Readings & Workshops Blog

Taylor Mali on Page Meets Stage

A four-time National Poetry Slam champion, Taylor Mali is one of the original poets to appear on the HBO series Def Poetry Jam and is the author of two collections of poetry and a book of essays, What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012). He is the founding curator of Page Meets Stage, a monthly poetry series in New York City that pairs two poets to perform a conversation through their work.

How did Page Meets Stage begin? What was your inspiration?
The inspiration for the series actually started with Billy Collins. I’ve been a fan of his work for years and now consider him a mentor. In the early 1990s, I used to write him a fan letter every couple months or so, and every letter ended with an invitation for him to come read at a poetry slam series that I used to help curate at the Bowery Poetry Club. In 2005, after a decade of these letters, he finally agreed, and he had a wonderful time. I suggested that we arrange another reading with just the two of us and call it “Page vs. Stage.” He liked the idea, and somewhere along the way in planning the format for the night, we decided that it would be interesting if we went back and forth, poem for poem, perhaps having a conversation through our work.

The reading was a great success, in part I suspect, because of the unique format, which the audience loved. Since then, we’ve had several different pairings of poets, always with one representing a more performative style of poetry and the other, more literary. Currently, I work with Mahogany L. Browne, April Ranger, and MaryCae to produce the show once a month and we are still at the Bowery Poetry Club!

What have the challenges been to sustaining such a long-running program?
Promotion has always been the issue. There’s always something good to watch on TV, and people seem happy these days to sit in a comfy chair for a few hours with only their smart phones (I know because I’ve been that person). It’s an awful feeling when you craft a spectacular pairing—with two poets who don’t know each other but whose work blends together in just the right way—and then only two people show up for the show! We’ve had some wonderful pairings that were so poorly attended that I’ve been tempted to call it quits.

Has your mission or your vision for the organization changed over the years? What’s most important for you right now?
In the beginning, I was probably on a mission to garner more respect for spoken word poets. I wanted to show the world that spoken word poets are just as concerned with craft as the next poet; but they understand that how you read a poem is also important. In the thirteen years we’ve been around, the line between page and stage has been bent in some places and blurred in others. There are former slam poets who are finalists for the National Book Award like Danez Smith, university professors such as Patricia Smith and Jeff McDaniel, and even Pulitzer Prize winners and Guggenheim fellows such as Tyehimba Jess.

Furthermore, we’ve had about six poets who have done both sides of the pairing, stage the first time and page the second. So these days, we don’t care quite so much about labels. We just try to craft a great night for people to hear great poetry.

What has been your most rewarding experience as a curator and organizer?
There have been a lot of great pairings and some fantastic ones coming up as well, but a couple of moments have stuck with me. I got to share the stage with Galway Kinnell before he died. Back then we also traded poems during readings so Galway read one of my poems, and I performed his poem “The Waking” from memory, which takes five minutes to recite and is probably the longest poem I’ve ever memorized.

I’d also been trying to get my friend Saul Williams to participate for years, and I finally got him to agree in 2014. I asked what his dream pairing would be, and he said, “Without a doubt, Carolyn Forché.” As luck would have it, I had just taken a workshop with Carolyn, so I was able to set it up. That’s a pairing I would never have concocted on my own, but it remains one of my favorites.

What’s next for the series?
I am hesitant to even mention this because it’s still months away, but two of my favorite poets, Ocean Vuong and Sharon Olds, are scheduled to read together on Sunday, October 28, which will be very exciting.

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: (top) Billy Collins and Taylor Mali in 2005 for the inaugural reading of the series (Credit: Taylor Mali). (middle) Clint Smith and Elizabeth Acevedo (Credit: Taylor Mali). (bottom) Saul Williams and Carolyn Forché (Credit: Taylor Mali).

 

Between the Starshine and the Clay: Kamilah Aisha Moon at Spelman College

Sarah RudeWalker is a poet and an assistant professor of English at Spelman College specializing in Rhetoric and Composition. Her scholarship focuses on the literature of African American social movements, and she is currently finishing a book manuscript on the rhetoric and poetics of the Black Arts Movement during the 1960s and 1970s. Her creative and scholarly work has appeared in Pluck! The Affrilachian Journal of Arts & Culture, Callaloo, and Composition Studies.

