Readings & Workshops Blog

Nancy Hathaway on Writing and Rewriting: A Workshop for the Elderly and the Disabled at St. Margaret's House

Nancy Hathaway has written books on astronomy (The Friendly Guide to the Universe), photography (Native American Portraits), mythology, astrology, and more. Her shorter pieces have been published in periodicals that range from Alimentum and PaperTape to American Recorder and Self. She lives in New York City. 

In 2009 I was invited to lead a writing workshop at St. Margaret’s House, an independent-living facility for the elderly and disabled that operates in lower Manhattan under the auspices of Trinity Church. The prospect excited me, except for one thing: The members of the workshop, which is funded in part by Poets & Writers under its Readings & Workshops program, had been meeting for years with another writer. Their community, I imagined, was fully established, and I wasn’t certain I would fit in.

I also didn’t know how to begin, though I’d taught composition many times. My friend Sally, a veteran workshop leader, suggested that I bring something in for the first day. Everyone likes a handout, she said. So I printed out a page of quotations about writing. There were inspiring passages from Kafka and Annie Dillard, along with rueful pronouncements from William Styron (“Let's face it, writing is hell”), Joy Williams (“Nothing the writer can do is ever enough”), and Flaubert (“Writing is a dog’s life, but the only one worth living”). These downbeat quotations from distinguished writers reassured and consoled me. Writing is hard—and I’m not the only one who feels that way. I was sure the writers of St. Margaret’s House would relate.

But they did not relate. As I ran through my quotations, they seemed mystified and faintly hostile. Why, they wondered, would Willa Cather believe, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen”? That couldn’t be true. (Flannery O’Connor upped the age to eighteen.)

And, sexism aside, why would Donald Barthelme say, “A writer is a man who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do”?

And what did Red Smith mean about opening a vein?

I tried to explain. Eventually a septuagenarian in a floral blouse asked if we could change the subject and talk about Hemingway.

Absolutely.

She said that a series of electro-shock treatments had wiped out his memory. He couldn’t write, and that’s why he committed suicide, and what did I think about that?

I said I thought it was a tragedy.

She couldn’t stop thinking about it, she said, whereupon a luminous, white-haired woman at the other end of the table leaned forward, eyes blazing. “When did that happen?” she demanded. “1961? 1962? Get over it!”

By the end of the session, I was worried. Timed writing exercises on specific topics had not gone well, and free-writing was a disaster. Leading this workshop was going to be rougher than I thought.

That was almost five years ago. Since then, despite diminished hearing, vision problems, mobility limitations, and other age related torments, most of the people I met that night (and a few new ones) show up weekly, pages in hand. Their writing has improved, as have their critical skills. Honest and encouraging in approximately equal measure, they really are a community, and I am honored to be part of it.

I date the turnaround to the third session, when I brought in two poems: “The Game” by Marie Howe and “Scrabble in Heaven” by Jane Shore. After we talked about them, I asked everyone to write about a game, and I set my iPod ticking. The results astonished me. A retiree who had been paralyzed by random prompts wrote nonstop about Monopoly. A former professor conjured up a long-ago badminton game. A second-wave feminist (and well-published journalist) tied a cogent political analysis to the plunder and betrayal involved in the board game Risk. There were pieces about checkers, dominoes, and Twister, and even a rumination on Freecell, the online solitaire game. Playing Freecell, wrote the Hemingway fan, “My breath becomes even, my blood oxygenated.”

Since then, we have read a lot of poems, and the workshop has been transformed. Poems are better than prompts, even when they are used as prompts. Standard prompts may stir up memories but they offer nothing by way of literary models. Poems do that and more.

First, they show how other writers excavate sensitive material and thus they are liberating. Have mixed feelings about your niece? Read Louise Glück. Your father? Start with Roethke and go from there. Anxious about, say, cancer? Read Elise Partridge, Rosanna Warren, and, while you’re at it, Whitman. Poetry peeks into every heart and under every stone. It reveals all—and it’s short.

I like to bring in paired poems – W. H. Auden and William Carlos Williams on Breughel, for instance – but mostly I use individual poems. Stephen Dunn’s “Death of a Colleague” caused a commotion, raised voices and all. Katrina Vandenburg’s “Handwriting Analysis” inspired an essay that I am positive will become one woman’s first outside publication. Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno,” written circa 1760, occasioned an ode to the pharmacy chain Duane Reade.

A writing workshop is not meant to be a literature class. But how can it not be? Even for writers of prose, reading poetry illuminates subject matter, disentangles emotions, highlights the importance of craft, and demonstrates precision in language.

But there is one thing it cannot do: persuade writers to rewrite—not merely to make isolated corrections but to rethink, rephrase, even reorganize. Rewriting is a complex business, and many members of the workshop resist it.

I don’t blame them. Rewriting can be tedious (and worse). Still, every spring, as the deadline for our annual literary review—a booklet—draws near, the workshop participants sit down with their stories, personal essays, and occasional poems and, I am happy to say, revise.

I attribute that miracle to the power of publication. Because poetry is stimulating, and self-expression is valuable and satisfying, but publication, however humble, reaches beyond the self, beyond the workshop, and into the world. Publication galvanizes.

Top: Nancy Hathaway. Photo Credit: George Sussman.

Bottom:  Journal 49. Photo Credit: Nancy Hathaway.

Support for Readings & Workshops in New York City was provided, in part, by 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.

Dimitri Keriotis on Dangling the Literary Carrot

Dimitri Keriotis’s short story collection The Quiet Time is forthcoming this fall from Stephen F. Austin State University Press. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in the Beloit Fiction Journal, Flyway, BorderSenses, Evening Street Review, and other literary journals. He teaches English at Modesto Junior College and co-coordinates the High Sierra Institute. He and his family live in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.



