Readings & Workshops Blog

Ama Codjoe's Introduction to Formalism

Social justice activist and Cave Canem fellow Ama Codjoe blogs about participating in a P&W–supported Cave Canem regional workshop with formalist poet Marilyn Nelson in 2009. 

In fall 2009, Poets & Writers supported a Cave Canem regional workshop with Marilyn Nelson. Nelson is a goddess of formal poetics. Before taking a workshop with Marilyn I had little experience with sonnets, sestinas, or ballads. Through a series of lessons on meter, rhyme, and phrasing, I learned the arithmetic of formalism.

Nelson asked us to pay particular attention to the construction of the poetic line. Through a sequence of assignments we experienced how careful and intentional construction could lead to a meaningful, surprising, and exciting composition. Formal verse provides the writer with added parameters. Nelson’s poetry exhibits how such constraints used skillfully can produce poems that are wild, challenging, liberating, and free. Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Hayden offer examples of how constraint or restraint can be used to describe terror, horror, beauty, and oppression. In these ways formal poetry holds paradox with nimble hands.

To conclude our time together Marilyn asked us to write one sonnet. About two years later, a childhood friend reminded me of a series of poems that we read when we were teenagers. “Don’t you remember?” she asked. “Who touches this poem touches a woman.” I did remember. The last line of Julia Alvarez’s last sonnet was a line that moved my teenage-becoming-a-woman self. Rereading those sonnets from Alvarez’s first book, Homecoming, was a kind of homecoming. I admired the way her sonnets sounded both casual and intimate. The themes she was obsessed with: relationships, God, marriage, and womanhood resonated with the preoccupations of my thirty-something mind and heart.

By experiencing the resonance of a poetic line as a teenager and returning to that line as an adult, I began a process of constructing, revising, and building a sonnet cycle of my own. I am grateful for Nelson’s instruction and for an introduction to formalism that continues to shape and propel my work.

Photo: Ama Codjoe. Credit: Amanda Morgan.


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.

Michelle Tea’s Queer Space with Homemade Cookies

Poet and writer Michelle Tea has been both a P&W–supported writer and presenter of literary events. Her many books include a poetry collection, novels, and memoirs. Tea's novel, Valencia, won the 2000 Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction. Tea founded the literary nonprofit RADAR Productions and co-founded the spoken word tour Sister Spit. We asked her a few questions about her experience as a writer and reading series curator.

What are your reading dos?
Be relaxed! Audiences are as interested in YOU as they are in your piece. Ad-libbing through the work (if the work allows for it) is generally charming; some of my favorite readers will break off the page and address the audience in a spontaneous, natural way.

What are your reading don’ts?
Don't take it so seriously. You are not delivering a testimony to Congress. Don't speak in POETRY VOICE. You know what I mean. There are writers whose work I enjoy on the page, but I can't listen to them read it because that inflection makes me leave my body.

How do you prepare for a reading?
I don't, unless you count neurotically changing my mind about what I'm reading and wearing "preparation." I call it mental illness. Not everything works best aloud. I try to not feel the audience too much because it’s easy to mistake silence for boredom, and then I get nervous and start acting desperate. I try to read as if everything I'm delivering is AMAZING.

What’s the strangest interaction you’ve had with an audience member?
Sometimes a person thinks that just because you are comfortable reading something sexual in the very specific and controlled environment of a reading, it means you are down for discussing sex with random strangers. And I actually enjoy that no more than the average person, which is to say, not much.

What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why does it work?
They all seem to revolve around shock. In Rose of No Man's Land, it's when a character throws her dirty tampon at a boy who is harassing her. In Valencia, it’s an unusual sex scene. In Rent Girl, it’s a very funny fake orgasm contest between two prostitutes—which allows me to caw like a bird whilst performing, so I like it, too.

What makes the RADAR Reading Series unique?
My reading series has been running for almost nine years. I mix up my readers—unpublished, published, well-known, emerging, and I bring in graphic novelists, video artists, and photographers. It's free. There’s a Q&A  segment, and I hand out homemade cookies to whoever asks questions. (There are always questions!)

