Readings & Workshops Blog

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).

Reflex/Response: Kaveh Akbar at the Poetry Center of Chicago

Natasha Mijares is an artist, writer, curator, and educator. She received her MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has exhibited at MECA International Art Fair in Puerto Rico, Sullivan Galleries, TCC Chicago, and Locust Projects and has been published in Container, Calamity, Vinyl Poetry, Bear Review, and Hypertext Magazine. She is a teaching artist for the Poetry Center of Chicago’s creative literacy residency program in Chicago public schools, Hands on Stanzas, and curates and hosts the Six Points Reading Series.

The Poetry Center of Chicago (PCC) was founded in 1974, and we work hard to promote poetry in Chicago through readings, workshops, and arts education. Something that I have been working on at PCC is to offer more workshops for adults. Last year, we had a poetry and dance workshop with Ana Castillo and the nonprofit organization Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble, thanks to the generous support of Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program. With this continued support, I was able to organize a morning workshop with poet Kaveh Akbar as well as an evening reading and discussion with him and Tarfia Faizullah that took place on January 26. 

The workshop sign-up was open to the public and took place at Loyola University Chicago. We had twenty-three participants from all kinds of backgrounds, ages, and places in the city. Kaveh Akbar opened up the workshop by discussing the unique architecture of our psychic algorithms and how this allows us to create a restorative experience of language that is uniquely our own. He led two activities to be used as sustainable tools for the writing practice.

The first activity incorporated a “bibliomanic” response in which each participant picked words from poetry books that stood out to them. After acquiring a pile of dazzling words and ideas, the participants were able to craft their own poems and the responses were energetic, playful, and provocative. The second activity was the “one-word story.” In groups of three, two participants began a poem by saying one word at a time and the third participant acted as the scribe. Again, the activity was a trust of the psyche as opposed to any premeditated plan. Akbar stressed how certainty is the death of a poem and how we should trust our reflexive responses.

The workshop participants and the PCC staff had a wonderful experience. One of the participants noted: “He was a great teacher—full of curiosity and fun, and he shared that infectiously with us. Akbar’s prompts were really wonderful, they allowed me to get into writing immediately, and led to a great output of work for myself, and it seemed, for others too. I’m so grateful the center was able to offer this workshop for free.”

In the evening, both poets opened by reading Chicago poets. Tarfia Faizullah read a poem from Fatimah Asghar’s forthcoming debut collection, If They Come for Us (One World, 2018), and Akbar read “off white” by Nate Marshall, before reading from their own collections along with some new work.

Thanks to the support of a micro grant from Illinois Humanities, we were able to have the poets lead a discussion following the reading. Akbar used the space to interview Faizullah about her new book and the discussion lead to questions about Muslim identity, epigenetics, and when to address the self. The audience contributed questions and feedback that pulled us toward the roots of each poet’s work. It made for an evening of honest, warm, and powerful celebrations of poetry and the community that builds it together.

Editor’s Note: For more on Kaveh Akbar, read “The Whole Self: Our Thirteenth Annual Look at Debut Poets” from the January/February 2018 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. You can also hear Tarfia Faizullah read from her new poetry collection, Registers of Illuminated Villages (Graywolf Press, 2018), in the eighteenth episode of Ampersand: The Poets & Writers Podcast.

Support for Readings & Workshops in Chicago 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) Natasha Mijares (Credit: German Caceres). (middle) Reading attendees (Credit: Max Maller). (bottom) Kaveh Akbar and Tarfia Faizullah (Credit: Max Maller).

Mississippi Noir Night in New Orleans

Tom Andes’s writing has appeared in Witness, Great Jones Street, Guernica, Pulp Modern, Xavier Review, The Best American Mystery Stories 2012 (Mariner Books, 2012), and in numerous other journals in print and online. He lives in New Orleans, where he works as a freelance writer and editor and moonlights as a country singer. He teaches for the New Orleans Writers Workshop, which he cofounded, and hosts a monthly fiction night at Blood Jet Poetry Series, which was founded and is hosted by Megan Burns.

