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Readings & Workshops Blog

TC Tolbert often identifies as a trans and genderqueer feminist, collaborator, dancer, and poet but really s/he’s just a human in love with humans doing human things. The author of Gephyromania (Ahsahta Press 2014) and three chapbooks, Tolbert also coedited (with Trace Peterson) the anthology Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics (Nightboat Books 2013). His favorite thing in the world is Compositional Improvisation (which is another way of saying being alive).

The Courting Risk reading series annually presents the work of emerging writers working in multiple modes and art forms—from drama and music to visual art, film, and new media. The particular focus is on work that engages with difficult subject matter, writers who are LGBTIQ, women writers, and writers of color. The series has been proud to showcase many writers in the early stages of brilliant careers, and to present a lively, moving and engaging multi-genre performance for audiences.

Courting Risk Group SelfieDear reader,

My job was to describe the incredible time we had back in April at Casa Libre in Tucson, Arizona. Khadijah Queen was visiting—she had curated a Courting Risk reading and there were six of us sharing the bill. The evening was wonderful. It was well attended and it brought folks to Casa Libre we’d never met before. The readers read new work and experimented with old work. It brought people together in the midst of uncertainty. Fear and joy were shared. In other words, it did exactly what the best poetry events will do. 

I’m failing at my job already because I absolutely suck at narrative. Maybe that’s related to my trans-ness. The body did one thing; the voice did another. We keep changing. I trust it’s not the summary that matters. Let’s begin again. And again. I wrote an essay after that evening. I’d like to share it now. Enacting the principle of Courting Risk.

—TC Tolbert

"The sound of snow letting go/What are mountains"

I remember sitting at Bentley’s with my mom and my girlfriend. It was my mom’s first visit to Tucson. I hadn’t started testosterone yet, but I was wearing a compression shirt and consistently being referred to as “he.” I’m still a little bit suspicious when things are easy or good. I didn’t understand why she no longer seemed angry with me. When I say I want to be a nurse, what I really mean is that I want to live closer to mystery. I think (too much) about security but I don’t actually care about a career. The other day I woke up at 3:00 AM because a jackrabbit landed on me.

For a long time after rolling a friend over to discover that what was supposed to be her face had been replaced by a mess of blood and dirt and swollen skin, I asked every health care provider I could find if the human body is more fragile or more resilient than it seems. Last week, B took his shirt off in the snow and I couldn’t help staring at his little man-belly. A day later, an avalanche covered where we were standing, and we were all sunburnt. Lidia Yuknavitch says: The body is the ultimate container for the disparate. I didn’t know I could love J, K, or B because I thought I knew them already. The only moments that matter to me are when I realize I don’t actually know anything.

I’m a little freaked out about my climbing assessment tomorrow. But academia has felt so sad lately. Which is another way of saying wasteful. I keep buying apples and then eating the meals provided for us here on base. Psychotherapy taught me that I need people. But M says it’s not an “evidence-based practice.” I'm terrified of substituting efficiency for effectiveness. Every time I realize how accustomed I am to approximation, I can’t decide if that’s surrender or despair. Actually, I don’t have to climb anything. I just need to be able to identify good anchors. And I need to manage some risks while avoiding others. And I need to inspire at least a little bit of confidence. And I need to know how to rescue someone on a releasable rappel. TC Tolbert

My mom (hell, my entire family back in Tennessee) is religious. Pentecostal. I’ve spoken in tongues before. The tension over me coming out as queer and then trans had been there for years. She said she’d been praying for God to change me for as long as she could remember. Then she said: I found a new prayer. (All the doctors said the answer is “more resilient.”) She asked God to change her. As it turns out, no amount of insurance will actually keep you safe. I’ll buy it because I tend to follow directions but my only real comfort is this.

Photos (top: left-right): TC Tolbert, Kristen Nelson, Shelly Taylor, Bill Wetzel, Amy Lukau, Khadijah Queen. Photo credit: TC Tolbert; (bottom): TC Tolbert. Photo credit: Mamta Popat

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.

Joseph Langdon was born and raised in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He earned his BA in English from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). He has worked as a newspaper reporter, features writer, and columnist. During the 2010 election cycle, he served as a communications director and speechwriter on a U.S. Senate campaign. His work has appeared in the anthology Lost and Found in Las Vegas (Huntington Press, 2014) and the handmade zine the Salted Lash. He is currently the assistant director of the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute at UNLV and managing editor of Witness.