At the end of last semester, memoirist and poet Suzanne Roberts came to Modesto Junior College (MJC) to read and to talk with students. A couple of nights after the event, I walked into an English 101 class and instantly heard, “That was really something Thursday night.” Tito, a re-entry student in his fifties, was talking to me. He repeated, “That was really something.”

“Yeah? What specifically?” I asked.

“Just going and hearing an author, a real author. That’s something I’ve never done before. I didn’t know what to expect, but, man, was that really something. I can’t wait to read her book.”

I teach in a community where literary events are as rare as double rainbows. Not surprisingly, most of my students have not heard of a book reading, which makes attending one out of the question. Even those who have heard of readings rarely want to go to one. P&W funding has allowed our school to consistently bring writers to MJC for the past eight years. Comments like Tito’s are not unusual. But to be honest, most students who attend our readings do so because the event is part of a class, or because it is offered as extra credit. It is unfortunate that just like many of my colleagues, I resort to such a tactic to ensure a decent turnout—attach an extra credit assignment to the reading. This move feels like a foul, as if I’m paying my students to become part of a large enough audience. It saddens me to think that without this approach only five students would probably show up. But is dangling a carrot wrong if it helps students grow? Tito’s comments suggest not. Those of us who savor literary events feel personal growth happening as we listen to a writer deliver a gripping passage, answer a juicy question, or discuss issues of craft, so we return time and time again, but how can those unaware know to go? They can’t unless guided there by way of an incentive.

More often than not, my students later report that a reading was worth their time. After the Suzanne Roberts reading, a student e-mailed me about it: “As I headed to the Little Theatre, I really wanted to be at home on my couch playing the latest version of Grand Theft Auto [this is verbatim!], but I needed the extra credit, so I went. I thought the whole thing was going to be stupid, but I’m glad I went. She was cool, and I learned something new. I might even go to another one someday.”

Enough of my students have been turned on to literature by hearing authors read their work, answer their questions, and talk with them one-on-one while their books get signed that I won’t dare ditch my approach. We don’t always know what’s good for us until someone basically forces us to do something that can have a lasting effect.

Anyone for some extra credit?

Photo: Dimitri Keriotis. Credit: Ingrid Keriotis.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Dimitri Keriotis on Not Having to Do Without

Dimitri Keriotis’s short story collection The Quiet Time is forthcoming from Stephen F. Austin State University Press. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in the Beloit Fiction Journal, Flyway, BorderSenses, Evening Street Review, and other literary journals. He teaches English at Modesto Junior College and co-coordinates the High Sierra Institute. He and his family live in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.


We’ve all heard the news about the economy creeping back to life. This notion recently became real when a colleague and I wanted to bring writer Suzanne Roberts to Modesto Junior College to read from her memoir Almost Somewhere. I hit up my dean for some money for a P&W matching grant, and without pausing, he said, “I can find something for you.” As I walked out of his office, I wondered if I’d heard him correctly. The last time I asked for money I’d been laughed out the door.

Ours is a familiar story: Over the past few years of the Great Recession, the funding for nearly all things literary went bone dry. Our college’s literary journal—Quercus Review—though ten years strong with submissions from such heavy hitters as XJ Kennedy, Naomi Shihab Nye, Amiri Baraka, and Wanda Coleman was killed from the college budget in Robespierre guillotine fashion. And support for author events didn’t fare much better. Whereas we’d previously brought a poet to campus in the fall and a prose writer in the spring, and were able to pay them four figures, we found ourselves clawing at a few lost quarters found in the faculty lounge furniture. Hard times had hit. When I talked with friends at other campuses, they told me more of the same. I thought our college’s lit-event life was long dead.

But all hope was far from lost. Writer Daniel Chacón, who’d once taught at MJC, contacted me about coming to read and visit classrooms. When I told him that I wasn’t sure if I could scrape together a three-digit compensation, he said, “I understand. Whatever you can do will be fine.” Chacón’s response led the way, encouraging us over the next few years to invite other authors. We knew better than to try to offer two readings a year, so we scaled it down to one. Over the next three years we were able to average a reading a year because the writers essentially repeated Chacón’s message. It seemed as if an overall understanding spread across the literary community: We’ll do what it takes to breathe life into the events that keep our community alive. But still, we had to pay the artists something. Even when they said that they would come for free, and a couple did, it would have been criminal to take them up on it. One year we tapped a forgotten fund designated for literary events established back in the day, which allowed us to pull together enough funding to apply for a P&W matching grant. Another year we knocked on any door whose office had the faintest smell of money. The only one that came through was that of the Associated Students, the student government. After that we walked into a desert. Those who’d supported us in the past not only didn’t throw us a bone, they all but slammed their doors in our faces. We felt strongly about continuing our practice of visiting authors, and we became scared of what would happen if we stopped. While we could handle not offering our community a reading one year, we worried that the Pooh-Bahs in charge of the money would get used to writers not coming to campus, which would make it tough to bring them back when better times returned. Keeping our momentum up, though our number of readings had dropped by a half, was vital. We’d been lucky enough to receive P&W matching grants in the past, but what if you had nothing for P&W to match? Feeling gutsy, I called P&W’s LA office and asked this question. I nearly fell out of my chair when they encouraged us to apply anyway. We did, and P&W allowed our wheels to keep turning.

No doubt we have yet to fully return to fat times, but it seems like we’ve made it through the financial bottleneck. This past fall poet and memoirist Suzanne Roberts did come to campus, and this spring we’re bringing poet Patricia Smith. We’re able to offer greater compensations than we have in years. It’s a nice feeling, returning to flusher times that result in writers being rewarded more than has been possible of late. No doubt such rough times will return someday, but the lean times have taught us that we never have to completely do without literary inspiration.

