Readings & Workshops Blog

An Explosion of Language: Publishing American Sign Language Poetry

Alisa Besher is the programs manager at the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and organized Publishing American Sign Language Poetry with Douglas Ridloff, an event featuring a reading and performance of ASL poetry. Besher is studying in the American Sign Language English Interpretation Program at LaGuardia Community College with the goal of making scholarly and cultural events accessible to the Deaf community and supporting Deaf talent. In addition, she is an artist educator and museum guide, currently working at Dia Art Foundation.

On September 13, scholars, authors, and poets came together for a workshop and performance in New York City that approached the question, “How can American Sign Language poetry be published?” In the afternoon workshop, this question was addressed through several angles, from interactive digital publications and the preservation of video “texts” to pop-up books, flip books, and comic strips.

In her introduction to the evening performance, scholar Rachel Mazique from the Rochester Institute of Technology spoke about Deaf literature as an emerging genre within the American canon, holding its rightful place alongside other minority literatures. However, Deaf literature cannot be found in its own section in most bookstores due to the scarcity of publications and lack of awareness in mainstream literary circuits.

This event was hosted by the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, an institution with no affiliation to Deaf scholarship, but with a long-standing commitment to research and public programming in literature and poetics. Hosting this conversation at CUNY was a deliberate effort to bridge the gap between hearing and Deaf audiences. With a grant from the Readings & Workshops program at Poets & Writers, we were able to offer honorariums to the poets.

The evening included several performances of ASL poetry by Douglas Ridloff, who runs the monthly ASL SLAM at Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and Peter Cook along with his hearing collaborator Kenny Lerner, who have been performing together internationally as Flying Words Project for the past thirty years. Author and artist Adrean Clark led an exercise in translation, exploring the creative potentials of the written systems of ASL.

Poet, translator, and publisher John Lee Clark introduced the potentials of ProTactile literature. If ASL poetry is an emerging field, ProTactile literature is in a phase of incubation. Developed by and for the DeafBlind community over the past decade, ProTactile is haptic, using the whole body to establish space, syntax, tone, and all the elements of a complex linguistic system. Clark performed one of his poems, originally written in English, in ProTactile on the body of his interpreter. This was observed and signed in ASL from one Certified Deaf Interpreter to another, and simultaneously voiced into English by a hearing interpreter. All at once, three languages collided, converged, and delivered a poem which began with the line: “We break our story into eight parts because there are eight of us to tell it tonight.”

The juncture between ASL and English was a theme throughout the evening. “Language, language, language…I can play with language!” Kenny Lerner voiced from behind Peter Cook, with his arms thrust under Cook’s to create a four-armed man. Their two pairs of arms signed the ASL word for “language” across Cook’s chest, crisscrossing diagonally, horizontally, and vertically. Their spoken words and visual signs met and bounced off of each other. If one were to simply read the transcript of this poem, one would miss the truly playful nature of their performance, and the “explosion of language” they created.

Douglas Ridloff performed his dynamic ASL poem about bustling New York City alongside a voiced transcription written in collaboration with Bob Holman, founder of the Bowery Poetry Club. The pair invited interpreter Lynnette Taylor to join them on stage to sign Holman’s spoken words. The audience witnessed the triangulated ping-pong of interpretation as the ASL poem was supplemented by spoken words and simultaneously interpreted back into ASL.

The complex questions proposed by the participants throughout the evening and during the discussion moderated by author Sara Nović do not come with easy answers. What is lost, what is gained, and what new meanings emerge in the tension and translation between ASL and English? How can ASL users assert their own literary genre, their own poetic forms, while also reaching audiences beyond the Deaf community? How can the Deaf community decolonize English’s hold on literary discourse, and how can it flip the script, to mine English for its own benefit? These questions may not have easy answers, but they are worthwhile to examine, to hold in our hands, and to knead and morph into new ideas and discussions as we continue to take steps to honor, respect, and celebrate the talent of Deaf poets.

To read more about the event, visit the Center for the Humanities website.

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: Alisa Besher (Credit: Philip Ilatovsky).

