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Think about an aspect of your life story and rewrite it, telling the tale from another angle or perspective. For example, if your family always considered you to be a difficult teenager, write about other interpretations of your behavior. Or if you've always been considered successful, write about the fear of failure that lurks beneath the facade. Find a way to reconstruct an aspect of your personal narrative that explores the complexity of who you are.

P&W-supported writer Melissa Petro recently led a memoir-writing workshop for current and former sex workers at Red Umbrella Project in New York City. Petro’s work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Daily Beast, Salon, Jezebel, Guardian, and elsewhere. She lives in New York City and teaches for Gotham Writers Workshop.

Melissa PetroWhen people with no experience or personal knowledge hear the phrase “sex work,” one media misrepresentation may spring to mind: Julia Roberts in a cut-out mini dress and patent leather knee-high boots or—just as bad—that floor-length red velvet gown.

This is not an accurate picture of people who trade sex for things they need—or of what happens when people do—according to Red Umbrella Project, an organization that provides storytelling, media, and advocacy training and support for people in the sex trades who wish to speak out about their experiences.

On December 6, 2012, Red Umbrella Project celebrated the graduating class of the Becoming Writers Workshop, an eight-week memoir-writing workshop for individuals with experiences in the sex trade, made possible in part by a grant from Poets & Writers. The evening was part one of a two-night event (the second will be on January 3, 2013) and featured one half of the class sharing original material conceived in class, which was published in the inaugural issue of PROS(E), the literary journal of Red Umbrella Project (available for sale at http://www.redumbrellaproject.org/buy-prose-issue-1/).

The purpose of the workshop, like all Red Umbrella Project programming, was to challenge common misconceptions and erroneous representations of sex workers by allowing individuals with experiences in the sex trade to represent themselves publicly and in print.

The organization combats stigma and discrimination while providing people in the sex trade with communication and transferrable job skills. People turn to the sex trade to generate income for as many reasons as there are sex workers, and yet given the prevalence of misinformation about the trade, sex workers’ personal stories are oftentimes surprising.

Red Umbrella staff and workshop participantsIn 2010, I lost my job as a public elementary school teacher after it was discovered that I was writing and speaking about my past experience moonlighting as a call girl on Craigslist while earning my masters in creative nonfiction from the New School. Since losing my job, I have dedicated myself to the task of changing people’s negative perceptions of current and former sex workers by continuing to tell my story in all its richness and by teaching other individuals with minority experiences to tell theirs.

At the event, readers included “Dominick,” a former gay male escort; Aimee Herman, a queer performance poet living in Brooklyn; Essence Revealed, whose story chronicles the highs and lows of being a black woman working in Manhattan’s gentlemen’s lap dance club scene; as well as eighties porn actress and activist Veronica Vera, who recreated for a raptured audience the moment she became co-star to her then-friend Annie Sprinkle.

The January 3 event boasts an equally diverse line-up. Expect anything and everything—anything and everything, that is, except just another “Pretty Woman.”

Photos: Top: Melissa Petro reads from the anthology PROS(E). Bottom: Red Umbrella staff and participants (left to right): Melissa Petro, Veronica Vera, Niesha Sharay Davis, Aimee Herman, Essence Revealed, Dominick, and Audacia Ray at Happy Ending Lounge. Credit: David Kornfield.

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, the Cowles Charitable Trust, the Abbey K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Freewrite for ten minutes about the most significant events that happened in your life during the past year. Choose one of these events and use it as the basis for a story. Write about it from an imagined character's perspective and/or change how the event transpired.

Start the year off with one of Shakespeare’s favorite forms. Write a sonnet, a poem comprising fourteen lines that incorporates the following rhyme scheme: a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g. (For example, the words at the end of the first and third lines rhyme, etc.) Before you begin, flip through any book and select seven words at random. Use these words, or variations of them, in the poem.

The Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts, presented the inaugural “Tell it Slant” award to poet Kay Ryan earlier this month, during a two-day celebration of Emily Dickinson’s birth.

The annual award was established this year by the Emily Dickinson Museum’s Board of Governors in order to honor an individual in any field “whose life work is imbued with the creative spirit of the Amherst poet.” The award takes its name from the well-known Dickinson poem which begins: “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—/ Success in Circuit lies / Too bright for our infirm Delight / The Truth's superb surprise.”

