Readings & Workshops Blog

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.

John Wareham Helps Prisoners (Metaphorically) Break Out

P&W-supported writer John Wareham recently taught a workshop for prisoners at the Downstate Correctional Facility in Fishkill, New York. He blogs about his years running workshops in prisons.

I have spent a lifetime advising corporations how to select and develop winning teams and leaders. One day nearly twenty years ago, an aspiring executive client with a drug habit wound up in Rikers Island, and gravitated to a rehab program.

Noting that I had visited him a few times, a program official asked if I might come along one day as a guest speaker. I had already written a couple of self-help books, so I figured I would use some of that material, with the emphasis on people and communication skills. The class went so well that I've been running it ever since.

I decided early on that my students should graduate with a first-rate skill, so I focused on public speaking. Then I added parliamentary debating. Finally I integrated a series of life-changing discussion readings into my class. To the surprise of prison officials, I began with readings from philosophers Plato, Aristotle, and Epictus; and psychologists Freud, Adler, and Berne. Shakespearean sonnets also proved highly apt. I compiled all the readings into a book and had forty copies delivered. Alas, the title, How to Break Out of Prison, attracted the attention of security officials, who confiscated everything. But when the carton finally came back to me, half a dozen copies were missing.

I moved on to teaching longer term offenders, including those at the maximum security unit at Downstate Correctional Facility. My students there are serving serious time for violent crimes, mostly armed robbery, manslaughter, or murder.

Three years ago, I added the creation and delivery of poetry to the public speaking element. I was surprised at how well this went. The guys loved being able to express themselves, as they put it, “freestyle.” Poetry was more important than politics; they could say anything. The poems were great and so was the delivery. My stipend from Poets & Writers enabled me to assemble their poems into a neat book.
This year, I had my each student in class deliver both a speech and a poem recounting key milestones in their journey from childhood to arrest, conviction, and incarceration—and then, to deeper self-recognition and enlightenment. I was struck by the honesty, wit, and profundity. I caught the attention of a publisher, who asked me to include insights of my own. I’m proud and excited to be sharing How to Survive a Bullet to the Heart.

Two poems from the book:


Who am I?
What have I done?
I can't believe I did that.
What have I become?
Why are those guys oozing red?
That one looks just like he’s dead.
They’re staring at me, everyone.
Wherever did I get this gun?

--Sheldon Arnold

Shades of Gray

Racism in the ghetto
        was just another day.
When it came to black and white
        there were no shades of gray.
I wised up to that jungle
        and tried to get away.
Hey, not so fast, the devil said,
        and I was shred and lay
        bleeding in a gutter
        with a bullet in my tray.
First I saw black
        then I saw white
        but never shades of gray.

--Andre Rivera

The Readings/Workshops program is supported, 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.

Jo Scott-Coe on How To Keep From Being Just Another Pair of Grasping Hands

P&W-funded Jo Scott-Coe is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Riverside City College in Southern California. Her memoir in essays, Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute), was listed as a “Great Read” by Ms. Magazine. In 2009, she won the NCTE Donald Murray Prize for writing about teaching. Her nonfiction and interviews have appeared in many publications, including Salon, the Los Angeles Times, and Narrative. She is currently at work on a collection of lyric meditations about American public performances of violence since the UT Austin shooting in 1966.

We’re all grabby. It’s a healthy part of the self-respecting writer’s condition in a real way. We want our writing to be better. We want readers and good reviews. We want help and friends in high places. We want book sales. We want a thousand “likes” or “favorites” or shares of our latest FB post or Tweet. We want fair contracts. We want editors to value our work. We want bylines, prestigious prizes, and $1.50 per word. We want a room of our own. Of course we do!

But too much grabbiness can often come off as myopic, desperate, and frankly ordinary. Despite all those late nights and early mornings crouched alone at the computer, this writing and publishing deal is, in the end, a highly social activity. How to keep from being just another pair of grasping hands? Here are a few suggestions, based on my own observations and missteps over the past two decades.

