Readings & Workshops Blog

Kamilah Aisha Moon on Nurturing and Celebrating Intergenerational Voices

P&W-funded Kamilah Aisha Moon currently lives in Brooklyn, NY, and is the author of She Has a Name (Four Way Books). A recipient of fellowships to the Prague Summer Writing Institute, the Fine Arts Work Center, Cave Canem, and the Vermont Studio Center, Moon's work has been featured in several journals and anthologies, including Harvard Review, jubilat, Sou’wester, Oxford American, Lumina, Callaloo, Villanelles, Gathering Ground, and The Ringing Ear. She has taught English and Creative Writing at Medgar Evers College-CUNY, Drew University, and Adelphi University. Moon holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College.

Kamilah Aisha Moon author photoPoets & Writers funds a wonderful workshop at a senior citizen recreational center in Manhattan called the Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center. A good friend of mine, Samantha Thornhill, regularly facilitates the workshop. I recently had the pleasure of being a guest instructor for one session, and it was an afternoon that I will continue to treasure for many reasons. What a treat to sit at the table with these women and experience their hard-won insights and revelations, their beauty. To witness their respect for what reading and writing poetry has always afforded them—how it delights, soothes and edifies; the sweet and profound awe it inspires.

Poetry is time travel. The opening free-write exercise “Give me back...” asked the women to reflect on the past. They transformed as they shared fifteen minutes later the many reveries they brought back to life, eyes sparkling as they showed through metaphor and great sensory detail what they once had and who they used to be "back in the day," and what their once young, supple bodies could accomplish (one of the ladies being a dancer). "Give me back my long, luxurious curls...nights with my husband before the kids came along. Just give me back my husband, gone now." They recalled what mattered and still does, expressed gratitude for what rose in the wake of loss along the way. There was sensuality, sass, and a healthy irreverence from a woman in her eighties as she read mantras for living that got her this far in life, until her respiratory problems took over and shortened her time in our session.

We discussed persona poems, compared lyric to narrative poetry, and explored space as breath in a poem. We studied form as the setting and craft as tools to compose these word-diamonds we hew from our personal experiences. The afternoon sun poured into the windows; we all glowed. It reminded me of the line in a Rumi poem, “Sunlight fell upon the wall / the wall received a borrowed splendor.” The sheen of discovery, recognition, acknowledgment, and transcendence filled the room. I always want to remember and keep sacred that this is a human business. As poet Jon Sands often says, we are “emotional historians.”

Two years ago, I taught a Poets & Writers-sponsored workshop filled with sixth grade honor students at the Young Women's Leadership Academy in Queens. For ten weeks, we focused on elements of craft and discussed the work of published poets, unpacking what each poem had to offer us. We created an anthology. These girls were gifted and bright beyond their young years, their poems suffused simultaneously with innocence and wisdom. Kristalyn proclaimed, “My name is a dragon / just like me! It has power / and can let loose.” In an ode to her fingers, Tearah wrote “You clasp my knuckles in hold my pen, my writing sword!”

The young women made me hopeful for their individual futures and the future of the world. The more mature ladies filled me with the strength to face my own golden years with grace, and to handle the inevitable curves and challenges ahead with the same aplomb they exhibited. I was struck by how, in both workshops, the students' faces shone with the same wonder, and conveyed a careful stewardship and thoughtfulness when giving such astute feedback and suggestions. I was honored to encourage the young women to experience poetry for the first time, and equally honored to witness many of the older women use poetry to relive some major events that shaped their lives.

Among the many important moments, both of these workshops affirmed that poetry contains a brilliance that we can access and own for a lifetime. Through poetry, we can transform ourselves and change others as we sit around each other's poems like campfires for warmth and sustenance. For as long as we can hold our “writing swords,” we possess the power to draw breath, to speak, and to listen.

Photo: Kamilah Aisha Moon. Photo Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

Support for Readings/Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Koon Woon Passes the Torch to Amber Nelson

P&W-supported poet Koon Woon, October’s Writer in Residence, was born in a timeless village in China in 1949. In 1960 he immigrated to Washington State, first to the logging town of Aberdeen, then to Seattle, where he now resides. He turned to poetry while he was a mathematics and philosophy student coping with mental illness. Later he attended the workshops of Nelson Bentley at the University of Washington. At the age of forty-eight, Koon’s first book, The Truth in Rented Rooms, was published by Kaya Press

Koon Woon

When I reached the age of fifty-six, I joked, “I have outlived Theodore Roethke by one year already, but he is immortal.” Now that I am sixty-four, am I a little bit jaded as far as poetry is concerned? I’ve received some small recognitions and awards for my poetry, but more than anything, poetry enabled me to weather the storms of life, gave me an aesthetic sense, and encouraged me to ask questions. I am glad that some young people today are as fervent as I was back in my early thirties about poetry. Now I am passing the torch to younger poets, as well as publishers, organizers, and advocates of poetry.

