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Last night at a ceremony in New York City, James McBride received the National Book Award for his novel The Good Lord Bird, published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, this past August.

Victoria Will/Associated Press

A surprised McBride took the stage and said that he had not prepared a speech, as he hadn’t planned on winning. Considered the underdog of the shortlist, he beat out finalists Rachel Kushner, for her novel The Flamethrowers; Jhumpa Lahiri, for her novel The Lowland; Thomas Pynchon, for his novel Bleeding Edge; and George Saunders, for his short story collection Tenth of December. Charles Baxter, Gish Jen, Charles McGrath, Rick Simonson, and René Steinke judged.

McBride, the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir The Color of Water and the novels Miracle at St. Anna and Song Yet Sung, said he wrote his latest novel, about the journey of a young slave in the 1850s, amidst the death of his mother and the dissolution of his marriage.

The poetry award went to Mary Szybist for her collection Incarnadine, published by Graywolf Press. George Packer won in nonfiction for The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The award in young people’s literature went to Cynthia Kadohata for The Thing About Luck.

Maya Angelou received the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, a prize that was presented by Toni Morrison. E. L. Doctorow received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. 

The winners of the National Book Award each received $10,000. The awards are given annually by the National Book Foundation for works of literature published in the previous year.

Sleep deprivation can make any person act strangely. A barking dog, a leaky faucet, or a loud and unruly neighbor can own the night, turning pleasant people into frazzled malcontents. Write five hundred words about a protagonist who is prevented from sleeping by an outside force, and describe how this character handles the stress and resolves the challenging situation.

Our lives are constantly changing as we navigate what we can and can’t control. Every day there is a new beginning and ending—in big and small ways. We fall in love. We lose an eyelash. Write a poem about how your life is changing. Be specific. Change is complex and emotional on any level because it reminds us of our humanity—and of our mortality. Get writing.

The National Book Foundation will kick off National Book Awards Week tonight in Brooklyn, New York, with its annual 5 Under 35 celebration, during which five emerging fiction writers under the age of thirty-five will be honored for their work.

The 2013 5 Under 35 honorees are: Molly AntopolThe UnAmericans (Norton, 2014), selected by Jesmyn Ward; NoViolet BulawayoWe Need New Names (Reagan Arthur Books, 2013), selected by Junot Díaz; Amanda Coplin,The Orchardist (Harper, 2012), selected by Louise Erdrich, the 2012 National Book Award winner in fictionDaisy HildyardHunters in the Snow, (Jonathan Cape, 2013), selected by Kevin Powers; and Merritt TierceLove Me Back (Doubleday, 2014), selected by Ben Fountain.

Carrie Brownstein, a musician and the co-creator, writer, and star of Portlandia, will host the event. Author Colson Whitehead will DJ, and Fiona Maazel, a 2008 5 Under 35 honoree and author most recently of the novel Woke Up Lonely (Graywolf Press) will moderate a conversation with the writers.

Established in 2006, the 5 Under 35 five program honors five young fiction writers each year, who are selected by past National Book Award winners and finalists. The program has recognized emerging writers such as Téa Obreht, Karen Russell, and Justin Torres. Each of the winning authors receives a cash prize of $1,000. For the first time in the program’s history, the selected authors are all women.

The annual National Book Awards ceremony—during which the winners of the 2013 National Book Awards in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and young people’s literature will be announced­—takes place this Wednesday night in New York City. For live coverage of tonight’s 5 Under 35 celebration follow Prize Reporter on Twitter, and stay tuned to the G&A Blog for continued coverage of National Book Awards Week.

P&W-funded Kamilah Aisha Moon currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is the author of She Has a Name (Four Way Books). A recipient of fellowships to the Prague Summer Writing Institute, the Fine Arts Work Center, Cave Canem, and the Vermont Studio Center, Moon's work has been featured in several journals and anthologies, including the Harvard Review, jubilat, Sou’wester, Oxford American, Lumina, Callaloo, Villanelles, Gathering Ground, and the Ringing Ear. She has taught English and Creative Writing at Medgar Evers College-CUNY, Drew University, and Adelphi University. Moon holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College.

Kamilah Aisha Moon author photoA book launch can feel much like the beloved jazz classic, “Night in Tunisia,” written by Dizzy Gillespie and Frank Paparelli. In the song, seemingly disparate notes fall into a stunning syncopation, creating a thrilling groove and refrain that gains momentum each time it's played—with each part shining in turn, as well as building together, into crescendos of emotion. This style of improvisation married with exquisite skill and rhythms energizes the heartbeats underneath the beats that are melded with the lush harmonies of the performers and the audience—it pulses love, love, love.

