Readings & Workshops Blog

The Winding Roads of Poetry and Art

Mong-Lan, a Fulbright scholar and recipient of a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, has published seven books of poetry, most recently, Dusk Aflame: poems & art (Valiant Press, 2018), and three chapbooks. Her poetry has been awarded the Juniper Prize and the Pushcart Prize, and has been included in anthologies such as the Best American Poetry series. Mong-Lan is also a visual artist, musician, Argentine tango dancer, performer, and educator. She left her native Vietnam one day before the last evacuation of Saigon.

I’m grateful that Poets & Writers has cosponsored me for three events: The Poets in Play poetry reading at the Soup Full Café in Corning, New York; a poetry writing workshop a day later at the ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes; and a convivial reading at Wheeler Hill hosted by poet Michael Czarnecki of FootHills Publishing, which published my most recent chapbook, Tone of Water in a Half-Filled Glass. Finally, I taught a workshop for the Watkins Glen Writers Group, and later gave a reading. Through the generosity of Poets & Writers, I was able to promote my seventh book, Dusk Aflame: poems & art, and new chapbook.

This was my first time participating in programs, readings, and workshops in upstate New York. I found everyone to be kind, curious, and inquisitive. My events in Corning, Wheeler Hill, and Watkins Glen have gone remarkably well with lively, attentive audiences. In each of the readings, in addition to reading and performing my poetry, I also performed several tangos and sang, accompanying myself on the guitar. My multimedia performances included recordings of my jazz piano arrangements which played in the background while I recited my poems. Workshop participants were refreshingly open with a willingness to read and experience diverse writers, and a desire to talk about and discuss new ideas and strategies. Some audience members joined me from one event to the other, driving the long, winding roads from town to town.

Without Poets & Writers’ cosponsorship, I would not have been able to make this tour to upstate New York. Thankfully, Michael and Carolyn Czarnecki of FootHills Publishing hosted me in their rustic off-the-grid home on Wheeler Hill during most of my time there. Michael, with his indefatigable energy and generosity, drove me to and from readings and workshops, and introduced me to his friends and colleagues. I’ve met wonderful poets and writers such as Steve Coffman, Mary A. Hood, and Martha Treichler, who studied with Charles Olson all those years ago. I’ve enjoyed sharing my writing, books, art, knowledge, and teaching with this community, and am deeply grateful.

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program 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.

Photo: Mong-Lan with her book covers (Credit: Mong-Lan).

Office Hours Writing Workshop: Poetry as Political Act

Sarah Sala’s debut poetry collection, Devil’s Lake, was a finalist for the 2017 Subito Press Book Prize and her poem “Hydrogen” was featured in the Elements episode of NPR’s hit show Radiolab. She is the series facilitator for Office Hours Poetry Workshop, and coproduces AmpLit Fest with Lamprophonic and Summer on the Hudson.

Office Hours Poetry Workshop emerged from the deep need for a program that supports and elevates post–MFA writers. The goal: to build a no-fee workshop that accommodates full-time work schedules, childcare needs, and celebrates writers who are POC, LGBTQ+, women-identified, adjunct instructors, and any and all combination. More than anything, I wanted to compensate our writers. The Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops grant became a profound way to do so.

In many ways, publishing has left poetry behind. Some magazines charge fees to submit work, and often can’t afford payment upon publication. I regularly see venues advertise $100 pay for fiction or nonfiction pieces and only $25 for poems. While I recognize this scale is often based on word count, it speaks volumes about the legitimacy of poetry in the modern arena.

June Jordan said that poetry is a political act because it involves truth telling. Very often this means writing through a lens counter to mainstream culture, embodying our power and vulnerabilities on the page, and practicing radical empathy with fellow artists. For this reason, it was an immense pleasure to introduce the Office Hours Spring Showcase fellows at the Bureau of General Services–Queer Division (BGSQD).

With Marco DaSilva’s visionary art installation “My Quaint Struggle” as backdrop, Sanj Nair captivated the audience with works that delved into identity, agency, and womanhood. Marty Correia’s pieces skillfully wrestled with human relationships—queer and familial— then brought forth the magical properties of DaSilva’s golden altar by dubbing them “authority panels.”