Healing by Writing: Workshops for California Wildfire Survivors

Margo Perin teaches writing workshops that focus on healing and bringing out of the shadows the unheard voices of underserved youth and adults. She is the author of the autobiographical novel The Opposite of Hollywood (Whoa Nelly Press, 2015), and the editor of Only the Dead Can Kill: Stories From Jail (Community Works/West, 2006) and How I Learned to Cook & Other Writings on Complex Mother-Daughter Relationships (Tarcher/Penguin, 2004). Perin’s writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and featured in Heyday/PEN’s Fightin’ Words; San Francisco Chronicle Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; Mexico’s El Petit Journal, and Holland’s Psycologie Magazine. She was also commissioned to write a poem for San Francisco’s Spiral of Gratitude public memorial. Perin is the cofounder of Whoa Nelly Press and the Sonoma County Area Coordinator for California Poets in the Schools.

The Healing by Writing workshops and reading held this past June were attended by Sonoma residents who experienced the October 2017 Northern California wildfires. Most of the participants did not see themselves as writers, but as residents of the county seeking healing from the trauma of the fires.

Some had lost their homes, others had been evacuated. Everyone knew someone who had lost a home. Two participants lost their community when their entire neighborhoods burned. Another’s small town housed hundreds of evacuees. The participants shared how they were still trying to come to terms with the fires and were experiencing various symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The workshops were designed solely for the purpose of providing an opportunity for self-expression, with a focus on personal and community healing and transformation. There was no critique to ensure a completely open and supportive environment, and to encourage the participants to write what they felt.

The writing resulted in grief over the losses experienced, anger at a generalized feeling that they should “get over it” and “move on,” fear of the coming summer with its risk of more fires, and gratitude at surviving along with loved ones and neighbors.

Participants used the word “fires” both literally and metaphorically. One described fleeing during last October’s firestorm in the middle of the night and being thrown back by the fierce winds. Another recounted a memory of being burned as a child, and yet another used it as a metaphor for breast cancer. Other themes included a family’s lack of understanding of the trauma experienced from the fires; how a love of fire starting in childhood had turned to fear; and the importance of learning, no matter what, to always make up with loved ones.

Participants were given the option of sharing their writing, both in the workshops and at the public reading. Almost all were excited to share their writing publicly. The Sonoma County audience was openly moved and appreciative of the readings; some even asked the writers to read their pieces again privately in a corner of the gallery, which I understood to be an act of further bonding and community healing.

Knowing that the workshops and reading were funded by Poets & Writers had great significance to the participants and audience members as it made them feel that their experiences and those of the county were supported.

At the end of the event, participants volunteered how “heard” they felt, that they experienced “healing and transformation” through writing and sharing their work, and became aware that when they articulate their experiences, they’re also giving a powerful voice to the county as a whole.

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, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, and by the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photo: Margo Perin (Credit: Chris Stewart).

Constant Stranger: After Frank Stanford Unveiled at the Silo City Reading Series

Aidan Ryan is the publisher at Foundlings Press, which he cofounded with Max Crinnin, Darren Canham, and S. James Coffed. He is the author of Organizing Isolation: Half-Lives of Love at Long Distance (Linoleum Press, 2017), a collection of visual cut-up poetry. Ryan is a regular music critic for Scotland’s the Skinny and has written on travel and the arts for CNN, the White Review, Rain Taxi, and Traffic East, among others.

Every day, from the early 1900s to the last quarter of the twentieth century, the hundred-foot-tall concrete grain silos along Buffalo, New York’s namesake river and Lake Erie thrummed and hushed with rushing grain. At the city’s peak, thirty-eight of these towering elevators held forty-seven million bushels, and helped to feed the world. Now, on three nights a year, every summer since 2012, those same grain silos hum and echo with poetry.

The Silo City Reading Series is the “heartchild” of poet Noah Falck, education director at the Just Buffalo Literary Center. The series brings together a visiting poet, a local reader, a visual artist, and a musical act to perform for over one hundred people at the center of one of Buffalo’s remaining grain silos.

Silo alumni poets, including Ocean Vuong, Morgan Parker, Hanif Abdurraqib, and Natalie Shapero, have all spoken of the venue’s power to break both performers and audience members free from the traditional boundaries and expectations associated with poetry readings. Every experience is amplified and made more intimate by the concrete cylinder’s natural seven-second echo.

On August 18, the city’s grain silos held a “micro-arts festival” to honor the work of Frank Stanford and herald the publication of a book that takes its title from one of his posthumous manuscripts, Constant Stranger. With the support of Poets & Writers, the festival brought the poets Kazim Ali, Marcus Jackson, and Matt Henriksen to Buffalo for one extraordinary night of performances, which included readings by Stanford’s close friend Bill Willett and a theatrical performance by Torn Space Theater.

