Readings & Workshops Blog

West Seattle’s WordsWest Literary Series

WordsWest Literary Series is curated by poets Katy E. Ellis and Susan Rich, and novelist Harold Taw. All three live in Seattle, where they came together over their parched need for a reading series in their community of West Seattle. Ellis is the author of three chapbooks: Night Watch (winner of the Floating Bridge Press 2017 Chapbook Competition), Urban Animal Expeditions (Dancing Girl Press, 2013), and Gravity (Yellow Flag Press, 2015). Below, she writes about the inventive format of the WordsWest Literary Series and how it played out at an event last fall with P&W–supported writers Robert Flor and Roberto Ascalon.

WordsWest Literary Series—now in its fourth year of programming—was honored to celebrate Filipino American History Month by welcoming two outstanding local writers of Filipino descent, Robert (Bob) Flor and Roberto Ascalon, to the stage. As cocurator Harold Taw mentioned in his introduction, both writers are “Uncle Bobs” in a culture that gives great respect to the words and lessons of previous generations, and that acknowledges the importance of family and really good food!

One of the unique things about WordsWest is its trademark “braided” reading format, where writers take turns reading in short intervals. Both audience and readers get to experience a sense of spontaneous collaboration on stage. (It’s a “living anthology” of words unfolding in a never-to-be-duplicated fashion right before your eyes!) So, Flor and Ascalon traded off reading their poetry in five-minute segments, weaving their poems together with fascinating connections of common history that branched into current themes of what it means to be “home and away” in this country.

Roberto Ascalon was a stunning reader. The audience was on pins and needles as he took us into a Filipino fish market full of magical sensory images and strong characters. His love poem moved us with its unique form that didn’t quite rhyme, but felt like a song in its turning back and repetitions, and gorgeous images of seeds and growing. Bob Flor read from his chapbook Alaskero Memories (Carayan Press, 2016) about life in Alaskan canneries in the 1950s and 1960s. It is invaluable to have someone like Flor share his past experiences not only as a Filipino American with current ties to the Philippines, but as an older gentleman with an eye for details that only a poet can put down on paper. In one touching moment on stage, when the writers first traded turns at the mic, Ascalon acknowledged Flor’s age and life experience, and noted how honored he was to be reading with a Filipino elder. It was a lovely, intimate exchange between writers, between their poems. 

Another unique part of a WordsWest Literary event is the West Seattle Favorite Poem Project, wherein we invite a member of the West Seattle community to share a favorite poem and tell us why it’s a favorite (think Robert Pinsky, U.S. poet laureate 1997–2000). On October 18, we heard a favorite poem from Alexis Acciana of Reading Partners, an awesome organization that connects volunteers with kids who struggle with reading. Acciana gave us a lively, lovely reading of Billy Collins’s poem “On Turning Ten.” The favorite poem portion of WordsWest has been a great way for people who don’t usually connect with poetry to get involved in the literary arts (and to promote their local business or to raise awareness of their cause).

Our WordsWest “braided reading” format, our dedication to inviting writers of diverse experience and cultural background, the cozy, one-of-a-kind coffeehouse atmosphere at C&P Coffee Company, community participation, and an audience now reliant on monthly literary nourishment has made WordsWest an ongoing success!

Support for Readings & Workshops 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.

Photos: (top) Roberto Ascalon and Robert Flor (Credit: Donna Miscolta). (bottom) Two “Uncle Bobs” reading (Credit: Donna Miscolta).

Teen Writers Find Their Creative Voices

Christine Adler is the president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA) and former editor of Inkwell. Her articles, essays, poems, and book reviews have appeared in various print and online publications throughout the Northeastern United States and Canada. She has an MFA in Writing from Manhattanville College, and is represented by Ann Leslie Tuttle of Dystel, Goderich & Bourret LLC. Adler leads the Teen Creative Writers Workshop at Somers Library in Somers, New York, and is currently at work on her second novel.

The Teen Creative Writers Workshop at Somers Library was created for teens who love to write, those middle and high schoolers who’d tell you writing is their thing. We cover all genres—essays, fiction, fan fiction, poetry, you name it. We wanted to create a safe setting for writers where they can share their work and receive constructive feedback, while learning how to give helpful critiques to each other. We also discuss various genres and how to strengthen important elements in each one.

