Readings & Workshops Blog

David Mills’ Poetic Arithmetic, Kooky Koans, and Redemptive Communion

David Mills has taught several P&W–supported workshops at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center in Chicago. He is author of the poetry collection The Dream Detective (Straw Gate Books) and has poems in the anthology Jubilation! (Peepal Tree Press) and magazines, including Ploughshares and jubilat. Mills is also the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship.

What is your writing critique philosophy?
Most of the workshops I conduct are with kids, so I always write on the board “2+2=57,” which means for the hour that I am with them, I don’t want them to worry about spelling or grammar because obsessing over “crossed Ts” could mean losing a moment of genius.

How do you get shy writers to open up?
I try to present a model poem that will spark both conversation and creativity. I remind the students that poetry is not on Mount Parnassus. It’s right t/here, wherever we happen to be geographically and psychically. I make self-deprecating jokes to put them at ease and let them know everything is poetic fair game.

I sweat, so I’ll say: “I sweat while I swim. Use that. ‘How can this guy sweat while he swims?’”

I have abstract expressionist penmanship, so I’ll say: “I write like a blind man with five broken fingers. How’s that possible for a poet?”

I don’t want them to write about my idiosyncrasies, but I hope that by framing them as kooky koans the kids will access their own creative centers.

What has been your most rewarding experience as a writing teacher?
Workshops like the ones P&W sponsored at the Cook County Juvenile Detention come to mind. In one visit, I used Randall Horton’s poignant and ironic poem “Poetry Reading at Mount McGregor (Saratoga, NY).” During his own incarceration, he could never have imagined voluntarily returning to a prison, yet in the poem that’s exactly where he finds himself.

I discuss redemption.

What happens for Randall in his poem is what I hope will happen for these kids. Writing gave him a raison d’etre. Horton writes: “tonight poetry is a sinner’s prayer,” and reflects on how when he was incarcerated he “searched for the… alphabets to help me escape.” He concludes the poem: “How do I say welcome me, I am your brother?”

I got misty-eyed as I read those lines. I think the boys felt what the poem was meant to evoke: union, communion.

There were gangbangers in the class from opposing gangs—African-American and Chicano-American. The teachers had warned that certain guys had to sit on opposite sides of the room. As we discussed the poem, guys started talking across “colors,” opening up. Teachers who weren’t part of the workshop stepped in and stayed.

I asked the guys to write about returning to a place—physically or psychically--that might be filled with pain, fear, anger, or an unresolved question. I asked them to describe it physically, but to then address the wound or fear to a person who had something to do with whatever unresolved feeling was back there.

One Chicano student described a town center in Mexico where an incident had occurred that caused his family to flee to the U.S. What happened to his family is less important than what happened to his peers as a result of his avowal. His poem gave his classmates both insight into and greater empathy for him.

What do you consider to be the benefits of writing workshops for special groups (i.e. teens, elders, the disabled, veterans, prisoners)?
I have only worked with male populations where posturing and bravura run deep. But given an opportunity to see that their vulnerability will not be used against them, these boys will open up. I think some of these young men feel—and sometimes rightfully so—like the words in Patricia Smith’s poem, “CRIPtic Comment”:

If we are not shooting
at someone
then no one
can see us.

There is the sense that these boys feel both seen and heard during our time together. In one of the P&W–supported Cook County Juvenile Detention workshops, I used Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”:

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
     flow of human blood in human veins.

Hughes’s piece has an epic reach—bodies of water of mythic, cultural, and historic proportion. I talked about Hughes’s “knowing.” I got the boys to write about things they knew intimately, using Hughes’ structure to organize their “knowing.” One participant wrote about the various sneakers he has “rocked”:

I’ve known Nikes, shell-top Adidas...

You get the idea.

Another student had lived in Illinois and Indiana, so he wrote about “knowing” distinct parts of these two states, both in terms of geography but also the “temperature” of different communities.

What's the strangest question you’ve received from a student?
I am pretty zany so no question strikes me as strange. I do get a lot of “Why do you sweat so much?”

Photo: David Mills. Credit: Luig Cazzaniga.

Support for Readings/Workshops events 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.

