Readings & Workshops Blog

Carolyn Joyner and Intrinsic Ardor

A Washington, D.C. poet, Carolyn Joyner has been featured in many publications and anthologies including Obsidian, Amistad, and Beltway Quarterly poetry magazines, Gathering Ground, Beyond the Frontier, Mass Ave Review, and the 2004-2005 Cave Canem annual collections. She is a former WritersCorps and River of Words Project instructor, and was a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Cave Canem. In 2010, she cohosted Poet’s Corner, a program on local D.C. radio station, WPFW, and in 2003 and 2013, she received an Artist Fellowship grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Joyner has a Master of Arts degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University.

“They strutted like peacocks,” she said.

Upon completion of writing poems in a workshop for displaced women, a colleague likened the pride swelling from their chests to the swagger of the glorious peafowl. I was studying to be a poet at the time, and was immediately smitten by her comparison. It not only seemed to flesh out the emotion of the women’s newfound self-respect, but awoke in me the warmth and delight she felt about it. How great to limber up the imagination enough to stir lyrical life into those who didn’t know it was there. I vowed right then that I would do my best to achieve this impact when it was my turn to lead a workshop, and when I attended one, I would expect nothing less. This was a tall order for a newcomer, and the challenge persists to this day.

When I was first invited to conduct a Saturday workshop for the CentroNía community in Washington, D.C., which is funded through the Readings & Workshops program at Poets & Writers, I was asked to identify my implementation strategy. Would the focus be on the use of visual and sensory imagery? Would it be theme-based? Understanding that this would be the least of my concerns, I settled on a “generative” workshop—one designed to generate poems.

The poetry workshops at CentroNía have always been exciting and unique. I lived in the community and had attended many. The participants are very eclectic and representative of the intergenerational, varied ethnicities and cultures of the community, writers who range from the experienced to those just trying their hand. And this was the challenge—to tailor a workshop that would address the literary needs of such a diverse group and have them leave “strutting like peacocks.”

Workshop preparation took me well beyond the usual outline of discussion and accompanying exercises. I threw myself into my own thoughts, sensations, and feelings about poetry, and moved away from placing too much importance on the distinct characteristics of the target group. I thought of the workshops I had attended where my “imagination machine” was awakened, censors were turned off, I trusted my inner guide’s prompt, and wrote with ease and patience. This is what I wanted for the participants, and I set about constructing ways to ignite the “intrinsic ardor” that Phillis Wheatley referenced in her poem, “To the University of Cambridge, in New-England.” I’m always encouraged and amazed when reminded that she understood, at such a young age, that we carry the will to become poets despite the obstacles around us. 

My literary desires and expectations include many of the same things as the workshop participants: to stretch the mind, feel free to go off on a writing tangent, be irrational, and embrace the “intrinsic ardor” of our calling. I began to realize how essential the repeated exposure to poetry is through community workshops, for the participants, as well as for those who lead them. We read and discussed the works of a wide spectrum of poets—from Wallace Stevens to Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou to Emily Dickinson, Genny Lim to E. E. Cummings—and we let poetry “dance carefully in our minds.”

The work that Poets & Writers is doing for so many cities is nothing short of revolutionary. The philosophy embodies the belief that once a mind expands, it resists contraction, and therefore, narrow-mindedness.  As a writer, I have become more pliant, my writing is more imaginative, and my ability to blend abstract and concrete elements has greatly improved.

I had no idea whether those in attendance would accept the dare to recreate themselves and write poems that would make them “strut like peacocks,” but most gave it their all, and left happily with an awesome starter poem in hand. I didn’t wait to see their swagger, I had my own.

Photo (top): Carolyn Joyner.  Photo Credit: Mignonette Dooley. 

Photo (bottom): Carolyn Joyner reading. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Bruce

Support for Readings & Workshops events 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.


A Room of One’s Own, Shared

Kara Krauze founded Voices From War in 2013 and teaches literature and writing in the workshop for veterans, along with writer Nathan Bradley Bethea, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. Krauze has worked in publishing, the mental health field, and community organizing. A writer of fiction and creative nonfiction, her work has been published in Quarterly WestCenter: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Highbrow Magazine, the Daily BeastHypothetical Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Krauze holds a BA from Vassar College in International Studies and a MA in Literary Cultures from New York University. Voices From War offers writing workshops for veterans and related literary programming.

I’ve been thinking of Virginia Woolf and her “moments of being,” the captured experiences and memories that press up, suddenly intense and vivid, and the “room of one’s own” she argued for as a necessary space to write (and of course there is her call for an income to make it possible—five hundred pounds, was it?). Mostly, I have thought of this space as literal. In New York City, perhaps not a whole room in our cramped living quarters, but at least a corner. Right now I’m thinking of the room where the Voices From War workshop meets, not in an apartment, not tucked away, but in a community center at the 14th Street Y in New York City. Instead of an empty room for solitude, the physical space is populated. Around the table are veterans from multiple generations, mostly men, a woman or two. Mark the participants’ ages and then the decades, and we can unpeel eras of war: Iraq and Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea. A lot of unknowns within a wide array of experiences, even among those with commonalities. But the space is shared and everyone has stories, some of which they will write about.

