Readings & Workshops Blog

Amen to Peter J. Harris: Man of Inspiration

Peter J. Harris, founder and Artistic Director of Inspiration House, is an African American cultural worker who has since the 1970s published his poetry, essays, and fiction in a wide range of national publications; worked as a publisher, journalist, editor, and broadcaster; and been an educator, and workshop leader for adults and adolescents. Harris is also founding director of The Black Man of Happiness Project, a creative, intellectual, and artistic exploration of Black men and joy. He is a mainstay of the Los Angeles arts community and has been supported by P&W as both a writer and event curator.

Peter J. HarrisWhat are your reading dos?
I choose poetry that feels right for the moment and best captures my artistic voice, as well as the ideas and emotions welling within me as I absorb the atmosphere of the venue.

I try to contribute to the overall harmonics of the event, but prioritize sharing work that resonates with my journey as a human being and focuses the audience’s attention on that journey.

When producing or curating, my essential “do” is to present programs that include virtuosos—poets with vitality and distinctive voices, who are enchanted by the power of well-chosen language.
 
How do you prepare for a reading?
Give thanks for the invitation. I choose work that addresses the theme of the reading and review works-in-progress I'm inspired to revisit, in hopes that my preparations might include sharpened insights and heightened skills to complete the new poem in time.

Over the years, I’ve found that publicly reading freshly minted work is difficult, but exhilarating. I can’t rely on memory or familiarity to take it to the bridge. Reading a new poem makes me nervous, slows me down, quiets the room, and demands that I concentrate on feeling/capturing the nuances of the poem in real time. Under the right circumstances, folks in the audience experience and witness in a positive way the humility of my struggle, and they lean in to listen and join me on the exploration.
 
What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why does it work?
Honesty. Fearlessness. Conversational, passionate delivery of the poem. Resist the urge to lean on what some folks might call a signature poem.

Place the poems first. The audience is there to hear the work, not to see me, even if I’m the “featured” poet.
 
What’s the inspiration behind the Inspiration House PoetryChoir?
Inspiration House PoetryChoir, a collaboration between a shifting roster of virtuoso poets and improvisational musicians, is my old KPFK radio show stood up on its feet. The radio show, “Inspiration House: VoiceMusic for Whole Living,” aired from 1999 to 2004 on KPFK-FM, Pacifica Radio for Southern California. The show featured poets reading their work to recorded music. Poets selected poetry in response to the music, and I selected music in response to the poetry.

Inspiration House PoetryChoir events unfold in the same unscripted way, with the audience encouraged to respond spontaneously—with shouts of encouragement, amens, and affirmation—to the skill of the poets and musicians, stitching their voices into the dialogue, and helping to produce a testament to whole living.

The Inspiration House PoetryChoir is also a reflection of my thinking that poetry readings can become ceremonies that are mini rites of passages, in which participants begin the experience in one state of mind/being; plunge into the deep exchange between poets sharing their work, while musicians improvise musical responses to the poetry, all of us losing ourselves within the blending of words, intonations, audience responses, and dynamic silence; then leave the gig renewed and recommitted to cultural work that contributes to the creation of a humane society.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs and the role of the writer in the community?
Ideally, literary programs are concentrated opportunities to swap ideas, testimony, and stories that celebrate our uncensored voices. Sometimes they present virtuosos whose mastery sets or expands standards of excellence. Sometimes they are briar patches to intensify the creative and artistic intimacies of writers of a common cultural or stylistic flow. Sometimes they call us to cross borders and be ethical witnesses to the evolution of themes and issues that hip us and humble us, so we’re reminded to stay curious and hungry to learn.

The role of the writer in the community? Scribe. Critic. Griot. Historian. Entertainer. Provocateur. Visionary. Tour-guide to big ideas, insecurities, and private insights that unlock public understandings. Mas o menos!

