Readings & Workshops Blog

Carrying Literary Torches in Communities of Color

Author Charlie Vázquez is the director of the Bronx Writers Center at Bronx Council on the Arts. He is one of the founding members of the Latino Rebels bloggers and writers collective, as well as the New York City Coordinator for Puerto Rico’s Festival de la Palabra, which makes it possible for him to work with prize-winning journalists, novelists, and poets from around the world. You can follow him on his Facebook author page or @CharlieVazquez on Twitter.

Last week, I had the very unique fortune of being invited to read with Nuyorican pioneers Sandra María Esteves, Americo Casiano, and Gloria Fontánez at the Countee Cullen New York Public Library in September. This was organized by Lorraine Currelley of Poets Network & Exchange, Inc., and was funded by the Poets & Writers Readings & Workshops program. It was an added honor to participate in the resulting Q&A, which gave members of the community in attendance the opportunity to ask us questions regarding our history and methods of creating poetry and fiction.

Each writer had a completely individualized approach to writing and its implicit politics of voice and identity. It was fascinating to listen to my fellow panelists’ processes as a writer who works with scribes across multiple disciplines. Sandra and Americo began in the earliest years of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe movement, and Gloria came into writing out of the pure love of storytelling. I began my writing process far away from home during my years on the West Coast—as a way to connect with my Puerto Rican roots.

I ran a reading series in the East Village (PANIC!) upon my 2006 return to New York City, as a way of networking with other writers, as social media was expanding. I wasn’t able to pay my featured presenters then, but as director of the Bronx Writers Center, I’m now able to compensate my writers. It has made a massive difference. The Bronx Writers Center is dedicated to fostering literary culture in the Bronx and administers the Bronx WritersCorps program, which mentors at-risk youth living in shelters in some of the nation’s poorest neighborhoods.

Those of us who take writing seriously know it’s hard work, and although I continue to make myself available for free when youth and teen mentoring is involved, it’s wonderful to get paid for something you spend years of your life trying to perfect.

Photo:  Charlie Vázquez. Photo Credit: Rebecca Beard

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

Brave Steps at Los Angeles Poet Society’s Intergenerational Poetry Academy

Readings & Workshops intern JoAnna Schindler blogs about her experience attending the P&W–supported Los Angeles Poet Society (LAPS) Summer Poetry Academy taught by poet and musician Juan Cardenas at Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural and Bookstore. LAPS was founded in 2009 by poet Jessica Wilson Cardenas to fuse the diverse communities of poets, writers, booksellers, and publishers of Los Angeles County into a unified social and literary network.

Juan Cardenas, Jessica Wilson Cardenas, Bee Spaethe

Tucked into an ordinary strip mall in Sylmar, California, cohabitating with a Fresh & Easy and a Denny’s, is one of the Angeleno literary community’s most prized gems: Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural and Bookstore. Founded in 2001 by current Los Angeles poet laureate Luis J. Rodriguez and his wife Maria Trinidad Rodriguez, Tia Chucha’s is a cultural arts center and bookstore that hosts workshops, classes, and events in literature, visual art, music, and dance to unify and empower the community.

This small but vital space is where P&W–supported instructor Juan Cardenas of the Los Angeles Poet Society (LAPS) and cofacilitator Jessica Wilson Cardenas immersed an intergenerational group of teens and adults in the session’s theme: ekphrastic poetry—poetry written in response to another piece of art.

I identify as a fiction writer, but my poetry rarely reaches an audience, let alone the page! With their unmistakable enthusiasm for everyone’s ideas and work, regardless of experience level, Juan and Jessica created a safe space for me and the other workshop participants to take some of our first steps into writing poetry.

We wrote down words, phrases, and images that intrigued us from a poem by Catherine Wagner, which included things like polar bears floating, red race cars, and lemon highlights. After sharing our notes, which to my surprise, varied a great deal from person to person, we wrote poems. Though inspired by the same work of art, our poems were diverse and distinct, ranging from descriptive to introspective, and formal to prosaic.

Juan Cardenas and student

After easing us into ekphrastic poetry with the first exercise, Juan asked us to write two more poems: one inspired by the mural “Healing Through the Arts” on Tia Chucha’s exterior, and another influenced by the live guitar playing of guest artist Nelson Alburquenque. Juan encouraged us to write anything that came to us, as long as it was an elaboration or response to the original piece of art.

