Poets & Writers Blogs

PEN Announces Literary Award Winners

PEN America has announced the winners of its annual literary awards. The 2017 awards will confer more than $300,000 to poets, fiction writers, nonfiction writers, translators, and playwrights.

Here are a few of this year’s winners:

Natalie Scenters-Zapico won the $5,000 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry for her poetry collection The Verging Cities (Colorado State University). Camille Dungy, Ada Limón, and Patrick Phillips judged.

Helen Oyeyemi won the $5,000 PEN Open Book Award for her story collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours (Riverhead). Ishmael Beah, Major Jackson, and Bich Minh Nguyen judged.

Matthew Desmond won the $10,000 PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction for Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Crown). Emily Anthes, Amy Ellis Nutt, Robin Marantz Henig, and Emma Marris judged.

Aleksandar Hemon won the $10,000 PEN/Jean Stein Grant for Literary Oral History for How Did You Get Here?: Tales of Displacement. Gaiutra Bahadur, Helen Epstein, and Dan Kennedy judged.

Simon Armitage won the $3,000 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation for his translation from the Middle English of the Pearl Poet’s Pearl: A New Verse Translation (Liveright). Jennifer Grotz, Kyoo Lee, and Rowan Ricardo Phillips judged.

Tess Lewis won the $3,000 PEN Translation Prize for her translation from the German of Maja Haderlap’s novel Angel of Oblivion (Archipelago). Mara Faye Lethem, Jeremy Tiang, Elizabeth Lowe, Annie Tucker, and Dennis Washburn judged.

For a complete list of winners, visit the PEN website.

Winners of the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature, PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, and the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay will be announced live at the PEN America Literary Awards Ceremony on March 27 at the New School in New York City. Actor and comedian Aasif Mandvi will host this year’s ceremony.

Mall of America Launches Writer-in-Residence Contest

In celebration of its twenty-fifth anniversary this year, Mall of America has launched a writer-in-residence contest. One U.S. poet, fiction writer, or creative nonfiction writer will spend five days in the Bloomington, Minnesota, mall, “deeply immersed in the Mall atmosphere while writing on-the-fly impressions in their own words.” The winner will receive a $2,500 honorarium, lodging for four nights in a hotel attached to the mall, and a $400 gift card for meals.

            

The mall’s goal for the contest is to “come away…with an evocative story about Mall of America that represents the contemporary guest experience after twenty-five years of evolution as a leading retail and entertainment establishment.” To apply, submit a pitch of up to 150 words describing how you would approach the project by March 10. “Would it be a personal story? A blow-by-blow account of your experiences? The Mall as seen through the eyes of a first-time tourist or a regular guest?” Twenty-five semifinalists will then be selected to expand on their pitches in an essay of 500 to 800 words. The winner will be selected by a group of “experienced writers and journalists.” Visit the website for complete guidelines.

Located fifteen minutes from downtown Minneapolis–St. Paul, the Mall of America is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world, boasting 520 stores, 50 restaurants, and the nation’s largest indoor theme park.

Andrea Fingerson on Workshops With the Inlandia Institute

Andrea Fingerson is a writer and a teacher. She is currently in her tenth year of teaching for the Moreno Valley Unified School District. In 2014 she earned an MFA in Fiction from California State University, San Bernardino. She has written two novels, both of the Young Adult persuasion, and both inspired by her work as a teacher. Her current project is also inspired by her teaching career, but instead of focusing on the lives of students, is concerned with the challenges that teachers face. Fingerson can be found at her blog, in her classroom in Moreno Valley, and leading the Corona workshop for the Inlandia Institute.

What makes your workshops unique?
I’ve had the pleasure of working as a workshop leader for Inlandia over the past two and a half years. The mission of the Inlandia Institute is to recognize, support, and expand all forms of literary activity through community programs in Inland Southern California, and by the publication of books by writers who live or work in and/or write about Inland Southern California, thereby deepening people’s awareness, understanding, and appreciation for this unique, complex and creatively vibrant region.