I was at work when I got a call from Bonnie Rose Marcus at Poets & Writers. This wasn’t really out of the ordinary; I work at a literary institute so I assumed it was an advertising call. It took me a moment to realize she was calling for Joseph Langdon, individual—nay, writer—not Joseph Langdon, office functionary. And she was calling to tell me that I—Joseph Langdon, writer—had won the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award. I was speechless. Because I had no idea what she was talking about. I don’t submit to anything. Not yet. Not ready. In fact, I’d just been insisting on that point to a friend who was prodding me to send out work. I wondered: Could they have submitted something on my behalf?

And then I noticed the date: April 1. Well, well. I didn’t know who this “Bonnie Rose Marcus” from “Poets & Writers” really was, but this was a bit beyond the pale for an April Fools’ Day joke—and I was just about to say so when it clicked. Of course! I suddenly remembered all about the prize. It was open to Nevada that year only, so I decided to suck it up and submit. Then I blocked it out of my mind. After all, I never figured I might win the thing.

As it turns out, Bonnie is indeed a real person, and a tremendous guide to New York and the publishing world. Each morning, I partook of the Library Hotel breakfast spread (and their glorious espresso machine), joined my compatriot and poet extraordinaire Rosemary Powers, and met Bonnie downstairs. Then I went into duckling mode—pattering after them all over Manhattan. I have some familiarity with New York, but most of the time I had no idea where I was. This is my preferred mode of travel—especially when the destinations are renowned publishing houses and storied agencies: Ecco/Harper Collins, the Wylie Agency, Sterling Lord Literistic. The literary grande dame Gloria Loomis welcomed us into her super awesome, super Manhattan home office. I wish I’d been shameless enough to take photos at every stop. Each office looked like it was in a competition for the most books per square inch. (Hard to call a winner, but Wylie gets bonus points for throwing a framed Andy Warhol wig into the mix.)

We ate at the Algonquin Hotel with folks from W.W. Norton and Riverhead Books. We met editors from incredible journals like Tin House and the Paris Review. We toured the lovely Poets House and looked out over the Hudson. I can’t name everyone we got to meet, but let me put it to you this way: We brunched with Jonathan Galassi. We are that cool. And we owe it all to everyone who was so generous with their time and attention, to Bonnie and the great folks at Poets & Writers, and to Maureen Egen, whom we joined for a fantastic meal.

The capstone was a reading at the beautiful McNally Jackson bookstore, where Rosemary and I had the honor of being introduced by the contest judges, Aracelis Girmay and Marie Myung-Ok Lee. The novelist Will Chancellor was cool enough to drop by as well, and give me valuable feedback on my work. (You should totally pick up Will’s A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall if you have an interest in any of the following: Homer, conceptual art, lit theory, water polo.)

It’s easy to have a cynical view of the New York publishing world: an image of literary imprints subsumed and assimilated by the Big Houses, of editors and agents co-opted by the need to move units. Instead, we met book lovers. Readers and writers who want nothing more than to find the next great book and to help bring it into being. It seems to be a warmer world than you might expect. I hope to find a little place in it. If I don’t, I’ll always have this amazing experience; if I do, I’ll owe a great deal to it.

Photos: (top) Joseph Langdon, (middle) Will Chancellor, Joseph Langdon, (bottom) Aracelis Girmay, Rosemary Powers, Mary Myung-Ok Lee, Joseph Langdon. Photo credit: Margarita Corporan.

This award is generously supported by Maureen Egen, a member of the Poets & Writers Board of Directors, and retired Deputy Chairman and Publisher of Hachette Book Group, USA.

Tamar Samuel-Siegel is the programs and outreach manager at the ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes in Corning, New York. She received her BA in Creative Writing from SUNY Purchase in 2004 and has since worked and studied abroad, developed and delivered storytelling and ESL programming as an AmeriCorps service member, and, in addition to other public arts programming, carried out two poetry collaborative projects in her current position. Both were funded, and therefore made possible, by Poets & Writers.

As though it were a regular potluck arranged among intimates—that is how we begin to think of this new series of poetry readings called POETS in PLAY. In our rural community where a poetry reading might bring participants from an hour down the road, a reading is not a reading alone but, as my friend and fellow poet Mary sweetly names it, a gathering, a place for community.

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, our second reader in the series, Bart White, arrives in town from Rochester, about two and a half hours from Corning. He brings his own camera. After Bart reads, he takes a first row seat for the inspired open mic that follows. A featured element of the series, the inspired open mic asks readers to respond to a prompt provided by the poet. As readers speak in some way to Bart's line, "I want it back, morning with miles to walk..." the room draws more closely around us.