Who knew that a book launch party could feel and be like this?! I didn't, especially before 7 PM on Friday, November 8. The day began with a medley of mishaps and logistical mix-ups—chief among them being that my sisters, flying in from Chicago for the program, were stuck in the airport and kept getting delayed. Unexpected obligations and last-minute details caused stress and anxiety. I've been told these things are inevitable, and that there's a reason we have the adage regarding “the best laid plans of mice and men.”

Fortunately, the outcome wasn't a disaster; in fact, quite the opposite was true. Friends stepped up to lend their hands, their knowledge, and their resources. Beautiful surprises and generous gestures gave us what we needed: The chairs and tables were set up, the food was spread out, and the wine was poured. Beautiful faces flowed in from childhood friends, colleagues, mentors, founders and directors of writing organizations, curators, publishers, poets, artists of all disciplines, former and current students, family members, and friends of friends I met for the first time. Everyone was a distinguished guest.

The night was cool and clear, and the New York City skyline—with two of its majestic bridges visible—glistened beyond the enormous windows of Rachel Eliza Griffiths' new studio, Dumbo Sky. You couldn't ask for a more gracious host. Writer and performer Samantha Thornhill elegantly guided us through the program. It began with the gorgeous voice and brilliance of Karma Mayet Johnson who sang “Little Sparrow,” leading the audience in song above the churning river. What a treat to hear Tina Chang movingly interpret two of my poems and welcome me to our press, Four Way Books. Paul Lisicky responded to a line in one of my poems with his usual grounded grace that reaches into the heart, and Joan Larkin shared vivid, thought-provoking word portraits for us all to consider. Tyehimba Jess brought his unforgettable brand of witnessing, including a poem about Blind Tom, an autistic piano virtuoso during the slavery era. Ross Gay's wonder and revelations charged the room too—including a humorous moment when the doorbell rang at the precise moment he mentioned cathedral chimes in the middle of a deeply poignant poem. Aracelis Girmay spoke from the heart in the beautiful language she is becoming legendary for, and shattered me in the best way with a poem written for the occasion. Then, after viewing the two exquisite book shorts she created for this book projected onto the wall, Rachel Eliza Griffiths introduced me like no one else has—our friendship the greatest gift from my graduate school experience at Sarah Lawrence College.

To say I was overcome is a vast understatement. I was humbled and honored that so many people from most of the communities and institutions I've known were all in one room. To look out into the sea of faces and see years of experiences and joy embodied in the flesh just blew me away. So did the dancing, signing, well-wishes and endless hugs that followed. When writers gather for an occasion, it is golden. I say this also thinking of the beautiful tributes just a few months earlier at a filled-to-capacity Poets House, remembering and celebrating poet Kurt Brown, now on the other side of the sun.

Oh, these moments where we twirl and shine together! Thanks to all who came—I wish I could list every name here. I'll never forget, and I look forward to attending the next reading, the next event, the next beautifully shared moment. How fortunate we all are to have this way of engaging with life as writers and artists, and to have each other. Like the ultimate jazz song, everyone has solos within the grand melody, everyone is backed by the others, everyone makes the song complete.

Photo: Kamilah Aisha Moon. Photo Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional support is provided by the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Amy Cheney is a librarian and advocate who has served preschoolers, middle schoolers, adults in county and federal facilities, students in juvenile halls, non-traditional library users, and people of color for over twenty-five years. Cheney has brought numerous writers—including Jerry McGill, Deborah Jiang Stein, Jesse De La Cruz, Luis J. Rodriguez, Cesar A. Cruz, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and Ron Glodoski—to conduct readings, writing workshops, and talks with the youth she serves at California's Alameda County Library Juvenile Hall. P&W has been supporting these programs for over a decade.

Cheney's six-word memoir is: "Navigator of insanity, instigator of enlightenment." Her theme songs are "Short Skirt, Long Jacket" by Cake and "I Can See Clearly Now" by Jimmy Cliff. For more information, follow her blog, Reaching Reluctant Readers.

Amy Cheney and visiting writersWhat makes your organization and its programs unique?
The Alameda County Library Juvenile Hall is a partnership between the public library, the county schools, and the Juvenile Justice Center to serve incarcerated youth.

When we first began the program, 81 percent of the youth said they had never heard a published author speak or read their work.

After authors visited the facility, 60 to 90 percent of the youth wanted to read their book or learn more. Sixty-three percent say they learn something new from author visits.

