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Last night we attended a unique book launch for New York City poet Elana Bell, featured in our May/June 2012 issue's "Winners on Winning" feature. Bell, who incorporated a dance performance and fund-raiser into the celebration of her debut collection, is the recipient of the 2011 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets for Eyes, Stones, released in April by Louisiana State University Press.

When we interviewed Bell for our May/June article about the unexpected rewards of winning a book prize, she mentioned that she was using some of the prize money to realize an artistic vision. "Many of the poems in the collection are persona poems, in the voices of contemporary and historical characters who are inexorably linked to the land of Israel/Palestine," she said. "Sometime during the process of creating this book, I knew that I wanted to create a performance version based on the text. I wasn't sure what it would look like, but I knew it would be collaborative and somehow address the question: 'How can two narratives exist in one body?' When I found out I'd won the Whitman, I decided that rather than have a traditional book release party, I would create a performance piece with dancers and musicians addressing that question."

The piece premiered at a standing-room-only event that also included a silent art auction to benefit Just Vision, a nonprofit organization that promotes social justice in Israel and Palestine. A selection from the performance is featured in the video below.

[This article has been updated. An earlier version of this article failed to mention the sponsor for the Walt Whitman Award. The prize is given annually by the Academy of American Poets.]

Gulf Coast literary journal recently presented three P&W–sponsored writers, Laurie Clements Lambeth, Justin Sirois, and Andrew Porter, at the Houston Indie Book Festival. Festival co-organizer Ryan Call describes the event.

In April, an assortment of writers and readers gathered on the lawn of The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, to participate in the third annual Houston Indie Book Festival. The festival features a variety of exhibitors, from nationally distributed literary journals to small presses, as well as local booksellers, literary organizations, and writers. In addition to hosting exhibitors, the festival also had a children’s area, a couple publishing panels, and several Readings/Workshops–sponsored writers who read for the audience throughout the day.

As one of the festival co-organizers, I had the opportunity to invite a few authors to visit the festival, and I tried to present authors who seemed to support the mission of the festival: to celebrate small press literature.

This year we had Laurie Clements Lambeth, Justin Sirois, and Andrew Porter read, and I was so pleased with both their readings and the audience attendance. Lambeth, a Houston-area poet, read from her poetry collection Veil and Burn and also from a batch of new poems from her next collection, titled Bright Pane. Justin Sirois, who traveled all the way to Houston from Baltimore as part of his latest book tour, read from his new novel, Falcons on the Floor, a book about the Iraq war. And Andrew Porter ended the day’s readings with a preview of his forthcoming novel—which is set in Houston—as well as a short Q&A about his writing and publishing.

All of these authors in some way, I believe, contribute to the idea that small press publishing, reading, and writing can and do thrive when given the chance, when a community of readers is present, and when organizations such as Poets & Writers, Inprint, and The Menil Collection collaborate to support such writers and their efforts.

Photo: Festival-goers watch Andrew Porter read. Credit: Ryan Call.

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.

Think back to the closet of your youth, and write an essay about what was inside. Let the contents of the closet become a metaphor for who you were as a child, who you might have wished to be, and who you have become.

Write a story that begins like this:  On the morning Bill Somers shot his dog, I was...

The Believer's May issue has arrived, and with it, the announcement of the magazine's literary awards for books of poetry and fiction published in 2011. The honors are given annually for poetry collections deemed by the magazine's editors to be "the finest and most deserving of greater recognition" and novels and short story collections that are the "strongest and most underappreciated of the year."

Massachusetts poet Heather Christle takes the second annual Believer Poetry Award for The Trees The Trees (Octopus Books), her "casually incandescent second collection." (Her third book, What Is Amazing, was released by Wesleyan University Press this past February.)

Author of three poetry collections himself, New York City author Ben Lerner receives the seventh annual Believer Book Award in fiction for his "hilarious and sensitive" debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House Press). The book, which made it onto a number of best-of lists last year, was also a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and the Young Lions Fiction Award given by the New York Public Library.

Along with the winner announcements, the Believer also released a list of the books most nominated for shout-outs in its readers survey. Coming out on top in poetry are Tracy K. Smith's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Life on Mars (Graywolf Press), Dean Young's Fall Higher (Copper Canyon Press), and Carl Phillips's Double Shadow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which won this year's Los Angeles Times Book Prize in poetry. In fiction, readers' most frequent picks were The Art of Fielding (Little, Brown) by Chad Harbach, Pulitzer-nominated Swamplandia! (Knopf) by Karen Russell, and The Sisters Brothers (Ecco) by Patrick deWitt. The full account (summer reading list, anyone?) is posted on the Believer's website.

In the video below, Christle reads from her winning book at the Stain of Poetry reading series in New York City.

