Readings & Workshops Blog

Poets & Writers’ Seventh Annual Workshop Leaders Retreat in Los Angeles

Jamie Asaye FitzGerald, director of Poets & Writers’ California Office and Readings & Workshops (West) program, blogs about Poets & Writers’ seventh annual Workshop Leaders Retreat for writers who teach creative writing to underserved groups, held this past January at 826LA in Echo Park in Los Angeles.

At first we were scattered, sitting at separate tables. Then we joined together in a circle.

Frank Escamilla WLR LA 2017

The first writers to take their places were Sarah Rafael Garcia and Marilynn Montaño of Barrio Writers, a nonprofit reading and writing program that empowers teens through creative writing. Garcia and Montaño rented a car and drove from Santa Ana to Los Angeles, about an hour drive. Both have been recipients of Readings & Workshops (R&W) grants for their work with Santa Ana’s youth.

The next person to join the circle was Oshea Luja of Still Waters, a poet and teacher supported by the R&W program for facilitating creative writing workshops with elders via the organization EngAGE.

Soon to join our circle, all the way from Riverside, was Angela Peñaredondo, who took part in the R&W program’s Intergenerational Workshop Exchange as a workshop facilitator for veterans and their family members at the Filipino American Service Group.

Fifteen other writers—who collectively teach creative writing to the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, at-risk youth; veterans; elders; LGBTQ populations; the homeless and formerly homeless; and immigrants—soon took their places.

We gathered in the workshop space at 826LA in Echo Park for Poets & Writers’ Workshop Leaders Retreat, an annual half-day retreat where teaching artists share resources, best practices, and writing prompts, and write and break bread together. This past January marked our seventh retreat in Los Angeles. Last fall, we held our first retreat for teaching artists in the Bay Area.

In addition to expanding and solidifying the reach of the R&W program, these retreats enable us to further our support of teaching artists who work with underserved groups, to give them the opportunity to network with one another and strengthen their practices, and to honor them both as teachers and writers by spending time writing to each others’ prompts. “It can be isolating as a contractor and writer, so it is impactful to make such contact and connection with others doing similar work. It can inform my practice in a multitude of ways and offer personal support for this challenging work,” wrote one attendee.

This year’s retreat was enriched by a presentation from charismatic teaching artist Frank Escamilla, who works with at-risk youth and is outreach coordinator for Street Poets Inc. Escamilla linked his experiences growing up in the East Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights with his current teaching practice. He recounted how having to share a room with five others taught him early about “being in community” and described how he could count the number of gangs he had to walk through to get to school. As a youth he felt called to start his own gang to gather people together, to protect each other. Later, he realized that his gifts could be used in better ways, which led him to become a poet, performer, and teaching artist—one who initiates young people into the healing practice of writing.

Escamilla shared with his fellow teaching artists some of the techniques he uses to reach this vulnerable population. He addressed questions like: How do you create a safe space within ten minutes? How do we search for the gift within these wounds? How do you deal with silence? How do you offer criticism? Attendees devoured Escamilla’s pearls of wisdom, asked questions, and shared their own methods. We talked about the Native American practice of Council in workshops, African traditions, and how words “can be like bullets or they can be like seeds.” We sat together and wrote from a prompt taken from Audre Lorde: “What do you need to say? [List as many things as necessary],” and shared our responses.

To close and release the circle, P&W program associate Brandi Spaethe read from an exquisite corpse written by the group during the retreat:

Our children will witness the power of our voice, and carry it on
Under their arms they will carry the future like origami, sharpening their tongues
Every breath a fire becoming movement

WLR LA 2017 Group

The Workshop Leaders Retreat is made possible by support from the California Arts Council, a state agency. We would like to thank 826LA for consistently giving this retreat a home and all the teaching artists past and present who have participated.

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.

Photo one: Frank Escamilla of Street Poets, Inc. (Credit: Brandi M. Spaethe). Photo two: Attendees of the seventh annual Los Angeles Workshop Leaders Retreat (front, left to right): Jamie Asaye FitzGerald, Dorothy Randall Gray, Marilynn Montaño, Alejandra Castillo, T Sarmina, Jessica Wilson, Leilani Squire, Sarah Rafael García; (middle) Angela Thomson-Brenchley; (back, left to right) Angela Peñaredondo, liz gonzalez, Steven Reigns, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, A. K. Toney, Oshea Luja, Jesse Bliss, Frank Escamilla, Kristi Toney, and Juan Cardenas (Credit: Brandi M. Spaethe).