Again, each of us unearthed from these same pieces of art vastly different stories and epiphanies: where I saw the haze of a Los Angeles sunset, Malayna, one of the adult participants, saw the clear blue skies of a rural spring; where I heard the echoes of a car stereo, my P&W colleague, Jamie, heard the cry of a hawk.

The LAPS workshop celebrated the cultivation of individual voice and vision. As we studied other artworks, the emphasis was not on what they were supposed to mean, but what we saw, heard, and felt. This was an especially refreshing change for me. Currently, I study literature at UCLA, where we are more often asked to unveil a work’s historical, social, and political significance, rather than reflect on our personal experience of the piece.

As for writing poetry, this intergenerational workshop reminded me that in order to participate in any art form, whether or not it is one’s chosen medium, we must first give ourselves the chance to—without restraint, without judgment. That is the first brave step.

Photo 1 (left to right): Workshop leaders Juan Cardenas and Jessica Wilson Cardenas hold up copies of Poets & Writers Magazine donated for the event, with P&W program associate Bee Spaethe. Photo 2: P&W-supported workshop leader Juan Cardenas with a teen student. Credit: Jamie FitzGerald.

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

WordsWest Brings Literature to West Seattle

WordsWest Literary Series’ cocurators include poets Katy E. Ellis and Susan Rich, and novelist Harold Taw. All three live in West Seattle and came together over their parched need for a reading series in their community. Katy E. Ellis is the author of two chapbooks Urban Animal Expeditions (Dancing Girl Press, 2013) and Gravity (Yellow Flag Press, 2015). Her poetry appears in a number of literary journals and anthologies including Literary Mama, Redheaded Stepchild, MAYDAY Magazine, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Till the Tide: Mermaid Poetry, and the Canadian journals PRISM International, Grain, and Fiddlehead. Susan Rich is the author of four collections of poems including Cloud Pharmacy (White Pine Press, 2014); The Alchemist’s Kitchen (White Pine Press, 2010), a finalist for the Washington State Book Award; Cures Include Travel (White Pine Press, 2006); and The Cartographer’s Tongue (White Pine Press, 2000), winner of the PEN USA Award. Harold Taw’s debut novel, Adventures of the Karaoke King, was published by Lake Union Publishing in 2011. His writing has been featured on NPR, in a New York Times bestselling anthology, and in the Seattle Times. Harold is currently writing a novel about a turbulent adolescence in Southeast Asia and collaborating on a musical adaption of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

WordsWest StaffWhat makes your organization’s series and its program unique?
West Seattle is geographically isolated from the rest of Seattle’s literary venues. WordsWest Literary Series is unique in that it fills the gap in what has been a literary series desert.

Each WordsWest event is what we call a “living anthology” or “braided reading” where our two featured readers read in short bursts, taking up to three different stands at the mic. This gives the reading a collaborative rather than competitive feeling and leads to lots of surprising connections in the work read aloud. We get to see the authors interacting on stage in a never-to-be-repeated moment.

The WordsWest Literary Series also features West Seattle's Favorite Poem Project, wherein people from local, independent businesses or organizations join each event by reciting a favorite poem and telling us why it’s a favorite.

What recent project and/or program have you been especially proud of and why?
As a whole, WordsWest is something we are super proud of creating in our community so it’s difficult to choose a single pride invoking event, however, our “Kids’ Night” stands out as being both unique and inspiring. Our readers included Sundee Frazier, award-winning novelist of books for young people, along with MacArthur fellow and National Book Award recipient Dr. Charles Johnson and his daughter Elisheba Johnson, reading from their coauthored and illustrated tween novel. It was a packed house with people of all ages and backgrounds. Our local librarian read her favorite poem (“Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll) and promoted summer reading. Maybe it was the fun, sugary snacks, but everyone seemed energized by all the great stories and poems!

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
We’ve had ten events over the course of this past year and the three of us curators still remember a moment during the first event in September 2014, when our first reader took to the stage and we looked at each other, looked around at the crowded coffee shop, and then nodded our heads and smiled, all thinking, “Wow, we really did it!”

Our readers have all been incredible and unique, but one of the highlights of each event is our West Seattle’s Favorite Poem segment. One night we had a local business owner confess how hard it was to find a poem to read for the event. When she mentioned it to her sixteen-year-old son, she was surprised to learn he had a favorite poem at the tip of his tongue! Both mother and son shared their poems on stage that night. (Hers was "The cat's song" by Marge Piercy, and his was "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley.)

