Readings & Workshops Blog

Terry Moore on the Show Poetry Series in Sacramento

Terry Moore, aka T-Mo, is the longtime host and workshop facilitator of the Show Poetry Series, sponsored by the Center for Fathers and Families, in Sacramento, California. Among his accomplishments include numerous Best Spoken Word Poet awards, a Best Live Performer award, and a BMA Image award. He has appeared on Showtime at the Apollo and BET, and shared the stage with the Temptations, Maya Angelou, Kirk Franklin, Mary Mary, Dr. Cornel West, WAR, and many others.

I have the honor and privilege of being chosen by the Center for Fathers and Families (CFF) as the featured workshop facilitator and event host for the Show Poetry Series. The CFF offers programs and services that lead to family growth, enrichment, and empowerment. The Show has been around for sixteen years and support from Poets & Writers has played a huge part in its success. It draws all ages (from five years old to sixty years old) and nationalities, and is a beautiful thing for our community.

At each workshop, participants arrive and gather for a social period to get to know each other. They are encouraged to meditate in order to bring out thoughts from deep within. Once they feel motivated, all participants write a story that they best remember, that excites them, or means the most to them. Their writing is shared with the entire group and encouragement is always expressed, especially from the more experienced poets.

Those who feel comfortable are invited to share their work at the mic and receive feedback. Once they receive 100 percent positive feedback either at that time or in a future workshop, they are invited to perform their work at the main poetry event.

The exciting part is that half of the participants are first timers, who were drawn to the workshops and events as audience members. Their families are amazed and our community watches the birth of some great artists.

In addition to the workshop and event, we have created a local Access TV show to highlight the poets and give them the opportunity to see themselves perform and enhance their skills.

Being part of the Show has given me a place to share and test out work that has developed me into an award-winning poet. I’m inspired by the unity, teamwork, and positive atmosphere it provides for our community. I feel blessed to be a part of this movement.

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: Terry Moore (Credit: J.M. Images Photography).

An Evening With Kelly Harris and Rodrigo Toscano at the University of New Orleans

Carolyn Hembree’s debut poetry collection, Skinny, was published by Kore Press in 2012. In 2016, Trio House Books published her second collection, Rigging a Chevy Into a Time Machine and Other Ways to Escape a Plague, winner of the 2015 Trio Award and the 2015 Rochelle Ratner Memorial Award. Her work has appeared in Colorado Review, jubilat, Poetry Daily, and elsewhere. She has received grants and fellowships from PEN, the Louisiana Division of the Arts, and the Southern Arts Federation. An assistant professor at the University of New Orleans, Hembree teaches writing and is the poetry editor of Bayou Magazine.

The University of New Orleans (UNO) English Department and the Creative Writing Workshop, our MFA program, hosts readings and lectures by local and national poets. In recent years, Marilyn Chin, Shara McCallum, Laura Mullen, Marjorie Perloff, Metta Sáma, and Richard Siken have presented their work at UNO. Our poetry readings are held in the Liberal Arts building, Room 197, aka “the Lounge.” Complete with a kitchenette, restrooms, a brick courtyard, filled bookshelves, conference tables, couches, comfy chairs, restrooms, and seven entrances, this communal space serves as a casual dining area, a workshop classroom, and the site of the annual MFA prom. Reflective of the culture of our program and the city, a motto that suits our events might be: Come as you are. Bring what you can. Students and faculty arrange the furniture and contribute homemade food and refreshments.

Last fall, on the evening of October 26, “the Lounge” was packed with forty to fifty attendees. Current Creative Writing Workshop candidate Elle Magnuson introduced New Orleans poet Kelly Harris. One of our city’s most exciting talents, Kelly Harris opened with her cri de coeur, an elegy comprised of the names and lines of “lost black poets”—names and lines Harris variously scatted and sang. She read from loose pages spread across a table—as she later demonstrated during the Q&A—she scored the poem to indicate her vocal inflection. Kelly spent two years studying music to improve upon her poetry and performance skills. Social consciousness characterized the work she shared, particularly poems from Shame on Her, a manuscript on body politics and African American women. Embracing the public role of the poet, Kelly Harris told the audience, “I want to have an audience that’s janitors, poets, everybody—and that comes at a cost.”

