Readings & Workshops Blog

Poetry in the Men's Section: Michael Medrano on Unusual Reading Spaces

P&W–supported poet Michael Medrano will blog about the literary climate in California's underserved Central Valley throughout the month of July. Medrano is the author of Born in the Cavity of Sunsets (Bilingual Press 2009). His poems have appeared in Askew; Bombay Gin; The Cortland Review; The Packinghouse Review; Rattle; and The Yellow Medicine Review among other publications. He is the host of Pakatelas, a literary radio show, streaming worldwide at, and hosts the Random Writers Workshop in Fresno, California.

Michael MedranoWe poets recognize an unusual reading gig when we see one. We’re used to reading in bookstores, coffee shops—even a hole-in-the-wall isn’t the least bit strange. And every space has its challenges; sometimes it’s the acoustics or an obstruction in the room, a giant beam blocking the view of the poet on stage. Some of the worst readings were ones with an active bar where people became loud and discourteous. But, let's face it: It is a bar and not everybody is a fan of poetry. Otherwise they’d be naming stadiums after poets and not banking institutions.

A great poetry experience can happen when you least expect it. For example, in 2000, when I was a student editor for Flies, Cockroaches, and Poets, I was asked to do a poetry reading at Sears in central Fresno. I was the only editor who was able to make it, since the others were either swamped with work or too afraid to read in a mall. In those days, I never cancelled readings. I’d read with the flu if I had to.

So there I was, the lone poet from F,C, & P, aboard the escalator on my way to Sears to give a reading in the men’s department. During the short ride up the electric staircase, I imagined a mic on top of the counter next to the cash register. That would be cool, I thought. I imagined reading above the people, families leaving their back-to-school-shopping behind, chanting for more of my poetry. Oh, the delusions of grandeur we make up for ourselves minutes before we hit the stage.

Four rows of seats were carved out of the socks and underwear section. The microphone stand was placed in front of the dressing room—for the grand entrance, of course! Behind the last row, two ladies from the catering company prepared appetizers. They were careful not to get grease on the stack of 501’s next to the cutting board. I sat and waited for thirty minutes. Nobody showed up! Discouraged, I put my poems away and proceeded to walk out. But then I stopped.

"Hey, can I read my poetry to you?" I asked the cook.

"Well, we’re going to pack up our stuff and go," the cook replied.

"Don’t be like that," her assistant said. "Let the boy read his poems."

Just then, I laid a grin not even Muzack could wipe off. I read poem after poem. I read for twenty minutes straight, shouting my poetry so the shoppers would know there was a poet in the house! They stopped too, some in confusion as they contemplated their coupons, but others smiled and nodded as they acknowledged my art.

Sure, the reluctant cook fell asleep during the reading, and the store manager asked me to keep the noise of my poetry down. I doubt my poems got in the way of their profits; and I bet at least one of those kids shopping with their parents would end up one day falling in love with poetry and thinking about the first poem they heard from a bumbling, amateur poet in the men’s department at Sears.

Photo: Michael Medrano.

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

Meet the Producers: Tanyia Johnson of Houston's Make.Play.Speak. and Poet Stephen Gros

Tanyia Johnson and Stephen Gros are literary event producers with the Houston-based organization Make.Play.Speak. They team up to create unique events, such as Kerouacfest: Go!Go!Go! and the upcoming Word Around Town Tour, both supported by P&W. Together, Johnson and Gros answered our questions about the work they do.

Tanyia Johnson and Stephen GrosWhat makes your programs unique?
Johnson: We try to create events we would want to attend. My experience with performance is from theater, and Stephen is an active poet and performer, so our programming takes an all-inclusive approach. We want to create events that can be experienced on different levels—visual, auditory, and kinesthetic—and try to incorporate these models throughout our programming.