Idle Hands are the Poet’s Playground: Brendan Constantine on Taking a Chance

Brendan Constantine, September’s Writer in Residence, was born in 1967 and named after Irish playwright Brendan Behan. An ardent supporter of Southern California’s poetry communities, he is one of the region’s most recognized authors. He is currently poet-in-residence at the Windward School and regularly conducts workshops in hospitals, foster homes, and with the Art of Elysium. His latest collections of poetry are Birthday Girl With Possum (2011 Write Bloody Publishing) and Calamity Joe (2012 Red Hen Press). He lives in Hollywood, California, at Bela Lugosi’s last address.

Brendan ConstantineHow do you do? Brendan Constantine here with the third “blog” of my residency with Poets & Writers. Thanks for joining me.

My relationship with Poets & Writers began in 1995 when I first sought their help in paying authors to read for a local series, the Valley Contemporary Poets. In the years since, their support—both financial and creative—has enabled me to build a whole career. I’m sure you can appreciate how daunting it is, then, to try to write something “worthy.” At every keystroke I imagine someone at the P&W main office looking up from a computer and saying, “Wait, we’ve PAID this guy to give readings?”

Of course, it’s just the same old vanity that plagues every writer: the Phantom of Originality, also known as the Tenth Muse. Not only is originality a false god, history has made it plain there are no profundities so great they cannot be trivialized; death is a business, so are babies, and now Webster’s definition of  “reality” includes the subheading  “a genre of television.” If nothing is sacred, neither is writing.

Exactly ninety years before the date this blog will appear, a writer named Richard le Gallienne wrote a New York Times review of four new books of poetry. Before addressing any of the titles, he observes, “Unless poetry is as compelling as Ragtime, we labor in vain to read it.”

Ragtime. Join me for a deep sigh, would you?

For those of you who’ve ever felt as though your art has too much with which to compete in popular media, that it’s no match for TV, movies, or popular music, the above quote should offer some comfort. Ragtime may have topped the charts of 1922, but a good deal of transcendent writing came after, indeed most of what we call Modern poetry. Give yourself a break.

Speaking of taking a break, in Samuel Johnson’s essay “The Rambler,” he contends, “It is certain that any wild wish or vain imagination never takes such firm possession of the mind, as when it is found empty and unoccupied….” He is praising activity for its own sake, warning against the hazards of idleness. What are the hazards? Depression, melancholy, and, even worse, posthumous notoriety.

But for writers, the value of “down time,” with nothing on our minds but the cookie in our hands, is priceless. There’s no telling what combination of whim and weariness will send us into despair or creative action. But perhaps they’re the same. To be an artist is to create “stillnesses”—the stillness of the page, the plinth, and the canvas, the thousand stillnesses in one minute of film. Or dance.

To be an artist is to invite “any wild wish or vain imagination” to take firm possession of our minds, to dare boredom to do its worst, to take second place to Ragtime.

Furthermore, it will always be true that our poorest work lies ahead of us. We’re going to write something truly awful in the future. We have to. Why do we have to? It’s often the only way to uncover the good writing. Like going through a kitchen drawer, sometimes we have to take out things we don’t need in order to get at the things we do.

Ask yourself about the conditions under which you’ve done your best work so far. Did you start with a defined vision and follow it to the end without deviation? I’m guessing, No.

Where I see many of us get stuck, again and again, is in forgetting the role of “chance.” No sooner are we enjoying a sense of success (even if it’s just saying “Well, that didn’t TOTALLY suck.”) than we are forgetting the experience of discovering our art as we went.

Chances are (sorry), we’ll attempt to create something else, but this time out of sheer will. Under these conditions, we’re totally screwed. Excuse me, Ragtimed. The best we can hope for is something almost as good as we used to be.

I think the answer is to just create, create a lot, make lots of mistakes, finish a bunch of lousy work, emphasis on “finish,” but get it all the way out. Make something. Make anything. Buy a children’s paint set. Get an airplane model. Make a list of the times and conditions under which someone says “awesome” and then set it to music. Something with piano and trumpets, a trombone and snare drum. Write about a room where someone is dancing to it, someone who knows it’s stupid and dances anyway.