When a new writer attends the workshop for the first time, we talk briefly about how to give and receive feedback. This way, everyone knows we’re using the same guidelines and have the same goal in mind: to help each other improve. I give the group a prompt and have them write for a few minutes. Each student is then invited to share and read what they’ve just written, or read something they’ve brought with them. I also read what I write from the prompts and solicit feedback from the group.

Every writer knows it can be hard to separate your work from yourself, especially when opening up to criticism. If someone is still shy about reading, I ask them to trade work with another writer in the group and read each other’s work aloud. This gives the students an opportunity to experience reading to a group, and also helps illustrate that the critiques are focused on the writing, and not on the writer.

By far, my most rewarding experience as a teacher has been witnessing the enthusiasm expressed by the students. When we get into a discussion about books, or writing, or characters’ motivations they become so animated. It’s exciting to have them ask if we can meet weekly instead of biweekly, or if we can continue the workshop over the summer. Their interest shows me that they truly value the time spent, and enjoy learning the craft. I know they won’t all go on to become writers, but there was nothing like this for me in high school. If there had been, I might have had the confidence to start my writing career earlier in life. I love that I can be a resource to help these students start sooner if they wish.

Leading a group of young writers has greatly influenced my own art too. One thing I emphasize to the members is that we’re never done learning, in writing or in life. We can always improve. I’m strong at dialogue, but weaker at character development and world-building. Many of the teens write fantasy, and as a result are world-building wizards. I’ve learned a lot about world-building from them, and I often leave the workshop, go home, and dive into my work-in-progress. We share tips and tools with each other, encourage one another to keep writing, and together, we see our work getting better. For a writer, there’s nothing more inspiring.

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

Photos: (top) Christine Adler (Credit: Alex Lindquist). (bottom) Teen Creative Writers Workshop participants (Credit: Tara Ferretti).

The Journey

Brian Evans-Jones immigrated to southern Maine from Hampshire, U.K. in 2014. He received his BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Warwick, U.K., and was poet laureate of Hampshire, U.K. from 2013 to 2014. He received his MFA from the University of New Hampshire in 2016. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Outlook Springs, Stoneboat Literary Journal, and the Cafe Review. Evans-Jones is a juried teaching artist in both Maine and New Hampshire, and teaches poetry and creative writing in schools, colleges, and community venues.

You are a poet—or you think you are: perhaps you have never been sure. After all, you don’t have the four or five books to your name that you thought you’d have by now. A couple of competition wins, an award or two, yes, but no book. It seems so complicated, so difficult, this business of getting published. You live in a small town, in a rural state, far away from the publishing centers of America; the editors and poets who throng there seem so far above you.

But you try. You enter awards, send to magazines. The magazines all say no. In April, you get a missed call, a New York number—probably a scam. There is a voicemail, from “Bonnie.” It’s not a scam. You have won Poets & Writers’ Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award—you are going to New York City.

Six months later, you arrive. The buildings are enormous, the streets teeming. You meet Bonnie Rose Marcus, director of Readings & Workshops (East) and the Writers Exchange, tiny and beaming, and go out for dinner with Joan Dempsey, the fiction winner, who fast becomes a good friend. Your nerves are tingling; you almost dread the thought of meeting your first guests tomorrow, these poets who have made it, who have books and books; these editors of famous magazines. What will you ask them, that won’t sound ridiculous? Will they look down on you, will they expect you to know all the poets and trends that you don’t?

Morning comes. Bonnie guides you; the streets seem less alien. The first meeting is with Patricia Carlin, poet and editor. You meet at a coffee shop, get a quiet table in the corner. You’re so nervous, you can’t remember what you said. It doesn’t matter. She’s gracious, interested, friendly. You talk about assembling collections, the benefits and downsides of small presses and regional presses, places to network. She asks if one of your winning poems is available for her magazine, and gives you her card.

Now you feel better. This is going to be okay—maybe even fun. In the next meetings, with agents and other fiction folk, you relax. From the sidelines, you see that all these people—big, important New York City people—are just people: interested in writers, passionate about literature, interested in you.

At dinner, editors from A Public Space, Four Way Books, and Hanging Loose Press discuss magazine life, small press life, poetry. You see that editors simply want their work to be thoughtfully read, the same as you do. Submissions, you realize, can be not a battle, but a communication—maybe even an offering. Someone will like your work—if you take the time to learn what they like first.