Constant Stranger: After Frank Stanford began in the late spring of 2017 as an attempt at a themed issue for our poetry magazine, Foundlings. Stanford—both a poet and a publisher, as cofounder of Lost Roads—had a major influence on our beginnings as a magazine and our growth into a press. Though Stanford’s influence stretches from Forrest Gander to Terrance Hayes and beyond, he remains unknown to many, obscure even to some who study him, persistently mischaracterized, and outside the “canon.”

The book sets out to present Stanford in a contemporary context, and make a case for his enduring relevance by publishing not more of his work, but the work of present-day writers who study, admire, or wrestle with him. We hardly grasped just how vital Stanford’s work really was, nor to how many contemporary readers, scholars, and writers, and our themed issue ballooned into a three-hundred-page book with thirty-plus contributors.

Marcus Jackson opened the evening, using the intimate circle of the Marine A silo to read poems from his collection Pardon My Heart (Northwestern University Press, 2018). Following a set by the electronic music group UVB76 and then a short break, Kazim Ali took the stage to read a mix of poetry from his latest collection, Inquisition (Wesleyan University Press, 2018), and unpublished work—including, and very much in the spirit of Stanford, poems conceived that day.

Matt Henriksen and Bill Willett, who has been a constant steward of Stanford’s legacy, read a selection of Stanford’s poems, bouncing back and forth to deliver well-known works like “Linger” and “The Light the Dead See,” knotty excerpts from The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You (Lost Roads Publishers, 1977), and lesser-known “deep cuts.”

To close out the evening, Foundlings Press editor in chief Max Crinnin and I unveiled Constant Stranger: After Frank Stanford, and spoke briefly about the project’s genesis, its meaning for our press, and our hopes for its reception. The book will be officially released at the Frank Stanford Literary Festival on September 21–23 in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Everyone who saw it swears the moon appeared twice that night: once orange and full, low above the last remaining factories along the lake, and later, after the Torn Space performance, half-veiled and pale, hung high in the total dark. Whether through the power of suggestion or something more profound, Bill Willett swore it was Frank at play.

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) Aidan Ryan (Credit: Matthias Spruch). (middle) Marcus Jackson (Credit: Nancy J. Parisi). (bottom) Kazim Ali (Credit: Nancy J. Parisi).

The Roots and Wings Project Helps Prisoners Tell Their Stories

Jesse Bliss is a playwright, director, producer, poet, actress, veteran educator, and curriculum writer. She is the founder and creative director of the Roots and Wings Project, a theater company with a mission to provide a stage and space for voices of the unnamed, unknown, and misunderstood. The Roots and Wings Project is a recipient of a Cultural Pathways Grant from the California Arts Council and has received support from Poets & Writers for its prison programs. Bliss also produces Think Outside the Cage on KPFK 90.7 FM, a radio show voicing truth about mass incarceration, and was featured in Look What She Did!, a documentary directed by Julie Hébert.

The very energy of prison is punitive, designed to drive love out. Perhaps this is why implementing the Roots and Wings Project’s ASCENSION, a P&W–supported theater and writing pilot workshop series at the California State Prison in Lancaster, a men’s prison, and the California Institution for Women, a women’s state prison in Chino, was nearly impossible.

Days and weeks of e-mail requests turned into months. Finally, the workshops were approved. On my first trip out to the prison in Lancaster, where the wind never stops blowing on the exaggeratedly long sidewalk stretches to the entrance, the facility said no to the first workshop session. There was no getting in to speak to anyone after a two-hour drive. On the second visit, it took me two hours to finally enter into A Yard and meet the inmates.

Once I was in, participants at both penitentiaries wrote from the very depths of their souls. Their stories brought to light experiences most could never imagine surviving, and exposed truths about how people are led to incarceration and kept captive with draconian sentencing.

Some of the participants have life without parole sentences. One student went into the prison system at eighteen, three days following his high school graduation. He’s been incarcerated for two decades, and in those years has developed a friendship with his victim’s wife—a friendship she initiated. He writes: “She saw beyond the cold written record of my past into the present, to the core of who I really am.”