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

Worth the Climb: David Surface on Writing Workshops for Veterans

David Surface, who has led writing workshops in public schools and social service settings for over twenty years, blogs about P&W–supported writing workshops with Veterans in Westchester, New York. He is the founder of the Veterans Writing Workshop, which runs free writing workshops for U.S. veterans.

I first met Frank at the Common Ground Residence for Homeless Veterans in Montrose. I was there to start a ten-week creative writing workshop funded through the Readings/Workshops program at Poets & Writers. Frank’s pale blue eyes were intense and attentive. He was interested but expressed doubt about his writing abilities. I assured him that he already had everything he needed to write a good story—all we needed to do was to help him get it down on paper.

I later learned that Frank had just graduated from the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Program, and his counselor had recommended that he participate in the writing workshop. “She thinks it’ll be good for me,” he said.

Not all veterans’ traumas happen on the battlefield. Frank’s had happened during his service in the Military Police at a U.S. Naval Air Station base, though exactly what happened was unknown to the rest of us.

For the first few weeks, Frank wrote about struggling to fit in with the culture of the Naval base; his discomfort with guns, his poor performance on the firing range, the “liquid debriefs” with the other MPs, and their nightly drunken jackrabbit hunts.

"They would pull a patrol car up in front and point the high beams and spotlights at the dusty and sparse vegetation. Then these guys would shoot at the jackrabbits that were hopping around; creating puffs of dust as the rabbits scattered to get away."

Week after week, Frank continued to work his way toward the incident he’d come to the workshop to write about. I never pushed him. This was not, as I’d explained, a “writing therapy” group—this was a writing workshop, and our goal was to create the very best stories we could write.

Finally, Frank brought in the pages he’d struggled so hard to complete. With his friend Eddie’s hand on his shoulder for support, Frank read to us about the day he’d gone out on a call to search for a missing child.

"After ten minutes that felt like ten hours, I decided to go into the house myself. As I walked up the steps, something at the left of the entrance caught my eye. It was a medium-sized Coleman cooler with the lid closed. I walked up to the cooler and opened it up on a hunch. To my shock and dismay, the little boy was in there, his ball lying right next to his hand. The odor was overwhelming and his skin was clammy and grey. Instinctively, I reached into the cooler and pulled him out."

Taking deep, shaky breaths between words, Frank read about his unsuccessful attempts to revive the child, his subsequent realization that he could no longer be a policeman, and the hard-won wisdom he’d come away with.

"It would be years before I accepted the fact that there was not anything I could have done to prevent that child from dying like that. As I look back now, I realize that there are things that happen in life that you cannot control."

Watching Frank read that story for us was the bravest thing I’d ever seen—until two weeks later when I saw him stand up in front of a large audience at a public reading and do it again. Afterwards when I asked him how he felt, he wiped the sweat from his brow, grinned and said, “Great!”

I’ve seen Frank read that story three more times in public. Every time, it’s like watching someone climb the highest, most difficult mountain in the world to end up on top. It’s not easy, but, as Frank will tell you, it’s well worth the climb.

Photo: (Left) Frank Muer and fellow workshop participant Eduardo Padilla.  Photo Credit: Howard Charton.

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 Friends of Poets & Writers.

Brendan Constantine Listens for the Wow Signal

Brendan Constantine, September’s Writer in Residence, was born in 1967 and named after Irish playwright Brendan Behan. An ardent supporter of Southern California’s poetry communities, he is one of the region’s most recognized authors. He is currently poet-in-residence at the Windward School and regularly conducts workshops in hospitals, foster homes, and with the Art of Elysium. His latest collections of poetry are Birthday Girl With Possum (2011 Write Bloody Publishing) and Calamity Joe (2012 Red Hen Press). He lives in Hollywood, California, at Bela Lugosi’s last address.

Hello again. My name is Brendan Constantine and welcome to my second post as guest “blogger.” I’ve been sitting here quite a while contemplating what to write, and I may’ve drifted into Overscrupulosity: over-thinking against under-whelming, editing before actually writing.