One of my favorite parts about being a workshop leader is the opportunity to work with new writers, whether they are youth writers or adults, who have come to appreciate the joy that comes from the writing life. My latest workshop started fresh in January, and it was invigorating to see a new group of writers and to expand my community of colleagues. 

I strive to make my workshop a place where writers of all abilities, experience, and genres feel welcome. I love learning from them as I strive to share my knowledge and experience.

What’s the strangest question you’ve received from a student?
I am of the philosophy that there are no bad questions, but I have had some students show interest in publication earlier than I would recommend. Publication can be a long and arduous path, but it is worth it.

What has been your most rewarding experience as a teacher?
It’s always the small things that are the most rewarding. A quiet student who finally feels comfortable enough to share their work out loud with the group. A youth writer whose work continues to progress as they learn the standard formatting for fiction that will allow their wonderfully creative stories to come to life. A new writer whose work is accepted for publication. And, most importantly, someone who is able to complete a project they’ve struggled with for months or longer.
   
What effect has this work had on your life and/or your art?
For me, the greatest benefit of working with Inlandia, and leading these workshops, comes from being an active participant in the writing community. Writing can be an isolating process. I find such workshops and local readings to be invigorating both personally and professionally.

What is the craziest thing that’s happened in one of your workshops?
I always chuckle when I think of the poor mother who brought her middle-school-age daughter, and writer, to the meeting right around Banned Books Week. The conversation included a few references (references only) to some of the more explicit reasons people want to ban books. I never saw the poor woman again, or her daughter, which is unfortunate because such topics rarely come up. My workshops are usually child-friendly.

I also had one sweet writer who always brought her dog to workshops with her. He was a cute little thing, and I always had to spend a few minutes with him, and his owner, after the workshop was over for the night.

Photo: Andrea Fingerson. Photo credit: Jace Martin

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

Upcoming Deadlines for Prose Contests

Calling all fiction and creative nonfiction writers! It’s time to polish those stories and essays; today we are rounding up prose contests with a February 28 deadline. From competitions for a short short story to a full-length nonfiction work, we have your end-of-the-month prose deadlines covered. Each of the following contests offers a prize of $1,000 to $10,000 and publication.

If you have a short short story ready to go, submit to Fish Publishing’s Flash Fiction Prize, which awards €1,000 (approximately $1,060) and publication in the Fish Publishing anthology. Chris Stewart will judge. Submit a story of up to 300 words with a €14 (approximately $15) entry fee.

Looking for a place to submit your prose chapbook? Apply to the Florida Review Jeanne Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, given annually for a chapbook of short short fiction or nonfiction, short stories, essays, or graphic narrative. The winner receives  $1,000 and publication by Florida Review. Submit a manuscript of up to 45 pages with a $25 entry fee.

Emerging short fiction writers are eligible to submit to Glimmer Train Press’s Short Story Award for New Writers. A prize of $2,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 author copies is given three times a year for a short story by a writer whose fiction has not appeared in a print publication with a circulation over 5,000. Using the online submission system, submit a story of 1,000 to 12,000 words with an $18 entry fee.

For women with a full-length prose manuscript, Red Hen Press’s annual Women’s Prose Prize confers $1,000 and publication for a book of fiction or nonfiction. Aimee Bender will judge. Using the online submission system, submit a story or essay collection, a novel, or a memoir of 45,000 to 80,000 words with a $25 entry fee.

The Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing offers a hefty annual prize of $10,000 and publication for a debut full-length prose work by a first-generation American writer. This year’s prize will be given in nonfiction. Memoirs, essay collections, and works of narrative nonfiction by writers who have not published a work of nonfiction with a U.S. publisher are eligible. Anjali Singh, Ilan Stavans, and Héctor Tobar will judge. Using the online submission system, submit a full-length nonfiction manuscript or excerpt of at least 25,000 words with a cover letter and a curriculum vitae. And here’s the clincher: There is no entry fee.

