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Readings & Workshops Blog

Estelle Ford-Williamson, is coauthor of Seed of South Sudan: Memoir of a "Lost Boy" Refugee, and editor of the Lou Walker Center Writers Anthology, Vols. 1 and 2. She has received Poets & Writers grants to teach creative writing to young adults who have timed out of the foster care system in Atlanta, Georgia.

On the other end of the phone, a willing librarian listened: Would a library in north-central New York State be interested in a former Lost Boy of Sudan and his coauthor reading and discussing their recent book about his experience fleeing death in a religious/ethnic war, and his subsequent life adapting to Atlanta and now living on two continents?

Fortunately, the answer from Oswego Public Library’s Edward Elsner was yes. My coauthor Majok Marier and I began to put together an extensive road trip that included readings in four cities far from our Atlanta roots: Lakewood (Cleveland), Ohio; Oswego and Syracuse in New York; and Washington, D.C. One grant to appear at the Oswego Public Library was the catalyst that encouraged us to set up other readings–the grant was through Poets & Writers. During our tour, we met former Lost Boy John Bul Dau, author of God Grew Tired of Us and a South Sudan aid leader, and many others involved in refugee issues.

Our book, Seed of South Sudan: Memoir of a “Lost Boy” Refugee was published in May by McFarland and Company. It updates the story of the young men and women, thousands who arrived in America in 2001. Their resettlement was a part of an unprecedented airlift to provide futures for the young children facing limited lives in refugee camps due to a decades-long war. Now young men and women, they are spread throughout the United States (Australia and Canada, too) as they pursue an education and jobs that enable them to support family back home, as well as help build the new nation of South Sudan.

The welcome was warm at the Oswego Library, the “Castle on the Hill.” The historic building is a shrine to abolitionism and to the Free Library movement as the library was built by noted abolitionist Gerrit Smith. Our book tour coincided with heated protests in another part of the country to block entry of underage migrant children from Central America. It was probably one of the most emotional times in the recent national debate on refugees in the United States.

The reading yielded only appreciation, encouragement, and a desire to learn more about Majok and our journey together as coauthors of his story–his semi-nomadic life as young Dinka tribesman in the Rumbek area before fleeing his village in the war. Even more interest centered on his goal of drilling the first water wells in such villages.

Our trip affirmed the value of such face-to-face exchanges, and I highly recommend that writers contact this library and other venues in states and cities served by the Readings & Workshop program. All it took was a minimal amount of research, a willingness to cold-call possible sponsors, and an interest by a library to enrich their patrons’ literary experiences.

Photo: (top) Estelle Ford-Williamson. 

Photo: (bottom) Estelle Ford-Williamson, Majok Marier, and John Bul Dau. Photo Credits: Richard Williamson.

Support for Readings & Workshops in New York is provided, in part, by public funds from New York State Council on the Arts, with additional support from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Alice Lovelace is a cultural worker, poet, playwright, and performer. She is coeditor of “Art Changes” at In Motion Magazine, an online journal dedicated to issues of democracy. Lovelace earned her MA in Conflict Resolution at Antioch University’s McGregor School. Her focus is on community art as a form of mediation. In 2011, Lovelace and visual artist Lisa Tuttle collaborated on “Harriet Rising,” commissioned by the City of Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs Public Art Program and Underground Atlanta, for its four-month long exhibit, Elevate: Art Above Underground in Atlanta, Georgia. The installation remained at Underground Atlanta for one year, and was named one of the fifty best public art projects in the nation by Americans for the Arts’ 2012 Public Art Network Year in Review. 

“Harriet Rising” was born in 2011 when visual artist Lisa Tuttle asked me out for lunch and we discussed the possibility of an artistic collaboration. That was the year the country began reflecting on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

The art would be on display at the Underground Atlanta, a shopping and entertainment district in downtown Atlanta. Lisa and I joined our interests in community-built art, envisioning the project as an opportunity to educate the public about universal social conditions faced by women and girls, and the organizations women have built in resistance.