This has become more important to me than I expected, more important than I can even understand. These writers and their stories are the tiles in the mosaic of our history. Stories not yet written, stories (factual or fiction) not fully formed until they arrive from their authors on paper, later edited, shared, and revisited.

I’ve never been in an active war zone. I’ve never held a gun—a sentence that falls far short of the stories, absences, and significant details lurking behind its assertion. But when a student writes of wishing to cradle an M-5, I know just what he means. In the middle of that sentence—the words buoying the gun, holding it—I might have been writing about one of my babies, my children.

This is what I mean about the room: Virginia Woolf’s room, the room in our New York City East Village community center, a preschool by day (that a few years ago my own two boys attended) and now where veterans of varied ages and experiences (before, during, and after war) meet with me and my coteacher, Nate. Nate, who was deployed to Afghanistan and was posted in South Korea, is just one thread running quietly through the room—a fifty-year gap between instructor and the workshop participant who served there during his war. The room is a space we’ve made. We remake it each week, pushing away the noise of the outside world. 

Many individuals and key institutions help create that shared room with its white walls and empty space that suddenly fill with people, fill with words. The wonderful supporters at the 14th Street Y who understood and understand why this class matters. All of the participants in the workshop—from our start in season one in fall 2013, to this latest group, both returning and new, as we begin season four.

I am continually amazed, impressed, humbled, and educated by the individuals who have given their service in complex times and places, and who continue to serve in multiple ways. Jacob Siegel, a talented writer and veteran, helped launch seasons one and two. Nathan Bradley Bethea, who was a coteacher in season three, continues to share his insightful analysis and exceptional craft now teaching in season four. Designer eperez gave visual representation to Voices From War by designing our logo. The two smallest members of my family continue to teach me why and why not with their Lego battles on the floor, the toy soldiers on their desk, and in bed with their stories, still shielded from the all too real blood in the world.

A huge thank you to Poets & Writers, an invaluable supporter from our first workshop, for advocating again and again for writers and readers, for veterans, for voices shaping their stories and waiting to be heard. Poets & Writers and the 14th Street Y in Manhattan’s East Village give us the physical room that creates the interior room—a space of community, of voices shared that lift each other up and care for their words. These stories matter.

Photo (top): Kara Krauze, coteacher of Voices From War. Photo Credit: James Burry

Photo (right): Nathan Bradley Bethea, coteacher of Voices From War. Photo Credit: Yoonkyung Lim 

Photo (middle): Voices From War classroom photo. Photo Credit: Nathan Bradley Bethea

Photo (bottom): Group photo from the Voices From War "Literary Showcase" event with Veteran Artist Program.

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, A.K. Starr Charitable Trust and Friends of Poets & Writers.

Poetic Vibes at Hillsides

For six years and counting, Poets & Writers has supported poetry writing workshops at Hillsides, a home and school for foster youth in Pasadena, California. The partnership began when Hillsides school librarian Sherri Ginsberg expressed an interest in holding a creative writing workshop series for students in the library. P&W staff suggested Brendan Constantine, who for three years worked his poetic magic on her students. In 2012, Mike Sonksen stepped into the role of workshop leader, forming a close bond not only with the students, but with Ginsberg as well—so much so, they cowrote this post!

Sherri Ginsberg and Mike SonksenMike Sonksen, also known as Mike the Poet, is a third-generation Los Angeles native acclaimed for his poetry performances, journalism, and as a mentor for teen writers. His books include I Am Alive in Los Angeles (iUniverse, 2006) and Poetics of Location forthcoming from Writ Large Press. His weekly KCET column, L.A. Letters, celebrates literary Los Angeles. Sonksen recently completed an interdisciplinary MA in English and History at California State University Los Angeles and teaches at Southwest College.

Sherri Ginsberg has been a librarian for over thirty years, and has designed libraries and written book reviews. For nearly nine years she has worked at Hillsides, bringing in authors, musicians, magicians, and many others as guest speakers. One of her favorite workshops is poetry with Mike the Poet.

Sonksen: Dating back to September 2012, I have been visiting Hillsides in Pasadena to teach poetry workshops in the library with the teens who attend there. Each week I bring a different poetry exercise. Sherri is always there to offer students an encouraging word or a book recommendation. We have greatly enjoyed working together. The fruits of our collaboration have led to several on-campus readings and the publication of a few chapbook anthologies.

Ginsberg: Mike has been coming to our library for over two years now and has a "poetic" touch with our very challenging students. The kids are always excited to see him and ask for him when he hasn't been around for a few weeks. He appears and they start writing. It always enhances our program since these kids are extremely reluctant, not only to write poetry, but to put any of their thoughts on paper. We are thrilled with this program.