When you attend somebody’s reading, plan to buy the book or e-book. If you read alongside someone else, trade books or links or cards—trade anything that creates reciprocity. I don’t care if you “just don’t like his aesthetic.” I’ve attended way too many sad events where everyone has a book or chapbook to sell, and no one buys or exchanges any work. Any! If you can’t afford a book this time, make a plan for when you will. Figure out other ways to circulate literary capital. Then, when you can afford it, buy a book and give it to someone else.

If you’ve been invited to read as a guest, especially if you receive an honorarium, consider donating one or two copies of your book to the organizers to give away or auction off at their discretion.

For every one time you talk about your own project, talk up someone else’s latest thing. Sprinkle that love everywhere. This is easy and fun. I’m thinking right now about two first books by two great poets on my winter reading list: Kevin Ridgeway’s All the Rage, and Jeffrey Graessly’s Cabaret of Remembrance. I’m also looking forward to the upcoming issue of Chaffey Review, a biannual journal that this week won an award for the best multi-genre two-year college literary magazine. Hooray for all of them!

Write “charming notes” on real stationery—or in thoughtfully composed emails—to people whose work you admire, at every level of the achievement spectrum. Don’t calculate an outcome, just move onto the next charming note. In the late 1990s, I sustained a several-month exchange of long letters with my literary crush at the time, but the exchange ended and he let me down easily when I eventually inquired for an interview. The interaction left me feeling both green and clumsy. Later on, during my MFA program at UC Riverside, novelist Susan Straight made sure all of us students read Carolyn See’s book, Making a Literary Life. See elaborates the finer points of the gratuitous charming note, emphasizing brevity, timing, and the lack of a mercenary agenda. I’ve never regretted sending one of those notes. Ever.

Not to get all Downton Abbey about it, but have some grace, for God’s sake. Consider your approach. We all have to compete with strangers for gigs and offer proposals in a changing literary marketplace, and we all need to request favors now and then. It’s understood. Still, don’t Tweet, IM, or DM an offhand request for a blurb to a person you’ve never met. Put some actual thought into the request. (How are you different from the spammer selling weight loss supplements?) Also don’t be the guy or gal who only reaches out to literary friends and allies for a letter of recommendation, free editorial services, or career advice. (See “charming notes” again.)

Subscribe or donate to a literary journal that rejected you. This balances out the ironic expectation you may have that all content should be available for free (everybody else’s content, that is). This subscription thing is easy if you enter one contest a year, because most contest fees include a year’s subscription.

Here’s one that’s practically a cliché: Accept a compliment. This is a big problem for me, not because I receive so many compliments all the time, but because like lots of people, I was not socialized to accept praise very well. At a reading several years ago, a co-performer said something spontaneously generous as she introduced me, and I felt awkward and undeserving. As I took my place at the mic, instead of saying, “How kind of you,” or “Thank you for saying that,” I actually said (cringe, cringe, cringe!), “That is a little horrifying.” Here was this lovely person saying something benevolent and off-the-cuff, and I had rebuffed her effort. There’s no way to take the moment back now, but I can do my darnedest not to repeat the icky performance.

Develop an internal validation system that allows you to share problems without raining on anybody else’s parade. I had a bizarre, frankly violating experience with an editor at highly desirable venue several years ago, and it led to a mutual termination of my acceptance contract. I was disappointed, but I was also actually proud of the resolution and glad to walk away. When I shared this story as a cautionary tale with some other writers, one of them (who had a piece under consideration with the same editor) asked if I was advising them not to submit to this publication. I shook my head. “Heavens no. If it works out for you, that’s fantastic,” I said. “But if something gets weird in the exchange, you don’t need to feel bad about that either.” The writer’s brilliant story did get accepted and published by the editor without incident. My piece was published elsewhere. Win win.

Last but not least, just say “no” already. You’ve agreed to contribute to another blog? And proofread a friend’s manuscript? And teach a ten-week workshop for free? And learn html so you can retool your own website? All while completing your own taxes in January, and schlepping the kiddos to school, writing query letters to agents, and preparing to host the birthday party? Give it a rest already. Give yourself room to be selective, and let your “yes” mean something energizing for everybody.