It seemed fitting, for my final post, to hand that torch to one such up-and-comer. When Amber Nelson was fresh out of college in 2005, she and Will and Sarah Gallien hatched the e-journal alice blue review. They sought to give a voice to poets that “major” print journals ignore. Amber also created handmade chapbooks published by alice blue books. She’s worked with such innovative Seattle groups as APRIL (Authors, Publishers, and Readers of Independent Literature).

These young people have merged information science and technology with poetics. They give webinars and organize online Google hangouts. Their poems are tweeted and texted, nimble fingers portraying nimble minds. I’m sad when I imagine my books going out of print, but I’m excited that new innovators are populating the scene. What they do—I am banking my last poetry dollar on it—is crucial to our survival.

And now, here’s Amber in her own words:

Amber Nelson

Will Gallien, Sarah Gallien (then Burgess), and I founded alice blue review in a shared apartment in the Northgate neighborhood of Seattle. It was founded out of a desire to see and publish more of the work we really liked. We were interested in taking good writing seriously, but not taking ourselves too seriously. As such, we wrote up our mission statement:

We’re a confused collective of marble designers who, after discovering a set of encyclopedias, decided to stick our pinkies into the asphalt parking-lot of words. We seek innovative poetry and prose, work that quivers nervously for attention, work that teethes endlessly on doorknobs. We could toss out a grocery-list of writers—from Spicer to Borges, or O’Connor to O’Hara—but that would confuse you. alice blue is published on a hidden mountain-top between Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington.

We also wrote silly bios for our masthead, for example: “I want to be just like you when I grow up. I figure all I need is a lobotomy and some tights.”

That was my own bio—a quote from The Breakfast Club. And our rejection letters, which we spent a lot of time working on, were a combination of the “standard form letter” and language stolen from writers we love. We had a ridiculous shared blog, where we posted our first rejection letters (among other ridiculous things).

In starting alice blue, we were also responding, in a way, to what we saw as a serious lack of literary community in Seattle. That’s not to say that there weren’t people writing, and writing communities in Seattle, but they weren't involved in or interested in the work that was compelling to us. There were (and still are) plenty of open mics catering to the slam/spoken word community. There was a lot of "nature writing.” They weren’t, however, “our” community. So we hit the Internet and made one for ourselves.

We split up—geographically—for a while, but kept publishing alice blue, which became better known. After graduate school at Boise State, I moved back to Seattle and got involved with some of the writers Koon mentioned. With Greg Bem, I founded the Seattle Poetry Panels (SPP), influenced by his experiences in the world of library science and an invitation to him from Google to host an online reading via Google hangout. So we started SPP and invited Paul Nelson to host our first panel on the “State of Seattle Poetry.” You can watch that here:

Simultaneous to all of this, I was working on alice blue review and alice blue books. I was working on a chapbook called MONSTER: A GLOTTOCHRONOLOGY that really was a monster to make. There was a letter M hand cut from the cover, a velum slip, and a double-signature. As a palate cleanser, I decided to do Shotgun Wedding, a quick and dirty chapbook series—something that would just be photocopied and saddle stapled. I focused on writers from the Pacific Northwest whom I thought everyone should know about. I’m working on the next batch of this series now.
I have several readings coming up, and a book release party for my first full-length book (out from Coconut Books) on November 1 at Open Books. I have my friends in the literary community to thank. We are a supportive bunch here, I think. Everywhere I turn, it seems, one writer is reaching out to another.

Photos: Top: Koon Woon reads with Beacon Bards at the Station coffee shop in Seattle. Credit: Greg Bem. Below: Amber Nelson. Credit: Amber Nelson.
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.

Double Take Asks Writers to Look at All Sides of Issues Big, Small, and Strange

In October, Poets & Writers supported readings by several writers at apexart in New York City. Project director Marie Burns blogs about the unique Double Take: Writers Reading Series.