Photo: Dimitri Keriotis. Credit: Ingrid Keriotis.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Krista Wissing on Making the Hero’s Journey After a Brain Injury

Krista Wissing is a licensed therapist who has facilitated expressive arts therapy experiences for people impacted by brain injury, Alzheimer’s disease, medical illness, addiction, co-occurring disorders, and trauma. She founded The Rediscovery Project in 2012 and is currently the Day Program Coordinator for Brain Injury Network of the Bay Area. Expressive writing has been critical to Krista’s own healing process, and her work has appeared in The Molotov Cocktail, Bitchbuzz.com, and Know Journal (upcoming). She recently taught a workshop for people with brain injuries at the Institute for Poetic Medicine in Larkspur, California. We asked her to blog about the experience.

Krista WissingIn my years of working with people who’ve experienced an acquired brain injury (ABI), I often hear how destabilizing and isolating the cognitive, emotional, social, and physical aftermath of ABI can be.

The thing about ABI is that nine times out of ten there is no warning. Be it a head trauma, stroke or a virus attacking the brain, ABI barrels in like an unexpected wind and divides one’s life narrative into two—life before and life after brain injury.

It’s the kind of phenomena that rocks one’s foundation to the core.

It’s the kind of phenomena that leaves the bearer asking tough questions. Why did this happen to me? What kind of life lies ahead? Where and with whom do I belong? And what of my dreams? My purpose? My identity? My faith?

My Right Arm
Blake Herod

My right arm was my buddy. Grade school
rock and ball throwing. Nose
and scab picking. Young breast holding
nipple rolling. Holder of all the
body making, body destroying
drugs, liquor, food, for a good time
call, wait a minute, hold this.
Can you climb all the way to the
top, gesture drawing, paintbrush holding
steering wheel with three on the
tree, 5-speed, with granny gear,
floor shifting, board paddling wave
riding. Pool lap swimming. Nail pounding,
board lifting, torch holding, bike riding,
throttle whacking, old buddy.
My future by building the foundation.

Now it’s not.

It’s the kind of life-altering experience that holds the transformative potential of the Hero’s Journey and merits the healing elixirs of poetry, art, and community.

This is the heart and soul of the Rediscovery Project, a ten-week group that supports ABI survivors in uncovering their own Hero’s Journey through poetry and expressive art. The project culminates by bridging project participants with the community at large through a public poetry reading and print anthology.

Out of the Darkness anthology The project was conceived of in 2011 during a discussion I had with poetry therapist John Fox, CPT. Years earlier, during grad school, I attended John’s poetry therapy class and felt an affinity for his work with poetry as healer. By 2012, John’s organization, Institute of Poetic Medicine, was on board to graciously fund the program. Rediscovery Project was launched later that year at Brain Injury Network of the Bay Area and continued in 2013, thanks to funding from Institute of Poetic Medicine, P&W’s Readings/Workshops program, and Bread for the Journey-Marin Chapter.

When people who suffer come together to heal, magic happens. To bear witness to this is sacred. If we listen closely and with care, what might we hear? If we lean in, what might we feel? Might we hear the Hero’s call to adventure—its cadence, pulse, and urgency? Might we feel its gravitational pull, even at its most tentative, to life experiences that shake, shift, and shape us?

And when we finally wake up to our own Hero’s Journey, how do we explore the truth of what brings us here today?

Mosaic
Philippa Courtney

The white wolf wails inside my soul,
cries in the darkness—Make me whole.

Summon the shaman.
Fan the flame.
Scatter the ashes—chant my name.

Gather the pieces, shard and sliver
silent brain cells in a quiver

Fly like an arrow through the night.
Sparks ignited;
second sight.

Broken open,
given form.
Lose it all; be reborn.

Photos: Top: Krista Wissing. Credit: Kari Ovik. Lower: the anthology of work by participants in Wissing's classes.

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

LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs on La Casita and the Role of Curator

Writer, vocalist, and sound artist LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs is the author of TwERK (Belladonna, 2013), as well as the album Television. She has received scholarships, residencies, and fellowships from Cave Canem, Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center, VCCA, the Laundromat Project, the Jerome Foundation, New York Foundation for the Arts, the Eben Demarest Trust, and Millay Colony. As an independent curator and artistic director, she has directed literary/music events at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Symphony Space, Bam Café, the Schomburg Research Center for Black Culture, Dixon Place, El Museo del Barrio, The David Rubenstein Atrium. A native of Harlem, New York, LaTasha, along with writer Greg Tate, is the founder and editor of yoYO/SO4 Magazine, which has been funded by the Poets & Writers Readings & Workshops Program.

Somewhere in the Bronx there is a community garden called Hispanos Unidos. There, a cherry tree produces thirty pounds of cherries annually. Cucumber, cabbage, beans, figs, jalapeño peppers, peaches, and eggplants are grown and harvested. Tinkerbelle the cat guards the flock of chickens that live underneath the makeshift house. Inside the house on a wall is the worksheet for those who maintain the garden. The membership is ten dollars per month for men, five for women. The house serves as site of inquiry and celebration and as a location where Latinos maintain their cultural ties and language. It is a place where one can disregard the actual city residing outside the gates of the garden, where one can find respite in an array of fruits and vegetables. Where a rooster crows above the overhead subway train. It is gardens like this one that became the inspiration for Lincoln Center’s La Casita poetry and music festival.