How do you find and invite readers?
It’s not a mandate for our series but we do try to select one reader from West Seattle. We are surrounded by incredible writers in our own neighborhood, for example, our state’s poet laureate Elizabeth Austen and award-winning nonfiction writer Lyanda Lynn Haupt. Once we reach out to a reader, we encourage that reader to then invite an author they admire and with whom they’d like to read. Again, we want authors to interact on stage and weave their work together. If they are friends or if they have wanted to meet for a long time, it makes for a meaningful unfolding collaboration.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
West Seattle, along with all of the Puget Sound region, continues to grow in leaps and bounds with more commercial chain stores, expensive and dense housing, which means, of course, more people. In booming cities, literary programs can be a grounding force. By establishing a solid, homegrown literary reading series right in our neighborhood, we hope to help shape (and retain) the heart of West Seattle as it expands. Having access to thought provoking, truly inspiring written and spoken live literature not only brings a community together, but it also lingers in daily life and gives us new ideas and more understanding of the world around us.

Photo (left to right): Katy E. Ellis, Harold Taw, Susan Rich    Credit: Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

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

By Poets, for the Community: An Open Moment

Margarita Cuevas-Cruz is the lead project director of Open Moments NYC, an organization based on the creed "by poets, for the community,” which aims to inspire change in the world while enhancing human potential. She holds a BA in Sociology/Anthropology with a minor in History from Utica College. She uses poetry as a tool to promote activism in worldly issues, the youth, and issues of violence and inequality. Cuevas-Cruz has appeared at numerous high schools as a keynote speaker with the YWCA in the Mohawk Valley, was published in their April 2012 newsletter, and wrote an editorial piece about surviving child abuse in the Utica Observer Dispatch. She has been published in the Sunday Writing Circle's No Apologies anthology and has performed for Latinosnyc at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Word at 4F, Sneakers and Ale's the DoJo, the Poet's Settlement, and the National Black Theatre with the Full Circle Ensemble.

Open Moments NYC is a grassroots organization that provides a way of expression for all ages through writing, leadership, open mics, and interactive workshops. Open Moments (OM) had its humble beginnings in the 1980s, created by Simon Cruz and Francisca Cuevas. The poetry readings took place at City College, where Simon Cruz attended, and at Barnard College, Francisca Cuevas's alma mater. This is important to the inception of Open Moments NYC, because as Francisca's younger sister, I was given the name of the organization as a token of trust and appreciation for my own work as a poet.

In 2008, I had the luxury of meeting other student poets, Keron Alleyne, Samuel Maldonado, Jamila Cain, and Tiffany Williams, who were starting a poetry group. They agreed that Open Moments was a perfect fit to what they believed the poetry group should be on the campus of Utica College in Utica, New York.  

Now in New York City, Open Moments is growing and taking a "nomadic" approach as we go where they need us. Along with Rashawna Wilson, Keron-Alleyne, Samuel Maldonad, Jasmine Cordew, and many others, we work tirelessly to create a safe space for the arts and social justice. We offer teen workshops, workshops with featured facilitators, and thought-provoking events like "Guess Who's Coming to Brunch?,” “Anti-Colonizer Day: Reclaiming Our History,” and “Cadence of Hair." We serve as mentors, workshop facilitators, and performers with the hope of enhancing human potential.

Open Moments NYC, has recently begun receiving grants from Poets & Writers, which has been a huge help for our organization. It helps us to get the best poets and workshop facilitators at events like “Anti-Colonizer Day: Reclaiming Our History,” which is being presented in collaboration with ELKAT Productions, and our monthly writing workshop called the Traveling Pen Series. This series was established for writers who want the time to write at a workshop, but do not have the time to commit to attending every week. Every month, we choose a facilitator and provide donation-based workshops to the community at Project Brownstone, Inc. in Harlem. As the organization continues to thrive, we want to utilize this resource provided by Poets & Writers to live up to our mission of giving back to the community as poets.

“By poets, for the community” is our slogan, because regardless of the topic, we infuse the art of spoken word and writing in order to allow our participants at workshops, and our audiences at open mics, to leave with something to think about.

You can read more about us on our website or e-mail us at openmomentsnyc@gmail.com.