Chris SorrentinoAuthor and Bookforum editor Albert Mobilio organizes apexart’s Double Take: Writers Reading Series. Each season, participants are tasked with the same assignment: Select a partner, reflect upon a shared experience, and produce creative responses—essays, stories, poems—inspired by that topic. Both participants are then invited to read what they’ve written back to back, showing just how different perception and prose can be.

Earlier this month, with generous funding from Poets & Writers, Inc., apexart hosted two Double Take readings. As the crowd packed into apexart’s lower Manhattan gallery, they listened to Library of America editor in chief Geoffrey O’Brien and his writing partner B. Kite describe the twisted plot of a futuristic adventure film without ever disclosing the film’s name. Rather than reflect upon an experience the pair had already shared, they decided to watch this new movie separately and write without comparing notes. The audience was captivated by the delivery of each essay as they followed the exciting narration of a sci-fi thriller.

Vijay Seshadri, the Michele Tolela Myers Professor of Writing at Sarah Lawrence College, and his writing partner, Rachel Cohen, focused on a gallery-hopping hobby they haven’t been able to enjoy since Rachel moved from New York to Boston. Their friendship stemmed from a shared love of art history, and Vijay wrote specifically about the Museum of Modern Art’s 2011 De Kooning Retrospective. Sharing past museum anecdotes, Vijay described how he wished his friend Rachel had been around to wander the galleries with him on one of his seven visits to the exhibition. His essay and poems were a lovely ode to their friendship and to their shared love of culture.

During our second reading of the season, we heard from Nelly Reifler and Cathy Park Hong as they imagined futuristic surveillance technologies. Nelly wrote a product summary for a newly released mindreading app with the capacity to track streams of thought while scanning the user’s subconscious and the subconscious of others in their memory. The app could explore hopes, worries, and fantasies while recalling moments as image data. Her story noted all of the app’s “benefits” including the app’s ability to reevaluate all contributing sides of a story in painstaking detail. Most audience members were relieved they weren’t due for an upgraded OS anytime soon.

Continuing this theme of prying into personal lives, we heard from Chris Sorrentino, a core faculty member at the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y, and Andrew Hultkrans, on one of history’s most notorious patrons of surveillance. Before delving into the complex character of Richard Nixon and discussing his place in history, Chris and Andrew screened a series of political advertisements from Nixon’s 1968 campaign to share with the audience. The late Sixties were a troubled and turbulent time, and each campaign ad was more intense than the next, ending with the ominous slogan, “This time vote like your whole world depended on it.” The campaign clips set the stage for the Nixon Double Take. While discussing egos and opposing truths in politics, the audience couldn’t help but think of the government shutdown and that maybe next time, they should vote like their whole world depended on it.

Photo: Chris Sorrentino discusses Nixon.

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 Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and Friends of Poets & Writers.

Koon Woon’s Lessons from Uncle Sum

P&W-supported poet Koon Woon, October’s Writer in Residence, was born in a timeless village in China in 1949. In 1960 he immigrated to Washington State, first to the logging town of Aberdeen, then to Seattle, where he now resides. He turned to poetry while he was a mathematics and philosophy student coping with mental illness. Later he attended the workshops of Nelson Bentley at the University of Washington. At the age of forty-eight, Koon’s first book, The Truth in Rented Rooms, was published by Kaya Press

Koon WoonMy Uncle Sum was my second maternal uncle and my mentor, a man of three teachings: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. He told his wife that the proper place to wash his clothes was at the river by the ancestral shrine, the part of the chicken to give their nephew was the thigh, and the way to regulate the household was to avoid unnecessary noise.

He told me that the short pines behind his house in the village could be used to make furniture for newlyweds. Their scent, he said, would lure the Shaolin Buddhist monks, but the way to fight is by avoiding fights. The way to use an abacus is to balance equals with equals, the ebb and flow of the Tao. He read me stories in our Canton flat. He signed his name to my school report cards when my father was faraway in America.

Literature comes from great love—love for stories and books, love for the unseen and the invisible, but mostly love for humanity. My Uncle Sum taught me those things, and when I won my first literary prize, he told me that was the time to work even harder.

In taking my cues from Uncle Sum, I stood in opposition to my pragmatic father, who labored to support his wife and eight restless children. After I joined him in the United States, we lived in the housing projects. At one point, he worked as a fry cook for a restaurant owned by the mayor. Another time, he was forced to take a job at a restaurant that fronted a whorehouse, where I helped him in the kitchen until the wee hours of the morning. It was a traumatizing experience (and no doubt a contributor to my struggle with mental illness), which I blocked out as I hit the school books, became the literary chair of my high school, and won a science scholarship.