I offer these imperfect suggestions realizing that not all will apply to everyone, and that every writer could add more ideas to the list. In fact, the more inventive we get with offering modest gestures of sincere enthusiasm and good will, the more tempered all our necessary assertions of self-interest become as we bump into each other around the literary water cooler. There are real advantages to that kind of energy, and the beginning of a new year is a great time to assess this aspect of our writing lives.

Photo: Jo Scott-Coe. Credit: Wes Kriesel.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Spoken Word Artist Asia Rainey on Saying What Needs to Be Said

P&Wsupported writer Asia Rainey is a spoken word artist, vocalist, actor, and educator. She is the author of the book Soul Chant (2005) and a poetry CD compilation, No Rainbows for the Colored (2007). She premiered her one woman play, "Shut Up and Fly," to rave reviews in 2010, and has been welcomed as a speaker/performer at numerous events and educational institutions. Rainey has produced poetry events from spoken word open mic nights to the Write, NOLA Poetry Festival and the New Orleans Youth Slam Festival (NOYS Fest). She is presently working on her first novel with Chin Music Press and is working on a new CD, which will include her original music and spoken word. She continues to broaden her role in education as a Master Teaching Artist with Young Audiences Charter School, an innovative arts integration academic program in New Orleans.

Asia RaineyCan you tell us about your organization WordPlay?
I adapted the model and curriculum of a sister organization, WordPlay Baton Rouge, in 2007 after returning to the city post-Katrina. When I came home, I saw a need to help rebuild the spoken word community and support the next generation of poets.

WordPlay New Orleans became the vessel for that work via workshops, connecting with schools, community events such as the Write, NOLA and NOYS (New Orleans Youth Slam) festivals, and poetry open mics. Working with libraries in New Orleans, including the P&W–supported workshops at the Algiers branch, was a natural part of that work, as they provide safe spaces for people of all ages to be exposed to spoken word poetry.
How do you get shy writers to open up?
My belief is that no matter how shy or lacking in confidence a person may be, we all have something to say. I have done my best to first help people connect with themselves and find the voice within them that needs to be heard. Once that first step is made, there is something that compels a person to move past fear and finally be heard. The freedom and connection felt from sharing that writing makes most people open, even anxious, for the experience.

What is your writing critique philosophy?
If you are writing to simply express yourself, and you are giving your truth, who am I to say that it is wrong or not good enough? After I have given the tools I can to improve that writing, my "critique" becomes the questions: "Have you said what you need to say?" and "Is this the best way you feel you can express it?"

If you are writing for an audience (even if that reason is coupled with the first motivation)—meaning you want to move into paid performance, publish, or even compete as a slam poet—I believe the writer is asking me for a different mode of feedback. Then I am looking for form and flow, the way the work engages and connects, and the development of strong performance.
What do you enjoy most about teaching writing?
That moment of self realization, when a person of any age finds the power in their own voice. I love to see the beauty that comes when someone of any age is transformed by their own writing. It is a blessing to play any small part in that.
The piece “Shotgun” on your website reminds one of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and the bluesy “Fiyah,” melds spoken word and song. Who and what are some of your influences?
Music—from the strings of a symphony performing Scheherazade to the earthiness of India Arie—can make my pen move. My writing is influenced by poets from Gil Scott-Heron to Sonya Sanchez, Harlem Renaissance to the Last Poets, MC Lyte to Common, the vast number of phenomenal spoken word artists I've met across the country to the youth poets, who've taught me I still have much to learn, to the poet who poured her heart out on stage for the first time.

How does teaching inform your art and vice versa?
Teaching is part of understanding what I have learned. Breaking down what may come naturally or intuitively to you into learn-able parts brings greater understanding. The teacher becomes the pupil.

Additionally, your pupils, and their successes or setbacks, are your constant mirror. One of the young poets I worked with struggled to find his voice, telling us what he thought we wanted to hear. I called bull****. He was shocked that I would say that about his work, but I told him that I needed him to find the truth in whatever he had to say, and if he could do that, he would get where he wanted to be. He did it and has written beautiful work since. I have called bull**** on my own writing many times since then, simply because I have to practice what I preach.