Photo: Peter J. Harris. Credit: Adenike Harris.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Camille Dungy on How Writers Answer Questions

PW-funded poet Camille Dungy blogs about the daily life of writers and the role Poets & Writers' Readings/Workshops program plays in that life. Dungy is a professor in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University. She has published three collections of poetry—Smith Blue (Southern Illinois University Press), winner of the 2010 Crab Orchard Open Book Prize; Suck on the Marrow (Red Hen Press); and What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (Red Hen Press).

Camille DungyLast week I wrote that one of the things writers do all day is answer questions. Is that really all we do? Of course not. Another thing writers do all day is worry about whether we've figured out the best way to answer the questions presented to us.

The simple one-word answer, though efficient at times, won't get us a whole book, or even a whole page. And who ever heard of someone finishing a whole book when they couldn't even fill a page?

Thus, we elaborate. The prominent color in that sunset is no longer just red. It becomes a red that reminds her of the coral ring her sister used to wear on her ring finger after she left North Carolina and her first husband for the job she took in Vermont.

We can go on and on, you see, asking the right questions and elaborating on them. What was the story with the first husband? Why first? How many more? Why Vermont? Can I say more about the ring? What's with the punctuation? Is this the start of a paragraph or a poem? When presented with the right set of questions, a writer can go on all day.

Then, though, comes the next big question: Who really cares about our elaborate responses anyway?

Last week, I wrote that Poets & Writers graciously presents its funded artists with a list of questions they are encouraged to elaborate upon. This is part of the role of the community that supports its writers. The community that supports its writers ought to give them lots of good questions to answer: Describe the event. Why did he open the door? Who is he sitting with? What was the impact of receiving support? If I could figure out really good answers to these questions, I could write a whole book.

But who would read it?

Poets & Writers knows that writers often worry that what they are writing won't reach a receptive ear. They've anticipated this and close their questionnaire with these words: The information provided on this report is integral to the continued success of the Readings/Workshops program and is necessary to ensure continued funding of the program. Poets & Writers thanks you for your help in this regard.

Do you see what I mean? Poets & Writers has figured out how to make the writer understand that her carefully chosen words matter. Someone, somewhere, is waiting on an answer.

I am not making light of this. I understand that it is amazing that Poets & Writers has chosen to use its resources to encourage writers and the artistic programs and community organizations that support writers and their readers. Knowing such an organization exists and understanding all the tangible ways they support the life of letters in this country should quell any worrying writer's fears about writing into a void. There are people out there, and they care about writers' ability to carry on.

Now, all the writer has to do is find the time to write.

Photo: Camille Dungy.  Photo credit: Marcia Wilson/Wide Vision Photography.

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

The Ripple Effect: Ken Waldman's Story of a Most Successful Workshop & Reading

Ken Waldman has six full-length poetry collections, a children's book of Alaska-set acrostic poems, and a memoir about his work as a touring artist. His nine CDs combine old-time Appalachian-style string-band music with original poetry. A former college professor with an MFA in creative writing, he's made his living as a freelance writer, musician, performer, and educator since 1995.

This past November, Burlingham Books in rural Perry, New York, sponsored a Poets & Writers workshop and reading. At 5:30 on a chilly Tuesday evening, eleven of us gathered around a makeshift table in a corner of the bookstore. For ninety-minutes, we discussed our writing lives amidst four writing exercises. At 7:00 PM, I walked to another corner of the store, this time to stand before approximately thirty-five people, one of whom I'd learned was a local fiddler and violinmaker. To begin, I took out my fiddle, played a tune, then went into one of my collections and found a sonnet, The Violinmakers. After nodding to my new acquaintance, I shared the poem I'd written about his craft.

The fifty-minute reading was followed by a short question-and-answer session. All this was fine, but what made this event more special is that it enabled me to spend the following day at Letchworth Central High School, where I led a short assembly for 350 students, faculty, and staffers, then visited seven English classes. The daylong school visit, which was funded separately, would not have happened without the support of Burlingham Books and Poets & Writers.