The focus on Harriet Tubman was the perfect choice. Her contributions to the war effort are seldom mentioned or taught. We often see paintings or photos of Tubman as an elderly woman, but she was in her late twenties to early thirties when she brought over three hundred people out of the South, up the Ohio River to freedom via the Underground Railroad.

Years later, during the Civil War, she was commissioned by President Lincoln as spy and strategist for the Union Army. She also served as a nurse to black soldiers, while challenging the President and Congress over the issue of equal pay for equal service and sacrifice. In the 1863 Campaign on the Combahee, she helped over seven hundred slaves escape plantations along the river in South Carolina.

“Harriet Rising” was commissioned by the City of Atlanta and Underground Atlanta, as part of the exhibit, Elevate: Art Above Underground, which opened in October 2011. Lisa installed “Harriet Rising” onto eight four-sided columns in the heart of an Atlanta downtown hub. On the four sides of each column, we combined photography, poetry, historical and educational text, honoring the spirit and legacy of Harriet Tubman, the American hero.

The exhibit included oral histories of current women activists. One fall Sunday afternoon, women dressed in white arrived at the American Friends Service Committee Georgia Peace Center to tell me their stories, and to have Lisa photograph them. They were asked to wear white to signify their relationship to Harriet Tubman, who dreamed of being led to safety by a heavenly host of “ladies in white.” The women were members of 9to5 Atlanta, Atlanta Grandmothers for Peace, Georgia WAND, Refugee Women’s Network, SisterSong, Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, Women Watch Afrika, Inc., Tapestri, Inc., and the Toni Cade Bambara Writers/Scholars/Activists Collective.

bookcover

Funding from Poets & Writers for our Readings & Workshops program allowed us to include some of the most dynamic poets from the local slam scene. I was joined for onsite readings by Theresa Davis, Mariangela Manu Mihai, April 'Ap' Smith, Chauncey Beaty, and M. Ayodele Heath, along with singer/activist Monica Simpson. Three times we called, and the community gathered around Harriet’s columns. The crowds grew. We had repeat visitors and earned the attention of those standing in nearby businesses.

Working with Lisa Tuttle and the community of women organizers was a dream come true for a poet/cultural worker like me—I was able to play a major role in a popular public art exhibit and to bring the voices of over thirty women into the public arena. I can’t wait to do it again!

Photos: (top) Alice Lovelace at US Social Forum. Photo Credit: Nic Paget Clarke. (bottom) Harriet Rising Book Cover. Photo Credit: Lisa Tuttle.

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Atlanta 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.

P&W supported poet Aliki Barnstone blogs about her reading for Saint Julian Press in Houston, Texas. Barnstone is also a translator, critic, and editor. Her books of poems are Bright Body (White Pine, 2011), Dear God, Dear Dr. Heartbreak: New and Selected Poems (the Sheep Meadow Press, 2010), Blue Earth (Iris, 2004), Wild With It (Sheep Meadow, 2002), a National Books Critics Circle Notable Book, Madly in Love (Carnegie-Mellon, 1997), Windows in Providence (Curbstone, 1981), and The Real Tin Flower which includes an introduction by Anne Sexton and was published by Macmillan in 1968, when Barnstone was twelve years old. She is Professor of English in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

Aliki BarnstoneOn April 4, 2014, I participated in a reading at Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Houston, which was organized by Ron Starbuck, editor and publisher of Saint Julian Press, and cosponsored by Poets & Writers. Ron beautifully orchestrated the event in a truly unique way that I found exhilarating and profound.

There were three poets—Melissa Studdard, Leslie Adrienne Miller, and myself—and there was a pianist, John Hardesty. Before the reading, we poets e-mailed Ron the poems that we planned to read, which was a first for me. There was a bit of back and forth between the four of us, so we could get the timing and the length right. Then Ron arranged the poems into sets. I was a little disconcerted when he changed the order of the poems I’d sent, but I was also open to the adjustment because the whole event was so unusual (and his re-ordering proved to be a much better unfolding).

