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The Believer, the monthly whose mission, in part, is to "focus on writers and books we like," has named its finalists for the 2011 Believer Book Award for fiction. Of the five books selected by the magazine's editors as the "strongest and most underappreciated of the year," four are published by small, independent presses.

The shortlisted titles are Jesse Ball's third novel, The Curfew (Vintage), which the Believer's editors describe as "a tortuous snake of a story" that winds up resembling "an ouroboros swallowing its own tail"; Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt (New Directions), a novel "preoccupied with the question of what genius looks like"; Lars Iyer's novel debut, Spurious (Melville House), whose pleasures are evocative of Beckett; Widow (Bellevue Literary Press), the first short story collection from novelist Michelle Latiolais, whose "narrators navigate familiar landscapes rendered nearly impassable by grief"; and Ben Lerner, who has previously published three poetry collections, for his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House Press).

The winner of the Believer Book Award will be announced in the May 2012 issue. Readers' nominations for best books of 2011 will appear alongside prize announcement.

In the video below, the Center for Fiction and n+1 magazine present a dramatic reading from DeWitt's shortlisted third novel (the second segment of the two-part reading is here).

For the month of March, P&W–supported poet and presenter of literary events Michael Cirelli blogs about his history with the Readings/Workshops program. Cirelli is the executive director of Urban Word NYC, a literary arts organization for teens, and author of Lobster with Ol' Dirty Bastard, Vacations on the Black Star Line, and Everyone Loves The Situation.

When I began taking my writing seriously, realizing I wouldn’t be a professional hockey player, I replaced my subscription to Sports Illustrated, with Poets & Writers Magazine. That was in 1999, when I was wrapping up my undergraduate degree at San Francisco State University, beating (pun intended) the pulp out of my poems, trying to find a voice of my own (and maybe even cross paths with all things good that I saw in the magazine). I moved to New York City in 2003 to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing at the New School, and found a small part-time position at a fairly new organization for teen poets, Urban Word NYC. Within 6 months, the founder of the organization decided to pursue her PhD full and left me with the reigns. “The reigns” in the nonprofit field ultimately boils down to finding money to do the necessary work.

For the sake of Urban Word NYC, the good work was creating safe, uncensored, and relevant spaces for teens to explore their powerful and unique voices. To create those spaces we needed great poet/educators to facilitate the work. To that end, I had gotten a little closer to the organization whose magazine landed on my Oakland doorstep over a decade ago. For years now, the Readings/Workshops program has supported Urban Word’s effort to have esteemed Harlem poet, Willie Perdomo, lead his popular workshop series (designed especially for us), Word to Everything I Love. This is not just any poet, his workshop breathes the type of radical truth-telling that his own poetry is known for.

Willie’s workshop has been a staple in our organization’s workshop series in both the fall and spring semesters, and is perennially our most attended, with upwards of forty students crammed into our space to write poetry after school. It’s remarkable math when you think of the circumstances: forty students in a cramped space come to write after being in school all day long! This is a testament to the power of Perdomo’s pedagogy, and the work of the young poets from the workshops is always representative of the innovatively powerful voices of New York City teens. Further, many of these young poets celebrate their work each spring at Barnes and Noble bookstore, as part of Poets & Writers annual intergenerational reading, Connecting Generations. I went from reading about poet/educators in Poets & Writers Magazine to P&W-supported writers leading programs for my organization!

Photo: Michael Cirelli. Credit: NIKE staff.

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.

Shenandoah, the literary journal published by Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, has doubled the prize purse for its second annual short short story contest—which still has no entry fee. The Bevel Summers Prize, which received over two hundred submissions in its inaugural year, now offers a five-hundred-dollar award, and the winner will also see her miniature fiction published in Shenandoah.

The judge will be fiction writer Chris Galaver, an assistant professor at Washington and Lee. Galaver is the author of the novel-in-stories School for Tricksters, published last month by Southern Methodist University Press.

Writers may submit up to three stories of no more than one thousand words each by March 31. The winner will be announced in June. For complete guidelines, visit the magazine's prize page online.

Poet Bethsheba Rem hosts the monthly Word Is Born series at the Apache Café in Atlanta. In January the R/W program supported a performance there by spoken-word artists Caroline Rothstein and Moody Black.