Brendan ConstantineIf only I could embrace the maxim I use in the classroom: Writer’s Block is almost never a deficit of magic but a surplus of judgment. I believe this, I do, but I'm still stuck. This is particularly ironic because what I want to talk about is Speechlessness; a speechless woman and a speechless universe. Maybe I can get this rolling if I work backwards and start with the universe.

Did you know we may’ve been contacted by beings from another world? Thirty-five years ago, an astronomer named Jerry Ehman was working with a SETI project (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) at the Perkins Observatory in Ohio. The radio telescope there is called “The Big Ear” and sits alone in a vast field. Every few days, Ehman would drive out to examine coded print-outs of any signals detected in a given piece of sky.

He was looking for a particular set of digits that would ensure the signal originated from outside our system. No one in his profession had ever seen them. But on August 15, 1977, Jerry Ehman saw a chain of figures so close to ideal, he circled them with a pen and wrote the word, “Wow.” This piece of paper was saved and can be visited online. Just look for “the Wow signal.”

Haven’t heard about this? Well, it’s a curious thing, but the buzz didn’t last long. You see, the signal was never heard again. We know it came from somewhere near Sagittarius, but in all this time there’s been nothing else to Wow about.

Poets are also big on repetition. What we call Form is really what we choose to repeat. Meter, rhyme, the whole of prosody is not a matter of what happens in one line, but what happens in the next.

Because there was no second signal, many astronomers believe the first must have been natural, random, a blank verse, perhaps the gasp of a dying sun. If someone were out there, wouldn’t they keep talking?

Which brings me to the speechless woman.

I’m going to call her Edith. We met a while back at an eldercare center in West Los Angeles. My visit was part of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project, a program that brings poetry to people challenged with dementia. Routinely, I engage the room in recitations of classic poetry and then create new poems based on their responses. On this day I read Kipling’s haunting piece, “The Way Through The Woods.” We discussed other paths we knew, like the way to the store or the way home from school.

It was around this point that Edith, who seldom spoke, suddenly engaged. Really, a better term would be “detonated.” 

“Brooklyn!” she said. “So many cracked sidewalks in Brooklyn when I was a girl. Nothing like’ em. You know, it was the Great Depression and...”

It was the Great Depression and Edith was maybe seven years old. After school, she’d often make her way to the jewelry district. Nobody was buying much jewelry then, but some merchants kept their hours. Edith had somehow made friends with a few who occasionally let her play with new stones.

“They let me be a princess,” she said, “I wore rings and bracelets, sometimes a tiara, and I sparkled like a dream. I was always good about giving everything back. I never stayed too long and I never fussed. ”

She stopped there and looked at me, half smiling, half wary. She’d forgotten who I was again. I put my hand out and we started over. Later, I asked one of the nurses if she’d heard that incredible story. She said she hadn’t. I wondered, still wonder, if Edith’s family ever has.

How many of her fellow seniors, so advanced in their senility, are regarded as “unreachable”? On what experience do we presume the distance a voice must travel, even our own? Does what we say come from the present, or the past?  How far back does it start? Years? Light years? Have we spoken yet?

If this is too romantic a notion, too “airy-fairy,” look at it this way: If it’s been a while since you wrote anything you care about, is that any reason to despair?

Photo: Brendan Constantine. Credit: Lily Marker.

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

A Land of Defiance: Dances With Wordz Celebrates Yoruba Faith Through Poetry

On August 10, 2012, P&W–sponsored poets Wilfredo Borges, Caridad De La Luz, and Iya Ibo Mandingo performed at Dances With Wordz: Orisha Poetry in New York City, an event organized by Latinos NYC. Readings/Workshops program intern Nikay Paredes reports.

Wilfredo "Baba" BorgesDances With Wordz: Orisha Poetry, curated by Latinos NYC founder and CEO Raul K. Rios, featured performances celebrating the Yuroba faith of West Africa. The poets, garbed in white from head to toe, were an immaculate presence inside the Nuyorican Poets Café even before they took the stage. The Nuyorican has long been a venue and community for artists looking to elevate poetry, music, comedy, theatre, and the visual arts in a diverse, multicultural environment.