What's instructive is explaining how the Perry bookstore event came to be.

Six months earlier I'd been invited by The Stage, a theatre in neighboring Warsaw, New York, for a Poets & Writers workshop and reading. Ahead of schedule that Sunday afternoon, I'd detoured through Perry specifically to stop in Burlingham Books, where I happened to meet a part-time employee, Melissa Stroud, an English teacher at a nearby high school. Before leaving the store, I gave Melissa a few of my books and CDs, as well as several sheets explaining my work in schools.

Later that month, when a library in Geneseo, in adjacent Livingston County, also secured Poets & Writers funding to host me, Melissa attended both the workshop and the reading. Subsequently, it was through her efforts that I was invited to Burlingham Books, and to her school, where I understood it had been five years since a visiting artist of any kind had come, and a longer time since a practicing, published writer had appeared. In this case, I not only stood answering questions in front of classes that had been reading my poems as preparation for my visit, but when I shared poems before the whole school, the assemblage included the high school principal and the school district superintendent.

One more thing about the Perry appearance. It was heartening that among the attendees of both the workshop and readings were folks who'd previously seen me in Warsaw. So, while I expect to return to the region in 2013, it's also my understanding that it won't be such a long time before another writer comes to Letchworth Central High School, perhaps again in conjunction with a Poets & Writers event.

Photo: Ken Waldman.  Photo Credit: Kate Wool.

Support for Readings/Workshops in New York is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, with additional support from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Camille Dungy Asks What Do Writers Do All Day?

PW-funded poet Camille Dungy blogs about the daily life of writers and the role Poets & Writers' Readings/Workshops program plays in that life. Dungy is a professor in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University. She has published three collections of poetry—Smith Blue (Southern Illinois University Press), winner of the 2010 Crab Orchard Open Book Prize; Suck on the Marrow (Red Hen Press); and What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (Red Hen Press).

Camille DungyIf you are reading this post you may be interested in understanding more about the life of the writer. What is it we do all day?

I'll tell you: We answer questions.

That's about all we do. We see something and we ask a question about it, and then we write towards our best answer to that question. Or, someone asks us a question, and we don't know the answer right away, and we write toward our best answer. Or we get angry, or sad, or irrationally happy, and we want to work our way away from or back into that emotion. Did JFK really love Jackie? What color would you say is prominent in that sunset? Why don't they understand climate change isn't a joke? We wouldn't be writers if we didn't live with a stockpile of questions awaiting our response. What was she thinking when she drove away from that job? What was she thinking when she drove into the valley. What was she thinking? What?

The Poets & Writers Readings/Workshops program is all about helping writers. When P&W co-sponsors a program, community arts organizations kick in a portion of a reader's fee and then P&W matches that sum. Have you ever wondered what was in those white envelopes people hand to workshop facilitators at the end of a seminar? I'm telling you the secret now: At the end of every Poets & Writers co-sponsored program, writers receive a check stapled to a questionnaire printed on salmon-colored paper and an envelope in which to return the questionnaire. P&W asks writers a slew of questions, and they encourage them to write their answers down.

Questions, questions, questions. These are what we writers dream of all day.

The front side of the questionnaire is easy. Did you get paid? How many people attended the event? Your audience was made up of people representing what ages, ethnicities, etc.? Were your books sold? Was the publicity acceptable? Would you work with these people again? One-word answers can suffice: yes, 5049, mixed, yes, yes, yes. There is no room for elaboration on that first page.

But that's one of the most important things writers do all day, we have to develop elaborate answers. Writers read more into the world than is immediately evident. Vanilla ice cream only has to be plain if you do not push yourself to taste the nuances of the vanilla bean, the variations in the consistency of the cream, to feel the coldness on your inner cheek, and conceptualize the heat transference that made the bite you just took melt over your tongue. Do I like vanilla ice cream? Yes, I could write. Or I could write much, much more.