The days zoom by. Breakfast with a writer, coffee with an agent, lunch with another writer, tea with a publisher. You grow comfortable with the routine, with the city, with the important New York folk. You meet the president of Farrar, Straus and Giroux and feel entirely at your ease. You love hearing gossip about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Kate Angus tells you eight small presses she thinks would appreciate your aesthetic. The tour of the New Yorker offices is unforgettable.

Suddenly, it’s the end. You’re going home, to your small town, your green and quiet state. Nothing has changed there—but when you sit in your placid town library, New York feels close. You start work on your manuscript. You are a poet. You are ready.

The Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award is generously supported by Maureen Egen, a member of the Poets & Writers Board of Directors.

Photos: (top) New York City skyline (Credit: Brian Evans-Jones). (bottom, left to right) R&W fellow Sreshtha Sen, R&W program assistant Ricardo Hernandez, R&W (east) director Bonnie Rose Marcus, 2017 WEX fiction judge Tania James, Joan Dempsey, Brian Evans-Jones, and 2017 WEX poetry judge Cynthia Cruz (Credit: Margarita Corporan).

Spunky Spirits Take the Stage at the Tucson Youth Poetry Slam

J. Sarah Gonzales is CEO of the national social justice consulting company, TruthSarita, LLC, which supports building collective power to dismantle inequity. She also serves as codirector of Spoken Futures, Inc., developing programs to create space for youth to address issues such as the school-to-prison pipeline, LGBTQ rights, and migrant justice through spoken word poetry. Gonzales is a published poet and currently works with the Cultural Centers at the University of Arizona.

Spoken Futures, a youth organization based in Tucson, Arizona, hosted the season kickoff of the Tucson Youth Poetry Slam (TYPS) on August 19, 2017, which featured P&W­–supported poet Bobby Wilson. Wilson’s work is heavily influenced by his Dakota heritage, and his spunky spirit and deep cultural roots resonated with the high school-aged youth. He led a writing workshop with about ten youths, moving them through the anxiety of writing and performing. By the end, all overcame their fears and signed up to compete in the poetry slam.

Held monthly at Bentley’s House of Coffee & Tea, youths from all over Southern Arizona come to listen, support, write, and perform in this incredibly welcoming environment. The slam is organized and hosted by TYPS coordinator Eva Sierra, a former youth participant who has joined the Spoken Futures staff.

There were about sixty people in attendance and judges were picked from the audience at random. Over the course of two hours, each young person got up to the mic and read poems about issues present in their everyday lives. Nathan spoke about growing up in foster care and group homes. Yasmin shared: “My childhood home now a construction site for stores, but what they don’t know, is that it was the house that built me.”

Wilson, a new transplant to Tucson, but a friend of many years to local organizers, also performed a set halfway through the slam. He roped in the audience with poems about his indigenous heritage, trauma from colonization, and dreaming our dreams. In his opening piece, he spoke about the national anthem: “I will not stand, I will not kneel. There are needles in our knees given to our grandparents by good God-fearing men and the women they own.” Wilson is raw, honest, and a kind person. He stayed late to talk to youth, and supported our work with his time and energy.

As youths learn to write about the inequities shaping their futures, we become more firmly dedicated to finding ways to keep this space funded and running. The TYPS kickoff was a huge success thanks to all our supporters! We are extremely excited for all the youth poets and featured poets we have lined up for the 2017-2018 season. Thank you to Poets & Writers, Bentley’s, and all our loving families and community who come together to support youth voice in southern Arizona. Read more about Spoken Futures, Inc. and the Tucson Youth Poetry Slam at spokenfutures.org.

Support for Readings & Workshops in Tucson 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.

Photos: (top) J. Sarah Gonzales (Credit: Diana Toj). (bottom) Bobby Wilson (Credit: Hannah Manuelito).

An Industry of Writers and Our Greatest Freedom: A Snapshot From the New York Literary Scene

Winner of the 2017 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award for fiction from Poets & Writers, and one of the “5 More Over 50” debut authors in the November/December 2017 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Joan Dempsey is the author of the novel, This Is How It Begins (She Writes Press, October 2017). She received an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles and was the recipient of a significant research grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. Her writing has been published in the Adirondack Review, Alligator Juniper, Obsidian: Literature of the African Diaspora, and Plenitude Magazine, and aired on National Public Radio. 