Another participant was sixteen months away from her release from prison when she was given a life sentence for a domestic violence charge. Many of the women express that they were put in prison for defending themselves against abusive men. I don’t ask, but if they share about their case in our writing workshops, I lovingly listen. Anna, a workshop participant, writes: “WOMAN. To be strong yet assumed weak, to work and love harder, yet be given less—less pay, less honor, less respect—for our weakness is our strength, our tears our freedom, to feel, to be: humanity in a world of insanity.”

One of our students grew up in a home where both his parents were drug users and dealers. The house was always getting shot up. His diaper was perpetually full. He grew to become what he knew and, while addicted to drugs, murdered someone over a twenty-dollar debt. He is one of the greatest keepers of peace I’ve ever known and a passionate advocate for helping others to transform and heal despite unthinkable intergenerational trauma. He often recites Shakespeare by heart.

Another student played one of the most stunning reggae songs on the guitar that I’ve ever heard called “Beautiful Day.” How, in there, does a human being author that song? He also eloquently writes: “Prison beds are expanding instead of consciousness.... You’ll see one electric fence with prisoners on both sides of it, society is on lockdown and they don’t even know it, out of necessity prisoners become poets.”

We culminated the workshops with powerful readings described in a student’s letter this way: “Soon, the room was bristling with hope and with stories of our children, our mothers, our wives, our communities, even our freedom. And when we returned to the dark confines of our cells, we brought with us a deeper, brighter, lingering purpose in our lives.”

We laughed. We cried. We read. We talked. We listened. We loved, all in the spirit of one of our writer’s words: “By finding the courage to speak up!”

With support from Poets & Writers, and in partnership with Unlock Tomorrow and Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural and Bookstore, the Roots & Wings Project will hold a second series of workshops this fall at the California Institution for Women.

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, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, and by the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photo: Jesse Bliss (Credit: Angela L. Torres).

A Community Reading Series: Rockland Poets

Bryan Roessel is a poet, event organizer, and science teacher in New York State’s Lower Hudson Valley and started the Rockland Poets reading series with a couple of friends in order to bring poetry events to Suffern, New York. Roessel believes strongly in the power of art to expose new perspectives and ideas, and writes about science, relationships, and depression.

Rockland Poets, formerly known as Suffern Poetry, has been hosting monthly poetry open mics and slams in the Lower Hudson Valley’s Rockland County since 2011. We’re a pretty small organization, currently run by seven volunteers, all of whom are residents of Rockland County or northern New Jersey. We run our events because art and community are vital. Poetry is an accessible art form in that you don’t need any special training or tools to create poems or to appreciate them. In the spirit of that accessibility, all of our events are open to the public and almost all incorporate open mics, where anyone can sign up to share their work. The grants we’ve received through Poets & Writers over the years have been of great importance to keep these events open and running.

The funding has allowed us to keep admission costs low for attendees, and to bring in diverse poets from all over North America to read. Typically, a featured reader will do a half-hour set before the open mic portion of the event, and we’ve invited established poets such as Billy Tuggle from Chicago and Chris August from Baltimore. To help emerging poets grow as writers, we welcome them to discuss their craft and influences at the end of their sets. In addition to these events, we’ve hosted outstanding creative writing workshops, such as a generative workshop led by Salt Lake City poet RJ Walker, and a performance and choreography workshop led by New York City poet Anthony McPherson.

The community response has been positive and supportive. We’ve started using a computer-based sign-in system at the door to track attendance, and over one hundred and fifty people have attended our events in the past year. Almost half have returned at least once, which signals to me that we’re doing something right. A few of our teen audience members have told us that they find our series really valuable and are grateful it exists. The feedback we’ve received emphasize the “warm environment” and “accepting atmosphere,” as well as the “great writers” that share their work at our events, which helps fuel us as we plan for future events.

This October, we’re hosting the sixth annual Empire State Poetry Slam, a statewide team-based slam tournament held in a different city in New York each fall. We are also considering a collaboration with other local literary organizations to create and host an annual literary or poetry festival. The future of Rockland Poets lies in continuing to gather community support for our organization and events, and to adapt to the needs of our local community and the writers we support. We hope to continue that work for many years to come.

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.

Photo: Bryan Roessel (Credit: Button Poetry).

