Readings & Workshops Blog

San Diego City College International Book Fair

The San Diego City College International Book Fair, which took place in San Diego, California, October 3 to 8, featured P&W-supported writers Cris Mazza, Wanda Coleman, Austin Straus, Christopher Buckley, and Laurel Corona.

Maybe it’s because she grew up in a family of “hunters and gatherers” in the wilder parts of San Diego County that fiction writer Cris Mazza espouses a “stone soup” approach to writing. In other words, she welcomes the happy accidents that find their way into her work and is amused by the prospect of literary critics mining her pages for symbolism.

Mazza, reading from her novel Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, was one of more than fifteen writers to present their work at the sixth annual San Diego City College International Book Fair, which took place on the community college campus. Though small compared to mega-festivals like the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the City Book Fair earns the title of “International” by emphasizing writing from the U.S./Mexico border. City Works Press, a local collective based at San Diego City College (SDCC), recently published Wounded Border/Frontera Herida: Readings on the Tijuana /San Diego Region and Beyond.

Social justice is a common theme in the work of City Book Fair writers. Mazza’s latest novel chronicles the risks taken by trafficked sex workers who serve migrant farm workers in the fields. Mazza said she hoped to bring awareness to the problem. “I usually write something when I’m troubled [by an issue], not inspired,” she said. “But maybe they’re kind of the same thing.”

However, she admitted that she didn’t have any illusions about the power of fiction to stop what government and law enforcement haven’t been able to.

Later in the afternoon on October 8 (the main day of the festival), poet Wanda Coleman alluded to the Occupy San Diego protests happening downtown. Her dynamic voice and musical riffs rang through the auditorium as she bellowed, “It’s way too late—we should have protested the Civil War.”

Other readers and panelists included poet Austin Straus, novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and poet and nonfiction writer Luis Rodriguez, who drew a large crowd that included many young Latino SDCC students. Outside the auditorium, visitors browsed at booths operated by small presses and independent bookstores. A few blocks away, a crowd of protesters—accompanied by a handful of babies and dogs—held up signs saying “End War, Feed the Poor” and “Trickle down?! It NEVER RAINS in Southern California!”

Photos: (Top) P&W staff member Jamie FitzGerald (in hat) with bookfair attendees. Credit: Cheryl Klein; (bottom) Austin Straus. Credit: Cheryl Klein.

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

M. L. Liebler: Fall in Detroit

Longtime P&W-supported sponsor and writer M. L. Liebler, author of fourteen books of poetry including The Moon A Box, which received the 2005 Patterson Poetry Award of Excellence, blogs about the kickoff celebration for the second annual Detroit Michigan Writers' Retreat in downtown Detroit.

Summer in Detroit is over... the season is turning from hot and humid into fresh apple fall. There isn’t any frost on pumpkins yet, but it won’t be long before the first snowflakes fall.

Though temperatures may be dropping, Detroit's literary scene is just warming up. On September 16, Detroit kicked off another full season of literary activities with our annual Detroit Michigan Writers' Retreat in downtown Detroit. A good number of folks packed the small theater at the College for Creative Studies to listen to a diverse group of writers.

This year's readings started with the urban narrative poetry of Rutgers's Tara Betts. Tara was followed by A. Van Jordan, the current writer-in-residence at the University of Michigan, who delivered a spirited reading that combined quantum physics and comic book heroes. Poet Denise Duhamel whooed the audience with her hilarious poems that explored Barbie, sex, and other contemporary and uniquely American topics.

Readers were treated to a little fiction from Ohio novelist Robert Olmstead, as he read from his bestselling novel Coal Black Horse. Robert left the audience wanting more (and sold quite a few copies of the book!). Roger Bonair-Agard kicked it up a notch with a performance-based reading. He read poems featuring interesting moments from his childhood in Trinidad, one of which was a wonderful poem about how his aunt took him to the barber against his mother’s wishes.