The usual circumstance, as the readers of this blog know, is that each author is given a certain amount of time, and then whatever happens, happens—which can work well or can lead to some consternation when someone reads too long or if one person is miffed to read first and perceives that he or she is a “warm-up” for the “headliner” who reads last.

All those prospects for unseemly drama were eliminated by Ron’s process. He printed out scripts for us, which were ordered in three-ring binders and placed on music stands. John Hardesty played a prologue, each of us read a set, and between readers, John responded with improvisation. We each read two sets. John’s music was meditative and created an atmosphere that was receptive to poetry and to the ineffable.

When I give readings, I usually have a set list with alternatives, depending on how the audience responds. The musical interludes combined with the script made this unnecessary, so the part of my mind that usually considers whether I’m reading the right poems was free to listen to the music and my wonderful fellow poets, and to commune with all the souls present.

The format freed me in other ways too. I must admit, I find that when I’m reading with others I can’t be as attentive as I’d like. If I read after someone, I can’t give my undivided attention to his or her reading because I’m too revved up (and I’m also thinking about alternative poems to read that might better dovetail with the reader before me). However, if I read before someone, then I may still be too distracted to concentrate fully on the person’s work, because I’m recuperating from my own reading. Despite my regard for the other person’s work and my best intentions, there’s still a bit of noise in my mind.

Ron’s arranging genius allows the readers to interact wholly with each other, John’s music, the audience, and the place itself. For me, it was a particular joy to immerse myself in Leslie’s and Melissa’s work, and to hear their poems performed aloud while simultaneously seeing them laid out on the page.

Four at TrinitiyThe venue and the audience contributed to a feeling of connection, high spirits, and aesthetic abundance. The series is held in the beautiful chapel of the historic Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Houston, with its gorgeous stained glass windows and paintings. The chapel was filled to capacity with people who are regular attendees, as well as newcomers.

This event came at a pivotal moment in my career since my book, Madly in Love, was just reissued as a Carnegie-Mellon Classic Contemporary. The fact that I could celebrate this significant publication in Houston, where I have familial ties, was especially gratifying. My uncle, Howard Barnstone, designed the Rothko Chapel; my aunt, Gertrude Barnstone, is a well-known artist and activist; and my cousins, George Barnstone and Lily Barnstone Wells, and their families still live in Houston and are active members of the community.

In the course of meeting people in Houston, making connections and reconnecting, I was deeply touched to discover that people see me as part of a legacy. The reading generated a lot of interest in my work, and the fact that there was a lot of talk about bringing me back makes me very happy.

Hear recordings of Barnstone and her fellow readers from this event.

Photo: (top) Aliki Barnstone. Photo Credit: John Farmer de la Torre.

(bottom) John Hardesty, Ann-Marie Madden Irwin, Leslie Adrienne Miller, and Ron Starbuck. Photo Credit: John Farmer de la Torre.

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.

Heather Buchanan is the owner of the Aquarius Press, now celebrating its fifteenth year. She, along with longtime partner Randall Horton, created the press's literary division, Willow Books, which develops, publishes, and promotes writers typically underrepresented in the field. A graduate of Wayne State University (WSU) and the University of Michigan-Dearborn respectively, Buchanan was a WSU National Institute of Health Research Fellow in cognitive science. Actively involved with work in the field of narrative psychology, she has taught Composition, English, African-American Literature, and World Literature at several colleges and universities, most recently for UM-Dearborn and the College for Creative Studies. In addition to teaching, she presents on arts and literature at conferences across the country, most recently for the Ragdale Foundation. A past Poet-In-Residence for the Detroit Public Library system, she also served on the Board of Governors for UM-Dearborn's College of Arts & Sciences Affiliate and was the Chief Operating Officer of the Wayne County Council on the Arts, History & Humanities. A musician, Buchanan is currently working on a musical project honoring the Harlem Hellfighters and a World War I centennial book.