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.

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.

Photo: Andrea Fingerson (Credit: Jace Martin).

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.

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

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

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.

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.

Poetry in Many Languages: Ganbaro!

Robin Lampman is a published poet and an educator with thirty-five years of experience teaching in universities, high schools, and elementary schools. She received a master’s degree in Bilingual Education and has taught literature in two languages in public schools in New Mexico, Texas, and New York, as well as at the University of Monterrey in Mexico and the American School of Madrid in Spain. Lampman published a volume of poetry by eighth graders in Harlem, which was made possible by the National Endowment for the Arts’ NEA Big Read grant. For the last several years she has been teaching writing classes for the Noble Maritime Collection including adult classes on poetic forms and food literature. Cooking the Books, an anthology which includes recipes, poetry, essays, and memories relived by her students is available at the Noble Maritime Museum. Lampman is the literary chairperson for the Staten Island Creative Community and organizes their Second Sunday Spoken Word events, and publishes the Staten Island Creative Community Journal of Literature and Art.

As a poet and educator who has been teaching literature and promoting poetry at schools and museums in New York and New Mexico, as well as in Mexico and Spain, I have always been on the lookout for ways to give poets a voice. Several years ago, I began serving as the Literary Chairperson for the Staten Island Creative Community and organizing Second Sunday Spoken Word events in Staten Island, New York.

In June of 2015, the event was attended by ten poets, and we were each other’s audience. In February 2016, we received the first of four Readings & Workshops grants. Since then we have been able to fund a poet who once lived in Staten Island but now lives in Manhattan, a poet who writes in both English and Spanish, and a poet who writes in both Japanese and English. Our audience as well as our pool of writers has grown.

We have hosted readings at the Makers Space, the Hub, the St. George Day Festival, and the National Lighthouse Museum. We will be reading at the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition in the spring. But to fully understand the impact that Poets & Writers has had on us, you must let me describe our last event to you.

On the eighth of January, the day after the first snowstorm of 2017, Second Sunday Spoken Word was scheduled to present “Poetry in Many Languages.” Though the snow had subsided, the streets were still white and the temperature was frigid. We wondered who would brave the streets to read a poem. We wondered if anyone would come out in the cold to listen to poetry, much less poetry read bilingually.

At 2:00 PM the gallery was empty. We shoveled the sidewalk and salted the ramp. An hour later, the gallery was full. Marilyn Kiss read in Spanish, Kevyn Fairchild in Hungarian, Malachi McCormick in Irish, Dominic Ambrose in Italian, Lorenzo Hail in French, and Lingping Chen, who had come in on the ferry, read in Chinese.

Henry Van Campen, recipient of the R&W grant for this event, read from his new book, Internal Externals, in both Japanese and English. Hiroki Otani concluded the event singing original lyrics in Japanese. We all sang along. “Ganbaro,” we sang. “Hello, goodbye, and take courage.”

Who braves the storm to read a poem? Who braves the storm to hear poetry in many languages? It is a testament not only to the strength that support from Poets & Writers has given Second Sunday Spoken Word in Staten Island, but to the strength inherent in the diversity of New York City. It is a testament to the power of poetry.

Photo: (top) Robin Lampman at the National Lighthouse Museum. Photo credit: Michael McQueeny. (middle) Malachi McCormick recites his poems in Irish. (bottom) Lingping Chen reading in Chinese. Photo credit: Robin Lampman.

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 Louis and Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and Friends of Poets & Writers.

2016 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Winner in Poetry: Key to New York City

Kimo Armitage is the author of over twenty children's books, and his first novel, The Healers, was published by the University of Hawaii Press in April 2016. He is currently looking for a publisher for his first collection of poetry, These Shackles Fit Perfectly.

My writing group tells me to submit to the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award for poetry. I am hesitant. I am not ready for New York City and my inner voice tells me that I might never be ready.

