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The Whiting Foundation recently announced the winners of its 2012 literary awards, which offer ten grants of $50,000 to emerging poets, fiction writers, creative nonfiction writers, and playwrights.

The 2012 Whiting Award recipients include nonfiction writer Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts of New York City, whose first book, Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America (Little, Brown, 2011), was among the 100 Notable Books of 2011 by the New York Times Book Review and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award; poet Ciaran Berry of Hartford, Connecticut, whose first full-length collection, The Sphere of Birds, (Southern Illinois University Press, 2008) won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition in 2007; poet Atsuro Riley of San Francisco, whose first book, Romey’s Order (University of Chicago Press, 2010) won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, the Believer Poetry Award, and the Witter Bynner Award from the Library of Congress; fiction writer Alan Heathcock of Boise, Idaho, whose short story collection Volt (Graywolf Press, 2011) was a finalist for the Barnes and Noble Discover Prize; fiction writer Anthony Marra of Oakland, California, whose debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and short story collection, The Tsar of Love and Techno, will be published in 2013 and 2014, respectively, by Hogarth Press; and fiction writer Hanna Pylväinen of New York City, whose debut novel, We Sinners, was published this past summer by Henry Holt.

Four playwrights, Danai Gurira, Samuel Hunter, Mona Mansour, and Meg Miroshnik also received the awards. 

The "no strings attached" grants are given to writers whose early work suggests a promising literary career to come. Past recipients of the Whiting Award have included Michael Cunningham, Mark Doty, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Tracy K. Smith, John Jeremiah Sullivan, David Foster Wallace, Colson Whitehead, and C. D. Wright.

The New York City-based Whiting Foundation has given the Whiting Awards annually since 1985. Candidates are nominated for the award by literary professionals, and an anonymous selection committee of accomplished writers, editors, and literary scholars appointed by the Whiting Foundation chooses the winners. There is no application process.

In September P&W-supported poet Tim Toaster Henderson was the featured performer at Coast Slam in Fort Bragg, California. First-time slam judge Gene Lock blogs about the event (with a little help by series director Christina Perez).

Tim Toaster HendersonA poetry slam, we now know, has rules. Poems are orally presented, in front of a microphone. The poems must fit in a time slot of three minutes. Structure, rhyme, and meter are optional. Poets come to the front of the audience, one at a time, and deliver their work. Then the judges (there were five of us at the September slam) hold up cards ranging from one to ten, and fractions thereof. So, the poet might receive an 8.7 or a 9.3, a la Olympics. A time-/scorekeeper records the scores, discards the high and low, and averages the remainder.

In preparation for judging, my wife, Susan, and I learned that points are awarded for two components: 1) content—does the poem successfully use metaphor, alliteration, image, and tone? and 2) presentation—does the poet read the poem off paper (not so good), or deliver it from memory using voice, eye contact, and body language?

The roughly ten poets that night ranged from high school students to middle-aged folk. Some poems were funny, political, or whimsical. Some seemed highly personal—chronicling inner turmoil, thoughts of suicide, etc. These poems were especially moving. If nothing else, this contest gave the poets an appreciative, or at least open-minded, audience, and it let them communicate effectively, and get feedback in the form of applause.

The featured poet of the night was Tim Toaster Henderson. He is big, with a mess of huge hair constantly spilling from a grey knit hat. He spoke of being biracial and performed a poem about a man going back to 1968 and having a conversation with Martin Luther King Jr. Another poem was a satire about the unconscious racism of a classmate’s mother. Hilarity turned biting, leaving us all to question how we too, might display our unwitting racism. When Tim switched topics, we learned about the short lives of insects and roared with laughter at their sex lives.

If I’d never gone, I wouldn’t much think about how such an event benefited poets, especially those wrestling with demons past and present. Now I see that it takes quite a bit of nerve and public speaking ability to deliver these poems to strangers.

The moderator, a poet herself, kept the program upbeat, and moving along well. My wife Susan was so inspired that she wrote a poem about the slam:

Slam

A metal chair
unfolded, absorbing
cold from the night air.

A clipboard clutching woman,
a white blaze
adorning her black hair.

A confident couple
she white, he half,
his tallness topped
with twisted tendril hair
ease concealing the depths
they will soon share.

A freshman poet,
his proud family filling out a row.
A pink-haired poet,
bubbling with anger and woe.

A tortured young woman
pushing back.
A bitten camper,
repellent left out of her pack.

A writer
with language and humor
at her command.
A first-timer
with notebook trembling in hand.

Gutsy people
seeking community,
rebuffing society,
altering history,
exploring mystery,
resolving polarity,
evoking hilarity

Opening themselves
to us more timid.