On a crisp, clear October morning, the three of us hustled down Vesey Street in Lower Manhattan, not wanting to be late for our meeting with Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at the New Yorker. We hurried past chain-link fences, shrouded to obscure what remains undone in the wake of 9/11. We waved away hawkers who propositioned us with memorial tours. We tried not to think about going up thirty-eight stories in the One World Trade Center building.

I was in Manhattan as the winner for fiction of the 2017 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, which includes an all-expenses-paid whirlwind tour of the New York literary scene. Brian Evans-Jones, the winner for poetry and a fellow Maine resident, kept pace beside me. Both of us trotted along after Bonnie Rose Marcus, director of Readings & Workshops (East) and the Writers Exchange, who kept us on schedule as we rushed from one meeting to the next.

By the end of our six days, we’d gathered with nearly thirty people working in the literary world. The meeting with Treisman came on our second morning, but in hindsight it feels like the culminating event because it so well personifies the collective spirit of the week.   

The guard in front of the revolving doors at One World Trade Center tried to shoo us down the block, assuming we were there for the 9/11 tour. We stated our purpose and were suddenly inside the cavernous lobby, the ceiling an impossibly high sixty-five-feet overhead. Other guards scrutinized our IDs, photographed us, carefully searched our bags, and ushered us through the metal detectors. We made nervous small talk, each of us keenly aware that we were heading up into the sky that used to house the twin towers.

The New Yorker offices are as lovely as you might imagine: walls lined with framed cartoons and magazine covers, books and papers everywhere, the distinctive Irvin typeface gracing the signs that indicate who inhabits each office. Walls of glass abound, maximizing the sweeping views out to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty and all the way uptown to the Empire State Building.

In Treisman’s office, she encouraged us to step right up to the window to get the full view; it was impossible not to think about those who had jumped. Far below, the twin reflecting pools occupy the footprints of the original towers. We talked about editing Alice Munro, the significance of fiction, and the gravity of fact-based journalism during the Trump era. “It’s no secret that we’re not fans of Trump,” Treisman said fiercely. I felt a similar fierceness—an urgency—in each of our meetings, an undercurrent of purpose that writers in gentler times are spared.

As we toured the New Yorker offices, a few people glanced up and smiled, but most were assiduously tending to their work. The quiet buzz of dedicated, brilliant, and creative industry I felt in that office was echoed in every other meeting that week. It filled me with a sense not of comfort, exactly, but of certitude. Literary artists continue to use words as writers have always used words: to speak truth to power, to inspire and bear witness, to exercise our greatest freedom. I am proud to be among them.

The Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award is generously supported by Maureen Egen, a member of the Poets & Writers Board of Directors.

Photos: (top) Joan Dempsey and Brian Evans-Jones at the New Yorker offices (Credit: Bonnie Rose Marcus). (bottom) Joan Dempsey and Brian Evans-Jones with judges for the 2017 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award Tania James and Cynthia Cruz (Credit: Margarita Corporan).

Making Ourstory

Nancy Agabian is the author of Princess Freak (Beyond Baroque Books, 2000) and Me as Her Again: True Stories of an Armenian Daughter (Aunt Lute Books, 2008), which was honored as a Lambda Literary Award finalist for LGBT Nonfiction and shortlisted for a William Saroyan International Prize. Her novel manuscript The Fear of Large and Small Nations was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Agabian teaches creative writing at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University and for Heightening Stories, a series of community-based writing workshops online and in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, New York where she lives.

Sitting at a folding table at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, I worry that I am not queer enough. Some of the texts I’ve brought in to teach the Creative Writing From Queer Resistance workshop feel like old friends, read long ago, but others I haven’t even read yet. We will consider them each week on what I conceive as a timeline of queer liberation: Stonewall; feminist lesbian liberation; AIDS and Act Up; trans, bi, and gender/sexual fluidity; and marriage equality. But isn’t categorizing ongoing activism into History with a capital H decidedly not queer? And how am I an expert on resistance? I’m a forty-nine-year-old bisexual cis woman still healing from an abusive relationship six years ago, undergoing menopause, and caring for my elderly parents. How will I speak to the young people who sit around the table with me?