Mike entices the students to write some very cool poetry that we wanted to share. For privacy, the names have been removed from these excerpts: 

Drawing of Mike SonksenIf I was invisible
I would scare people and get into concerts
without being seen by security.

Me against the world
against stress
the strain
Maybe I need to just let go,
to let it flow.

Dogs are great
without hate
never fish without bait
because love is stronger than hate.

My mom tries to hold on to the little kid
but I know she's gonna hurt
the day I tell her I gotta go.

The care she had for me was unconditional.
Her face was so beautiful.
I miss the spark in her eyes that would look into mine
to say how much she loved me.
I feel the hardest
I cry the heaviest
My tears draw blood
and glow brightest
I'm terrified of my past

Sonksen: The Hillsides students write very powerful words, and I am always thrilled after one of our afternoon sessions. What started in the fall of 2012 with a five-week session has evolved into a workshop that we have continued over the last two-and-a-half school years. After we finish each five-week session, I usually come back a few weeks later to start another round. I am thankful for Poets & Writers’ sponsorship of these workshops, and for introducing me to Sherri Ginsberg and Hillsides.

Photo (top): Sherri Ginsberg and Mike Sonksen. Photo (bottom): Student drawing of Mike "the Poet" Sonksen.

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

Tim Kahl and Sacramento Poetry Center

Tim Kahl is the author of Possessing Yourself (CW Books, 2009) and The Century of Travel (CW Books, 2012). His work has been published in the Notre Dame Review, Prairie Schooner, Mad Hatters' Review, Indiana Review, Metazen, Ninth Letter, Sein und Werden Review, the Really System, Konundrum Engine Literary Magazine, the Journal, the Volta, Parthenon West Review, and Caliban, among others. He appears as Victor Schnickelfritz at the poetry and poetics blog the Great American Pinup and the poetry video blog Linebreak Studios. Kahl is editor of Bald Trickster Press and Clade Song, and the vice president and events coordinator of the Sacramento Poetry Center. He has a public installation of his poetry in Sacramento, California called In Scarcity We Bare The Teeth. He currently houses his father's literary estate—one volume: Robert Gerstmann's book of photos of Chile, 1932.

Tim Kahl

What makes your organization and its programs unique?
The Sacramento Poetry Center is a community-based literary arts organization that has been in place for over thirty years. We provide Monday night readings on a weekly basis as well as specialized readings that are organized on a come-as-they-may basis (as we have for Sacramento’s Beer Week, or the poetry/jazz/visual arts reading at the Sacramento Fine Arts Center, or for UC Davis’s MIND Institute to support autism research). We also organize a number of outreach programs for youth literacy and guidance and counseling for youth. One night a week there is a workshop sponsored by the center geared towards making line edits. There are other privately-led workshop groups that use our space during weekday evenings.

The thing that makes Sacramento Poetry Center unique is that it provides readings with a different host every week so that the range of work varies significantly from week to week. For this reason, we are pretty much free of any ideological or aesthetic biases. As long as you have an inkling for how to read and perform your work, you will be considered for a feature and can always participate at the open mic that is generally part of the Monday night reading. We maintain our programming free of any educational institutional support, and our events are almost always free.

What recent project and/or program have you been especially proud of and why?
A special event that Sacramento Poetry Center sponsored was the West Coast premiere of Stephen Dunn’s book Lines of Defense. Over two hundred people packed the spacious entryway at the Sacramento County Public Library to hear Dunn and others give a reading.

Our annual conference in mid-April is an all-day affair that features workshops, lectures, and discussions by many prominent academics who come to lead these small group sessions. After the workshops in the morning and early afternoon, lunch is provided, and the main presenters give a combined short reading in the late afternoon. Energy and enthusiasm is always high for this event. It tends to sustain the energy of attendees for weeks.

The Tule Review is our semiannual literary magazine that features writers from across the country and has organized events to feature those readers in Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as Sacramento.

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
There was an evening when Kate Greenstreet came to perform her poems for her book The Last 4 Things. I didn’t realize that she likes to “get in character” for her readings and channel the voice that is speaking in the book. Often for books that are more conceptual, or at the very least not very narrative, I like to ask the author some questions about the overall project of the book—about craft and more—in order to help both writers and non-writers in the audience have a better understanding of the work. As I did this with Kate (unwittingly getting in the way of her channeled character), she started to shoot darts at me with her eyes. I didn’t quite understand why I was off-target with these kinds of questions. Other writers had gladly fielded them before.

After the reading, Kate informed me where she was coming from, and I apologized for my misunderstanding. The next time she came, for her book Young Tambling, I stayed out of the way and was treated to her mysterious manner of creating the live voice behind her work on the page. I was surprised by the different feel to her reading. There was a general feeling of her embroiling the audience in a circumstance of mysterious pronouncement. These were poems on the page in a book, but she had transformed the reading into a piece of theater that had provocatively aligned itself with the audience. The fourth wall had disappeared. I found myself riveted, entranced, and I wondered how that happened, how she did that.