Photo: M. L. Liebler.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Detroit, is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Michael Oliver: Poetry From Trinidad to D.C.

Poet, playwright, theater artist, and educator Michael Oliver blogs about his P&W-supported writing workshops at CentroNia and Pigment Art Studio in Washington, D.C.

My poetry writing workshops at CentroNia and Pigment Art Studio have been among the most eclectic workshops I have ever engaged in, as a participant or as a leader. The mostly older adult group has ranged from the experienced poet with several books published to the poetry enthusiast who joined the workshop as a way to nurture his or her appreciation for the art. Many have joined for the long haul, coming back with new work each time; some have visited with a friend, shared work, and moved on.  Most come from neighborhoods close to CentroNia, some from the suburbs of D.C.; some from rural areas, attending because they were in town for the weekend and decided to check it out.

For some, like Janet Martin from Trinidad, poetry has long been a lifeline. Poetry sustains her through tragedy and anchors her as she embraces those struggling around her. In her poem, "Ju Ju Girl, Island Gal," she speaks of solace wrought from her island self:

ju ju gal dancin' on I soul
spirit steppin' a jewel to behold
transformin' I back to me tru self

For D.C.-native Diane Gardner as well, poetry brings comfort through the bittersweet joy of memory. Her poem "Mother Lee" pays loving tribute to her late mother, Alice Lee:

I long for the old time step and glad return;
I lived your last breath like a fish out of water
You slipped away on my birthday like a petal on a cool breeze.
Mama—
I long for the old time step and glad return.
Alice's baby girl.

Whatever the background or level of craft of participants, the workshops have been encouraging and instructive, as my approach to writing with others in a poetic learning environment has always been to harnass the power of collective wisdom. I like having each participant share his or her perceptions of a poem, avoiding judgment as much as possible. I try, to the best of my ability, to bring collective wisdom to some kind of resolution or summary, steering the writer to another poet or to an overall perception, without forcing an issue.

These workshops continue to provide a safe and nurturing space for the evolution of new poetic voices and the honoring of life stories, extraordinary in their depth and resilience. The art of the poem unites us, keeps folks coming back, month after month. We look forward to our gatherings. 

Photo: Michael Oliver. Credit: Franciso Rosario.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Washington D.C. 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.

            

      

M. L. Liebler at St. Clair Shores Library

Longtime P&W-supported sponsor and writer M. L. Liebler, author of fourteen books of poetry including The Moon A Box, which received the 2005 Patterson Poetry Award of Excellence, blogs about his monthly workshop at St. Clair Shores Library in St. Clair Shores, Michigan.

They all gathered, once again, as they have on the third Wednesday of the month for the past twenty-one years. Students, mothers, senior citizens, retired politicians, teachers, librarians, real estate agents, retired cops, and the occasional visitor who heard about us and wanted to “check us out.” Last night’s visitor was a fellow named Skippy, a retired Navy man from Connecticut who was so impressed with the quality of the work he heard and read that he politely asked if he could publish some of it in his church paper back home.

I love these folks. I have met monthly with them as a small way of giving back to the community where I was raised and still proudly live. In fact, I live in the same house that my wife grew up in, and where I walked to every night while dating her when we were fifteen-year-olds.

Last night we heard and workshopped wonderful poems by the former County Commissioner who lamented the destruction of the ecology of America by contrasting it with the beauty of Spain’s wide-open spaces and well-kept urban areas. After this piece, a widow read her satirical poem about a suburban man who lives his life in a rush and doesn’t realize the beauty around him.

Another cool, outside the box, poem was a wonderfully rich work entitled "The Ascetic Life" by a retired librarian who explored the contemplative life of a “Holy Fool.” A young teenager read a poem that was written to get “something off [her] chest.” It was a poem about how her younger sister has continually belittled her and put her down her entire life. The poem was her empowering response that she “wasn’t going to take it anymore.” The poem received cheers from the seniors and an “I know exactly what you mean” acknowledgement from another teen in attendance.