Blood Jet Poetry Series happens weekly in the fall and again in the spring at BJ’s Lounge, a New Orleans bar that’s as close to a Mississippi juke joint as you’re likely to find outside the Delta. Saturday nights, you can dance to Little Freddie King or any one of dozens of other local musical luminaries, but on Wednesdays the space belongs to poetry. (As with many things in New Orleans, a family connection is at work: Bar owner Teal Grue is the son of celebrated New Orleans poet and fiction writer Lee Grue.)

For the last couple years, series founder and host, poet Megan Burns has allowed me to invite readers for a monthly fiction night. Last December, I asked two of the contributors to the Mississippi Noir anthology published by Akashic Books—RaShell R. Smith-Spears and William Boyle—to travel to New Orleans to read.

One of my favorite things about crime fiction is the fact that it never skimps on story. By definition, the stakes are high, and as lofty as the genre’s ambitions can be, the writer is compelled to entertain. Case in point: Smith-Spears’s masterful “Losing Her Religion,” about a Jackson, Mississippi schoolteacher’s affair with a married, white colleague—a story about power, gender, race, and class—happens to be one hell of a page-turner.

During Smith-Spears’s twenty-minute slot, BJ’s was so quiet you could hear people breathing. When her time was up halfway through the story, a few seconds of silence followed before someone said: “I want to hear the rest of that.”

Boyle read from his forthcoming novel, The Lonely Witness (Pegasus Books, 2018). Like its predecessor, Gravesend (Broken River Books, 2013), a small press crime novel that belongs on a shelf next to those by giants of the genre such as Elmore Leonard, its multi-generational drama plays out across a changing urban landscape, the Gravesend neighborhood of Boyle’s native Brooklyn (he now lives in Oxford, Mississippi).

Blood Jet attracts a coterie of regulars. Though some—including my recently retired parents—come to listen, many read at the open mic that follows the featured readers. We had a good crowd for a rainy Wednesday in December, with the holidays fast upon us. We heard poems, a chapter from a thriller, and rock and roll.

At a time when our culture seems to put so little value on art and the things it encourages in us—empathy, tolerance, and a willingness to immerse ourselves in someone else’s experience—it feels significant to come together in a way that’s so profoundly local, and in a place where everybody listens generously. Altogether, it’s a bracing reminder of what can happen when twenty or thirty people who care about writing—about anything—gather in a room.

In crime fiction, as in New Orleans, setting is everything. Thanks to BJ’s for making a magical space available to us, and to the Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program for helping bring our readers to town. Every time I come to Blood Jet, I walk away invigorated, challenged, and a little more alive.

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) Rashell R. Smith-Spears (Credit: Chauncey Spears). (bottom) William Boyle (Credit: Kate Farrell Boyle).

Jon Sands on Workshops at Bailey House

Jon Sands is the author of The New Clean (Write Bloody Publishing, 2011), as well as the cohost of The Poetry Gods podcast. His work has been published widely, and anthologized in The Best American Poetry. He is a youth mentor at Urban Word NYC, and teaches creative writing for adults at Bailey House in East Harlem, New York. Sands is a recent MFA graduate in fiction from Brooklyn College, where his work won the Himan Brown Award for short stories. He has represented New York City multiple times at the National Poetry Slam, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

How did your work at Bailey House begin? What drew you there?
I teach workshops at Urban Word NYC, where, in 2009, I met the son of then Bailey House CEO, the late Gina Quattrochi. She was an absolute force, and spent her whole adult life fighting for the rights of people with HIV/AIDS, specifically those who were homeless or housing insecure. She ran this huge agency providing on the ground services to some of the city’s most vulnerable populations. Gina and I got coffee, and she told me, “There are so many stories under our roof that aren’t getting told.” She knew she wanted poetry—specifically its capacity to humanize, break down barriers, and build communities—to be fully integrated into Bailey House culture. That kind of agency-wide strategic and financial buy in to the arts, in the public health world, is not to be taken for granted. She was a real visionary.