We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.  —Audre Lorde

The gallery walls are hung with images of naked bodies. Workshop participants, women and nonbinary, introduce themselves. A pattern emerges: They want to reconnect with their writing. They have felt alone in the current political moment. They have wanted a place where they can be all of who they are—in race, culture, religion, and identity—and where queerness is not the otherness in the room. Someone asks, “When we discuss the texts, do we have to analyze them, or can we talk about the feelings and experiences they call up in us?” Over the next few weeks, our conversations crackle and spiral, one person’s thoughts inspiring a response in someone else; people want to talk about their lives with each other as much as they want to write. 

The danger in writing is not fusing our personal experience and worldview with the social reality we live in, with our inner life.... What validates us as human beings validates us as writers.  —Gloria Anzaldúa

Halfway through the workshop, someone brings pumpkin chiffon cake on the evening we discuss Hunger (HarperCollins, 2017) by Roxane Gay, and it’s an experience. So is Gay: We have three other texts to discuss, but her descriptions of what she feels she deserves and doesn’t deserve in the way of love, as a survivor of gang rape, is enough for us. Someone says, “What she says about sexual violence in relation to queerness is something we don’t always want to admit.” We talk about accepting sexuality not as fixed biology, but humanity. Something shifts in me; I let go of my fear and find my purpose in holding the space.

My warmth was hidden until I found the right people with whom to share it, people I could trust.... —Roxane Gay

When someone asks, “Can we read non-American or non-Western texts?” I ask for their input. At our final workshop two folks bring in a nonfiction story called “The Woman Who Loved Women” from The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices (Anchor, 2003) by Xinran, and a science fiction short story called “The Worldless” about a genderless future by Indrapramit Das. As the pair discusses what compelled them about each piece, I realize that we all make our own queer herstories, shaped by the spaces we form together. The words of the authors we have read these past weeks are actually in conversation with us...and we speak back to them.

You will read words...that don’t ring true to you. Please, take a pen or pencil and cross them out. Write in a word you like better. And when that word doesn’t work for you anymore, use another word. —Kate Bornstein

Part of ourstory is language, which shifts and changes as we speak and write. As workshop facilitator, I strive to not take up too much room, but my feelings and experiences belong to our queer writing space too. As someone in the workshop says, “Showing up here is an act of resistance.”

The Creative Writing From Queer Resistance workshop will read from their work on Wednesday, December 6 at 6:30 PM at the Leslie-Lohman Museum in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood. For more information about the reading, please visit the events page.

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program 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 Frances Abbey Endowment, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photos: Taken during rehearsal at the Leslie-Lohman Museum, (top) Nancy Agabian, (middle) Priya Nair, (bottom) Katrina Ruiz (Credit: Maria Jose Maldonado).

Adopted Korean Writers Read for a Global Audience

Julayne Lee is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection, Not My White Savior (Rare Bird Books, 2018). She is a Community Literature Initiative scholar and a Las Dos Brujas alum. She has been published by the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, Cultural Weekly, and Korean Quarterly. As part of the Writ Large Press #90X90LA project in 2017, she hosted the first-ever reading with adoptees of color in Los Angeles and is launching a writing workshop for those who identify as adopted people of color or racially ambiguous. Lee is cofounder of Adoptee Solidarity Korea – Los Angeles (ASK-LA) and can be found on Twitter @julayneelle.

Since the 1950s, South Korea has produced approximately two hundred thousand overseas adopted Koreans. As we’ve entered adulthood, gathering and connecting through our shared experiences have played important roles in our identity formation and well-being. For some, writing has been a means to navigate our adoption journeys, which at times can be very isolating geographically and emotionally.

In October 2017, over two hundred and thirty adopted Koreans gathered from across the country and around the world to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Adopted Koreans Association – San Francisco (AKA-SF) with a conference. A reading with adopted Korean writers highlighted their experiences through poetry, memoir, and fiction.

The reading brought together authors Jessica Sun Lee (An Ode to the Humans Who’ve Loved and Left Me), Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello (Hour of the Ox), SooJin Pate (From Orphan to Adoptee), and former Fresno Poet Laureate Lee Herrick (Gardening Secrets of the Dead). I also shared poems from my forthcoming collection, Not My White Savior. Our writing documents a variety of perspectives and issues including imagining the Korean families we might have grown up in, interrogating the text of our adoption files, highlighting the approximately thirty-five thousand intercountry adoptees without U.S. citizenship, and questioning our place both with family and in America.