Recovering Poetry at New Choices

Judith Prest is a poet, photographer, mixed media artist, and creativity coach. Her poems have been published in Mad Poets Review, Chronogram, Akros Review, The Muse: An International Journal of Poetry, Earth’s Daughters, Up the River, Upstream, Writers Resist, and in six anthologies. Prest spent twenty-six years as a school social worker and prevention trainer before retiring in 2009. She currently works part-time facilitating recovery writing and expressive art groups with adults in day treatment for addiction. She lives in Duanesburg, New York with her husband and three cats.

Anyone who has survived more than a decade or two on this planet has stories to tell. Often, however, people who struggle with addiction have not had the opportunity to sit down and write their stories, not even for themselves. For the clients I have worked with in recovery, any available energy they have is directed at surviving challenging life circumstances. Some have been incarcerated, and when the prison doors open, they land in a halfway house or in day treatment for addiction. Then suddenly, there is time and room to reflect on experiences, to tell the stories that need to be told.

I wrote poetry through my college years, then I got derailed by life. I started writing again about twenty years ago and have had my work published in literary journals and anthologies. Soon after my return to writing, I began to incorporate poetry and expressive arts into my social work practice. I now work as a creativity coach and workshop leader, along with my part-time work at New Choices Recovery Center in Schenectady, New York.

I believe that writing, particularly poetry, is a powerful tool for healing and growth. Creative writing can be a great recovery strategy. Getting our experiences, questions, and feelings onto the page, allows us to see what’s there, and work with it.

At New Choices, I have been leading recovery writing groups for over ten years. When we can, we like to bring in someone new who can offer a fresh approach. This is where John Fox, director of the Institute for Poetic Medicine (IPM) in Palo Alto, California comes in. John travels widely around the world and across the United States to bring “poetic medicine” to hospitals, retreat centers, community programs and, in this case, to New Choices Recovery Center.

John facilitates two ninety-minute group sessions with New Choices clients. Using poetry, he invites participants to access their creative side and respond with their own poems. This program adds to the poetry and creative writing already experienced at New Choices. We have had poetry open mic events, published four books of writing by our clients (two books were published with help from IPM), and some clients participate regularly in recovery writing groups.

This special poetic medicine program allows all clients at or in the program to experience one of John’s poetry immersion workshops. Even clients who do not read or write have been able to create poetry in John’s sessions, with me as their scribe. He has a way of helping poetry “sneak up” on people. Often, folks who never imagined writing anything will write a poem and find the courage to read it out loud to the group.

John and I are dedicated to bringing the healing power of poetry to folks who have struggled with other aspects of life. We want to continue to help people experience the elation of creating and sharing poetry. Thank you to Poets & Writers for making it possible for John to work his “poetic medicine magic” at New Choices again this summer!

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.

Photo: Judith Prest (Credit: Leiah Bowden).

Poets & Writers’ Eighth Annual Los Angeles Connecting Cultures Reading

Readings & Workshops (West) director Jamie Asaye FitzGerald writes about Poets & Writers’ eighth annual Los Angeles Connecting Cultures Reading held at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center.

For the past eight years in California, Poets & Writers has held the Connecting Cultures Reading at Beyond Baroque Literary Art Center in Venice. The event brings together organizations that serve diverse populations and have received support via our Readings & Workshops program.

For this year’s event, which took place on June 28, we invited five organizations: 826LA, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting students ages six to eighteen with their creative and expository writing skills; Beyond Baroque, dedicated to expanding the public’s knowledge of poetry, literature, and art; QueerWise, a LGBTQ writing collective and spoken word performance group; Returning Soldiers Speak, a venue for soldiers and veterans to tell their stories; and Uptown Word & Arts, which facilitates free public and private creative writing workshops and other events.

All of the groups involved do important work. Sometimes they’ve heard of each other already, sometimes they discover one another at the reading event itself. It’s wonderful to see them getting to know each other, and the net of support that manifests as they feel buoyed in what they do by witnessing others who have a similar mission.

Each organization chooses two writers to represent them at the event. The diversity of voices at the reading is always astonishing and a testament to the importance of having as many stories as possible heard. This is always true but perhaps even more urgent in our current social and political climate.

The value of a story is best understood in listening and witnessing together—something we don’t often get to do. Events like this provide the opportunity to listen and witness. It’s much different than the canned stuff we’re exposed to in our daily lives—political rhetoric, spin, and words with weird agendas behind them. This is the stuff of the personal, still often political, but stories that come from the people at the most fundamental and profound level.