How do you find and invite readers?
All kinds of ways. We are continually receiving solicitations from writers and poets throughout the country who are passing through town (Sacramento is a little over an hour away from San Francisco) or are setting up book tours in general. Also, there are thematic readings that occur from time to time that a host will put together. For these, the host will actively seek readers who might have something to offer for the theme of the night. Sometimes the readings are assembled in line with the release of a local literary magazine or publication. 

How has literary presenting informed your own writing and/or life?
Often I write for the “stage” as much as I do for the page. Even when I do write specifically for the page, I am fully cognizant of how a piece might be read or performed. Works that I have written in the past that weren’t explicitly aware of themselves as spoken artifacts seem dry when I look at them today. As the old poetry adage says: Ya gotta make it sing. Sometimes this means literally as well as figuratively. Put another way, in Ken Babstock’s words, “Poetry is a vocal prosthetic for people who can’t sing.” And for people who can sing? That road is open, too.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
The organization serves as primarily a support group for both experienced and inexperienced writers in the area. It gives both of these groups an opportunity to interact freely without any inhibiting and uncomfortable formal social constraints or power relations getting in the way. It makes the literary arts approachable.

We also provide financial support to other local literary arts organizations. Other literary organizations use our Facebook page to promote their events so that the site becomes something of a local literary billboard.

Sacramento Poetry Center allows poets and writers to pursue their form of literary art in the purest sense without any status-conscious posturing that might occur at some institutions of higher education. It allows for comfort and camaraderie, and it permits artists to venture to extremes without worrying about stepping on any official toes.

Photo: Tim Kahl    Credit: Penny Kline

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

Long Choosing and Beginning Late (Paradise Lost 9.26)

Winner of the 2014 Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award for poetry, Harry Moore is a retired community college English professor. His poems have appeared in Teaching English in the Two-Year College, English Journal, Alabama Literary Review, POEM, the Cape Rock, the South Carolina Review, Avocet, Anglican Theological Review, Main Street Rag, the Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, and other journals. He is the author of two chapbooks, What He Would Call Them, published in September 2013 by Finishing Line Press, and Time’s Fool, published in January 2014 by Mule on a Ferris Wheel Press. Moore serves as an assistant editor of Poem, a literary magazine in Huntsville, Alabama. He lives with his wife, Cassandra, in Decatur, Alabama. 

When Bonnie Rose Marcus from Poets & Writers called in early April last year to say that I had won the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award for poetry, I was at first astonished—then elated—then overwhelmingly grateful. I'm in what Dylan Thomas would call my seventieth year to heaven. I had taught the masters—Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dickinson, Yeats, Eliot—to community college freshmen and sophomores for forty years. Seizing moments from a regimen of lectures, student conferences, committee meetings, and paper grading, I had scribbled fragments into a journal, publishing my first poem in 1991 at age forty-seven. From then until my retirement in 2009, I managed to complete and publish one or two poems a year.

Although retirement and a monthly poetry workshop increased my production—including the publication of two chapbooks—I had no idea I might win the WEX Award. Learning that my voice reached across miles and mountains, across yawning generation gaps, and across gender, social, economic, and ethnic lines affirmed for me the value of two decades of hard work and opened real possibilities for the future.

My week in New York City in October planned and guided by Poets & Writers was, from start to finish, a series of wonders. I experienced the efficiency and warmth of the P&W staff, especially Bonnie Rose Marcus and Lynne Connor. I got to know and appreciate fellow Alabamian and talented fiction winner Bryn Chancellor. I saw Thurber’s drawings preserved on the wall of the New Yorker suite of offices. I gazed over Manhattan from the nineteenth-floor balcony of New Directions, publisher of William Carlos Williams. I listened to literary agent Georges Borchardt describe his odyssey from Berlin to Paris to New York sixty years earlier. My wife and I stayed in the lovely Library Hotel.

I read at McNally Jackson Bookstore, and was introduced by poetry judge and fellow Southerner Evie Shockley. I chatted over lunch with poet Alicia Ostriker; over drinks with Martha Rhodes of Four Way Books; over coffee in the Village with Davidson Garrett, the taxi driver poet; and over dinner in Soho with Pulitzer Prize winner Vijay Seshadri. On the last day, I walked a mile through Central Park among falling sycamore leaves to lunch with benefactor Maureen Egen and others. And all the while I knew that a month of leisure and seclusion at Jentel Artist Residency in Wyoming awaited me in 2015. The week was a joy, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the writing desk.

Although to our modern ears the bouncy optimism of Robert Browning’s "Rabbi Ben Ezra" sounds jingly and hollow—“Grow old along with me! / The best is yet to be”—I like to think the creative impulse and the poetic voice can survive the shocks of advancing age. The WEX Award tells me this is so—that in age no less than in youth, in the words of Emily Dickinson, we “dwell in possibility / A fairer house than prose.”