Photo: Asia Rainey. Credit: Gus Bennett Jr.
Support for Readings/Workshops events in New Orleans 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.

Jo Scott-Coe on The Value of Workshops

P&W-funded Jo Scott-Coe is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Riverside City College in Southern California. Her memoir in essays, Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute), was listed as a “Great Read” by Ms. Magazine. In 2009, she won the NCTE Donald Murray Prize for writing about teaching. Her nonfiction and interviews have appeared in many publications, including Salon, the Los Angeles Times, and Narrative. She is currently at work on a collection of lyric meditations about American public performances of violence since the UT Austin shooting in 1966.

Workshops can be fantastic tools for writers: They can facilitate new writing, help with honing a current project, and provide forums for professional advice and opportunities for networking.

For many writers workshops can also feel disappointing or desperate, even subtly (or not-so-subtly) savage. Informal editing or writing groups formed independently by a few folks who know each other can be fantastic, but even these ventures can begin with high energy that ultimately fizzles due to mismatched expectations about goals, commitments, and organizational styles.

When looking for a workshop or retreat, new writers may find the scope of options intimidating. Should you spend a lot of money? Do you choose a program based on location and potential inspiration, or aim for a particular aesthetic or pedigree?

Fortunately, anyone can survey hundreds of options for free via online resources at Poets & Writers, Newpages, and The Association of Writers and Writing Programs. There are also regional listings, such as Poetix and Independent Writers of Southern California. Probably nothing beats word-of-mouth testimony. However, you’ve got to tap into workshop and readings circuits in order to hear those words. You’ve got to put yourself into the mix, and then see where you want to go. This means taking some risks.

It helps to refrain from idealizing any one workshop session, series, program, or facilitator as the solution to all your writing needs. It also helps to avoid believing in an unrealistic outcome as the measure of value of a particular workshop (“If I serve the right tables at Breadloaf, I’ll get published in the New Yorker!” or “Just meeting with X will get me a job!”). Investing too heavily in a narrow outcome can distract from the focus of one’s goals—to keep writing, to get better, to fail better—and wastes valuable time and creative energy.

Remember that even great workshops can have “off” seasons, and facilitators are human beings, not magicians or saviors. Some workshop experiences are simply unpredictable. For example, I had the chance to work as an undergraduate in a college composition course at USC with Sandra Tsing Loh, who was a graduate student in the Professional Writing Program at the time. She continues to be a transformative influence on me and my writing, but being in her class was an accident.

I met poet Jack Grapes when, on a fluke, I attended the fantastic Conference of the Living Tree at Ojai as a first-year English teacher in 1992. Afterwards, I attended Jack’s The Deep Voice process workshops for nearly a decade. I drove my Nissan from Riverside out to Jack’s house in Los Angeles’ Wilshire District after a full day of working with fifteen-year-olds. I loved every minute of the trip. In Jack's workshops, I met writers who also had day jobs and were looking to cultivate literary spaces: Larry Colker (founder of Redondo Poets), Chiwan Choi (founder of Writ Large Press), and Mifanwy Kaiser (founder of Tebot Bach Books).

You get the idea: those unplanned, wonderful experiences were the result of my commitment to one central goal: to learn and absorb as much as possible. Attending workshops shouldn't be a passive exercise.

Of course, when researching workshops there are practical and philosophical questions everyone has to consider. First the practical ones: Are you looking mostly to generate new work, or to revise longer writing? Are you interested in genre experimentation, or do you want to hunker down with short stories or poems or memoir work exclusively? Do you want to compete for a place in the workshop based on a writing sample, and is there a fee to enter the competition? How far are you willing to travel? How many sessions do you want, and how much time and money can you budget? If you’re considering an online option, how much do you know about the structure regarding participation and feedback?