What recent project have you been especially proud of?
Gros and Johnson: Our recent project was KerouacFest: Go!Go!Go! March 9, 2013, an all-day event dedicated to legendary Beat writer Jack Kerouac. The event was held at the Orange Show Monument. The Orange Show was built by Houston mail carrier Jeff McKissack between 1959 and 1979. It was McKissack’s opus to the orange, his favorite fruit. This space is an amazing folk art environment filled with mosaics, found objects, and has an unusual layout design, so it was perfect for our event.

With a venue that has multiple performance areas and so much character, we had to develop programming that would feel right for the space. We included a mini biographical exhibit, a panel discussion, a crowd-sourced aggregate poem using Twitter, a DJ playing records from the Beat era, a variety of food trucks, poetry buskers banging out spontaneous poems, plus two incredible jazz bands, and live screen printing. All of that before we even add in the youth slam performance by Meta-Four, well-known Houston writers reading from Kerouac’s On The Road, or the incredibly talented P&W-supported poets—Marie Brown, Salvador Macias, BGK, Chris Wise, and Seth Walker—performing their own work. 

We chose poets who weren’t necessarily writing in the style of Kerouac, but would evoke performances that reflected the jazz culture Kerouac desired to embody in his work. Overall, the event was very successful and rumors are already circulating of a follow-up festival next year.

How do you find and invite readers?
Gros: For the Word Around Town Tour we’ve recently instituted a Poet Draft. The Word Around Town Tour is an annual weeklong poetry marathon held at a different venue every night for seven days each summer since 2006, and it’s grown every year since it started. The current lineup consists of 21 poets plus seven veteran features. At that size, it can be tough to keep it fresh and find new talent. The Draft solves this problem. It’s essentially a big open mic where poets get ranked by the organizers and the winners get a spot in the lineup for the tour.

How do you cultivate an audience?
Johnson: At events, we encourage attendees to sign-up on MailChimp or find us on Facebook. Stephen has hosted and produced shows for many years, so he’s built up a network of followers. Houston has a pretty active poetry community. We also make a big effort to access people who usually aren’t attending these events. We try to get exposure through different media—radio, print, and online—to highlight the events we organize.

Can you speak to the value and challenges of collaboration?
Gros: For me, collaborating is a way to stay fresh. Having a different perspective brought to your vision can make the event become something remarkable. Specifically, Tanyia brings a knowledge and experience of event management and stage production, along with an endless stream of inspiring ideas, which makes her an asset on any team. Couple that with her unflappable dependability and professionalism, and it’s clear that she is the perfect collaborator.

Johnson: Collaboration is definitely a necessity for me because I am not a writer or a performance poet. I seek to collaborate with folks to create an artistic experience with a literary focus. My personal artwork has always been mixed-media, so I view this as an extension of mixed-media. The biggest challenge for me is scheduling. When you have more than two people collaborating, it’s tough to get everyone together at the same time.

How has literary presenting informed your own writing and/or life?
Gros and Johnson: Literary presenting has informed and influenced every aspect of our lives. We take vacations around the many annual events we produce. We’re more likely to buy new microphone equipment than new clothes. The list goes on. We live and breathe interdisciplinary art and literature events.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
Gros: Without literature, a community has no soul. Literary programs and live events inform and educate in an active, intellectually challenging way that other activities simply can’t compete against. Literary events provide knowledge of our shared literary heritage, while at the same time increasing awareness of cultural values, history, sociology, psychology, and almost every other branch of study. Reading, writing, and sharing with others are some of the most important things a community can do together.

Photo: Tanyia Johnson and Stephen Gros. Credit: Eric Kayne.

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.

Michael Medrano on the Random Writers Workshop

P&W–supported poet Michael Medrano will blog about the literary climate in California's underserved Central Valley throughout the month of July. Medrano is the author of Born in the Cavity of Sunsets (Bilingual Press 2009). His poems have appeared in Askew; Bombay Gin; The Cortland Review; The Packinghouse Review; Rattle; and The Yellow Medicine Review among other publications. He is the host of Pakatelas, a literary radio show, streaming worldwide at, and hosts the Random Writers Workshop in Fresno, California.