Out of the bustling mass of high schoolers being dismissed after our poetry workshop, one young man stopped in the doorway to utter these words, "that thing changed my life," with a look of wonder upon his face. His classmates had already reinserted their earbuds and pulled out their phones for the bus ride back to school. After this student had said his piece, the look faded and he went to catch up with the group. Fleeting moments like that keep me inspired.

Authors from our press had just completed day one of a two-day workshop and public reading program in Detroit, my hometown, at the Carr Center. “Life, Imagined: Michiganders in Literature” was a writers residency for authors who had published literary works about notable Michiganders. The authors gave public readings with a Q&A for the general public and held poetry readings and workshops with Detroit-area high school students. The event was co-sponsored by the Michigan Humanities Council and funded in part by Poets & Writers, Inc..

The program’s goal was to demonstrate how literature intersects with history to provide meaningful cultural experiences for contemporary audiences. Moderated by Randall Horton and Angela May, the fall 2013 Writers-in-Residence were Lita Hooper author of Thunder in Her Voice: The Narrative of Sojourner Truth and Derrick Harriell author of Ropes. The public reading was also a debut for Harriell’s collection, which contained a suite of poems on famed Detroit boxer Joe Louis. The spring 2014 program featured Karen S. Williams author of Peninsula: Poems of Michigan and Curtis L. Crisler, a Michigan native whose newly-released Wonderkind is a poetry collection on the musical genius Stevie Wonder.

The students were from areas typically underserved when it comes to arts programming, so this program was inspiring for more than one reason. The students were not only able to engage with poetry itself, but were able to engage with poetic scholars of color. In addition to making history come alive for these students, the authors shared their experiences as published writers who also teach on the college level. At the outset, only a handful out of the approximately 125 students said they read poetry. After the program ended, however, post surveys showed that 65 percent of the students were now more likely to read poetry and could even envision themselves as poets in the future.

As the students shared the poems they had created in the workshop, the air was electric. There was a sense of pride, accomplishment, and camaraderie for fellow readers. Sadly, during both workshops, more than one female student shared her own story of abuse. Any teacher in Detroit will tell you that many of our youth carry a great deal of internalized trauma and need creative outlets to process and express it. Our workshop was a safe space where everything could be said aloud, if only for a little while.

The Poets & Writers Detroit program has enabled our press to put on several great literary events over the years, but I count this project as one of the very best.

Photos: (top) Heather Buchanan, (bottom) Curtis L. Crisler, Angela May, Karen S. Williams with students.  Photo Credit: Mike McMurray.

Support for Readings & Workshops in Detroit 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.

In 2012 and 2013, educator Sheila Wilensky led a series of P&W supported workshops at Our Place Clubhouse, a psych-social rehabilitation center in Tucson, Arizona, for adults recovering from serious mental illness. A high school social studies teacher for fifteen years in Vermont and Maine, Wilensky also taught children's literature at College of the Atlantic. From 1982 to 1997, she owned the Oz Children’s Bookstore in Southwest Harbor, Maine. In 2002, she got tired of the ice and snow, drove cross country, and has been living in Tucson ever since. She is currently associate editor of the Arizona Jewish Post. Wilensky blogs about her experience teaching the workshops and produced a chapbook of essays from participants titled, A Certain Slant of Light, which was released earlier this year.

Wilensky and Thursday Writing Group

I’ve lived through the civil rights, feminist, and LGBT movements for equality. Now it’s time to reduce the stigma of mental illness in our society. Our Place Clubhouse is a recovery community that encourages self-esteem, and offers job training programs and a safe haven for individuals living with serious mental illness. Around five years ago, I began editing the prolific writing of Rachel and Ira, both of whom struggled with schizophrenia. A week after the January 8, 2011 shooting in Tucson, which killed six people and wounded thirteen, including former U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords, I was meeting with Rachel.

“Why do people think that if you have a mental illness, you may pull out a gun and start shooting at any time?” asked Rachel, throwing her hands up in frustration.

A year later, I had this epiphany: We must change this damaging misconception. Studies indicate that individuals with severe mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.

