, Chicago, IL 60654.

The winner of the inaugural prize will be celebrated at an awards ceremony on June 9, 2014, in Chicago.

The Poetry Foundation’s annual poetry awards include the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, which is given to honor a living U.S. poet for lifetime achievement; and the newly expanded Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowships, which recognize the work of five young poets.

Poetry has very powerful redemptive and healing capacities. The mere process of writing and reading poetry forces us to connect with life on a meaningful, meditative level. Poetry requires a deliberate and calm contemplation that creates spaces for forgiveness, understanding, and self-awareness. Write a poem about a recent disappointment in your life. Be honest about your feelings. The power of your poetry begins with your truths.

P&W-funded Jo Scott-Coe is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Riverside City College in Southern California. Her memoir in essays, Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute), was listed as a “Great Read” by Ms. Magazine. In 2009, she won the NCTE Donald Murray Prize for writing about teaching. Her nonfiction and interviews have appeared in many publications, including Salon, the Los Angeles Times, and Narrative. She is currently at work on a collection of lyric meditations about American public performances of violence since the UT Austin shooting in 1966.

What average community college students may lack in literary experience, they more than make up for in curiosity and unpretentiousness. They’re less likely to know who is "famous" (and therefore supposedly more worthy of their attention). They’re less entrenched in parochial notions about genre and form, and are more likely to ask questions that are really on their minds.

In the arts, there tends to be a confusing barrier between community and academic programs. We also often make erroneous assumptions about what kinds of students should, or could possibly, be interested in literary events—as if they are the exclusive domain of English majors, professors, and MFA students.

In the past four years, more than twenty writers have visited Riverside City College for a series of readings and workshops. I’ve seen students connect with living writers for the first time—for various reasons, and with wide-ranging levels of understanding and appreciation.

Visitors have included poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers. Among our guests were Lloyd Aquino, John Brantingham, Billy Burgos, Ana Maria Spagna, Donna Hilbert, Juan Felipe Herrera, Judy Kronenfeld, Larry Colker, and James Brown. We’ve sought to mix new and emerging voices, nationally known and regional personalities, genre traditionalists and experimenters.

Our “Stay Classy” creative writing club and MUSE literary journal now coordinate readings in conjunction with creative writing and composition—and, at times, literature or screenwriting—courses. As a rule, our students have taken the lead to interview guests and prepare introductions delivered at events. Behind the scenes, they have prepared and circulated flyers, handled book sales, guided foot traffic, and prepared modest thank you gifts for writers. They have also learned how to compose press releases and advocate for funding.

For me, the most delightful impact of these events occurs when “basic writing” students—those students not yet enrolled in college-level classes—attend an event, ask questions, meet an author, and return to their normal routine stunned to be a excited about reading. In a noisy culture, no matter who you are, it is exciting to see how books are actually made by real life people who struggle over words and ideas. Students connect with that struggle.

There was the American veteran who talked with Tom Zoellner about how some people build their own firearms to outwit limits on high-capacity magazines.

There were the two girls who asked Stephanie Hammer if she had ADD or ADHD, with no offense intended or taken.

There was the student who waited at the end of the book-signing line because she wanted to give Gayle Brandeis a hug after her reading about her mother’s suicide.

And in the front row, two young guys who couldn’t stop peppering P&W-funded Chiwan Choi with questions: How could you afford to travel to Spain? What’s a ghostwriter, anyway?

Community colleges have a reputation as a sitcom punch line and a temporary stop along a student’s educational pathway. I love that our work to bring writers here for them flies in the face of these clichés.

Photo: Jo Scott-Coe. Credit: Wes Kriesel.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

In November, P&W and the Inlandia Institute co-sponsored a day of workshops and readings at California’s Salton Sea, led by Sandra Alcosser, Maureen Alsop, Brandon Cesmat, and Ruth Nolan. P&W’s California office director Cheryl Klein blogs about the event.

Brandon Cesmat leads the prose workshop.The shores of California’s Salton Sea—a vast lake created when the Colorado River flooded salt mines in the Imperial Valley a hundred years ago—are littered with fish carcasses. Small as a child’s fist or large as a dinner plate, still shimmering with scales or dried to Halloweenish skeletons by the desert sun, they are a reminder of how delicate ecosystems are. The Salton Sea was a thriving resort community in the 1950s and ‘60s, but because it lacks a natural outlet, fertilizer runoff from nearby farms makes the water increasingly inhospitable.