Dances With Wordz began with an open mic dedicated to the faith. Poet-nomad Wilfredo “Baba” Borges blessed the audience with a prayer-song. He spoke of ancestries, mothers and fathers, exclaiming proudly: “Where I’m from is a land of defiance, not defeat.” Poetry performances were complemented by song and dance, including a drumming performance by batá group Conjunto Oba Ire. The batá or Yoruba drum, they explained to the audience, is inhabited by Orisha or guardian spirits of the Yoruba faith.

Caridad "La Bruja" De La LuzNuyorican darling Caridad “La Bruja” De La Luz read from her first collection, The Poetician, then proceeded to rap and sing after reciting what she fondly called “straight up poetry.” Writer, actor, and painter Iya Ibo Mandingo performed last, conjuring images of home: luscious mangoes and coconuts. He ended his performance with a declarative poem, inciting reactions from the audience, which ranged from the gleeful to the guttural. 

Raul K. Rios closed the reading with these apt words: “Don’t praise behind closed doors. Let the conversation exist.” Rios, through Latinos NYC, aims to transform drug-ridden communities in New York City with feeding programs, clothing drives, and poetry readings.

He thanked P&W for helping him with the transformation: “Having Poets & Writers on our side every year means Latinos NYC can put on a better event and compensate the poets for their time and talent.”

Photos: (Top) Wildfredo “Baba” Borges. (Bottom) Caridad “La Bruja” De La Luz. Credit: Nikay Paredes.

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 A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Brendan Constantine Finds Poetry Outside His Window

Brendan Constantine, September’s Writer in Residence, was born in 1967 and named after Irish playwright Brendan Behan. An ardent supporter of Southern California’s poetry communities, he is one of the region’s most recognized authors. He is currently poet-in-residence at the Windward School and regularly conducts workshops in hospitals, foster homes, and with the Art of Elysium. His latest collections of poetry are Birthday Girl With Possum (2011 Write Bloody Publishing) and Calamity Joe (2012 Red Hen Press). He lives in Hollywood, California, at Bela Lugosi’s last address.

Brendan Constantine at HillsidesHow do you do. My name is Brendan Constantine and I’m a poet living in Hollywood, California. As I write this, there are two people arguing in the street beyond my window. One of them just shouted, “It’s not religious, it’s my God damn parking space.”

As this month’s guest “blogger,” I’ve been asked to submit for your consideration my thoughts on poetry, poetry workshops, and what it’s like to work with Poets & Writers. As Howard Nemerov said, “I shall be interested to find out what I do think.”

One of the things I think is this: If you write poems, it’s easy to forget that poets are not the target market for poetry, any more than doctors are the only people who need medicine.

“Bastard!” That’s what the person outside just shouted. How on earth am I going work that into my point? I suppose I could make some parable (a lot of people have already) between the ideas of ‘bastardism’ or legitimacy and the status of poetry in art; the complaint among poets that their work is marginalized, de-prioritized and several other words ending with “-ized.”

Frankly I consider many of these complaints to be a stretch. Poetry is a legitimate art (as legitimate as painting, certainly) and it’s more readily available now than at any time previous. A disregard for poetry is not necessarily an uninformed response.

You can always have the best of something and still not like it. I, for one, can’t stand rhubarb pie. One might argue that poetry is a higher pursuit than pie, in which case we can change the analogy to Truth. Ever had enough of that? The guy outside my apartment has. I think he’s moving his car.

When I look at the histories of poetry, (not just in English), I see the same patterns emerge again and again: how it precedes written language, how its shapes and subjects evolve. People invent poetry as a means of expressing something they can’t easily say. The desire to talk about special things in a special way, the desire to change, elaborate or deliberately misuse language for the purpose of greater communion is all but universal.

Our work as poets, like it or not, is only ours while we’re writing it. Once we share, it belongs to the reader. Who is the reader? Anyone who reads, even by accident. Who is poetry for? Same answer. Is poetry for anyone in particular? Anyone who’s had to search for words. Is that really such an issue? You should hear the other guy outside. He’s finally trying to answer the last ten things that were shouted at him. He’s gotten this far: “Man, you’re’re acting like... like...” 