The philosophical questions may be even more important: Do you have any “hot spots” or “triggers” when it comes to receiving or providing feedback? If so, can you identify them so that they don’t impede your ability to participate openly? Are you willing to collaborate with people who may have vastly different levels of skill, or would you rather work in a more homogenous group? How important to you are the history of the workshop and/or the creative output of instructors or former students? How willing are you to risk and to fail in this workshop alongside other people—or is your main goal to get some basic human affirmation?

Ultimately, no workshop can substitute for reading and writing as much as possible. And the best measure of value for any workshop may not be whether you received praise from a mentor or an “A” in the course—or even whether you publish the piece over which you agonized so much. If the experience leads to more writing, a wider understanding of the marketplace, more endurance for challenges and a more focused understanding about what you’re doing and/or why you bother, that’s the long game. That’s always a win.

Photo: Jo Scott-Coe. Credit: Wes Kriesel.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Jo Scott-Coe on Bringing Writers to Community Colleges

P&W-funded Jo Scott-Coe is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Riverside City College in Southern California. Her memoir in essays, Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute), was listed as a “Great Read” by Ms. Magazine. In 2009, she won the NCTE Donald Murray Prize for writing about teaching. Her nonfiction and interviews have appeared in many publications, including Salon, the Los Angeles Times, and Narrative. She is currently at work on a collection of lyric meditations about American public performances of violence since the UT Austin shooting in 1966.

What average community college students may lack in literary experience, they more than make up for in curiosity and unpretentiousness. They’re less likely to know who is "famous" (and therefore supposedly more worthy of their attention). They’re less entrenched in parochial notions about genre and form, and are more likely to ask questions that are really on their minds.

In the arts, there tends to be a confusing barrier between community and academic programs. We also often make erroneous assumptions about what kinds of students should, or could possibly, be interested in literary events—as if they are the exclusive domain of English majors, professors, and MFA students.

In the past four years, more than twenty writers have visited Riverside City College for a series of readings and workshops. I’ve seen students connect with living writers for the first time—for various reasons, and with wide-ranging levels of understanding and appreciation.

Visitors have included poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers. Among our guests were Lloyd Aquino, John Brantingham, Billy Burgos, Ana Maria Spagna, Donna Hilbert, Juan Felipe Herrera, Judy Kronenfeld, Larry Colker, and James Brown. We’ve sought to mix new and emerging voices, nationally known and regional personalities, genre traditionalists and experimenters.

Our “Stay Classy” creative writing club and MUSE literary journal now coordinate readings in conjunction with creative writing and composition—and, at times, literature or screenwriting—courses. As a rule, our students have taken the lead to interview guests and prepare introductions delivered at events. Behind the scenes, they have prepared and circulated flyers, handled book sales, guided foot traffic, and prepared modest thank you gifts for writers. They have also learned how to compose press releases and advocate for funding.

For me, the most delightful impact of these events occurs when “basic writing” students—those students not yet enrolled in college-level classes—attend an event, ask questions, meet an author, and return to their normal routine stunned to be a excited about reading. In a noisy culture, no matter who you are, it is exciting to see how books are actually made by real life people who struggle over words and ideas. Students connect with that struggle.

There was the American veteran who talked with Tom Zoellner about how some people build their own firearms to outwit limits on high-capacity magazines.

There were the two girls who asked Stephanie Hammer if she had ADD or ADHD, with no offense intended or taken.

There was the student who waited at the end of the book-signing line because she wanted to give Gayle Brandeis a hug after her reading about her mother’s suicide.

And in the front row, two young guys who couldn’t stop peppering P&W-funded Chiwan Choi with questions: How could you afford to travel to Spain? What’s a ghostwriter, anyway?

Community colleges have a reputation as a sitcom punch line and a temporary stop along a student’s educational pathway. I love that our work to bring writers here for them flies in the face of these clichés.

Photo: Jo Scott-Coe. Credit: Wes Kriesel.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

The Salton Sea is a Creative Oasis for Southern California Writers

In November, P&W and the Inlandia Institute co-sponsored a day of workshops and readings at California’s Salton Sea, led by Sandra Alcosser, Maureen Alsop, Brandon Cesmat, and Ruth Nolan. P&W’s California office director Cheryl Klein blogs about the event.