With the almost daily news about signifcant changes to the publishing industry, we reached out to veteran literary agent Anne Edelstein for some perspective on how things have changed and what it means. Edelstein has been an independent agent for over twenty years. Some of her clients include Mark Epstein, Jody Shields, and Russell Shorto.

POETS & WRITERS: You spent time at Harold Ober Associates, a storied agency that represented F. Scott Fitzgerald, J. D. Salinger, the estate of Langston Hughes, etc., and has a reputation of being steeped in the past, in an older way of doing things. Tell me about your earliest days there, and as an agent. What is the most remarkable difference between then and now?

ANNE EDELSTEIN: It was probably fifteen years ago that I worked briefly at Harold Ober, really only for the matter of a few months. Yes, it was even an old way of doing business back then. I remember bringing my own computer to the office in order to have one to work on. After having already spent a few years running my own agency, mostly representing writers who were starting out, rather than estates, my pace and organizational structure was very different from that of Ober. After a few months, I realized that I preferred my own approach, and went back to my own office where I could represent foreign rights directly, keep my own files and do the bookkeeping on a computerized system, which I immediately streamlined further. 

P&W: The publishing industry is in a state of flux. For some, it's an exciting time, for others it's gloom and doom. Is right now the worst it's ever been? Or is the worst behind us? Are you hopeful? Wary?

AE: The business is indeed in a state of flux unlike ever before. There have always been phases of gloom and doom that seem to pass and then return. But this doesn't seem like a phase so much as a major shift of technology and sensibility. 

P&W: In light of evolving publishing models, do you see new roles agents must play?

AE:  Like many agents, I find myself working much harder on the development of manuscripts and proposals before allowing them out into the world, and encouraging authors to be more astute than ever about aspects of publicity and promotion, and of course dealing with authors' electronic backlist. The biggest issue is that authors need to be paid enough to allow them to continue what they do best, and therefore an openness to new venues of publishing and publicizing is essential.  The bright side is that new opportunities should continue to unfold, and that people so far still seem to appreciate a good, well-written book.

While writing poetry in a particular form can feel restrictive, it also forces you to make decisions, use words, and write lines that you might not otherwise. Look over your poetry for common features such as the number of lines and stanzas. Based on what you find, create a form—a set number of lines, a set number of stressed syllables per line, and perhaps a relationship among lines, such as having certain lines rhyme or repeat. Write five poems using this form.

Robert Francis Flor, co-founder and director of the P&W–supported Pinoy Words Expressed Kultura Arts, blogs about  planning readings.

Pinoy Words Expressed Kultura Arts (PWEKA) is in the process of planning readings for the rest of year. Curating a reading requires a lot. First, we identify writers—checking their availability and contract requirements. Then we coordinate with co-sponsors, like P&W, for support— obtaining funds, securing volunteers, producing promotional materials, confirming the location, etc. Finally, we create and implement an administration and evaluation strategy.

So far, we’ve come up with three events we’d like to host in the late summer or early fall. The first would be a Filipino/Latino young adult reading and workshop. We have approached Los Nortenos, a Latino literary organization based in Seattle, about the idea, and ideally we would work with both public and private school educators and community groups to provide comparisons of cultures that were influenced by the Spanish. Los Nortenos has been very receptive, and we are currently in the process of finalizing the details.

PWEKA has recently became aware of Hedgebrook, a writers retreat for women on Whidbey Island. We would love to co-host a reading with them highlighting local Filipina writers. Both Marivi Soliven Blanco, author of The Hunt for the Hippocampus and Philippine Fright: 13 Scary Stories, and Lolan Buhain Sevilla, author of Walang Hiya, will be attending Hedgebrook this summer. Both expressed an interest in giving a reading! PWEKA is considering featuring Marivi and Lolan with Maritess Zurbano, author of the memoir Rites of Enchantment, and young adult novelist Lisa Castillano, author of Balancing Light and Tilted.

Finally, I would love to have a stage reading with the Filipino American Young Turks of a play I completed at ACT Theatre last November. This might be the most cumbersome as PWEKA will have to identify locations, cast actors, and produce publicity materials, etc. Such is the work of planning readings.

Photo: Robert Francis Flor.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Seattle 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.

To accompany our May/June 2012 issue's feature "Winners on Winning," part of our special section on writing contests, we're posting a selection of mini-interviews with prize recipients on the benefits of their awards and what they learned from winning. The second author in our series is New York City poet and fiction writer Francine Witte.