Cheikh Hamala Diabete

In 2013, along with representatives from the Caribbean Cultural Center, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, Asian Arts Alliance, and Lincoln Center Out of Doors, I had the pleasure of being part of the curatorial team for La Casita. This was different from my previous curatorial endeavors. This was not about my personal artistic tastes or what I was attempting to accomplish on my own. This was about the collective voice and the spirit in which La Casita was founded in 2001 by LCOOD’s former program director, Jenneth Webster, and Ana Araiz, an independent producer. Connected to the traditional casitas located in the Bronx, Harlem, and the Lower East Side, its purpose has to do with the richness of poetry and music. Like the casitas, the festival is meant to serve as an oasis situated in the urban and at times cold architecture of the city. As it serves as a platform to “create and recreate traditions,” it also equips artists with a platform for political demonstration. In 2004, La Casita was one of only a handful of venues where participants protesting against the war and the Republican National Convention in NYC could do so without restriction.

Teato Proegones

The curatorial process was similar to a family conversing at a kitchen table. We talked. We debated. We laughed. We shared ideas. We shared food. It was foreign, and at the same, a familiar I had not yet experienced. We came together to build a bridge that connected us all to the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the United States. Collectively, we put together a two-day lineup of musicians and poets to perform at Lincoln Center and Teatro Pregones in the Bronx. We carried out La Casita’s goal to create a place where “poets, troubadours, bands, comedians, singers, percussionists, and storytellers could gather together to pass on las palabras; the oral traditions of the spoken word and song.” And while it has proven home for those largely rooted in the oral tradition, it has equally shared space with Pulitzer and PEN winners. Elizabeth Alexander, January Rogers, Amiri Baraka, Aracelis Girmay, Carl Hancock Rux, Joy Harjo, Ishle Yi Park, Colin Channer, Mayda del Valle, Mark Turcotte, Tara Betts, John Trudell, and Angelo Moore of Fishbone are among those who have been featured, and since 2001 over two hundred musicians and poets have performed at this casita.

La Cisita's curatorial team (in part)

By the time La Casita came to Teatro Pregones in the Bronx, I understood myself not only as a curator but also as a supporter of each and every artist featured. I felt myself representing the spirit of community gardens: places where everyone is welcomed regardless of artistic, aesthetic, and cultural background. The casita itself, which visual artist Manuel Vega was commissioned to create for this festival, is maintained every year, much like the casitas that inspired Webster and Araiz in 2001. Sunflowers, birds, Afro percussion, floating snails, lizards, Yoruba and indigenous symbolism, and cityscapes cover the tarpaulin walls while curtains of gold and silver tinsel accentuate the door and windows. Some years ago a red rooster—who in Yoruba faith is said to have assisted Oduduwa in the creation of the earth—stands at the top of the casita facing north on a weathervane, alive and stout. This year it is Shangó.

Click here for video of poet Irma Pineda reading at La Casita.

La Casita poetry and music festival does not garner much attention from the larger poetry community but deserves it. It is one of those rare places in New York where traditional and contemporary cultures are expressed and celebrated on this little stage. You are introduced to multiple languages and dialects. You are encouraged to dance. Celebration is an exchange. You learn how to celebrate. It feels much in line with Hispanos Unidos in the Bronx—where the harvest of ripe cherries and everything that grows there is shared with the community outside its gates. Where, over good food, everyone is an equal and no one is overlooked.

Click here for video of the Bodoma Garifuna Culture Band performing at La Casita.

Top Photo: LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs. Photo: Cheikh Hamala Diabate at La Casita at Lincoln Center Out of Doors. Photo: Poets, Jesus 'Papoleto' Melendez, January Rogers, Irma Pineda and Hip Hop artist Bocafloja at Day 2 of La Casita at Treato Pregones. Last Photo: Some of La Casita's curatorial team (Melody Capote, Charles Daniel Dawson, Claudia Norman, Rich Villar, Bill Bragin and Lillian Cho) with poets John Blake and Nolan Black Eagle Eskeets.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional support is provided by the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs on Coon Bidness, SO4, yoYO, and DIY publishing

Writer, vocalist, and sound artist LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs is the author of TwERK (Belladonna, 2013), as well as the album Television. She has received scholarships, residencies, and fellowships from Cave Canem, Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center, VCCA, the Laundromat Project, the Jerome Foundation, New York Foundation for the Arts, the Eben Demarest Trust, and Millay Colony. As an independent curator and artistic director, she has directed literary/music events at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Symphony Space, Bam Café, the Schomburg Research Center for Black Culture, Dixon Place, El Museo del Barrio, The David Rubenstein Atrium. A native of Harlem, New York, LaTasha, along with writer Greg Tate, is the founder and editor of yoYO/SO4 Magazine, which has been funded by the Poets & Writers Readings & Workshops Program.

Coon Bidness flyer

This is not an essay on self-publishing, but rather on what has been and what could be the motivation behind the act of publication—why we desire our words or the words of others to be read, shared, celebrated. When I returned from graduate school, Quincy Troupe was one of those few cats with whom I had permission to ask questions (often idiotic questions) and let him "call it like he sees it." Quincy’s stories brought me to the archives at the Schomburg for Research in Black Culture so that I could read Al Young and Ishmael Reed's work for a Cave Canem Legacy conversation I was invited to "moderate" between the two of them. There I discovered just how much their roles as editors and publishers were connected to David Walker, Frederick Douglas, Martin Delany, Margaret Walker, Sun Ra, Black Herman, Black Panther Party, Jayne Cortez, Eugene B. Redmond, Nation of Islam, E. Ethelbert Miller, Jessica Care Moore, Sylvester Clark Long, and the litany of street literature sold by vendors on 125th in Harlem. There is a history. Yet in 2009, for Greg Tate and myself, it appeared a handful of folks had forgotten.

