Readings & Workshops Blog

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.

Emma Tao White on Writing With Seniors

Emma Tao White was born in Shanghai and came to the United States at age ten, living in the Midwest until she completed her education. For twenty years, she juggled a medical career and managed a family of five children. In her forties, she returned to school and became a licensed clinical psychologist. She now lives in San Francisco, where for the last ten years, she has facilitated writing groups for seniors in senior centers, senior housing, and adult day health centers including the P&W–supported Project Access at the Coronet Apartments. Over the same time period, she has been writing her own life stories.

Senior Writers

For several years, I’ve facilitated writing groups at adult day health centers and senior apartment buildings where the participants range from the elderly and/or disabled with good cognitive and physical functioning to those who have approached dementia and need assistance with the physical act of writing. Writing abilities range from retired professional writers to those who need assistance to write due to brain injury, muscle disease, or arthritis. 

One of the most enthusiastic writers, who I have dubbed “Happy Camper,” has a severe stutter. Each week, he writes a page or more detailing the highlights of his week. With public transportation, he often gets around the entire Bay Area. He frequently expresses joy and appreciation for this group: “I am glad we have an outlet to explore and put down our thoughts and ideas on our journey of life.”

Another writer I call the “Doughnut Man” developed Baker’s Lung from making doughnuts for over thirty years. Since he was still too young for social security, he went on to a second career as a security guard. A few years ago he had a stroke that left him with expressive aphasia that hampered his ability to find and say words. With persistent effort, he has noticeably improved. He shared in his writing how after trying different jobs as a young man, he found doughnut making the most satisfying. 

After having a stroke about twenty years ago, one woman uses the class to practice her handwriting. Her concentration is admirable whether she is practicing her name, numbers, or the ABCs. Another participant writes romantic poems in Spanish, based on song lyrics she remembers from her youth. And yet another participant began her autobiography years ago, and at ninety-two, she still has the ambition to write a book about her colorful life that began in Scotland when her father, a graduate student from China, married his landlady’s daughter. She stopped work on her manuscript just as the Cultural Revolution was to begin.

One of our most prolific writers is a professional entertainment writer in her home country. In the beginning, she wrote about her delight with her cat and how they live together. Then she began to write about her childhood, her health, and what she finds satisfying as she ages. She said she does not want to just “extend arms and open mouth” in her old age.

Among the various immigrant groups in the Bay Area, the elderly Asian immigrants arrived at different ages, some when they were young while others were brought over by their children who came first to study and become established. They get the most pleasure from being around family on weekends and holidays, eating and laughing together. Because many of them live in social circles of other Asian immigrants, they do not see the upheaval of having survived wars and traversed continents as worthy writing material. Or perhaps they have buried their traumatic memories and moved on.

One man recounted how he arrived in this country with his young children and worked for the same company until he retired. After being widowed, he’s very content living with his son. One day, tears streamed down his face as he wrote about how he wished he could see more of the world with his wife, a longing perhaps he had not acknowledged before.

Those who write gain a sense of satisfaction in being able to put their thoughts down on paper, and have a place to voice their feelings and opinions, and at the same time, preserve their precious memories. With the realization that their time on earth is finite, this activity provides a means to leave a part of themselves to others. With their varied backgrounds, the writing group gives them a chance to write and share the rich and full lives they have lived and are living.

Photo: Senior writers reading.  Photo credit: Emma Tao White.

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.

Missing You: Honoring Loss and Resilience in South Tucson

Teaching artist Marge Pellegrino recently led a series of P&W–supported writing workshops for the YWCA’s La Escuelita’s summer program. Pellegrino has written about grief and resilience for children. Since 1999, she has directed programming for the Owl & Panther expressive arts project that serves refugees impacted by torture, trauma, and traumatic dislocation. Her book Journey of Dreams (Frances Lincoln Press, 2009) is a Smithsonian Notable Book, Southwest Best Book, and Judy Goddard Award winner for excellence in young adult literature. Her book Too Nice (Magination Press, 2002) is available in five languages.

Missing You Workshop Cohort

The neighborhood surrounding the House of Neighborly Service’s La Escuelita knows loss. Many of the youth who participate in the YWCA’s La Escuelita summer camp have family members who have died too young. Some have relatives who have been incarcerated. Some youth come from mixed-status or undocumented families who are separated from loved ones by deportation.