Next, Yanyi read his self-described “soft prose poems”—rich and particular renderings of the domestic. Caitlin McDonnell’s lyric narratives confronted the reality of gun violence in America and presented a tapestry of inventive first lines from novels she’s written and/or abandoned. Holly Mitchell’s lush writing strode between epithalamion and coming-of-age in a conservative landscape.

Paco Márquez rounded out the night with sinuous poems from his new chapbook, Portraits in G Minor (Folded Word, 2017), and treated the audience to the Spanish and English versions of a Pablo Neruda poem he recently assisted William O’Daly in translating from Book of Twilight (Copper Canyon Press, 2017), a recent publication of Neruda’s debut book, Crepusculario.

Overall, the evening was overwhelmingly restorative. Here, in New York City, and at the Bureau, we make our home among friends as we seek to change the status quo.

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program 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 Frances Abbey Endowment, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photos: (top) Sarah Sala (Credit: Talya Chalef). (middle) Sanj Nair (Credit: Sarah Sala). (bottom) Yanyi (Credit: Sarah Sala).

A Thirst for the Arts in the Inland Region

For years, Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program has been conducting Literary Roundtable Meetings in California and New York State. The meetings bring together people from all areas of the literary community to share ideas, news, and resources. In California, eight community meetings are held a year. This spring, a meeting was held in California’s Inland Empire region, an area centered around the cities of Riverside and San Bernardino. The guest speaker was Dr. Ernie Garcia of the Garcia Center for the Arts, where the meeting was held, and the cohost was Cati Porter, director of the Inlandia Institute. Porter is a poet, editor, essayist, and arts administrator, and her third poetry collection, The Body at a Loss, is forthcoming next year from CavanKerry Press. She writes about the value of the annual Literary Roundtable Meetings and the recent gathering in San Bernardino, California.

For the past decade, Inlandia Institute has been the Inland Empire regional partner for Poets & Writers’ annual Inland Empire Literary Roundtable Meeting. We have always held the meeting at a local library, but this year thought it would be fun to mix it up and meet at the Garcia Center for the Arts in San Bernardino.

Situated in an urban center, the Garcia Center is an oasis. Opening the front gate is like stepping through a portal: The courtyard is filled with desert-loving flora. Banana trees, heavy with fruit, bend over the walkways. A fountain purrs. The building is a Spanish adobe, once abandoned and now rehabilitated, and home to artist studios and arts organizations, including a second office for Inlandia.

The Garcia Center is named after and run by Dr. Ernie Garcia, our guest speaker for the roundtable that day. I arrive early and can already hear voices as I make my way toward the community library for the meeting. That’s when I find Ernie sitting on a bench in the courtyard with another early arrival. The three of us head into the “library,” a large room stocked, thanks to generous community donations, with books and comfy chairs.

An island of tables has already been set up for our meeting. Soon Jamie Asaye FitzGerald, director of Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops (West), arrives—and then about a dozen others. Just inside the door is an upright piano, another donation, and Jamie sits and plays for us as we settle in. The table fills up quickly.

We have just begun going around the room introducing ourselves when two more people walk in, then one more, then a couple more again, until nearly every seat is filled including the wing chairs and sofa. Among those present are Timothy Green of Rattle literary magazine, Richard Soos of Cholla Needles Press, Jennifer Kane of Arts Connection, Juan Delgado of California State University in San Bernardino, Cindy Rinne of the San Bernardino Valley Concert Association, Edward Ferrari of PoetrIE, and Nikia Chaney, the Inlandia Literary Laureate.

In all, twenty-five people coming from as far and wide as Sun City, Rancho Cucamonga, Barstow, Ontario, Wrightwood, Forest Falls, Joshua Tree, Yucaipa, Moreno Valley, Redlands, and Riverside. There is such thirst for this kind of support for artists and writers in Inlandia that folks were willing to drive great distances just to connect.