Michael Medrano and the Random Writers Workshop

When Bakersfield author Nick Belardes approached me on starting a Fresno version of the Random Writers Workshop, In N’ Out Burger came to mind. Actually, I was quite honored when Nick approached me. Ironically, he asked me over burgers in some truckers diner off the 99 where I did a reading the night before. When I left home to come to Fresno I thought long and hard about the idea of being my own boss; the entrepreneurial spirit is not usually associated with poets who are rarely paid their worth, but the idea of contributing to my writer’s community by providing a service greatly appealed to me.

Back home I drafted a mini-business plan and sent it to Nick. A few tweaks through email and a side-order of sweet literary banter, (something about me running to catch a nearly departing train Nick found terribly funny), and I was ready to launch the Random Writers Workshop de Fresno!

Part of the plan was to keep the format accessible in order to attract more participants. So, I kept the cost of attending relatively low and opened the format to all levels of writing ability. I must admit, being open to beginners and veterans of craft, published even, scared me a bit. What if rookie poets felt intimidated by the master poets? What if master poets felt bored writing with the newbies? What if I sucked as a teacher and my writing exercises were about as popular as a veggie burger at Mickey D’s? What if, right? But here’s the deal: if all I had were what ifs, I wouldn’t have all those poems I wrote during the workshop (because I do participate in the writing exercises) under my arsenal. Yes, teaching workshop has not taken me away from my writing; in fact, it has even taken my current manuscript into directions I could not imagine!

But the Random Writers Workshop would not be possible without the students. Remember my anxiety about pairing rookies with veterans? Well, I have seen these new poets step up, in their own resilience, to become better writers. And my master poets, a couple who are recent and current MFA creative writing students, have grown to become models for the workshop.

Sure, some of the faces and their stanzas blur like rush hour during the travel season, but the students who have chosen to bear through the critique of their poems have shown a resiliency that begs for notice. During the past year, these Random Writers have written countless drafts, an occasional gem, even poems that are just not good. But this group here, they keep coming back. They’re developing their chops! Sure, their literary experience is about as diverse as a California menu, but they, without realizing it, are creating valuable writing habits that will stay with them for as long as they’ve got poems to write. Someday, who knows, maybe there will be workshop locations spread across the country: Welcome to Random Writers Workshop, may I take your order?

Photo: Michael Medrano.

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

Tom Sleigh and the CCNY Poetry Festival

Gregory Crosby blogs about Tom Sleigh's involvement in the City College of New York's Poetry Festival. Crosby is a poet and teacher, and coordinator of the City College of New York Poetry Outreach Center. He is co-editor of the poetry journal Lyre Lyre and co-curator of the long-running Earshot reading series.

This past May, The City College of New York’s (CCNY) Poetry Outreach Center presented its annual Poetry Festival on campus at Aaron Davis Hall, a remarkable event for a number of reasons: the impressive number of excited and delightful elementary, middle school, and high school students who read their winning poetry to a capacity crowd; the varied and talented faculty, MFA candidates, and local poets who participated with poems of their own; and the inspiring reading given by this year’s special guest poet, Tom Sleigh. This was the 41st day in a continuous series of festival events dedicated to poetry and public school students. Founded by poet and professor emeritus Barry Wallenstein, and now run by poet and lecturer Pamela L. Laskin, the CCNY Poetry Festival has grown over the decades from a small community outreach event focused on Harlem to a citywide program that sends poet mentors into schools from the Bronx to the Battery to Brooklyn.

“I was part of CUNY poetry affiliation group that Pam Laskin belonged to,” says Tom Sleigh, who teaches in Hunter College’s MFA program, “and every year Pam would tell us about Poetry Outreach and its work, so when she asked me to be the featured guest poet I was happy to say yes.” Sleigh has long understood and appreciated the importance of poetry mentoring in schools. “It was very familiar to me as I’ve always done this kind of thing, teaching poetry in schools of all kinds as a guest poet,” says Sleigh.