The evening concluded with another moving poem from one of our newer regulars, an eight-six-year-old widower who never wrote a poem in his life until he joined our group. He wrote about frequently waking up thinking there were “a lot of people in [his] house,” only to realize that he was alone.

To quote Walt Whitman, “Have you ever felt so good to get at the heart of poem?” These people, young and old, are doing just that, and the great majority of them have never written a poem in their lives until now. I am grateful and honored to spend time with this diverse and welcoming group of poets. For me, this is where the real poetry in America lives!

Photos: (Top) M. L. Liebler. (Bottom) M. L. Liebler with workshop participants. Credit: Pamela Liebler.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Detroit, 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.

Caroline Brown's Unconventional Journey

Instructor of applied theater at Cornish College of the Arts, Caroline Brown has facilitated workshops for diverse groups, including veterans, AIDS widows in Kenya, and incarcerated women, as well as P&W-supported writing/performance workshops with BABES Network-YWCA and Compass Housing Alliance in Seattle, Washington. Caroline shared some reflections on her work with us.

What makes your writing workshops unique?
For the most part, my focus has been on the use of theater and performance as a means of helping marginalized communities share their stories with a wider audience. Writing has inevitably been an integral part of this process.

What techniques do you employ to help writers open up?
I conducted a five-week writing workshop with Seattle-based BABES Network-YWCA, an organization that supports women living with HIV/AIDS. I asked the women to help me create group guidelines for the duration of the process. One woman shouted “spelling doesn’t count!” I was so pleased to hear her say this, as I know were the rest of the women. This simple guideline gave the women permission to avoid self-editing, trust their instincts, and find their voices.

I offer exercises that reveal commonality and reduce feelings of isolation amongst the group. I do this by asking participants to create collective poems or short stories that reflect both the diversity and similarities of the group. While conducting the workshop with Compass Housing Alliance, an organization that provides services and housing to homeless and low-income people, we created a composite character that reflected each individual’s respective experience. The group chose a key turning point for the character and took turns answering questions as that character. They were able to collectively narrate the story of how he met his goals. I feel strongly that the participants would not have been as engaged had the same subject matter been discussed outside the context of a fictional story.

What are the benefits of writing workshops for underserved groups?
The work can be tiring and there are times when I yearn for a more conventional career. It is during moments of doubt that I remind myself of experiences such as the one I had working with incarcerated women in the Rhode Island state prison system. Upon completing a writing exercise one of the women asked me through tears if “we did these exercises on the outside.” She was being released from prison the next day and was scared of “going back to her old ways.” The workshops helped her to recognize herself as a good person, something she had never felt before. Her fear was that without such an outlet, she might forget this feeling and start making unhealthy decisions again. What stopped me in my tracks was the fact that such workshops are not so readily available to those who need them the most.
 
What effect has this work had on your life and/or your art?
I am inspired by the risks individuals take within the creative process and the freedom they gain from doing so. My greatest challenge in this work is to remember how important that journey is to everyone, including myself. After seven years of encouraging others to endure the challenges that come with the creative journey, it is important to remind myself to embark on the same. I owe it to myself as well as to those who have shown so much courage in the face of their own hesitations toward the creative process.
 
Photo: Caroline Brown. Credit: Sven McNichols.

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.

M. L. Liebler's Motown Shakedown

For the month of October, longtime P&W-supported writer M. L. Liebler, author of fourteen books of poetry including The Moon A Box, which received the 2005 Patterson Poetry Award of Excellence, blogs about the literary arts scene in Detroit, Michigan.

It’s Alive!!! From the early days of Robert Hayden in Paradise Valley to the new slam poets at the annual urban street festival, Dally in the Alley, being a writer in Detroit has always been a struggle. Motown writers have survived it all with the generosity of organizations like Poets & Writers (P&W). Since the early 1990s, P&W has helped our city’s literary arts scene sustain diverse programming through near-crippling recessions, anti-arts funding governors, Tea Party naysayers, unemployment, and the general hard times of the auto industry.