Dr. Garcia—aka Ernie, aka Neto Esquelito—gives us an oral history of the Garcia Center, and then reads from his book, Growing Up Aleluya, about religious intolerance in the barrio of South Colton, California.

When Ernie finishes, I pull out a pair of scissors.

Ernie, Nikia, and I push back our chairs and walk to a trio of bookshelves behind me, a red ribbon draped across. Ernie cuts the ribbon. The sign beneath reads: Inlandia Poetry Library Donated By Inlandia Literary Laureate Nikia Chaney.

Nikia found herself with more books than bookshelves after serving as a judge for this year’s Kate and Kingsley Tufts Poetry Prize, so she decided to donate them as part of her laureateship to form the Inlandia Poetry Library at the Garcia Center. More than four hundred poetry books are now free to the public to check out, on the honor system, when the center is open.

Writing is about connecting. It’s not, as they say, always a solitary act. Community is the well we drink from after the long journey inward. What Poets & Writers does is create someplace for us to come back to—for exchange of ideas and connection with other writers—something that, in the Inlandia region, is hard to come by.

Support for this event and Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the California Arts Council, a state agency, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photos: (top) Dr. Ernie Garcia, Cati Porter, and Nikia Chaney (Credit: Cindy Rinne). (bottom) Inland Empire group (Credit: Jamie FitzGerald).

Taylor Mali on Page Meets Stage

A four-time National Poetry Slam champion, Taylor Mali is one of the original poets to appear on the HBO series Def Poetry Jam and is the author of two collections of poetry and a book of essays, What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012). He is the founding curator of Page Meets Stage, a monthly poetry series in New York City that pairs two poets to perform a conversation through their work.

How did Page Meets Stage begin? What was your inspiration?
The inspiration for the series actually started with Billy Collins. I’ve been a fan of his work for years and now consider him a mentor. In the early 1990s, I used to write him a fan letter every couple months or so, and every letter ended with an invitation for him to come read at a poetry slam series that I used to help curate at the Bowery Poetry Club. In 2005, after a decade of these letters, he finally agreed, and he had a wonderful time. I suggested that we arrange another reading with just the two of us and call it “Page vs. Stage.” He liked the idea, and somewhere along the way in planning the format for the night, we decided that it would be interesting if we went back and forth, poem for poem, perhaps having a conversation through our work.

The reading was a great success, in part I suspect, because of the unique format, which the audience loved. Since then, we’ve had several different pairings of poets, always with one representing a more performative style of poetry and the other, more literary. Currently, I work with Mahogany L. Browne, April Ranger, and MaryCae to produce the show once a month and we are still at the Bowery Poetry Club!

What have the challenges been to sustaining such a long-running program?
Promotion has always been the issue. There’s always something good to watch on TV, and people seem happy these days to sit in a comfy chair for a few hours with only their smart phones (I know because I’ve been that person). It’s an awful feeling when you craft a spectacular pairing—with two poets who don’t know each other but whose work blends together in just the right way—and then only two people show up for the show! We’ve had some wonderful pairings that were so poorly attended that I’ve been tempted to call it quits.

Has your mission or your vision for the organization changed over the years? What’s most important for you right now?
In the beginning, I was probably on a mission to garner more respect for spoken word poets. I wanted to show the world that spoken word poets are just as concerned with craft as the next poet; but they understand that how you read a poem is also important. In the thirteen years we’ve been around, the line between page and stage has been bent in some places and blurred in others. There are former slam poets who are finalists for the National Book Award like Danez Smith, university professors such as Patricia Smith and Jeff McDaniel, and even Pulitzer Prize winners and Guggenheim fellows such as Tyehimba Jess.

Furthermore, we’ve had about six poets who have done both sides of the pairing, stage the first time and page the second. So these days, we don’t care quite so much about labels. We just try to craft a great night for people to hear great poetry.

What has been your most rewarding experience as a curator and organizer?
There have been a lot of great pairings and some fantastic ones coming up as well, but a couple of moments have stuck with me. I got to share the stage with Galway Kinnell before he died. Back then we also traded poems during readings so Galway read one of my poems, and I performed his poem “The Waking” from memory, which takes five minutes to recite and is probably the longest poem I’ve ever memorized.