Photo: Tim Toaster Henderson (with pizza box) at Coast Slam. Credit: Tony Greene.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

One of the most dangerous pitfalls of creative nonfiction can be chronology, and some of the best essays are written in a nonlinear fashion. Think of a story that you know by heart--maybe a memory from your childhood, of finding first love, or of the birth of a child--and try to retell it without using typical chronologically. Start from the end and work your way back, or alternate between scenes of present and past. The result should be an essay that keeps the reader always moving but never quite sure of what comes next.

Using magazine clippings; photographs; found or created notes, letters, and postcards; and other items, construct a story from ephemera. Put the items in box and add to it as the week goes on. When you feel that you've compiled enough, write the story relying on the ephemera as a guide.

Find a text that is completely unrelated to what you normally read—a how-to manual, a 1950s interior design book, an old encyclopedia, a white paper on social media— and use it as the source of an erasure poem. Read through several pages and underline words and phrases that appeal to you and that relate to each other. Using a marker or Wite-Out, begin to delete the words around those you underlined, leaving words and phrases that you might want to use. Keep deleting the extra language, working to construct poetic lines with the words you’ve chosen to keep.

Sehba Sarwar blogs about her role as founding and artistic director of P&W-supported Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB), a Houston-based alternative arts organization. A writer and multidisciplinary artist, Sarwar uses her poetry, prose, and video/art installations to explore displacement and women’s issues on a domestic and global level. Her first novel, Black Wings, was published in 2004, and she is currently working on a second manuscript tentatively entitled "Island."

On October 1, 2012, Inprint, Inc., and the Poetry Society of America in association with Nuestra Palabra presented a panel discussion, Red, White & Blue: Poets on Politics, featuring Sandra Cisneros and Tony Hoagland and moderated by the Poetry Society’s executive director Alice Quinn. The gathering, held at the University of Houston, drew a mix of students and community members and there was a rich conversation about the urgency of poets to speak in response to social issues. Both Cisneros and Hoagland read work by poets they admire, followed by a discussion about the importance of giving voice to community. Sandra closed with a poem by Amber Past, who lives in Mexico but archives stories of indigenous women.

The next morning, I had a spontaneous breakfast with Sandra, who I know because I’ve been part of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop for the past four years. The group, which began fifteen years ago with twenty writers gathering at Sandra’s kitchen table, long before a nonprofit was formed, gave San Antonio and Austin-based writers a space to gather and share their work. Once Macondo evolved into a nonprofit arts organization, annual summer retreats were organized in San Antonio. At its peak, Macondo had as many as 80 members. We gathered in San Antonio from around the United States and Mexico to workshop our writing or to gain time to write. Today, the Macondo Writers’ Workshop is going through a transition as Sandra steps back to focus on her own writing.

Many artists, like Sandra, initiate arts organizations because they have a passion for their work and want to share art and resources with a larger community. However, there is a natural tension between the creation of art itself and the formalization of an arts organization. Art is not a prescribed process. One begins the journey without knowing the ending and most artists who start arts organizations either give up their own art or step away from the formal structures they create. Next year, Sandra will be taking a year’s retreat in Mexico so she can write. “I’m going to Mexico for the same reasons you go to Pakistan each year,” she tells me. “I need to be reinvigorated.”

The act of writing is solitary. We need community for feedback and support, but to create work, we need time to be alone. As I reflect on my visit with Sandra, I remember a January 2012 New York Times opinion piece by Susan Cain, who talks about how “group-work” is over-emphasized in today’s world. “Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption,” Cain states. Her words make sense to me. In the flutter of our time, when to remain visible one must tweet or post on Facebook and always keep a product in sight, the need to slow down and reflect is underestimated. I applaud writers and artists who resist producing, and instead, dedicate time to the process.

Photo: Sehba Sarwar. Credit: Emaan Reza.

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.

Hilary Mantel, author of the historical novel Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate) has been awarded the 2012 Man Booker Prize. This is her second win. 

Mantel first received the prize in 2009 for Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate), the first book in a trilogy of which Bring Up the Bodies is the second installment. Mantel is only the third author—after Peter Carey and J. M. Coetzee—and the first woman to win the prize twice, and is the first to win with a sequel. She receives an award of 50,000 British pounds.

The Wolf Hall trilogy surrounds Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII, and the eventual death of Anne Boleyn. In an announcement made last week on the Man Booker website, the judges said of Mantel’s work: “Her resuscitation of Thomas Cromwell—and with him the historical novel—is one of the great achievements of modern literature.”  