Robert Rosenstone from Beyond Baroque read “Brisket for Ramadan,” a witty prose piece recounting the cross-cultural experience of being a Jewish man married to a Muslim woman. Poet RD Armstrong reminded us that “a poem can be everything and nothing.” Alejandra Castillo from 826LA read a powerful poem inspired by her mother’s stories of crossing the border:

Y pasábamos corriendo por el cerro like our feet were on fire,
como Cuauhtémoc. Como dos horas corriendo with blisters popping
here and there like bubble wrap. And if you didn’t run, te dejaban.
We left three behind in the purgatory between México y el otro lado.
Y ahí se quedaban.
The cracks on this desert
swallow bodies whole. Ni de gringos ni de indios. No man’s land.

Teen writer Ashla Chavez Razzano, participating on behalf of 826LA for her second time at this event, read a musical poem of “sweat soft as water.” Michael Kearns from QueerWise chilled us with the motif of children kept in cages, while Dave Trudell warmed us back up with memories of going to the drive-in where he worshipped femme fatale screen actresses like Ava Gardner and Lee Grant. Leilani Squire from Returning Soldiers Speak brought to the event reflections on her work with veterans, and Les Probst read about his own memories of being drafted for the “forgotten” Korean War. Uptown Word & Arts poet Aurelio Alba compared the process of editing to changing diapers and Cynthia Duran, in her first public reading ever, closed the night out with a laugh-out-loud story about being held up at gunpoint while working at a Big 5 Sporting Goods store.

While Poets & Writers works with and knows well each of the organizations we invite to curate this event, we are not always familiar with the writers they invite. Each year holds a wonderful surprise for us, and for the rest of the audience. We never know quite how all the stories will fit together, but they always do.

Thank you to Beyond Baroque for hosting this event, and to all of the presenting organizations and readers for making this another memorable reading.

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, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, and by the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photo: 2018 Los Angeles Connecting Cultures readers and curators (Credit: Brandi Spaethe).

WEIRDD Reading Series: Power to the Strange

Peter Longofono and Katie Longofono are siblings and poets living and working in Brooklyn. Together and separately, they have curated, produced, and hosted a number of salons, magazines, festivals, and reading series, including Coldfront magazine, Washington Square Review, the AmpLit Fest, the SLC Poetry Festival, the Dead Rabbits reading series, the Graduate Poets Series at Cornelia Street Café, and WEIRDD, their latest and greatest endeavor to date.

When we set out to build WEIRDD, our monthly poetry reading series held at Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, we had a few apophatic rules of thumb. No flimsy introductions. No parched mouths. No inhospitable (and inexplicable) non-hosting. No regurgitated blurbs. We knew exactly what we wanted to avoid, having been through that wringer, and though our first season hasn’t been without its bumps, on the whole we feel the series has found its early footing in a well-ordered sensibility.

Perhaps most critically, we are against the poet’s empty pocket. From the beginning, we’ve committed to remuneration, modest as it might be, from our own pockets if necessary—as was the case with our first readers. And given the state of poetry literacy, we’d have been wrong to charge for admission (and turned away from most venues, at that). So we sought with humility for sponsorship, and we’re grateful in turn to acknowledge Poets & Writers for stepping in to do the right thing. Poems are work—great and necessary work—and to support the art (without purchasing it!), pay is a necessary gesture.

What sort of poetry are we supporting, then? Who do we read closely, and who are we able to invite? Again, we can invoke negation to learn the field:

  • Don’t stick to one language. Troubling English is worthwhile.
  • Don’t always look at just a poet. Look at what the poet looks at (use a screen).
  • Don’t listen only for what you’re already thinking.
  • Don’t “speak,” speak.
  • Don’t let imagination stand in for justice, compassion, commiseration, care, or duty.
  • Don’t under any circumstances forgo imagination, either.

With these guidelines holding space, we’ve learned so much from so many: Jenny Xie’s gnomic scrying, Ricardo Maldonado’s elfin sonatas, Marwa Helal’s recognitive cataracts, Yanyi Luo’s arch scrutiny, Rio Cortez’s yawning infinity, Jayson P. Smith’s quenching jewels, Paul C. Stone’s mastery of the leap, Jen Hyde’s affinity for apertures, Sahar Muradi’s sense of strata, Valerie Hsuing’s sentient microphones, Chase Berggrun’s climbable wordscapes, Wren Hanks’s unflinching apparatus, Amy Meng’s history of rue, Julia Guez’s kaleidoscopic array, Jen Levitt’s droll orbitals, Jerome Murphy’s painterly ambulation, and Joey De Jesus’s omnivolent manticore.