With the renewed support of Poets & Writers this school year, the Department of English at Spelman College has been able to deepen our offerings to the Atlanta University Center (AUC) and West End communities in Atlanta by featuring readings and workshops with brilliant African American women poets. This March, poet Kamilah Aisha Moon kicked off what we call “Lit Week,” a week of events coordinated by Spelman College faculty member and noted poet Sharan Strange and Spelman literary scholar Dr. Michelle Hite. The events aim to highlight the possibilities for art and activism that spin out from the dedicated study of English.

Moon, currently an assistant professor of poetry and creative writing at Agnes Scott College, is a Pushcart Prize winner, Lambda Award finalist, and Cave Canem fellow with two published books of poetry: She Has a Name (Four Way Books, 2013) and Starshine & Clay (Four Way Books, 2017). The Poets & Writers–sponsored events with Moon on March 26 included a craft talk and workshop for student writers, and an evening reading for the community.

Moon spent the afternoon talking about craft, inviting students to consider the power of their creative work to “bear witness.” This power, she observed, depends on the writer’s ability to practice craft with attention and empathy. One of the worst things we can do to each other, she observed, is to render someone invisible, and writers, who purposely aim to be “mirrors of treachery and glory,” have the power to do just the opposite: to help us see each other, and especially to see the familiar in a very different way. Moon invited students to interrogate this potential in their own work by presenting her work with disarming vulnerability, sharing early drafts and asking students to critique the choices that led to the final versions of her poems.

The reading that evening was lovingly intimate and set up in Spelman style: Audience members entered to find Moon seated at a candlelit table and listened to a recording of the a capella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock as they waited for the reading to begin. Moon opened the reading by noting that although she was never a student at Spelman herself, she fondly remembers the AUC as social stomping grounds for her and her friends. The reading that followed was exemplary of what can happen when the work of a black woman poet is honored within a black women-centered space.

Moon read from Starshine & Clay, whose Lucille Clifton-honoring title is meant to cover a lot of ground—the world of the personal and the public, of the grief and love and joy that exists between the starshine and the clay. Reading her poem “The Emperor’s Deer,” which she first wrote for Michael Brown, she asked the audience to hear it as mourning for the recently murdered Stephon Clark. Reading from the book’s third section, the author asked the audience to acknowledge the ways that personal traumas and historical traumas are intricately connected, to recognize that both the joy and pain of the personal persist while a public trauma blazes and burns. “I never read these,” she admitted, smiling.

We at Spelman commit to continuing to make spaces like these that invite this kind of intimacy between author and audience, especially in ways that honor the work of black women writers. We hope that Kamilah Aisha Moon knows that she has a home here, “on this bridge between / starshine and clay.”

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

Photos: (top) Kamilah Aisha Moon (Credit: Sarah RudeWalker). (bottom) Spelman College students with Moon (Credit: Sarah RudeWalker).

Short Story Essentials: Tapping Into the Power of Scene

Allison Alsup’s short fiction has been published in multiple journals and won multiple awards including those from A Room of Her Own Foundation, New Millennium Writings, Philadelphia Stories, and most recently, the Dana Awards. Her short story “Old Houses” appears in the 2014 O’Henry Prize Stories and has since been included in two textbooks from Bedford/St. Martin’s: Arguing About Literature: A Guide and Reader and Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers. Alsup received an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College, and is the recipient of artist residencies from the Aspen Writers Foundation and the Jentel Foundation. In 2017, she and several colleagues launched the New Orleans Writers Workshop, through which she currently teaches community-based creative writing workshops.

I’ve taught writing for most of my adult life, but community classes, particularly fiction workshops, occupy a special place in my heart. Unlike college classrooms or graduate programs, community classes cast a wide net, attracting a spectrum of writers of all ages, diverse backgrounds and experience. Suddenly a cross section of people that might not otherwise connect gather around a table with a single common purpose: to transform seething, raw images and words into comprehensible, moving stories. Here the CPA rubs shoulders with the waitress, the civil servant with the entrepreneur, only to find that when it comes to the vagaries of the human heart, they have more in common with one another than they might have otherwise thought.