The book was selected from a shortlist that included Tan Twan Eng for The Garden of Evening Mists (Myrmidon Books), Deborah Levy for Swimming Home (And Other Stories), Alison Moore for The Lighthouse (Salt), Will Self for Umbrella (Bloomsbury), and Jeet Thayil for Narcopolis (Faber & Faber). Peter Stothard, Dinah Birch, Amanda Foreman, Dan Stevens, and Bharat Tandon judged. 

Mantel is currently at work on the third and final installment in the trilogy, to be titled The Mirror and the Light, which will continue Cromwell's story until his execution in 1540.

In the video below from the Guardian, Mantel discusses her second Man Booker win. 

Dorothy Randall Gray is a certified life coach and best-selling author of Soul Between The Lines: Freeing Your Creative Spirit Through Writing (Avon/HarperCollins). In addition to six books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, periodicals, and theater productions. Gray’s creative writing and personal growth seminars have inspired thousands throughout the world, including the participants in her P&W–supported workshops with Urban Possibilities. She has also served on the faculty at New York University, as a commentator for National Public Radio, and as special guest delegate to UNESCO. She can be reached at DRGheartland@gmail.com.

What makes your workshops unique?
When I teach workshops I feel like I am in my glory. I am energized and in love. I’ve been told that my joy is infectious. As a spiritual activist I believe I was put on this planet to make a difference. The motto on my business cards reads: “Transforming the world one word at a time.”

I’ve served local and global communities from Mumbai to Manhattan, Compton to Connecticut. My spirituality studies in Eastern, Western, African, Native American, and Asian systems also add a distinctive flavor to the classes. So, when people attend my workshops I believe they can taste the love, the world view, the spirituality, and my years of experience. 

What techniques do you employ to help shy writers open up?
I’ve got a wicked sense of humor and we laugh a lot in my workshops. Laughter eases tension, relaxes the soul, and frees the imagination. Shy writers may lack confidence in their work, fear making a mistake, or feel intimidated in front of others. That’s why I create a safe, non-judgmental space in which writing is validated, not judged. I never ask people how long they’ve been writing or how much they’ve published. I often pair students so they can read to each other. A technique I developed over 18 years ago called “seeds” is also very helpful. Now many other writing teachers have found it useful to employ this nonjudgmental way of giving feedback that encourages and inspires.

Everything around us is inspiration for the creative spirit within everyone. I love finding different ways of stimulating that spirit—music, guided meditation, movement, visualizations, provocative exercises, inanimate objects, colors, artifacts found in an abandoned house, even a Scrabble board.

What’s been your most rewarding experience as a teacher?
I believe living on purpose is its own reward. I can hardly think of any teaching experience that hasn’t been rewarding. Over the years I’ve worked with postgraduate students, HIV positive men, battered wives, gay and lesbian populations, cancer survivors, mental health professionals, and writers from Iceland, India, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, and Trinidad. One recent experience almost moved me to tears. After weeks of teaching my writing class of 15-year-old boys at a juvenile detention center I walked in one day and they broke into a round of applause.

What affect has this work had on your life and art?
This work inspires me to seek as many opportunities to teach as I can find, and to write as much as I encourage my students to write. The joy that this purpose-filled life gives helps me navigate the challenging passages of my own writing life. It encourages me to push past rejection letters, ungranted grants, and bills that seem to multiply like gremlins fed after midnight.

Poets & Writers has been a consistent and invaluable supporter of my writing life. Its Readings/Workshops program enabled Urban Possibilities to offer my workshops to a homeless shelter on Los Angeles’ skid row. P&W has also lent its support to Women Writers and Artists Matrix in upstate New York. In addition, its Southern California Workshop Leaders Retreats provide excellent opportunities for writing teachers to exchange ideas.

What are the benefits of writing workshops for special groups?
I am moved to create new exercises and teaching methods. It keeps the teaching fresh and vibrant, and moves it toward the excitement of the creative unknown. This is particularly true of my work with incarcerated youth for Theatre of Hearts/YouthFirst.

What is the most memorable thing that’s happened as a result of one of your workshops?
One woman felt so empowered after one of my workshops that she stood up in the middle of a conference audience and announced, “I’m getting a divorce. Anyone know a good lawyer?” Another who hadn’t spoken to her mother in five years used my class exercises to write about the rift. At the end of the workshop series she called her mother and handed her those writings. They’ve been talking ever since.