Our little journey in creating a literary/arts journal began with a listserv post. The complaint had to do with the lack of publications supporting writers of African ancestry. What followed was a trail of debates, heated insults, and what I found to be no resolution. To Greg and myself, the answer seemed so simple. My previous research on Young and Reed’s work, their long history of editorial work and creating publications to support work outside of their own, was also part of that answer. To complain about erasure and/or exclusion of black and brown voices in major publications bored us. And in our rant over the rant, we decided to create a magazine. Our argument: If you have a problem with the absence of voices not heard, create your own shit. And thus, our first collective venture into creating a literary/arts journal was Coon Bidness.

SO4Cover

I will admit, we were challenging folks with the name. Taken from a Julius Hemphill album, we were paying tribute to the album and challenging those who felt themselves powerless in the realms of literary publications. Suffice to say, the political landscape of this literary universe can feel cryptic at times. During our call for submissions, it felt that only mainstream publications were more desirable than our meager DIY. Polite smiles don’t always tell you if someone respects you, your work, or your madness. Even so, they don’t tell you if you’re a member of their clan. Nonetheless, we insisted on making a point. We found a coalition with those bold enough to understand the initiative to create other avenues where artists and writers we believed in could be featured. The publication took a year to be produced. Greg brought on board LaRonda Davis to design the magazine and Sun Singleton to copy edit. As a bonus feature, Coon Bidness was two journals back to back. SO4 (a nod to a short lived rap/poetry trio in the late '90s and to Fader magazine) would consist largely of poetry and visual art. The tone between the two was also different. In order to print and distribute it, we decided on MagCloud, an online “self-service content publishing platform” that printed on demand.

On January 11, 2010, thanks to former associate curator Rashida Bumbray, we held our pre-inaugural launch party at The Kitchen Performance Space. The concept: a variety show featuring readings by contributors mashed up with performers and visual artists. Our little showcase would provide a preview for what we felt the journal could itself become: a baritone saxophone player and UK Punk veteran; Stevie Wonder covers in Maori; a text on Oscar Grant recited in French and created into a video performance; avant-garde Puerto Rican poetry; an opera singer performing a Debarge tune while accompanying a poet acting as comedian; a choreographer interpreting a painting and the visual artist functioning as music producer; traditional Tahitian dancers. And Quincy Troupe. No one saw this spectacle coming.

Coon Bidness flyer w/ Mr. Met

Quincy—because it was a launch party—did not expect compensation for everyone who participated. When I handed him two checks (one from our Kitchen budget and the other from Poets & Writers), he looked up at me and said, “Oh shit! I’m getting paid?” For some reason, he forgot, or I forgot to send the memo. It wasn’t a lot of money either. But the satisfaction in his tone told me how much he appreciated the gesture. A hard truth within the poetry community has to do with the absence of honorariums. Often poets are not paid for public readings. Often poets are expected to do so because that is what the landscape has established for so many years. And as much as our little journal was about the act of creating more publishing opportunities, one of our personal mantras has been Abbey Lincoln’s “You Gotta Pay the Band.” The ‘band’ is what we fashioned it to be. It included as many poets as there were dancers; as many musicians as there were video artists. And all of them deserved compensation. The time we dedicate to our craft deserves at least one bill to be paid (or any number of monthly, weekly Metro Cards) after we’ve shared ourselves with an audience.

Coon Bidness existed as one issue and later transformed into yoYO. SO4 remains as the counterpart to whatever we decide the issue to be named. The beauty of this is freedom and improvisation. Time and deep listening will determine what aspects of ourselves will be represented and featured. CB, yoYO, and SO4 were for us examples of what is possible and what has always been possible, and perhaps the seed that brought forth a Fence, an African Voices, a New Yorker, a Callaloo. Someone decided to create a platform for what they felt was necessary, for what they felt was absent from the conversation of letters. Be it a cultural or aesthetic argument, the point (or goal) is not so much about longevity but that of being part of the conversation, showing through example what is possible and what builds that architecture. DIY is just that.

Two DIY journals to keep your eyes on:

Bone Bouquet, founded by Krystal Languell, a biannual online/print journal that publishes the new writing by female poets and artists both established and emerging.

As/Us, founded by Tanaya Winder, a literary and scholarly journal with an interest in publishing works by "underrepresented writers particularly Indigenous women and women of color."

Top Photo: Coon Bidness Invite Credit: Nevada Lightfoot. Second Photo: SO4 Cover. Middle Photo: Coon Bidness Invite with Mr. Met. Photo: yoYO/SO4.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional support is provided by the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs on La Casa Azul Bookstore and The Bookstore as Common Ground

Writer, vocalist, and sound artist LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs is the author of TwERK (Belladonna, 2013), as well as the album, Television. LaTasha has received scholarships, residencies, and fellowships from Cave Canem, Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center, VCCA, The Laundromat Project, The Jerome Foundation, New York Foundation for the Arts, the Eben Demarest Trust, and Millay Colony. As an independent curator and artistic director, she has directed literary/music events at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Symphony Space, Bam Café, The Schomburg Research Center for Black Culture, Dixon Place, El Museo del Barrio, The David Rubenstein Atrium. A native of Harlem, LaTasha and writer Greg Tate are the founders and editors of yoYO/SO4 Magazine.

La Casa Azul Staff

The day is January 6, 2014. In all fairness, I have never attended the Three Kings parade organized by El Museo del Barrio in my many years as a Harlemite. What often gets attention is Thanksgiving followed by Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa. But the gold, frankincense, and myrrh I remember from childhood. Los Reyes found the divine child by following the North Star across the desert for twelve days to Bethlehem. Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar (aka Europe, Arabia, and Africa) travelled by horse, elephant and camel. When they arrived, they presented baby Jesus with three symbolic gifts. I remember the story but now in the context of Babaaláwo and the Yoruba tradition; how three Babas determine through long earned wisdom the means of acknowledging. Three is a magic number. I am equally curious about the parade since witnessing one year a long line of folks on 111th and Lexington waiting to purchase the sweet baby Jesus bread from a local shop. This year I make an effort to attend the parade now in its 37th year, not because I am Christian or I’m hungry, but to show support for La Casa Azul Bookstore.