Thanks to a recent grant from Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program, I had the chance to witness firsthand the tremendous material such community classes can generate, even in a limited amount of time. Short Story Essentials met for three Monday evenings at a local public library in New Orleans. Though the class was aimed at adults, the library was designed for children. Despite low tables and tiny chairs, and thanks to a steady supply of ginger snaps and tea from head librarian Linda Gielac, we managed to tackle a pretty big idea when it comes to crafting story: how to write compelling scenes.

Each week, we talked a bit of shop and about technique, but the bulk of our time was spent in heavily guided exercises that began with pre-writing, specifically with take no prisoner questions centering on character, motivation, conflict, and stakes. Together these answers helped to clarify what can stymy even the most advanced of writers: a scene’s given function in the story’s overall arc. What followed was a sustained writing period that alternated between gentle nudging on my part about juggling details around setting, movement, interiority, backstory, and dialogue, and brief periods of silence during which participants scribbled at record speed.

Great scenes require both conceptual understanding as well as gusto. Between meetings, many writers used their time to their advantage, typing up rough drafts and revising with an eye towards clarifying choices on the page. Sessions were designed to be sequential with each week’s scene building upon the last. As a result, every writer left with a substantial chunk of story, and in some cases, a complete work.

It would be hard for me to exaggerate the importance such a series has on my own writing. I can think of little else that hones my own understanding of scene more than creating, from scratch, an exercise that leads writers from a given premise through its complication to its apex. Nor can I imagine greater inspiration than listening to the plethora of rich storylines that result: a hitherto loyal employee who, due to a chance mistake, ponders a life of embezzlement; a mother who must shatter her teenage daughter’s naïveté about a nefarious uncle; an immigrant cab driver who must confront his past war crimes. Thanks to Poets & Writers, these stories and more are well on their way.

Support for Readings & Workshops 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.

Photos: (top) Allison Alsup (Credit: Allison Alsup). (bottom) Sean Gremillion and Asha Buehler (Credit: Allison Aslup).

El milagro secreto: Rodrigo Hasbún’s Spanish-Language Workshop in Houston

Brian Beard is a member of Writers in the Schools’ Outreach Committee and an ongoing member of Rodrigo Hasbún’s Spanish-language writing workshops at Literal, Latin American Voices. Beard’s writing appears in Bellevue Literary Review, the New Guard, Poetry East, Quiddity, Red Rock Review, Sixfold, Translation Review, and elsewhere. Beard took part in a P&W–supported Spanish-language workshop, El milagro secreto (The Secret Miracle), also led by Hasbún, at Houston’s Writespace writing center in November of 2017.

When María Quiroga moved from Mexico City to Houston in July 2017, she missed the writers group she’d left behind. She headed to the local library branch, looking for other writers, but couldn’t find any there. So when she learned that celebrated Bolivian author Rodrigo Hasbún, author of Affections (Simon & Schuster, 2017), would be offering a writing workshop in Spanish at Houston’s Writespace writing center, she jumped at the opportunity.

“It was such a warm and inviting community,” Quiroga says of the workshop, which included twelve writers from Bolivia, Cuba, Honduras, Mexico, Spain, Venezuela, and the United States.

When Hasbún moved to Houston in 2014, he found that although the city was home to a thriving literary scene and over a million Spanish speakers, writing workshops in Spanish were few and far between. Hasbún began to offer his own workshops to fill the gap.

“Writing is a solitary profession,” Hasbún says in an e-mail. “Sometimes you can get the impression that nobody is interested in the work you’re doing. When you are a writer living in a country where the language and the culture are foreign to you, this effect tends to be heightened. By offering encouragement, camaraderie, and a valuable sense of community, a writing workshop can make all the difference.”

On the first day of the workshop, as part of an exercise to inspire the members of the group to use details to create character, Hasbún showed a short film in which people at the top of a ten-meter diving platform decide, with varying degrees of angst, whether to jump or climb back down the ladder.

The act of writing, Hasbún suggested to the group, is akin to jumping off a diving platform. “When you write,” he says, “you have to throw yourself again and again into the void.”

Week after week, in the sessions that followed, the workshop members responded to the challenge, pushing themselves into new territory as they created short stories which they shared and workshopped with the group.