“What was particularly wonderful on the day of the festival was hearing so many students, many from disadvantaged economic backgrounds, read their poems,” Sleigh continues. “I think it’s essential that students have exposure to art, especially poetry. There’s so much mediation that goes in our culture, and students, I think, are very often distanced from language; to suddenly hear these really great, idiosyncratic poems from these high school kids, and hear them engaging with language in that way, is wonderful. I hear this young man get up and read this fascinating, funny poem about the NBA, all these basketball players, and think how only he could have written that, and how that kind of expression comes out of mentoring.” Sleigh smiles: “Kenneth Koch would have loved that poem.”

Lately, it feels as if poetry in public schools is a sort of secret agent—a shadowy spy in the House of Test Preparation, a fugitive fleetingly glimpsed by students as they are drilled and drilled again in subjects that have been deemed by some in education as “more practical” or “more real world.” Harried teachers are finding it more and more difficult to incorporate poetry—both reading it and writing it—into curriculums dictated by the current obsession with standardized tests. The Poetry Outreach Center takes some of the burden off teachers by sending poetry mentors to teach and encourage the art of poetry in classrooms where it otherwise might fall off the radar. “It’s crucial to public education,” says Sleigh. “Who knows what that kid who wrote that poem will do next in life, thanks to poetry?”

Photo: Gregory Crosby.  Photo Credit: Gregory Crosby.

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

Michael Medrano on the Poetry of Place: Fresno's Tower District

P&W–supported poet Michael Medrano will blog about the literary climate in California's underserved Central Valley throughout the month of July. Medrano is the author of Born in the Cavity of Sunsets (Bilingual Press 2009). His poems have appeared in Askew; Bombay Gin; The Cortland Review; The Packinghouse Review; Rattle; and The Yellow Medicine Review among other publications. He is the host of Pakatelas, a literary radio show, streaming worldwide at, and hosts the Random Writers Workshop in Fresno, California.

Today, I write iMichael Medranon a collaborative workspace known as The Hashtag in Fresno’s Tower District, an eclectic neighborhood often described by residents as a wannabe San Francisco or, as the kids on the eastside used to say, that gay neighborhood beyond the tracks. For me, the beloved Tower is more than a Bay Area cliché. It is my home, a place many Fresno poets have written about. It lies just east of the infamous Highway 99, another valley literary icon mentioned by Philip Levine, Gary Soto, and many more. It is where I conduct my literary radio show and lead the Random Writers Workshop, where I write and work on poems for my next book, which, you guessed it, is about the Tower District. You can say mi barrio is central headquarters for my personal arts movement!

Your personal arts movement? I hear my mother say, shaking her head, the pencil in her hand manically circling random letters in a giant word search book she keeps by the lamp.  Where’s my personal art movement, mijo? And while you’re at it, move out of that neighborhood. You know I don’t like you walking the streets by yourself!

Truth is, I stopped showing her my poems a decade ago because she could not stand me writing about familia, especially cousin Pee-Wee who died alone, by the canal, by Target. Don’t get me wrong. Mom has always been there at the big events, like when my book of poems came out, and I followed in that rich Fresno literary tradition by having a big ole, book release party. She teases me about the first poetry reading I co-organized with Tim Z. Hernandez, the much-talked-about reading where we performed to the only two members of the audience—our mothers! 

As a child, we used to take Olive Avenue from our East Fresno apartment all the way to Roeding Park, just west of the Tower. While there, we would picnic, visit the zoo or Storyland, which to us six-year-olds was just as amazing as Disneyland. Later, we would drive back to our eastside apartment down Olive Avenue, the main street of the Tower District. The miniature me would roll down the window, unbuckle the seatbelt in Mom’s 1978 Firebird while the car was in motion and point at all the little mom-and-pop restaurants. Let’s eat there, the restaurant with the big rooster on it! All I remember is that the streets were clean and the neighborhood seemed strangely alive.