There are days I stroll over to this tiny colorful bookstore, am greeted by the founder and owner Aurora Anaya-Cerda, and wonder, “Woman, do you ever sleep?” As an “educator and supporter of cultural events in the East Harlem community for more than eight years,” I wonder how she keeps motivated and remains passionate about literacy. I wonder, Why open a bookstore when between 2000 and 2007 more than 1,000 bookstores across the country closed? I find myself at this place often because of this tirelessness that drives both Aurora and her staff. Together, they maintain a calendar filled with monthly programming that often serves as a safe haven, a family reunion, a community forum, and a charge of intellectual and creative support.

Author's Day

I wanted to dedicate a post to La Casa Azul Bookstore to acknowledge a space committed to fostering exchange in East Harlem and Latin America and as an example of community building. If I were to imagine the architecture of La Casa Azul’s lineage, it may include Frida Kahlo, Tim Z. Hernandez, Julia de Burgos, Junot Díaz, Rigoberto González, Pablo Neruda, Yuyi Morales, Eduardo Galeano, and La Bruja, to name a few. When my book first arrived, one of my personal goals was that it be available in the community that I grew up with, who eat the same food I often relish about but must enjoy in moderation. It mattered that the place of my birth, my navigating of Central and East Harlem’s streets–switching back and forth from Black English to Broken Spanish to brief words in Walof or Arabic–be the place where I would see my book carried. And as independent bookstores are back on the steady rise–if you haven’t made it over to Berl’s Poetry Shop in Dumbo, it’s worth the visit–I want this little bookstore on 103 and Lexington to prosper.

It is Monday, and the downpour by 9 a.m. is pretty fierce. Aurora has been named one of the Honorary Madrinas for this year’s parade and has selflessly invited local authors and customers to walk with the store’s banner. I accept the invitation because my time living in Harlem has taught me a big lesson when it comes to local business. On June 1, 2012, La Casa Azul Bookstore opened it doors. And though its founder and staff have successfully created this “literature hub” for El Barrio, it will need the local community (along with those who live in Williamsburg, Kentucky, and Yonkers) to support it as well.

Papoleto

As we waited on 106 and Park Ave for the signal to begin, news came that the camels (yes camels…long before there were even sheep) had arrived. One of La Casa Azul’s staff members made makeshift maracas the night before out of tiny plastic cups, rice and tape. The Three Kings gladly take one and while the samba band is playing a few yards behind us, we giggle and shake our maracas. Poet, playwright, performance artist and long-time El Barrio resident Jesús ‘Papoleto’ Meléndez, the King Emeritus, holds his gift and waves from his bike driven carriage. Once we reached 116th, we turn west to Lexington where the parade ends. Aurora turns in her Madrina crown and robe to El Museo’s staff and we all gather to eat on 2nd Ave., still energized by the sounds, the walk, the children, the camels. As we sit there and eat our cubanos, maduros, tostones, and bacalao salads, I am still wondering how she does it all: From the selecting of books, the tin hearts with red ribbons, totes, and bright robellos to maintaining an online presence, programming events, book signings, workshops, and everything else that goes into being a community advocate. No, I really want this bookstore to have a long life for as long as Aurora will allow it.

aurora with camel

Group Photo: Aurora Anaya-Cerda and Staff at Three King's Day. Credit: Nevada Lightfoot. Middle Photo: LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs at 2nd Annual Local Author's Day. Credit: Aurora Anaya-Cerda. Photo: Jesus "Papoleto" Melendez at Three King's Day. Credit: Nevada Lightfoot. Photo: Selfie of La Casa Azul's Aurora Anaya Cerda with Camel.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional support is provided by the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Traveling Trajectories and Sequences with Poet Shin Yu Pai

Shin Yu Pai is the author of several poetry books, including AUX ARCS (La Alameda, 2013), Adamantine (White Pine, 2010), Sightings (1913 Press, 2007), and Equivalence (La Alameda, 2003). She has also published a number of limited edition artist’s books, including Hybrid Land (Filter Press, 2010), Works on Paper (Convivio Bookworks, 2007), and The Love Hotel Poems (Press Lorentz, 2006).

A visual artist, she has exhibited her work at the Paterson Museum, The McKinney Avenue Contemporary, and the Three Arts Club of Chicago. She is a former curator for The Wittliff Collections and has taught creative writing at Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas at Dallas. Pai received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and studied at Naropa University.

A recipient of awards from the Arkansas Arts Council, 4Culture, the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, and the Cambridge Arts Council, Pai has completed residencies at the Ragdale Foundation, Taipei Artist Village, Soul Mountain, and is a three-time fellow of The MacDowell Colony. Over the years, P&W has supported numerous events she has taken part in as a writer in the Seattle, Washington area.

Shin Yu PaiWhat are your reading dos and don’ts?
There are few things worse than not being able to hear the reader you’ve travelled distances to hear, so I almost always use the microphone if one is given, and I test it with the audience before proceeding with a reading. I also share information with an audience on the contexts of my poems to engage them in the process that informed the writing, so that my poems can be more accessible. I adhere to the time given to me and respect the time of my co-readers and audiences, and am conscious of listener fatigue. The don’ts are implicit in the dos.

