Readings & Workshops Blog

Kelly Harris Turns the Page on Katrina

P&W-supported poet/activist Kelly Harris, founder of The Literary Lab, a small business that promotes local writers, and member of Melanted Writers NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana), a year-old workshop for writers of color, blogs about the post-Katrina literary happenings in New Orleans.

Talk to many New Orleans writers about the storm and they will raise a hand to show you how high the water rose in their neighborhood and lament about all the books that were washed away. The devastation of 2005 was extensive, but in the years since the literary scene in New Orleans has been thriving!

The New Orleans Chapter of Women's National Book Association formed this year. The group includes local women writers, bookstore owners, publishing professionals, and readers. 

In 2010 Loyola University established the Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing. The Center fosters literary talent and achievement and advances the art of writing as essential to a good education. The literary arts is flourishing in the Big Easy... The Pass It On open mic series began in 2008 as an attempt to restore the pre-Katrina open mic scene. Its host Gian Smith was a featured poet in the HBO hit series Treme.

This year brought us the first WriteNola!: Spoken Word & Poetry Festival. WriteNOLA! gathered New Orleans's pre and post Katrina poets together to give readings and conduct workshops. The City of New Orleans supported the event and offered the regal Gallier Hall as the venue. Proceeds from the festival benefited the NOLA Youth Slam Team.

The Peauxdunque Writers Alliance, many of whom are students and alumni from the University of New Orleans MFA program, started a reading series called, Yeah, You Write. As always, 17 Poets, a Thursday night reading at the French Quarter's Goldmine Saloon, continues to anchor the New Orleans poetry community. It was the first poetry reading series held in New Orleans after Katrina on October 13, 2005. 

Even the youth have a place in the literary action. This October marks the 2nd Annual New Orleans Children's Book Festival. Civil rights icon Ruby Bridges, whose lonely walk into William Frantz Elementary School inspired a famous Norman Rockwell painting, and Cheryl Landrieu, wife of the city's mayor, established the free festival to promote local children's book authors, literacy, and provide food and entertainment.

The Scholastic Writing Awards of Southeast Louisiana, an affiliate of the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers and sponsored by the Greater New Orleans Writing Project, supports seventh-twelfth grade writers. In 2011, its inaugural year, two students were sent to the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop and one received a $2,500 college scholarship!

Can't keep up with this literary buffet? No worries. Listen to The Reading Life, a show dedicated to all things bookish in New Orleans online. The radio show is hosted by former The Times-Picayune book editor, Susan Larson.

And finally, Louisiana celebrated the opening of the Ernest J. Gaines Center in October 2010 at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, just a mere two-hour drive from New Orleans.

It seems new events and writers are emerging every day. Next time you're in town, attend a reading, buy a book. Help the city continue to rebuild its literary community.

Photo: (top) Kelly Harris; (bottom) Melanted Writers Workshop. Credit: Jennifer Williams.

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.

Ann Lynn's Safe Space for Women Veterans

P&W-supported poet Ann Lynn, author of the chapbook In the Butterfly House, published by Finishing Line Press, blogs about facilitating writing workshops with women veterans in Atlanta, GA.

In October 2005, I began a series of writing workshops with women veterans in Atlanta. The women in the group had served in war zones during the Vietnam and the Gulf Wars. One woman drove a truck and was trained to work with hazardous materials. Another worked with the wounded. Some experienced scud missile attacks. All witnessed firsthand the atrocities of war and suffered personal traumas themselves. For the participants, the workshops weren't just an exercise in learning to write better... the workshops served as a lifeline. I was blown away by what these women were writing and sharing, and realized how hungry they were for the healing power of writing.

One of the first assignments I gave was to write about a place where they felt safe and comfortable, an exercise that could be appropriate for anyone, but especially so for people who have experienced trauma. I will never forget what one woman wrote:

My truck is a safe place. In it there is no sound, no music, no talking, just listening to the wind as it hits my windows. My mind can be free there, and I can drive away all the tears, fears, as long as I got gas.

Another time I asked them to pick an object from a bunch I set out on the floor and describe that object with concrete and sensory details. I then  told them to write about one of their parents in terms of that object. One woman wrote:

Mother is like a rock,not a mother,
except in its true instinctual self of how it became,
beginning as loose powder then pressed together,
hardened and roughed-up (tossed, turned, hurt).

I was stunned by the beauty and power of this poem. And, for the writer, it seemed as though the metaphorical language with which she'd chosen to describe her mother had somehow turned on a light in her head, as she began to talk about her life in a deeper way.

For these women, writing, sharing, and the group itself formed a safe space. The group met for three and a half years, and for me it was a life-changing experience. I wrote when they wrote, read when they read, and sometimes cried when they cried. I am so grateful that Poets & Writers believes that art is important for all people, and is willing and eager to fund programs that can make such a difference in people's lives.