“In the wake of new political threats to many of our country’s Spanish speakers,” writes Writespace’s founder and director Elizabeth White-Olsen in an e-mail, “I felt it was important that we were doing something, even if it was small, to say to people who move to the United States from other countries, you are welcome here. We appreciate you and want you to find a home here.”

For many of the group members, it was the first time they had come into contact with other Spanish-speaking writers in Houston.

“I was surprised and delighted,” Quiroga says, “to find that the voices of the other writers, although they were in Spanish, were completely distinct from the voices of the writers I had become accustomed to in Mexico. Their life experiences, cultural contexts, and literary backgrounds were so varied that, encountering their stories, I felt as if I were discovering my language for the first time.”

In addition to being hosted and sponsored by Writespace and cosponsored by Poets & Writers, Hasbún’s workshop was also cosponsored by Arte Público Press and Tintero Projects.

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.

Photo: Rodrigo Hasbún (Credit: Sergio Bastani).

Ekphrazein ARAS: A Hub for Interdisciplinary Dialogue

Miriam Atkin is a poet and critic based in New York whose work has been largely concerned with the possibilities of poetry as a medium in conversation with avant-garde film, music, and dance. She teaches literature and creative writing at the City University of New York and is curator of the Ekphrazein reading series at the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism. Her poetry chapbook, Fours, was published by the Kaf Collective in 2017. Over the last decade she has written essays, reviews, and poems for various magazines online and in print.

Interdisciplinary practice has been a major concern of my work ever since I moved to New York in 2008 to immerse myself in its creative scenes as a first step toward writing about art professionally. I began attending events at a range of venues like Judson Memorial Church, Roulette, Poets House, the Stone, e-flux, and White Columns. I was surprised to find that I was one of few regulars at these spaces who were not practitioners in the medium at hand. I had spent my twenties in Rust Belt cities where the relatively small number of people in the arts necessitated that we all went to all the events. Despite our differing creative vocations, we were generally hungry for the kind of thinking and conversation that art-making provokes and we knew that our diverse aesthetic languages shared enough between them to be mutually understandable. But now, in New York, I found an art world that was firmly ghettoized.

Thus, it was when I encountered the cross-disciplinary, multigenerational, and broadly humanist scope of the program at the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS), I knew I had discovered a site for heterogeneous intellectual exchange that was rare in the city. I learned about the space—which is located at the C. G. Jung Center in East Midtown in New York City—after reading in the first installation of Ekphrazein, a series of events featuring artists in various mediums presenting work in response to a central thematic archetype. The theme of the inaugural event, which happened in late 2013, was the sun archetype. In accordance with the format for the reading, I chose an image related to the sun from ARAS’s collection, which served as a visual counterpoint for my writing. I loved the conversation between text and image that Ekphrazein facilitated, and the cross-disciplinary nature of the work I saw presented there was reiterated in the heterogeneity of the audience, which included psychologists, historians, anthropologists, and so on.

I have since become the curator of Ekphrazein, and on February 16, we hosted our sixth reading held in the Jung Center’s first floor event space, with support from Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program. The thematic focus of the night was ashes, and each artist performed against a projection of their chosen ash image. The program began with multimedia artist Akeema-Zane reading poetry while accompanied by harpist Elsz. Poet Geoffrey Olsen was second on the bill, which concluded with a performance of improvised music and dance featuring Jason Kao Hwang (violin), Devin Brahja Waldman (saxophone), Megumi Eda (dance), and Yoshiko Chuma (dance). The presentations ranged between painstaking poetic craft and the playful abandon of free jazz, with each set activating a charged intimacy between artist and audience. Afterwards we all went up to ARAS for a candlelit wine reception, where I observed the enthusiasm with which audience members approached performers to engage in conversation about the night. It was energizing to see new acquaintances made and new doors opened to potential creative fusions across disciplines. I look forward to seeing what works and alliances this uncategorizable series will galvanize in the future.

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: (top) Miriam Atkins (Credit: Rijard Bergeron). (bottom) Poet Akeema-Zane and harpist Elsz (Credit: Jamie Thomas). 

Tim Fredrick on Newtown Literary and the Queens Lit Scene

Tim Fredrick is the author of the short story collection, We Regret to Inform You (Ingram, 2012). His stories have been published in Burningword, Pif Magazine, Wilde Magazine, and Hamilton Stone Review. He is the founding editor and executive director of Newtown Literary, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting writers from and living in the Queens borough of New York City.