What’s the most moving or memorable thing that’s happened as a result of an event you’ve organized?
Seeing students, who haven’t had positive reading experiences in the past, wanting to read and reaching for the book (as well as having enough of the books to give them) is consistently memorable and moving.

How do you find and invite writers?
It's a process of intention, reading, research, networking, and luck. There were several artists that P&W helped us fund, who were little known at the time.

Walking home one evening, Jerry McGill was shot and paralyzed when he was thirteen years old. The shooter was never found. Jerry wrote a moving book called Dear Marcus, A Letter to the Man Who Shot Me. We were able to touch upon many issues that are often unspoken, but very real for the youth: getting shot, feelings of revenge, and forgiveness. Disability and life after severe trauma is an extremely important topic for our youth, but not often brought to light.

Deborah Jiang Stein was born in prison addicted to heroin. Her journey was fascinating to our girls.

Ron Glodoski does such an incredible program about physical, sexual, and verbal abuse. It is profound and life-changing for many of our youth to read, write, and explore these topics.

Youth are amazed that Jesse De La Cruz made it out of prison and is doing so well after more than forty-three years behind bars.

It’s also terrific to have well-known authors such as Luis J. Rodriguez, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and others grace us with their presence.

How has literary presenting informed your life?
When I was a rage-filled teen, I was forced—at least that’s how I remember it—to hear Maya Angelou speak in a church basement. I was pissed off I was there, but as the program went on I felt my defenses crack and something that had never been available to me opened up inside. This experience was so powerful, I’ve worked for thirteen years to provide the opportunity for others.

I've also learned a tremendous amount about integrity. Writing a book that reflects the truth is one thing, and living it is another!

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for the community you serve?
I am not even sure how to answer the question adequately. They are invaluable in terms of hope, inspiration, contemplation, freedom, and provocation. Quotes from the students themselves, after meeting Jerry McGill, might help illustrate the value of these programs:

"It was really a very emotional experience. I feel like there should be more people sharing their experience of being victims to people who make crimes; kind of like seeing the other side of the coin. Keep doing the things you're doing in spreading your life story." —S

"I too have been shot and never found out who did it so I can understand that. I know you said that you forgave whoever did shoot you and that makes me think about if I ever knew who did it I would forgive them. I'm going to read your book when I get a chance." —D

"Your story made me want to write more, and to make my own book." —C

"I learned the best thing from you, forgiveness. I'm willing to learn more and hear more from you." —A

Photo: (Left to right) Writer Dream Jordan, librarian Amy Cheney, writer Jeff Rivera, and writer Coe Booth. Credit: David Shankman.

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

We have all experienced Kafkaesque situations in our lives—those moments that are surreal, bizarre, or menacingly illogical, and yet very real. Write about a time when you encountered a Kafkaesque circumstance. Carefully select descriptive words that will effectively represent the complex emotions, weird thoughts, and bouts of confusion that filled your mind and the strange world around you.

Class is often characterized by how an individual treats others when no one is looking. Without interference from societal judgment, family expectations, or peer pressure, people often act very differently—revealing much about their true natures. Some become selfish and ruthless. Others shine with empathy and magnanimity. Place your protagonist in such a situation. Allow your character to take the lead. As a writer, it is your job to follow and relay what happens. Write five hundred words.

Fiction writer Claire Vaye Watkins has been named the winner of the 2013 Dylan Thomas Prize. She receives the £30,000 (approximately $48,000) award for Battleborn, her debut short story collection.

The international prize is awarded annually for a book of poetry, fiction, or nonfiction or a play in English by a writer under the age of thirty.

Watkins, twenty-nine, is the second American author in a row to receive the prize, following novelist Maggie Shipstead’s win in 2012. Watkins received the award during a ceremony in Swansea, Wales, late last week. In addition to the prize money, Watkins was presented with a bronze cast of a young Dylan Thomas. The shortlist included two poets and five prose writers from around the world.

Battleborn, published by Riverhead Books in the United States and by Granta Books in the UK, addresses the myth of the American West. Watkins, who was born in California and raised in Nevada near the Death Valley, has won a number of awards for the book, including the annual Story Prize.

Chair of judges Peter Florence said, “Claire Vaye Watkins has some of Dylan Thomas’s extraordinary skill in the short story form of giving you a perfect vision of a complete world and that’s extraordinarily rare.”

The prize is yet another nod to the form of the short story, following Alice Munro’s win of the Nobel Prize last month.

Founded in 2006, the Dylan Thomas Prize celebrates the legacy of Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas, who is known for writing some of his best work in his twenties.

