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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Olga Garcia. Credit: Weenobee.com.

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

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

The Australian Prime Minister's Literary Awards were announced yesterday, recognizing noteworthy Australian novels and the "efforts and sacrifices" of their writers. Prime Minister Julia Gillard presented the award for fiction to New Zealand native Stephen Daisley, whose debut novel, Traitor, was released last year by Text Publishing, an imprint of Penguin Australia.

Daisley, who now lives in Perth, Australia, received eighty thousand Australian dollars (roughly eighty-six thousand U.S. dollars), an award which the fifty-six-year-old author says will help his family "survive a bit more." The author, who worked without publication for twenty years, told the Sydney Morning Herald that he persevered with his work because writing is his "bliss."

The shortlisted novelists were each awarded five thousand Australian dollars (about five thousand four hundred U.S. dollars). They are Roberta Lowing for Notorious (Allen & Unwin), Roger McDonald for When Colts Ran (Random House), David Musgrave for Glissando: A Melodrama (Sleepers Publishing), and Kim Scott for That Deadman Dance (Macmillan).

Since 2010, P&W-supported poet and spoken word artist Clara Nura Sala has been conducting poetry workshops with veterans. We asked Clara to describe the experience.

Sponsored by Elders Share the Arts, I'm teaching a poetry workshop for veterans at the Veteran's Hospital on 23rd Street in Manhattan. Participants come from across New York City, from Staten Island to the Upper West Side. The veterans vary in age, but the majority are between the ages of fifty-five and seventy—having served in the Korean, Vietnam, and/or Gulf Wars. The participants seldom bring up their war experiences directly. However, it does come up organically in the context of their poems.

I like to push them to the edge of discovery, emotionally and creatively. These amazingly talented group of men respond with original, moving, and very well-crafted poems. I've introduced stream-of-consciousness and improvisational writing exercises. I've also introduced contemporary poets, such as Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Joy Harjo, and e.e. cummings. We share our poems aloud, and offer praise and constructive criticism. I say "we" because I consider myself part of the class, not just the facilitator. I write along with the class. I am in the experience with them, and they inspire me to write wonderful and spontaneous poems.

Some participants have expressed that the workshop has become therapeutic. I take this as a high compliment to the workshop's structure, which allows for both maximum creative expression and intimately personal discussions. These men have been greatly affected by their experience with war (most of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and a couple have schizophrenia). The group is so loving, caring, and kind and extremely supportive of each other. I am honored to know them, to share their lives, their art, and their vulnerability.

Photo: Clara Nura Sala and workshop participants.  Photo Credit: Gregory Hicks.

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 Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and Friends of Poets & Writers.

The German Haus der Kulturen der Welt has awarded its twenty-five-thousand-euro (roughly thirty-five-thousand-dollar) International Literature Award to Russian writer Mikhail Schischkin for his novel Venushaar (Maiden's Hair). The novel, which has won several awards in Russia but took seven years to make its way into translation in Germany—and remains untranslated in the United States—was selected for the prize from among over one hundred books translated from twenty-four languages and originating in fifty countries.

Among the finalists for the prize, which honors translations of books from any language into German, were Haitian American author Edwidge Danticat for the translation of her memoir Brother, I'm Dying, which was published by Knopf in the United States in 2007; Elias Khoury for Yalo, originally written in Arabic and released in English by Archipelago Books in 2008; and Mathias Énard for Zone, translated from the French and published last December in English by Open Letter. A list of all the finalists and their German publishers is available on the prize website.

The jury, comprised of editors, translators, critics, and authors, called Schischkin a "wordsmith of the highest order" who has "developed a unique form of novel" and "plays with
perspectives and settings, with the most diverse verbal registers and stylistic positions." His translator, Andreas Tretner of Berlin, who has been translating works from the Russian, Czech, and Bulgarian since the mid-eighties, was also praised for "finding a German lid for every Russian pot."

Think about an incident from your life—something especially monumental, unexpected, or traumatic that altered the way you see the world. Write a story or essay about it, but from someone else’s perspective. You can appear as a character in the story, but explore it from outside of yourself, as an event that happened, but not one that happened to you.

Experiment with form, creating an upcycled poetic object, by writing a poem using found materials. 