Creative Writing Workshop alumnus Spencer Silverthorne then introduced Rodrigo Toscano. A polyphonic poet with an experimental bent, the longtime Brooklyn resident and recent New Orleans transplant gave a memorable performance from his fifth poetry collection, Explosion Rocks Springfield (Fence Books, 2016). Like Harris, Toscano read from a stack of loose pages. A line from a newspaper article, “The Friday evening gas explosion in Springfield leveled a strip club next to a day care,” serves as the title of each of the book’s eighty poems—a title he delivered with varied nuance each time.

As interrogations of language, Toscano’s text and performance compelled us to consider the impact of words written and spoken, private and public. His fine performance emphasized the contrast of appropriated language from industrial reports and newspapers, and with interjections, onomatopoeia, demotic idioms, interjections, and lyric imagery he engaged listeners. He interacted with the audience frequently, even directing us to repeat the refrain of one poem. However, the most effective moments of his performance may have been the counterpoints to the multiple registers of diction as he ruminated about the language, “What is care exactly?”

Thanks to Poets & Writers’ consistent support and publicity, event attendance by the university and larger community has doubled. Come as you are. Bring what you can. Care.

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

Photos: (top) Carolyn Hembree (Credit: Lynda Woolard). (bottom) Rodrigo Toscano and Kelly Harris (Credit: Mimi Miller).

HIV WITH: Writing Within an Epidemic

Theodore (ted) Kerr, is a member of the What Would an HIV Doula Do? collective. He is a Canadian-born, Brooklyn-based writer, organizer, and artist. His work has appeared in the Advocate, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Lambda Literary, BOMB, the New Inquiry, and many other publications. Kerr received his MA from Union Theological Seminary and is the former programs manager for Visual AIDS. 

In 2015, a group of artists, educators, activists, writers, doulas, and healthcare workers came together for an informal think tank to discuss social, cultural, and political issues that surround HIV/AIDS—which include criminalization, stigma, and ways AIDS history is being remembered and disremembered. From there we formed a collective, and started meeting monthly. What became obvious to us soon in the process was that we, as a group, had to check in with each other to figure out what we knew and felt about HIV. Each of us—whether living with the virus or being deeply impacted by it—had different experiences and awareness of the epidemic. At the same time, doula work had become ever more present in our communities—birth doulas, end of life doulas, abortion doulas, gender doulas—folks who fundamentally hold space for someone during a time of transition. We came to understand that we needed to doula ourselves, that is, to hold space for each other in order to better understand the current reality of the virus, to better consider what contemporary responses to AIDS should look like. To do this, we began with a question: What would an HIV doula do?

Since then, our collective has worked to bring community back to the HIV response and begin a conversation around how to ensure that the state and AIDS nonprofit organizations work for people living with the virus, and not the other way around. We do our work in open meetings and at events. AIDS is a public issue and should be treated as such. Long before the response to HIV became professionalized, before it even had a name, the communities affected by it responded in the streets. They protested, walked each other’s dogs, carried caskets, filed paperwork, saved art, held each other’s hands. In the course of our work, we have been reminded of a fundamental truth about the epidemic: No one gets HIV alone. And so no one should have to deal with it alone. When it comes to the virus, it is always, HIV with. So when the opportunity to work with Poets & Writers came up, we jumped at the chance to use writing as a way to bring together people who were living with HIV, or have been deeply impacted by it.

With the support of Poets & Writers, we created a five-part workshop series titled HIV WITH. For each session, a different theme—trauma, spirituality, public health, language, witnessing—and its relation to HIV would be explored under the guidance of a writer and a cofacilitator. For the second workshop of the series, poet and educator Timothy DuWhite and dancer and healer iele paloumpis came together to explore HIV through the interconnected systems of the mind, body, soul, and government. After delivering a powerful presentation on how the state often fails and targets people of color when it comes to HIV, the facilitators assigned writing prompts that had us respond to the ideas presented. iele invited us to get up from our seats, and—based on writing we had done in the room—use our bodies to express a journey we have had with HIV. As a writer, I was moved by this exercise. By the end of the workshop, I felt compelled to write more, buoyed by the shared experience of cracking spines, tears, hugs, comfort eating, and putting proverbial pen to paper. 