It's queer like a queer bar—anyone can go in, but you know it’s a space that has prioritized queer people. As a queer person I spend tons of time in straight spaces where queers are welcome, but the spaces are straight, even though often they aren't designated as such because straight people aren't accustomed to thinking about space like queers are. RADAR uses that model—yes, of course everyone is welcome, but the space, the event, is queer.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
My immediate community is a queer community that still suffers from a lack of representation in all media, especially literary, even in San Francisco. The value of having a place you can go to see elements of your experience and community reflected back at you in a thoughtful, honest, artistic manner is HUGE. I was just passing through San Francisco when I came here in 1993, but the reason I stayed is that the work I do—writing, curating events, and promoting other writers—is so supported here. And it's supported in part by Poets & Writers, so thank you!

Photo: Michelle Tea. Credit: Food For Thought Books.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Ama Codjoe Teaching Artistry

Social justice activist and Cave Canem fellow Ama Codjoe blogs about her work as a teaching artist with the P&W-supported Girls Educational Mentoring Services (G.E.M.S.), a New York City based organization that aims to support young women who have been commercially sexually exploited and domestically trafficked.

I teach social justice and poetry through asking myself the same big questions I pose to students. As a teaching artist I am invested both in my life as a teacher and in my life as an artist. These two pieces of my identity inform one another. When I assign the group a poem to write, I often do the assignment myself. While G.E.M.S. participants were interrogating what it means to be woman, I was asking myself similar questions in my artistic practice.

The inspiration flows in both directions. Just as frequently as I find myself using my teaching practice to inform my artistic practice, I also bring strategies, poems, questions, and obsessions from my writing life back into the classroom. If I look back at periods when I have been teaching a particular group of students and then examine the poems that I wrote during that time I can often find traceable themes and continuities. For five weeks of teaching and five weeks of writing we seemed to return to these central questions: What do we invoke? What do we want? What do we dream?

To close our time together, young women who participated in the P&W-supported workshops read their poems at an art exhibit that also featured their visual art. Listening as their confidence, nervousness, clarity, and power filled the room, I was impressed by how these young women had turned to me, turned to each other, and turned to the page. The space where we write, discuss, reveal, and revel is a space of courage and power—is a political space. The work of self-reflection, writing, and creativity is worthy work, and as Audre Lorde insists, poetry is not a luxury. In other words the work of a poet is dangerous and life-changing work.

Photo: Ama Codjoe. Credit: Evelyn Bojorquez.

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.

Writing Workshops at the Marillac Family Shelter in Albany

Marea Gordett, owner of Big Mind Learning, an educational firm serving students in the Capital region of New York, and author of the poetry book, Freeze Tag, published by Wesleyan University Press, blogs about her P&W–supported writing workshops at the Marillac Family Shelter in Albany.

When I moved from Boston to Albany, New York, in the 1990s, I was bereft at losing the teaching connections I had found in a large metropolitan area. While I knew there were various programs in the area—the New York State Writers’ Institute was one—I didn’t feel a part of the literary community. A friend recommended I apply to the Readings/Workshops program at Poets & Writers for funding, and I’ve been thrilled ever since to find this network again through my work in community centers, libraries, and senior centers throughout Albany County and at the beautiful Arkell Museum and Canajoharie Library in Montgomery County.

In these workshops, I am not only aware of what I receive from and give to writers, but also how the group itself develops its own identity and offers its own gifts. When we create a space that allows us to freely write about joy, pain, and longing and encourages others to listen to these often long-withheld emotions—amazing changes can happen. Regardless of differences in age and experience, we all write from a deep, secret place. And then we share, which helps us feel a growing sense of peace and helps to diminish loneliness.

This was especially evident to me this winter when I conducted a workshop at the Marillac Family Shelter in Albany. Part of St. Catherine’s Center for Children, this emergency housing program for homeless families meets the initial need for shelter and assists families in empowerment and education. I found a warm welcome when I proposed a writing workshop for teens and mothers called “You Are Unlimited.” In this pilot program, held once a week for five weeks, a core of eight people and a constantly-changing extended group gathered in a well-maintained recreation/computer room and wrote, shared, and performed their poems and life stories. As I entered the room every Thursday, mothers with babies and young children would clear the space and shut the door. The dedicated teens, with their mothers usually sitting on couches a few feet away, would be hushed and ready to write, even after a full day of school.