The future of the Salton Sea is the subject of much debate, but it’s fair to say that on November 2—the Day of the Dead—the Salton Sea State Recreation Area was incredibly fertile, at least from a creative standpoint. Four writers with a passion for the desert—Sandra Alcosser, Maureen Alsop, Brandon Cesmat, and Ruth Nolan—gathered with roughly two dozen participants for a day of writing, reading, and camping.

Tilapia head at the Salton Sea.It all began when Brandi M. Spaethe, an intern in P&W’s California office, took a road trip and fell in love with the odd, harsh beauty of the Salton Sea. She began wondering if other writers would be similarly inspired, and if locals might benefit from a literary event in an area that was hardly on many publishers’ book tours. She teamed up with Nolan, editor of the desert anthology No Place for a Puritan, from Heyday Books, and the Riverside-based Inlandia Institute. Sal y Muerte was born.

Nolan started the day with a quick tour of the grounds and visitors’ center, where participants learned about the lake’s history, dating back to the time when the indigenous Cahuilla made arrow weed huts in the basin. The group broke into two camps, poetry and prose, each co-taught by a pair of writers. In the prose workshop, Cesmat asked participants to use terms like “Pleistocene damn” and “step-over fault” in unpredictable ways as part of a “scaffolding” exercise. In the poetry workshop, Alcosser encouraged her students to consider the mysteries linked to the place and day.

As the sun turned the valley pink-gold, attendees clamored to explore the lake before dark. They took photos of the rotting tilapia and crunched bits of shell and bone—which look like sand only from a distance—beneath their feet.

The group reconvened around a campfire (the more outdoors-savvy among them had thought to bring wood and matches) and feasted on strawberries, sandwich rolls, musubi, and pan de muerto. Each of the featured writers took turns donning one participant’s headlamp and reading his or her work (except for Alcosser, who’d memorized several poems). Participants shared work too; three young students from the tiny nearby town of Mecca impressed the thirty-and-over crowd with their love of spoken word. But the evening didn’t feel like a featured poet/open mic formula so much as old-style entertainment: people gathered around a fire, exchanging words and rhythm.

Photos: Top: Brandon Cesmat (right, standing) leads the prose workshop. Bottom: a tilapia head on the salton seashore. Credit: Cheryl Klein.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by the James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

The National Poetry Series (NPS), the Princeton, New Jersey–based nonprofit organization that has helped publish early books by poets such as Billy Collins, Mark Doty, Marie Howe, and Terrance Hayes, may be at risk of closing.

Daniel Halpern, the NPS’s founding director, reports that because the organization has been unable to meet its annual fundraising goal, whether or not it will be able to continue programming into next year is uncertain.

Established in 1978, the National Poetry Series sponsors the publication of five poetry collections by emerging writers each year. The annual NPS literary awards program accepts unsolicited manuscript submissions through its open competition, and a panel of established poets selects five winning books to be published by participating presses. Recent judges have included John Ashbery, Nikky Finney, Campbell McGrath, D. Nurkse, D. A. Powell, Patricia Smith, and Dean Young. The NPS subsidizes the publication of each title, and pays each winning author a stipend of $1,000. Despite the tenuous state of the organization, submissions for the 2014 series are still open and will be accepted until January 1. Complete submission guidelines can be found on the NPS website.

Participating publishers have included those both large and small, including Akashic Books, Coffee House Press, Fence Books, HarperCollins Publishers, Milkweed Editions, Penguin Books, and the University of Georgia Press.

In a letter sent to supporters, Halpern says that a total of $25,000 is needed by the end of December to pay staff salaries and rent. He writes that the organization, which operates on an annual budget of less than $100,000, has been unable for several months to pay either the rent of its office or the salaries of its two employees.

Contributions to support the National Poetry Series can be sent by mail to National Poetry Series, 57 Mountain Avenue, Princeton, NJ 08540. Visit the website for more information.

You are not the same person today that you were five years ago. We all change. Creative nonfiction seeks to explore not only the changes we experience as human beings, but also how those changes impact our relationships with family members, friends, and lovers. Our lives are shaped by joy, disappointment, triumph, and loss. Write about someone you love who has changed due to a particular life event. Examine this individual’s shift in attitude, behavior, and demeanor. Write with humanity.

“I still maintain that the times get precisely the literature that they deserve, and that if the writing of this period is gloomy the gloom is not so much inherent in the literature as in the times.” This quote from author William Styron, who died in 2006 at age eighty-one, addresses the role of tone in fiction. People are the products of their times; they are influenced by the economic, political, and cultural climate that surrounds them. Write five hundred words that bring to life the mood of the society your characters inhabit. A bloody sunset, a tarnished silver fork, or a character’s stoic posture can make vital intangible forces accessible to your readers.