 

For the month of July, poet Olga Garcia, author of Falling Angels: Cuentos y Poemas, blogs about her experience facilitating poetry workshops as a longtime P&W-supported writer.

It's May 2009 and the scorching sun casts long shadows on the streets of downtown Calexico. I’ve driven 230 miles southeast of Los Angeles, past the Salton Sea, to arrive in this furnace of a city that boasts three-digit temperatures. I’m here to facilitate an R/W-sponsored bilingual poetry workshop at Camarena Library, and I’ve arrived early enough to explore.

When it comes to border towns, Calexico has it all: the U.S.-Mexico border you can walk up to, sniff, stare at, curse, or cross; señores in sombreros and thick leather belts; big women in church dresses, waving religious pamphlets in the air; a corner stop featuring menudo, donuts, and border patrol agents. Sure, there’s a Starbucks, a few Walmarts, but what tugs at me is the historic shopping district, the brick archways and columns, the cement bus benches, and the discount stores.

Hours later, I arrive at Camarena Library, sweaty and a bit anxious. I’ve been teaching for twelve years, yet I feel like a novice. The unknowns of a workshop always stir me. Who will come? Adults? Teens? What language(s) will they speak? I’ve brought three different handouts with me—English, Spanish, and bilingual. I don’t know which one I’ll be using.

Ten minutes until workshop and no one has arrived. Brief panic.  Did I ditch work to go sightseeing? I flashback to Calexico’s rustic downtown, recalling its charm, the chilidogs I ate at a tiny stand and decide that even if nobody shows, the trip was worth it.

They arrive. First a woman and two men. Then a mother with her teenaged son. Within minutes I have a small group curiously looking at the altar displayed on a table. I invite them to pick up the objects—seashells, ripe fruits, pictures of birds in flight, bright-colored plastic flowers purchased at one of Calexico’s fabulous discount stores.

In our introductions I learn that almost everyone is bilingual. Now I know what materials to use, what exercises to dive into. A workshop, though, is much more than a pre-planned lesson. It’s a breathing thing with a collective pulse. Each class generates its own unique energy. In Calexico, the group is intimate and quiet.

I feel the need to chat before we begin. When I tell them I live in Los Angeles, they’re surprised at how far I’ve traveled for this two-hour workshop. “I’ve wanted to visit Calexico for years,” I tell them. They look at me like I’m crazy. I confess that having grown up between two languages and cultures, I have a thing for border towns. I relay my day’s adventures in downtown, how I snapped hundreds of photos and interviewed residents on the streets as if I were a journalist. They laugh, opening up, sharing a few of their own stories and insights about their hometown. We delve into our poetry workshop like this, crossing borders...connecting.

Photos: (Top) Olga Garcia. Credit: Weenobee.com; (bottom) workshop participants. Credit: Olga Garcia.

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

 


On May 5 Detroit’s InsideOut Literary Arts Project held its first annual youth writing conference, featuring P&W-supported writers Eddie B. Allen, Matt Bell, Nandi Comer, jessica Care moore, Norene Cashen Smith, and Marcus Wicker. We asked project director Alise Alousi to describe the event.

Who Understands Me But Me: A Youth Voices Conference (titled after a poem by Jimmy Santiago Baca) was the culminating event for a year of programming focused on Baca’s essay collection, Stories from the Edge. InsideOut students used the essays in the collection as a model for developing their own personal narratives.

The goal was to give 150 Detroit public high school students an opportunity to attend a daylong event similar in content and format to that of an adult writing conference. Baca led a writing workshop and presented keynote remarks for the conference, which was supported by Poets & Writers and the JP Morgan Chase Foundation. Workshops were also led by a talented group of local writers including: Matt Bell, Nandi Comer, Peter Markus, jessica Care moore, Matthew Olzmann, Marcus Wicker, and InsideOut founder Dr. Terry Blackhawk. Students preregistered for the conference, choosing their top six workshops from a list of twelve. Titles of workshops included: Trigger, Memory, Return: Juggling the Poetic Flashback; Hustle with a Ghazal: Innovation Through an Ancient Form; Urban Fiction and Realities, and The Event as Inspiration for Flash Fiction. 