I’d also been trying to get my friend Saul Williams to participate for years, and I finally got him to agree in 2014. I asked what his dream pairing would be, and he said, “Without a doubt, Carolyn Forché.” As luck would have it, I had just taken a workshop with Carolyn, so I was able to set it up. That’s a pairing I would never have concocted on my own, but it remains one of my favorites.

What’s next for the series?
I am hesitant to even mention this because it’s still months away, but two of my favorite poets, Ocean Vuong and Sharon Olds, are scheduled to read together on Sunday, October 28, which will be very exciting.

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program 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 Frances Abbey Endowment, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photos: (top) Billy Collins and Taylor Mali in 2005 for the inaugural reading of the series (Credit: Taylor Mali). (middle) Clint Smith and Elizabeth Acevedo (Credit: Taylor Mali). (bottom) Saul Williams and Carolyn Forché (Credit: Taylor Mali).

 

Between the Starshine and the Clay: Kamilah Aisha Moon at Spelman College

Sarah RudeWalker is a poet and an assistant professor of English at Spelman College specializing in Rhetoric and Composition. Her scholarship focuses on the literature of African American social movements, and she is currently finishing a book manuscript on the rhetoric and poetics of the Black Arts Movement during the 1960s and 1970s. Her creative and scholarly work has appeared in Pluck! The Affrilachian Journal of Arts & Culture, Callaloo, and Composition Studies.

With the renewed support of Poets & Writers this school year, the Department of English at Spelman College has been able to deepen our offerings to the Atlanta University Center (AUC) and West End communities in Atlanta by featuring readings and workshops with brilliant African American women poets. This March, poet Kamilah Aisha Moon kicked off what we call “Lit Week,” a week of events coordinated by Spelman College faculty member and noted poet Sharan Strange and Spelman literary scholar Dr. Michelle Hite. The events aim to highlight the possibilities for art and activism that spin out from the dedicated study of English.

Moon, currently an assistant professor of poetry and creative writing at Agnes Scott College, is a Pushcart Prize winner, Lambda Award finalist, and Cave Canem fellow with two published books of poetry: She Has a Name (Four Way Books, 2013) and Starshine & Clay (Four Way Books, 2017). The Poets & Writers–sponsored events with Moon on March 26 included a craft talk and workshop for student writers, and an evening reading for the community.

Moon spent the afternoon talking about craft, inviting students to consider the power of their creative work to “bear witness.” This power, she observed, depends on the writer’s ability to practice craft with attention and empathy. One of the worst things we can do to each other, she observed, is to render someone invisible, and writers, who purposely aim to be “mirrors of treachery and glory,” have the power to do just the opposite: to help us see each other, and especially to see the familiar in a very different way. Moon invited students to interrogate this potential in their own work by presenting her work with disarming vulnerability, sharing early drafts and asking students to critique the choices that led to the final versions of her poems.

The reading that evening was lovingly intimate and set up in Spelman style: Audience members entered to find Moon seated at a candlelit table and listened to a recording of the a capella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock as they waited for the reading to begin. Moon opened the reading by noting that although she was never a student at Spelman herself, she fondly remembers the AUC as social stomping grounds for her and her friends. The reading that followed was exemplary of what can happen when the work of a black woman poet is honored within a black women-centered space.

Moon read from Starshine & Clay, whose Lucille Clifton-honoring title is meant to cover a lot of ground—the world of the personal and the public, of the grief and love and joy that exists between the starshine and the clay. Reading her poem “The Emperor’s Deer,” which she first wrote for Michael Brown, she asked the audience to hear it as mourning for the recently murdered Stephon Clark. Reading from the book’s third section, the author asked the audience to acknowledge the ways that personal traumas and historical traumas are intricately connected, to recognize that both the joy and pain of the personal persist while a public trauma blazes and burns. “I never read these,” she admitted, smiling.