Ryan, the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2008 to 2010, published her first book of poetry, Strangely Marked Metal (Copper Beech Press), in 1985. She went on to receive the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2004, and her seventh book, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, published in 2010 by Grove Press, received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She was awarded a MacArthur "Genius" Grant in 2011.

According to a recent press release from the Dickinson Museum, “Kay Ryan’s style has often been compared to Emily Dickinson’s for its originality and knotted syntax. Dickinson’s poems powerfully convey observations about the natural world, pain and suffering, ecstasy and contentment, and the nature of mortality and immortality. Ryan’s poems are likewise compact, uncluttered, and crackling with wry amusement that belies their density of meaning.” Presenting the award, Gigi Bradford, a member of the Dickinson Museum’s Board of Governors and chair of the Folger Shakespeare Library Poetry Board, said, “Unlike any other poet writing today, Kay Ryan takes Dickinson’s sense of how poetry—sometimes playfully and lightly but always from a slant—helps us to answer the central questions of what it means to be human.”

The award was presented on December 6, a day that marked the 182nd anniversary of Emily Dickinson’s birth. To find out more about the “Tell It Slant” award, and for more information about the Emily Dickinson Museum and Homestead in Amherst, visit emilydickinsonmuseum.org

Write an essay about a trip that you've taken during which you were in search of something. What were you in search of—family connection, relaxation, adventure? What did you find? Was it what you expected?

In November, P&W-supported writer Douglas Kearney gave a reading at The Art League and led a workshop at Project Row Houses in Houston, which he writes about below. Kearney is a poet/performer/librettist based in Southern California’s Santa Clarita Valley, where he lives with his family and teaches at California Institute of the Arts. His second collection, The Black Automaton (Fence Books 2009), was a National Poetry Series selection. Red Hen Press will publish Patter in 2014.

Douglas KearneyBack in April, I had a Skype exchange with poet/activist John Pluecker and a poetry group he led at Project Row Houses in Houston’s Third Ward. It went well enough that JP decided to get me down there to do a reading and workshop. Cool. I hadn’t been to Houston in a minute and hadn’t done much touring in the South to promote The Black Automaton. He was awarded funds from the Readings/Workshops program, which, with help from Project Row Houses, was enough to fly me down and provide a stipend. The reading was slated for Kaboom Books and the workshop, for Project Row Houses. Straightforward. But. BUT! It just so happened Houston was a great big X on the African-American Arts treasure map on November 16, 2012. Contemporary Arts Museum Houston was opening “Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art” and The Art League was opening STACKS, a group exhibition of emerging artists curated by Robert Pruitt for five week-long residencies.

JP has his finger on the pulse of such things and wondered whether we might be able to tap in to the visual arts audiences and more of the African-American folks he hoped would come to my reading at Kaboom. So, with a week to go before the reading, hatched a plan, he did. He asked Kaboom whether they might be willing to give me up that evening. With their gracious permission, he contacted Pruitt about creating some kind of collaboration that would allow me to join the Art League artists for their opening. With his enthusiastic blessing, JP contacted me. It happened I know Pruitt’s work from a commission connected to Studio Museum in Harlem’s 2005–6 Frequency show.

So, yeah, I was interested.

The Art League opening, which featured artists Jamal Cyrus, Nathaniel Donnett, Autumn Knight, Phillip Pyle II, and M'kina Tapscott, involved a woodchipper and the woodchipper’s effect on objects that signify Blackness®. We decided I would perform eulogies for some of these objects. I thought it would be a nice processual kick in the behind to compose new work for the occasion. After all, preachers don’t get much time to write them. Ultimately, I eulogized a pair of sneakers, an afro pick, a box of Nag Champa, some bootleg t-shirts with hip hop memes on them, and a Malcolm X X-hat. You can see the ceremony here.

The next afternoon, I did a more traditional reading (with digital projector and audio) at Project Row Houses and then launched into a workshop with JP’s group, about twenty strong. The workshop—Unsung & Remixed: Using Song Lyrics in Poems—continued the multimedia/interdisciplinary theme of the visit, directing participants to write poems using Afaa Michael Weaver’s Bop form; integrate parodies of a song they were sick of; or compose a “cover” of a song they loved. An eight-year-old brought the house down and a sixty-something-year-old built it back up.