Photo: (top) Margarita Cuevas-Cruz. Photo Credit: Leticia Torres

Workshop Poster (bottom). Design Credit: Rashawna Wilson

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

Talkin' About the Lunar Walk Reading Series

This blog features a conversation between Gerry LaFemina and Lynn McGee, cocurators of the Lunar Walk Poetry Series, hosted at Branded Saloon in Brooklyn, New York. McGee won the Bright Hill Press chapbook contest for her manuscript Heirloom Bulldog, published in 2015. Her full-length manuscript, Sober Cooking, is forthcoming from Spuyten Duyvil Press in 2016. Her previous chapbook, Bonanza (Slapering Hol Press, 1997), won the Hudson Valley Writers Center/Slapering Hol Press manuscript contest. McGee is a lead staff writer for the Borough of Manhattan Community College of the City University of New York, and has worked in literacy and taught freshman writing at many private and public colleges including George Washington University, Brooklyn College/CUNY and Columbia University, where she earned an MFA in Poetry. LaFemina is Director of the Frostburg Center for Literary Arts at Frostburg State University, where he is an Associate Professor of English. His poetry collections include Vanishing Horizon (Anhinga Press, 2011), which is soon to be rereleased, Little Heretic (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2014), Notes for the Novice Ventriloquest (Mayapple Press, 2013), Steampunk (Small Books, 2012), and The Parakeets of Brooklyn (Bordighera Press, 2005), which won the 2003 Bordighera Prize. Recently LaFemina published a collection of essays, Palpable Magic: Essays and Readings on Poets and Prosody (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2015) as well as a novel, Clamor (Codorus Press, 2013), and edited the anthology Token Entry: New York City Subway Poems (Smalls Books/Red Lashes Productions, 2012).

LaFemina: Lynn and I have known each other for some eight years, and we've been talking about poetry for the entirety of that time. We have both been to countless readings—many of them good and many of them less good. After the Token Entry anthology came out, and we both attended readings for that book, we started to discuss running a reading series together, one that would be a little different from some of the other series in New York. Part of it would be an attempt to limit the open mic parts of the reading; the other would be to work with our writer friends to pair local New York poets with poets from out of town.

At the time I was splitting my living time between Maryland and New York. Now that I live in Maryland full time, I come in to Brooklyn to cocurate the series with Lynn but, because of my mileage hopping, she has to do much of the legwork. When the original home for the series, the Two Moon Café, closed, it was Lynn who found our new home at the Branded Saloon.

McGee: Gerry is being generous; he does plenty of legwork himself! I think things got a lot easier for both of us when Poets & Writers started the online funding application, which is a snap to fill out. Many of the writers we’ve featured have gotten a $50 honorarium, and it feels great to be able to support them and their work in that way. We also put aside our 10% of the door take, so we can provide a cash honorarium on the months we’re not funded.

I think the best part for me of being involved in the series (besides having a mojito with Gerry before the reading!) is hearing poets whose work is new to me and who cause some creaky door in my own writing to open. Like Gerry said, we feature writers from around the country, with poets we know in the area. Many of our featured readers come back and read one poem in the open mic, and there’s a lot of book trading and talking before and after the events.

To throw in a few facts: The Lunar Walk Poetry Series opened in September 2012, and so far, we’ve featured over fifty writers.

Gerry and I have read once ourselves in the series, and it’s been an honor to introduce to our audience (as of October 2015): Amy Holman, Dean Kostos, Hilary Sideris, Richard Levine, Robin Messing, Cornelius Eady, (who later appeared with guitarist Charlie Wauh and poet Robin Messing on vocals), Jean Monahan, Bertha Rogers, Dennis Nurkse, Jan Beatty, Del Marbrook, Mervyn Taylor, Susana Case, Joel Allegretti, Moira Egan, Nance Van Winckel, April Lindner, Ravi Shankar, Phil Terman, Christine Timm, Patricia Spears Jones, Bill Mohr, George Guida, Ann Lauinger, Michael Salcman, Maria Terrone, Elaine Sexton, Michael Klein, Ned Balbo, Jane Satterfield, BJ Ward, Catie Rosemurgy, Jeffery McDaniel, Laura McCullough, Doug Goetsch, Judith Baumel, Willie Perdomo, Austin Alexis, Michele Somerville, Aaron Smith, Natalie Diaz, Ilyse Kusnetz, Brian Turner, Timothy Liu, Nick Samaras, Claudia Serea, Andrey Gritsman, Elizabeth Haukaas, Alice Friman, Stephen Massimilla, Elizabeth Cohen, Margo Taft Stever, Michael T. Young, Gil Fagiani, Maria Lisella, Pamela Davis, Joseph Fasano, Michael Broek, and Suzanne Parker.

If you want to be on our mailing list, drop us a line at lunarwalkpoetryseries@gmail.com.