Regardless of some of us having met only via e-mail prior to the reading and having our own unique experiences, our writing resonated amongst one another and with the audience. In the discussion that followed the reading, attendees expressed how meaningful and validating it was to hear our honest, raw words. The emotion in the room signified how giving life to shared experiences that have been suppressed can help us release significant thoughts and feelings, and begin to heal. With an ever-increasing focus on mental health for adopted people, this reading was critical in validating our experiences and bridging the isolating divide some of us have experienced.

My hope is that the bonds we formed through our shared experiences will carry us forward to continue this important work of writing and healing, and in turn provide a means of healing for others in our community. While honesty in writing can be challenging, as Aspen Matis, author of Girl in the Woods (HarperCollins, 2015), has said, “Authenticity sings.” And sing we did.

Thanks to AKA-SF for hosting the reading and to Poets & Writers for sponsoring this important reading. 

Support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the California Arts Council, a state agency, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photo: Julayne Lee (Credit: Samantha Magat).

A Street in Brooklyn: Writing Into the Urban Landscape

DéLana R.A. Dameron is the author of Weary Kingdom (University of South Carolina Press, 2017), which is part of the University of South Carolina Press’s Palmetto Poetry Series, edited by Nikky Finney. Her debut collection, How God Ends Us (University of South Carolina Press, 2009), was selected by Elizabeth Alexander for the 2008 South Carolina Poetry Book Prize. Dameron holds an MFA in poetry from New York University where she was a Goldwater Hospital Writing Workshop Fellow. She has conducted readings, workshops, and lectures all across the United States, Central America, and Europe.

I have been an alumna of the Cave Canem summer retreat since 2008, and had the opportunity to participate in smaller New York City workshops in 2008 and 2009. While the summer retreat is life-changing and affirming, and provided me with a long roster of lifelong friends in the poetry world, the prolonged space(s) with Myronn Hardy and Tracy K. Smith as facilitators provided me with a framework of what a community workshop could look like, how to be rigorous readers and writers in an after-work, weekly setting, while also building community. Cave Canem, for me, is about building a community of people who will sharpen your poeming pen.

I did all of this before I entered an “official” MFA workshop table at New York University. I say that to say, when I exited the MFA workshop table, I did not choose a life of teaching poetry in academia (though I would love to teach a class here or there!), but found other ways to pay my bills, and searched for opportunities to teach workshops to folks who went to work from 9:00 AM until 6:00 PM and came and sat down and still endeavored to read and write poetry in a supportive and educational space.

When Cave Canem asked me to teach the Poetry Conversations workshop, billed especially for beginning and intermediate poets, I jumped at the opportunity and said yes. Here, I was able to come home, to open up space for the many levels of poets that would hopefully sign up for the course.

It became very clear to me that I wanted to teach what I live: writing the everyday/the landscape(s) I inhabit into poetry, making it sing.

The “A Street in Brooklyn: Writing Into the Urban Landscape” workshop was at once a survey of Gwendolyn Brooks’s work as a poet. Weekly we read chronological selections from A Street in Bronzeville (Harper, 1945), Annie Allen (Harper, 1949), The Bean Eaters (Harper, 1960), In the Mecca (Harper, 1968), and single poems from her collected works in Blacks (David Co., 1987).

Of her own work and inspiration, Brooks said: “I wrote about what I saw and heard in the street. I lived in a small second-floor apartment at the corner, and I could look first on one side and then the other. There was my material.”

Reading Brooks is not only an exercise in understanding the mastery of writing the ordinary (Black folks in Chicago, the urban landscape writ large, etc.) into extraordinary poetry, but quickly I found that to teach Brooks over the span of her career, as documented in Blacks, is to also teach a Black history course, a Chicago history course.

Then, to charge the poets to do as Brooks did, and look out of their own windows for the poetry of their everyday lives, they included their own poetic historical markers of where and who they are now, especially in the context of gentrification, “urban renewal,” and the general displacement of Black cultural markers, people, histories, and stories.