Unfortunately, my mother always shot down those requests to visit the Tower. We can’t afford it! was her usual mantra, and who was I to question my own mom? I mean, it wasn’t like I was snooping around in her checkbook. I just took the rejection. Sad as I was in that six-year-old shell of my future self, I would vow, one day, to live in that great neighborhood just east of the freeway.

Ironically, I am completing this first blog post on Independence Day in a business I have supported the last couple of years; a place where I hammer out poems. Sure, the crime has piled on in recent years, and the artists, now, watch each other’s backs, more so in recent weeks. It’s true, maybe I should stray from walking home from the Hashtag at night, and maybe I should listen to my mother. I wonder how many writers have bucked the advice of their mothers. I bet there are many.

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

Mike the Poet's Ode to Community

Poets & Writers-supported poet Mike Sonksen, a.k.a. Mike the Poet, led a five-day workshop at the youth writing center 826LA in Los Angeles. Sonksen’s journalism has been published in Wax Poetics, Los Angeles Review of Books, LA Weekly, and OC Weekly. He received Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center’s award for Distinguished Service to the Los Angeles Poetry Community in 2013. His weekly KCET column LA Letters celebrates bright moments from literary L.A. Here, he blogs about his experience at 826LA.

Mike SonksenFor the fifth consecutive summer I taught my Words Spoken poetry workshop at 826LA in the Northeast L.A. neighborhood of Echo Park. We had twenty diverse teens from Downtown, Historic Filipinotown, Silver Lake, Koreatown, Mt. Washington, and South Pasadena. The combination of 826’s ambience and the earnest personalities of the group made for an explosive week of poetry and community building. The writers ranged from twelve to eighteen, plus a few college students who made guest appearances. Close to a third of the writers were returning students, adding to the group camaraderie.

Each day we write four to five poems. Fast writers write more. The prompts alternate between open and closed forms like haikus, quatrains, cinquains, sonnets, odes, elegies, city poems, list poems, epistles, response poems, and collage poems—a mixture of the fundamentals and a dash of the experimental. The five workshop days focus on writing and reciting poetry, but students are also exposed to journalism, cultural history, geography, urban studies, and public speaking throughout each three-hour lesson.

An open mic follows each assignment; inevitably, every student shares his or her work with the group, but some are quicker to open up than others. Learning elocution and the aesthetic beauty of language through reciting poetry is a time-honored tradition. Freedom is encouraged and judgment checked at the door. There’s no shortage of laughter and tears.

A multi-generational extended family forms the bedrock of our writing community. Guest poets Traci Kato-Kiriyama, AK Toney, and Sara Borjas dropped in to share poems and offer writing tips, as did Jamal Carter, Monique Mitchell, and Chris Siders, three former high school students now in college. Marisa Urrutia Gedney, the director of 826LA’s Echo Park location, is an award-winning teacher who makes sure everyone has fun and gets a lot of writing done.

After five summers at 826LA, I have witnessed dozens of students become empowered when writing poems about their lives, families, and neighborhoods. Creative writing, according to the theorist Lester Faigley, allows students to “use narratives to explore the politics of location.” Several of the poets memorized their work, adding even deeper personal meaning to the experience.

There’s nothing more sublime than watching budding writers emerge into poets. We had more writers this year than ever before. I am thankful for 826LA’s perennial hospitality and to Poets & Writers for funding us over the last four years. The workshop gets better every year. The culminating chapbook will be unveiled with a live reading at 826LA on July 24. Come hear the kaleidoscope of voices that form the patchwork of Words Spoken.

Photos: Top: Mike Sonksen. Credit: Chris Felver. Bottom: Sonksen and Monique Mitchell. 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.