We’ve understood these contrapuntally with brief lectures on everything from the socio-emotional matrix of Final Fantasy VI (Hubert Vigilla) to the life and times of nineteenth-century black politicians (Jordan C. Vaughn) to a working sketch on neuroplasticity and bioprecarity (Lynne DeSilva-Johnson). And that’s just thus far.

WEIRDD celebrates our devastatingly talented writers and underrepresented voices with real, rigorous, resourced attention. We surprise them with exacting, sonically attuned presentations of their work, simultaneously equipping the audience with an articulate inroad to the work and explicitly disavowing the glazed eye, smirking head-pat, or greasy backslap. This, at last, we can define with a YES: to real community, loving reverence, and untamable empathy.

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) Katie Longofono and Peter Longofono (Credit: Katie Longofono). (bottom) Sahar Muradi reading at Books Are Magic (Credit: Katie Longofono).

Poets & Writers’ Connecting Generations Seventeenth Annual Intergenerational Reading

Readings & Workshops (East) director Bonnie Rose Marcus writes about Poets & Writers’ Connecting Generations seventeenth annual Intergenerational Reading held at Barnes & Noble at Union Square in New York City.

On Saturday, June 23, Poets & Writers held its seventeenth annual Intergenerational Reading at Barnes & Noble at Union Square, where we’ve held the reading for the past seven years. As I listened to the thirty-six writers from the ages of eleven to eighty-six, I thought back to the beginnings of this celebratory reading, when we were given a grant in 2001 from the Louis and Anne Abrons Foundation to conduct writing workshops at senior and teen community centers. Visiting the programs, I was moved by the diversity of voices, and the similarities and differences in the generations. I thought it would be inspiring to bring these generations together. The first Intergenerational Reading was held in a community room at the Goddard Riverside Community Center’s NORC Program, with about six readers and an audience of about twenty.

This year’s writers were from six programs funded by our Readings & Workshops program: senior writers from the Goddard Riverside Community Center, Grand Street Settlement, the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College in collaboration with Siloam Presbyterian Church, Kew Gardens Community Center, and the Stanley Isaacs and Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center. The teen and young adult writers were from Kamit Preparatory Institute, the National Domestic Writers Alliance, Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, Newtown Literary Alliance, Concourse House, and Office Hours Poetry Workshop.

Hosting our event was veteran host Regie Cabico, a recipient of a Poets & Writers’ Writers for Writers Award in 2006. A pioneer of spoken word, and the first openly queer and Asian slam poet to take top prizes, Regie continues to perform his unique blend of poetry, stand-up comedy, and theater, and teaches writing workshops throughout North America and the United Kingdom.

Regie’s enthusiasm was contagious. It was evident that each reader felt honored and respected, and was cheered on by Regie and the audience, a full house of about seventy-five people. The writers shared work about loss, abuse, and love: a Tibetan woman read a poem about the suffering in her country, another writer shared a prose poem featuring Noah (and his ark) and Donald Trump, and there were many moving pieces about the challenges and celebrations on life’s journey.

Perhaps the best way to sum up the flavor and value of this reading is to hear from some of the writers themselves:

“It is an extraordinary event for so many reasons. It is an opportunity to hear young and old from so many different vantage points. Many of us may never have that chance of hearing stories from the LGBTQ community, the senior community, or inner-city youth, most of whom are passionate, wistful, angry, and gifted. To see that many participants, some who are facing an audience for the first time, pour out their most intimate feelings with pride and receive kudos for their efforts, is a humbling and inspiring experience.”
—Joyce Berger, Kew Gardens Community Center

“This year, I finally shed a lifelong struggle with stage fright and enjoyed myself at the reading! I also relished everyone’s spoken words, especially those of the younger poets who infuse me with creative energy.”
—Suzanne Pavel, Goddard Riverside Community Center