We at Spelman commit to continuing to make spaces like these that invite this kind of intimacy between author and audience, especially in ways that honor the work of black women writers. We hope that Kamilah Aisha Moon knows that she has a home here, “on this bridge between / starshine and clay.”

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

Photos: (top) Kamilah Aisha Moon (Credit: Sarah RudeWalker). (bottom) Spelman College students with Moon (Credit: Sarah RudeWalker).

Short Story Essentials: Tapping Into the Power of Scene

Allison Alsup’s short fiction has been published in multiple journals and won multiple awards including those from A Room of Her Own Foundation, New Millennium Writings, Philadelphia Stories, and most recently, the Dana Awards. Her short story “Old Houses” appears in the 2014 O’Henry Prize Stories and has since been included in two textbooks from Bedford/St. Martin’s: Arguing About Literature: A Guide and Reader and Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers. Alsup received an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College, and is the recipient of artist residencies from the Aspen Writers Foundation and the Jentel Foundation. In 2017, she and several colleagues launched the New Orleans Writers Workshop, through which she currently teaches community-based creative writing workshops.

I’ve taught writing for most of my adult life, but community classes, particularly fiction workshops, occupy a special place in my heart. Unlike college classrooms or graduate programs, community classes cast a wide net, attracting a spectrum of writers of all ages, diverse backgrounds and experience. Suddenly a cross section of people that might not otherwise connect gather around a table with a single common purpose: to transform seething, raw images and words into comprehensible, moving stories. Here the CPA rubs shoulders with the waitress, the civil servant with the entrepreneur, only to find that when it comes to the vagaries of the human heart, they have more in common with one another than they might have otherwise thought.

Thanks to a recent grant from Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program, I had the chance to witness firsthand the tremendous material such community classes can generate, even in a limited amount of time. Short Story Essentials met for three Monday evenings at a local public library in New Orleans. Though the class was aimed at adults, the library was designed for children. Despite low tables and tiny chairs, and thanks to a steady supply of ginger snaps and tea from head librarian Linda Gielac, we managed to tackle a pretty big idea when it comes to crafting story: how to write compelling scenes.

Each week, we talked a bit of shop and about technique, but the bulk of our time was spent in heavily guided exercises that began with pre-writing, specifically with take no prisoner questions centering on character, motivation, conflict, and stakes. Together these answers helped to clarify what can stymy even the most advanced of writers: a scene’s given function in the story’s overall arc. What followed was a sustained writing period that alternated between gentle nudging on my part about juggling details around setting, movement, interiority, backstory, and dialogue, and brief periods of silence during which participants scribbled at record speed.

Great scenes require both conceptual understanding as well as gusto. Between meetings, many writers used their time to their advantage, typing up rough drafts and revising with an eye towards clarifying choices on the page. Sessions were designed to be sequential with each week’s scene building upon the last. As a result, every writer left with a substantial chunk of story, and in some cases, a complete work.

It would be hard for me to exaggerate the importance such a series has on my own writing. I can think of little else that hones my own understanding of scene more than creating, from scratch, an exercise that leads writers from a given premise through its complication to its apex. Nor can I imagine greater inspiration than listening to the plethora of rich storylines that result: a hitherto loyal employee who, due to a chance mistake, ponders a life of embezzlement; a mother who must shatter her teenage daughter’s naïveté about a nefarious uncle; an immigrant cab driver who must confront his past war crimes. Thanks to Poets & Writers, these stories and more are well on their way.

Support for Readings & Workshops 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.

Photos: (top) Allison Alsup (Credit: Allison Alsup). (bottom) Sean Gremillion and Asha Buehler (Credit: Allison Aslup).

El milagro secreto: Rodrigo Hasbún’s Spanish-Language Workshop in Houston

Brian Beard is a member of Writers in the Schools’ Outreach Committee and an ongoing member of Rodrigo Hasbún’s Spanish-language writing workshops at Literal, Latin American Voices. Beard’s writing appears in Bellevue Literary Review, the New Guard, Poetry East, Quiddity, Red Rock Review, Sixfold, Translation Review, and elsewhere. Beard took part in a P&W–supported Spanish-language workshop, El milagro secreto (The Secret Miracle), also led by Hasbún, at Houston’s Writespace writing center in November of 2017.