Luckily, my writing group is there for me. We meet monthly and workshop our work. After I receive positive feedback for the poems, I decide to listen to them and send in my collection of poems. These poems are inspired by the traumatic and joyous histories of people in the Pacific who have been affected by colonization, nuclear weapon detonation, immigration, foreign military occupation, and other events. Hawaiʻi is another world compared to New York City and I do not know how I—a Hawaiian, Chinese, Maori, English, and Portuguese Pacific Islander raised by my mother’s parents—will be received. My worry is that my voice and my stories will be dismissed. I am shocked when I am told that I have won.

Now, I am in New York City. I am excited and terrified. I have just arrived on the red-eye into JFK. Alicia Upano, a fabulous writer and the WEX winner for fiction, arrived the day before and we are meeting for brunch at a famous NYC dim sum eatery. She is also from Hawaiʻi and we are friends. My first task is to drop my luggage off at the hotel—included in an all-expenses-paid trip to the city to meet with agents, authors, publishers, and others in the literary community, as well as the opportunity to participate at a one-month residency at the Jentel Artist Residency Program in Wyoming.

I hail a cab to get into the city. My suitcase is filled with gifts for the people that I will meet. There are boxes of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts and aromatic coffee from Hawaiʻi. I have also brought along copies of my completed poetry manuscript, These Shackles Fit Perfectly.

Alicia meets me at the hotel. We cab to Chinatown and eat an amazing lunch. We sightsee before heading back to the hotel for our initial meeting with Bonnie Rose Marcus and Wo Chan, who work in the Readings & Workshops (East) department at Poets & Writers.

The week is an amazing mix of meetings, information, and being genuinely starstruck. We discuss literature and topics in Uptown offices, trendy restaurants, private homes, and modest workspaces. Each person listens and offers advice. These resonated with me:

Send your poetry out to different publishers. It will get your name and work out until you find the right publisher.

You have to write. Period.

Storyline is just as important as character (and vice versa).

There is a difference between writing and editing. You need both.

There is no single path. All writers have their own journey.

It is the last advice that cinches it for me. The New York literary scene is intimidating and frustrating and worthwhile at the same time. I am beyond grateful for being chosen to see how it works. But the greatest takeaway for me is that there is no right way to get here. Never pass up an opportunity; it might be the key that lets you in.

Photos (top): Kimo Armitage, (middle) Kimo Armitage and Sarah Gambito, Kimo Armitage and Alicia Upano. Photo credit: Alycia Kravitz. Photo (bottom, left to right): Kimo Armitage, Maureen Egen, Marie Brown, Alicia Upano, Bonnie Rose Marcus, Elliot Figman. Photo credit: Anonymous.

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

 

An Interview With Jennifer Patterson

Jennifer Patterson is a grief worker who uses words, threads, and plants to explore survivorhood, body(ies) and healing. She is the editor of Queering Sexual Violence: Radical Voices From Within the Anti-Violence Movement (Riverdale Avenue Books, 2016), facilitates trauma-focused writing and embroidery workshops, and has had writing published in places like OCHO: A Journal of Queer Arts, the Establishment, HandJob, and the Feminist Wire. She is also the creative nonfiction editor of Hematopoiesis Press, which has their first issue out this month. A queer and trans affirming, trauma-informed herbalist, Patterson offers sliding scale care as a practitioner with the Breathe Network as well as through her own practice Corpus Ritual Apothecary. Recently, she finished a graduate program with a thesis focused on translating embodied traumatic experience through somatic practices and critical and creative nonfiction. You can find out more at ofthebody.net.

What makes your workshops unique?
The workshops I offer are multi-dimensional. They’re grounded in writing through, with and about trauma (however people define that for themselves), and in reading other people’s writing about trauma and violence. There’s a somatic approach so we attend to the wisdom in our bodies that we sometimes forget, which might look like lying on the ground and breathing deeply. We hold space for each other in a way that feels really loving, expansive, and honestly, these days, it feels necessary and transformative. I’ve offered them in LGBTQ centers, at harm reduction clinics, in veterans hospitals, and universities. We’re living in a burning world and a lot of us have always felt that singe so it helps to unpack it on the page and turn it into something. I mean, trauma is always on the page but centering it in this way, I think, gives people permission to do the work they have been wanting and needing to do.