The Our Place Clubhouse Thursday Writing Group started on September 17, 2012. We sat around a seminar table in the clubhouse boardroom. We talked about our lives. I knew it was important to establish trust.

“We’re going to create a chapbook to help educate the community about living with mental illness,” I told my fourteen prospective coauthors. I’m not sure they believed me.

Writing prompts emerged from our conversations. The first was “any morning:” how to explain to others what a normal day was like for “crazy” people or that group members started their days like anyone else. They fed their pets, brushed their teeth, and some went to work—as pharmacist, baker, artist, peer counselor.

Every week we read our writing aloud with no feedback, judgment, or criticism—listening to individual voices striving for recovery, applauding after each person read. At the end of each session, Doreen, a former middle school language arts teacher, collected the pieces and put them in a folder for me to take home. Our process developed organically, as did my hugging each writer at the conclusion of a session.

I wanted everyone to feel ownership along the road to publication. We brainstormed titles. We peer edited our writing. The section, “What This Chapbook Means to Me,” is a record of the project’s success:

“Participating in this project has been a source of joy and freedom; the freedom to self-express the many faces of mental illness.” —Lani

“Writing this book is an exploration for me. Hearing others’ stories and writing about my own mental illness is invigorating.” —Doreen

“Any one of us can have behavioral disturbances or diseases of the brain. We stigmatize what we don’t understand. Life can be traumatic. I hope that this chapbook has given the reader pause. Let’s stop being afraid of ourselves.” —Pam

“This chapbook is a conversation which expresses our perspectives on lives affected by mental illness.... Most people who live with mental illness and brain disorders are productive in society and contribute a lot to the advancement of the American dream." —Tyrone

Our book launch took place in January 2014. More than two hundred people attended, including the mayor of Tucson.

Thank you to Poets & Writers for giving this project the legitimacy and support my coauthors deserve.

Photo: Sheila Wilensky (wearing green) and Our Place Clubhouse Thursday Writing Group members and staff; credit: Erica von Koerber.

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

Paula Rodenas is the author of The Random House Book of Horses and Horsemanship and a freelance writer for numerous magazines and newspapers, including Town & Country, Travel & Leisure, and the Horse Directory. She has edited books for Arco and Exposition Press and received awards from the Press Club of Long Island. She teaches creative writing for local adult education programs, and for more than twenty years has led the Merrick Senior Center’s Creative Writing Workshop, a sixteen-week program sponsored by Poets & Writers and the Town of Hempstead Department of Senior Enrichment. A lifelong horse lover, much of her subject matter as a writer has involved horses and she currently contributes to a thoroughbred racing column for a magazine in Long Island, New York. Rodenas has been invited to many foreign press trips for her work as a journalist.

Anyone who believes senior citizens cannot learn and improve should think again!

I have been leading a creative writing workshop for people ages sixty and up at the Merrick Senior Center for more than twenty years. I’ve always enjoyed one-on-one relationships with other writers and this workshop allows me the opportunity to share and appreciate the progress of the participants.

Each week I give an assignment, but I emphasize that it is more of a guideline than a “must.” We have produced poetry, prose, memoirs, fiction and, for the stage, short dialogues or mini-plays that we call “vignettes.” The work is read aloud and critiqued by members of the group with a positive approach, building upon the foundation as opposed to tearing it apart.

The program presently runs for sixteen weeks each year between late February and mid-June, and meets once a week for two hours. At the end of the sessions, we hold a presentation at our local community theater, the Merrick Theater and Center for the Arts, offering free admission to the public, followed by an informal coffee hour. This enables the writers to mingle with the audience. We also publish a booklet in the fall entitled, “Musings of Maturity” which contains our most recent writings. We thus have two venues, one audio and one visual, in which to feature our work.

Our program has been well-received within the community. In 2012, we were featured in a special weekend edition of the Long Island newspaper, Newsday. In 2013, we made the front page of the Herald Weekly. Our theater presentations have been recorded and sent to nursing homes, and “Musings of Maturity” is shared with local libraries.