How do you prepare for a reading?
When I started giving poetry readings fifteen years ago, I would practice reading my poems out loud and time the material, writing out comments in the margins of my work of information I thought might be helpful for an audience. Over time, as I’ve matured as a writer and grown more into who I am as a person (an unapologetic introvert with a penchant for occasional extroversion when it comes to poetry), this approach felt too polished or rehearsed, and less spontaneous.

While I never just wing an event with zero preparation, I do now often leave preparing for an event until the day of a reading to see what feels true to me in a given moment. I try to be who I am in front of an audience so that the poems can speak from my heart. I aspire to show up, instead of acting out a public persona.

I also give thought to the venue for which I will be reading. When I read recently at a P&W–supported event with The Wing Luke Museum in Seattle, I thought about the audience for the museum, which has a focus on Asian-American history and identity. I shared poems from my most recent book Aux Arcs on race and my experiences as an Asian-American woman living and working in the South. As a museum studies graduate student, I had spent time at The Wing cataloguing collections, including loaned items from the artist Roger Shimomura. So I also shared a poem that I had written inspired by contemplating Shimomura’s pop culture self-portrait of himself as “Washington Crossing the Delaware.”

Have the disciplines of photography and art curating crossed over into your writing, and the way you think about poetry and presentation?
Poetic presentation is not simply about an experience of activating randomly selected poems by reading them aloud to an audience. I think in terms of trajectories and sequences—images that talk to and across one another for specific audiences based on themes that can arc across different bodies of work from the present and past. I think in terms of editing/curating for presentation and making spaces for the listener to enter the stream of consciousness.

I have often been asked to give slide show presentations in which I talk about the influence of visual artists on my work in tandem with reading my poems. I do think that these sort of hybrid presentations can be a useful way to engage an audience in one’s creative and analytical process.

Presentations are really a kind of event or happening—for the book launch of Aux Arcs, I invited artist Whiting Tennis, who provided the cover art for my book, to perform his folk rock music at the event. Since the poems reflect on race and the experience of living in the South, I asked Whiting if he would perform some of his more lyrical folk songs, in particular a ballad about John Brown to create a bridge to the poems.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
You never know when something you read or say in a workshop will light a fire for someone and inspire them to explore their own story or creative expression. The value of literary programs is in providing a model for the community that individuals of all ages, experiences, and educational backgrounds might explore the richness, inherent worth, and complexity of their own vision—that audience members may see something of their own experience mirrored in my poems, and take that experience and run with it. Poetry is for the community and acts as tool to build community. When I say community, I don’t mean the literary audience of poets and writers, academics and peers. I mean everyday people engaged with the struggle and art of living fully from an authentic place that brings together mind, spirit, and heart.

Photo: Shin Yu Pai. Credit: Daniel Carrillo.
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.

LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs on Building Your Lineage

Writer, vocalist, and sound artist LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs is the author of TwERK (Belladonna, 2013), as well as the album Television. LaTasha has received scholarships, residencies, and fellowships from Cave Canem, Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center, VCCA, The Laundromat Project, The Jerome Foundation, New York Foundation for the Arts, the Eben Demarest Trust, and Millay Colony. As an independent curator and artistic director, she has directed literary/music events at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Symphony Space, Bam Café, The Schomburg Research Center for Black Culture, Dixon Place, El Museo del Barrio, The David Rubenstein Atrium. A native of Harlem, LaTasha and writer Greg Tate are the founders and editors of yoYO/SO4 Magazine.

LaTasha N. Diggs photo

Building the Architecture of My Lineage, Part 1:

I do not recall the entire conversation, only the moment when the poet Hoa Nguyen suggested to a class of writers that we figure out the "architecture of our lineage." Her talk had to do with her life as a writer and building communitya community that reflected one’s own personal influences and peers. One that reflected each of us as writers. She did not offer detailed instructions. There was no how-to-book on building community. But the phrase “the architecture of my lineage” left an imprint on me, and upon returning from graduate school to New York City, building community took on a number of manifestations in my life.

My creative work, for some twenty years, fluctuates between poetry and music with small moments in theatre and media. My decision to relocate to California was two-fold. I needed a break from New York. I needed to figure out if I was indeed a writer. Those two years away meant that my return to New York would require a type of resurgence. At the same time, my interests became less and less about my work. In fact, I thought little of it until the passing of Miriam Makeba on November 8, 2008. She was born the same month and year as my mother and despite obvious differences, I felt honoring her was to honor my mother’s generation. Miriam was definitely part of that lineage. So without much thought, I called Darrel McNeil, the associate producer of music programming at BAM Café Live and asked if I could assemble a tribute to her as a free concert. To my surprise, I got the ok.

What came next was a crash-course in project management. I had to write up a project descriptionsomething brief, something that would be handed over to other staff members. I needed to come up with a technical rider. If you languish over writing seventy-four-word artist statements, try your hand at concert proposals. The main focus of this event would take inspiration from a Makeba concert at the Salonger in Sweden in 1966. From this show, I proposed that selections from her catalogue be re-imagined and that the poets write new work for this occasion.

akilah oliver

This tribute was to also reflect my artistic and cultural influences and admirations. It needed to represent the African Diaspora. So I invited poets Sandra Maria Esteves, Akliah Oliver and Lynne Procope. Having these three women poets meant having three generations of women who greatly informed my own work. I also invited vocalists Tamar-kali, Alkebulan X and Abena Koomsom (also a poet) who brought their artistic specialties from the Gullah Islands, Puerto Rico (via The Bronx) and Ghana. Lastly was the musical ensemble that consisted of Roman Diaz on percussion, Mazz Swift (also a featured vocalist) on violin, Essiet Okun on upright bass, and Carlos Almeida on guitar—all under the direction of Onel Mulet. Cuba, Trinidad, Ghana, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, St Louis, and the Gullah Islands were all here. I felt this represented just how far Miriam’s voice had reached.