The Detroit poetry scene started to gain recognition among nontraditional audiences in 1987. Shortly thereafter, P&W expanded to the city to further stimulate the funding culture and help local arts organizations such as the National Writer’s Voice Project, Terry Blackhawk’s school-aged InsideOut Literary Arts Project, John D. Lamb’s Springfed Arts, and the Detroit Public Library leverage dollars for more literary programming. The support allowed Detroit’s struggling literary arts organizations, libraries, colleges, churches, and small reading series at galleries and coffeehouses to host writers with dignity by allowing venues to offer writers monetary compensation.

Some of Detroit’s unique literary programs that I have been fortunate to direct and host over the years include the annual Lit Fest-on-the-Lawn at the Detroit Festival for the Arts, readings at the Detroit Opera House, The Scarab Club Downtown/Uptown Series, the monthly Detroit Tonight Live at the Music Hall, and the now legendary Annual Labor Poets Program. Our 2010 P&W-supported Annual Labor Poetry Program brought together suburbanites, urban residents, high-school and college students, professors, and union members. This has become the typical audience demographics in Detroit for the last several decades.

Writers from around the country who visit Detroit for readings, workshops, or signings quickly become aware of Detroit's supportive and dynamic literary scene. I have heard writers say they want to “move here to write and work.” In fact, some have: John Berryman, W. D. Snodgrass, Eugene Redmond—heck even Joni Mitchell lived and wrote some of her classic songs on Wayne State University’s campus in the mid-1960s.

In the poetry and lit biz, Detroit is where it’s at. From the Wayne State University Press’s long-running Made in Michigan Book Series to the local open mic down the street, Detroit is a literary arts oasis in these trying times. We are, indeed, Alive!!! Come see about us.

Photo: M. L. Liebler.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Detroit, 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.

Patricia Roth Schwartz Isn't Afraid of Doing it Wrong

Writer Patricia Roth Schwartz blogs about facilitating a memoir writing workshop series in historic Seneca Falls, New York.

It’s a beautiful spring day in historic Seneca Falls. We meet in the town Recreation Center, a low brick building on the canal, which connects to the Erie, where lazy houseboats drift by on the gentle green waters dotted with ducks and waterfowl. The room we have has one enormous windowed wall. Four participants, two middle-aged and two seniors, regulars at most of the literary programs held locally, have gathered.

We plunge into our topic: "Telling the Stories of our Lives: Writing the Personal Memoir." After some discussion, we start an exercise. Following the guided visualization, everyone is asked to write from a childhood memory. As we’re beginning, a woman and her twelve-year-old daughter join us, apologizing for their lateness. I initiate introductions, settle the latecomers into chairs, bring them briefly up to speed, then encourage them both to start writing. The mother goes ahead, but the girl just sits, looking scared and confused. We’d advertised the workshop to all ages, but she's the only youngster. Her mother said she loves to write, but right now I know exactly how she’s feeling, afraid of embarrassing herself, of doing it "wrong."

My background as a psychotherapist jumps into play. "I'll help you," I say, and hunker down beside her. "Who were you thinking of?" "My granddad," she whispers. "Okay—great. Can you write him a letter, telling him what you remember?" She thinks about it. "Yes!" Her pen leaps to the page. "Good—good—keep going," I say. "Put in a lot of details, like you were looking at it in a movie."

Before we knew it, everyone, including the girl, has completed a piece. One by one the writers read aloud. When it's her turn, the girl is pleased with and excited by her letter. She shares it willingly, how her granddad would hoist her up on his shoulders when she was really little and carry her around. The group loves it and tells her as much.

"Okay," I finish. "Now when you go home, write it up really nicely and mail it to him!" The young girl beams.

Photo: Patricia Roth Schwartz. Credit: Sandy Zohari.

Support for the Reading/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.