What has been the key to sustaining such a long-running program?
Consistency. It’s important that an organization is down for the long haul of a program. Clients have to be able to count on the fact that it’s every week, at the same time, no matter what. But then, most importantly, it has to involve a worthwhile product. Every week there’s a new prompt, new game plan, unless we have a guest, and this is one of the major keys: we’ve been blessed at this point to have had an unreal line-up of readers, Pulitzer Prize winners, poetry slam champions, MacArthur geniuses; it’s important that our authors see that the work they’re creating at Bailey House is connected to a larger movement. I remember when Willie Perdomo visited to read poems and answer questions, and there was this woman in the client waiting area with a great smile, but she was shy and kind of new to the space. I asked her if she wanted to join, and she said she wasn’t a writer, and didn’t read poetry. I promised she’d like it, and told her she wouldn’t have to say anything, and she kind of half smiled and rigidly agreed. Five years later, she’s been there almost every week, and she’s filled four notebooks with important, impressive work. It really becomes about how you coax people into the door, because you never know whose life it’s going to change.

Are there any techniques you employ to encourage shy or reluctant writers to open up?
I try to bring in poems that demonstrate both vulnerability and craftsmanship. I make it clear that our number one goal is not to “figure out” what the author means, our goal is to find as many ways as possible to look at what’s happening. I think some people have been preconditioned to think poetry is not for them because they don’t “get it” in the way they assume it’s meant to be “gotten.” I teach that we have to trust what it is we do “get,” and once we do that—once we allow our own personal narratives to be at play in how we understand a poem—then the conversation can go to some interesting places; the poem becomes a tool through which we process our own lives. So, you become a more seasoned reader, a more empathetic person, hopefully, but also the author is pushing you to partake in the telling, to write your own brave and urgent work. I also think a lot of readers are genuinely surprised to find out how many poems out there really speak to them. I feel like we’re in a golden age of poetry, and it’s ready-made for the masses, we just have to carve out the space for poetry to find readers.

What has been your most rewarding experience as a teacher? As an artist?
Every year, we publish in-house books of the best poems from the program, and there’s always this agency-wide release party. The clients invite family and community members, but also the staff gets this entirely new way of seeing the people they serve. Stigma is an important buzzword, the stigma of HIV, or injection drug use, or homelessness; but it has such limitations. Many of the clients, long before they walk through that door, have learned not to define themselves by the often difficult situations they’ve been placed in. But it’s undeniable that writer, artist, storyteller, these are positive labels that put value on, not just the story, but the storyteller. Art humanizes the self to the self. That’s important, culture shifting work, and it’s a testament to how creativity challenges the human spirit. That’s certainly been true in my life, and to be able to witness that in the lives of students, in thousands of minuscule ways, and to witness the way in which personal growth, in the presence of others, is the binding glue of community, it’s one of the most significant joys in my life.

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) Jon Sands (Credit: Jonathan Weiskopf). (bottom) Bailey House workshop participants (Credit: Jon Sands).

West Seattle’s WordsWest Literary Series

WordsWest Literary Series is curated by poets Katy E. Ellis and Susan Rich, and novelist Harold Taw. All three live in Seattle, where they came together over their parched need for a reading series in their community of West Seattle. Ellis is the author of three chapbooks: Night Watch (winner of the Floating Bridge Press 2017 Chapbook Competition), Urban Animal Expeditions (Dancing Girl Press, 2013), and Gravity (Yellow Flag Press, 2015). Below, she writes about the inventive format of the WordsWest Literary Series and how it played out at an event last fall with P&W–supported writers Robert Flor and Roberto Ascalon.