Participants wrote long Delight Chants in response to Nikki Giovanni’s poem, “Ego Tripping,” and celebratory litanies after hearing Nazim Hikmet’s poem, “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved.” After overcoming their initial resistance and with support from staff members, the writers eagerly embraced the free-form poems and wrote lines such as the following:

My real name is J.H.
I want it to mean beautiful. I am a tornado.
I am a spinner. I am a very big swirl.

The enthusiastic staff members wrote with the students and mothers, gently encouraging them. When one of the mothers shared her work, the others followed, and eventually everyone lined up to have his or her work videotaped, accompanied by the applause and shouts of an appreciative audience. When one staff member read her words, everyone nodded in agreement:

I didn’t know I loved the table
until I missed the love that surrounded it.
I didn’t know I loved rice
until we had to do without it.
I didn’t know I loved the tides
until they washed away my impatience.

This spirit of warmth and camaraderie vanquished pessimism and sadness, if only for an afternoon. I’m tremendously grateful to the support of Poets & Writers for letting my teaching come to life again, and helping me bring to various corners of my region workshops that help restore trust. Especially during this time of resignation, Poets & Writers gives solace and hope.

Photo: Workshop participant. Credit: Marea Gordett

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

Ama Codjoe: In the Life

For the month of May, social justice activist and Pushcart-nominated poet Ama Codjoe blogs about the P&W–supported workshop series she facilitates at Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (G.E.M.S.), an organization that provides opportunites for girls and young women who have been sexually exploited, and about participating in a P&Wsupported Cave Canem regional workshop in 2009.

G.E.M.S. is a New York City based organization whose mission is to support young women from the ages of 12–24 who have been commercially sexually exploited and domestically trafficked. Young women who receive support from G.E.M.S. often describe themselves as being “in the life."

For five weeks in the fall of 2011, young women from G.E.M.S. showed up to write in community. We gathered around a table, asking unanswerable questions and drafting poems that were received with admiration, thoughtful critique, and applause. In my work as an educator, a student has never failed me. When it comes to poetry and writing, young people always have something to share—it is my job to provide a way for students to enter into a poem.

One entryway, Candy Chang's public art project “Before I Die,” urged us to develop lists of what we wanted to do or say before we died. We took our lists and turned them into poems that confided in our mothers, spoke to our children, cursed out good-for-nothings, and professed genuine love. We always filled the page. There was never enough time to write.

Through carefully crafted poems, young women from G.E.M.S. revised the phrase “in the life” to mean “in the life of our poetry,” “in the life of our innermost world,” and “in the life of our power.”

Photo: Ama Codjoe. Credit: Matthew Goldberg.


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.

Big State, Small Presses: the Houston Indie Book Festival

Gulf Coast literary journal recently presented three P&W–sponsored writers, Laurie Clements Lambeth, Justin Sirois, and Andrew Porter, at the Houston Indie Book Festival. Festival co-organizer Ryan Call describes the event.

In April, an assortment of writers and readers gathered on the lawn of The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, to participate in the third annual Houston Indie Book Festival. The festival features a variety of exhibitors, from nationally distributed literary journals to small presses, as well as local booksellers, literary organizations, and writers. In addition to hosting exhibitors, the festival also had a children’s area, a couple publishing panels, and several Readings/Workshops–sponsored writers who read for the audience throughout the day.

As one of the festival co-organizers, I had the opportunity to invite a few authors to visit the festival, and I tried to present authors who seemed to support the mission of the festival: to celebrate small press literature.

This year we had Laurie Clements Lambeth, Justin Sirois, and Andrew Porter read, and I was so pleased with both their readings and the audience attendance. Lambeth, a Houston-area poet, read from her poetry collection Veil and Burn and also from a batch of new poems from her next collection, titled Bright Pane. Justin Sirois, who traveled all the way to Houston from Baltimore as part of his latest book tour, read from his new novel, Falcons on the Floor, a book about the Iraq war. And Andrew Porter ended the day’s readings with a preview of his forthcoming novel—which is set in Houston—as well as a short Q&A about his writing and publishing.

All of these authors in some way, I believe, contribute to the idea that small press publishing, reading, and writing can and do thrive when given the chance, when a community of readers is present, and when organizations such as Poets & Writers, Inprint, and The Menil Collection collaborate to support such writers and their efforts.