Brandon Cesmat leads the prose workshop.The shores of California’s Salton Sea—a vast lake created when the Colorado River flooded salt mines in the Imperial Valley a hundred years ago—are littered with fish carcasses. Small as a child’s fist or large as a dinner plate, still shimmering with scales or dried to Halloweenish skeletons by the desert sun, they are a reminder of how delicate ecosystems are. The Salton Sea was a thriving resort community in the 1950s and ‘60s, but because it lacks a natural outlet, fertilizer runoff from nearby farms makes the water increasingly inhospitable.

The future of the Salton Sea is the subject of much debate, but it’s fair to say that on November 2—the Day of the Dead—the Salton Sea State Recreation Area was incredibly fertile, at least from a creative standpoint. Four writers with a passion for the desert—Sandra Alcosser, Maureen Alsop, Brandon Cesmat, and Ruth Nolan—gathered with roughly two dozen participants for a day of writing, reading, and camping.

Tilapia head at the Salton Sea.It all began when Brandi M. Spaethe, an intern in P&W’s California office, took a road trip and fell in love with the odd, harsh beauty of the Salton Sea. She began wondering if other writers would be similarly inspired, and if locals might benefit from a literary event in an area that was hardly on many publishers’ book tours. She teamed up with Nolan, editor of the desert anthology No Place for a Puritan, from Heyday Books, and the Riverside-based Inlandia Institute. Sal y Muerte was born.

Nolan started the day with a quick tour of the grounds and visitors’ center, where participants learned about the lake’s history, dating back to the time when the indigenous Cahuilla made arrow weed huts in the basin. The group broke into two camps, poetry and prose, each co-taught by a pair of writers. In the prose workshop, Cesmat asked participants to use terms like “Pleistocene damn” and “step-over fault” in unpredictable ways as part of a “scaffolding” exercise. In the poetry workshop, Alcosser encouraged her students to consider the mysteries linked to the place and day.

As the sun turned the valley pink-gold, attendees clamored to explore the lake before dark. They took photos of the rotting tilapia and crunched bits of shell and bone—which look like sand only from a distance—beneath their feet.

The group reconvened around a campfire (the more outdoors-savvy among them had thought to bring wood and matches) and feasted on strawberries, sandwich rolls, musubi, and pan de muerto. Each of the featured writers took turns donning one participant’s headlamp and reading his or her work (except for Alcosser, who’d memorized several poems). Participants shared work too; three young students from the tiny nearby town of Mecca impressed the thirty-and-over crowd with their love of spoken word. But the evening didn’t feel like a featured poet/open mic formula so much as old-style entertainment: people gathered around a fire, exchanging words and rhythm.

Photos: Top: Brandon Cesmat (right, standing) leads the prose workshop. Bottom: a tilapia head on the salton seashore. Credit: Cheryl Klein.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by the James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Jo Scott-Coe on Making Room for Voices

P&W-funded Jo Scott-Coe is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Riverside City College in Southern California. Her memoir in essays, Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute), was listed as a “Great Read” by Ms. Magazine. In 2009, she won the NCTE Donald Murray Prize for writing about teaching. Her nonfiction and interviews have appeared in many publications, including Salon, the Los Angeles Times, and Narrative. She is currently at work on a collection of lyric meditations about American public performances of violence since the UT Austin shooting in 1966.

Jo Scott-Coe

During this season of gratitude, it’s important to acknowledge the different kinds of generosity that make writing communities spark and thrive. Experienced writers also learn the generosity that requires us to pay our respects when opportunities come to an end.

This fall, Emeryville-based Memoir Journal published its thirteenth (and final) issue. Its editors not only produced a beautiful publication but also started The (In)Visible Memoirs Project, which gave people from underserved populations in California the chance to bring their stories to life on the page. The goal, in the words of Rachel Reynolds, Program Director, was “to hold space for a multitude of storytellers.”