Don’t forget to visit the individual contest websites for complete guidelines, and check out our Grants & Awards Database and Submission Calendar for more poetry and prose contests with upcoming deadlines. Good luck, and happy writing!

Deadline Approaches for Emily Dickinson First Book Award

Submissions are currently open for the Poetry Foundation’s Emily Dickinson First Book Award. A prize of $10,000 and publication by Graywolf Press is given for a poetry collection by a U.S. writer of at least forty years of age who has not published a full-length book of poetry.

Using the online submission system, submit a manuscript of forty-eight to eighty pages with a biography that includes publication history by February 27. There is no entry fee. Visit the contest page for complete guidelines.

The Emily Dickinson First Book Award is an occasional contest that is not held annually. Previous winners include Hailey Leithauser, Brian Culhane, and Landis Everson. The winner of the 2017 award will be notified by April 30, and announced publicly at the Poetry Foundation’s Pegasus Awards ceremony in Chicago in June.

WEX Award Sparks Community, Deepens Commitment

Alicia Upano was born and raised in Hawai'i. She received a BA in journalism from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and an MFA from the graduate program in creative writing at San Diego State University. She worked for newspapers in Washington, D.C. and Silicon Valley, and for a nonprofit documentary film organization in Oakland, California. Her creative work has appeared in the Asian American Literary Review. She currently works for the University of Hawai'i Press and lives on O'ahu.

Six years ago, I sat on a flight back to California from Hawai‘i, flipping through the inflight magazine. A photo captured my attention: Musicians in the 1970s gathered with string instruments on the Windward side of O‘ahu, in a town south of my elementary school. I left Hawai‘i for college a dozen years before, and what was once a mainland adventure had long been replaced by homesickness.

I built a fictional universe around this image and plodded through drafts as the characters emerged: a slack-key guitarist, his estranged wife, and their two grown children that witnessed the fallout. Through the course of 1969, secrets are revealed as their father’s health fails, and one loss threatens to replace another.

Most pages ended up in the trash those first years. Meanwhile, friends sold short fiction to literary magazines and attracted agents with books. I felt too slow, but in truth, thinking about publishing overwhelmed me when learning to write a novel felt hard enough.

Then I wrote the scene where the mother character decides to return to Hawai‘i and I understood that it was time for me, too. People told me this was a risky move—pricey housing and fewer work opportunities—but family and friends managed on the island, and I figured I could, too.

At home, the book started to take shape. A friend sent me news of the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award (WEX) and encouraged me to apply. When I sent my application at a Honolulu post office, I hoped for some recognition that the story was, finally, moving. That there was a little spark.

My writing is consumed with this fictional family and their complicated love for each other. It often felt like an insular universe, and I’m the only real one there, but winning the WEX Award changed that. I’m incredibly grateful to fiction judge Alexander Chee for finding promise in my work. In his comments, he wrote that my first chapter was “full of a love for the islands, the history, and the music and the people who make that place what it is,” and I got teary, because this is what I have been working to share.

This award also gave me a welcome crash course in publishing. When Poets & Writers asked who I wanted to meet, I poured through the acknowledgment pages of favorite books to learn about agents and editors. It was a particular treat to share with Maureen Egen, sponsor of the prize, how I’d fallen in love with the classic Gone with the Wind as a twelve-year-old in Kahalu‘u. It was my first adult book and I immediately picked up the sequel, Scarlett, edited by Egen.

In New York, I felt surrounded by people who love books, as I do. I share this award with poetry winner Kimo Armitage, an accomplished local writer. His friendship and good humor made me feel like I had a bit of home with me, and his own publishing experiences offer me valuable lessons as an emerging writer.

Before this award, my writing was largely private.  After the announcement, several people told me, “I didn’t even know you wrote,” or new acquaintances said, “I was wondering who won that.” What I discovered in New York is that every book needs a community of champions and advisors, both professional and personal, to thrive. This award invites me into a larger writing community, both on the island and away. Thanks to Poets & Writers, Maureen Egen, and Alexander Chee for making this possible.