Reflection on Poets & Writers' Twelfth Annual Intergenerational Reading

The Intergenerational Reading features teen and senior writers from P&W sponsored workshops. On June 8, 2013, participants gave a reading at the Barnes and Noble in New York City. Manuela Cain, Readings/Workshops (East) intern, blogs about the event.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, in what is considered by many to be the literary capital of the world, I found myself on the top floor of the Union Square Barnes & Noble. To say that I have experienced New York City readings, poetry and otherwise, would be an understatement, and yet I came to this event with few expectations about what I was about to see or hear. For the twelfth year in a row, Poets & Writers has sponsored the Intergenerational Reading: Connecting Generations. This annual event brings together seniors and teens from P&W–sponsored organizations such as GED Plus/Medgar Evers, Goddard Riverside Community Center, Grand Street Settlement, Kew Gardens Community Center, Kingsbridge Heights Community Center, Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center, Stanley Isaacs Neighborhood Center, and Urban Word NYC.

The twenty-seven writers were brought on stage in randomly selected groups. Regie Cabico, the event's host, ignited the room with an unparalleled energy and enthusiasm. If I had any concerns going into the reading, Regie was certainly the man to ease them, as he served as the bridge between the diverse array of writers.

It would be easy to make assumptions about an event such as this. Already a dynamic is set in motion by the mixing of ages and cultures. One might assume that the seniors would have nothing but memories, and the teens something resembling angst and passion. However, what happened on that stage transcended any simple labels or assumptions. At the very essence of the human experience is love, and loss. The five senses simply serve to allow us to take it all in, and with the sharp language, flowing prose, and sometimes shocking revelations, there was a lot to take in.

One young woman, a poet with a strong sense of rhythm and voice, read a piece that fully embodied the experience of a bitter and painful breakup. Later, a senior woman narrated the experience of a later-in-life love affair with a sharp attention to detail. A teen read from his iPhone while a senior joked about not being able to make out her own handwriting. A young woman’s pride and strength was an older woman’s never-fading confidence in the face of growing older. Every question that was raised by a teen’s work was answered by an elder, or vice versa. Each seed of an idea that one writer planted had been grown through the work of another. What became clear through the course of the reading was that a community had taken shape that genuinely surpassed any differences in age or culture. And what better way to light a passion for writing in the young than to reignite the fire within those who are at risk of losing it, or worse, never having had it at all.

To the writers who bared their hearts and souls that Friday afternoon at the biggest Barnes & Noble in New York City, thank you. Thank you for showing us all that writing isn’t simply a tool, or a skill to be used and forgotten, but rather the window to our deepest desires, passions, and drives. To the seniors who proved that youth is more than a number, and the teens who were wise beyond their years, never stop writing.

Photo: Intergenerational Reading presenters. Credit: Margarita Corporan.

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

Jon Sands and the Pied Pipers of Poetry

P&W-supported poets Jon Sands, Adam Falkner, and Samantha Thornhill recently performed at North Country Community College in Saranac Lake, New York, as part of their "Poets in Unexpected Places" project. Sands, a poet, essayist, and author of The New Clean (Write Bloody Publishing, 2011), blogs about the experience.

Jon SandsIn 2010 Adam Falkner, Samantha Thornhill, and I cofounded “Poets in Unexpected Places” as a public art experiment. (We have since been joined, as curators, by Elana Bell and Syreeta McFadden.) And for one day in National Poetry Month, Adam, Samantha, and I had "free poetic reign" over the campus of North Country Community College (NCCC).

For over three years, we’ve staged seemingly impromptu poetry installations in public spaces throughout New York City, from the Q train to Times Square to Brooklyn Laundromats to Whole Foods—some sanctioned, some not. The goals are: 1) to blur the line between the artist and the audience 2) to bring poems back into a public sphere that provides the muse for so many of them 3) to challenge a creative public landscape largely curated by corporations, and 4) to acknowledge how many stories are inside every person you see, anywhere.

We have a fluid membership of writers who share their own work, or that of authors they love. You’re liable to hear Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, or Jack Gilbert reverberating off the subway walls.

Poets & Writers, the Adirondack Center for Writing, and NCCC brought us not just to English seminars on the NCCC campus, but to calculus classes, cafeterias, and chemistry labs (where Samantha performed her “Ode to an Apron” wearing an apron and safety goggles). I taught a midday writing workshop, and one student, Glen, a veteran and self-proclaimed “macho guy,” wrote a heartbreaking poem about one of his fellow soldiers, then joined us for the afternoon to read it aloud.