We all lose things in life that are uniquely special to us: a wool scarf knitted by a beloved friend, a letter opener that belonged to a grandfather, a stuffed animal won for a daughter at a state fair. Life moves forward and so do we. Time crowds old memories with new ones. We misplace the things we love. We lose them. Or, somehow, they just leave us. Write a poem about an object that has disappeared from your life. Use the power of memory and emotion to give it new life, rendering it no longer lost, but found.

P&W-funded Kamilah Aisha Moon currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is the author of She Has a Name (Four Way Books). A recipient of fellowships to the Prague Summer Writing Institute, the Fine Arts Work Center, Cave Canem, and the Vermont Studio Center, Moon's work has been featured in several journals and anthologies, including Harvard Review, jubilat, Sou’wester, Oxford American, Lumina, Callaloo, Villanelles, Gathering Ground, and The Ringing Ear. She has taught English and Creative Writing at Medgar Evers College-CUNY, Drew University, and Adelphi University. Moon holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College.

Kamilah Aisha Moon author photoWriting poetry is a solitary endeavor. We carve out (and possibly steal) moments in order to get “the best words in their best order,” as Coleridge wrote. And once the poem is on a website, printed in a journal or book, each reader encounters and interprets those words uniquely, alone.

I'm so grateful for public readings and to participate in the literary community this way—freed from society's silos, if only briefly, to acknowledge what we as people mean to each other.

I love writing in part because of a high school teacher who shared with us his passion and expertise. But it wasn't until I went on a promotional tour in college and read my poetry in front of strangers across the Midwest that I was truly claimed by the craft. To read a line that lands emotionally, to convey images that soothe or startle, to see heads nod and the glimmer of recognition in someone's eyes, and to hear the sighs that someone might emit after tasting a good meal, is so gratifying.

For example, I was moved by a farmer from central Illinois who heard me read “Me and My Friends Circa 1981,” a poem in which I recall what it was like to grow up in an inner city neighborhood. After the reading he walked to the front of the room and thanked me for taking him back to his own childhood: the tire swing on the tree, the pond he used to splash in, the big porch where he ate homemade ice cream. As he heard about my chain-link swings, roller skates on pavement, and sidewalk chalk galleries, he connected with the universal joy of children enjoying summer regardless of geography. He readily saw himself, a farmer of the Silent generation with a grade-school education in an all-white rural town, in my black female coed words.

While compliments feel good, compelling comments are equally powerful. I appreciate the moments when someone says "I never thought of things this way, until your poem" or "Hey, you really pissed me off" or "I forgot about and stopped caring about this, but now I'll always remember." It is a complete honor when people brave the elements, perhaps pay a door fee, or forgo a cozy night on the couch to sit in a room and hear what a poet like me has to say. When poet Lucille Clifton was still with us on this planet, I loved how she would make me giggle from mirth or cry from devastation and find the redeemable in terrible things. She is famous for saying, “Poetry comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” Despite being maligned and marginalized by some, poetry's power and longevity are undeniable and vital to society.

I think of the rich, red velvet curtains and slightly beat up music stand at the intimate Perfect Sense Reading Series at Cornelia Street Cafe, hosted by Alissa Heyman. I love the fun and beautiful fervor of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe when Mahogany L. Browne helms the night. I have been nurtured for many years by the wide arms of Bar 13 and LouderArts, equally committed to newcomers and masters, the page and the stage. There's the literary garden cultivated by J.P. Howard, Women Writers In Bloom, and the audacious spectrum across time and aesthetics established by Jason Koo through Brooklyn Poets—from Walt Whitman to Notorious B.I.G.

I want to praise and recognize all of the people who organize such diverse, necessary spaces for readers and writers to gather. Often with little fanfare or compensation commensurate with their level of effort and talent, they make sure we meet regularly to share in this literary ritual that takes place all over the world in amphitheaters, galleries, tiny cafes, and living rooms. Thanks to Poets & Writers for their support of poets and literary venues, and thanks to the organizers and visionaries who conduct these events that celebrate verse and the human spirit, knowing that people will come and be better for it.

Photo: Kamilah Aisha Moon. Photo Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

Support for Readings/Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

The New York City–based Academy of American Poets has extended the deadline for its annual Walt Whitman Award until December 1. The award includes a cash prize of $5,000 and publication for a first book of poetry.

The winning work will be published by Louisiana State University Press, and will be distributed to thousands of Academy members. In addition, the winner will receive a one-month residency at the Vermont Studio Center, and will be invited to read at the annual Poets Forum in New York City next fall. Previous winners have also been profiled in American Poet, the Academy's biannual magazine, which is sent to all of the organization’s 8,500 members.