Photos: (top) Alicia Upano, (middle) Alicia Upano and Alexander Chee, (bottom) Elliot Figman, Kimo Armitage, Alicia Upano, and Bonnie Rose Marcus. Photo credit: (top) Margarita Corporan, (middle) Kimo Armitage, (bottom) Jessica Kashiwabara.

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

PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants Announced

PEN America has announced the recipients of the annual PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants. This year the judges awarded fifteen grants of $3,870 each to assist in the completion of translation projects spanning thirteen different languages. PEN also announced the winner of the inaugural $5,000 Grant for the English Translation of Italian Literature.

The 2017 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant recipients are:

Nick Admussen for his translation from the Chinese of Ya Shi’s poetry collection Floral Mutter
Polly Barton for her translation from the Japanese of Misumi Kubo’s novel Cowards Who Looked to the Sky
Elizabeth Bryer for her translation from the Spanish of Aleksandra Lun’s novel The Palimpsests
Vitaly Chernetsky for his translation from the Ukrainian of Sophia Andrukhovych’s novel Felix Austria
Iain Galbraith for his translation from the German of Raoul Schrott’s Selected Poems
Michelle Gil-Montero for her translation from the Spanish of Valerie Mejer Caso’s poetry collection Edinburgh Notebook
Sophie Hughes for her translation from the Spanish of Alia Trabucco Zerán’s debut novel, The Remainder
Elisabeth Jaquette for her translation from the Arabic of Rania Mamoun’s story collection Thirteen Months of Sunrise
Kira Josefsson for her translation from the Swedish of Pooneh Rohi’s novel The Arab
Adam Morris for his translation from the Portuguese of Beatriz’s Bracher novel I Didn’t Talk
Kaitlin Rees for her translation from the Vietnamese of Nhã Thuyên’s poetry collection A Parade
Dayla Rogers for her translation from the Turkish of Kemal Varol’s novel Wûf
Christopher Tamigi for his translation from the Italian of Mauro Covacich’s novel In Your Name
Manjushree Thapa for her translation from the Nepali of Indra Bahadur Rai’s novel There’s a Carnival Today
Joyce Zonana for her translation from the French of Tobie Nathan’s novel This Land That Is Like You

The recipient of the inaugural $5,000 PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian Literature is Douglas Grant Heise, for his translation of Luigi Malerba’s novel, Ithaca Forever.

PEN’s prize advisory board selected the fifteen grantees from a pool of 224 applicants. For more information about the winners and the Translation Fund, which is now in its fourteenth year, visit PEN’s website.

Celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday Through the Arts

Brenda Collins was raised, educated, and currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia. She holds the position of Community Relations Chair at the Shambhala Meditation Center of Atlanta.

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”
―Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island (Harcourt, Brace, 1955)

At the Shambhala Meditation Center of Atlanta, we create activities to support the primary focus of the Community Relations Committee—to bridge communities together for the purpose of creating a culture of kindness. We host events that foster cultural understanding through the arts and conversations about race relations, environmental issues, economic disparity, gender issues, the criminal justice system, sexual orientation, education, and more.

We decided there was no better way to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday than through the arts. We were granted the opportunity with the support of Poets & Writers to honor this day, January 15, with poets, musicians, and performers from all walks of life. Featured poets and performers included Srimati Shahina Lakhani, Nnenne Onyicha-Clayton, Debra Hiers, Waqas Khwaja, BMichelle Tilman, A’nji Sarumi, Jennifer Denning, and the Atlanta Interplay Performers. The Interplay Performers used improvisational tools to express themselves in the moment. The poets read their own works, as well as the work of others revealing their own voices of wisdom.

This event included an open mic and a reflective conversation segment, which directly connected to the conversations the Shambhala Meditation Center hosts about issues that are important to the people of our city and our world. These topics include income disparity, a sustainable relationship with our environment, and improving our many broken systems (i.e. criminal justice, healthcare, education).