But that’s only part of my journey to becoming a poet. Here are my instructions for the rest: After a promising career as a student, begin a slow descent into the hell of mental illness. Live in flea bag hotels or on the street. Get confined to psychiatric hospitals and jails. Live in tenement rooms with a sink in the corner and a hotplate to cook pinto beans and bacon rinds, reading the poetry of Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and Anne Sexton while not caring if your soul survives. Labor under the glare of a bare bulb trying to write as tenderly as Pablo Neruda and as daringly as Cesar Vallejo. You won’t have money, but you will have a strange, unshakable optimism about humanity.

The latter is what I learned from Uncle Sum. When he was across the Pacific dying of liver cancer, I was starting my life as a poet. I felt like I was drowning in shallow water. But armed with poetry, I survived, as strong as a cockroach.

Everyone wants to win the Yale Younger Poets prize or the Pulitzer. But even winning the Nobel does not guarantee nobility of soul. As I said before, I write because I have to. It is the exorcism of all that is still immature in me.

Photo: Koon Woon reads with Beacon Bards at the Station coffee shop in Seattle. Credit: Greg Bem
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.

Charles Alexander's Grand Collage

P&W-supported writer Charles Alexander is a poet, bookmaker, and founder/director of Chax Press. He is the author of five full-length books of poetry and ten chapbooks, and the editor of a critical work on the state of the book arts in America. His most recent book of poetry is Pushing Water, published by Cuneiform Press. Some Sentences Look for Some Periods, a chapbook, has just been released by Little Red Leaves. He has taught literature and writing at Naropa University, the University of Arizona, and elsewhere. He lives in Tucson, Arizona, with his partner, the painter Cynthia Miller.

Charles Alexander

What makes your press unique?

I might say, with Frank O’Hara, that we are “trying to keep it somewhere between mess and message,” i.e. while we have an overall purpose to support a broad range of innovative American poetry, the books happen because something grabs me. I have been asked how I can reconcile Chax Press’s interest in both the poetics of Black Mountain and that of language poetry; I see no contradiction in that reach, but rather an openness to various forms.

We also show our roots, i.e. that we began publishing books with handset type, printed on the Vandercook Press. We still publish such books, along with a lot more trade paperback books of terrific poetry.

Another fact that makes us unique: Chax has never offered a prize, and has almost never submitted our books for prizes, because we don’t believe that competition and recognition (of that variety) are what it’s all about.
What recent project and/or program have you been especially proud of and why?

The work of Linh Dinh seems to me some of the most creative and challenging poetry of our time. I am so glad we have been able to publish three of his books, including The Deluge, an anthology of new Vietnamese poetry, which he edited.

And of course, it doesn't hurt to look at recent books on our shelves by Alice Notley (Reason and Other Women), Maureen Owen (Edges of Water), Lisa Samuels (Anti M), and Will Alexander (Inside the Earthquake Palace), among others.

Plus, I get to work with young interns with terrific ideas.

As a book artist trained in letterpress printing, hand papermaking, and bookbinding, what are your thoughts on how e-books and new technologies are changing our concept of the book?

Books happen more quickly, get to people more quickly, and are more ever-present in our increasingly electronic lives. There is a lot of good about this, though I sometimes think people are reading bits and pieces more—songs rather than albums, greatest hits more than a poet’s deep immersion in a project. One terrific thing is that more young people are publishing works in new ways. As Charles Olson wrote in “The Kingfishers,” “what does not change/is the will to change.”
How do you prepare for a reading (especially if a reader’s experience of the text is linked with the book as a medium)?

While a book may have an intimate relationship with the form of a work, it can never be the defining form for that work. A live reading brings out something else entirely. When I give readings, I do not assume that the audience has read my work. I’m often surprised that they have, but I think a poet has to be attuned to that moment’s creation.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?

So much! The word rouses the spirits of individuals, who then work and act in the community. Works of art in language challenge people to understand how language and life interact. Chax Press grew out of my practice as a poet and my sense of community with other poets. Its purpose has always been to contribute to a very wide community, one that is spread out in the present and that goes back deeply in time, forming something like what the poet Robert Duncan might have called a “grand collage.”