Pop-Up PoetsWe stormed into something like forty classrooms that day with no introduction or apology. This gave the night’s culminating reading at the Pendragon Theater a Pied Piper-type feel. We had been gathering students, faculty, and staff throughout the day, from the math major to the cafeteria worker. After poetry showed up for them, they showed up for poetry. The workshop participants kicked off the night for an intergenerational audience of about seventy-five.

Then, with three chairs and a keyboard, we had a poetry show that could just as easily have taken place in Adam’s living room in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. We shared the stories that make us who we are, from my poems that celebrate and mourn my high school days to Adam’s poem “War in Baltimore,” a precise, hilarious, and sorrowed tale of teacher-student interaction. Samantha read her epic “Ode to Odetta” while Adam pulled bluesy notes out of the keyboard.

We stayed after for nearly an hour swapping stories with audience members. One young woman approached with tears in her eyes in response to Samantha’s elegy for a German Shepherd. She too was bitten by a dog who was subsequently euthanized. And this is the point: the hidden connections unlocked through poetry, regardless of whether it’s the Q train platform or a stage upstate. It’s the whisper in the parking lot, if only to yourself: "Damn. Me too. Now...."

Photos: Top: Jon Sands. Bottom, from left: Samantha Thornhill, Adam Falkner, Jon Sands. Credit: Nathalie Thille.
Support for Readings/Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, The Cowles Charitable Trust, the Abbey K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Reaching Audiences and Writers with Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa

Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa is a novelist, memoirist, and short story writer whose work is grounded in the Puerto Rican communities on the island and in New York City. Her novel Daughters of the Stone (Thomas Dunne Books, 2009) was shortlisted for the 2010 PEN America Award and has been included in Breaking Ground/Habriendo Caminos, an Anthology of Puerto Rican Women Writers in New York 1980-2012 (Editorial Campana, 2012). She was a 2006–7 Bronx Council on the Arts Literary Fellow and is a three-time BRIO/ACE award winner. She is currently at work on a second novel titled People of Endurance. P&W has supported Llanos-Figueroa as both a reader at La Casa Azul bookstore and workshop leader with DeAlmas Women’s Collective, both in New York City.
Dahlma Llanos-FigueroaHow does giving a public reading inform your writing?
When I sit down and write my novels, I am creating a monologue. Only when I go out and share my words with readers am I participating in a dialogue. I get as much as I give. The audience welcomes my reaching out to them. They know I value their questions, suggestions, and ideas. Even small turnouts can be valuable in unexpected ways. They provide an intimacy that allows for each attendee to interact with me on a personal level, often expressing opinions that would never surface before a larger audience.

What are your reading dos?
I try to tailor my presentation to the needs and experiences of the audience. My novel spans the entire voyage of Afro-Puerto Ricans from Africa to Puerto Rico to New York City, as told through the lives of the women in one family. In East Harlem, I often choose an excerpt set there or a chapter on migration to a new city. In Puerto Rico, I choose chapters set there during colonial times. In high schools, I select excerpts that focus on parent/child relationships.

…and your reading don’ts?
I never cut off a question or response. No matter how much I agree or disagree, I give the speaker the space to express him/herself. I hope that the reader enjoyed my work, but if they didn’t, they are entitled to their point of view. And I might even learn something new.

What’s your writing critique philosophy?
When teaching, I tend to ask questions rather than make pronouncements. I believe by asking a question, you invite the writer to reconsider rather than defend. “How can this emotion be communicated in the character’s body language?” is better than “Show don’t tell!”