Like snowflakes, every family is unique. From quirky aunts and greedy uncles to gracious moms and despicable cousins, every family is peculiar in some meaningful way. Write a poem about your family. Focus on the people who create the love, the pain, and the dynamics that define your family. Be honest. Be courageous. Be open.

The Stacy Doris Memorial Poetry Award, a new prize established by the San Francisco State University–based Fourteen Hills Press, will be given for a poem with a “truly inventive spirit.” The winner will receive five hundred dollars and publication in Fourteen Hills. The deadline is January 1.

Using the online submission system, poets may submit one poem of up to ten pages in length. The winning poem will be published in the Spring 2014 issue of Fourteen Hills: The SFSU Review. Students currently enrolled at San Francisco State University are ineligible. All entries will be considered for publication. There is no entry fee.

The award was founded in honor of poet and translator Stacy Doris, who died in 2012 after a battle with cancer, and whose “inventive spirit is legendary,” the Fourteen Hills editors write. “Every book she wrote created a new poetic world with unexpected poetics.” The award will be given for a poem that posseses Doris’s “spirit of creative invention and inventive creation; engaging wit and ingenious playfulness; discovery in construction; and radical appropriations based on classical forms.” Chet Wiener will judge. 

Established in 1994, Fourteen Hills Press publishes two volumes of its literary journal each year, as well as the annual winner of the Michael Rubin Book Award, a first-book prize given each year in alternating genres. General journal submissions of poetry, fiction, and art are open until January 1.

P&W-funded Jo Scott-Coe is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Riverside City College in Southern California. Her memoir in essays, Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute), was listed as a “Great Read” by Ms. Magazine. In 2009, she won the NCTE Donald Murray Prize for writing about teaching. Her nonfiction and interviews have appeared in many publications, including Salon, the Los Angeles Times, and Narrative. She is currently at work on a collection of lyric meditations about American public performances of violence since the UT Austin shooting in 1966.

Jo Scott-Coe

During this season of gratitude, it’s important to acknowledge the different kinds of generosity that make writing communities spark and thrive. Experienced writers also learn the generosity that requires us to pay our respects when opportunities come to an end.

This fall, Emeryville-based Memoir Journal published its thirteenth (and final) issue. Its editors not only produced a beautiful publication but also started The (In)Visible Memoirs Project, which gave people from underserved populations in California the chance to bring their stories to life on the page. The goal, in the words of Rachel Reynolds, Program Director, was “to hold space for a multitude of storytellers.”

I had the pleasure of facilitating two project workshops this past fall and spring in Riverside. All across California—in places such as Fresno, Yolo, Modoc, and Banning—workshop leaders set up small communities to mentor and encourage writers who might not have room in their lives to write, whether due to professional detours, geographical isolation, financial hardship, or private demons. Some workshops, like Ruth Nolan’s in Palm Desert, are organized around marginalized topics, such as dealing with suicide.

During its lifespan, the (In)Visible Memoir Project published two fantastic anthologies, I Speak from My Palms and Lionhearted, each over 250 pages, collecting the best submissions from each workshop. The two volumes demonstrate the energy that can emerge from writing that finds its initial home in small gatherings of people—around a table, in a living room, or at a library—where listening is the first gift.

I saw trust emerge, gradually, between participants in my women’s workshop. Women wrote about childhood heroines, their recollections of lost relatives and friends, their apprehensions in parenting and marriage, their perceptions of heritage. Some worked with artifacts and primary documents from their family histories. Each took risks not only in sharing private subject matter, but also experimenting with structures and voices sometimes considered “off limits” for memoir, or for women writing in that genre. After the official conclusion, a core group decided to keep meeting, helping each other move further forward with their stories, poems, and essays. Some are in the middle of books now. One just had a piece published in The Los Angeles Times.

As we say farewell and thank you to Memoir Journal, and as its (In)Visible Memoir Project comes to bittersweet end, it’s also a fitting time to consider how we each can appreciate the energy, financial resources, visible and invisible labor invested in creative spaces that sustain us, for as long as we have them.

We can make our gratitude visible through continued acts of writing and by making room for new voices.

Photo: Jo Scott-Coe. Photo Credit: Wes Kriesel.

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

P&W-supported poets Modesto “Flako” Jimenez and Annie Bacon will perform in Alphabet Arts’ Puppets & Poets festival December 6 through December 8 at New York’s Bushwick Starr theater. The organization’s volunteer, Nora Brooks, blogs about the festival.