This is one of the reasons I enjoy conducting poetry workshops with people who have no desire to be professional poets. Every few months, for instance, Poets & Writers sends me to a foster care center in Pasadena. It’s called Hillsides and is home to a number of young people challenged by a variety of circumstances, among them homelessness, depression, and PTSD. I’m not there just to complement a standard education but to help cultivate an emotional vocabulary. As my friend, poet Ed Skoog, says, “Metaphor is a gateway to compassion.”

“Dude, that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is you’re like totally... you’re getting all caught up with... you’re like a vulture that doesn’t care what it... I mean...” The guy outside is getting close to something. He’s still struggling, though. If he has any poetry in him, he may find the words. If he is a poet, the struggle won’t end.

Of course, there are other uses for poetry, other aims. There’s a lot of poetry that seems (to me, anyway) predicated on the idea that art is a debate, that each new work is a new argument in an old conversation about excellence; a necessary and relevant conversation, but not a very urgent one.

No, the most pressing topics are likely being mumbled in a car outside your door. Who knows where they will lead?

Meanwhile, thank you for having come this far with me. I hope you’ll visit this blog over the next weeks. All comments are welcome. See you next week.

Photo: Brendan Constantine with students at Hillsides in Pasadena, California. Credit: Nikola Wilkens-Miller.

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

LitLandia Conjures Surreal Moments in a Region Without a Reading Series

In July, P&W–sponsored poets Brendan Constantine, Nicelle Davis, Larry Eby, and Robbi Nester kicked off LitLandia, a new reading series in California’s Inland Empire region. Project director Cati Porter reports.

LitLandia readers with Cati PorterFor a number of years now, I had been contemplating the fact that there is no regularly occurring literary reading series in Riverside, California. This is not to say that there aren’t the occasional events, including an annual Writers Week at the local university, or other reading series in neighboring counties; just none in my city, or even the other cities in closest proximity. So, I decided to remedy that.

Starting a reading series can seem a little daunting, but in my case, I already had most of the infrastructure in place. I searched the two literary journals that I founded and edit (Poemeleon and Inlandia: A Literary Journey) for contributors, and I drew upon my work with the regional literary nonprofit, the Inlandia Institute. At Inlandia, we have been producing quality literary programming for years, including presentations during Riverside’s monthly ArtsWalk, but the offerings are diverse, and my vision was more focused: LitLandia was designed to bring to this region a regularly scheduled quarterly reading series that includes an open mic component so that attendees (mostly writers themselves) can participate.

I knew this series would be special because we have such a ridiculously amazing and talented pool of authors to draw from, but I really was not prepared for how much fun this first event would be. My first clue was when Nicelle Davis walked in carrying a frilly lump of fabric under one arm and an enormous colorful felt book under the other. Shortly thereafter, Robbi Nester and Larry Eby arrived, each with their entourage. We were chatting and going over the reading order when Brendan Constantine rushed in, absolutely certain he was late. (Fact: He was way early.)

Robbi Nester went first, reading an atmospheric poem about whale watching as well as several from a series on yoga poses that promote “emotional stability” from her aptly-titled book Balance. Larry Eby read from his manuscript-in-progress, including one titled “My Father’s Garage,” a moving villanelle titled “Pillow Talk,” and an ekphrastic piece after artwork by an instructor from the University of Redlands.

Nicelle Davis's felt boardThen Nicelle Davis read; I say read, but really, “audience engagement” is a more accurate description of what occured. Drawn from her collection Circe, which retells The Odyssey, Davis used puppets and props to invite readers to pluck the heart out of Odysseus the Pig, and to gouge out Circe’s eyes and pluck a booger from her nose.

Brendan Constantine, the final reader, read his usual unusually smart and witty poetry, including a cento comprised of lines from letters written to him by the legendary FrancEyE.

Afterward, we held a well-received open mic, with new work by talented local writers Mike Cluff, David Stone, Marsha Schuh, James Ducat, Pierce, Karen Greenbaum-Maya, Judith Terzi, and Richard Nester.

As everyone was leaving, the only child in the audience presented me with a glittering gummy worm, and I held in my hand a felt unicorn attached to a rainbow, a gift plucked from the froth of Nicelle Davis’s felt board book: fitting gifts for a delightfully surreal afternoon.