“I have always felt that one never stops learning. Young folks can learn from seniors and vice versa. This year I had the chance to let young folks know about the real situation in Tibet, because they are our future. Afterwards some of the young folks hugged me and commented on the power of my poem. I also think my poem was timely because of the current situation at our southern borders. What struck me most were the young people who spoke so honestly and showed that poetry is an outlet for all of us.”
—Chukie Wangdu, Stanley Isaacs Neighborhood Center

“Young talents lyrically reported their passions from today’s frontlines while older writers arranged those puzzle pieces left on youth’s table. The reading reminded me that poetry is an instrument played to remember, berate, reveal, coax, question, love, revolt, heal, and most significantly, to witness and connect. Thank you for creating space for all of us!”
—Marty Correia, Office Hours Poetry Workshop

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) Dena Igusti, Aaliyah Daniels, Solomon Mussings, and Shakeva Griswould from Urban Word NYC (Credit: Christian Rodriguez). (bottom) Participants of the 2018 Intergenerational Reading (Credit: Christian Rodriguez).

Becoming Cascadian: The Intersection of Bioregionalism and Poetics

Paul E. Nelson serves as founding director of Seattle Poetics LAB (SPLAB) and the Cascadia Poetry Festival. He is the author of American Sentences (Apprentice House, 2015), A Time Before Slaughter (Apprentice House, 2010), and Organic in Cascadia: A Sequence of Energies (Lumme Editions, 2013), and coeditor of the anthologies Make It True: Poetry From Cascadia (Leaf Press, 2015) and 56 Days of August: Poetry Postcards (Five Oaks Press, 2017). Nelson has been engaged in a twenty-year bioregional cultural investigation of Cascadia.

Becoming Cascadian was a retreat in Seattle’s diverse Rainier Beach neighborhood—an outgrowth of Seattle Poetics LAB’s Cascadia Poetry Festival. While the festivals are exciting, it takes a great deal of resources to present such an event. The SPLAB Board decided that while we look for funding to continue the festival, it would be good to work on a more intimate level. Becoming Cascadian allowed participants to go deeper into their own writing practices and experiences of place.

There were free public events: a Zen Meditation session at the Seattle University Ecosangha; “The Practice of Outside,” a presentation with P&W–supported writer Andrew Schelling; a tour of Kubota Garden with Seattle University philosophy professor Jason Wirth; and a closing reading at Seattle’s all-poetry bookstore Open Books. In between the public events were breakout sessions offered by participants.

One session was on cultural appropriation. It’s a hot topic in Canada now, as Cascadia includes all of British Columbia west of the Continental Divide. The treatment of First Nations people, as they are called in Canada, is reprehensible, and there’s a lot of anger regarding writers monetizing indigenous culture. Adelia MacWilliam from Cumberland, B.C. led this session.

The Kubota Garden tour, led by Wirth, explored the historic spiritual nature of the garden, the life of Fujitaro Kubota, and the Japanese American history in the neighborhood, including the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II, an event with eerie similarities to current American xenophobia.

Mark Gonnerman’s session was “Living in Place With Peter Berg and Gary Snyder in Mind.” Snyder has written that, “real people stay put,” which in North America is “a new thing!” Snyder recommends making five hundred year plans and not the ethos of the old bumper sticker that said: “Earth First: Then We Log the Other Planets.” Gonnerman put things into perspective saying we humans are the first species in history “that can prevent their own extinction.”

Schelling’s keynote talk was for “poets and bioregional visionaries,” suggesting we go outdoors and learn something of our bioregion. He contrasted his Southern Rocky Mountain bioregion and Cascadia, noting the difference between the wet, logged, maritime Puget Sound region, and his dry high country. He discussed respective medicine powers the bioregions share, and noted how the Douglas Firs in the high country are puny compared to those in Cascadia. He ended with a story. What may not be well-known about Schelling is that, perhaps through his multi-decade study of Jaime de Angulo, he’s become a master storyteller. After the festival he said:

“To redefine our lives and the places we live by bioregion, rather than by political boundaries, is not the work of a single morning. It will require small cadres of committed people who become nature literate, write instructive poems and essays, and gradually make sense to their neighbors. This program, Becoming Cascadia, was one node in a larger effort that has been developing…. Concluding with poetry gave ceremonial fragrance.”

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) Paul E. Nelson (Credit: Bhakti Watts). (middle) Andrew Schelling with Jared Lesing (Credit: Paul Nelson). (bottom) At the Kubota Garden with participants (Credit: Paul Nelson).

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