What makes our group special is a strong camaraderie that makes it feel like family. Deep emotions are often revealed—there are tears and laughter. Older writers draw on a lifetime of experience and wisdom. Our participants have an optimistic outlook, remembering the past, but also thinking ahead. Writers of any age need support and encouragement, and it has been a pleasure to see senior writers develop and gain recognition in the community.

Photo: Paula Rodenas and the Merrick Seniors.  Photo Credit: Nat Watson.

Support for Readings & Workshops in New York is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, with additional support from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

P&W supported Frances Shani Parker is the author of Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes (paperback, e-book). Parker is a Michigan-based eldercare consultant, writer, hospice volunteer, blogger, and former school principal.

Have you noticed all the negative stereotypes that bombard us about older adults? Too often, this group is portrayed as unattractive, senile, useless, and sexless. A former school principal, when I surveyed fourth graders about the kinds of people they expected to see at a nursing home, they said residents would be old, sick, grouchy, slow, not too smart, and nosey. If these children’s perceptions continue, they can easily grow up to become the stereotypes they believe. Think about some of the older adults you know who have fallen victim to this illusion. Negative stereotypes have influenced how they view themselves in addition to the natural decline in some of the ways they function. They may have more dependence on others, lower levels of risk taking, and decreased self-esteem, due to poorer health.

FSParker

Although youthfulness is admired and flaunted, there are many older adults who are not living the negative stereotypes. They refuse to focus on assumptions about how their lives should unfold. I wanted them to tell their stories, pay tribute to themselves, and motivate others in the process. Facilitating a Poets & Writers workshop seemed like the perfect catalyst for using the power of written words to promote productive aging. An eldercare consultant active with several senior organizations, I was sponsored by the Presbyterian Village of Brush Park Manor, an independent living community in Detroit. That’s how the Stories of Successful Aging After 60 writing workshop came into being and how a shared vision became a reality.

Most potential workshop participants were somewhat intimidated by the prospect of writing personal stories. Reading them aloud before a group presented another layer of concern. To help guide the process, I attended an exercise class with residents before the workshop started, so we could build trust and bond together. A few weeks later, I read original poems for them during their African American history program. My hope was to inspire them to gain the confidence to write and share their own thoughts and feelings. By the time our five workshop sessions began, we had sixteen excited older adults ranging in age from 60 to 93. Storytellers at heart, they were eager to celebrate and share with others what it meant to age successfully.

I was impressed with the diversity and intimacy of their revelations. Many had conquered and continued to prevail over major obstacles while maintaining an optimistic outlook on life. Surviving cancer, heart and kidney transplants, drug addiction, and raising grandchildren were only a few of their victories. They also mentioned spending quality time helping others, enjoying family activities, and working new jobs. Developing talents and hobbies, traveling, and, of course, dating further enhanced their busy schedules. An enlightening collection of stories representing their personal truths evolved through their focused introspection.

References to religious explanations for passing life tests were frequent. Testimonies included receiving numerous blessings, having prayer partners, reading the Bible, and just being alone talking to Jesus. Their praise of a higher power was so strong that it became common during rehearsal readings for someone to shout a religious affirmation such as, “Give God the glory!” or “Thank you, Father!” when other writers read their stories. One man included the partial singing of, “His Eye is on the Sparrow” as part of his presentation. A woman disclosed that music talks to her with, “I’m Gonna Make It After All” being her favorite gospel song.

A lovely luncheon recognized workshop honorees who received and read aloud from their uplifting collection of stories. Each writer also accepted a special certificate of achievement. Several stated they would be sharing their collections and certificates with family, church members, and friends. Now others will benefit from their passionate efforts. Proud older adults savored well-earned praise for their involvement in a writing workshop where we all learned more about ourselves, one another, and aging.

Photo: Frances Shani Parker  Credit: Maurice Sanders

Support for Readings & Workshops in New York is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, with additional support from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

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