What techniques do you employ to help shy writers open up?
First, I thank people for showing up. Showing up is the hardest part especially when you’re inviting people to show up and write about their hardest experiences. I try to let go of demands and expectations and I let people know that they never have to share out loud if they don’t want to. (And actually, more times than not, most, if not all people share out loud.) We build a shared altar. I bring a freshly brewed herbal tea to calm nervousness and support the heart. I remind everyone that wherever they are and whatever comes out of the pen, for that moment, is just right. There’s plenty of time for editing—these workshops are for digging inside and generating.

What has been your most rewarding experience as a teacher?
Mostly just hearing from people that they felt more connected to their writing practice and, in turn, to themselves. That they feel heard and understood. That they felt something in their body soften or move around just a little.

What affect has this work had on your life and/or your art?
I recently finished a thesis (and soon to be manuscript) on trauma, somatic writing and embroidery—using stitch as a metaphor for making and remaking the wound—and it was incredibly difficult work so I’ve been taking a little breather. Some weeks the only time I write is in the workshop, which feels a bit funny to admit. But I also get to remember how writing supports me feeling more in my own life, more alive.

As someone who has been digging into my own history of trauma as well as collective trauma for years, it feels nice to be connected to other people doing similar work. As a younger writer, I felt so ashamed about the directions my writing took, particularly in wanting to write about violence I had experienced, so I feel really alive when I get to shape these spaces and invite other writers into them. I’m also just incredibly inspired by the quality of writing that I get to experience in these workshops literally every week. I get to remember how many incredible writers there are out there just looking for a room to write in.

Photo: Jennifer Patterson (top). Class materials (bottom). Photo credit: Jennifer Patterson.

 

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 Louis and Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and Friends of Poets & Writers.

World Beat Center’s Kwanzaa Festival in Balboa Park

Johnnierenee Nia Nelson is an award-winning author of five books of Kwanzaa poetry and two other volumes of poetry to promote social change. She serves as the San Diego County Area Coordinator for California Poets in the Schools, and teaches for San Diego's acclaimed Border Voices Poetry Program. She was the featured poet in the fifth annual El Cajon Friendship Festival with her creation of “A Taste of Kwanzaa” and a featured guest on KPBS’s “These Days” and “The Lounge.” Nelson also performed at San Diego City College in collaboration with Urban Bush Women and at the grand opening of San Diego’s new state-of-the-art Central Library.

Johnnierenee Nelson“Light the candles
beat the drums
pour the libation
for Kwanzaa comes

Bring forth the poet
let her speak
the message of Kwanzaa
the knowledge we seek.”

For the past several years, thanks to support from Poets & Writers, I have been the featured poet at the World Beat Center's annual Kwanzaa festival held in beautiful Balboa Park—the crown jewel of San Diego. Kwanzaa is a seven-day celebration of community, culture, and kin, which begins December 26 and ends January 1. Kwanzaa, created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, is based on the year-end “first fruits” harvest festivals that have taken place throughout Africa for thousands of years. It is a family-focused observance steeped in African tradition and replete with rituals such as “drum call,” “ancestral roll call,” and a candle-lighting ceremony using seven candles (three red, three green, and one black), which represent the seven principles of Kwanzaa including pouring of libation and karamu (our feast consisting of African, African American, and Caribbean cuisine). Kwanzaa was explicitly designed to reaffirm and restore our rich African heritage.

Armed with a museum-quality kalimba, one of the many, many African names for what is known in America as a thumb piano, I (aka the Kwanzaa Poet) get to express with the resonating rhythm of this musical instrument the pride and the love I have for this progressive and uplifting holiday as a hush falls upon an audience awed by its chimes and my hypnotic chants and murmurings. Simply put, I love Kwanzaa. It has so much meaning and significance; so much to offer. I love its symbols, rituals, principles, and emphasis upon family. I love its history; the fact that it was created during the black nationalist movement of the 1960s as an act of cultural self-determination.

This year marks the fiftieth birthday of Kwanzaa and for several nights I get to perform such poems as “People in Me,” “Black Gold,” “Kwanzaa Is Rich,” “How I Rejoice,” and “Going the Distance”—poems found in the five volumes of poetry that I created in tribute to this revered commemoration.