Photos: Top (from left): Larry Eby, Robbi Nester, Cati Porter, Nicelle Davis, and Brendan Constantine. Credit: Mike Sleboda. Bottom: Nicelle Davis's felt unicorn. Credit: Cati Porter.

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

Rochelle Spencer on Sharing, Thinking, Connecting: Writing as Conversation

Writer and literary organizer Rochelle Spencer blogs about P&Wfunded writers, Patricia Spears Jones and Tan Lin, and how they engage their audience. Rochelle teaches at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York, and is the author of the e-book Ella Jones and Her Magical Vagina.

"You can't just write for your own amusement."

Patricia Spears JonesOne of my writing mentors gave me this advice after I'd shared with her a story that I thought was quite clever. (It really wasn'tI just thought so.) But my mentor's pointthat writing should be an unselfish act, that we should seek to engage the outside world each time we pick up a pen or click on the keyboardmakes more sense to me these days. As I seek to reinvent my writing and move away from the random sexual puns and allusions that have dominated my style, I find myself drawn to hearing other writers' voices, to uncover how they've made their audiences part of their storytelling process.

Two writers whom I admire, Patricia Spears Jones, author of Painkiller (Tia Chucha Press, 2010) and three other collections of poems, and Tan Lin, author of HEATH COURSE PAK (Counterpath Press, 2012) and the recipient of a Getty Distinguished Scholar Grant, have each shared their work at LaGuardia Community College, where I teach. In addition, Patricia Spears Jones has received support from the Readings/Workshops Program at Poets & Writers for many years at venues including: The Dwyer Cultural Center, Poets Out Loud, The Coney Island History Project, and the Brooklyn Public Library. Tan Lin has also been funded through the Readings/Workshops Program for his readings at the Asian American Writers' Workshop.

After Patricia and Tan's reading at LaGuardia Community College, the audience flooded the writers with questions about their work.

How does a reading produce such an engaged audience?

When I spoke to Patricia, she laughed. "I'm trying to connect with as many different kinds of people and things as I can," she said. In poems like "Painkiller," Patricia shows how diverse groups are connected, how "the murderer and the martyr/the adulterer and the healer can at any moment change positions." Patricia says sometimes people are surprised by her diverse, universal themes, but they shouldn't be: "As an African American, I come from a huge, sophisticated culture, not one that has often been seen as one note or one idea. Our culture is a lot more heterogeneous than is often presented, and I feel I am part of that heterogeneity."

Tan also connects with audiences; in fact, he says that audience is so important to his work that he's uncomfortable with the term "author's readings." Embracing Roland Barthes's idea about authors and their demise, Tan argues that the reader, and not the author, performs the work and what interests him is the audience's reaction to that work.

"You try to get the audience to perform the book in as interesting ways as possible," Tan says. "At LaGuardia, I did a video presentation where you see one word and then another word over a seven-second sequence. It's reading in a wayit may not be a novel or a poem but it's how language is processed, one word at a time. I am really interested in what people may call the social production of language, language that is produced within some kind of environment."

Indeed. And, I think my old writing mentor would be delighted by both Tan and Patricia's workwriting that involves, engages, and interacts with their readers.

Photo: Patricia Spears Jones. Credit: Thomas Sayers Ellis.

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 A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Rochelle Spencer on the Greatest Readers of All Time

Writer and literary organizer Rochelle Spencer blogs about the impact of P&Wfunded poets on other writers. She teaches at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York, and is the author of the e-book Ella Jones and Her Magical Vagina.

In 2001, I had just received my MFA and was the unhappiest I had been in my life.

9/11 had saturated the city with grief. Also, because of a problem at the financial aid office, I graduated so broke that I had to write a $10 check to myself to get money from the bank—I couldn’t even make a $20 ATM withdrawal.

That fall, PW-funded poets Lucille Clifton and Sonia Sanchez gave a reading, and while the venue slips my mind, I’ll never forget how grateful I was for the opportunity to see these poets together. There was no admission fee, and $3 purchased subway fare to and from the event.