When María Quiroga moved from Mexico City to Houston in July 2017, she missed the writers group she’d left behind. She headed to the local library branch, looking for other writers, but couldn’t find any there. So when she learned that celebrated Bolivian author Rodrigo Hasbún, author of Affections (Simon & Schuster, 2017), would be offering a writing workshop in Spanish at Houston’s Writespace writing center, she jumped at the opportunity.

“It was such a warm and inviting community,” Quiroga says of the workshop, which included twelve writers from Bolivia, Cuba, Honduras, Mexico, Spain, Venezuela, and the United States.

When Hasbún moved to Houston in 2014, he found that although the city was home to a thriving literary scene and over a million Spanish speakers, writing workshops in Spanish were few and far between. Hasbún began to offer his own workshops to fill the gap.

“Writing is a solitary profession,” Hasbún says in an e-mail. “Sometimes you can get the impression that nobody is interested in the work you’re doing. When you are a writer living in a country where the language and the culture are foreign to you, this effect tends to be heightened. By offering encouragement, camaraderie, and a valuable sense of community, a writing workshop can make all the difference.”

On the first day of the workshop, as part of an exercise to inspire the members of the group to use details to create character, Hasbún showed a short film in which people at the top of a ten-meter diving platform decide, with varying degrees of angst, whether to jump or climb back down the ladder.

The act of writing, Hasbún suggested to the group, is akin to jumping off a diving platform. “When you write,” he says, “you have to throw yourself again and again into the void.”

Week after week, in the sessions that followed, the workshop members responded to the challenge, pushing themselves into new territory as they created short stories which they shared and workshopped with the group.

“In the wake of new political threats to many of our country’s Spanish speakers,” writes Writespace’s founder and director Elizabeth White-Olsen in an e-mail, “I felt it was important that we were doing something, even if it was small, to say to people who move to the United States from other countries, you are welcome here. We appreciate you and want you to find a home here.”

For many of the group members, it was the first time they had come into contact with other Spanish-speaking writers in Houston.

“I was surprised and delighted,” Quiroga says, “to find that the voices of the other writers, although they were in Spanish, were completely distinct from the voices of the writers I had become accustomed to in Mexico. Their life experiences, cultural contexts, and literary backgrounds were so varied that, encountering their stories, I felt as if I were discovering my language for the first time.”

In addition to being hosted and sponsored by Writespace and cosponsored by Poets & Writers, Hasbún’s workshop was also cosponsored by Arte Público Press and Tintero Projects.

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

Photo: Rodrigo Hasbún (Credit: Sergio Bastani).

Ekphrazein ARAS: A Hub for Interdisciplinary Dialogue

Miriam Atkin is a poet and critic based in New York whose work has been largely concerned with the possibilities of poetry as a medium in conversation with avant-garde film, music, and dance. She teaches literature and creative writing at the City University of New York and is curator of the Ekphrazein reading series at the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism. Her poetry chapbook, Fours, was published by the Kaf Collective in 2017. Over the last decade she has written essays, reviews, and poems for various magazines online and in print.

Interdisciplinary practice has been a major concern of my work ever since I moved to New York in 2008 to immerse myself in its creative scenes as a first step toward writing about art professionally. I began attending events at a range of venues like Judson Memorial Church, Roulette, Poets House, the Stone, e-flux, and White Columns. I was surprised to find that I was one of few regulars at these spaces who were not practitioners in the medium at hand. I had spent my twenties in Rust Belt cities where the relatively small number of people in the arts necessitated that we all went to all the events. Despite our differing creative vocations, we were generally hungry for the kind of thinking and conversation that art-making provokes and we knew that our diverse aesthetic languages shared enough between them to be mutually understandable. But now, in New York, I found an art world that was firmly ghettoized.