I had the pleasure of facilitating two project workshops this past fall and spring in Riverside. All across California—in places such as Fresno, Yolo, Modoc, and Banning—workshop leaders set up small communities to mentor and encourage writers who might not have room in their lives to write, whether due to professional detours, geographical isolation, financial hardship, or private demons. Some workshops, like Ruth Nolan’s in Palm Desert, are organized around marginalized topics, such as dealing with suicide.

During its lifespan, the (In)Visible Memoir Project published two fantastic anthologies, I Speak from My Palms and Lionhearted, each over 250 pages, collecting the best submissions from each workshop. The two volumes demonstrate the energy that can emerge from writing that finds its initial home in small gatherings of people—around a table, in a living room, or at a library—where listening is the first gift.

I saw trust emerge, gradually, between participants in my women’s workshop. Women wrote about childhood heroines, their recollections of lost relatives and friends, their apprehensions in parenting and marriage, their perceptions of heritage. Some worked with artifacts and primary documents from their family histories. Each took risks not only in sharing private subject matter, but also experimenting with structures and voices sometimes considered “off limits” for memoir, or for women writing in that genre. After the official conclusion, a core group decided to keep meeting, helping each other move further forward with their stories, poems, and essays. Some are in the middle of books now. One just had a piece published in The Los Angeles Times.

As we say farewell and thank you to Memoir Journal, and as its (In)Visible Memoir Project comes to bittersweet end, it’s also a fitting time to consider how we each can appreciate the energy, financial resources, visible and invisible labor invested in creative spaces that sustain us, for as long as we have them.

We can make our gratitude visible through continued acts of writing and by making room for new voices.

Photo: Jo Scott-Coe. Photo Credit: Wes Kriesel.

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

Poetry Meets Puppetry: Alphabet Arts’ Festival Makes Two Ancient Forms Fresh

P&W-supported poets Modesto “Flako” Jimenez and Annie Bacon will perform in Alphabet Arts’ Puppets & Poets festival December 6 through December 8 at New York’s Bushwick Starr theater. The organization’s volunteer, Nora Brooks, blogs about the festival.

The Folk OperaA puppet car with no driver cruises the Brooklyn streets while the rhythmic baritone of poet Modesto “Flako” Jimenez booms out spoken word images of life in the drug trade. This is not your typical poetry reading or puppet show, and that is what makes Alphabet Arts’ annual Puppets & Poets festival such a bright light for New York City audiences, particularly those with little access to poetry. Dominican-born poet and actor Jimenez, one of two poets awarded a P&W grant to perform in the upcoming festival, gives a lot of credit to the melding of the two art forms: “The puppetry will connect that visual to your writing, and it’ll dance in their brain like no other. It gives them that bridge.”

The festival is directed by poet Amber West, who co-founded the nonprofit multi-genre artist collective Alphabet Arts in 2009. That summer a group of artists came together to build and perform The Simpsons writer Mike Reiss’ children’s book, City of Hamburgers, as a puppet play on her front porch for a neighborhood block party. In 2011, they launched Puppets & Poets to “create and cultivate collaborative hybrid art,” the Alphabet Arts' website explains.

Last year the festival expanded by partnering with the Bushwick Starr, a theater that TimeOut recently named Best Off-Off Broadway Venue. The Starr is an incubator for experimental work, including hybrids like Puppets & Poets that build roads connecting distant corners of the artistic universe.

“We’re introducing the rich variety and complexity of two of the world’s oldest art forms to diverse audiences,” West said.

Perhaps physical imagery improvised from lyrical storytelling builds a roadmap through the poetry, or maybe the puppetry introduces a lightness that facilitates access to more difficult material.

“The festival last year had some amazing dark poetry, and the only way the audience was able to take it was through puppetry,” Jimenez said. It’s that magic combination of the literary and the popular that gives audiences a new way into the work.

This year’s festival includes artists from New York, Austin, and Philadelphia and features free, interactive family matinees as well as free field trips and “puppet poem” workshops for students at PS 123, a Title 1 elementary school near the theater.

“With P&W’s support, we’re bringing in San Francisco poet and musician Annie Bacon, who wrote a verse musical on a ukulele called The Folk Opera,” West said. “Alphabet Arts is adapting it to the puppet stage, and Annie and her band will perform alongside our puppeteers.”