How did Newtown Literary begin? What prompted you to launch it?
I began Newtown Literary in 2012 after getting to know several writers in Queens and attending various literary events there. Something was definitely bubbling up at the time, and I was reading and hearing incredible work. Unfortunately, not much of that work was being associated with Queens; authors usually said they were from “New York City” in their bios. I decided that it was time for a written record of the work being produced in Queens and for “So-and-so is from Queens” to be a badge of honor in an author’s bio. The borough has a long history of the literary arts and some of the best literature being produced now is from writers living in Queens or who grew up there.

The literary events scene in Queens is going strong. What’s next?
One of the great things about the literary scene here in Queens is that it is grassroots. The people who organize reading series, events, literary journals, small presses, and so on are everyday writers who want to contribute to the community. So, in the larger literary scene, it’s hard to know what’s next. For Newtown Literary, we are going to continue with our journal and with our free classes and professional development program. Our focus lately has been on removing barriers to participation. Our free writing classes program—which offers twice-a-month, one-off, free writing classes taught by established Queens writers, such as Scott Cheshire, Jill Eisenstadt, Joseph O. Legaspi, and Min Jin Lee—was born out of a desire to make high-quality creative writing instruction available to everyone, no matter their income. We will continue in this vein.

In addition to being a literary organizer, you’re also a creative writer. What’s it like wearing two hats, so to speak?
It’s not easy! I often have to choose between my commitment to Newtown Literary—and by proxy, other writers—and my commitment to my own writing. I wish I could say that I chose my own writing more often, but it’s “easier” for me to choose my work at Newtown Literary because it doesn’t challenge me as much as writing does. Running a small nonprofit is so much easier than writing a novel!

Is there any advice you’d offer to creative writers who want to participate in the “behind the scenes” of literary organizing?
Do it. Reach out to people in charge and say, “Hey, I’d like to get involved.” At least at Newtown Literary, it’s that easy.

What has been the most rewarding experience in your work with Newtown Literary?
What I value most about Newtown Literary is our community—it’s not competitive and there are no hard feelings when one person succeeds. While working on the organization takes time away from my own writing, the friends and colleagues I’ve made working here are constantly asking me, “How’s your writing?” and if I respond, “Well...” I know I need to get to work. Some of my closest friends—the ones I go to when I need to talk or vent or celebrate—come from the organization, as well.

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: (top) Tim Fredrick (Credit: Tim Fredrick). (middle) Writer’s Block class led by Scott Cheshire (Credit: Newtown Literary). (bottom) Get Published panel (Credit: Newtown Literary).

The AfroSurreal Writers Workshop on Creative Community

Rochelle Spencer, founder of the AfroSurreal Writers Workshop, which meets monthly in Oakland, writes about the genesis of the workshop and an event with P&W–supported fiction writer Learkana Chong. Spencer’s book AfroSurrealism: The African Diaspora’s Surrealist Fiction is forthcoming from Taylor & Francis in July, and she is the coeditor of the anthology STEAM: Women on the Intersections of Science and Art with Jina Ortiz and Manjula Menon.

The AfroSurreal Writers Workshop—Audrey T. Williams, Thaddeus Howze, Dera R. Williams, Kelechi Ubozoh, Rochelle Robinson, Peter A. McKay, and Shannon Holbrook—were just a bunch of nerdy black folks who met at Oakland’s African American Museum and Library eager to discuss books and writing.

We meet monthly and aim to support writers of color creating weird, surreal, or absurdist art, and celebrate all people, including senior citizens, religious and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, the LGBITQ communities, members of poor and working class neighborhoods, and of course, people of color.

Bay Area writers support each other, and we were encouraged by Gina Goldblatt, director of the Liminal Center, Manjula Menon and Meg Hayertz from the Surreal Women Writers Group, J. K. Fowler’s Nomadic Press, Vernon Keeve III and MK Chavez from the Association of Black and Brown Writers, and the Emergent Strategy (AK Press, 2017) reading group organized by Audrey T. Williams and Aryeh Shell—all of which either came out to our readings or provided space for us to talk and develop ideas. The Bay Area is the kind of place where literary community matters.