The Apache Café in Atlanta has been my home venue going on five years. It’s comparable to the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City, the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge in Chicago, and Da Poetry Lounge in Los Angeles, where Def Poetry procured their idea to spotlight poetry on the largest stage in the world: cable television.

Every fourth Sunday of the month, around 7 PM, a line forms in front of the Apache Café. Veteran attendees know that by 7:30, you’re likely to be holding up the bar with your back if you haven’t grabbed a seat. Late arrivers, self-imposed rock stars, and those who think they have some pull with the host trickle in around ten and miss the sign-up list. The coveted thirty slots to rock your best poem, sing your best cover, or deliver the original tune you’ve been practicing in the privacy of your bathroom with a hair brush and a Misty Mirror are gone as quickly as the chairs.

Recently, we featured Caroline Rothstein, a New York–based writer who is also an eating disorder recovery activist, and Moody Black, an award-winning slam poet who hosts his own slam and open mic in Greenville, South Carolina.

In order to receive their P&W grant, featured poets are required to conduct an hour-long “Word-Shop” in addition to their performance, a quick three-poem punch to the chest. I learned this ratio while touring in Amsterdam, where I was required to do a four-hour workshop and only a ten-minute performance. If done well, both audiences will remember you forever.

Depending on the season, I have been known to bring in pumpkins for carving, eggs for coloring, snowflakes for cutting, and flags for burning (just joking!) to get those not participating in the workshop in the mood for an artsy evening. It only takes a minor amount of instruction and a smile to get people hooked.

But nothing comes without sacrifice. The $7 admission, even with a packed house of 200-plus, couldn’t cover the cost of the venue, host, DJ, and a nationally touring featured poet. That’s where Poets & Writers swoops in to help relieve the daunting task of fundraising.

I learned about the Readings/Workshops program over four years ago, when I received a grant to perform at the Apache Café myself. The grant was small, but a P&W staff member happened to be in town and took a few minutes after the show to talk to me about how her office could help fund some of the shows I was doing in Atlanta.

Photos: (top) Caroline Rothstein; credit: Jonathan Weiskopf. (Bottom) The audience at the Apache Café; credit: Marc Jones.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Atlanta 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.

Some details of the legacy late Polish poet Wisława Szymborska hoped to leave writers of the future were revealed yesterday at the opening of her will in Krakow. According to Michal Rusinek, Szymborska's personal secretary, the Nobel Prize-winning poet had called for the establishment of a foundation, among the tasks of which would be to facilitate the creation of a new literary prize.

The nature of the prize was not illustrated in Szymborska's will. The foundation, which will assume care of Szymborska's papers and possessions, will be responsible for determining the type of prize and to whom it might be given.

Szymborska, whose last collection, Here (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), was published in the United States in 2010, died on the first of this month at the age of eighty-eight.

The video below is an animated adaptation of Szymborska's poem "Advertisement," translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanaugh.

Write a list titled "The Ten Things I Will Not Think About in My Last Seconds of Life." Give yourself ten minutes to freewrite the list, then turn the list into an essay. It can be funny, serious, or strange; the points may be connected or not. The important part is to allow yourself to linger on each item in your list and let it grow into its full potential, perhaps keeping it mind for an essay of its own. For this assignment, make sure to incorporate all ten things from the list into your essay.

Write a story in which a character lives alone in a desolate environment—the woods, the desert, the mountains. Describe your character going about the day, and use that action as a backdrop for revealing the reason why he or she has chosen to retreat from the world. Then, have another character enter the scene, describing how he or she arrives. What happens next?

Channel a person you've lost in your life. Find a photograph or reflect on a mental image of a friend or relative who is no longer part of your everyday life (because of death, estrangement, physical distance) and reenter the moment of that image, examining the clothing, the facial expression, the nuances of the scene in which the subject is situated. Then go deeper, into the scents, the temperature of the air, the physical and emotional sensations related to this particular scene from a past life. Now write down any words evoked by this reflection, whether they form a narrative or are entirely associative, whether they come from the point of view of an observer or the person herself. Use this material you've created to write a poem (you might try writing it in the form of a letter to your loved one, or from her to you). 