Photos: (top) Gerry LaFemina, (middle) Lynn Mcgee. (bottom) Audience at Cornelius Eady and Jean Monahan Lunar Walk Reading.  Photo Credit: Lynn McGee and Gerry LaFemina

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

Luchador Manifestos: Reflections on 826LA Summer Camp 2015

Ashaki M. Jackson is a social psychologist and poet living in Los Angeles who has worked with youth through research, evaluation, and creative arts mentoring for over a decade. Her poetry has appeared in Eleven Eleven, Inch Magazine, and Rkvry Quarterly, among other publications. This year, Jackson was one of the instructors for 826LA's Words, Spoken summer writing workshops for teens, which Poets & Writers has been cosponsoring for the past five years. She blogs about her experience below.

Ashaki Jackson“El Padre de Sunset Boulevard,” I announced, “will you please take the ring?”

El Padre is a high school freshman. I met him and his sister one year prior, during an 826LA summer camp when I was a guest instructor. This year, I was invited to be the core instructor, responsible for introducing students—familiar and new—to another world in creative writing for five consecutive mornings. Our goal: the manifesto.

To begin, I wanted each student to assume a plucky persona to use while writing. This would ease the fear of facing a blank page and sharing drafts with peers. I provided students a die and a numbered list of incredibly ridiculous titles with which they created their luchador (Mexican wrestler) names.

¡El Hurican Incognito!

¡Karate Chop #1!

¡Chicharron de Ramen!

“What is a chicharron de ramen, miss?” one student asked. “Frighteningly delicious,” I replied.

This year, we would all be wrestlers grappling with words and craft. When it was time for students to share their work, I would call their monikers and invite them to the ring (any classroom area where luchadors read their work aloud to peers).

Manifestos require good knowledge of personal values or a passion to advocate for something greater. I selected the manifesto because it offered an activity in pieces and called for action. Each day we worked through key elements—who I am, where I’m from, and what I believe.

On day one, we each jotted down broad statements about ourselves on Post-it notes then stuck them to one classroom wall. I invited small groups to visit the wall, grab a few notes written by their peers that were relevant to their self definitions, then rewrite those statements in their own words and spirits. “I love pizza” became: “My world revolves around that saucy bread.” “I’m from LA” became: “I was born in the middle of palm trees.”

Words, Spoken anthology

On day two, we subverted our origin stories with guidance from Eduardo Galeano’s Genesis (Nation Books, 2010). Students documented where they were from, then fortified their magnificence by including a magical element. Stars were fish scales from an ancient underwater era, and one student lived in a house teetering on a hill of coffee grounds. We pushed through the writing together, carefully, to create personally meaningful statements on who we are and what we want out of life. Similar to the qualities of any decent luchador, the resulting manifestos were colorful, tender, and risky.

Moving through the activity together fostered closeness among the luchadors as they explored themselves in writing. Equally vital for the week’s success was the space in which we worked. 826LA has, for years, provided students an environment wherein they are able to be duly youthful, curious, and safe. It also allowed me the latitude to implement a nontraditional lesson plan that revealed the luchadors’ true, soft faces. As one lithe luchador searching for his rhythm in the class shared: “An amethyst is just as pretty... next to a diamond, but that doesn’t mean people will see it.” We are all better for the grapple.

Photo 1: Ashaki M. Jackson; credit: Ana Ponzo. Photo 2: The Words, Spoken workshop anthology published by 826LA; credit: Jamie FitzGerald.

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.

S. Bryan Medina on the Life of Fresno Poetry and Spoken Word

S. Bryan Medina is a former student of U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera and his poetry has graced stages in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Kansas City. He founded the Inner Ear as a way to free poetry from the confines of academic institutions, making it accessible to all. Medina has been awarded two City of Fresno Commendations, including the 2014 Fresno Arts Council Horizon Award, for contributions to the rich artistic and cultural heritage in Fresno, California. He has been featured as one of the four “Fresno Poets” from writer Nick Belardes’s Distinguished Valley Writers series, and he was an honorable mention for the 2006 Larry Levis Poetry Prize. His work has appeared in journals such as Flies, Cockroaches, and Poets, In the Grove, the San Joaquin Review, Jubilee, and Invisible Memoirs. Medina is a recent graduate of Fresno Pacific University and plans to teach special education.

S. Bryan Medina“Poets here (in Fresno) write killer poems in our unapologetic heat, the exhaust of the traffic, or the dream-inducing tule fog.” —Fresno poet laureate Lee Herrick, author of Gardening Secrets of the Dead (WordTech Editions, 2012)

Central Valley writers seem to revel in Fresno’s bad air and harsh laundry line of obstacles. Its writing history comes from just underneath its rich soil, from the bent backs of field laborers to the city’s war on drugs against the black market methamphetamine trade. The place often found at the top of many “Worst Cities in America” lists now can add to its reputation little to no water, thanks to the drought.