But let's get specific about community. It takes some very special people. My partner, Cynthia Miller, has been beside me all but the first year of Chax Press, and has become the artist for the press, a board member, my studio mate, and much more. Tenney Nathanson is simply one of the best poets I have ever known or read; he has also been a mainstay on the Chax board and in my life. Tim Trace Peterson exquisitely edits EOAGH, which is a web partner with Chax. Other members of the local community that have made Chax what it is include Barbara Henning, Lisa Cooper Anderson, Steven Salmoni, Karen Brennan, the late Hassan Falak, Anne Bunker, Samuel Ace, Jefferson Carter, and many more.

On the Chax Press website, it says “Chax press publishes writing that does not take things for granted—things like ‘what is a poem,’ ‘what is an author,’ or ‘what does it mean to read.’” Have your experiences as a writer, publisher, and bookmaker helped answer any of these questions for you?

I remember Jerome Rothenberg once writing that poetry must keep asking the questions that cannot be answered. If “what is a poem?” ever has a definitive answer, I don't know that I'd like to write poems anymore. I love it that we are always extending language, extending the possible answers to these questions. The poem, questions about author and authority, and reading remain essential to my life and work.

Photo: Charles Alexander. Credit: Cybele Knowles.
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.

Koon Woon Reads to the Dead, Is Heard by the Living

P&W-supported poet Koon Woon, October’s Writer in Residence, was born in a timeless village in China in 1949. In 1960 he immigrated to Washington State, first to the logging town of Aberdeen, then to Seattle, where he now resides. He turned to poetry while he was a mathematics and philosophy student coping with mental illness. Later he attended the workshops of Nelson Bentley at the University of Washington. At the age of forty-eight, Koon’s first book, The Truth in Rented Rooms, was published by Kaya Press. 

My most recent reading in Seattle—a production of the Chrysanthemum Literary Society with support from Poets & Writers, featuring several Kaya Press writers—took place at two venues: Elliott Bay Book Company and Bruce Lee’s gravesite.

Before the reading, I met Kaya Press editor Sunyoung Lee in the Chinatown-International District, and we went to the Mon Hei Bakery for “egg tarts,” a type of egg custard and the title of one of my poems about bicultural adaptation. We had tea in Styrofoam cups at an economy cake shop, followed by wonton noodles at Mike’s Noodle House, across from the Grand Pavilion at Hing Hay Park. That site appears in my poem as the place pigeons flock and the orphans of the world meet.

When Sunyoung and I were fortified, we had three more missions for the day.

The first was the aforementioned pilgrimage to Lakeview Cemetery at the peak of Capitol Hill. We found the gravesites of Bruce Lee and his son Brandon, and Sunyoung unexpectedly asked me to read a poem. I read “Fortune Telling” from my book The Truth in Rented Rooms, a poem about my father and the hard-working Chinese immigrants of his time. As I read, planes flew overhead and rain began to fall. The Chinese say that Heaven answers by releasing precipitation. We drank wine and poured some for Bruce and Brandon Lee.

I found my own parents’ tombstones. They were simple restaurant operators, but they are buried alongside members of the Locke clan, the old Seattle family that produced the current Ambassador to China, the Honorable Gary Locke.

We caught a bus to Elliott Bay Book Company for our second mission, a reading at the world-famous bookstore. The reading was animated and diverse. Some of our poets read about biracial and adoptee identities; two publishers were represented. Thad Rutkowski came all the way from New York City. I read about how an emperor and I had discussed the mechanics of winning an election in my inner-city room. In poetry, nothing is impossible. The audience was a wonderful cross section of people, from world-class translators to walk-ins at the bookstore.

The day was an example of literary teamwork: Kaya’s resources plus my suggestions and organization and P&W’s support. Previously, P&W enabled me to bring Jack and Adelle Foley and John Holbrook to the Richard Hugo House literary center. Featuring out-of-town writers allows for literary cross-fertilization and makes Seattle a truly cosmopolitan city. These readings and workshops help make the world smaller and foster understanding among cultures.

For our final mission that day, we retired to a sumptuous feast at Hing Loon Restaurant in Chinatown.

Photo: Koon Woon reads with Beacon Bards at the Station coffee shop in Seattle. Credit: Greg Bem.
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.