The series of five P&W–supported “Missing You” writing workshops invited neighborhood youth from five to seventeen years of age to explore new ways to hold memories and reach out to those they love. They played with writers’ tools to create a small body of work that tapped spatial and linguistic intelligences. They let their illustrations fuel a “simile portrait.” They felt the cadence in their “I Miss/I Remember” list poems. They composed letters to the people they love and imagined how the voice of that person might sound in an answer. Some of the participants were particularly engaged when they stitched together narratives that captured details of a time they spent together with the person they miss.

One morning they wrote about the metaphorical trash in their lives on scraps of colored paper. They ripped the paper up, put the small pieces in a blender with water, “transforming trash into treasure,” and created a beautiful handmade paper cover for their book, which held their own story of resilience. Their last exploration held up gratitude. They wrote about things they valued about a brother, a tio, abuela, or the mother who loved them, in order to feel how gratitude can lift their spirits, like the last line of a great poem.

Each workshop ended in sharing within the cohort—a time when their words traveled on sound, when they could see others respond to what they had kept tucked in their hearts. A time when the writing and sharing could break through the isolation caused by a buildup of grief and separation. Hearing the others’ stories let them know they weren’t alone with these feelings.

The series culminated in a shy and proud reading for the community elders.

Photo: La Escuelita “Missing You” workshop with Marge Pellegrino.

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

Joan Gerstein on Teaching Workshops With Incarcerated Veterans

Joan Gerstein, originally from New York, has lived in California since 1969. A retired educator and psychotherapist, Gerstein has been writing poetry since elementary school, and her writing is featured in multiple San Diego publications as well national and international periodicals. She has volunteered to teach creative writing to incarcerated veterans at the county jail for almost two years and finds it stimulating and extremely rewarding. She has led the workshop for veterans at the Vista jail for six years. Her poetry has been published in Tidepools, Magee Park Poets Anthology, A Year in Ink, Summations, and the San Diego Poetry Annual. She served as the editor of the special Veteran's Section of the San Diego Poetry Annual 2015-16. San Diego Entertainment & Arts Guild partnered with Gerstein recently for a series of P&W–supported veteran workshops.

Joan GersteinWhat makes your workshops unique?
The veterans are in a specially designed program called Veterans Moving Forward and are required to participate in all classes including my creative writing workshop. As such, the men have a wide range of writing skills and interest in the writing process. There is also much fluidity because new participants enter weekly and some depart. I offer a combination of workshops such as poetry, memoir, fiction writing, and if there are requests, classes focused on grammar and sentence and paragraph structure. I also offer my editing, typing, and submission services for those who either wish to enter a contest or are writing something of which they want my feedback. Because they are currently incarcerated and have little access to computers, I meet individually with those men, edit and type up their material, get their approval of final product, and if relevant, submit their entries to various periodicals and veteran anthologies.

What techniques do you employ to help shy writers open up?
Attending the workshop is mandatory but participation varies. I offer a vast number of different exercises to ensure that everyone can hopefully respond to at least some. Sharing of work with the group is voluntary. I often suggest that men work in pairs or groups to allow more reserved men to participate without undue attention. While they are doing assignments, I make a point of walking around the room and working individually with men who rarely share with the group.

What has been your most rewarding experience as a teacher?
The men are extremely appreciative as a group and individually. I look forward to and thoroughly enjoy my weekly workshops and feel especially rewarded when I work individually with the writers, and their submissions are accepted. 

What affect has this work had on your life and/or your art?
I’m not sure this has affected my work except as possible subject matter to use in my writing, however the experience has enriched my life and given me a greater understanding of the challenges facing discharged military. My students range from men in their young twenties to veterans of the Vietnam War, of every race and background, from all over the United States as well as foreign countries. I have definitely gained a greater appreciation of their sacrifices and challenges.

What are the benefits of writing workshops for veterans?
This is a creative outlet for many. For men who already enjoy writing and do it regularly, it is an opportunity to hone their craft and a showcase for them to share their material. If they want, I work with the men individually to fine-tune their writing. I offer several opportunities for the men to submit poetry and prose to various contests or veteran publications. For all the men, I hope to expose them to various styles of writing as well as many writers. For example, I may read excerpts from A Place to Stand by Jimmy Santiago Baca, so the men can see that anyone can overcome odds including incarceration, and even become a great writer. The various exercises we do, individually and in small and large groups, encourage critical thinking. Most participants, even those that insist they “can’t write,” will find some success and surprise themselves.

Photo: Joan Gerstein  Photo credit: Joan Gerstein
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.

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