So much of writing is about being vulnerable on the page, alone, and then sending it out into the world. So much about HIV is about our bodies, risk, and judgement. Support from Poets & Writers has enabled the What Would an HIV Doula Do? collective to build communal spaces where we can work to reduce the harm of HIV, transform the pain and stigma surrounding it, and be active participants in ensuring it metamorphosizes into health and resilience, through written word. As we continue to uncover what the response to HIV is and needs to be, we are reminded by opportunities like this workshop series that we need each other, that we have each other, and writing can be a way of healing.

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.

Photos: (top) Theodore Kerr (Credit: William Johnson). (bottom) HIV WITH altar (Credit: Theodore Kerr).

Poet Laureate Work: Connecting People to Poetry

Elline Lipkin is the author of The Errant Thread, chosen by Eavan Boland for the Kore Press First Book Award, and Girls’ Studies (Seal Press, 2009). She is the current poet laureate of Altadena, a research affiliate with UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women, and teaches poetry for Writing Workshops Los Angeles. She blogs about a recent P&W–supported writing workshop with Suzanne Lummis at the Altadena Public Library in Altadena, California.

New to Altadena, and still new as its poet laureate, this past fall I tried to think about what programming would best serve this community—an unincorporated area in Los Angeles County, nestled in the San Gabriel foothills and blending into the borders of Pasadena. I decided a poetry workshop in February would be just the thing to build community and generate interest in poetry in advance of National Poetry Month and other planned literary events. Who might come in to teach enthusiastic poets who write for the joy of expression, the desire to play with words, and the chance to connect with community, I wondered.

Then, as a volunteer with WriteGirl, a Los Angeles-based organization that teaches creative writing to teenage girls, I had the pleasure of witnessing Suzanne Lummis lead a poetry workshop. She was brash, funny, direct, and engaging—all the components that make a great teacher. I knew she would be the perfect person to teach a community workshop at the Altadena Public Library.

The workshop was set up in the Altadena Library community room, which they assured me would be large enough. When I arrived at 12:15 PM to set up for the workshop’s 1:00 PM start, there were already people sitting at the tables. By 12:40 PM someone suggested we look for more chairs and ideally, more tables. By the time the workshop started at 1:05 PM, people were standing in the doorway as I scrambled to make more handouts and the staff set up rows of folding chairs. Close to seventy people crammed into the room.

As I’d hoped, Suzanne again was brash, funny, direct, and engaging. She wedged her way between the closely positioned tables and made certain to talk to people at every corner, all while keeping a current of excitement in the air as she called on participants to respond.

Suzanne’s first exercise was to copy down the phrase, “The judge ran down my list of offenses....” The crowd fell silent, and after a scant eight minutes was ready to share.  Suzanne offered on-the-spot critique: “Always stay a step ahead of the reader—don’t go where you think the reader wants you to go.” She emphasized making lines vivid and rich with specificity and moving away from the prosaic.

For another writing exercise, she asked for suggestions she recorded on a whiteboard—names of flavors, fragrances, flowers, and movie stars. The whiteboard was covered with sensory suggestions—chaparral, night-blooming angel’s trumpet, ginger, sassafras, peppermint, and licorice. Helen Mirren, Idris Elba, Barbara Stanwyck, and Marlon Brando mixed in their own column. The assignment was to pick something from each category and “let the words lead you.” “Don’t be literal” was another key piece of advice, alongside, “Keep your writing connected to the sensory and palpable.”

There was barely time to share before the hour and a half was up. A crowd surrounded Suzanne as the event ended. I watched them pour out of the room, buzzing with ideas for their poems, sharing lines and thoughts about the exercises, clearly hungry for the connection poetry brings. I knew I had found the right person for this community, and I was thrilled.

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: Elline Lipkin (Credit: Sylvia Gunde).

Bittersweet: The Immigrant Stories

Tanya Ko Hong explores both cultural and personal experiences with her writing, and seeks to bridge the gap between first-generation Korean immigrants and their Korean American children through her bilingual works. She has been published in Rattle, Beloit Poetry Journal, Two Hawks Quarterly, Portside, Cultural Weekly, Korea Times, and Korea Central Daily News. She has an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University in Los Angeles, and is the author of four books, including Mother to Myself (Prunsasang Press, 2015). 