Suzanne Rancourt's Authentic Voice: One Writer's GPS to Wholeness

Suzanne Rancourt blogs about her P&W funded workshops with many underserved populations. Suzanne Rancourt is pursuing her Doctorate at the US accredited European Graduate School in Expressive Arts: Therapy, Coaching, Consulting & Education as well as a Chemical Dependency Counselor certification. She holds an MFA in writing, MS in Educational Psychology, AWA and CAGS. Suzanne draws from her Native American culture and military service (USMC, USA) in her arts practice and workshops. She has nonfiction work, The Bear That Stands forthcoming in the Journal of Military Experience, with recent work translated by Beatrice Machet. Her writing has been published in numerous journals, is used widely in schools, and transposed into the successful project, On Her Shoulders - a play about nine female veterans. Suzanne is a Managing Editor for Blue Streak - A Journal of Military Poetry. Suzanne has an upcoming P&W funded workshop open to female vets from all eras November 2, 2013 at the Stratton VA Medical Center, Albany, NY. Her award winning book, Billboard in the Clouds, is now carried by nupress.northwestern.

For several years I have had the good fortune of receiving funding from Poets & Writers' Readings/Workshops Program. These opportunities have taken me into prisons, veterans hospitals, homeless shelters for women and children of domestic violence, survivors of Traumatic Brain Injuries, drug and alcohol substance abuse recovery groups, young, inner city girls, YWCA’s, Military Experience and the Arts symposium, and more. I often get people emailing me asking about my use of writing in the field of Expressive/Creative Arts Therapy.

Of course, I recall my first attempts twenty or so years ago trying to explain to various academics my ideas. Neuroscience and brain chemistry fields really didn’t exist then, so usually my ideas were received with a raised eyebrow, leery glances, and silence. My first writing professor, Leonard Gilley, always said that perseverance was a writer’s mainstay. I continued to seek and cultivate my voice as a writer and in so doing I was met with profound adversity, and opportunities.

I focused on being my “authentic” self and in so doing embarked on a journey that led to Pat Schneider and her Amherst Writers and Artists method of facilitating writing workshops. By then I had already acquired two Masters Degrees with education in writing and psychology. I knew a good thing when I felt it. The AWA method, to use some of Pat’s phrasing, 1. is non hierarchical, 2. is experiential, 3. is a strengths based model, 4. can be used with all people regardless of age, religion, lifestyle, culture, cognitive levels, etc, 5. meets the writer/learner where they are at, 6. the facilitator takes the same risks as the participants, 7. it is NOT psychotherapy.

I continued to educate myself and learn from each participant in every one of my groups. I began to realize the changes occurring within participants and myself, not just the cathartic stuff, but the physiological things. For example, prior to a writing spree I may become highly agitated and then sit and write for hours or days. What’s that about? I wanted to know more. Expressive Arts counseling requires that we delve into our own Kafka-esque realities and for me that meant using my primary modality - writing. The change occurs in the process of the art making. Find the surprise.

Since this is to be a relatively short blog post, I won’t give you the full Monty but let’s say the bus most recently stopped off at my military service years. In 2012,  a young Iraq veteran, Travis Martin, followed his Authentic self and created The Journal of Military Experience. Their dedication in using the arts for helping each other, bettering our worlds and documenting our experiences is beyond profound. Each writer writes for their own reason with some discovering a knack that they cultivate into a well honed craft. Ironically, words can’t fully describe how much being reconnected with veterans has helped me. Resonance and resiliency; Perhaps those two words can give you an idea.

Writing transports the artist to someplace. That’s why many of us write. Writing as an Expressive Arts / Creative Arts therapeutic modality is serious business. You are accessing memories, emotions, activating neural pathways that can lead to change with the appropriate guidance and support. There are specific practices that we follow in our daily living, and our continued passion to seek, learn, experience and become more competent in our profession; to be a better human. Be Authentic.

Photo:  Suzanne S. Rancourt.  Photo Credit: Donna Davidson

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.

Koon Woon on Poetry as a Survival Technique

P&W-supported poet Koon Woon, October’s Writer in Residence, was born in a timeless village in China in 1949. In 1960 he immigrated to Washington State, first to the logging town of Aberdeen, then to Seattle, where he now resides. He turned to poetry while he was a mathematics and philosophy student coping with mental illness. Later he attended the workshops of Nelson Bentley at the University of Washington. At the age of forty-eight, Koon’s first book, The Truth in Rented Rooms, was published by Kaya Press

It might sound like a stretch, but poetry saved my life—along with the care of psychotherapists, the kindness of my dear friend Betty Irene Priebe, and a continuous parade of literary friends.