So, it's generous that Poets & Writers, as part of their mission to support writers, provides a second page on their questionnaire with a series of complicated questions requiring elaboration: Describe the event, including the event program and the audience response. How effective was the sponsoring organization in presenting this event? Are there ways the organization could better assist readers or workshop teachers? What was the impact of receiving support from Poets & Writers on your experience of this event, your career as a writer, your relationship with your audience, etc?

If I could figure out really good answers to these questions, I could write a whole book.

That's what we do all day as writers. We ask ourselves, how am I going to write a whole book? Then we go looking for answers.

Photo: Camille Dungy.  Photo credit: Marcia Wilson/Wide Vision Photography.

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

Melissa Petro and Red Umbrella Writers Dispel Myths About Sex Work

P&W-supported writer Melissa Petro recently led a memoir-writing workshop for current and former sex workers at Red Umbrella Project in New York City. Petro’s work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Daily Beast, Salon, Jezebel, Guardian, and elsewhere. She lives in New York City and teaches for Gotham Writers Workshop.

Melissa PetroWhen people with no experience or personal knowledge hear the phrase “sex work,” one media misrepresentation may spring to mind: Julia Roberts in a cut-out mini dress and patent leather knee-high boots or—just as bad—that floor-length red velvet gown.

This is not an accurate picture of people who trade sex for things they need—or of what happens when people do—according to Red Umbrella Project, an organization that provides storytelling, media, and advocacy training and support for people in the sex trades who wish to speak out about their experiences.

On December 6, 2012, Red Umbrella Project celebrated the graduating class of the Becoming Writers Workshop, an eight-week memoir-writing workshop for individuals with experiences in the sex trade, made possible in part by a grant from Poets & Writers. The evening was part one of a two-night event (the second will be on January 3, 2013) and featured one half of the class sharing original material conceived in class, which was published in the inaugural issue of PROS(E), the literary journal of Red Umbrella Project (available for sale at http://www.redumbrellaproject.org/buy-prose-issue-1/).

The purpose of the workshop, like all Red Umbrella Project programming, was to challenge common misconceptions and erroneous representations of sex workers by allowing individuals with experiences in the sex trade to represent themselves publicly and in print.

The organization combats stigma and discrimination while providing people in the sex trade with communication and transferrable job skills. People turn to the sex trade to generate income for as many reasons as there are sex workers, and yet given the prevalence of misinformation about the trade, sex workers’ personal stories are oftentimes surprising.

Red Umbrella staff and workshop participantsIn 2010, I lost my job as a public elementary school teacher after it was discovered that I was writing and speaking about my past experience moonlighting as a call girl on Craigslist while earning my masters in creative nonfiction from the New School. Since losing my job, I have dedicated myself to the task of changing people’s negative perceptions of current and former sex workers by continuing to tell my story in all its richness and by teaching other individuals with minority experiences to tell theirs.

At the event, readers included “Dominick,” a former gay male escort; Aimee Herman, a queer performance poet living in Brooklyn; Essence Revealed, whose story chronicles the highs and lows of being a black woman working in Manhattan’s gentlemen’s lap dance club scene; as well as eighties porn actress and activist Veronica Vera, who recreated for a raptured audience the moment she became co-star to her then-friend Annie Sprinkle.

The January 3 event boasts an equally diverse line-up. Expect anything and everything—anything and everything, that is, except just another “Pretty Woman.”

Photos: Top: Melissa Petro reads from the anthology PROS(E). Bottom: Red Umbrella staff and participants (left to right): Melissa Petro, Veronica Vera, Niesha Sharay Davis, Aimee Herman, Essence Revealed, Dominick, and Audacia Ray at Happy Ending Lounge. Credit: David Kornfield.

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.