Witte most recently won the Thomas A. Wilhelmus Chapbook Award (now dubbed the Editor's Fiction Chapbook Prize) from RopeWalk Press in 2010 for a collection of short short stories titled Cold June. Also the author of three other chapbooks of poetry and short fiction—Only, Not Only (Finishing Line Press, 2012), The Wind Twirls Everything (MuscleHead Press, 2009), and First Rain, which won Pecan Grove Press's 2008 National Chapbook Competition—she speaks with us about the hands-down best aspect of winning the Wilhelmus Award and what she'd suggest to writers looking to contests as a means to publication.

How did winning RopeWalk Press's Wilhelmus Chapbook Award change your career, if at all? Were you able to do anything special with the prize money, or did you make any important connections as a result of winning?
When I saw this contest listed in Poets & Writers, and I saw that Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler was the judge, my only thought was that this would be a chance to have his eyes on my work. That was all I was really hoping for at that point. I had always thought of him as a master of the short short form. When I was subsequently informed that I was one of the ten finalists, I had to take a deep breath. What if? Of course, I didn't want to become too hopeful. At that point, I did what I suppose many people do: I made a deal with God. I promised that if I were to win, I would give the prize money to my sister, who desperately needed it as her husband had recently suffered a stroke. The news of my winning came in an e-mail with the lead paragraph [containing] the magical words of Robert Olen Butler, who called my take on the short short "brilliant" and said I was a talented writer indeed. I couldn't even breathe. I immediately called my sister and told her the good news, that the money was on its way to her. But to me, the real prize was that beautiful paragraph that I later used as a blurb on the book cover. The exposure that came from the book was amazing. I now had people blogging about me. That was really a thrill. The reviews and comments I received were positive and when you are starting out—in publishing terms—it is very important that you know people are "getting" what you are trying to do. I also had an agent contact me—a first—though he wasn't really able to do much with a collection of short short stories.

Did the award have an effect on the path you've chosen to take in your work?
Just the validation and praise I received from having Cold June win the contest and get published has helped me on those dark days when I wonder what the hell I am even doing. All writers need that. I am a high school teacher, nearing retirement, so I am thinking that when I do have enough time to write that novel, I would probably structure it in short shorts. Winning the prize and hearing the comments from people I would not have normally have heard from has told me to keep true to the style in which I write.

What advice do you have for writers looking to contests as a way to get their work into the world?
Contests are an amazing way to get your work into the world. Winning a contest definitely raises your profile as a writer and certainly adds much to your cover letter. It's a concrete credit that people do respond to. When choosing which contests to enter, you'll want to choose carefully, though. Entering contests is expensive and time-consuming. You also want to make sure that what you're submitting really is your very best work. Choose a few good ones, contests you generally think you might have a good chance of winning, and avoid a scattershot method. Like any other submission, know the journal you are sending your work to. That will save you lots of time and money.

Deadline Hollywood reports that former ICM agent Nick Harris has partnered with financing specialist Jason Traub (also his brother-in-law) to form The Story Foundation, a company that aims to "create intellectual properties that start as books with ancillary life in film, TV and other multi-platform opportunities." Harris says he plans to offer authors a higher cut of any TV and movie deals based on their books, depending on how involved they were in generating the original idea. The company will focus on young adult and "high concept commercial ideas," as Harris put it. So...what exactly are "high concept commercial ideas"? We asked literary agent Julie Barer for a quick translation. Here's what she says: "I think a 'high concept' idea is one that is easily described in one or two sentences, appeals to a broad audience (meaning both male and female readers, young and old) and is both immediately recognizable and yet sounds original and fresh. It means the story has a 'hook' that will instantly draw people in, and will be easy to pitch to media, booksellers, and the general public. It usually means the focus is more about the plot and the narrative drive/tension than about the beauty of the line-by-line writing, but it doesn't have to be." 

On a related note, Barer's Twitter feed offers news about publishing and upcoming events, and is worth a follow. In fact, we've added the Twitter feeds of all those agents included in our Literary Agents database. Take a look! But remember: It's definitely not a good idea to query an agent via social media.

Research the origins (Latin, Greek, biblical, or otherwise) of your first name and develop an alter ego for yourself based upon those origins. If your name is Alex, for example, whose origin, Alexandros, originates from the Greek root "to defend," your alter ego could be "The Defender." Free-write for twenty minutes from the perspective of that alter ego, writing about anything that comes to mind—and see what kind of patterns, ideas, or thoughts emerge.

Think about a conflict you had with someone in the past that left you feeling especially wronged or misunderstood. Write a story from the other person's perspective, fictionalizing the details of that person's character. Create the story behind why this person did what they did or said what they said.

Marea Gordett, owner of Big Mind Learning, an educational firm serving students in the Capital region of New York, and author of the poetry book, Freeze Tag, issued by Wesleyan University Press, blogs about her P&W supported writing workshops at the Marillac Family Shelter in Albany.