The Readings/Workshops program in conjunction with a coalition of Houston’s arts community made a fantastic trip possible. Excellent! Plus, I got to eat BBQ. Y’all need a Readings/Workshops/BBQ program. Trill.

Photo: Douglas Kearney. Credit: Eric Plattner.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Houston 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.

Write a story about the following scenario: One woman knocks on the door of another woman's house. She wants something. She lies to get what she wants. Who is she? Does she get what she wants? How does the woman who answers the door respond? Do they know each other?What happens next? 

Write a poem that is a list of people, places, and/or things that you long for. 

Kristen E. Nelson is a founder and the Executive Director of Casa Libre en la Solana, a non-profit writing center in Tucson, Arizona. P&W has co-sponsored the center's Weekend Residency program for the past four years. Nelson is the author of Write, Dad (Unthinkable Creatures Chapbook Press, 2012), and has recently published work in Denver Quarterly, Drunken Boat, Tarpaulin Sky Journal, Trickhouse, Dinosaur Bees, and Everyday Genius.
 
What makes your organization and its programs unique?
The mission of Casa Libre en la Solana is to support and enhance the creativity of professional and novice writers by providing a community venue for classes, readings, and other professional development opportunities.

The diversity of our programs and high level of community involvement is what makes Casa Libre stand out. In addition to our own creative writing workshops and reading/performance series, we provide an event base for many other Tucson groups, including Kore Press, Queer People of Color, Pan Left Productions, Read Between the Bars, and the Tucson Youth Poetry Slam.

What recent program have you been especially proud of?
Participants in our program Made for Flight, a transgender youth and ally empowerment workshop series, walked in the annual All Souls Procession in Tucson, a huge community procession to honor the lives of ancestors and loved ones who have passed away.

Made for Flight incorporates transgender history, ally development, creative writing, and kite building to commemorate the lives of the transgender individuals who have been murdered in the last year. TC Tolbert, Casa Libre’s assistant director, began this program three years ago, and this year we had approximately one hundred people show up to help us carry the kites that Tucson youth created in the procession.

It is inspiring to see the large number of allies who show up to lend their support to bringing awareness to the disproportionate number of transgender people (specifically women of color) who are murdered each year.

How do you find and invite writers?
Our organizational structure is a bit like an octopus. Each arm functions independently and in collaboration with the main body of the organization. Each of our programs is curated by a different local writer drawing from a diverse group.

I curate our Weekend Residency programs and through personal or professional connections have invited Camille Dungy, Samuel Ace, Maureen Seaton, and most recently Rebecca Brown to lead a weekend full of workshops and reading series. All of these Weekend Residencies could not have happened without the generous funding provided by Poets & Writers.

How has literary presenting informed your life and writing?
Casa Libre is my life. I live on the grounds in a community of seven households of writers and artists. Since I founded this place nine years ago, the programs and people who are a part of it have shaped who I am. This community is full of thinkers and creators. Every day there are conversations in our courtyards about writing projects, creative inspiration, and new programs. The Casa Libre community extends far beyond our grounds into Tucson and across the country. Passionate people who care about writing and creating come here. This is a nourishing place that I am proud to be a part of and call home.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
The staff and board members of Casa Libre are deeply invested in fostering creativity. We are devoted to honoring and making space for thinking, writing, conversation, art-making, and performance in a world dearly in need of artistic vision, creative solutions, and celebration of the human mind. Because we believe expression is a vital part of nourishing the human spirit, Casa Libre inspires writers and artists to take risks and manifest their artistic dreams.
 
Photo: Kristen E. Nelson. Credit: Sarah Dalby. Photo: Casa Libre's Weekend Residency with Rebecca Brown (at left). Credit: Samuel Ace.
Support for Readings/Workshops events in Tucson 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.

In the January/February 2013 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, memoirist Debra Gwartney offers guidance on how to write about traumatic experience. "When the action is hot, write cool," Gwartney says. "Stand back. Let your prose breathe. Don't try to convince the reader to feel a certain way—avoid yanking on the easy emotion. Instead, trust the language you've selected, the images you've constructed, the relevant detail, and give the reader plenty of room to reach the feeling independently." Write an essay about a traumatic experience from your life or the life of someone close to you, following Gwartney's advice.

Write a story using second-person narration. For an example of the use of second-person narration, read the opening lines of Jay McInerney's novel Bright Lights, Big City.