Remixed: Douglas Kearney Finds Art and an Audience by Changing Plans

In November, P&W-supported writer Douglas Kearney gave a reading at The Art League and led a workshop at Project Row Houses in Houston, which he writes about below. Kearney is a poet/performer/librettist based in Southern California’s Santa Clarita Valley, where he lives with his family and teaches at California Institute of the Arts. His second collection, The Black Automaton (Fence Books 2009), was a National Poetry Series selection. Red Hen Press will publish Patter in 2014.

Douglas KearneyBack in April, I had a Skype exchange with poet/activist John Pluecker and a poetry group he led at Project Row Houses in Houston’s Third Ward. It went well enough that JP decided to get me down there to do a reading and workshop. Cool. I hadn’t been to Houston in a minute and hadn’t done much touring in the South to promote The Black Automaton. He was awarded funds from the Readings/Workshops program, which, with help from Project Row Houses, was enough to fly me down and provide a stipend. The reading was slated for Kaboom Books and the workshop, for Project Row Houses. Straightforward. But. BUT! It just so happened Houston was a great big X on the African-American Arts treasure map on November 16, 2012. Contemporary Arts Museum Houston was opening “Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art” and The Art League was opening STACKS, a group exhibition of emerging artists curated by Robert Pruitt for five week-long residencies.

JP has his finger on the pulse of such things and wondered whether we might be able to tap in to the visual arts audiences and more of the African-American folks he hoped would come to my reading at Kaboom. So, with a week to go before the reading, hatched a plan, he did. He asked Kaboom whether they might be willing to give me up that evening. With their gracious permission, he contacted Pruitt about creating some kind of collaboration that would allow me to join the Art League artists for their opening. With his enthusiastic blessing, JP contacted me. It happened I know Pruitt’s work from a commission connected to Studio Museum in Harlem’s 2005–6 Frequency show.

So, yeah, I was interested.

The Art League opening, which featured artists Jamal Cyrus, Nathaniel Donnett, Autumn Knight, Phillip Pyle II, and M'kina Tapscott, involved a woodchipper and the woodchipper’s effect on objects that signify Blackness®. We decided I would perform eulogies for some of these objects. I thought it would be a nice processual kick in the behind to compose new work for the occasion. After all, preachers don’t get much time to write them. Ultimately, I eulogized a pair of sneakers, an afro pick, a box of Nag Champa, some bootleg t-shirts with hip hop memes on them, and a Malcolm X X-hat. You can see the ceremony here.

The next afternoon, I did a more traditional reading (with digital projector and audio) at Project Row Houses and then launched into a workshop with JP’s group, about twenty strong. The workshop—Unsung & Remixed: Using Song Lyrics in Poems—continued the multimedia/interdisciplinary theme of the visit, directing participants to write poems using Afaa Michael Weaver’s Bop form; integrate parodies of a song they were sick of; or compose a “cover” of a song they loved. An eight-year-old brought the house down and a sixty-something-year-old built it back up.

The Readings/Workshops program in conjunction with a coalition of Houston’s arts community made a fantastic trip possible. Excellent! Plus, I got to eat BBQ. Y’all need a Readings/Workshops/BBQ program. Trill.

Photo: Douglas Kearney. Credit: Eric Plattner.

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.

A Free House in the Sun: Tucson’s Casa Libre en la Solana

Kristen E. Nelson is a founder and the Executive Director of Casa Libre en la Solana, a non-profit writing center in Tucson, Arizona. P&W has co-sponsored the center's Weekend Residency program for the past four years. Nelson is the author of Write, Dad (Unthinkable Creatures Chapbook Press, 2012), and has recently published work in Denver Quarterly, Drunken Boat, Tarpaulin Sky Journal, Trickhouse, Dinosaur Bees, and Everyday Genius.
 
What makes your organization and its programs unique?
The mission of Casa Libre en la Solana is to support and enhance the creativity of professional and novice writers by providing a community venue for classes, readings, and other professional development opportunities.