Even though I was appointed literary chairman in high school, I could not attend the meetings after school because I had to help out in my family’s Chinese-American restaurant. I tried to study mathematics and philosophy in college, but mental illness was sneaking up on me. I had a full-blown psychotic episode in the streets of San Francisco at age twenty-seven, and was involuntarily hospitalized. I was shouting alarming verses on Stockton and Vallejo Streets at the edge of Chinatown, just a few blocks from the City Lights Bookstore.

I had no idea then that City Lights founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti would one day blurb my first book, The Truth in Rented Rooms, and sell it in his bookstore. (P&W has supported both Ferlinghetti and the store over the years.)

I wrote because I could assuage my mental illness by clarifying to myself my feelings and perceptions of reality. My first publication was “Goldfish,” which appeared in a literary tabloid called Bellowing Ark, started by a fellow student of poet Nelson Bentley at the University of Washington. The poem is about an animal perceived as a regal creature admired by emperors in daylight; but at night, the goldfish turns into a carp, a sharp, silver dagger conspiring to take their lives.

Many academic poets have at least a full-length book out with a prize (and also a price) attached, and a teaching position. But my relationship to poetry always felt more personal than professional—more intense, more weighty. For me, poetry was an attempt to regain my sanity. (This struggle was later collected in a chapbook, The Burden of Sanity, first published by Joe Musso’s Hellp Press.)

Now, at age sixty-four, my second book, Water Chasing Water, is out, thanks to editor Sunyoung Lee and Kaya Press, the world’s foremost English-language publisher of literature of the Asian diaspora. My books have found their way into universities.

I never set out to become a published poet. I entered the literary world through the back door, writing to channel my emotions instead of acting out in the streets. One can almost say I had a utilitarian reason to write poetry. But I am not an armchair poet. I became active in the literary community--active enough to form a literary press and to edit and publish a poetry magazine for twenty years. I also judge contests and sponsor poetry readings and workshops, several of which have been supported by Poets & Writers, Inc.

This month, I will blog about the poetry scene in Seattle and some of the poets and facilitators of readings and workshops. Increasingly, Seattle is becoming a thriving literary community that deserves the nation’s attention.

Photo: Koon Woon reads with Beacon Bards at the Station coffee shop in Seattle. Credit: Greg Bem.
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.

Jamaal May on Being an Inspiration Machine

P&W-funded Jamaal May is a poet from Detroit, MI, where he taught poetry in public schools and worked as a freelance audio engineer and touring performer. His poetry won the 2013 Indiana Review Prize and appears in journals such as Poetry, Ploughshares, and The Believer. Jamaal has earned an MFA from Warren Wilson and fellowships from Cave Canem and Bucknell University. His first book is Hum (Alice James Books, 2013), and he is founder of the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Press.

Years ago, Poets & Writers funded my visit to a small community college that drew much of its student body from surrounding rural towns. The organizer’s interest in bringing in writers stemmed from a desire to inspire her students to seek new possibilities and unfamiliar experiences. I’ve noticed that from at-risk youth centers to affluent private colleges, all professors and organizers share this common goal. So common, I’ve started to think of it as a key component to my broader mission.

I keep this in mind when facing not so awesome interactions. During a public access television interview at the aforementioned college, a friendly student led with a question that began, “So, being from ‘the hood’...” Those are her quotation marks, not mine, articulated in the air with her fingers. And yes, it went right where you think it did. Then, she sat back and waited for me to explain how I managed survive a post-apocalyptic wasteland, avoided getting hooked on crack, and somehow learned to read and write powerless behind the control room glass. For this student, my being a black guy from Detroit was like having a hobbit from the Shire in studio. I used it as an opportunity to talk about how poetry facilitates a dialogue where I can push back against such limited views and encourage people to open their eyes wider to the world.

This broadening of view is a two-way street. Looking back, I’m pretty sure my ability to keep it cool in that situation and make it a teachable moment is tied to an experience I had just a couple of hours earlier. During the reading I arrived at a poem called “The Movement of a Trapped Animal” which looks at the psychological effects of war on both soldiers and the supposedly unaffected populace that implicitly funds it. Before I started, I sized up the burly guy in the back sporting a shaved head and a sleeveless POW/MIA t-shirt. I took a deep breath and jumped into the piece, not sure how he would feel about it and by extension if he’d ask me to step outside for a “discussion.” In the post-reading Q&A the vet raised his hand and, when called upon, offered what is still one of the most moving and encouraging compliments I’ve ever received after a reading. As a veteran with friends suffering from PTSD, as a man who felt many Americans ignore the weight of war, he thoroughly appreciated the poem and was visibly moved by it. My prejudices—the ones that almost kept me from reading the poem—were exploded in a way I aspire to do for others.