Photos: Harry Moore (top), Harry Moore and Evie Shockley (middle).   Photo Credit: Margarita Corporan.

This award is generously supported by Maureen Egen, a member of the Poets & Writers Board of Directors, and retired Deputy Chairman and Publisher of Hachette Book Group, USA.

A Moment of Awkwardness With Poet Tung-Hui Hu

Tung-Hui Hu is the author of three books of poetry, including Greenhouses, Lighthouses (Copper Canyon Press, 2013) and a forthcoming book on digital culture, A Prehistory of the Cloud (MIT Press, 2015). He is an assistant professor of English at the University of Michigan and a 2015 NEA fellow in literature.

I have an innate gift for making almost any situation awkward, particularly around writers and other celebrities. This makes me uniquely able to appreciate and receive awkwardness. After reading my poetry, I have sometimes been given tips on how to improve my readings for the future. I have watched excitedly as an audience member approaches me, and then asks for the location of the bathroom. It has not all been bad news, though; I think I have been propositioned a few times, but again—that awkwardness thing—I am not entirely sure.

But maybe awkwardness is another name for doing things differently, being able to walk through a door into a mysterious room where everyone is playing a card game and you don’t know the rules, but it doesn’t matter: you sit down anyway and play. Writers who work with hybrid genres or forms know what I am talking about. As I discovered in a recent P&W-sponsored reading at Wayne State University, younger writers have this sensibility, too.

Let me describe the scene for you: I walk into a Gothic Revival tower in Detroit and get in the classiest elevator I’ve ever seen. It’s noon. Wayne State was traditionally a commuter campus, so their events tend to be in the middle of the day, when more students are around. At a time when the boosters and the mortgage execs are having their power lunches downtown and downstairs, I find a room crowded with aspiring writers: some work in fiction, some nonfiction, but many, I learn, are simply undecided.

The English department has taken over the offices of the former Maccabees insurance companywith all this marble from the 1920s around us, it is enough to make anyone awkward. And yet, I am introduced in the same breath as the next person in the reading series, an actor from the TV show The Wire, which immediately makes the audience brighten up. It puts me at ease, too—for an hour, there’ll be no need to draw a line between serial TV versus poetry, or even fiction versus nonfiction. This is probably why, after I read a prose piece about an abandoned lighthouse, the students don’t bother to ask, “What is it?” Instead they ask: Where is the island, what did you see there, what did you find? Looking out the window, I realize the audience and I have found ourselves another island—this one of our own making, floating ten stories above Midtown Detroit.

Perhaps, in the way that an itch is a lesser version of pain, awkwardness is a smaller and even pleasurable version of discomfort: a signal, perhaps, that reveals something deeper about fitting in just enough, but not entirely. Perhaps this is what happens when you grow up a “model minority,” or when you think too much about what other people want—and you don’t quite give it to them. After years of practice, I still don’t know what awkwardness is, but I do know that poetry readings don’t come naturally to me. We have fun anyway. To R. A. in Mesa, Arizona, whose conversation with me after the reading was so engrossing that I signed and dedicated the book you bought, “For Tung-Hui Hu,” I’m sorry! I’ll buy you another copy.

Photo: Tung-Hui Hu. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Bruch

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Detroit, Michigan 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.

Houston Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Zepeda Explains her Life to Strangers

Houston native and University of Texas Longhorn Gwendolyn Zepeda began her writing career on the web in 1997 as the first Latina blogger. Since that time, Zepeda has published three critically-acclaimed novels through Hachette and four award-winning children’s books, a short story collection, and two volumes of poetry through Arte Publico Press. She is Houston’s first poet laureate. Zepeda blogs about her P&W–supported University of Houston reading this past fall for Arte Publico Press.

Gwendolyn Zepeda

A year and a half into my term as Houston’s first poet laureate, I’d been invited to give plenty of presentations about “being Houston’s first poet laureate.” For a recent reading at the University of Houston’s Honors College, however, the marketing department of Arte Publico Press asked me to put a new spin on it. They suggested I talk about growing up in the Sixth Ward (which was an impoverished area not known for producing novelists or poets), and then explain how I became a writer.

You know how, when figuring out how to explain your life to a stranger, you see your life from new angles? That was what happened to me as I prepared for this reading, several hours before it began. I typed an outline about my relatives who didn’t go to college but constantly read and told stories, the epistolary notes I passed in class, and the coveted bail bond office typewriter on which I typed my first poems. It occurred to me that art was the most exalted thing in my family, whether or not we all realized it.

You know how you worry, before each reading, whether anyone will actually attend? I always think of the Onion headline: "Author Promoting Book Gives It Her All Whether It's Just 3 People Or A Crowd Of 9 People." Happily, this reading was almost full in a room that seated fifty. There was a mix of people: students, professors, elderly alumni, a few of my friends. I was introduced to a dean and a women’s club.