Longtime P&W-supported poet and author of the collections Raw Air, Night When Moon Follows and Convincing the Body Cheryl Boyce Taylor blogs about the late P&W-supported poet Rodlyn Douglas.

In 2004, I took a leave of absence from the P&W-sponsored Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center's senior writing workshop. I sought out Rodlyn Douglas, a warm and talented poet/performer from Trinidad, to be my replacement. Rodlyn could break into laughter one minute and prayer the next. She knew how to pull work out of people and enjoyed working with seniors.

Each week the group read poems by poets they had never heard of before. Whenever participants asked about her life or her work, Rodlyn never hesitated to share her personal stories.

Rodlyn charged the group with exploring their silences, to look within and be honest. Rodlyn encouraged them to leave a legacy of truth and dignity.

When the group had difficulty opening up, she would say, "Memories and Stories: Once Upon A Time!" This phrase opened doors to hidden places in their lives and enabled them to write from experience and memory. The phrase also became the title of their anthology, edited and published by Rodlyn in 2009.

It is important for me to note that Rodlyn completed this anthology during a period when she was seriously ill. Throughout it all, Rodlyn always expressed to me how proud and happy she was to be able to teach poetry, the work she loved so much.

Photo: Cheryl Boyce Taylor and Rodlyn Douglas. Credit: Desciana Swinger.

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.

Des Moines poet Jennifer Perrine has been a frequent feature in our Recent Winners pages over the past several years, due in no small part to the careful way she selects contests to enter and tracks presses' responses, and a willingness to dismantle and revise promising manuscripts until they transform into a perfect constellation. In 2008 her debut collection, The Body Is No Machine (New Issues, 2007), won the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award from Southern Illinois University. Her second book, In the Human Zoo, was published by University of Utah Press last May as part of another award, the Agha Shahid Ali Prize. Perrine's poems have also won competitions sponsored by the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation, Third Coast, Bellingham Review, the Ledge, and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg. The poet shared with us recently what she looks for in an contest, the true value of awards, and what not to expect from a writing competition.

What has inspired you to submit your work for particular awards?
Right now I’m most interested in contests that offer something unusual—something other than, or in addition to, a monetary award. I’m at a point now where I have two books in print, and awards that involve travel and readings seem like a particularly effective way to share those books with a wider audience. I also love awards that include travel because they expose me to new communities and landscapes and let me test out my curiosity in a new place. That sort of exploration inevitably leads me to write more poems—or at least, different poems.

I also have a particular fondness for letterpress and book arts, so I seek out contests sponsored by book arts centers or ones that award publication of poems as broadsides. Entering contests can be expensive, and I like the idea that whether I win or not, I’m helping to support this beautiful intersection of poetry and visual art.

I used to submit work quite often to more standard contests—ones that award a monetary prize and publication—but I do so less and less. After some early years of scattering poems to the wind and crossing my fingers, I started limiting myself to sending only to journals and presses that regularly publish poetry that I find pleasurable or challenging. More recently, because I’ve been on a tight budget, I’ve only been sending poetry to contests if I receive something in exchange for the entry fee—a year’s subscription to the journal, perhaps, or a copy of the book that bested the other eight hundred manuscripts. Like travel, exposure to great new poetry changes me, and that’s what I’m out to find—transformative experiences, not just something that will look good on a CV.

How did you know your manuscripts were ready to go out?
With individual poems, I tend to work on each one obsessively until I can’t think of any other possibilities to explore in the work. Then I send it out. I try to send it out at the point where I’m most excited about it; if I let poems sit too long while I move on to another project, I’ll start to gaze back on those older poems with hesitation or doubt. I’d rather put a poem into the world while I’m still surprised by what I’ve written, with the hope that some of that surprise will cling to the poem and reach the reader.

With book-length manuscripts, I take all my poems, spread them across the floor, and arrange them in various ways—removing some, inserting others—until I finally find some order that holds together as a book. I’m not necessarily looking for a theme, but usually patterns will emerge—recurring images, resonances between poems that were written months or years apart—that make the manuscript into something greater than the sum of its parts. I’ll submit a manuscript to several presses, note where it places as a finalist, and the next year I’ll repeat the process all over again, disassembling and rebuilding the manuscript until it finds its final incarnation—the one that a press turns into a book and sends out into the world. With each version of the manuscript, though, I always believe that those poems, ordered in that particular sequence, speak to each other in a way that creates constellations that are more illuminating when taken together and that aren’t dependent on a handful of standout stars.