On a chilly January evening, the Korean language reverberated through the Poet’s Garden at Beyond Baroque in Venice, California for the “Bittersweet: The Immigrant Stories” event. In all the mainstream poetry readings I’ve attended, the voices of these first-generation immigrants have been absent. Many immigrants want to express themselves but cannot due to language, social, and cultural barriers. In the Korean writer circles, the few who give voice to the immigrant experience aren’t even confident that their stories are worthy of translation or performance in English. Without translation, these original stories are in danger of dying out with the immigrant generation. I want to prevent that. As Toni Morrison said, “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, you must be the one to write it.”

Since there didn’t seem to be an event celebrating the works of immigrants, I knew I had to do it. Why should my fellow immigrant artists feel invisible, voiceless, and unworthy? This evening was the realization of my dream to celebrate their works with a multicultural audience. Light evening breezes tossed the overhead string of lights as eleven artists shared immigrant experiences of Korean, Mexican, Filipino, and other cultures. Korean poets read selections as originally written, and then American poets read the translations.

Heard in English for the first time, “Sugarcane Arirang” by So Hyun Chang, recounted the first Korean Americans’ long days in the sugar fields of Hawaii. In Korean, the refrain of “Arirang” conveyed the rhythm of life in the fields and longing for home. The translation spoke of the raw and emotional experience. It was not a coincidence that the event date coincided with the one hundred and fourteenth anniversary of the first documented Korean immigrant’s arrival in Hawaii. The bittersweet aspect of the evening was the truth of the immigrant experiences and generational differences, which had been kept in silence for so long.

At the end of the evening, I read “American Dream” in both Korean and English, which ends with the question, “Who am I to you, America?”

The chill of the night was replaced by the warmth of friendship as we physically huddled together to conserve heat. The audience included writers who seldom venture outside of the Korean community, let alone to a Los Angeles venue like Beyond Baroque. The shared laughter and tears began to dismantle the barriers, borders, and fences of race, language, culture, gender, and age that often keep us divided.

On April 29, 2017, I will cohost an event at Beyond Baroque to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, an upheaval shared by Angelinos across cultural lines but seldom discussed today. As with “Bittersweet,” my goal is to bring voices to the shared pain and anguish of our neighboring communities. Let us express and listen to each other. We have suffered in silence too long.

As a poet, I learned to break the silence and have the courage to speak out. My work carries me forward. 

I thank all the participants; my cohost Julayne Lee; and the artists So Hyun Chang, Alexis Rhone Fancher, Christine Gonzalez, liz gonzales, June C. Kim, Soo Bok Kim, Duk Kyu Park, Kuya Paul, and Hiram Sims for making “Bittersweet” such a special night.

Special thanks to Beyond Baroque and their director, Richard Modiano.

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: Tanya Ko Hong (Credit: Alexis Rhone Fancher). Photo two: The Immigrant Stories readers: (front, left to right) June C. Kim, So Hyun Chang, Tanya Ko Hong, Julayne Lee, Kuya Paul, and Soo Bok Kim. (back, left to right) Duk Kyu Park, Christine Gonzalez, and Hiram Sims (Credit: Patrick Hong).

The Risk of Discovery Reading Series and the Queens Literary Scene

Micah Zevin is a librarian poet living in Jackson Heights, New York with his wife, a playwright. He works for the Queens Library and has recently published poems in the Best American Poetry Blog, Headlock Press, the Otter, Newtown Literary Journal and Blog, Poetry and Politics, Reality Beach, Jokes Review, Post (Blank), the Tower Journal, and the American Journal of Poetry. Zevin received his MFA in Poetry from the New School in 2014 and is the founder and curator of the Risk of Discovery Reading Series, now at Blue Cups in Woodside, New York.

Shortly after graduating from the New School, I started to think about how I could continue the same sense of community, support, creative energy, and stimulation that I received from my fellow students and professors. I saw a post on Facebook that was searching for someone to host and curate a reading series/open mic at a new comedy and creative venue in Astoria. The idea was to feature a diverse mix of Queens and non-Queens-based writers, and get local writers from my New School MFA connections and on social media to bring another reading series to the often overlooked borough of Queens and its budding literary scene, which happens to be my home and birthplace.

The “Risk” and “Discovery” in the reading series title was inspired by essays on writing by Yusef Komunyakaa, which emphasize the surprise that can come in one’s writing when challenging subjects or ideas are tackled in an unorthodox or imaginative way. At the most recent incarnation of my reading series, I give my attendees a handout with poetry prompts that asks them to write instant poems (the discovery), and then read them aloud (the risk). These poetry prompts have also been an effective way to jumpstart my own writing and bring things out of me from angles and perspectives that wouldn’t have otherwise been extracted or mined. Featured readers, such as Mathew Yeager, Nicole Goodwin, and Ryan Black, have taken the challenge and read their “instant poems” aloud.