You know how, with some audiences, you have immediate good chemistry? They’re in the mood to listen and there are good acoustics in the room, and you find yourself making eye contact with various faces, and it encourages you to be bold and witty and maybe read the piece you hadn’t planned on? That happened to me at this reading. There was a smiling, nodding young man who seemed to have grown up in a family similar to mine. There was a woman with shining eyes who seemed to be a writer herself. There were twentysomethings in the back who were obviously there for class credit, but who seemed pleasantly surprised. There was the dean, whose eyebrows rose at certain words and egged me on.

Afterwards, I signed books for readers, two of whom said they’d been following my work since I was only a blogger. I posed for photos with people who asked, holding my book so they’d later remember who I was. After that, I walked alongside my Arte Publico Press comrades as they rolled their equipment to the parking lot.

And after that, in my car, I reflected on the reading, my writing career so far, and my life in general. They were good thoughts. I was happy.

Photo: Gwendolyn Zepeda. Credit: Aleksander Micovic.

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Houston 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.

California Desert Activist Ruth Nolan Brings Writing and Heart to the Inland Empire

Former wildland firefighter Ruth Nolan was born in San Bernardino, California and has lived in the neighboring Mojave Desert and Coachella Valley for most of her life since. She is Professor of English and Creative Writing at College of the Desert and is a prolific poet and writer whose work has appeared, and is forthcoming, in the Rattling Wall, Riverside Press Enterprise-Inlandia Literary Journeys, Tin Cannon, and New California Writing (Heyday Books, 2011). She is editor of the critically-acclaimed anthology, No Place for a Puritan: The Literature of California's Deserts (Heyday Books, 2009) and the winner of the Mojave River Review Magazine nonfiction chapbook contest for California Drive. An avid California desert advocate, lecturer, conservationist, and literary scholar, she has taught writing workshops for the Desert Institute at Joshua Tree National Park, the California State University Desert Studies Center, the University of California, Riverside Extension, and the (In) Visible Memoir Project. Nolan earned her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts in the University of California, Riverside Low Residency Program and her MA in English/Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University. She lives in Palm Desert, where she teaches, and writes, and often sneaks away into the desert to hike. She is the proud mother of daughter, Tarah, and overjoyed by new baby grandson, Simon.

Ruth Nolan

What are your reading do’s?
My reading do’s are: Read from the heart and try to remain humble. For me, a reading is a form of ceremony, one that involves audience participation and allows for a sense of group and individual transformation. When I read, I’m sharing stories of places, people, and deep emotions that run as powerfully inside of me as the underground Mojave River in the desert. It’s my responsibility to the audience to evoke that as best I can. If not, I would honestly rather be out hiking in the desert than reading stuff I don’t believe in or wasting my audience’s precious time. I find it imperative to honor my audience, and fellow readers, and to do all that I can during my reading to hold and express the greatest respect for those who have taken the time to come hear me read.

…and your reading don’ts?
My No. 1 rule is don’t be an asshole. Never, ever, ever go more than the time limit you are asked to observe. If anything, less is more. Don’t abuse the audience. Don’t waste their time, or yours.

What’s the strangest comment you’ve received from an audience member?
Being told many times my writing is highly sexy and sexual. After one reading, a man approached me and smarmily told me that he was turned on by me, because when I’d read a certain poem, I’d moved my hips suggestively in perfect, sexy synchronicity with the contents of the sexy poem I was reading.  Ever since then, I’ve always tried to stand behind a podium when I read, and when I can’t, I am self-conscious about my hips, as silly as that sounds. I’ve had other people, men and women, tell me that my writing is very sexy. It’s always a shock to me to hear this because I don’t feel sexy or sexual at all when I’m reading. I feel like the nerdy, glasses-wearing thirteen-year-old I once was in junior high school. In retrospect, I do see that my writing is full of many sexual escapades, in one way or another. It’s just that I don’t personally relate to these experiences. I just write about them, and read about them, and get surprised and embarrassed when someone points it out to me after a reading. To this day, I’m not sure why that is, except that I’m functioning from some kind of writer disconnect. Maybe this disconnect is the reason I write: to connect that indiscernible and slippery gap between consciousness, identity, and experience.

What’s the craziest (or funniest, or most moving, or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve been part of?
Every event is memorable to me, and life-nurturing. However, there have been several funny, memorable, bizarre, and cosmic things that have happened at some of these readings and events over the years that particularly stand out. One moving and memorable experience was the time a homeless man walked into the Inlandia Writing Workshop at the downtown Riverside Library (which I cofounded and taught for five years from 2008-2012) saying he’d just gotten off the city bus and saw a sign for my workshop on the library window. He joined us for that workshop and wrote several amazing poems about his life.