Still, Fresnans continue to find bars and converted backyard stages, open mics and coffee houses, filled with hungry ears eagerly listening for their favorite local poet to say one more thing just before the familiar, “Are y’all ready for the next poet?!” I’m proud to be a part of this scene, now thirteen years strong, keeping spoken word/poetry in the forefront of people’s minds here in the valley by forging and solidifying relationships, such as the one I have with Poets & Writers.

The Inner Ear’s mission is to collaborate with local and national artists utilizing spoken word, art, performance, and music to promote further interest in the arts in Fresno and the Central Valley. The Inner Ear/Beat Down Slam events serve the community by providing a forum for constructive and creative expression in a positive and supportive environment, offering an alternative to violence among Fresno County teens and young adults. The Inner Ear mixes formal poetry aesthetics with rap flair and vitality by taking poetry away from the ivory tower of the universities and moving it to a place where everyone has access. Over the past decade, we have had many participants say that our stage was their first.

This October finds the Inner Ear beginning a yearlong collaboration with the Fresno Grand Opera. Breaking new ground with its first Opera Remix: Music & Verse event, an exciting mix of local spoken word artists and opera musicians will perform together live on the stage of the historic Tower Theater in Fresno’s Tower District. In the months between this and next year’s event, we are excited to get the chance to work with composer Jakes Heggie and Librettist John de los Santos, and share new music by composer Ricky Ian Gordon (Grapes of Wrath) from the Metropolitan Opera in New York!  

On November 12, the Inner Ear celebrates its thirteenth anniversary with a tribute to fellow Fresno poet and former U.S. poet laureate Philip Levine, which will feature poets Corrinne Hales and Lee Herrick with other local writing notables, and music by Benjamin Boone. If you have never experienced in person one of our blowout anniversary events, you're missing what the Fresno scene is all about: fun, exciting, deep, edgy, and funny performances with live music and special guests all happening at the Fresno Art Museum.

To some, poetry is a mystical, invisible power—energizing raw, untamed thoughts put to paper or read aloud in public places. But here in the valley, that slow rhythmic sound you hear is the tactile heart of Fresno’s present, future, and past: the shadow of Philip Levine saying “What Work Is,” the familiar mustache and glasses of Juan Felipe Herrera, the mournful prose of an Andres Montoya poem. Poets here have to write killer poems and produce worthwhile poetry events that are as tangible as the fruit grown here, in the middle of nowhere, where we’re right at home, struggling.

 Photo: S. Bryan Medina     Credit: S. Bryan Medina

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.

Dynamism and Redefinitions: The Asian American Literary Review's A Lettre Fellowship

R. A. Villanueva is the author of Reliquaria (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize. A founding editor of Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art, he currently lives in London, England.

Here in London the rain has paused and the sun, for once, feels keen to crash through the cloud banks which so often crown the city. I think now of two markers, one of geography and the other of time: Washington, D.C. is nearly 3,700 miles and an ocean west of me; and, since September has begun, “Asian American Literature Today” at the Library of Congress took place just over four months ago.

Such resonances are due in large part to the occasion for our gathering and who traveled (from across the U.S. and abroad) to be there. Cathy Linh Che, Eugenia Leigh, Ocean Vuong, and I were awarded The Asian American Literary Review’s inaugural A Lettre Fellowship and devoted the better part of last year each writing with/to established poets, allowing the dynamics of our curiosities, uncertainties, and fascinations drive our correspondences “by letters." Taken as a whole, the experience proved to be as emotional as it was formally innovative. These mentorships and convergences, after all, were happening in the shadow of our debut books and as each of us dealt with tectonic shifts in our lives apart from our writing.

This, by the way, was our methodology: after the AALR paired Cathy with Rick Barot, Eugenia with Julie Enzer, Ocean with Arthur Sze, and me with Ray Hsu, we were free to talk through the spring and fall of 2014. To build "community across literary generations," honesty and idiosyncrasy were encouraged. The exchange between Ocean and Arthur Sze, for instance, feels truly epistolary, with suites of poems and personal stories being traded. My back-and-forth with Ray Hsu seems more associative and roving in comparison, taking the shape of a series of handwritten reflections, Vimeo links and iPhone photos, Post-it Note collages and notebook scans.