The diversity of our programs and high level of community involvement is what makes Casa Libre stand out. In addition to our own creative writing workshops and reading/performance series, we provide an event base for many other Tucson groups, including Kore Press, Queer People of Color, Pan Left Productions, Read Between the Bars, and the Tucson Youth Poetry Slam.

What recent program have you been especially proud of?
Participants in our program Made for Flight, a transgender youth and ally empowerment workshop series, walked in the annual All Souls Procession in Tucson, a huge community procession to honor the lives of ancestors and loved ones who have passed away.

Made for Flight incorporates transgender history, ally development, creative writing, and kite building to commemorate the lives of the transgender individuals who have been murdered in the last year. TC Tolbert, Casa Libre’s assistant director, began this program three years ago, and this year we had approximately one hundred people show up to help us carry the kites that Tucson youth created in the procession.

It is inspiring to see the large number of allies who show up to lend their support to bringing awareness to the disproportionate number of transgender people (specifically women of color) who are murdered each year.

How do you find and invite writers?
Our organizational structure is a bit like an octopus. Each arm functions independently and in collaboration with the main body of the organization. Each of our programs is curated by a different local writer drawing from a diverse group.

I curate our Weekend Residency programs and through personal or professional connections have invited Camille Dungy, Samuel Ace, Maureen Seaton, and most recently Rebecca Brown to lead a weekend full of workshops and reading series. All of these Weekend Residencies could not have happened without the generous funding provided by Poets & Writers.

How has literary presenting informed your life and writing?
Casa Libre is my life. I live on the grounds in a community of seven households of writers and artists. Since I founded this place nine years ago, the programs and people who are a part of it have shaped who I am. This community is full of thinkers and creators. Every day there are conversations in our courtyards about writing projects, creative inspiration, and new programs. The Casa Libre community extends far beyond our grounds into Tucson and across the country. Passionate people who care about writing and creating come here. This is a nourishing place that I am proud to be a part of and call home.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
The staff and board members of Casa Libre are deeply invested in fostering creativity. We are devoted to honoring and making space for thinking, writing, conversation, art-making, and performance in a world dearly in need of artistic vision, creative solutions, and celebration of the human mind. Because we believe expression is a vital part of nourishing the human spirit, Casa Libre inspires writers and artists to take risks and manifest their artistic dreams.
 
Photo: Kristen E. Nelson. Credit: Sarah Dalby. Photo: Casa Libre's Weekend Residency with Rebecca Brown (at left). Credit: Samuel Ace.
Support for Readings/Workshops events in Tucson is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Lee Meitzen Grue on Teaching in the Bywater

Lee Meitzen Grue lives in downtown New Orleans. Her most recent book of poetry, Downtown, is published by Trembling Pillow Press and is made up of new and selected poems chosen for their reference to the old neighborhoods of New Orleans, including Treme, The French Quarter, Marigny, Bywater, and the Lower Nine. The book is dedicated to her friends and neighbors in the Ninth Ward, who suffered from Katrina. Grue is also former director of the New Orleans Poetry Forum and editor of the New Laurel Review. She teaches writing at the Alvar Library.

I live in the Bywater, which is part of the Ninth Ward. When we moved to the neighborhood after Hurricane Betsy, many residents were moving out. We were able to buy an Edwardian house over one hundred years old. With some renovation, we built a small West Indies–styled building and began The First Backyard Poetry Theatre.  For nineteen years, I directed the New Orleans Poetry Forum Workshop, and we held readings in the theatre until 1991. Since Katrina, we’ve hosted two art shows and continued to host readings with local and internationally known poets and musicians.

I have an MFA in writing but don’t consider myself an academic. I enjoy the world of small presses and teaching in the community. A few years ago, I discovered Poets & Writers was offering grants for readings and workshops in New Orleans. Since the Alvar Library was my neighborhood library in the Ninth Ward, I approached librarian Mary Ann Marx about applying for a grant to host some workshops. Happily she did.