Thus, it was when I encountered the cross-disciplinary, multigenerational, and broadly humanist scope of the program at the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS), I knew I had discovered a site for heterogeneous intellectual exchange that was rare in the city. I learned about the space—which is located at the C. G. Jung Center in East Midtown in New York City—after reading in the first installation of Ekphrazein, a series of events featuring artists in various mediums presenting work in response to a central thematic archetype. The theme of the inaugural event, which happened in late 2013, was the sun archetype. In accordance with the format for the reading, I chose an image related to the sun from ARAS’s collection, which served as a visual counterpoint for my writing. I loved the conversation between text and image that Ekphrazein facilitated, and the cross-disciplinary nature of the work I saw presented there was reiterated in the heterogeneity of the audience, which included psychologists, historians, anthropologists, and so on.

I have since become the curator of Ekphrazein, and on February 16, we hosted our sixth reading held in the Jung Center’s first floor event space, with support from Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program. The thematic focus of the night was ashes, and each artist performed against a projection of their chosen ash image. The program began with multimedia artist Akeema-Zane reading poetry while accompanied by harpist Elsz. Poet Geoffrey Olsen was second on the bill, which concluded with a performance of improvised music and dance featuring Jason Kao Hwang (violin), Devin Brahja Waldman (saxophone), Megumi Eda (dance), and Yoshiko Chuma (dance). The presentations ranged between painstaking poetic craft and the playful abandon of free jazz, with each set activating a charged intimacy between artist and audience. Afterwards we all went up to ARAS for a candlelit wine reception, where I observed the enthusiasm with which audience members approached performers to engage in conversation about the night. It was energizing to see new acquaintances made and new doors opened to potential creative fusions across disciplines. I look forward to seeing what works and alliances this uncategorizable series will galvanize in the future.

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program 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 Frances Abbey Endowment, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photos: (top) Miriam Atkins (Credit: Rijard Bergeron). (bottom) Poet Akeema-Zane and harpist Elsz (Credit: Jamie Thomas). 

Tim Fredrick on Newtown Literary and the Queens Lit Scene

Tim Fredrick is the author of the short story collection, We Regret to Inform You (Ingram, 2012). His stories have been published in Burningword, Pif Magazine, Wilde Magazine, and Hamilton Stone Review. He is the founding editor and executive director of Newtown Literary, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting writers from and living in the Queens borough of New York City.

How did Newtown Literary begin? What prompted you to launch it?
I began Newtown Literary in 2012 after getting to know several writers in Queens and attending various literary events there. Something was definitely bubbling up at the time, and I was reading and hearing incredible work. Unfortunately, not much of that work was being associated with Queens; authors usually said they were from “New York City” in their bios. I decided that it was time for a written record of the work being produced in Queens and for “So-and-so is from Queens” to be a badge of honor in an author’s bio. The borough has a long history of the literary arts and some of the best literature being produced now is from writers living in Queens or who grew up there.

The literary events scene in Queens is going strong. What’s next?
One of the great things about the literary scene here in Queens is that it is grassroots. The people who organize reading series, events, literary journals, small presses, and so on are everyday writers who want to contribute to the community. So, in the larger literary scene, it’s hard to know what’s next. For Newtown Literary, we are going to continue with our journal and with our free classes and professional development program. Our focus lately has been on removing barriers to participation. Our free writing classes program—which offers twice-a-month, one-off, free writing classes taught by established Queens writers, such as Scott Cheshire, Jill Eisenstadt, Joseph O. Legaspi, and Min Jin Lee—was born out of a desire to make high-quality creative writing instruction available to everyone, no matter their income. We will continue in this vein.

In addition to being a literary organizer, you’re also a creative writer. What’s it like wearing two hats, so to speak?
It’s not easy! I often have to choose between my commitment to Newtown Literary—and by proxy, other writers—and my commitment to my own writing. I wish I could say that I chose my own writing more often, but it’s “easier” for me to choose my work at Newtown Literary because it doesn’t challenge me as much as writing does. Running a small nonprofit is so much easier than writing a novel!