We are, in fact, gathered: gathered by the images spoken to us by the featured poet, gathered by the resonance of his prompt line, gathered in sharing the ways in which experience and language marry in the unique cadences of our voices. But once the second portion of the evening closes, nearly every person in the room showing up to the mic a poet, Bart gathers us once more in a way that I have never seen a poet do at any other reading I have attended. He gathers us—familiars and strangers—for a family photo.

Each poetry reading—even those bound within a series—has its own timbre. Some poets tell stories, as Bart did, from a place of such emotional immediacy that the room builds a silence on which the emotion may ebb. Others present cerebral motifs, revealing the chaotic turning mechanics of their thoughts—a production that leads to the simplest of surprises—a familiar feeling, a reflection of such precise incisiveness it cauterizes as it cuts.

What excites me, however, about this particular series POETS in PLAY is that the inspired open mic asks both the featured poet and the audience to take a step closer to one another—not only to hear one another’s lines, but to meaningfully, to intentionally, interpret them as related.

Here we are: stepping in.

For more on POETS in PLAY, visit the website.

Photo: Group shot at Bart White reading. Photo credit: Beth Bentley.

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.

Poet Barbara March with her husband, Ray A. March, founded the Modoc Forum and Surprise Valley Writers’ Conference ten years ago. She holds a BA in English Literature. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Yemassee, Mudlark, Berkeley Poetry Review, Orion, Denver Quarterly, and other journals and publications. She is a member of the Northern California Book Reviewers and serves on the poetry judging committee for the Northern California Book Awards. March administers Poetry Out Loud in rural counties of northeastern California, publishes an annual student poetry publication, and is an advocate for student poetry in remote communities. She lives in Cedarville, California. 

Barbara MarchWhat makes your programs unique?
Each September writers come to the Surprise Valley Writers’ Conference for the clean air and open vistas, for the gold spires of poplar trees, the natural hot springs, the scent of sage on the evening air. The total population of Cedarville, the valley’s largest village, is five hundred. This is not hyperbole. There is no shopping and little Wi-Fi in this corner of northeastern California where the nearest stoplight is hours away.

The Surprise Valley Writers’ Conference strives to create an event unique in its intimacy, camaraderie, and intense focus on craft. Workshop leaders and students share hikes, dinners, and seats around the campfire. William O’Daly, preeminent translator of Pablo Neruda and frequent workshop leader says, “Bar none, the Surprise Valley Writers’ Conference can’t be beat for intimacy.”

What recent project and/or program have you been especially proud of and why?
One of the missions of the Modoc Forum, the nonprofit sponsor of the Surprise Valley Writers’ Conference, is to share the culture and geography of our corner of the West through literature, the arts, and education. This year’s conference featured field trips conducted by internationally-known geologist Eldridge Moores, who was featured in John McPhee’s seminal book Assembling California (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994). Moores and his wife, Judy, led writers on field trips to sites such as the natural sand stone formation “hoo-doos,” to volcanic “dikes,” to the site of a recent mud volcano. At each location Judy Moores shared her poetry with the group.

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted? 
One of our regular conference attendees is poet Sal Martinez, a member of the Pomo tribe. Sal comes from Manchester, California, where he is currently working to restore the native Pomo name to the Garcia River. At our final dinner this year, I asked Sal if he would lead the group in the native “Grass Game,” a traditional gambling game. He went outside the church hall, found sticks and carved them into game pieces, then told everyone to move their chairs into two lines facing each other. Sal demonstrated the game and writers, urban and rural, joined in. 

How has literary presenting informed your own writing and/or life?Grass Game
I owe the Surprise Valley Writers’ Conference a huge debt for introducing me to poets and writers who have encouraged me in poetry. Without their support I would not be publishing poems in national journals, including a series of poems about wild horses that were published last year in Mudlark, an electronic journal of poetry and poetics. My work in poetry continues on thanks to not only the workshop leaders who are now my friends and colleagues, but to the hundreds of poets and writers who’ve attended the Surprise Valley Writers’ Conference over the past ten years.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
Surprise Valley is isolated from the rest of the world, which we refer to as “down below.” The Surprise Valley Writers’ Conference and Modoc Forum have introduced our community to the greater world of literature and writers with activities, such as a photo exhibit inspired by John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, storytelling sessions, and by attending the conference at a “locals only” rate. In addition, the Surprise Valley Writers’ Conference, through the Modoc Forum, administers and sponsors Poetry Out Loud in Modoc County schools each year. A student poetry publication called Early Season comes out each April and there are student poetry slams. The value of literary programs in our community came home to me last spring when a sixth-grade boy, fresh from baseball practice, took the stage at the student poetry slam at the Niles Hotel, flipped open his phone and read William Blake’s “The Tyger.”