Photo: Dorothy Randall Gray (center/foreground) with participants in a writing workshop sponsored by Urban Possibilities, which serves homeless men and women in downtown Los Angeles. Credit: Craig Johnson Photography.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. For Readings/Workshops in New York support 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, and the Abbey K. Starr Charitable Trust. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Write about a time when you traveled to a place where you didn't speak the language—either literally or figuratively. It could have been a foreign country or simply a different city, state, or group of people among which you felt like an outsider. As an ethnographer might write about a different culture, focus on how the people around you spoke and behaved, how you felt as you listened and observed, and the ways in which you were able—or ultimately unable—to assimilate and communicate.

The Story Prize, an annual book award given for a short story collection, has announced its panel of judges for the 2012 awards. They are critic and writer Jane Ciabattari, author Yiyun Li, and bookseller Sarah McNally.

Jane Ciabattari is the former president of the National Book Critics Circle, and the author of the short story collection Stealing the Fire (Canios Editions, 2002). Her reviews, interviews, and reportage have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Boston Globe, Bookforum, Salon, the Paris Review, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post, among many others.

Sarah McNally founded McNally Jackson Books, New York City's largest independent bookstore, which she has owned and operated since 2004.

Yiyun Li is the author of the story collections Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (Random House, 2010) and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Random House, 2005) and a novel, The Vagrants (Random House, 2009). A former MacArthur Foundation fellow, she has received the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, a Whiting Writers’ Award, and the Guardian First Book Award. In 2007, Granta named her one of its Best of Young American novelists, and in 2010, The New Yorker named her one of its top 20 fiction writers under 40. 

Judges for The Story Prize are selected from various literary fields, and have included writers, editors, booksellers, librarians, critics, journalists, and academics.

Founded in 2004 by director Larry Dark, the Story Prize is given for fiction collections published in the United States during the previous year. The winner receives $20,000, and each finalist receives $5,000. Past winners have included Edwidge Danticat, Anthony Doerr, Mary Gordon, Patrick O'Keeffe, Jim Shepard, and Tobias Wolff. Last year, Steven Millhauser won the prize—edging out finalists Don DeLillo and Edith Pearlman—for his collection We Others (Knopf, 2012).

The submission deadline for this year’s Story Prize is November 15. Finalists will be announced in January, and the winner will be announced at a ceremony in New York City on March 13. For more information and up-to-date news, visit the Story Prize blog.

The San Francisco-based City Lights Booksellers and Publishers announced last week that its founder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who had been selected as the recipient of the inaugural Pannonius Prize, would decline the award.

The prize, which was announced in September, is funded by the Hungarian government and the Hungarian chapter of PEN International, and offers an award of 50,000 euros.

In a press release, City Lights stated: “While honored to be chosen and recognized, Lawrence Ferlinghetti has been a resolute supporter of freedom of expression his entire life. Given that the Hungarian government is widely accused of officially and unofficially stifling free speech and civil liberties, Ferlinghetti has decided to decline the award.”

On the same day that City Lights released their statement, the MFA program in writing at the University of San Francisco announced the inaugural Lawrence Ferlinghetti Poetry Fellowship. Established in honor of the poet, activist, and City Lights founder, the biennial fellowship—which provides full tuition funding to the MFA program—will be given to a poet “whose work embodies a concern for social justice and freedom of expression, interpreted in the broadest possible way.”

Ferlinghetti, whose most recent book is Americus, Book 1 (New Directions, 2005), is a longtime proponent of the “wide-open poetry” movement; he published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl & Other Poems in 1956, and was subsequently arrested, tried, and eventually acquitted on obscenity charges in what became a historic first amendment case. Poet D. A. Powell, a professor of poetry at the University of San Francisco, said in a university press release, “The Howl trial changed the culture of American poetry overnight and paved the way for a more open, expansive poetics—for poetry that confronted American hypocrisies and political institutions, willing to put its proverbial heart on the line.” 

To learn more about the life and work of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, visit the City Lights website. For more information and complete application guidelines for the Lawrence Ferlinghetti Poetry Fellowship, visit the University of San Francisco MFA program website. 

Choose one of your stories that needs revision. Create a timeline that includes each year of the main character's life, fleshing out details that support who he or she is. After you've finished, return to the story and revise it in terms of this more fully developed understanding you have of your main character.

Take one of your poems that you're not satisfied with and use scissors to cut it up into its lines. Rearrange the lines, omitting ones that no longer fit. With this fresh arrangement as a working draft, compose an entirely new poem. 

October writer-in-residence Sehba Sarwar blogs about Voices of the Displaced, a workshop led by P&W-supported Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB). A writer and multidisciplinary artist, Sarwar uses her poetry, prose, and video/art installations to explore displacement and women’s issues on a domestic and global level. Her first novel, Black Wings, was published in 2004, and she is currently working on a second manuscript tentatively entitled "Island."