The Hong Kong-based Man Asian Literary Prize recently announced the long list for its 2012 prize. The international award is given annually for a novel by an Asian writer, written in or translated into English and published during the previous year. The winner, who will be announced in March, will receive $30,000.

The list includes Goat Days (Penguin Books India) by Benyamin of India; Between Clay and Dust (Aleph) by Musharraf Ali Farooqi of Pakistan; Another Country (Fourth Estate) by Anjali Joseph of India; The Briefcase (Counterpoint Press) by Hiromi Kawakami of Japan;Thinner Than Skin (HarperCollins Canada) by Uzma Aslam Khan of Pakistan; Ru (Clerkenwell Press) by Kim Thúy of Vietnam and Canada; Black Flower (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Young-Ha Kim of South Korea; Island of a Thousand Mirrors (Perera Hussein) by Nayomi Munaweera of Sri Lanka; Silent House (Knopf) by Orhan Pamuk of Turkey; Honour (Viking) by Elif Shafak of Turkey; Northern Girls (Penguin China) by Sheng Keyi of China; The Garden of Evening Mists (Myrmidon Books) by Tan Twan Eng of Malaysia; The Road To Urbino (Abacus) by Roma Tearne of Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom; Narcopolis (Faber and Faber) by Jeet Thayil of India; and The Bathing Women (Blue Door) by Tie Ning of China.

Thúy and Tearne were eligible this year under the Prize’s new rule regarding writers who have lost their Asian nationality through state action.

In a press release, David Parker, executive director of the prize, said: “This list testifies to the strength and variety of new writing coming out of a culturally emergent Asia. It is full of stories the world hasn’t heard before and which the world needs to hear. It brings together seven books in English translation, which means that, as well as introducing exciting debut novelists, the Prize is also bringing to international attention some best-selling and important writers who are little known outside their own language communities.”

The chair of judges, international journalist and cultural critic Maya Jaggi, is joined by Vietnamese American novelist Monique Truong and award-winning Indian novelist Vikram Chandra.

The fifteen long-listed candidates will be narrowed down to a shortlist on January 9, and the winner will be announced on March 14 at a celebratory dinner in Hong Kong.

Established in 2007, the Man Asian Literary Prize is sponsored by the Man Group, which also oversees the Man Booker Prize for British literature and the Man Booker International Prize. The 2011 winner of the Asian Literary Prize was South Korean writer Kyung-sook Shin for her novel Please Look After Mom (Knopf). She was the first woman and first South Korean writer to win the prize.

Visit the Man Asian Literary Prize website for more information and submission guidelines, and to find out more about the long-listed novelists.

In the video below, watch the longlist announcement from David Parker and a Q&A with Maya Jaggi. 

Today, write an elegy, a poem that is a lament for the dead. For more information about the poetic form, read the Academy of American Poets' description and examples of the elegy.

The Princeton, New Jersey-based National Poetry Series has announced the winners of its annual Open Competition. Each of the five winning poets will receive $1,000, and the winning books will be published by participating presses in the summer of 2013.

The 2012 recipients are the meatgirl whatever by Kristin Hatch of San Francisco, California, chosen by K. Silem Mohammad and to be published by Fence Books; The Narrow Circle by Nathan Hoks of Chicago, Illinois, chosen by Dean Young and to be published by Penguin Books; The Cloud that Contained the Lightning by Cynthia Lowen of Brooklyn, New York, chosen by Nikky Finney and to be published by University of Georgia Press; Visiting Hours at the Color Line by Ed Pavlić of Athens, Georgia, chosen by Dan Beachy-Quick and to be published by Milkweed Editions; Failure & I Bury the Body by Sasha West of Austin, Texas, chosen by D. Nurkse and to be published by HarperCollins.

Established in 1978, the National Poetry Series is a literary awards program that publishes five new books of poetry each year through its Open Competition. Previous winners include poets Billy Collins, Stephen Dunn, Mark Doty, Marie Howe, Nathaniel Mackey, Naomi Shihab Nye, Eleni Sikelianos, and Terrance Hayes. 

To enter the 2013 competition, United States residents may submit previously unpublished book-length poetry manuscripts, typically between forty-eight and sixty-four pages in length, with a thirty-dollar entry fee by February 15, 2013. For complete submission guidelines and to learn more about the Open Competition, visit the National Poetry Series website

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