In the spirit of this tradition, with sponsorship from the Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program, the AfroSurreal Writers hosted fiction writer Learkana Chong, along with Dera R. Williams and Shannon Holbrook, for a few hours of writing, AfroSurreal games, and vegetarian soul food last November.

Chong, who has a blog called lampshade on her head, enjoys seeing a live audience respond to her work. “I don’t get to experience that very often as a writer—usually I have to ask someone after I share something online what their thoughts were, and the response isn’t as exciting or visceral. Seeing and hearing people laugh at all the right parts reassured me that my story resonated the way I hoped it would.”

Williams describes sharing her work as empowering: “The reception to my work made me realize that I’m on the right path. I think people are interested in learning about different facets of Oakland and how the past has shaped—and is still shaping—Oakland. Working with the Emergent Strategy group, something came to me, and I decided to reclaim my space in Oakland. I was raised here and came here when I was two years old. This has been my life so I’m reclaiming it.”

In addition to the readings, there was a poem-generating game. “Playing games” recounts Holbrook, a speculative fiction writer who led attendees in the game, “is part of natural human interaction—it’s how we get to know each other from our earliest stage of development. Play is essential. We’re there to support each other creatively.”

“It’s incredibly gratifying to hear feedback from people who tell me they can relate to what I’ve written,” Chong says. “Or that they can vividly picture the narrative as it unfolds, or that the story tugged at their heartstrings or got them to think in some way. It affirms there is a place in the world for my storytelling after all, and that’s one of the best feelings to have as a writer.”

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: Learkana Chong (Credit: Laneè Mecca Woodard).

Reflex/Response: Kaveh Akbar at the Poetry Center of Chicago

Natasha Mijares is an artist, writer, curator, and educator. She received her MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has exhibited at MECA International Art Fair in Puerto Rico, Sullivan Galleries, TCC Chicago, and Locust Projects and has been published in Container, Calamity, Vinyl Poetry, Bear Review, and Hypertext Magazine. She is a teaching artist for the Poetry Center of Chicago’s creative literacy residency program in Chicago public schools, Hands on Stanzas, and curates and hosts the Six Points Reading Series.

The Poetry Center of Chicago (PCC) was founded in 1974, and we work hard to promote poetry in Chicago through readings, workshops, and arts education. Something that I have been working on at PCC is to offer more workshops for adults. Last year, we had a poetry and dance workshop with Ana Castillo and the nonprofit organization Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble, thanks to the generous support of Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program. With this continued support, I was able to organize a morning workshop with poet Kaveh Akbar as well as an evening reading and discussion with him and Tarfia Faizullah that took place on January 26. 

The workshop sign-up was open to the public and took place at Loyola University Chicago. We had twenty-three participants from all kinds of backgrounds, ages, and places in the city. Kaveh Akbar opened up the workshop by discussing the unique architecture of our psychic algorithms and how this allows us to create a restorative experience of language that is uniquely our own. He led two activities to be used as sustainable tools for the writing practice.

The first activity incorporated a “bibliomanic” response in which each participant picked words from poetry books that stood out to them. After acquiring a pile of dazzling words and ideas, the participants were able to craft their own poems and the responses were energetic, playful, and provocative. The second activity was the “one-word story.” In groups of three, two participants began a poem by saying one word at a time and the third participant acted as the scribe. Again, the activity was a trust of the psyche as opposed to any premeditated plan. Akbar stressed how certainty is the death of a poem and how we should trust our reflexive responses.

The workshop participants and the PCC staff had a wonderful experience. One of the participants noted: “He was a great teacher—full of curiosity and fun, and he shared that infectiously with us. Akbar’s prompts were really wonderful, they allowed me to get into writing immediately, and led to a great output of work for myself, and it seemed, for others too. I’m so grateful the center was able to offer this workshop for free.”

In the evening, both poets opened by reading Chicago poets. Tarfia Faizullah read a poem from Fatimah Asghar’s forthcoming debut collection, If They Come for Us (One World, 2018), and Akbar read “off white” by Nate Marshall, before reading from their own collections along with some new work.