Original manuscripts in English written by current United States citizens who have not yet published a full-length collection are eligible. Individual poems may have been previously published in periodicals or limited-edition chapbooks. Visit the Academy of American Poets website for complete guidelines.

Using the online submission manager, poets may submit a collection between 50 and 100 pages with a $30 entry fee by December 1. Rae Armantrout will judge.

In addition to its writing awards, the Academy of American Poets, founded in 1934, administers a variety of programs, including National Poetry Month, celebrated nationwide in April each year; numerous events and readings; free online educational resources; and an extensive audio archive of over 700 recordings dating back to the 1960s.

Chris Hosea of Brooklyn, New York, won the 2013 prize for his collection Put Your Hands In. Minnesota poet Matt Rasmussen, who won the 2012 award for his collection Black Aperture, has since been shortlisted for the National Book Award in poetry. Listen to Rasmussen read the poem "After Suicide" from his winning collection.

Andrea (Andy) Young blogs about her readings—supported by P&W grants—in New Orleans. Her third chapbook, The People Is Singular, was published in 2012. Her poems, essays, and translations have been featured internationally and in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Callaloo, Guernica, and the Norton Anthology of Language for a New Century. Since 2012, she has been dividing her time between New Orleans, where she works for the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and Egypt, where she works for the American University in Cairo.

The P&W-supported readings I’ve done in New Orleans, like most of my writing from the last couple of years, were inextricably linked to revolution and the uprisings in the Arab “world.” These grants have catalyzed readings that likely wouldn’t have happened otherwise. The readings took place at the Antenna Gallery, a dynamic gallery space which features writers as all as visual artists, the New Orleans Museum of Art, Loyola University, and, at the invitation of the Tulane Arabic Club, at a restaurant which no longer exists called Little Morocco.

Most of the poems I read on these occasions were from a chapbook called The People Is Singular, a collaborative response to the Egyptian revolution featuring my poems and the photography of Salwa Rashad, an Egyptian photographer. All of these readings featured words that try to find a home somewhere between observation and engagement, between Arabic and English, between two cultures. As the spouse of an Egyptian poet, and the mother of two, I am part of a family that constantly seeks to find a point of balance between these things.

Poetry helps me to find that place, and these readings created opportunities to share it. Since January 2011, I have often been asked by American friends and family to help them understand what’s going on in Egypt: to direct people to reliable news sources or to give further context to the headlines. Poetry, of course, is about more than the facts, but I have found that it has served these last couple of years, among other things, to flesh out experiences that may feel distant, other.

Each of these readings also provided opportunities to explore different ways of presenting work. At the Antenna Gallery, I conducted a multimedia presentation with projections of Rashad’s work, soundscapes, and different reading styles. At Loyola University, I hung a small exhibit of Rashad’s work to accompany the poems. At the New Orleans Museum of Art, the reading was in a small gallery space filled with artwork providing a different context.

At Little Morocco restaurant, my husband, Khaled Hegazzi, and I read all the work bilingually, accompanied by the oud and guitar. The restaurant was packed, and the aromas of lamb, cardamom, carrots, and mint tea floated around our voices. It was January 2011, a frightening and exciting time at the beginning of what would come to be known as the “Arab Spring.” My chapbook was yet to be published, but the poems I chose (many in translation from Arabic) were in the spirit of the times. In the question and answer session after the reading, one person asked, “What would you call what is happening in Egypt now?” And I responded, “I’d call it a revolution.” Little did I know how big it was or how long the struggle would be. I continue to seek words that make the narrative(s) of these times tangible and human, though there are times I am hopelessly mute. These opportunities to read and share my attempts to voice my thoughts have helped me to feel that they matter to others and the world.

Photo: Andy Young. Photo Credit: Khaled Hegazzi

Support for Readings/Workshops events in New Orleans 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.

Writers share many creative qualities and artistic processes with painters. Both are engaged in the difficult endeavor of portraying oneself through art as an artist. Write six hundred words about you as a writer, manipulating your words and sentences like different brush strokes to create an image of how you perceive your artistic self. Be bold. Be thoughtful. Be candid. Self-portraits are rarely flattering. Art is about truth and true artists never spare themselves.

Fiction writers know that conflict drives plot. Tension and drama imbue life into our characters and propel their stories forward. Human nature, however, craves tranquility and clarity. Write five hundred words describing your protagonist at peace—truly one with the universe, even if only for several seconds. Perhaps your character is sitting on a park bench and staring at a bruised cloud, or on a crowded subway car listening to the rails below, or walking out of a cemetery with a beer in hand. Peace is unique to everyone.

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