WordsWest Literary Series—now in its fourth year of programming—was honored to celebrate Filipino American History Month by welcoming two outstanding local writers of Filipino descent, Robert (Bob) Flor and Roberto Ascalon, to the stage. As cocurator Harold Taw mentioned in his introduction, both writers are “Uncle Bobs” in a culture that gives great respect to the words and lessons of previous generations, and that acknowledges the importance of family and really good food!

One of the unique things about WordsWest is its trademark “braided” reading format, where writers take turns reading in short intervals. Both audience and readers get to experience a sense of spontaneous collaboration on stage. (It’s a “living anthology” of words unfolding in a never-to-be-duplicated fashion right before your eyes!) So, Flor and Ascalon traded off reading their poetry in five-minute segments, weaving their poems together with fascinating connections of common history that branched into current themes of what it means to be “home and away” in this country.

Roberto Ascalon was a stunning reader. The audience was on pins and needles as he took us into a Filipino fish market full of magical sensory images and strong characters. His love poem moved us with its unique form that didn’t quite rhyme, but felt like a song in its turning back and repetitions, and gorgeous images of seeds and growing. Bob Flor read from his chapbook Alaskero Memories (Carayan Press, 2016) about life in Alaskan canneries in the 1950s and 1960s. It is invaluable to have someone like Flor share his past experiences not only as a Filipino American with current ties to the Philippines, but as an older gentleman with an eye for details that only a poet can put down on paper. In one touching moment on stage, when the writers first traded turns at the mic, Ascalon acknowledged Flor’s age and life experience, and noted how honored he was to be reading with a Filipino elder. It was a lovely, intimate exchange between writers, between their poems. 

Another unique part of a WordsWest Literary event is the West Seattle Favorite Poem Project, wherein we invite a member of the West Seattle community to share a favorite poem and tell us why it’s a favorite (think Robert Pinsky, U.S. poet laureate 1997–2000). On October 18, we heard a favorite poem from Alexis Acciana of Reading Partners, an awesome organization that connects volunteers with kids who struggle with reading. Acciana gave us a lively, lovely reading of Billy Collins’s poem “On Turning Ten.” The favorite poem portion of WordsWest has been a great way for people who don’t usually connect with poetry to get involved in the literary arts (and to promote their local business or to raise awareness of their cause).

Our WordsWest “braided reading” format, our dedication to inviting writers of diverse experience and cultural background, the cozy, one-of-a-kind coffeehouse atmosphere at C&P Coffee Company, community participation, and an audience now reliant on monthly literary nourishment has made WordsWest an ongoing success!

Support for Readings & Workshops 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.

Photos: (top) Roberto Ascalon and Robert Flor (Credit: Donna Miscolta). (bottom) Two “Uncle Bobs” reading (Credit: Donna Miscolta).

Teen Writers Find Their Creative Voices

Christine Adler is the president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA) and former editor of Inkwell. Her articles, essays, poems, and book reviews have appeared in various print and online publications throughout the Northeastern United States and Canada. She has an MFA in Writing from Manhattanville College, and is represented by Ann Leslie Tuttle of Dystel, Goderich & Bourret LLC. Adler leads the Teen Creative Writers Workshop at Somers Library in Somers, New York, and is currently at work on her second novel.

The Teen Creative Writers Workshop at Somers Library was created for teens who love to write, those middle and high schoolers who’d tell you writing is their thing. We cover all genres—essays, fiction, fan fiction, poetry, you name it. We wanted to create a safe setting for writers where they can share their work and receive constructive feedback, while learning how to give helpful critiques to each other. We also discuss various genres and how to strengthen important elements in each one.

When a new writer attends the workshop for the first time, we talk briefly about how to give and receive feedback. This way, everyone knows we’re using the same guidelines and have the same goal in mind: to help each other improve. I give the group a prompt and have them write for a few minutes. Each student is then invited to share and read what they’ve just written, or read something they’ve brought with them. I also read what I write from the prompts and solicit feedback from the group.