At the last class there was an overwhelming sadness, but also a triumph. We had been through a literal journey together. At my urging, I asked poets to write about their neighborhood, a place that no longer existed, a place that showed NYC Black History—a mural, a statue, a hanging tree—and to write those things into sonnets, in rhyme, as ballads, as Brooks did in her early years. Together we coined the term “Brooksonian” and looked for moments when she shined the best, and then applied it to our poems that we brought to the table for workshop.

As the weeks progressed, and we marched along the historical timeline from 1945 (A Street in Bronzeville) to 1968 (In the Mecca) and beyond, we watched Brooks’s work open up, and we talked about what it meant to be a poet moved by a historic moment, and what it meant for Brooks to break open, even more, the poetic form. We talked about the uses of poetry, the politics of it, the immediacy and need. That same day a participant brought in a poem that referenced, as Brooks might have (and did for her Chicago Black people), Eleanor Bumpers, who was shot and killed by police in 1984 in the Bronx, as well as the now no longer existing Slave #1 Theater in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and all I could do was shake my head in awe: We had arrived.

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program 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 Frances Abbey Endowment, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photo: (top) DéLana R.A. Dameron (Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths). (bottom) Workshop participants (Credit: DéLana R.A. Dameron).
 

Access for All

Kenny Fries is the author most recently of In the Province of the Gods (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017), which received the Creative Capital literature grant. His other memoirs include The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory and Body, Remember: A Memoir. His books of poems include In the Gardens of Japan, Desert Walking, and Anesthesia. He is the editor of Staring Back: The Disability Experience From the Inside Out, and was a Creative Arts Fellow of the Japan/U.S. Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, and twice a Fulbright Scholar (Japan and Germany). Fries teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at Goddard College.

For those of us who live with disabilities, when we think of access we mostly think of physical access: ramps, lifts, and technological aides. But cultural access is just as essential as physical access to an inclusive society.

Cultural access is a two-way street. People with disabilities need to see themselves represented—not stereotypically and as fully human—in our culture. But disabled and nondisabled alike benefit from access to disability culture because the experience enriches all of us.

I recently completed a fifteen-city tour for In the Province of the Gods, a memoir about my time as a disabled foreigner in Japan. Immersing myself in Japanese culture and meeting with artists, disability studies scholars, and atomic bomb survivors, while at the same time coming to terms with my HIV diagnosis, I learn about how Japan views impermanence and mortality.

Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program supported three tour events that increased access to disability culture. I read and was in conversation with writer Susan R. Nussbaum at Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago, which is committed to making our society more inclusive of people with disabilities by “removing barriers so people with disabilities can live the future they envision.” Access Living’s Disability Arts & Culture Project is exemplary of the centrality of disability arts and culture to such inclusion.

The audience at Access Living included people with disabilities of different ethnicities and sexualities, Chicago-based artists, as well as students from the Program on Disability Art, Culture, and Humanities at the University of Illinois, Chicago. A wide-ranging discussion about my writing process for In the Province of the Gods; my intersecting identities of being disabled, gay, and Jewish; and what it means to be considered “other” both in Japan and the United States ended the evening.

At Georgetown University I helped inaugurate a disability studies minor, which draws on course offerings ranging from anthropology to English, to nursing to theology. I read from and talked about In the Province of the Gods both at a packed event open to the public, as well as in the more intimate setting of a freshman seminar titled “Disability, Culture, and the Question of Care.”

I read at the University of Houston’s Medicine and the Arts Series, part of the Honors College’s Medicine & Society Program, which gives pre-health professionals, other students, and the public an opportunity to connect the arts to “the meanings of illness and caregiving.” Programs in narrative medicine and medical humanities are growing across the United States, and it is important that the stories of and by people with disabilities are included to counteract the dominant medical model of disability, which is predicated on eradicating disability either by killing it or curing it. One of the highlights was visiting their Literature and Medicine class, where a student shared his e-mail dialogue with a Buddhist professor about my book’s relationship to the process of shedding the self. 

The dialogues in Chicago, Washington D.C., and Houston are examples of what historian Paul K. Longmore calls our quest for “collective identity.” Longmore writes, “whereas the society-at-large prizes self-sufficiency, independence, functional separateness, and physical autonomy, the disability experience puts forth the values of self-determination, interdependence, personal connection, and human community.” On a month-long book tour, these events stood out as they not only increased access to disability culture, but also the importance of such values during the turbulent times in which we live.