Photo: Ann Lynn. Photo Credit: Roby Lynn.

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


Kelly Harris, Daughter of Domestics

P&W-supported poet/activist Kelly Harris, founder of Poems & Pink Ribbons, a poetry workshop for breast cancer patients, survivors, and their loved ones, blogs about Daughters of Domestics, a poetry reading she initiated and participated in in New Orleans.

There's a special relationship in New Orleans between the community and its artists. Go to the French Quarter and watch artists infuse themselves into the daily lives of New Orleanians and tourists alike. Even if you're minding your own business, a singer, dancer, mime, trumpeter, tambourine player, or visual artist can suddenly make you take a detour from your day's plans.

I have been fortunate to have organized several events in New Orleans that create unique intersections between poetry and non-traditional audiences. Most recently, Daughters of Domestics: Poets & Academics Respond to "The Help," featured Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes, Kysha Brown Robinson, and myself. The Help, both the book and film, have created much conversation in New Orleans. In fact, a 1982 documentary about black domestics in New Orleans titled Yes Ma'am showed for a limited run in September.

Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically black college known for graduating more African American pharmacists than any other university in the country, hosted the event. Daughters of Domestics attracted an audience of over one hundred people including Xavier University students and faculty, clergy, local writers, bookstore owners, and even nuns. 

Poems read by the featured poets underscored the struggle of Hattie McDaniel, the first African American actress to win an Academy Award, black women domestic labor, sexism, and Jim Crow. My final poem of the evening, "For All the Times in School I Left Mother's Occupation Blank," was dedicated to my mother who cleaned white people's homes in the late '80s and early '90s for extra income.

Following the poets, Dr. Kimberly Chandler, assistant professor of communications at Xavier, moderated a panel that included Professor Theresa Davis, Dr. Denese Shervington, and Dr. Brenda Edgerton-Webster. The three nationally respected African American scholars discussed the contradictions, complexities, and contentions of the film from the black female perspective. Dr. Davis began her comments by quoting Langston Hughes's poem "Note on Commercial Theatre." The panel provided a lively conversation that ended with a call to action.

Before the close of the event, Dr. Chandler turned the audience's attention to a black-and-white photo of a black woman, who was a domestic worker, on display in the auditorium. The photo was brought in by an audience member who wanted to bring his grandmother's spirit to the event. I believe she was there.

Later that evening, I received an e-mail from a woman thanking me for organizing the event and requesting a bibliography of all the authors and books that had been mentioned. Her call demonstrates the ways in which poetry can have a profound impact. She said, "I need those books on my shelf."

Photo: (top) Kelly Harris; (bottom, left to right) Kelly Harris and Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes. Credit: Jarvis DeBerry.

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.

For Beau Sia, Inspiration Works Both Ways

The Inspired Word, a twice-weekly poetry, spoken word, and performance series in New York City, featured P&W-supported poet Beau Sia on September 22. Inspired Word founder and producer Mike Geffner (whose journalistic work has appeared in USA Today, Details Magazine, and the Village Voice) describes the evening.

At my Inspired Word series in Manhattan’s East Village, Los Angeles poet Beau Sia took the stage donned like some kind of rock star: chalk-white jacket flipped up (Elvis-style) at the collar, tight-fitting jeans, and nifty looking maroon-colored shades.

It all seemed pretty cool until we quickly found out the sunglasses weren’t a fashion statement. His eyes, you see, were sensitive right now. “This light is painful to me,” he told the packed downstairs Nexus Lounge–a crowd of about fifty people–inside the Irish pub, One and One. He wore ear plugs too. Because his ears were sensitive as well, he said as flat as can be, his arms pinned to his sides like a pair of wooden slats and his neck, as if held by a brace, not budging a smidgen.

He went on to explain that he’d recently had a bad car accident, suffered whiplash, and now had “this brain-stem injury thing,” which meant a sudden jolt could send his world upside down. Which also meant that he had no choice other than to be desperately “low key." He apologized in advance for not being at his best.

Indeed, imagining a poet known for his frenetic performances (on HBO's Def Poetry and as a two-time National Poetry Slam Champion) unable to use his body reminded me of what Gay Talese once famously wrote about Sinatra having a cold: It’s like “Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel.”

“You guys can’t imagine how frustrating it is for me," Sia said early on, "to not utilize my full physical capability."

But a poet of stunning range, Sia still pulled it off brilliantly, reading with such intensity that his body appeared to pulsate. He had us all leaning forward (with poignant pieces about life’s fragility and wisdom gained from working with stroke patients), laughing a whole lot (especially one moment when he cranked up a stiff left arm to count off parts of his poem with equally stiff fingers), and thinking a ton.

“It’s pretty awesome of you guys to be listening as deeply as you are,” he said. “I can feel [it].”