Joanna Fuhrman was a featured poet for our February 21 event, and upcoming events include poets Matthew Hupert and Bill Lessard on March 21, and Uche Nduka and Francine Witte on April 18 during poetry month.

Featured poets who are paid an honorarium are thrilled that this reading series has received grants from the Readings & Workshops Program at Poets & Writers, which encourages writers to travel and go on tours to promote their collections. The option to pay featured readers attracts a wide range of writers to my reading series, and it has grown and built a regular audience over the last three years.

The Poets & Writers Literary Events Calendar is the perfect place to post information about the series and upcoming featured writers, and posts can be shared on social media.

Ultimately, running a reading series, despite organizational and logistical challenges, is a rewarding experience because it connects writers and literary enthusiasts with one another, and helps build a network in the borough of Queens and beyond.

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.

Photos: (top) Micah Zevin (Credit: Susan Weiman). (middle) Joanna Fuhrman (Credit: Micah Zevin). (bottom) Audience members at the open mic (Credit: Micah Zevin).

Christen Clifford Talks Experiments & Disorders at Dixon Place

Christen Clifford is a feminist performance artist, writer, and mother. She teaches at the New School and is a curator for the Experiments & Disorders literary series at Dixon Place. Her essay “Mother, Daughter, Moustache,” about gender and aging, was published in the bestselling anthology Women In Clothes and called “a standout essay” by Bookforum. Clifford has been published in Salon, Hyperallergic, the Brooklyn Rail, Smith Magazine, and has work forthcoming in WITCHES. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from the New School Writing Program, where she won the Nonfiction Award. She is the recipient of a NYFA Fellowship, a volunteer mentor with Girls Write Now, and lives in Queens and online @cd_clifford.

Dixon Place is one of New York’s oldest art spaces dedicated to creating new work. Since 1986, we have been a nonprofit institution committed to supporting the creative process by presenting original works of theatre, dance, music, puppetry, circus arts, and visual art at all stages of development. We hope to encourage diverse artists of all stripes and callings to take risks, generate new ideas, and consummate new practices.

Experiments & Disorders is Dixon’s longest continuously running literary series; Tom Cole and I have been curating it together for the last seven years. Each year we have six to eight readings, depending on budgets and scheduling. Usually, Experiments & Disorders is the second or third Tuesday of the month. Tom and I are committed to new work—we always find some writers through submissions, and we often like to pair a less experienced writer with a more experienced writer, though that doesn’t always happen. We love to pair works across genres, so that in one evening we might have fiction read by the author and a performance text read by actors, or a poet and an essayist.

I moved to New York in 1989 and I was terrified of Dixon Place, but I’d heard about it. It was in a loft on the Bowery and real artists did crazy art there. As a white Catholic girl from a working class family in Buffalo, I was too scared to go to Dixon Place! Ellie Covan started Dixon out of her apartment and now, thirty-one years later, it’s a gorgeous downstairs theatre fully accessible with an upstairs lounge and bar. At Dixon, I saw the hilarious Reno, lots of dance, Tom Murrin, and experienced the workshops of Taylor Mac. I think it’s kind of funny that I wound up as a curator at Dixon Place. 

It’s a home for experiments. I love all of the new work! Last month, we had Heidi Julavits and Leslie Jamison, and they both read work that they’d never read before. It was such an intimate gift.

Our upcoming events include Alex Borinsky and Marisa Crawford on April 18, Jenny Offill and Hafizah Geter on May 16, and Mary Gaitskill will be reading on July 18.

We are so grateful for the Poets & Writers grants that help support the writers that read at Dixon Place. This support means our writers get more money, and hopefully more respect, which we hope all leads to even more time to write.

I am healed by our poets and writers. That hour in the near dark at a reading, surrounded by language and humans, saves me and gives me hope.

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.

Photos: (top) Christen Clifford (Credit: Christen Clifford). (middle) Candace Williams (Credit: Christen Clifford). (bottom) Celeste Finn and Buzz Slutzky (Credit: Christen Clifford).

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).

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