Photos: (top) Barbara March, (bottom) Playing the Grass Game at the 2015 Surprise Valley Writers' Conference. Photo credit: Ray A. March.

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

Jynne Dilling Martin’s poetry has appeared in Grantathe New York Review of Booksthe Believer, Slate, Ploughsharesthe Boston Review, and on the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, among other places. Her nonfiction has appeared in Glamour, Food & Wine, and the Antarctic Sun. She was a Yaddo fellow and the National Science Foundation’s 2013 Antarctica Writer in Residence. Martin lives in New York City and is the associate publisher of Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. She is the author of the poetry collection, We Mammals in Hospitable Times, published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in February 2015.

What do you do to get inspired? I read peculiar ephemera, old journals, and catalogues. The series on deaths in U.S. national parks is up next on my list!

What are your reading dos? I’m a big fan of readings that are short on reading and long on conversation. Anyone who has attended a David Mitchell reading knows already that the most delightful parts are the very long digressions, jokes, and personal revelations that he inserts at random while reading to you. It feels like you’re having a slumber party with a very dear friend. I aspire to that level of connection, surprise, and warmth.

…and your reading don’ts?  Don’t arrive drunk. Don’t arrive sober either. Don’t forget to bring your book, it’s not fun watching people awkwardly read off of their phone, and seems to happen more and more often. Don’t apologize. Don’t turn as bright red as I do. And don’t forget to thank everyone, like the Roerich Museum and Poets & Writers and your introducer by name, who offered this lovely opportunity.

What’s the most memorable thing that’s happened at an event you’ve been part of? I’m honored to have read jointly with Phil Klay at one of the first readings he ever gave, when his story “Redeployment” was in a 2011 issue of Granta, alongside one of my poems. He blew me, and all of BookCourt, out of the water. I feel lucky that I got to know his work so early, and it’s been a joy to watch him find such an enormous readership in the years since.

How does giving a reading inform your writing and vice versa? Writing is such a solitary act, so the few readings I do each year constitute the rare times I am forced out of my shell and into direct engagement with readers about my poems. It’s so meaningful to find that there is a thoughtful, receptive, interested readership for poetry out there.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community? To engage with literature is an enormously empathic act, the act of inhabiting the emotional landscape and values of another; and right now, it feels more urgent than ever to have our horizons broadened, and to better understand each other on this planet. I am so grateful for institutions like Poets & Writers that nurture and sustain a community of expression, connection, and literary community.

What you probably spent your R/W grant check on: A month of lattes from Hungry Ghost.

Photo: Jynne Dilling Martin. Photo Credit: Adrian Kinloch

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.

Kathy Wilson’s background includes many years in the theater both as an actor and teacher. She attended Marymount Manhattan College, earning a degree in Communication Arts, and has taught numerous writing courses at MMC for both Continuing Education and the Center for Learning and Living. Active in the P&W-supported writing workshop at the Goddard Riverside Community Center for over a decade, she published a chapbook, and has read many of her essays for the Poets & Writers annual Intergenerational Reading events held at Barnes and Noble in Union Square. The International Library of Poetry’s 2007 collection published one of her poems “Congito Ergo Sum: I Think Therefore I Am” and her memoir, Out of the Rabbit Hole, was published by Fulton Books in September 2015. Wilson has lived on the Upper West Side in New York City all of her adult life.

Writing had always been a dream put on the back burner. It wasn’t until I was downsized from my full-time job in 2001 that I was able to join the senior writing workshop, funded by Poets & Writers, at the Goddard Riverside Community Center. Finally, I could focus on writing, in what was a noncompetitive and supportive atmosphere. I could write openly with trust and develop my own voice.

The seed of my memoir began with a writing prompt, given in class by our talented and intuitive teacher Veronica Golos: “Write about your earliest secret.’’ I wrote about the guilt I remembered having at three years old when I threatened to drown my beloved toy bear “Poochie” because he would not speak to me. My mother told me he would, if I was a good girl. “Poochie,” was selected to be read at the workshop’s annual reading, after which it was submitted and chosen for the Poets & Writers’ Intergenerational anthology Where I’m From. I became aware that I had a real gift for storytelling and I had quite a story to tell.

Elena Alexander, an accomplished poet, became our second instructor at the Goddard Riverside Community Center. Her dedication and talent guided our group through publishing our own individual chapbooks. This generated even more motivation for me to continue writing my memoir, written from a child's point of view, about how she survives an environment of alcoholism and violence.