Is there any advice you’d offer to creative writers who want to participate in the “behind the scenes” of literary organizing?
Do it. Reach out to people in charge and say, “Hey, I’d like to get involved.” At least at Newtown Literary, it’s that easy.

What has been the most rewarding experience in your work with Newtown Literary?
What I value most about Newtown Literary is our community—it’s not competitive and there are no hard feelings when one person succeeds. While working on the organization takes time away from my own writing, the friends and colleagues I’ve made working here are constantly asking me, “How’s your writing?” and if I respond, “Well...” I know I need to get to work. Some of my closest friends—the ones I go to when I need to talk or vent or celebrate—come from the organization, as well.

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program 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 Frances Abbey Endowment, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photos: (top) Tim Fredrick (Credit: Tim Fredrick). (middle) Writer’s Block class led by Scott Cheshire (Credit: Newtown Literary). (bottom) Get Published panel (Credit: Newtown Literary).

The AfroSurreal Writers Workshop on Creative Community

Rochelle Spencer, founder of the AfroSurreal Writers Workshop, which meets monthly in Oakland, writes about the genesis of the workshop and an event with P&W–supported fiction writer Learkana Chong. Spencer’s book AfroSurrealism: The African Diaspora’s Surrealist Fiction is forthcoming from Taylor & Francis in July, and she is the coeditor of the anthology STEAM: Women on the Intersections of Science and Art with Jina Ortiz and Manjula Menon.

The AfroSurreal Writers Workshop—Audrey T. Williams, Thaddeus Howze, Dera R. Williams, Kelechi Ubozoh, Rochelle Robinson, Peter A. McKay, and Shannon Holbrook—were just a bunch of nerdy black folks who met at Oakland’s African American Museum and Library eager to discuss books and writing.

We meet monthly and aim to support writers of color creating weird, surreal, or absurdist art, and celebrate all people, including senior citizens, religious and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, the LGBITQ communities, members of poor and working class neighborhoods, and of course, people of color.

Bay Area writers support each other, and we were encouraged by Gina Goldblatt, director of the Liminal Center, Manjula Menon and Meg Hayertz from the Surreal Women Writers Group, J. K. Fowler’s Nomadic Press, Vernon Keeve III and MK Chavez from the Association of Black and Brown Writers, and the Emergent Strategy (AK Press, 2017) reading group organized by Audrey T. Williams and Aryeh Shell—all of which either came out to our readings or provided space for us to talk and develop ideas. The Bay Area is the kind of place where literary community matters.

In the spirit of this tradition, with sponsorship from the Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program, the AfroSurreal Writers hosted fiction writer Learkana Chong, along with Dera R. Williams and Shannon Holbrook, for a few hours of writing, AfroSurreal games, and vegetarian soul food last November.

Chong, who has a blog called lampshade on her head, enjoys seeing a live audience respond to her work. “I don’t get to experience that very often as a writer—usually I have to ask someone after I share something online what their thoughts were, and the response isn’t as exciting or visceral. Seeing and hearing people laugh at all the right parts reassured me that my story resonated the way I hoped it would.”

Williams describes sharing her work as empowering: “The reception to my work made me realize that I’m on the right path. I think people are interested in learning about different facets of Oakland and how the past has shaped—and is still shaping—Oakland. Working with the Emergent Strategy group, something came to me, and I decided to reclaim my space in Oakland. I was raised here and came here when I was two years old. This has been my life so I’m reclaiming it.”

In addition to the readings, there was a poem-generating game. “Playing games” recounts Holbrook, a speculative fiction writer who led attendees in the game, “is part of natural human interaction—it’s how we get to know each other from our earliest stage of development. Play is essential. We’re there to support each other creatively.”

“It’s incredibly gratifying to hear feedback from people who tell me they can relate to what I’ve written,” Chong says. “Or that they can vividly picture the narrative as it unfolds, or that the story tugged at their heartstrings or got them to think in some way. It affirms there is a place in the world for my storytelling after all, and that’s one of the best feelings to have as a writer.”

Support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the California Arts Council, a state agency, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photo: Learkana Chong (Credit: Laneè Mecca Woodard).

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