In the spring of 2003, I began co-facilitating a Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB) writing workshop with another Pakistani poet Shaista Parveen. At that time, VBB was still young—we were in our third year and I had recently quit working at a high school, where I had been teaching creative writing and journalism. I didn’t have much salary in those days and my only income was through workshops that VBB writers and I taught at local schools.

Though I had fun with teenagers, I wanted to work more with adults. So Shaista and I began planning a workshop that spoke to the rootless-ness we both felt, whether we were in Karachi, Houston, or somewhere else. Shaista and I dedicated much thought to our workshop title—just as VBB co-founders and I had spent time honing in on the right title for “our” organization three years earlier. We finally agreed on “Voices of the Displaced,” a title that rang true for us. It also attracted a pool of Houston-based writers who were born in other countries or elsewhere in the United States, who had come from communities of color, or identified themselves as GLBT/queer. Project Row Houses offered us a meeting space and co-sponsored the series. We sent out emails inviting people to join—VBB didn’t even have a website at that time. Our first group was intimate with only six participants, but over time, the group expanded. We always brought food and drinks and our gatherings offered formal writing but also a sense of community.

VBB’s Voices of the Displaced series lasted about two years, ending a few months before my daughter was born. But once the formal workshops ended, a group of us filled the void by forming a writing/performance group, Displaced Corps. For another year, we met weekly to write, critique each other’s work, and perform together.

Since that initial spurt of adult workshops and then subsequent break, VBB has gone back to offering writing workshops for educators and students. We also continue working on the issues we explored through Voices of the Displaced by producing theme-specific multidisciplinary shows such as Politiqueer, Artists/Mothers and What’s Color Got to Do With It?

Often I think about the title of our group and recognize that the feeling of “displacement” is true of communities not just in Houston but also in urban spaces around the world. To live in the same city as our grandparents, attend the same schools and colleges as our parents, or stay in the neighborhoods in which we were born is becoming rare. Human migration and movement makes the recording of memories and family stories precious and so much of VBB’s work continues to be focused on revisiting histories through different lenses, capturing neighborhood stories, and teaching workshops that create connections between the past, present, and the future.

Photo: Sehba Sarwar (right) with another workshop participant.

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.

P&W-sponsored poet Gowri Koneswaran is also a singer and lawyer whose parents immigrated to the United States from Sri Lanka. Her advocacy has addressed animal welfare, the environment, and the rights of prisoners and the criminally accused. A Lannan Fellow of the Folger Shakespeare Library and member of the 2010 DC Southern Fried Slam team, she has performed at Lincoln Center Out of Doors (NYC), the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Gowri’s poetry has appeared in Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Bourgeon, and Lantern Review. She leads poetry and communications workshops and hosts open mics at Busboys and Poets and BloomBars, where she also serves as poetry coordinator. She tweets on-the-spot haiku at twitter.com/gowricurry.

One of the things I most enjoy about sharing poetry—through workshops, publication and performance—is the quiet power it has to open us up to diverse experiences and backgrounds. With the assistance of the Readings/Workshops program administered by Poets & Writers, I’ve twice been given the opportunity to perform my poetry in collaboration with Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company.

In Sanskrit, “dakshina” means “offering.” Beyond performing both bharata natyam and modern dance, Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company offers the community events that celebrate important figures in South Asian history through other art forms.

As part of its 7th Annual Fall Festival of Indian Arts that took place in October 2010 in Washington, D.C., the company organized a joint performance to celebrate Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday. I was invited to perform original poetry prior to a musical performance by accomplished sitarist Alif Laila. While we were both familiar with the dance company and founder Daniel Phoenix Singh, we forged a connection as artists through the event and particularly appreciated the ways the other’s work complemented our own.

We were both invited to reconvene for a joint performance in May 2011 in celebration of Rabindranath Tagore’s birthday. Tagore is not only a revered Bengali poet but was also the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

After each of these performances, I met a number of attendees who were incredibly moved by experiencing poetry in this way for the first time. Some had even jotted down phrases and lines that touched them most deeply.

As an artist who views my poetry as one avenue to educate, inspire thought, advocate change, and celebrate diversity, I am especially grateful to P&W's Readings/Workshops program for facilitating my participation in these events.

As Tagore wrote, "The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence." By reaching out to audiences who may not typically be exposed to the poet's craft, writers can explore the power of poetry to unite readers and listeners across varied backgrounds and experiences.

Photo: Gowri Koneswaran. Photo Credit: Les Talusan.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Washington, D.C., is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

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