From Pakistan to Islam, from Europe to America, all forms of expression were heard and human emotions were experienced leaving us with hope and a sense of renewal. People were so inspired, they did not want to leave. They wanted to continue expressing themselves through poetry and other forms of art. The most memorable moment, for me, was when we all formed a circle for a unity prayer and improvisation session led by BMichelle Tilman.

I thank Poets & Writers for their support in making this project a success, bringing hope and inspiration to all of humanity.

Photo: Brenda Collins. Photo credit: Florence Lemon.

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Atlanta, Georgia 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.

Submissions Open for the Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize

The deadline approaches for the Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize, sponsored by the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University and given for a group of poems. The winner will receive $2,000, and the runner-up will receive $1,000. Both winners will be invited to read at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, in April, and will be provided with accommodations and a $500 honorarium.

Poets who have not published more than one poetry collection are eligible. Using the online submission system, submit three to five poems totaling no more than six pages by February 16 with a $20 entry fee. The winner will be notified in early March, and must attend the award ceremony on April 17 at James Madison University, where the award will be presented by Nora Brooks Blakely, Gwendolyn Brooks’s daughter.

Poet Patricia Smith will judge. She is the author of seven poetry collections, including the forthcoming Incendiary Art, which will be published by TriQuarterly Books in February.

The prize honors the centennial of poet Gwendolyn Brooks’s birth. Formally established in 2005 by Joanne V. Gabbin, the Furious Flower Poetry Center is the nation’s oldest academic center devoted to African American poetry, and works to cultivate, honor, and promote the voices of African American poets. The center hosts visiting poets; runs workshops, an annual poetry camp, panels, conferences, and seminars; and creates text and videos and other content on African American poetry.

Vievee Francis Wins Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award

Claremont Graduate University has announced the winners for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. One of the richest prizes for poetry in the United States, the $100,000 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award is given annually to a midcareer poet for a book published in the previous year. The $10,000 Kate Tufts Award is given for a debut poetry collection.

Vievee Francis, a poet “known for her explorations of racial identity, modernist poetics, and feminist legacies,” received the 2017 Kingsley Tufts Award for her collection Forest Primeval (Northwestern). The book employs an “anti-pastoral” approach to examine the violence and transcendence of nature and survival.

The Kingsley Tufts finalists were Tyehimba Jess’s Olio (Wave), Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things (Milkweed), Jamaal May’s The Big Book of Exit Strategies (Alice James Books), and Patrick Rosal’s Brooklyn Antediluvian (Persea).

Philip B. Williams received the Kate Tufts Discovery Award for his collection, Thief in the Interior (Alice James), a book that presents a “perilous journey through a violent landscape in which race separates many from the American dream.” Williams is also featured in Poets & Writers Magazine’s twelfth annual roundup of debut poets.

The Kate Tufts finalists were Derrick Austin’s Trouble the Water (BOA), Rickey Laurentiis’s Boy With Thorn (University of Pittsburgh), Jordan Rice’s Constellarium (Orison), and Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon).

The judges for both prizes were Don Share, Elena Karina Byrne, Terrance Hayes, Meghan O’Rourke, and Brian Kim Stefans. Poetry magazine editor Don Share, this year’s judge committee chair, said Francis’s Forest Primeval is “an intense work, dark…Dantean…dreamlike in its visions…. Francis is reclaiming modernist and feminist legacies of poetry, and it takes great courage to do that.” 

In addition to Forest Primeval, which also won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Poetry, Francis is the author of two previous poetry collections, Blue-Tail Fly (Wayne State University Press, 2006) and Horse in the Dark (Northwestern University Press, 2012). She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and a Kresge Artist Fellowship. She is currently an associate professor of English at Dartmouth College and an associate editor for Callaloo.

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tufts Poetry Awards, which honor the memory of poet Kingsley Tufts. Previous winners of the Kingsley Tufts Award include Ross Gay, D. A. Powell, and Linda Gregerson. Past recipients of the Kate Tufts Award include Danez Smith, Yona Harvey, and Lucia Perillo. Francis and Williams will be honored at an awards ceremony in Los Angeles on April 20.