Although the library was flooded after Katrina, and many of its books were ruined, the people of Bywater rallied, remodeled, and revived the library. It now features artwork by neighborhood artists, new books and programs, and a beautiful garden.

The students who attend my workshops range in age from eighteen to eighty-eight, all hues. I teach fiction and poetry classes. For fiction, I get the class writing in the first workshop and ask each writer to talk about their writing.

In poetry classes, I suggest the students read a list of books, which have included The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics, Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems, and Louis Untermeyer’s The Golden Treasury of Poetry, a book that my aunt drove fifty-five miles to Beaumont, Texas, to buy when I started writing poetry at the age of nine. It was the 1940s, but that book included women poets!

We’ve also asked the library to get us books, including Kalamu ya Salaam’s In The Bend of the River and books by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and Yusef Komunyakaa, who is from Bogalusa, Louisiana. And, I recommend they read Poets & Writers Magazine, to which the library subscribes. 

We’ve collected stories for an anthology we hope to publish. Most remarkable have been the number of older students who have written books: Maggie Colllins has published a number of short stories and her novel Celestial Skies was a finalist for the William Faulkner Writing ContestEdmunc Mazeika published Peace Is Possible online. Sean David Hobbs wrote a memoir about living in Turkey, called Sex and Homeland.

Thanks to Poets & Writers, we’re now the Alvar Writers. And, thanks to Henri, the librarian at the Alvar Library, we're always stocked with a few healthy snacks and some delicious chocolate!

Photo: Lee Meitzen Grue.  Photo credit: Henri Fourroux.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in New Orleans is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. 

Thomas Lux Searches for the Elusive Bill Knott

PW-funded poet Thomas Lux blogs about Bill Knott's new collection Selected Poems. Lux is Bourne Professor of Poetry at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He has two new books out this fall—the poetry collection Child Made of Sand (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and his nonfiction debut From the Southland (Marick Press).

If you want to read the best poems by a poet who’s been struck by lightning at least twenty-two to twenty-three times, and you have $3.94 (three dollars and ninety four cents for a handsomely produced 192 pages!), order this book. The poet is Bill Knott, and the book is Selected Poems. I’ve loved Knott’s poems since I first read The Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans, as an undergraduate in 1968. Many poems in this book I still think of as the most penetrating short lyrics of the last fifty years or so. I believe I’ve read everything he’s published since then. He’s always shifting, changing, yet always maintaining a sharp poignancy along with having an ear like a fucking angel! He plays, he dodges, and darts. Many of his poems move through me like electric eels. He’s published several books over the years—from BOA, Random House, University of Iowa Press, University of Pittsburgh Press, etc., and, most recently, in 2004, The Unsubscriber, from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Selected Poems opens with a few pages of what I’ll call anti-blurbs. They make a kind of lacerating found poem. “Bill Knott should be beaten with a flail” is one of my favorites. Nullius in verba: Don’t believe anything anyone tells you. It seems Knott’s poems piss some people off. Someone (I think S.J. Perlman) said: “What’s the point of writing if you don’t piss some people off?” Let the reader know: There are just as many positive quotes he could have used, and the prominent words that occur in those are “original” and “genius.”

Full disclosure: I know Bill Knott and saw him quite frequently—in Boston/Cambridge, Chicago, and other locales—during the ’70s and into the early ’80s. Sporadically since then. He’s also been painting for over twenty years and I have some of his artwork from the early ’90s in my house and office. We’ve been in touch recently, and he’s sent me several more paintings. They’re mostly abstract, with an occasional figurative moment, and often the ghost of a figure. I love their colors. I sense some correlation between the music/voice of his poems and the way he uses color, though I am unable to articulate that.