The Folk OperaA puppet car with no driver cruises the Brooklyn streets while the rhythmic baritone of poet Modesto “Flako” Jimenez booms out spoken word images of life in the drug trade. This is not your typical poetry reading or puppet show, and that is what makes Alphabet Arts’ annual Puppets & Poets festival such a bright light for New York City audiences, particularly those with little access to poetry. Dominican-born poet and actor Jimenez, one of two poets awarded a P&W grant to perform in the upcoming festival, gives a lot of credit to the melding of the two art forms: “The puppetry will connect that visual to your writing, and it’ll dance in their brain like no other. It gives them that bridge.”

The festival is directed by poet Amber West, who co-founded the nonprofit multi-genre artist collective Alphabet Arts in 2009. That summer a group of artists came together to build and perform The Simpsons writer Mike Reiss’ children’s book, City of Hamburgers, as a puppet play on her front porch for a neighborhood block party. In 2011, they launched Puppets & Poets to “create and cultivate collaborative hybrid art,” the Alphabet Arts' website explains.

Last year the festival expanded by partnering with the Bushwick Starr, a theater that TimeOut recently named Best Off-Off Broadway Venue. The Starr is an incubator for experimental work, including hybrids like Puppets & Poets that build roads connecting distant corners of the artistic universe.

“We’re introducing the rich variety and complexity of two of the world’s oldest art forms to diverse audiences,” West said.

Perhaps physical imagery improvised from lyrical storytelling builds a roadmap through the poetry, or maybe the puppetry introduces a lightness that facilitates access to more difficult material.

“The festival last year had some amazing dark poetry, and the only way the audience was able to take it was through puppetry,” Jimenez said. It’s that magic combination of the literary and the popular that gives audiences a new way into the work.

This year’s festival includes artists from New York, Austin, and Philadelphia and features free, interactive family matinees as well as free field trips and “puppet poem” workshops for students at PS 123, a Title 1 elementary school near the theater.

“With P&W’s support, we’re bringing in San Francisco poet and musician Annie Bacon, who wrote a verse musical on a ukulele called The Folk Opera,” West said. “Alphabet Arts is adapting it to the puppet stage, and Annie and her band will perform alongside our puppeteers.”

SpacetansmananagasmAlso featured is Austin performer Zeb L. West’s one-man show, Spacetansmananagasm, blends David Bowie’s verse with an ancient Japanese puppetry form called kugutsu. The festival is supported in part by the Citizens Committee For NYC and the Brooklyn Arts Council. Funding for the artists and the free programs for low-income children and families is also supported by the community through an Indiegogo campaign.

The third annual Puppets & Poets festival includes ticketed evening cabarets for mature audiences and free family-friendly matinees. For more information, visit alphabetarts.org.

Photos: Top: The Folk Opera (credit: Kirsten Kammermeyer). Lower: Spacetansmananagasm (credit: Jeff Moreaux)
Support for Readings/Workshops events in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional support is provided by the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Writing about life from a child’s perspective is challenging. We remember the feelings, thoughts, and concerns we experienced as children, but as writers of creative nonfiction, we must recreate that world and make it accessible to adult readers. Use Thanksgiving Day as a source of inspiration. Watch how the children in your family interact with one another, the adults, the food, and other holiday activities. Write five hundred words that describe Thanksgiving Day from a child's unique point of view.

Details are critical to character development, especially when describing a character’s face. A glass eye, a crooked nose, or thin lips can convey more meaning than exposition or action. Describe the face of your protagonist, and then describe the face of your antagonist. What qualities do they share? How are they different? Write so that a comparison of the characters’ faces provides both symmetry and juxtaposition that symbolizes the nature of their relationship.

The Fence Books Ottoline Prize—given for a poetry collection by a woman writing in English who has published at least one previous book of poetry—includes a $5,000 cash prize and publication by Fence Books. The deadline is November 30.

Using the online submission system, poets may submit a manuscript of up to eighty pages with a twenty-eight dollar entry fee. All entrants will receive a subscription to Fence Magazine.

Poet Brenda Hillman, whose most recent collection is Seasonal Works With Letters on Fire (Wesleyan Poetry Series, 2013) will judge. The winning collection will be published by Fence Books in the spring of 2015.

Established in 2001 as the Motherwell Prize (and later renamed the Alberta Prize), the recently rechristened Ottoline Prize has been awarded to poets such as Harmony Holiday, Chelsey Minnis, Ariana Reines, Sasha Steensen, and Laura Sims.  

Fence Books is a branch of Fence Magazine, a literary journal and nonprofit organization founded in 1998 by editor Rebecca Wolf and affiliated with the University at Albany and the New York State Writers Institute. The press publishes books of poetry, fiction, critical texts, and anthologies, and sponsors three other book prizes for poetry and prose.

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