Writers incorporated a variety of prompts and techniques into each workshop session. In Marcus Wicker’s session, students read and discussed the poem “Woman Walking on the Road” by Terrance Hayes. Next, Wicker led students through a freewriting exercise by asking a series of compelling open-ended questions about a memory. This is what student Lorenzo Bragg came up with when he was asked to “think about a time when your actions had an adverse effect on another living thing.”

He pushed and shoved when I only stood
but when he threw that punch I threw my love.
Resentment, fire, anger, and fear
with my punch to his jaw the world became clear.
The intense spark of my fist on his face,
and the lovely jolt of his neck, its grace.

Lorenzo was the first student to arrive at the conference, taking several buses to get to the campus of Wayne State University. We had a chance to discuss how his exposure to writer John Rybicki, who meets with his class weekly at Douglass Academy for Young Men through InsideOut’s writing residency program had inspired him to come to the conference. He told me, “Mr. Rybicki has helped me to express my emotions through writing. He has a passion for living life that has helped me get excited about my own life.”

Central to InsideOut’s mission is a belief in the power of self-expression and language as a means to transform lives and build community. One of the most exciting moments of the event took place during lunch when students, many of whom had never read before an audience this large, shared what they had written in their morning workshops. Students supported each other by snapping their fingers and applauding. This was followed by Baca’s remarks, which took students through his own self-discovery and belief that all individuals should set everyday goals as a way to embrace their potential.

Photo: Marcus Wicker. Credit: Jacob Shores-Arguello.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Detroit 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.

This summer SMITH Magazine is bringing writers another of its famed challenges in literary brevity. Amidst this weekend's celebrations of liberty from it, perhaps now's the perfect time to reflect on the contest theme—work—using six words exactly.

From now until Labor Day, a new sub-theme will be introduced every two weeks, and writers are invited to enter their six-word memoir on that particular aspect of work on the SMITH website. This week's competition, judged by The Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin, asks, "Why do you do what you do?" (Some recent entries: "Who doesn't love the payroll lady?" and "I can work in my slippers.")

There is no fee to enter, and the magazine is partnering with Mercer, a human resources firm, to offer the winner of each two-week-long challenge an iPad2 or Blackberry Playbook. All entries will also be considered for a Six Words About Work book. For more information, to read entries, and to submit your own, visit the contest web page.

A nearly seventy-year-old literary award that honored works in all genres by young, emerging writers is buckling under the pressure of budget woes. Booktrust, the organization that has for the past nine years sponsored the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, given since 1942 to writers under the age of thirty-five, announced earlier this week that government funding cuts forced it to revamp its program portfolio, shuttering the awardat least for 2011.

The prize, according to author Margaret Drabble, who won the award in 1966 and lamented its loss in the Guardian, is "one of the most romantic and distinguished of prizes," more so than the oldest major U.K. award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, or the Booker. The five-thousand-pound award (roughly eight thousand dollars) is given to writers "at the outset of their careers, when a sign of approval means much more than it does in their cynical, competitive, commercial later years."

The 2009 winner, Evie Wyldwho won for her novel, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice (Pantheon)says the award "gave me a platform to work off, and I'm not sure I'd be in the position I am in now, had the Rhys not brought such a large amount of attention with it," including radio appearances and articles. Among the other poets and prose writers who have taken the prize in the past are Angela Carter, Andrew Motion, V. S. Naipaul, and Jeanette Winterson.

Booktrust, which is pursuing alternate avenues for maintaining the prize, told the Guardian it hopes to bring the Rhys "back with a bang as soon as possible," possibly even in 2012.

In the video below, Wyld reads from her winning book, a "romantic thriller about men who aren't talking."

Open your medicine cabinet and choose something from it that one character will use to kill another in a story.

Kore Press, whose mission is to publish diverse works by women writers, has temporarily suspended its eight-years-running poetry book competition for 2011. The nonprofit publisher will resume the contest in 2012, following a period of restructuring that, according to the press's business and marketing manager, necessitates a hiatus.

The short fiction contest will go on as planned this year, and the winner of last year's poetry book contest will see her debut published, as well. Michelle Chan Brown's Double Agent will be released in the fall.

In the video below, Brown reads from her chapbook, Clever Little Decoys, published by Love Among the Ruins last year.

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