A small press I edited from 19701975, Barn Dream Press, published two of Knott’s early books, Nights of Naomi and Love Poems to Myself. Young poets often did that in those days (and young poets still seem to be doing it today, in print magazines, and now too with the great advantage of the Internet): you started a magazine, a small press, a reading series. The one unwritten rule then (at least to my understanding) was that you didn’t publish yourself. I reiterate: $3.94. Bill Knott, Selected Poems. One thing I remember him saying, several times: “Poetry’s an art form, it’s a craft.” Indeed it is, and he is a master of that craft. Get this book. Read the anti-blurbs first. Then decide for yourself. If you don’t find it worth $3.94, I’ll refund the money myself (if you send me the book), and I’ll refund, as well, my memories of you.

Photo: Thomas Lux

Support for Readings/Workshops events 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.

Sisters, Digging Deep: One Morning at the Burbank Senior Artists Colony

Readings/ Workshops (West) assistant director Jamie FitzGerald describes a visit to the P&W–supported  EngAGE senior writing workshop taught by Hannah R. Menkin. Menkin is an educator, poet, and visual artist, who uses an integrative approach to help adults, older adults, and veterans discover their own voice through oral history, memoir, storytelling, and the creative/expressive arts.

Writing workshop membersOn November 7, 2012, the morning after Barack Obama was elected for his second term as President, my co-worker Andrew Wessels and I made the hour-long drive across the sprawl of Los Angeles, from the Westside to the Burbank Senior Artists Colony, where we met with a group of “confident,” “relieved,” “peaceful,” “hopeful” seniors (words they chose to describe how they were feeling that morning).

We were welcomed by poetry workshop facilitator Hannah Menkin, whose work with seniors and veterans P&W  has supported since 2009. The poetry workshop at the Burbank Senior Artists Colony is facilitated by EngAGE, a nonprofit organization that fosters the arts, wellness, and lifelong learning for seniors in Southern California. The group in session that morning was holding a special Poetry & Tea celebration. They were delighted to have representatives from P&W visiting them, and the all-female group referred to Andrew humorously as “the rose amongst the thorns.”

Participants spoke about why the writing workshop was valuable to them and shared a few poems. Kit Harper, who writes every day, had this to say: “I love this group. They’re like my sisters. We’re all here to dig deep.” And dig deep they do. Menkin acknowledged that as we age, we experience more losses. In her workshop, it’s understood members can freely address loss, and anything else, together in a safe, uncritical environment.

The group has enjoyed each other’s company for more than a year, and the bonds they have formed show in their easiness with one another. Dolly Brittan, originally from South Africa, attested to this: “We’ve all developed trust amongst each other. It’s a safe place. Poetry has really helped me to cope with my life.”

The most senior member, 90-year-old Karolyn Merson, said of the workshop: “I came here and just blossomed out. It ignited my life.” Later, Merson passed around her chapbook full of astute and often humorous haiku, as well as a booklet of collaged found poems culled from the pages of the Los Angeles Times.

Menkin’s teaching style encourages self-expression without criticism. She has told her group to banish the inner critic and trust in the “true voice,” which needs no revision. Still, the seniors in her workshop spoke of craft and working on poems at home in their spare time. Subtly, Menkin manages to pass on the message of daily work, craft, and revision that is foundational for any serious writer.

Menkin also recites contemporary poetry to her group. The day’s selection included an ars poetica by William Stafford and a poem by the ever-popular Billy Collins. She has her students writing from prompts—found poems, acrostic poetry, sensory-based poems, and so on.  But the mechanics of poetry are secondary to the sisterhood that has formed in the group. The love these women have for poetry is humbling and the tranformations it has clearly wrought in them renews one’s faith in the act of writing things down.

Photos: Hannah Menkin (holding flowers) with her Saturday workshop group, including the “sisters”: Kit Harper (next to Hannah), Karolyn Merson (wearing scarf), Dolly Brittan (next to Karolyn), and Felicia Soissons-Segal (far right). Found poem collage by Karolyn Merson. Credit: Jamie FitzGerald.

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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