Best $3 I've ever spent. It’s not enough to say that the reading gave me hope because it did something more: it gave me the opportunity to experience wonder again. In the years since, I’ve hosted readings, many of which were co-sponsored by Poets & Writers, to try to replicate moments like that. In honor of those moments, I asked my friends, writers themselves, about their favorite writers to hear read.

“[Amiri] Baraka brings a commitment to his reading and such a credo of revolutionary output,” says Treasure Shields Redmond, an Assistant Professor of English at Southwestern Illinois College and 2011 Pushcart Prize nominee. “I love Sonia Sanchez live—she’s a diminutive person but when she reads, she’s eight feet tall. Tyehimba Jess live—he has a certain soulfulness. And Jericho Brown always has outstanding figures in his poetry, figures you wouldn’t normally expect to speak, but they do.”

Amy L. George, author of DesAmy L. Georgeideratum (Finishing Line Press 2013), says she loves to hear Naomi Shihab Nye read “because she is very expressive and she takes her time with the text. Sometimes people just rush through and you can’t hear all of the nuances. For a good reading, you have to be committed to the integrity of the text and the overall message.”

Nicholas J. Beishline says simply, "Leonard Cohen... he was incredible."

I am fortunate to have experienced many wonderful readings, each special. Still, I think every good reading accomplishes the same thing—it allows us to focus on something outside of ourselves and our problems—and, as the writers’ words seep through, it allows us recognize the ways we are all connected.

Photo: Amy L. George. Credit: Calvin George.

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 Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and Friends of Poets & Writers.

Seattle’s Karen Finneyfrock: The Spider at the Center of a Web

Karen Finneyfrock is a poet, novelist, and teaching artist in Seattle, Washington. Her second book of poems, Ceremony for the Choking Ghost, was published by Write Bloody in 2010. Her young adult novel, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door, is forthcoming from Viking Children’s Books in 2013. She is a former writer-in-residence at Richard Hugo House in Seattle and teaches for Seattle Arts and Lectures’ Writers-in-the-Schools. Last spring, P&W supported her reading with the Seattle Rock Orchestra.

What are your reading dos?
I try to remind myself that a show is primarily for the audience and not for me. When I think of the audience member's experience, it allows me to be less fixated on my own nervousness or a myopic concern for my work. I remind myself that stage fright is essentially selfish, and I can focus on connecting with the listener instead.

What are your reading don’ts?
I think of the idiom, "Never wear a hat that has more personality than you do." Never wear an outfit that will upstage you or shoes that might cause you to trip. With that said, I like to dress like I'm ready to be seen. My other big don't is: Don't exceed the time limit you've been given. Time your work and be respectful to organizers and audience.

How do you prepare for a reading?
If I'm performing poetry, I like to rehearse late at night or early in the morning before I even get out of bed. I envision myself on the stage, and I run through everything I will say, even my banter between poems. Then, I run my pieces again in the shower. If I'm reading prose, I like to read through the selection and consider the context the audience will need about the piece to appreciate it the most. I make bullet points to remember what I want to say to the audience, but I never read from a script when I'm speaking about the work or to the crowd.

What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why does it work?
My best crowd-pleaser works because it is imagistic, literal, and uplifting at the end. I wouldn't want this for all of my poems, and I do seek to challenge audience members with pieces that create discomfort, but I like to leave people feeling good. I think of Shakespeare playing to all levels of the house. I want some pieces that every listener—even those new to poetry or new to abstract work—can say, "I got it," after hearing.

What was it like to perform with the Seattle Rock Orchestra?
Performing with a rock orchestra is exactly as cool as it sounds. First, composer John Teske met with me and listened to my poem, then he created an original, experimental score, which included vocalizations as well as instrumental noise. For example, as my poem started, "Even the wet floor of the city bus...," musicians made slurping noises behind me. John's concept was out of the box and stretched the idea of what music and poetry can sound like together. It avoided the cliché of pretty words with some nice stringed instruments playing and took it to the place a rock orchestra should go.

Standing on stage surrounded by a group of musicians, all attuned to my performance, was like being the spider at the center of an artistically sensitive web. I got the feeling they were prepared to follow me wherever I was going to go.

Photo: Karen Finneyfrock. Credit: Inti St. Clair
Support for Readings/Workshops events 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.


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