For years now I’ve done my best to live and create under a simple doctrine: Generate the best work I can, make that work available, and be good to people. Recently, author Neil Gaiman gave similar advice in a commencement speech, telling graduates that freelancers keep getting work because their work is good, they turn it in on time, and people like them. He goes on to say you usually only need two of the three. This may be true for my ideology as well, but when all three gears are turning in the machine, you get someone like David Blair. Blair was a singer/songwriter and poet from Detroit who passed away two years ago. The world is far worse for it. In life, and now in memory, he served as an example of a creative individual who did extraordinary work, made that work available by participating in countless events, and radiated a generosity, openness, and love for people that touched everyone who came in contact with him even briefly.

In a conversation about the importance of reading poems aloud in community spaces and facilitating free workshops, Blair once told me his job and mine was to be an “inspiration machine.” He believed the very best thing we could do as we traverse the country was to inspire new ideas, challenge old ones, and by virtue of showing up and laying our work on the line, encourage others to explore the raw, transformative power of the arts. Let’s do our best to remember the changes we’ve seen literature make in our own lives as we bring words and workshops into the lives of others.

Photo: Jamaal May. Credit: Tarfia Faizullah.

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

LGBT Writers Find Friendship, Inspiration, and Impromptu Karaoke at Lambda Retreat

During the summer, Poets & Writers supported Samuel R. Delany, Malinda Lo, and Sarah Schulman at the Lambda Literary Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices in Los Angeles. P&W intern Brandi Spaethe was also a fellow at the conference. We asked her to blog about her experience.

Lambda Literary fellowsI’ve been thinking about how I could possibly talk about the Lambda Literary Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices in the space of a blog post. Honestly, this is my fifth draft; ok, let’s be serious—twentieth. Do you want to know about the forty-eight fellows from locales all over the U.S. and other countries? Would you like me to discuss how essential the workshops and panels such as the People of Color Caucus and Kyle Sawyer's workshop on writing trans* characters were to the conversations flooding the American Jewish University campus in Los Angeles? How about the late-night writing sessions in dorm lounges or the karaoke outbreak in the room reserved for faculty and fellow readings?

Lambda's retreat can't be captured in this small space, but I can say for certain that it changed me in ways I am supremely grateful for. The four workshops were led by Samuel R. Delany (fiction), Malinda Lo (genre and Y.A. fiction), Sarah Schulman (nonfiction), and David Groff (poetry) and met each day for three hours. Each day, Groff gifted me and my fellow poets with a prompt for a new poem to write following the workshop. We would bring our new poems the next morning to be read aloud and workshopped by the class. One prompt pressed us to write about our parents, a parent, or any parental figure. This seemed easy enough. I’d written about my parents here and there, plenty.

Poetry fellows.Yet nothing could have prepared me for what happened in that room when all twelve poets read what they had written. Voices rose and fell, some soft, some so affected they had to stop a moment, and voices that spoke truths so hard I felt myself not breathing. We sat silent afterward, not speaking. Just stewing. The poems I heard by others and the poems I had written that week broke whatever had been barricading me before. What caused the shift could be attributed to a number of things—the discussions we were having prompted by our various backgrounds in queer communities, the work we were reading and listening to, panels and workshops offered beyond our genre-specific spaces.

Above all, the friendships we developed with one another and the honesty among us was most pivotal. I’m often among queer folks who have a variety of backgrounds, but rarely do I find those who share my obsession for writing. Conversely, queer folk are usually few and far between in my writing community. At the retreat, I had a sense that many of us shared that plight and were grateful to have this opportunity and space to share not only our writing but our experiences as queer writers. We took those friendships with us when we left. Lambda gave us access to each other.

On the last night, there was an open mic reading followed by a variety of cocktails and dancing. Nine of the poetry fellows gathered for a photo outside. A colossal thanks to the staff, faculty, and fellows.

Photos: Top: Lambda Literary Fellows. Bottom: Nine poetry fellows after an open mic reading; Brandi is second from the right. Credit: Joshua Barton.

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


Subscribe to RSS - RW Blogger's blog