Patricia Roth Schwartz Tours Seneca County

Longtime P&W-supported writer Patricia Roth Schwartz blogs about the literary happenings across Seneca County, New York.

What can you say of a region that boasts scenic views rivaling those of England's Lake Country? Where grapevines laden with fruit slope down to lakeshores in late summer? Where over one hundred wineries offer tastings, lakeside cafés? Eleven lakes offer angling, paddling, and sailing. Mennonites’ horses and buggies traverse country roads creating a landscape that seems over a century old.

It's a poet’s world. Making connections with other poets and writers, though, isn't easy. Without the kinds of venues more urban areas can sustain, this loose collection of hamlets, villages, townships, and two small cities, Auburn and Geneva, has had no central clearinghouse for writers.

Still, we're out here. Some at local colleges, some transplanted, educated and polished, others untutored having written secretly for years. We are seniors eager to write memoir, teens braving an open mic, mothers with toddlers and manuscripts in tow, retirees finally finding time to write.

The number of literary events, and venues for them, has grown in recent years. Public libraries offer most of the literary programming: readings by published authors, writing workshops, poetry readings. An evening at Seneca Falls Public Library on April 1st, with featured readers and an open mic, was particularly successful. The Seneca County Arts Council which maintains a small space in Seneca Falls full of vibrant artwork, has also hosted literary-based workshops.

Mary Genter, aka "Marabee, your hometown muse," has started a reading series at Riverbend Café in Auburn. Charlotte Dickens of Watkins Glen has curated a P&W-supported reading series, now held in Montour Falls near the southern tip of Seneca Lake, for twenty years. I've begun an open mic series at ZuZu Café in Seneca Falls. Writer/ publisher Steve Tills sponsors events at Buffalo Bill's Family Restaurant and Tap Room in Shortsville; John Cieslinski of Macedon, uses his charming bookstore, Books, Etc., for readings and author appearances. Fatzinger Hall above Waterloo Library, a Victorian lecture hall where Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglas both appeared, hosts a reading series.

We learn about what’s happening through e-mails, fliers, news articles, and word of mouth. As a sense of community begins to gel, Tills and I have formed a grassroots organization, the Literary Guild of the Finger Lakes, hoping to bring all of this together. Our inaugural P&W-supported reading, "An Evening of Poetry," at Fatzinger Hall, was attended by poets from Auburn, Geneva, and Rochester.

Should you travel here, look for me lakeside, sipping wine and writing poems.

Photo: Patricia Roth Schwartz. Credit: Sandy Zohari.

Support for the Reading/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.

John Murillo's Voice Exercises

P&W has supported poet John Murillo’s readings and workshops with organizations such as Page Meets Stage, the Gwendolyn Brooks Center, and Insight Arts. His first poetry collection, Up Jump the Boogie (Cypher 2010), was a finalist for the 2011 Kate Tufts Discovery Award and runner up for the PEN Open Book Award. This fall he joined the University of Miami as visiting assistant professor of creative writing. Murillo generously shared some of his experience as a writer with us.

What are your reading dos?
Always be considerate of your co-features and adhere to schedule. It's never a good look to read so long that other readers have to decide, on the fly, which of their poems to cut from their set.

… and your reading don’ts?
Don't ignore your audience. Sounds like a no-brainer, but I've suffered through too many readings where poets simply read poem after poem without any interaction with the crowd. Hearing poems read aloud and reading from the printed page are different experiences—each offering something you can't get from the other—and should be treated as such. Introduce poems, tell a joke or two. Let the people get to know you a bit, spend some time. If we (the audience) wanted only the words printed on the page, we could read to ourselves at home... for free.

How do you prepare for a reading?
The first thing I need to know is how much time I have. Then, I plan my set—not just timing the poems themselves, but allowing time for interaction—to fit within those parameters. I'll spend time with the poems I've chosen, reading them aloud, listening for the music or lack therein. I imagine how certain poems may land with certain listeners—emotionally, sonically, etc.—and try to create an arc that provides them with an experience worth leaving the house for. I sometimes do breathing and voice exercises too, to keep my “chops” up.