Ultimately, the “Asian American Literature Today” event was meant to be the culmination of that project, an enactment of the AALR’s aspiration to represent “a space for all those who consider the designation 'Asian American' a fruitful starting point for artistic vision and community.”

Editor and Smithsonian APA Center Initiative coordinator Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis brought that vision to life in remarkable ways. He invited partnerships with the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center, the University of Maryland Asian American Studies Program, and opened the room to the greater public. This event was also funded by the Readings & Workshops Program at Poets & Writers.

The result was a powerful crossing of voices and a widening of perspectives. Before our reading, we circled up chairs to host an informal conversation about the editorial process, distinctions between writing and publishing, academia and art. We discussed how Cathy, Eugenia, Ocean, and I arrived at this moment together as friends and as peers; we discussed how organizations such as Kundiman, Cave Canem, CantoMundo, VONA, and Poets & Writers support the development of work aware of—and activated by—a very real world beyond our poems.

Ai Weiwei asserts that “[t]he intention to separate art from politics is itself a very political intention.” When it finally came time to move to the lectern and later, to respond to questions about connections with other communities, other struggles, we hoped to trouble such separations. In sharing selections by African American writers along with our own poems and in affirming the work of #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, “Asian American Literature Today” embodied a heart-fraught awareness of these markers—one of geography and again, one of time: Baltimore is only forty miles north of Washington, D.C., and when we read on May 4 in the wake of protests for Freddie Gray, Jr. while a state of emergency remained in effect and the National Guard was still in the process of drawing down.

Which is to say, perhaps what makes contemporary Asian American literature so vital is its refusal to ignore history, to stay quiet, or to pledge allegiance to outworn expectations.

Photo: (top) R. A. Villaneuva. (bottom) Lawrence- Minh Bui Davis, Eugenia Leigh, Cathy Che, R. A. Villaneuva, Ocean Vuong. 

Photo Credit: A'Lelia Bundles.

Support for Readings & Workshops in Washington, D.C. 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.

Poets for Cultural Exchange: El Habib Louai in New Orleans

Louisiana poet Dennis Formento lives in Slidell, Bayou Bonfouca watershed, with his wife Patricia Hart, an artist and yogini. He has been published in the Lummox Poetry Anthology (Lummox Press, 2014), the Maple Leaf Rag V (Portals Press, 2014), and on the blog Water, Water Everywhere. Formento’s latest book is Cineplex (Paper Press, 2014). He teaches English at Delgado Community College and is New Orleans’s coordinator for 100 Thousand Poets for Change, a worldwide movement for peace and sustainability.

Poet and translator El Habib Louai, a resident of Agadir, Morocco, performed with a killer band of free jazz all-stars in a show produced by Surregional Press of Slidell, Louisiana. Poets & Writers partially funded the performance, which took place on July 31 at the Zeitgeist Theater in New Orleans.

While emigration proceedings in Canada prevented one member of Louai’s Neo-Beat Amazigh Band from arriving in New Orleans, and another member remained in New York City, Louai played on. He was backed by Ray Moore (saxes and flute), Jeb Stuart (acoustic bass), Will Thompson (keyboards), and Dave Cappello (drums). Louai also read from his book Mrs. Jones Will Now Know: Poems of a Desperate Rebel (Paper Press, 2015).

About fifty-five people attended at Zeitgeist Multidisciplinary Art Center on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in the Central City neighborhood. Central City is downtown, and O. C. Haley was the main stem of African American business in town decades ago, before much business was diverted to the Canal Street district. Zeitgeist, its neighboring art center, the Ashé Center, and the now shuttered Neighborhood Gallery, came to O. C. Haley in the early aughts, spearheading a revitalization of the area.

Louai captured a diverse audience: Arab students from the University of New Orleans, African American and white scholars, and poets from various scenes around town. A “welcoming committee” of local writers began the session with poems of their own: Valentine Pierce, Scott Nicholson (backed by Will Thompson), Andrea Young and husband, Khaled Hegazzi—whose contribution was a handful of translations of contemporary Egyptian poets—and Jessica Mashael Bordelon. I joined in, reading a portion of Allen Ginsberg’s “America” before Louai’s translation into Arabic of that famed satire.

Andrea Young said she was gratified that poetry in Arabic and English had finally found a crossroads in the Crescent City. She and her husband publish a magazine called Meena, from their homes in New Orleans and Alexandria, Egypt.