SpacetansmananagasmAlso featured is Austin performer Zeb L. West’s one-man show, Spacetansmananagasm, blends David Bowie’s verse with an ancient Japanese puppetry form called kugutsu. The festival is supported in part by the Citizens Committee For NYC and the Brooklyn Arts Council. Funding for the artists and the free programs for low-income children and families is also supported by the community through an Indiegogo campaign.

The third annual Puppets & Poets festival includes ticketed evening cabarets for mature audiences and free family-friendly matinees. For more information, visit

Photos: Top: The Folk Opera (credit: Kirsten Kammermeyer). Lower: Spacetansmananagasm (credit: Jeff Moreaux)
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.

Kamilah Aisha Moon on Touching the Masks

P&W-funded Kamilah Aisha Moon currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, 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 the 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 photoWe arrive here as ourselves; any mother will tell you this is true. Before words, before autonomy, before this world has any real focus in our infant eyes, we make ourselves known. It’s a miracle we spend our whole lives celebrating, losing and recovering, lamenting, rejecting, and embracing.

Before the hazings on playgrounds, high school dramas souped up on hormones, and before the lenses of race, class, sex, and orientation can trap us into lesser versions of ourselves, we seek, experiment, and feel our way along in the safety of good homes, if we are fortunate.

I certainly was. Poet Stephen Dunn has a line in his poem “Tiger Face” that reads “Good parents are blessings/ whoever they are.” Mine paid such close attention to me, and now tell stories from those early years. One of their favorites is about when I was two years old, getting into things and exploring around the house. I was finally tall enough to open the door to a narrow hallway closet, a utility closet that stored various tools and household supplies. On the back wall hung a huge papier-mâché African mask that my father made.

My parents watched as I stared up at this fierce, imposing mask, and then I screamed and ran down the hallway. They proceeded to watch as I—again and again—opened the same closet door, screamed, and ran down the hallway every day that week. Each day, I would stare a little longer before I screamed and ran. Until the final day, instead of screaming or running, I walked in and touched the mask.

So much of one’s character and spirit can be revealed in the smallest of gestures, gleaned from our choices. This scenario has played out in my life again and again, a hallmark of the way I’ve moved through experience after experience thus far. The decisions to move from city to city, building from the ground up in strange towns and new jobs, with someone and alone. The willingness to try and often fail at new things and travel solo abroad. The decision to put my writing first and leave a good career to move to New York for graduate school, despite considerable odds.

I just turned forty in September. The year leading up to it was filled with angst and anxiety as I reflected on the challenges and losses of the last five years in particular. I experienced existential ruminations and real fatigue that threatened to paralyze everything just as some goals I've worked toward for many years were beginning to come to fruition. Then a voice of reason deep inside of me asked, "Where is that fluid girl who let fear propel rather than imprison her?"

I forced myself to remember what has been exceptional and good in my life. I turned to the practices that have always seen me through the tough times: reading and writing. As a line in Sharon Olds' poem “Material Ode” advises, I had to choose “to love only where loved!” and leave institutions, relationships, and spaces where this love wasn't happening. I had to recall, for myself, what I wrote in an email to a younger friend who was in a confusing, whirlwind moment in her life: You'll rarely feel sure or completely comfortable with most endeavors. If you do, interrogate why because that's how growth feels—off-kilter and magic, all at once. Losing your breath and getting it back, over and over again.

This world has so many ways of assaulting the body, mind, and spirit. Indignities that make it easy to forget the unique force you are and the love you come from, leaving you unrecognizable to yourself. Ask your loved ones—your beloved mirrors—to remind you regularly of your highest, most resourceful, intuitive self. Do the same for them in return. And yes, bravely write it all down the best way you possibly can.

Success in writing and life is as much about what you let go of as it is about what you gain. Let go of others' false verdicts of who you are and who you are meant to be. Let go of doubts and negative projections. Let go of past mistakes. Face those fears that loom large, and touch them (perhaps screaming through tears, and with small, shaking hands) to take away their power.

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

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.


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