Every writer knows it can be hard to separate your work from yourself, especially when opening up to criticism. If someone is still shy about reading, I ask them to trade work with another writer in the group and read each other’s work aloud. This gives the students an opportunity to experience reading to a group, and also helps illustrate that the critiques are focused on the writing, and not on the writer.

By far, my most rewarding experience as a teacher has been witnessing the enthusiasm expressed by the students. When we get into a discussion about books, or writing, or characters’ motivations they become so animated. It’s exciting to have them ask if we can meet weekly instead of biweekly, or if we can continue the workshop over the summer. Their interest shows me that they truly value the time spent, and enjoy learning the craft. I know they won’t all go on to become writers, but there was nothing like this for me in high school. If there had been, I might have had the confidence to start my writing career earlier in life. I love that I can be a resource to help these students start sooner if they wish.

Leading a group of young writers has greatly influenced my own art too. One thing I emphasize to the members is that we’re never done learning, in writing or in life. We can always improve. I’m strong at dialogue, but weaker at character development and world-building. Many of the teens write fantasy, and as a result are world-building wizards. I’ve learned a lot about world-building from them, and I often leave the workshop, go home, and dive into my work-in-progress. We share tips and tools with each other, encourage one another to keep writing, and together, we see our work getting better. For a writer, there’s nothing more inspiring.

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.

Photos: (top) Christine Adler (Credit: Alex Lindquist). (bottom) Teen Creative Writers Workshop participants (Credit: Tara Ferretti).

The Journey

Brian Evans-Jones immigrated to southern Maine from Hampshire, U.K. in 2014. He received his BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Warwick, U.K., and was poet laureate of Hampshire, U.K. from 2013 to 2014. He received his MFA from the University of New Hampshire in 2016. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Outlook Springs, Stoneboat Literary Journal, and the Cafe Review. Evans-Jones is a juried teaching artist in both Maine and New Hampshire, and teaches poetry and creative writing in schools, colleges, and community venues.

You are a poet—or you think you are: perhaps you have never been sure. After all, you don’t have the four or five books to your name that you thought you’d have by now. A couple of competition wins, an award or two, yes, but no book. It seems so complicated, so difficult, this business of getting published. You live in a small town, in a rural state, far away from the publishing centers of America; the editors and poets who throng there seem so far above you.

But you try. You enter awards, send to magazines. The magazines all say no. In April, you get a missed call, a New York number—probably a scam. There is a voicemail, from “Bonnie.” It’s not a scam. You have won Poets & Writers’ Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award—you are going to New York City.

Six months later, you arrive. The buildings are enormous, the streets teeming. You meet Bonnie Rose Marcus, director of Readings & Workshops (East) and the Writers Exchange, tiny and beaming, and go out for dinner with Joan Dempsey, the fiction winner, who fast becomes a good friend. Your nerves are tingling; you almost dread the thought of meeting your first guests tomorrow, these poets who have made it, who have books and books; these editors of famous magazines. What will you ask them, that won’t sound ridiculous? Will they look down on you, will they expect you to know all the poets and trends that you don’t?

Morning comes. Bonnie guides you; the streets seem less alien. The first meeting is with Patricia Carlin, poet and editor. You meet at a coffee shop, get a quiet table in the corner. You’re so nervous, you can’t remember what you said. It doesn’t matter. She’s gracious, interested, friendly. You talk about assembling collections, the benefits and downsides of small presses and regional presses, places to network. She asks if one of your winning poems is available for her magazine, and gives you her card.

Now you feel better. This is going to be okay—maybe even fun. In the next meetings, with agents and other fiction folk, you relax. From the sidelines, you see that all these people—big, important New York City people—are just people: interested in writers, passionate about literature, interested in you.

At dinner, editors from A Public Space, Four Way Books, and Hanging Loose Press discuss magazine life, small press life, poetry. You see that editors simply want their work to be thoughtfully read, the same as you do. Submissions, you realize, can be not a battle, but a communication—maybe even an offering. Someone will like your work—if you take the time to learn what they like first.