The performance not only brought to the city Louai’s translations from the New American poetry and Beat traditions, but also helped open cultural dialogue and exchange. It’s been hard to find Arab poets and literati in New Orleans, despite the fact that it is home to thousands of Arabs, some of whom have had family here for decades.

Louai visited a number of poetry venues in the two weeks that he spent at my house in Slidell: the Tekrema Center for Art and Culture in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans; the famed Maple Leaf Bar Everette Maddox Memorial Reading; and a meeting of the St. Tammany Parish group, 100 Thousand Poets for Change: Northshore. He went on radio: Rudy Mills’s Gumbo Tapado Show on WBOK-AM and WWOZ-FM’s “World Journey” program with Suzanne Corley. On August 1, Louai performed at Fair Grinds Coffee House, accompanied on djembe, tambourine, and castanets by poet/percussionist Gamma Flowers and myself. Finally, he played a house concert at my place with backing by Jeb Stuart on bass—a first in Slidell.  

Photo (top): Louai, Moore, and Cappello. Photo Credit: El Habib Louai.

Photo (bottom): Louai and band. Photo Credit: El Habib Louai.

Support for Readings & Workshops events in New Orleans, Lousiana 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.

From the Big City to the Boys Ranch: Coe Booth Visits the Bay

Joe Young is the librarian for the Frandsen Library at the Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall and the Lesher Library at the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility, both in California's East Bay region. The Frandsen and Lesher libraries opened their doors in November of 2006, with the mission to promote a love of literature and reading, support educational curriculum, and encourage the development of a lifelong habit of self-directed learning. Young furthers this mission by working to bring a wide variety of authors, artists, and speakers to visit the young men and women his libraries serve. This post is a report on one such P&W-supported event—a visit to the Lesher Library at the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility from Coe Booth. Booth is the author of Tyrell (Push, 2007), which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Best Young Adult Novel and was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults and a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age.

Joe YouungIt was an unseasonably hot May morning in the San Francisco Bay when I pulled up to the Berkeley address where author Coe Booth was staying. Sweat dripped down my forehead and into my eyes as I anxiously knocked on the door. I was nervous!

In my world, Coe Booth is a big deal. Her books Tyrell (Push, 2007), Bronxwood (Push, 2013), Kendra (Push, 2010), and Kinda Like Brothers (Scholastic Press, 2014) fall into the sweet spot of urban fiction for young adults that is exciting, authentic, and has a positive message. Her books also happen to be some of the most consistently popular titles in my libraries.

Coe greeted me with a warm smile. After a quick introduction we loaded into my car and embarked on the hour-long commute to the Byron Boys Ranch.

Established in 1960 on the site of a converted cattle ranch in Byron, California, the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility (colloquially known as the Byron Boys Ranch) is a minimum security treatment center for adolescent delinquent youngsters, and the home of the Lesher Library. After a brief introduction and orientation from the probation staff, the sixty-three young men residing at the Boys Ranch were gathered and assembled in the dusty gym. Then, Coe took the stage and addressed the young men. 

She read and spoke eloquently, honestly, earnestly, with passion and poise. She spoke about being an author and a woman and an African-American. She spoke about where her stories come from, how her characters are born, what parts of herself she puts into her stories, and what she hopes to communicate to the reader. The young men sat and listened, some seemingly indifferent, some in eager, rapt attention.

After talking for the better part of an hour, Coe asked if anybody in the audience had questions. At first the young men were hesitant, but after a bit of coaxing the questions gleefully poured forth: "Are you famous?" "Where do you live?" "How do you come up with characters’ names?" "Are you rich?" "Why did you want to be a writer?" "Do you feel proud of the books you wrote?" "How can I get a book published?" "Could we write a book together?" Coe made sure to answer every question, connecting with each young man who reached out to her.

Coe BoothCoe spent just over two hours with the young men. As we drove back to Berkeley through the shimmering, midday heat, my car’s air conditioning sadly failing us once again, I was struck by how she was both down-to-earth and larger-than-life.

This woman—who I had talked with so comfortably during our car ride, sharing our small, personal thoughts and concerns—was transformed in front of my eyes during those two hours. She stood in front of that group of young men, who were a unique combination of worldly sophistication and childish naivety, and gave freely of herself. She gave them honesty and compassion. She held herself up as a role model—imperfections and all—and told them: "What I have done, you can do." She believed in them and believed in their ability to change and improve, and become the people they want to become. And, even if just for those two hours, the boys believed, too.

Photos: (top) Joe Young. (bottom) Author Coe Booth addressing boys at the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility. Credit: Amy Bowen, Joe Young.

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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