Are you also submitting to publishers outside of competitions?
I submit individual poems outside of competitions all the time. I’ve also sent book-length manuscripts during the open reading periods to a couple of presses—Graywolf Press and Four Way Books—that I really love and that consistently publish great books.

It seems that many contests are geared toward publication of first or second books, so I’m sure I’ll be working out a new approach when I submit my next manuscript; I’ll inevitably be sending my work to more presses outside of competitions. That seems appropriate, though, because at this point in my writing life, I’m looking more for a press that wants to publish my work over the long haul than for the recognition a single prize confers.

Is there one prize that has been of particular value to you?
Really? You’re going to make me choose?

Again, the opportunity for travel is really important to me, so I’ve particularly appreciated the Mérida Fellowship Award from U.S. Poets in Mexico, during which I learned so much from fellow poets and from the people who live in and around Mérida; the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Prize, which opened me to the natural wonders of Point Lobos, Big Sur, and Carmel-by-the-Sea, as well as the stone-cold beauty of Tor House; the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award, which was especially delightful because I got to meet the students who juried the competition, so I knew that there were young writers reading my book and finding something worthwhile there; and the Writers at Work Fellowship, during which I spent every day awestruck by the mountains around Salt Lake City and worked every night on assembling the initial version of my first manuscript.

Other awards have meant a great deal to me for other reasons. Early awards from Gertrude, the Connecticut Poetry Society, and the Fine Arts Work Center came just after I had returned to college after dropping out for a couple of years. Those awards gave me some sense that I had made the right choice when I decided to spend more time reading and writing poetry, and less time selling donuts and CDs. At the other end of the spectrum, winning the Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize was wonderful—it was such a relief to find a home for my second book and to know that my poetic muscles hadn’t atrophied after I finished graduate school and started teaching full-time. I know it sounds like a copout, but I value every award I’ve received because each one is a reminder that someone out there is reading my work with care and enthusiasm. I write through, about, and around events and ideas that are important to me; the gratification doesn’t come from the award itself, but from knowing that another human being values the same things I do. Each award reestablishes my connection to the reader, which I can sometimes forget when toiling away on a poem by myself.

What piece of advice do you have for writers looking to contests as a way to get their work into the world?
Decide what drives you to submit to contests. If you’re entering contests for affirmation or money, there are easier ways to earn both. Contests also aren’t the easiest way to get your work into the world; if you just want to get your work out there, you can start a blog, and you can self-publish your manuscript. If, on the other hand, you want to support journals and presses you love, submit work to them. If you have a strong desire to travel or to find a community of other poets, submit to contests that will lead you down that path.

Keep a tight rein on your ego and your envy. Be happy for your friends who win prizes, even—no, especially—if you were competing for the same award. Be gracious, and remember that you’re doing this for the love of poetry, not to be a superstar. If I’m wrong, and you do want to be a superstar, try out for a reality TV show—you’ll have a much larger audience.

Be organized. Make life easier on the contest readers—who are usually your fellow poets—by keeping track of your submissions, so you can notify them if you need to withdraw a piece.

Let your rejections feed your work. Use them as a reminder to keep writing, to keep revising, to keep sending more work out, knowing that one day your poetry will kindle a sense of connection in a reader, someone who will see your poems as kin and give them a home.

Whatever you do, don’t give up. Whatever you do, enjoy the work.

Read the newspaper today and note the articles that you're most interested in reading. From those, choose a theme or concept that characterizes one or some of them, such as corruption, crime, war, love, or politics. Freewrite about the theme you've chosen, focusing on the articles you've read, your personal experience, and other anecdotes. Then craft an essay titled "Five Things I Know About [Your Chosen Theme]," in which you further explore what you've discovered by reading, thinking, and freewriting.

Yesterday the Los Angeles Times announced the shortlists for its 2011 Book Awards, given in ten categories including poetry, fiction, biography, and the graphic novel.