When my memoir, Out of the Rabbit Hole, was completed I wondered, now what? At my age I did not want to go the agent route with months or years of submitting to literary agents. I began researching various self-publishers with much hesitation, many were trying to “sell’’ their company, plus reviews from authors that used them were very mixed. Through Poets & Writers, I was recommended to Deborah Englander, experienced editor and writer, and contributor to the Savvy Self-Publisher, a column on self-publishing in Poets & Writers Magazine. Deborah was informative and very clear about what I should expect when choosing a publisher and helped me to firm up my commitment to self-publishing. Armed with her expert advice and through more research, I chose Fulton Books. A tremendous feeling of accomplishment surged through me when I held my book for the first time. As a senior, it no longer seems the winter of my life, but a new beginning, I am an author!

I am excited and take great pride in the positive response I have received about Out of the Rabbit Hole. One review states: “Beautifully written, poignant, sensitive, and with attention to detail, it evokes the sight, smells and sounds of the 1940s and 1950s.”

Currently, I am still a member of the Goddard Riverside writing workshop, where I continue to develop my writing skills, and where I have made many close friendships over the years. It is an inspiring and multitalented group.

Writing is no longer on the back burner. It’s time to start another book, in this newly acquired springtime of my life.

Photos: (Top) Kathy Wilson. Photo Credit: Christina Freudenthal, (Bottom) Goddard Riverside Writing Class. Photo Credit: Walter Grutchfield

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.

Nikia Chaney is a poet from the Inland Empire of Southern California and the author of two chapbooks, Sis Fuss (Orange Monkey Publishing, 2012) and ladies, please (Dancing Girl Press, 2013). She is founding editor of shufpoetry, an online journal for experimental poetry, and founding editor of Jamii Publishing, a publishing imprint dedicated to fostering community among poets and writers. Chaney has won grants from the Barbara Demings Fund for Women, Poets & Writers, and Cave Canem. She teaches at San Bernardino Valley College.

poetry pinwheels A short while ago I would not have used the title activist. I would have just said that I loved community service and most times don’t think of volunteering, but this past fall, Lisa Henry asked me to help her teach a community workshop about art and activism.

Lisa’s nonprofit organization, SALT (Soul, Art, Literature and Time) + SPICE (Socially Productive and Inspirational Community Events), offers classes, workshops, readings, and other cultural events to the public in the Inland Empire. My favorite SALT + SPICE workshop series included a panel and reading that focused on art and motherhood, a family community workshop that involved creating a ragdoll, and a workshop dedicated to Maya Angelou.

During all these events, the community was allowed to create, write, speak, give voice, and engage with the subject matter and the writing. I loved watching participants laugh and enjoy themselves. I’ve always thought of SALT + SPICE workshops as joyful gatherings. So when Lisa asked me to lead a workshop on activism, I was deeply honored, but initially reluctant.

Being a workshop leader is actually quite fun—every class is different, and what the participants bring in always amazes me. However, I was reluctant because I didn’t consider myself an activist, and never looked at my own volunteer activities as a form of social protest. I teach poetry classes to individuals with mental illnesses and I volunteer at at-risk youth after-school programs. How is this activism, I thought? Isn’t activism holding signs and marching for a cause? Isn’t activism big and loud and full of righteous protest? I took some time to consider Lisa’s request and did a little research. This quote was one of the first things I found:

"I see protest as a genuine means of encouraging someone to feel the inconsistencies, the horror of the lives we are living. Social protest is saying that we do not have to live this way. If we feel deeply, and we encourage ourselves and others to feel deeply, we will find the germ of our answers to bring about change. Because once we recognize what it is we are feeling, once we recognize we can feel deeply, love deeply, can feel joy, then we will demand that all parts of our lives produce that kind of joy. And when they do not, we will ask, 'Why don't they?' And it is the asking that will lead us inevitably toward change." —Audre Lorde

I think we forget about the quiet, powerful moments of protest. Writing is protest. Each day we push past the immediate judgements and stereotypical assumptions we make. We write and challenge each other in that writing to see us and everyone else for who we really are.

During the workshop, we explored Lorde’s ideas and questioned the nature of activism, diving into the “what” of what we individuals are doing to change the world, about how we won’t tolerate injustice. Everyone discovered they, too, were activists, fighting every day to make the world better. Lisa concluded the workshop by taking the participants on a field trip to downtown Riverside to the Center for Social Justice & Civil Liberties. Later, I created poetry pinwheels to honor the ideas.

It’s wonderful to teach others, help them write, and work with their poems, but sometimes you teach and learn more about yourself than you thought you would. I’m thankful to Lisa for accepting the title of activist and trusting me to give it to others in return.

Photo: poetry pinwheels     Credit: Nikia Chaney

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

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