How do you get shy writers to open up?
Breaking up into small groups allows for a more personal, less threatening experience. I recently took a workshop with Cristina Garcia and loved the way she broke us up into groups of four. After each critiquing session, the groups rotated, allowing for each writer to get critiques from everyone. Getting feedback from three people at a time is better than sitting through twelve critiques that often get repetitive and feel like badgering. It’s a time consuming process, but well worth it. Also, you can always do an in-class small group critique, and then have the rest of the feedback in writing.
A safe, welcoming environment makes my job as a workshop leader much easier. In my P&W–supported workshop for the DeAlmas Women’s Collective, a group focused on women’s spiritual and emotional well-being, the intimate workshop space was set up with lighting, music, candles, and incense. The focus was on finding the story within, and the participants were asked to bring images significant to them. We created a Sacred Journal, and used meditation techniques and visual prompts to tap into memories, which yielded some outstanding memoir pieces. Because the group members were comfortable with the environment and each other, the sharing came easily.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs in the community?
I have heard people in the industry justify the lack of Latino books being promoted by saying that Latinos don’t read. I wish they could see the crowds of readers who come from all over the city to attend literary events at La Casa Azul, the only Latino bookstore in East Harlem. My P&W–supported reading was standing-room-only. People in the community are thirsty for literature that reflects their reality and grateful to authors, who respect them enough to read there.

Photo: Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa. Credit: Orlando Gonzalez.
Support for Readings/Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, The Cowles Charitable Trust, the Abbey K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Larry Colker on Expanding a Writer's Consciousness

P&W–supported Larry Colker blogs about the triumphs and struggles of poetry workshops. He has cohosted the weekly Redondo Poets reading series for about fifteen years. In 2006 he won the California Writers Exchange Award, sponsored by Poets & Writers, Inc. His first book-length collection, Amnesia and Wings, was published by Tebot Bach in May 2013. By day Larry develops and delivers systems training for Kaiser Permanente. He lives in Burbank, California.

Billy Collins’s poem “Workshop” is a send-up of certain kinds of feedback and poems typically encountered in poetry workshops. As a veteran of dozens of workshops with many different leaders, and as the leader of a few, I both laugh at the parody and cringe for the targeted workshop attendees (myself among them). But I believe Collins is also implicitly implicating workshop leaders, who, after all, set the example.

Why—and when—take a poem to a workshop? How to participate most effectively? How to lead a productive workshop? I have a few opinions to offer in this small space. Take them with as much salt as you wish.

Everyone assumes your poem is a draft. If you think a poem is finished and you just want acknowledgment of how good and finished it is and will be indignant at suggestions for changes (this is not unheard of), don't take it to a workshop. Likewise, don't bring it in if you honestly (secretly) think no else can appreciate your work! There's nothing wrong with having your own standards. But don't expect that others will relish being viewed as nincompoops.

The best participants (and leaders) ask themselves first: What can you tell about what the writer is trying to do from the piece itself? What strategies have been used and what choices have been made? Then: What is successful and what detracts? It is not unusual in regular workshops for poets to bring several reworkings of a poem back to the group. Familiarity with earlier versions is not necessarily useful. In the end the poem must work for readers who know nothing of its evolution. (However, those who have seen the difficult birth process of a marvelous poem do have a special kind of “midwife's” regard for the final product.)

Over time, one learns how to “do” a workshop as a participant. One picks up the etiquette. In most workshops that use the Iowa Writers' Workshop model, the author may not speak until discussion by the other participants and the leader is done—and the discussion is not directed toward the author. The author may ask questions after the discussion—about alternatives, for example—but explaining (defending) the poem is considered bad form. Take the feedback to your own counsel, where you can call certain comments misguided or idiotic, if you wish.

Leading a workshop is not a native skill either. And different experienced leaders settle on different approaches. But one of the most useful (and hard-earned) skills is referring to (or reading, or quoting) other poems that either illustrate a point of craft, or provide an example of a particular “maneuver,” or expand the writer's view of how a subject could be treated. I think that this both strengthens one's consciousness of belonging to a truly remarkable community and, frankly, raises humble awareness that one is not uniquely endowed in solving artistic problems in writing. But the satisfaction of solving those problems on my own terms—as the song says, “they can't take that away from me.”

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


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