What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why does it work?
In the past, I've read poems I myself didn't care for too much, simply because of the way I knew audiences would react. I'd get a laugh or two, maybe some applause, but nothing like a real connection. I've realized over the years that people just want to hear good poems. Typically, the same poems that “work” on the page also read well live. No matter the venue. The danger for me lies in relying too heavily on these poems, becoming too comfortable reading poems I know will go over well. There's very little vulnerability in that and if one isn't careful, that laziness can creep into the writing, and then the poems themselves become safe. To hell with that.

How does giving a reading inform your writing and vice versa?
I believe poems are meant to be shared, read, and listened to. From one's lips to another's ear, or from one's hand to another's eyes, no matter. The live reading is something that never lets me forget that I am a human being reaching out to, trying to communicate with, other human beings. This definitely affects the choices I make when writing and revising.

What’s been your most rewarding experience as a writing teacher?
What I love most is when students begin to claim their own voices. In a society that cultures young people into silence and, by extension, apathy, there are few things as powerful as a young writer asserting her right to be heard. And there are few things as satisfying for the teacher as knowing you had a little hand in the midwifing of this new and necessary voice.

Photo: John Murillo. Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

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.

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.

Patricia Roth Schwartz Mines the Terwilliger Museum

Writer Patricia Roth Schwartz blogs about facilitating a P&W-supported workshop series at the Terwilliger Museum in Waterloo, New York.

A graceful Queen Anne structure, the Waterloo Library & Historical Society, which opened in 1880, is the first building in New York State built as a library. In 1960 a local businessman donated funds to open an attached museum of Waterloo history, which bears his name: Terwilliger. The Terwilliger Museum’s a spooky place. It is low-ceilinged, dim, and its two floors are partitioned into several areas filled with antique dolls, guns, china, vintage fire-fighting equipment, musical instruments, Native American artifacts, and the replicated interiors of both a pioneer cabin and a country store.

I’d written a grant proposal to Poets & Writers for a three-week workshop: Writing Your Way Through History, the first program ever held in the museum. I showed up at the appointed time, fully expecting no one to be there. In semi-rural areas, the hardest aspect of putting on an event is publicizing it, and we hadn’t done much. Even so, right on the dot, several people climbed the stairs to meet me. A short while later a few others arrived. In all, seven people attended at least part of the program, including a fourth-grader, granddaughter of a Terwilliger Museum member. Armed with a sheet of writing prompts I’d given them, participants explored the museum, searching for characters and stories amongst the museum’s holdings. After an hour, we retired to a cozy nook with tables and chairs in the library adjacent to the museum, an ideal writing space.

Everyone was busy except Mary Alice, a feisty, intelligent woman in her 70s who used to write a column for a local paper but stopped. She’d been suffering from writer’s block, she told me, but arrived to the workshop with a brand new baby blue journal. Now she sat frozen before a blank page. I walked up to her and asked quietly, "Who's your character?" "Grandma," she said. "Okay–What's happening? Tell the story," I eagerly replied. A heartbeat passed. Her pen rose to the page. "It's Midge." And out the story poured. Inspired by the exhibit of a 1920s dressed mannequin doing laundry on a washboard in a galvanized tub, Mary Alice told the story of tomboy "Midge" (herself), getting her clothes dirty and "Grandma," instead of getting mad, simply offering, "I'll teach you how to wash them."

Everyone else in the group (as if by some alchemical change that affected them all simultaneously) wrote astonishingly excellent stories, each set in an historical context. Eagerly they read aloud to each other. By the end of our sessions, a writers’s group of five of the attendees had formed and continues to meet, planning a blog and a chapbook to showcase their work. Best of all, Mary Alice called to tell me she’d resumed writing her column and even received a raise in pay for it!

Photo: Patricia Roth Schwartz. Credit: Sandy Zohari.

Support for the Reading/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.

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