When I moved from Boston to Albany,New York in the 1990’s, I was awake to the possibilities of a literary community provided by the New York State Writers’ Institute, but rather bereft at losing the teaching connections that I had in a large metropolitan area. Since a friend recommended that I apply to the Readings/Workshops Program at Poets & Writers for funding, I have been thrilled to find this network again in community centers, libraries, and senior centers throughout Albany County and at the beautiful Arkell Museum and Canajoharie Library in Montgomery County.

In these workshops, I am aware not only of what I receive from and give to the writers, but also of a third entity that the group itself becomes— a cacophonous, generous, uplifted community. When there is a space for freely writing about one’s joy, pain and longing, and others willing to listen to these long-withheld emotions-- amazing changes can happen. No matter what the age of the participants, we write from a deep, secret place and then we share, sometimes reluctantly, but always from a growing peace and diminishing loneliness.

This was especially evident to me this winter when I conducted a workshop at the Marillac Family Shelter in Albany. Part of St. Catherine’s Center for Children, this emergency housing program for homeless families meets the initial need for shelter and assists families in empowerment and education. I found a warm welcome when I proposed a writing workshop for teens and mothers called “You are Unlimited.” In this pilot program, held once a week for five weeks, a core of eight people and a constantly-changing extended group gathered in a well-maintained recreation/computer room and wrote, shared, and performed their poems and life stories. As I entered the room every Thursday, mothers with babies and young children would clear the space and shut the door. The dedicated teens, with their mothers usually sitting in couches a few feet away, would sit hushed and ready to write, even after a full day of school.

Participants wrote long Delight Chants in response to Nikki Giovanni’s poem, Ego Tripping, and celebratory litanies after hearing Nazim Hikmet’s poem, Things I Didn’t Know I Loved. After overcoming their initial resistance and with support from staff members, the writers eagerly embraced the free-form poems and wrote lines such as the following:

My real name is J.H.

I want it to mean beautiful. I am a tornado.

I am a spinner. I am a very big swirl.

The enthusiastic staff members wrote with the students and mothers, gently encouraging them. When one of the mothers shared her work, the others jumped in, and eventually everyone lined up to have their work videotaped, accompanied by the applause and shouts of an appreciative audience. When one staff member read her words, everyone nodded in agreement: “I didn’t know I loved the table/until I missed the love that surrounded it./I didn’t know I loved rice/until we had to do without it./I didn’t know I loved the tides/until they washed away my impatience.

This spirit of warmth and camaraderie vanquished pessimism and sadness, if only for an afternoon. I’m tremendously grateful to the support of Poets & Writers for letting my teaching come to life again, and helping me bring to various corners of my region workshops that help restore trust. Especially during this time of resignation and contraction, Poets & Writers gives solace and hope.

Photo:          Credit:

Support for Readings/Workshops in NewYork is provided, in part, by public funds from the NewYork State Council on the Arts, with additional support from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Kicking off the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this past weekend, a collection of standout books published last year were honored at the thirty-second annual Los Angeles Times Book Prizes

In poetry Carl Phillips won for his eleventh collection, Double Shadow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The book was a contender last year for the National Book Award, along with another Times Book Prize finalist, Bruce Smith for Devotions (University of Chicago Press). Also shortlisted for the Times honor were Jim Harrison for Songs of Unreason (Copper Canyon Press), Dawn Lundy Martin for Discipline (Nightboat Books), and Linda Norton for The Public Gardens (Pressed Wafer).

Alex Shakar won in fiction for Luminarium (Soho Press), his second novel after 2001's The Savage Girl (Harper). The finalists were Joseph O’Connor for Ghost Light (Frances Coady Books) and Michael Ondaatje for The Cat’s Table (Knopf), as well as National Book Award finalists Julie Otsuka for The Buddha in the Attic (Knopf) and Edith Pearlman for Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories (Lookout Books), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

The Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction went to Ismet Prcic for Shards (Black Cat). Prcic's novel won out over Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding (Little, Brown), Eleanor Henderson's Ten Thousand Saints (Ecco), Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House Press), and James Wallenstein's The Arriviste (Milkweed Editions).

The winner of the third annual prize in the graphic novel is Carla Speed McNeil for Finder: Voice (Dark Horse). Previous winners in the category include Adam Hines for Duncan the Wonder Dog (AdHouse, 2010) and David Mazzucchelli for Asterios Polyp (Pantheon, 2009).

The book prizes honor titles published in the previous year in twelve categories. For a list of all the winners, visit the award website.

Choose a well-known person from history or from the news. Write a persona poem from this person's voice and perspective. For an example, read the poet Ai's "The Good Shepherd: Atlanta, 1981," from her collection Sin (Norton, 1986), written from the perspective of convicted murderer Wayne Williams, or watch a video of Ai reading the poem.

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