Photo: Festival-goers watch Andrew Porter read. Credit: Ryan Call.

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.

Bob Flor Plans Readings

Robert Francis Flor, co-founder and director of the P&W–supported Pinoy Words Expressed Kultura Arts, blogs about  planning readings.

Pinoy Words Expressed Kultura Arts (PWEKA) is in the process of planning readings for the rest of year. Curating a reading requires a lot. First, we identify writers—checking their availability and contract requirements. Then we coordinate with co-sponsors, like P&W, for support— obtaining funds, securing volunteers, producing promotional materials, confirming the location, etc. Finally, we create and implement an administration and evaluation strategy.

So far, we’ve come up with three events we’d like to host in the late summer or early fall. The first would be a Filipino/Latino young adult reading and workshop. We have approached Los Nortenos, a Latino literary organization based in Seattle, about the idea, and ideally we would work with both public and private school educators and community groups to provide comparisons of cultures that were influenced by the Spanish. Los Nortenos has been very receptive, and we are currently in the process of finalizing the details.

PWEKA has recently became aware of Hedgebrook, a writers retreat for women on Whidbey Island. We would love to co-host a reading with them highlighting local Filipina writers. Both Marivi Soliven Blanco, author of The Hunt for the Hippocampus and Philippine Fright: 13 Scary Stories, and Lolan Buhain Sevilla, author of Walang Hiya, will be attending Hedgebrook this summer. Both expressed an interest in giving a reading! PWEKA is considering featuring Marivi and Lolan with Maritess Zurbano, author of the memoir Rites of Enchantment, and young adult novelist Lisa Castillano, author of Balancing Light and Tilted.

Finally, I would love to have a stage reading with the Filipino American Young Turks of a play I completed at ACT Theatre last November. This might be the most cumbersome as PWEKA will have to identify locations, cast actors, and produce publicity materials, etc. Such is the work of planning readings.

Photo: Robert Francis Flor.

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.

Marea Gordett blogs about workshop in Albany County

Marea Gordett, owner of Big Mind Learning, an educational firm serving students in the Capital region of New York, and author of the poetry book, Freeze Tag, issued by Wesleyan University Press, blogs about her P&W supported writing workshops at the Marillac Family Shelter in Albany.

When I moved from Boston to Albany,New York in the 1990’s, I was awake to the possibilities of a literary community provided by the New York State Writers’ Institute, but rather bereft at losing the teaching connections that I had in a large metropolitan area. Since a friend recommended that I apply to the Readings/Workshops Program at Poets & Writers for funding, I have been thrilled to find this network again in community centers, libraries, and senior centers throughout Albany County and at the beautiful Arkell Museum and Canajoharie Library in Montgomery County.

In these workshops, I am aware not only of what I receive from and give to the writers, but also of a third entity that the group itself becomes— a cacophonous, generous, uplifted community. When there is a space for freely writing about one’s joy, pain and longing, and others willing to listen to these long-withheld emotions-- amazing changes can happen. No matter what the age of the participants, we write from a deep, secret place and then we share, sometimes reluctantly, but always from a growing peace and diminishing loneliness.

This was especially evident to me this winter when I conducted a workshop at the Marillac Family Shelter in Albany. Part of St. Catherine’s Center for Children, this emergency housing program for homeless families meets the initial need for shelter and assists families in empowerment and education. I found a warm welcome when I proposed a writing workshop for teens and mothers called “You are Unlimited.” In this pilot program, held once a week for five weeks, a core of eight people and a constantly-changing extended group gathered in a well-maintained recreation/computer room and wrote, shared, and performed their poems and life stories. As I entered the room every Thursday, mothers with babies and young children would clear the space and shut the door. The dedicated teens, with their mothers usually sitting in couches a few feet away, would sit hushed and ready to write, even after a full day of school.

Participants wrote long Delight Chants in response to Nikki Giovanni’s poem, Ego Tripping, and celebratory litanies after hearing Nazim Hikmet’s poem, Things I Didn’t Know I Loved. After overcoming their initial resistance and with support from staff members, the writers eagerly embraced the free-form poems and wrote lines such as the following:

My real name is J.H.