Deadline Approaches for Zócalo Public Square Poetry Prize

The deadline approaches for the sixth annual Zócalo Public Square Poetry Prize, given for a poem that evokes a connection to place. The winner will receive $500 and publication on the Zócalo Public Square website.

Submit up to three poems of any length via e-mail to poetry@zocalopublicsquare.org by Friday, February 3. There is no entry fee. The editors will judge. “Place may be interpreted by the poet as a place of historical, cultural, political, or personal importance,” write the editors. “It may be a literal, imaginary, or metaphorical landscape.” Visit the website for complete guidelines.

The winner will be announced in March. In 2016, 443 poets entered the prize. Interviews with recent winners and their winning poems can be read on the Zócalo website. Recent winners include Matt Phillips for his poem “Crossing Coronado Bridge” about the bridge that connects San Diego to Coronado Island; Gillian Wegener for her poem about a small town, “The Old Mill Café;” and Amy Glynn for her poem “Shoreline.”

Established in 2003, Zócalo Public Square publishes news, essays, and creative writing. The journal is based in Los Angeles.

New American Poetry Prize Open for Submissions

The deadline approaches for the 2017 New American Poetry Prize, given annually for a poetry collection. The winner receives $1,000 and publication by New American Press. Jesse Lee Kercheval will judge.

Using the online submission system, submit a manuscript of at least 48 pages with a $22.50 entry fee by January 31. Visit the website for complete guidelines.

Judge Jesse Lee Kercheval is the author of fifteen books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Her most recent book is the poetry collection Extranjera/Stranger (Editorial Yaugarú, 2015), written in both Spanish and English. Kercheval is also a translator, and specializes in Uruguayan poetry. She teaches in the University of Wisconsin’s MFA Program, and spends part of each year in Montevideo, Uruguay.

Previous winners of the New American Poetry Prize include Christopher Cokinos for The Underneath, Brittney Scott for The Derelict Daughter, and Arne Weingart for Levitation for Agnostics. New American Press publishes three to five full-length books each year, including the winners of its annual poetry and fiction prizes. The press also publishes the literary journal MAYDAY Magazine, and recently released two anthologies of poetry and fiction by Midwestern writers.

Deadline Approaches for Autumn House Press Contest

Submissions are open for the 2017 Autumn House Press Rising Writer Contest, given annually for a debut poetry collection by a poet who is thirty-three years old or younger. The winner will receive $1,000 and publication by Autumn House Press. Ada Limón will judge.

Using the online submission system, submit a poetry manuscript of 50 to 80 pages with a $25 entry fee by Tuesday, January 31. All entries will be considered for publication. Visit the website for complete guidelines.

Judge Ada Limón is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Bright Dead Things (Milkweed Editions, 2015), which was a finalist for both the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. Her first collection, Lucky Wreck, was published by Autumn House Press in 2006 as the winner of the press’s poetry prize.

Established in 1998, Pittsburgh-based Autumn House Press publishes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. The press has published authors such as poets Danusha Laméris, Ed Ochester, Martha Rhodes, and Gerald Stern; fiction writers Sarah Gerkensmeyer and Matthew Pitt; and nonfiction writers Jill Kandel and Sheryl St. Germain.

Teens, Truth, and Poetry

Ana Ramana has published three books of poetry and two novels, most recently her semi-autobiographical novel, Girl on Fire: An Uncommon Love Story (Wild Rose Press, 2016). She received an award from the Academy of American Poets and is the recipient of a William Stafford Fellowship. Originally from Ireland, she now lives in Mount Shasta, California, where she has been leading P&W–supported creative writing workshops for high school students.

In the winter of 2016, my life changed. With a generous grant from Poets & Writers, our local mountain town library sent me into our high schools, singing the praises of poetry. I visited classes in public and charter schools, sharing with students my love of poetry and how it saved my life. I read poems and invited them to join me for weekly sessions to write poems together. An overwhelming number of students signed up and a dedicated, talented, inspiring group met with me for several hours each week.