Thanks to the support of a micro grant from Illinois Humanities, we were able to have the poets lead a discussion following the reading. Akbar used the space to interview Faizullah about her new book and the discussion lead to questions about Muslim identity, epigenetics, and when to address the self. The audience contributed questions and feedback that pulled us toward the roots of each poet’s work. It made for an evening of honest, warm, and powerful celebrations of poetry and the community that builds it together.

Editor’s Note: For more on Kaveh Akbar, read “The Whole Self: Our Thirteenth Annual Look at Debut Poets” from the January/February 2018 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. You can also hear Tarfia Faizullah read from her new poetry collection, Registers of Illuminated Villages (Graywolf Press, 2018), in the eighteenth episode of Ampersand: The Poets & Writers Podcast.

Support for Readings & Workshops in Chicago 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) Natasha Mijares (Credit: German Caceres). (middle) Reading attendees (Credit: Max Maller). (bottom) Kaveh Akbar and Tarfia Faizullah (Credit: Max Maller).

Mississippi Noir Night in New Orleans

Tom Andes’s writing has appeared in Witness, Great Jones Street, Guernica, Pulp Modern, Xavier Review, The Best American Mystery Stories 2012 (Mariner Books, 2012), and in numerous other journals in print and online. He lives in New Orleans, where he works as a freelance writer and editor and moonlights as a country singer. He teaches for the New Orleans Writers Workshop, which he cofounded, and hosts a monthly fiction night at Blood Jet Poetry Series, which was founded and is hosted by Megan Burns.

Blood Jet Poetry Series happens weekly in the fall and again in the spring at BJ’s Lounge, a New Orleans bar that’s as close to a Mississippi juke joint as you’re likely to find outside the Delta. Saturday nights, you can dance to Little Freddie King or any one of dozens of other local musical luminaries, but on Wednesdays the space belongs to poetry. (As with many things in New Orleans, a family connection is at work: Bar owner Teal Grue is the son of celebrated New Orleans poet and fiction writer Lee Grue.)

For the last couple years, series founder and host, poet Megan Burns has allowed me to invite readers for a monthly fiction night. Last December, I asked two of the contributors to the Mississippi Noir anthology published by Akashic Books—RaShell R. Smith-Spears and William Boyle—to travel to New Orleans to read.

One of my favorite things about crime fiction is the fact that it never skimps on story. By definition, the stakes are high, and as lofty as the genre’s ambitions can be, the writer is compelled to entertain. Case in point: Smith-Spears’s masterful “Losing Her Religion,” about a Jackson, Mississippi schoolteacher’s affair with a married, white colleague—a story about power, gender, race, and class—happens to be one hell of a page-turner.

During Smith-Spears’s twenty-minute slot, BJ’s was so quiet you could hear people breathing. When her time was up halfway through the story, a few seconds of silence followed before someone said: “I want to hear the rest of that.”

Boyle read from his forthcoming novel, The Lonely Witness (Pegasus Books, 2018). Like its predecessor, Gravesend (Broken River Books, 2013), a small press crime novel that belongs on a shelf next to those by giants of the genre such as Elmore Leonard, its multi-generational drama plays out across a changing urban landscape, the Gravesend neighborhood of Boyle’s native Brooklyn (he now lives in Oxford, Mississippi).

Blood Jet attracts a coterie of regulars. Though some—including my recently retired parents—come to listen, many read at the open mic that follows the featured readers. We had a good crowd for a rainy Wednesday in December, with the holidays fast upon us. We heard poems, a chapter from a thriller, and rock and roll.

At a time when our culture seems to put so little value on art and the things it encourages in us—empathy, tolerance, and a willingness to immerse ourselves in someone else’s experience—it feels significant to come together in a way that’s so profoundly local, and in a place where everybody listens generously. Altogether, it’s a bracing reminder of what can happen when twenty or thirty people who care about writing—about anything—gather in a room.

In crime fiction, as in New Orleans, setting is everything. Thanks to BJ’s for making a magical space available to us, and to the Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program for helping bring our readers to town. Every time I come to Blood Jet, I walk away invigorated, challenged, and a little more alive.

Support for Readings & Workshops 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.

Photos: (top) Rashell R. Smith-Spears (Credit: Chauncey Spears). (bottom) William Boyle (Credit: Kate Farrell Boyle).