I want it to mean beautiful. I am a tornado.

I am a spinner. I am a very big swirl.

The enthusiastic staff members wrote with the students and mothers, gently encouraging them. When one of the mothers shared her work, the others jumped in, and eventually everyone lined up to have their work videotaped, accompanied by the applause and shouts of an appreciative audience. When one staff member read her words, everyone nodded in agreement: “I didn’t know I loved the table/until I missed the love that surrounded it./I didn’t know I loved rice/until we had to do without it./I didn’t know I loved the tides/until they washed away my impatience.

This spirit of warmth and camaraderie vanquished pessimism and sadness, if only for an afternoon. I’m tremendously grateful to the support of Poets & Writers for letting my teaching come to life again, and helping me bring to various corners of my region workshops that help restore trust. Especially during this time of resignation and contraction, Poets & Writers gives solace and hope.

Photo:          Credit:

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

Bob Flor Connects With Writers

P&W–supported poet and playwright Robert Francis Flor, graduate of the the Artist Trust EDGE Writers Development Program and former board member of ArtsWest Theater, blogs about making connections with other writers.

My favorite part of a reading is the Q&A. At a reading I recently attended, a young man raised his hand and posed a question to Rick Barot, one of the poetry panelists. He asked what a career as a poet was like, as he was interested in pursuing the writing life. Rick is a highly respected poet and has authored two collections, The Darker Fall and Want. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow and a teacher at both Warren Wilson College and Pacific Lutheran University, I knew Rick's answer would be meaningful. As it turned out, he had so much to share he conversed with this young man after the program.

This month, Voices of the Asian American Experience from the University of Santa Cruz included twelve poems about my Alaska cannery experiences, and The Thymos Book Project out of Portland, Oregon, will include three of my poems. In addition, Pinoy Heroes, a vignette about my father and uncles, will soon be published. On April 18, I read the vignette for first time at Seattle University. I hope that if I am asked about writing careers, I’ll be able to offer the same level of sage advice to students as Rick.

Advances in technology makes it easier than ever to make connections with other writers. Through these bridges, I hope to help foster a new generation of poets and writers... something I’ve always thought was incredibly important.

Photo: Robert Francis Flor.

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.

Lifting Spirits: Jean Grau’s Work With Seniors

Jean Grau, author of the poetry collection Riverbend, is a storyteller in poetry and prose. A native of New Orleans, P&W has co-sponsored her readings at local nursing homes and public libraries since 2008. We asked her a few questions about her work with seniors.

Why have you chosen to work with seniors?
My parents respected life in all its stages. I do, too. Seniors are special to me because of their experience, strength, and courage.

What are your reading dos and don’ts?
Wear bright, happy clothes. Make sure those with hearing problems are in the front. Move. Enjoy the poetry, along with the audience. Never forget readings are command performances for very special people. I avoid depressing subjects, except for the adventurous group at The Shepherd Center, whose motto is: "Bring it on. We can handle it."

How do you and your audience benefit from the live reading experience?
I benefit by feeling useful and helpful. They receive mental and emotional stimulation. Even the very sick enjoy the rhythm and soothing properties of poetry.

What are some of the most memorable moments in your work with seniors?
My second book is based on exhibits traveling to the New Orleans Museum of Art, including one that featured Fabergé eggs. On a beautiful spring day at the nursing home St. Anna's Residence, a small group had assembled in the front yard to hear me read these poems. As the activity director began to pass around foot-high color photos of the Fabergé eggs, loud “oohs” and “ahs” began. Attendants who had chosen not to attend the reading came running out, pushing their charges. There was such a commotion. Some workmen "discovered" they had to walk slowly by.

At another event, there was a paralyzed gentleman in intensive care. His head was in a brace, but his eyes were bright and alert as he listened intently. At the end of my presentation, he said in a clear, gallant voice: "Thank you for a great, an animated, flawless performance." He made me feel as though I were on the stage at Lincoln Center taking my bows.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
Everyone needs beauty. So many people tell me that in grade school they enjoyed poetry, but in high school they stopped. Readings reintroduce people to the intellectual stimulation, the emotional comfort, and the rhythm and music of poetry.

Photo: Jean Grau. Credit: Patricia Senentz.

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. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

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