I have taught creative writing for over twenty years and can honestly say that my time with these high school students has been one of my absolute favorites. These teens were bright and blossoming into adulthood with great courage and openheartedness, yet each had endured difficulties that both humbled and inspired me. From brain cancer in childhood to escaping a cult to returning to the familiarity of an abusive stepfather, these young writers have looked headlong into some of life’s toughest hardships. Each one of them wrote about these obstacles with passion and ferocity.

Last spring, these poets gave a reading of their work at the library. The room was hushed as they read. The audience alternated between tears and laughter. In one assignment, I asked each poet to choose a song that they felt most represented their life and personality. One young man shared a song called, “I Have Made Mistakes.” He stood in front of the large audience and shared how he has learned that it’s not important that mistakes are made, but that we learn from them. This level of maturity was present, time and again, in each student.

Over the months, more young writers joined us, adding their diverse personalities, attitudes, and backgrounds. We’ve been busy compiling a collection of poems from these workshops, complete with photos, which will be published soon. And we will give another reading, this time, from our very own books. It continues to be a true pleasure—and a constant humbling—to serve as their literary midwife.

Photo: Ana Ramana. Photo credit: Michael Veys.

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

Finalists Announced for 2017 PEN Awards

PEN America announced on Wednesday the finalists for the 2017 PEN Awards. The annual awards are given for books of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and translation published in the previous year. This year PEN America will award nearly $315,000 to writers, including the inaugural $75,000 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, given for a “book of extraordinary originality and lasting influence.”

The finalists are:

PEN/Jean Stein Book Award: A prize of $75,000 given annually to recognize a book-length work in any genre for its originality, merit, and impact.

Known and Strange Things (Random House) by Teju Cole   
Olio (Wave Books) by Tyehimba Jess
The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between (Random House), Hisham Matar
Dark Money (Doubleday) by Jane Mayer
The Underground Railroad (Doubleday) by Colson Whitehead

PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction: A prize of $25,000 given annually to an author whose debut work—a first novel or collection of short stories published in the previous year—represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise of a second work of literary fiction.

Insurrections (University Press of Kentucky) by Rion Amilcar Scott
We Show What We Have Learned (Lookout Books) by Clare Beams
The Mothers (Riverhead Books) by Brit Bennett
Homegoing (Knopf) by Yaa Gyasi
Hurt People (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) by Cote Smith

PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay: A prize of $10,000 is given annually for a book of essays published in the previous year that exemplifies the dignity and esteem that the essay form imparts to literature.

The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood (Graywolf Press) by Belle Boggs
Known and Strange Things (Random House) by Teju Cole
A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and The Mind (Simon & Schuster) by Siri Hustvedt
The Girls in My Town (University of New Mexico Press) by Angela Morales
Becoming Earth (Red Hen Press) by Eva Saulitis

PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction: A prize of $10,000 is given biennially to an author of a distinguished book of general nonfiction published in the previous two years, possessing notable literary merit and critical perspective and illuminating important contemporary issues.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Crown) by Matthew Desmond
The Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America (Norton) by Patrick Phillips
Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (Bloomsbury Press) by Sam Quinones
Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran (Riverhead Books) by Laura Secor
Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship (Doubleday), Anjan Sundaram

PEN Open Book Award: A prize of $5,000 is given annually for an exceptional book-length work of literature by an author of color published in the previous year.

The Book of Memory (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) by Petina Gappah
The Big Book of Exit Strategies (Alice James Books) by Jamaal May
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours (Riverhead Books) by Helen Oyeyemi
Look (Graywolf Press) by Solmaz Sharif
Blackacre (Graywolf Press) by Monica Youn

Visit the website for a complete list of finalists, including those for the PEN Awards in biography, translation, poetry in translation, and literary sports writing. The winners of the 2017 awards will be announced on February 22 in New York City.

Established in 1963, the PEN America Literary Awards have honored hundreds of writers including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Richard Blanco, Katherine Boo, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Cynthia Ozick, Marilynne Robinson, and Claudia Rankine.