The finalists in poetry are Jim Harrison for Songs of Unreason (Copper Canyon Press), Dawn Lundy Martin for Discipline (Nightboat Books), Linda Norton for The Public Gardens (Pressed Wafer), and 2011 National Book Award finalists Carl Phillips for Double Shadow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and Bruce Smith for Devotions (University of Chicago Press), which is also on the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award shortlist.

In fiction, Joseph O’Connor is shortlisted for Ghost Light (Frances Coady Books), Michael Ondaatje for The Cat’s Table (Knopf), and Alex Shakar for Luminarium (Soho Press), 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). Debut authors up for the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction are Chad Harbach for The Art of Fielding (Little, Brown), Eleanor Henderson for Ten Thousand Saints (Ecco), Ben Lerner for Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House Press), Ismet Prcic for Shards (Black Cat), and James Wallenstein for The Arriviste (Milkweed Editions).

Up for the graphic novel honor are Joseph Lambert for I Will Bite You! And Other Stories (Secret Acres), Dave McKean for Celluloid (Fantagraphics), Carla Speed McNeil for Finder: Voice (Dark Horse), Jim Woodring for Congress of the Animals (Fantagraphics), and Yuichi Yokoyama for Garden (PictureBox). The award, the first major literary award given for the graphic novel form, is now in its third year.

Representing creative nonfiction on the biography shortlist are Alexandra Styron's memoir Reading My Father: A Memoir (Scribner) and Mark Whitaker's My Long Trip Home: A Family Memoir (Simon & Schuster). The late biographer Manning Marable, whose Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Viking) was a 2011 National Book Award finalist and is shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award, is also nominated in the biography category.

The winners will be announced at a ceremony on April 20, just prior to this year's Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which comes to the University of Southern California on April 21 and 22. Alongside the winners, the Times will honor novelist Rudolfo Anaya, who debuted in 1972 with the novel Bless Me, Ultima (Quinto Sol Publications), with the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement.

In the video below, Anaya reads from his novel Albuquerque (Warner Books, 1994) and discusses the importance of place to a writer.

Take a working draft of one of your stories and reorder the structure—write it from the end to the beginning, use flashbacks to rearrange the timeline, or tell the story using some other kind of organizational principle, such as using short sections with subtitles.

Write a poem that is in the form of a letter to a person from your past, a person from history, or a place. As you revise the poem, examine the poem's structure, looking for patterns. How many syllables are most of the lines? How many lines make up each unit (or stanza). Once you get a sense of the dominant structure, revise the poem asserting that structure consistently.

Poet and presenter of literary events Cheryl Boyce Taylor, curator of the Calypso Muse reading series and the Glitter Pomegranate performance series, blogs about Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center's P&W-supported senior writing workshop.

Shortly after 9/11 I began teaching a senior writing workshop at Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center. The workshops were designed to create a safe and nurturing space for seniors to express the impact of the tragedy on their lives. Additionally, it offered an opportunity for seniors to recall, explore, and document their own amazing stories. 

The workshop had a wonderful mix of seniors, which made for interesting and, sometimes, challenging sessions. Among our members were a retired school principal, a fashion designer, a WWII veteran, a fiction writer, a multi-lingual social worker, and a Caribbean heiress. Some of them were shy, while others had a more take charge attitude.

That first year we wrote stories, poems, and letters about childhood, parenting, health, and 9/11. We wrote to music, explored poetic forms like haikus, tankas, centos, and free verse, and invited emerging and established poets to read their work and discuss poetry. One of the invited poets was the late Rodlyn H. Douglas. The group fell instantly in love with her warmth, storytelling abilities, and poetry.

During that year, we collected poems and stories for an anthology and made artthe class painted and wrote text on rocks and made picture frames with poems and family pictures inside. The highlight was the P&W intergenerational reading held each summer. We joined other P&W-supported workshops comprised of young and older writers. Readers invited friends, family, and P&W staff. What a joy it was to see them rehearse, then dress up for their special reading. There were many wonderful parts of my teaching experience there, but I couldn't have been more proud than when I heard them read their own work with pride and confidence.

Photos: (top) Cheryl Boyce Taylor; credit: Artis Q. Wright. (Bottom) Rodlyn Douglas (standing) and workshop participant Mae Del Gilmore; credit: Cheryl Boyce Taylor.

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.

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