The Kwanzaa festival is welcoming. All people are invited to “Come to the Kwanzaa table”—a table laden with fruits and vegetables (representing the fruits of our labor), African artifacts, and other symbols of Kwanzaa, such as the unity cup and the bendera (our flag also in the Pan-African colors of black, red, and green). The beauty and genius of Kwanzaa is in its centerpiece—its seven core principles (the Nguzo Saba), which begins with unity and ends with faith—values sorely needed in today’s climate of divisiveness and turmoil.

Kwanzaa celebrants are encouraged to don traditional West African and reggae attire, which creates a flurry of bright and bold colors, and vibrant geometric designs characteristic of the mud cloth, kente and Kuba cloth, and reggae fashions that friends and family members adorn. Elaborate and elongated African head wraps, as well as leather sandals typify the garments that guests wear. The plethora of sights and sounds associated with this colorful occasion along with the smells of healthy African and Caribbean vegetarian foods served at the World Beat Center’s karamu exemplify community-building and networking at its best.

Last year's festival attracted more than eight hundred celebrants. Each night's program begins with a drum call, a rendition of the African American National Anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and a prayer delivered in Twi, the ancestral language of the Akan people in West Africa. In addition to my poetry performances, this festival incorporates stilt dancing, drumming, singing, storytelling, live music, traditional African dancing, and capoeira (a martial art that combines elements of dance, acrobatics, and music). Cultural fufu for all!

“How I rejoice in the blackness of Kwanzaa
midnight black like Mother Africa
ebony black like.........”

Photo: Johnnierenee Nelson.  Photo credit: Ben Nelson.

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.

The Storytellers of Kew Gardens

Leslie Shipman is a poet whose work has appeared in BOMB Magazine, the Kenyon ReviewTinderboxMid-American ReviewLaurel ReviewCosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and anthologized in Best New Poets. Formerly the assistant director of the National Book Foundation, she is now a freelance consultant specializing in project and event management for arts and literature nonprofits.

The F train takes about an hour to get from my home in Red Hook, Brooklyn to the Kew Gardens Community Center in Queens, site of a long-running, multigenre creative writing workshop for seniors, sponsored by Poets & Writers. Kew Gardens, like most neighborhoods in Queens, is a vibrant community of Latinos, Asian Americans, and an aging population of Jewish refugees who fled Germany after World War II and settled in this middle-class area. The hour on the train is useful. I anticipate the work my students will bring, and think about what craft element I want to introduce.

I work with a small group of ten or so women, ranging in age from mid-sixties to mid-eighties, who are writing poetry, fiction, and memoir. They’re good writers. Serious writers. Writers who are interested in an honest critical response to their work, and ways they might improve it. The range of life experience in this classroom is breathtaking, and I frequently feel more like a student than a teacher, as I read their stories and learn about their lives.

At the end of every class, I give them a writing prompt to help generate new work between classes. Usually it’s a simple exercise that asks them to describe something. The twist is that they can’t describe it from their own point of view, they have to describe it from, say, their mother’s point of view, or their childhood best friend’s point of view. I do this to help them separate themselves from their narrator, so they can feel what it’s like to create a voice that’s distinct from their own, to create a narrative persona, even in memoir.

I also emphasize thinking about sentences. In a class where the students are working in different genres, sentences are what unite us. Words are the building blocks, but sentences, in all their structural complexities, are our raw material. We talk about syntax, and delay of information. We talk about how to create drama and tension, and how syntax can heighten these crucial elements of a poem or story.

With this in mind, I asked them to create a persona to describe their childhood bedrooms. All of their responses to this exercise were fascinating. One writer lingered over the way the light played on her ceiling. I asked if she was familiar with the magic lantern scene in Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust. She wasn’t, but she managed to evoke a similar magic in her own description of the interior light of her bedroom as a child, evoking nostalgia, love, and a difficult relationship with her sister.

The gratitude I feel in working with these older writers is sustaining. I’m the lucky one, privileged to be a small part of their development as writers, to witness their lives in words, and to help shepherd their stories into the world.

Photo: Leslie Shipman. Photo credit: Elena Alexander.

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 Louis and Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and Friends of Poets & Writers.

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