Support for Readings & Workshops in Chicago, Houston, and Washington D.C. 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.

Photos: (top) Kenny Fries (Credit: Micheal R. Dekker). (bottom) Libbie Rifkin, Teaching Professor at Georgetown University, and audience (Credit: Kenny Fries).

John Fox and Project Avary: Helping Teens Heal Through Poetry

John Fox is the author of Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making (TarcherPerigee, 1997) and Finding What You Didn’t Lose: Expressing Your Truth and Creativity Through Poem-Making (TarcherPerigee, 1995), and his work is featured in the PBS documentary Healing Words: Poetry and Medicine. In 2005, he founded the Institute for Poetic Medicine and his chapbook, The Only Gift to Bring (Seasonings Press, 2015), is available through the institute. Fox blogs about his experience leading writing workshops for Project Avary, an organization in San Rafael, California offering long-term support, resources, guidance, and training for children with incarcerated parents.  

In the spring of 2016, Zach Whelan of Project Avary called the office of the Institute for Poetic Medicine to ask if I was available to bring poetry to the teens they served. This residency would occur during a mid-June, two-week summer camp.

Zach and I spoke for over an hour. I was impressed with three things: 1. The seasoned care the Project Avary staff holds for teens with a parent or parents in prison. 2. The solid and proven program Project Avary has built, which includes a commitment of ten years to a child from the age of eight through their teen years. 3. Zach’s openness to not only poetry writing, but my focus on poetry-as-healer.

By the end of our talk and in subsequent meetings, we agreed to collaborate in an ongoing, mutual process that would bring poetry into the lives of Avary participants.

I would learn about the acute challenges faced by these teens—their sense of loss and abandonment, the societal stigma attached to having a parent in prison, as well as their capacity for resilience and how much they could teach us. I needed to learn and understand that reality to better know what my optimum role could be in joining this team. This process helped me in the selection of relevant poems that could serve as catalysts for writing.

In turn, Avary would learn from me how poetry can make a direct impact on the teens and their ability to dive into their issues of concern. Through the durable capacity of a poem, using the tools of poem-making, and by the natural strength of a supportive community, we could create a safe and generative way to explore and express. This mutual, encompassing collaboration becomes particularly important because the time to nurture and tend to their creative voices does not end with our limited time together—it actually begins!

What I can report to you is that Project Avary has incorporated poetry writing workshops into the core of their curriculum.

The conclusion of my two-year summer camp residency (with forty new campers joining each year) included a two-hour evening program where all participants shared their poems (also songs, skits, magic tricks, etc.) with the entire community. Avary calls this “The Untalent Show” with the emphasis on making it an open invitation to everyone—especially those who might feel they have nothing worthy to offer.

When a poem was read, there was a palpable quieting of a mostly young and happily raucous group at summer camp, which included dozens of young counselors and other staff. The people listening were less “audience” and more like family member, sensitive to their brothers and sisters, and cheering them on.

But what about the poetry? With their permission, I’m able to share some of the poetry by these young Project Avary participants.

LOVE

I didn’t want love.
Love is like dead tissue that won’t fall off.
I thought i didn’t need Love
but everyone wanted Love.
Did i need love.
What was the point of Love.
Did i want Love, did i need Love.
Would love make me happy.
The truth was i wanted love.
But would love want me.

—Monique Cook, age 13

UNTITLED

She was pure in a world not ready for her.
A rose born without thorns.
A body of water with no ripples.
A mirror with no cracks.
She was content in every sense of the word.
But she was born in a world with no intention
of keeping her that way.

—Malayah, age 16

TO ANGER

As you grip my mind
& sway my heart
spark dark flames
in the night of day
you keep notorious thoughts
tenaciously raising
barriers, levels
depleting every second
every month, every hour
contemplating my next act,
my next task & past actions;
forgetting present endeavors,
forgetting my loving nature,
forgetting the roots of my life,
forgetting me.

—Joseph Gladney, age 18

Support for this event was provided, in part, by Poets & Writers, thanks to a gift from Diana Raab. Additional support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the California Arts Council, a state agency, the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, and by the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photo: John Fox (Credit: Valerie Knight).

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