He received a standing ovation, having created, despite everything working against him, a truly magical evening. He could’ve easily blown off the night and called in sick. But he didn't. Instead, he endured all the discomfort and pain and weirdness for the sake of doing nothing more than sharing his words with an audience. It’s what I’ll remember most about that night. Not the words so much, as what he went through to utter them. Could poetry be any more inspiring?

Photo: Beau Sia. Credit: Raymond Hamlin.

Support for Reading/Workshops events 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.

M. L. Liebler's Thursday in the D

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 curating and hosting Wayne State University's Thursdays in the D in Detroit, Michigan.

On September 22, over one hundred folks packed the Scarab Arts Club in downtown Detroit’s cultural center to hear a wild, fun, and moving reading/performance by a wide variety of literary artists. Thanks to Wayne State University’s Office of Student Affairs and its great staff, I was honored to curate and host Thursdays in the D with Detroit singer/songwriter Audra Kubat, poet Brian Gilmore from D.C., deaf hip-hop star Sean Forbes from Detroit, former slam star Jeffrey McDaniel from New York City, and the insanely talented Jessica Care Moore from Detroit.

I would say 75 percent of the audience had never attended a poetry reading. The audience was made up of urban and suburban students and teachers, senior citizens, blue collar workers, labor activists, college deans, and others, all of whom came together to listen, enjoy, and join in the fun of poetry. It’s a beautiful thing to see the arts thrive in a city that has been hit very, very hard by the recession. Our community is clearly nourished by the arts, and this program was ample proof.

The program began with Detroit’s young singer/songwriter, in the Joni Mitchell tradition, Audra Kubat. Audra’s lyrics are basically poems set to music. Brain Gilmore of the D.C. poetry scene and DC Writer's Corps followed and delivered a great set of poems, with Frank F. Koscielski on piano, as a wonderful homage to Duke Ellington from his book Jungle Nights & Soda Fountain Rags. Next up was Detroit’s Sean Forbes, a deaf young hip-hop artist working with Eminem, who stunned the audience with his cool hip-hop beats and poems as he signed and spoke his work. Jeffrey McDaniel, Pitt Poetry Series author of The Endarkenment, delivered from his old school slam days a fabulous set combining high quality poetry with precision timing and showmanship. To conclude Jessica Care Moore, star of HBO Def Poetry Jam, delivered politically charged poems in the spirit of the late Gil Scott-Heron, Black Star, and Public Enemy’s Chuck D. To put the cherry on the sundae, nationally known Shakespeare impersonator Chuck Wilcox came up to the podium in costume and performed a Shakespeare sonnet!

Folks, I don’t care where you live in this great country (or world, for that matter), it just doesn’t get any better than this. Ah, Thursdays in the D makes me glad to be alive in this wonderful city.

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.

M. L. Liebler Retreats

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 second annual Detroit Michigan Writers' Retreat in downtown Detroit.

On the morning of September 17, about forty or so metro-area writers attended the second annual all-day Detroit Michigan Writers’ Retreat sponsored by Metro Detroit Writers and Springfed Arts at the legendary Virgil H. Carr Cultural Center in the heart of Paradise Valley. Folks arrived early for coffee, greetings, and to meet new writer friends. John D. Lamb once again offered an affordable, excellent retreat as he has since 1998. The retreat, for many years, was in northern Michigan, and each retreat featured a great lineup of acclaimed writers such as Michael Moore, Ben Hamper, Joyce Maynard, Thomas Lux, Alicia Ostriker, Dorianne Laux, and Billy Collins, among others. Last year, John moved the event from the wilderness of northern Michigan to the center of the city.

This morning began with a poetry craft talk by Denise Duhamel, who stressed the need to bring the concrete experiences of life into poems to make them as real as possible for audiences. She used examples from great works by Pablo Neruda, Ezra Pound, and Etheridge Knight. Denise was followed by Ohio novelist and memoirist Robert Olmstead, who offered detailed fiction techniques that reached many of Detroit’s fiction writers.

Following Robert's talk, writers took to the park in front of the Carr Center for lunch, gossip, and other writerly things. After lunch, E. Ethelbert Miller gave a motivational talk about the importance of being “activists for literature." I could hear by the discussions that followed, Miller's ideas resonated with Detroit-area writers. The afternoon craft talks ended with a strong presentation on memoir writing techniques and ways to get the most from our life stories. Miller shared his memoir on growing up in Trinidad and coming of age in New York City.

The day concluded with an open mic by the participants. This is the chance for attendees to share their talents, and I always find it very inspirational. Topics ranged from world peace to an exploration of diversity and multiculturalism. I was particularly struck by Ami Mattison, a Guam poet, who read an engaging poem about her life as a member of the Chamorro people.

By 6:00 that evening everyone left the retreat invigorated, charged up, and ready to take on their writing in new, inspirational ways... Success!

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.

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.

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