mama africa flyer

I had produced a handful of music and poetry events in the 1990s, but this was different. More than ten years had passed. We needed rehearsal time. I needed a budget. BAM Café could only provide so much and a suggestion was made to have The Black Rock Coalition step in as a co-presenter. The BRC has had a long history with poets, and their very first concert at The Kitchen featured the late Sekou Sundiata. So it made sense. But even with the inclusion of BRC, my budget could not cover the even most modest of honorariums much less rehearsal hours. That is when the decision to apply for a Poets & Writers matching grant came into play. I suggested that the BRC apply on behalf of the poets, and the request was approved. And on the night of January 16, 2009, we celebrated the life and work of Miriam to a packed house of artists, non-artists from several generations and cultural backgrounds.

I did not foresee this impulse that would lead me to organize an event such as this. Now, life as an artist personally requires the ability to pull away from the front stage or podium and allow other artists feature their creative talents. For on those rare occasions when I am an ensemble member, I know how much the opportunity inspires my own creative growth. I returned to New York City wanting to worry little about my work and ended up learning the joys, struggles, rewards of being a young curator/producer.

For now, part of my mission to create musical/literary events that are both cross-generational and cross-cultural is a personal and constant investigation of what “building the architecture of my lineage” means.

Top Photo: LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs. Credit: LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs. Middle Photo: Akilah Oliver. Credit LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs. Bottom Photo: Mama Africa Flyer.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional support is provided by the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Bryan Allen Fierro, Writers Exchange Fiction Winners' The Space Between Here and There

Bryan Allen Fierro, Poets & Writers' Maureen Egen Writer's Exchange fiction winner, blogs about winning the award and his emotional literary journey, which carried him from Alaska to New York City. 

Fierro grew up in the environs of Los Angeles, California—Pico Rivera, Montebello, and Monterey Park. He received his BA in English/Writing from the University of Colorado at Denver, and recently graduated form Pacific University in Oregon with his MFA in Fiction. His thesis "Dodger Blue Will Fill Your Soul" is a collection of short stories that captures the fragile heart of the durable East Los Angeles community. The area serves as the gravity of his storytelling, which searches out both language and culture as a means of preservation. He is currently at work on his first novel, Shangri-LA. Fierro's stories earned him the 2013 Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award (WEX) in fiction and a second-place finish in the 2013 Lorian Hemingway Fiction Contest. His stories have appeared in Cooper Nickel and Quarterly West. Bryan lives in Anchorage, Alaska, where he serves his community as a firefighter and paramedic for the Anchorage Fire Department.

“The highest level of consciousness one can attain is to live in a constant state of gratitude.” - Unnamed shopkeeper in Molokai gift shop

It has been two months since my visit to New York City to participate as one of the two Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award (WEX) recipients. The little story that could, "100% Cherokee," finally found a home at Poets and Writers, thanks to the discerning eyes of a talented staff, and ultimately, author Ann Napolitano, a very gentle and soft-spoken soul whoas the final vote for the fiction selection for the State of Alaskafound value in my work. Up to that point, no one had wanted a story about rogue coyotes.

When Bonnie Rose Marcus at Poets and Writers called to inform me that I'd won the WEX award, I was humbled, dumbstruck really. My first thought was to contact my writing mentor, southern poet Jake Adam York—the one person who had forever strengthened my fiction. He taught me to value simplicity and appreciate an exactness in prose that seemed mathematical. He drew shapes on paper and instructed me to write according to their dimensions: a process of circles, oblongs, and trapezoidal narratives. He taught me about Muddy Waters and Thelonious Monk, BBQ, and small batch bourbon. He showed me that we as writers all carry something in us bigger than ourselves—some equivalent of a cross we must bear. For him, writing was a way to express his unflinching dedication to the voice and courage of the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement.

It had been six years since we last spoke. I wrote an email to him that stated two important points. Number one: I was sorry for not keeping in touch. I had been too embarrassed about not writing more often. That, in addition to a wife with MS and living in Alaska, changed me wholly from the inside out. A new life had burrowed into my previous existence. Number two: I won. I won this magnificent opportunity and I wanted to share it with him more than anyone else in the world. It was only when I searched for Jake Adam York's contact information did I discover that he had died four months earlier. A sudden stroke had robbed him of life and us of words we’re incapable of stringing together for ourselves.

There would be no southern, twang-laced congratulations.

I recently unpacked an old box I’d kept in storage for the last five years. Inside was a sealed business letter-sized envelope addressed to the University of North Carolina Admissions Committee—a letter of recommendation for my graduate admittance written by Jake. His signature was scrawled across the envelope's glued seam. The contents inside held his unfettered opinion of me as a writer—and perhaps also as a person. We would be having a conversation after all. But I haven’t opened the letter yet. The timing isn’t right. I’ve reserved that singular moment for the first day I sit to write at the Jentel Artist Residency in Wyoming, an additional immeasurable gift from the WEX Award.

I could go on at length about the WEX award. I could tell you about the reading in SoHo in front of an informed and literary audience at McNally-Jackson, or the daily networking that filled me with hope as vital as the air in my lungs. Then there are the friendships I will value for a lifetime. All of these events and new relationships are the easy take away from an award such as this one (which is unique, by the way—there are no other awards quite like this one). Yet I won’t go on at length about the importance and depth of the experiences I enjoyed. I will simply end with this: The Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award has become a fulcrum in my writing life. It pieced together the fragments of my past, while pointing to all the possibilities of my future. I am forever indebted.

Photo: Bryan Allen Fierro. Photo Credit: Dein Bruce

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

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