Jon Sands on Workshops at Bailey House

Jon Sands is the author of The New Clean (Write Bloody Publishing, 2011), as well as the cohost of The Poetry Gods podcast. His work has been published widely, and anthologized in The Best American Poetry. He is a youth mentor at Urban Word NYC, and teaches creative writing for adults at Bailey House in East Harlem, New York. Sands is a recent MFA graduate in fiction from Brooklyn College, where his work won the Himan Brown Award for short stories. He has represented New York City multiple times at the National Poetry Slam, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

How did your work at Bailey House begin? What drew you there?
I teach workshops at Urban Word NYC, where, in 2009, I met the son of then Bailey House CEO, the late Gina Quattrochi. She was an absolute force, and spent her whole adult life fighting for the rights of people with HIV/AIDS, specifically those who were homeless or housing insecure. She ran this huge agency providing on the ground services to some of the city’s most vulnerable populations. Gina and I got coffee, and she told me, “There are so many stories under our roof that aren’t getting told.” She knew she wanted poetry—specifically its capacity to humanize, break down barriers, and build communities—to be fully integrated into Bailey House culture. That kind of agency-wide strategic and financial buy in to the arts, in the public health world, is not to be taken for granted. She was a real visionary.

What has been the key to sustaining such a long-running program?
Consistency. It’s important that an organization is down for the long haul of a program. Clients have to be able to count on the fact that it’s every week, at the same time, no matter what. But then, most importantly, it has to involve a worthwhile product. Every week there’s a new prompt, new game plan, unless we have a guest, and this is one of the major keys: we’ve been blessed at this point to have had an unreal line-up of readers, Pulitzer Prize winners, poetry slam champions, MacArthur geniuses; it’s important that our authors see that the work they’re creating at Bailey House is connected to a larger movement. I remember when Willie Perdomo visited to read poems and answer questions, and there was this woman in the client waiting area with a great smile, but she was shy and kind of new to the space. I asked her if she wanted to join, and she said she wasn’t a writer, and didn’t read poetry. I promised she’d like it, and told her she wouldn’t have to say anything, and she kind of half smiled and rigidly agreed. Five years later, she’s been there almost every week, and she’s filled four notebooks with important, impressive work. It really becomes about how you coax people into the door, because you never know whose life it’s going to change.

Are there any techniques you employ to encourage shy or reluctant writers to open up?
I try to bring in poems that demonstrate both vulnerability and craftsmanship. I make it clear that our number one goal is not to “figure out” what the author means, our goal is to find as many ways as possible to look at what’s happening. I think some people have been preconditioned to think poetry is not for them because they don’t “get it” in the way they assume it’s meant to be “gotten.” I teach that we have to trust what it is we do “get,” and once we do that—once we allow our own personal narratives to be at play in how we understand a poem—then the conversation can go to some interesting places; the poem becomes a tool through which we process our own lives. So, you become a more seasoned reader, a more empathetic person, hopefully, but also the author is pushing you to partake in the telling, to write your own brave and urgent work. I also think a lot of readers are genuinely surprised to find out how many poems out there really speak to them. I feel like we’re in a golden age of poetry, and it’s ready-made for the masses, we just have to carve out the space for poetry to find readers.

What has been your most rewarding experience as a teacher? As an artist?
Every year, we publish in-house books of the best poems from the program, and there’s always this agency-wide release party. The clients invite family and community members, but also the staff gets this entirely new way of seeing the people they serve. Stigma is an important buzzword, the stigma of HIV, or injection drug use, or homelessness; but it has such limitations. Many of the clients, long before they walk through that door, have learned not to define themselves by the often difficult situations they’ve been placed in. But it’s undeniable that writer, artist, storyteller, these are positive labels that put value on, not just the story, but the storyteller. Art humanizes the self to the self. That’s important, culture shifting work, and it’s a testament to how creativity challenges the human spirit. That’s certainly been true in my life, and to be able to witness that in the lives of students, in thousands of minuscule ways, and to witness the way in which personal growth, in the presence of others, is the binding glue of community, it’s one of the most significant joys in my life.

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: (top) Jon Sands (Credit: Jonathan Weiskopf). (bottom) Bailey House workshop participants (Credit: Jon Sands).

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - RW Blogger's blog