Another memorable time was at the Poetry at the Peaks reading I helped coordinate and host, as part of the International United Nations/NYC Poets for Peace readings series. It was a late winter afternoon and attendance was high. We were in a window-filled room overlooking the San Jacinto Forest, and right as the reading started, snow started to fall outside, filtering beautifully through the mountain cloud-lit canopy, gracing our reading with hope and beauty.

I also recall the Poetry for Peace reading the following year in 2002 at Moorten’s Desert Botanical Gardens in Palm Springs, just as the United States controversially was about to begin bombing Iraq, and vitriolic, patriotic emotions were running high nationwide. I was interviewed by the Palm Springs news media, who goaded me with inflammatory questions about the purpose of our event, obviously trying to depict our event as a disrespectful, unpatriotic event. Our readers blew that out of the water with a powerful, transformational reading that celebrated the magic of healing words and verse.

And, of course, I’ve been lucky to have been part of some amazing readings and workshops that I’ve helped coordinate across the California deserts. In the balm of palm trees at Anza Borrego State Park one January, far out in the Mojave Desert at Death Valley, and bringing a small group of women writers together at Furnace Creek to write and hike on a warm October weekend. Then, there’s the unforgettable memory of Sal y Muerte, the fantastic writing workshop Poets & Writers sponsored on Dia de los Muertos in 2013 at the Salton Sea North Shore State Park. I’ll always be inspired by the fireside poetry reading and performance we held on the shore of the Salton Sea, which included some of my local College of the Desert students, and poets and writers from throughout Southern California and beyond.

How does giving a reading inform your writing and vice versa?
I can feel if I’m hitting the mark in my writing or if I’m full of shit and maybe would be better off hanging up that particular poem or part of a piece and going out for a hike in the Mojave, and then returning to make revisions. If I see or feel the audience shifting in their seats, I know it’s time to roll up my sleeves again. If I see or feel the audience leaning on the edges of their seats, if the room is completely silent, if I feel completely in the zone (as I did when I played my best games during my competitive tennis playing years), then I know I must be doing something right. Giving readings, both for myself at home and in public, is, for me, crucial to hearing my voice. I feel the energy of what I’ve written, feel the connection or disconnection in what I’m trying to do, and feel more connected to my own writing, and to the effect that it is having on any given audience. I feel it’s important to spare the audience. If they’re bored, I don’t feel it’s fair for me to waste their time listening just to be polite. I have an obligation to put on a show, to make their investment in hearing my writing matter to them. It’s vital to respect my audience and communicate with them in this sense.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
The value of literary programs for my community, the California deserts, which encompass twenty-five percent of the state of California geographically, is immeasurable. These programs connect the people in my ‘hood with an essential and much valued community building toolkit, across hundreds of mostly desolate but story rich miles of open spaces and crossroads of present and historical times. Here, literary programs bring people together to share their stories and offer the chance to articulate their experiences and insights with the literary community at large. They help us fill in our arid desert landscapes with the blessing of rain showers of words, bringing us together from far and wide to rejoice and celebrate.

Photo: Ruth Nolan   Credit: Pablo Aguila Photography

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

On Making Belief

Bryn Chancellor was selected as the 2014 Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award for fiction. Her story collection When Are You Coming Home? won the 2014 Prairie Schooner Book Prize and will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2015. Her short fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast, Blackbird, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, Phoebe, and elsewhere, and her current projects include two novels. She has received a Literary Arts Fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts, a fellowship and a project grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and scholarships from the Bread Loaf Conference and Sewanee Writers’ Conference. A graduate of Vanderbilt University’s MFA program in fiction, she lives in Montevallo, Alabama, where she is an assistant professor at the University of Montevallo. A native of California who was raised in Arizona, Chancellor is married to artist Timothy Winkler.

The official WEX award letter from Poets & Writers arrived two weeks before I could tell anyone. For two weeks, I carried the letter, folded in quarters, in an inner zipped pocket of my purse, safe from rogue paper shredders or spontaneous toaster fires. I would take it out from the pocket in the mornings, as the Alabama sun snuck through the blinds, and I’d run my fingers over the words to make myself believe that it wasn’t some feverish insomniac dream. Then I folded the paper and tucked it away, as the world around me grew brighter.

Like most writers, I’m more familiar with another kind of letter, those with words such as: however, unfortunately, we’re sorry to inform you, please try us again. This letter, with its astonishing words—congratulations!, all-expenses-paid trip to New York City, a public reading, an honorarium, and a one-month residency at Jentel Artist Residency—well, no wonder I had to keep it close. Who could believe it? Not me. Certainly not my inner critic, who has all the charm of a paper cut: Oh, they must have made a mistake. It couldn’t be you; weird, frizzy-haired, middle-aged woman tapping out those stories. Puh-leese.