The days zoom by. Breakfast with a writer, coffee with an agent, lunch with another writer, tea with a publisher. You grow comfortable with the routine, with the city, with the important New York folk. You meet the president of Farrar, Straus and Giroux and feel entirely at your ease. You love hearing gossip about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Kate Angus tells you eight small presses she thinks would appreciate your aesthetic. The tour of the New Yorker offices is unforgettable.

Suddenly, it’s the end. You’re going home, to your small town, your green and quiet state. Nothing has changed there—but when you sit in your placid town library, New York feels close. You start work on your manuscript. You are a poet. You are ready.

The Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award is generously supported by Maureen Egen, a member of the Poets & Writers Board of Directors.

Photos: (top) New York City skyline (Credit: Brian Evans-Jones). (bottom, left to right) R&W fellow Sreshtha Sen, R&W program assistant Ricardo Hernandez, R&W (east) director Bonnie Rose Marcus, 2017 WEX fiction judge Tania James, Joan Dempsey, Brian Evans-Jones, and 2017 WEX poetry judge Cynthia Cruz (Credit: Margarita Corporan).

Spunky Spirits Take the Stage at the Tucson Youth Poetry Slam

J. Sarah Gonzales is CEO of the national social justice consulting company, TruthSarita, LLC, which supports building collective power to dismantle inequity. She also serves as codirector of Spoken Futures, Inc., developing programs to create space for youth to address issues such as the school-to-prison pipeline, LGBTQ rights, and migrant justice through spoken word poetry. Gonzales is a published poet and currently works with the Cultural Centers at the University of Arizona.

Spoken Futures, a youth organization based in Tucson, Arizona, hosted the season kickoff of the Tucson Youth Poetry Slam (TYPS) on August 19, 2017, which featured P&W­–supported poet Bobby Wilson. Wilson’s work is heavily influenced by his Dakota heritage, and his spunky spirit and deep cultural roots resonated with the high school-aged youth. He led a writing workshop with about ten youths, moving them through the anxiety of writing and performing. By the end, all overcame their fears and signed up to compete in the poetry slam.

Held monthly at Bentley’s House of Coffee & Tea, youths from all over Southern Arizona come to listen, support, write, and perform in this incredibly welcoming environment. The slam is organized and hosted by TYPS coordinator Eva Sierra, a former youth participant who has joined the Spoken Futures staff.

There were about sixty people in attendance and judges were picked from the audience at random. Over the course of two hours, each young person got up to the mic and read poems about issues present in their everyday lives. Nathan spoke about growing up in foster care and group homes. Yasmin shared: “My childhood home now a construction site for stores, but what they don’t know, is that it was the house that built me.”

Wilson, a new transplant to Tucson, but a friend of many years to local organizers, also performed a set halfway through the slam. He roped in the audience with poems about his indigenous heritage, trauma from colonization, and dreaming our dreams. In his opening piece, he spoke about the national anthem: “I will not stand, I will not kneel. There are needles in our knees given to our grandparents by good God-fearing men and the women they own.” Wilson is raw, honest, and a kind person. He stayed late to talk to youth, and supported our work with his time and energy.

As youths learn to write about the inequities shaping their futures, we become more firmly dedicated to finding ways to keep this space funded and running. The TYPS kickoff was a huge success thanks to all our supporters! We are extremely excited for all the youth poets and featured poets we have lined up for the 2017-2018 season. Thank you to Poets & Writers, Bentley’s, and all our loving families and community who come together to support youth voice in southern Arizona. Read more about Spoken Futures, Inc. and the Tucson Youth Poetry Slam at spokenfutures.org.

Support for Readings & Workshops 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.

Photos: (top) J. Sarah Gonzales (Credit: Diana Toj). (bottom) Bobby Wilson (Credit: Hannah Manuelito).

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