Believe it or not, I indeed went to New York City. I went with my carefully packed bag full of sales-rack clothes and one nice pair of shoes, my stomach tied in knots over a mostly finished novel that I wasn’t sure how to talk about, and terrified that everyone would take one look at me and voice my deepest writer fears: You? Ha! Hahahahahahaha!

Instead, I found kindness and generosity as luminous as the starry Grand Central ceiling. I found honest-to-God readers (many of whom are also writers or editors), toiling long hours and fighting the good fight, taking the time to talk with me about my work and the publishing world and the writing life. I crisscrossed the city by subway, by cab, and by foot, trying not to be gauche and gawp at the skyscrapers, at the everything. I shared great meals and coffee with great people, and I filled two tote bags with great books. I gave a reading at McNally Jackson, and I didn’t pass out at all. I found friendship and kinship with the wonderful poet Harry Moore, my fellow winner. I shared the stories with my husband at the end of day, up in my lovely hotel room, because once I said it aloud I could maybe make myself believe it. Then I folded those stories up and tucked them away into all of the weird, frizzy-haired, middle-aged pockets of mine.

No wonder I’m bursting at the seams with gratitude. To those instrumental in my WEX award—especially Maureen Egen, Victor LaValle, Elliot Figman, Lynne Connor, and the wondrous Bonnie Rose Marcus—and to all of those who offered up their time, words, wit, and wisdom, along with my ever-supportive family and friends: Thank you to the tip tops of the Alabama pines.

So much of the writing life centers on belief: making readers believe the magic on the page, making the publishing world believe in the work, and, perhaps the hardest, first believing in ourselves. Alas, my magic WEX experience can’t wave a wand and—poof!—solve such struggles, yet I know that I will always carry this award close. I will fold it away in the secret pocket of my writer’s heart, where I can pull it out when I need to remember: This is real. Someone once believed in you. Now it’s your turn.

Photo: (top) Bryn Chancellor. Photo Credit: Christy Whitney.

Photo (bottom) Bryn Chancellor. Photo Credit: Timothy Winkler.

This award is generously supported by Maureen Egen, a member of the Poets & Writers Board of Directors, and retired Deputy Chairman and Publisher of Hachette Book Group, USA.

A Cave Canem Poetry Conversations Workshop with R. Erica Doyle

R. Erica Doyle is the Brooklyn-based author of proxy (belladonna*, 2013), which won the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America, and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Poetry. She is a Cave Canem Fellow who has facilitated other Poets & Writers-sponsored workshops for queer women and transgender and gender-nonconforming people of color and for youth in public housing.

Please, let today not be the day, I muttered under my breath, as I ran around my office, jury-rigging a dummy copy to make into our workshop chapbook. I copied, cut and pasted, printed and folded and cut again, sweating since my office, like most old public school buildings, has a radiator several degrees hotter than the ninth circle of hell. Please, please, not today.

I finally checked: No indictment, read the texts. No indictment, cried the statuses, the New York Times. No indictment. The hope I’d held that we would be different, somehow, that today would not be the day, not that day, broke into shards.

I sat at my desk for a few moments as tears ran down my cheeks. Then, I got up and finished the chapbook.

That night, the students of my poetry workshop Into the Chaos: Poetry Conversations, were reading their work, created over two and half months of meetings at the Cave Canem conference space. Cave Canem had created these workshops for emerging poets of color, with the support of Poets & Writers, to give diverse writers a space to explore their craft within a supportive and safe environment.

My inspiration for the workshop was grounded in a 1980 interview by Audre Lorde where she states:

We must first examine our feelings for questions, because all the rest has been programmed. We have been taught how to understand, and in terms that will insure not creativity, but the status quo. If we are looking for something which is new, and something which is vital, we must look first into the chaos within ourselves.

In “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics,” Erica Hunt explains how our attempts to resist may lead us to replicate the oppressive structures and tired tropes we are trying to write against. Claudia Rankine has recently called on us to recognize the power of the imaginary, in our writing and the world, and to emancipate our imaginations. I hoped for Into the Chaos to be a place to challenge our imaginations in a space where we shared multiple languages, histories, sexual identities, and gender expressions.

Through exercises and readings, small group and whole class readings, free writes and interpretive poetry performances utilizing sound and movement, I supported my students in thinking about their practice, their decisions, and encouraged them to push beyond their own programming. They shared the chaos that night with choral readings, humor, and depth in community with brothers, lovers, and friends.

That third of December, I cried over losing hope for a peaceful existence in my lifetime. That day, my student said she knew our reading was the safest place for her brothers, young black men, to be that night. We looked at the empty seats and knew that some of our friends who would have been here were out there, crying our outrage and pain to the world. That day, we would join them later, and day after day after that. That day, I realized there was no place I would rather be held, and held up right then, in a reticulum of voices gesturing ever towards. That here, we were part of that day, too and we, like this movement, would not be deferred.

Photo: R. Erica Doyle  Photo Credit: L. Rubin


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, A.K. Starr Charitable Trust and Friends of Poets & Writers.


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