Readings & Workshops Blog

Shihan Speaks Out About Spoken Word

From July 13 to 16, 2011, P&W-supported poets Mayda Del Valle, Oveous Maximus, and Shihan participated in inkSlam, Los Angeles’ largest spoken-word festival, held at the Greenway Court Theatre.

The four-day event featured daily writing and performance workshops and nightly showcases celebrating the creative landscape of artists on the slam poetry scene.

Over one hundred poets, including burgeoning rhymesters and veteran Tony Award winners, graced the stage of the Greenway Court Theatre, as a sold-out audience cheered them on night after night.

“InkSlam allowed L.A. residents to see poetry in a light different from the one they were used to,” said inkSlam director Shihan Van Clief, who performs as Shihan. He is also a founding member of Da’ Poetry Lounge, the nation’s largest ongoing open mic series, which takes place Tuesdays at Greenway Court. “Most people have a junior high or high school reference point for poetry, which was, for a lack of a better term, ‘old’… We offered poetry from a young perspective.”

ShihanThe festival aims to re-brand poetry as something anyone and everyone can enjoy, according to Van Clief. There were craft workshops geared towards the youth as well as business workshops to better inform poets on how to make art their livelihood in today’s multifaceted market.

InkSlam evolved from the partnership between the nonprofit organization Greenway Arts Alliance and Da’ Poetry Lounge. As Van Clief recalls, the idea for inkSlam came in 2009.

“[The poetry scene] had been defunct for years,” said Van Clief. “There was and is still a definite need for more art-based programs in L.A., and we figured this would be a good starting point; we wanted to create the best poetry festival Los Angeles has ever seen.”

Now inkSlam is making that dream a reality. A spoken-word competition was added to the festival’s agenda, making inkSlam a true poetry slam. In good fun, eight teams competed for the title of inkSlam champion over the course of the last two days of the festival.

Da’ Poetry Lounge, the seasoned home team, came in first, with a team from Santa Cruz finishing an incredibly close second.

“Santa Cruz Slam team snuck in under the radar and surprised a lot of folks,” said Van Clief. “Their group work was just very well thought out and executed to a tee; they made me rethink some of the group material our team had.”

To ensure that the festival would end on the most engaging, and humorous, of notes, the second place team received their $750 cash prize in quarters, leaving third and fourth place winners to receive theirs in dimes and pennies respectively.

Photo: Shihan at a workshop about the business of spoken word. 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.

Reginald Dwayne Betts at LouderARTS

Washington, D.C.–based poet Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of Shahid Reads His Own Palm and the memoir A Question of Freedom, blogs about headlining at the P&W-supported reading series LouderARTS earlier this year.

The LouderARTS reading series at Bar 13 is classic. Walking towards it, you could miss it if you weren’t paying attention. The stairs leading up to the entrance had me thinking of a horror film, where the expected becomes something frightening. The door opens to dim lights, a large space filled with people, a bar wet with alcohol, and poetry banging against the walls.

It’s only fair to admit that I’ve read at Bar 13 once before. Three, maybe four, years had passed since the last time I’d read there. The crowd seemed more aware of the little things that make a poet crave the mic. Patrick Rosal, author of the forthcoming Boneshepherds, was in the audience rubbing shoulders with young poets as they all enjoyed the moment with something cold to drink. I sat at the bar for near an hour waiting for my turn, listening to the crowd scream out lines of their favorite poems. I get a little nervous reading after six or seven poets have read and the audience has already been read to for an hour or so. 

That night I read poems I’ll likely never read again. A suite of sorts, and the intimacy of the space allowed it to happen. I get all these images in my head when thinking about poetry and poetry readings. The one that nestles most comfortably is my imaginings of Bar 13. It isn’t just the alcohol. It isn’t just that Lynne Procope and Marie-Elizabeth Mali are both electric poets and excellent hosts. It isn’t the slam competition. It’s that all of those things fit perfectly into this intimate space where people come to listen.

Photo: Reginald Dwayne Betts. Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Washinton, 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.

Reginald Dwayne Betts at NYU

Washington, D.C.–based poet Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of Shahid Reads His Own Palm and the memoir A Question of Freedom, blogs about participating in a P&W-supported reading curated by the creative writing program at New York University in April 2010.

Raina J. Leon, January Gill O’Neil, and myself—I couldn't have asked for more. The three of us at NYU on a rainy Friday night. And, Cornelius Eady and Yusef Komunyakaa sat in the audience alongside emerging poet Rickey Laurentis and Catherine Barnett, a professor at NYU. The room was claustrophobic...in a good way. People squeezed in tight with nothing but poetry keeping them from going out into the rain.

I still remember Raina’s final poem about her brother. Haunting, the poem has left a lasting impression. Many of her poems do this, give me pause. And January, January read the best sex poem I’ve heard in years! A poem so filled with yearning and the unexpected that I thought the audience would soon depart to find love in the rain. The audience stayed, and allowed me to read a poem or two.

A few weeks before the reading, I Skyped with Catherine Barnett’s class. Some students from that class showed up, and one of the coolest things happened. Paul, one of Catherine's students, gave me The Prison Diary of Ho Chi Minh. He took the time to pass on the book and make some really humbling comments about my work. Folks read and write for millions of reasons, but the one that is most important to me is connecting with others.

Photo: Reginald Dwayne Betts. Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Washinton, 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.

Rose Mary Salum's Cross-Cultural Whirl

Since 2007, P&W has supported literary events in Houston, Texas. Literal, Latin American Voices, an award-winning bilingual magazine, was among the first Houston organizations supported by P&W. We asked its founder and director, Rose Mary Salum, author of the short story collection Spaces in Between, to share her experience as a presenter of Latin American literature and art.

What was your most successful literary program?
One of the most successful programs we hosted this year was Poetics of Displacement: Latin American Émigré Writers and the Creative Imagination. When Gisela Heffes invited us to collaborate with Rice University on this series, we immediately agreed. The response was amazing, especially to Sergio Ramírez, who I introduced! People approached me to express their absolute satisfaction. 

What makes your programs unique?
We invite established authors from Latin America, who are perhaps not as well-known in the United States. Everyone is familiar with the boom authors—the García Marquezs and Vargas Llosas. Besides these magnificent authors, there is a vast array of writers who are innovative and at the vanguard of literature. We have always questioned the practice of promoting writers familiar to our audiences to minimize the risk of failure. Ultimately, the quality of work is what must win in the end. Having a magazine with these characteristics (bilingual with Latin American subject matter, but still international) puts us in the peculiar place of voicing a de-centered point of view that steers away from the dominant culture, and we want to keep going this way. The United States is becoming more and more aware of the vast repository of literature that exists “down there.”

How do you find and invite readers?
I carefully choose dates and venues to make it easy for people to visit. There’s a huge niche for Latin American writers and readers in the United States, but we are scattered. Houston is a gateway at the perfect geographical point of connection between a continent with two languages. The mission of Literal is to exploit this location and get these cultures closer to each other.

Has literary presenting informed your writing life?
Every time I research new authors and read their books, their work has such an impact on me that some of my guests become characters in my fiction.

What is the value of literary programs in your community?
We cannot ignore the globalized world where influences roam freely. A program about literature is all about exchanging ideas, perspectives, and culture. Having said that, the programs we organize are always centered on the idea of being a platform for dialog, even if we are not familiar with other cultures within our own borders. “There is a tendency to abstract and aestheticize the colossal displacement of peoples and their cultures generated by globalization,” explains Lorraina Pinnell. A publication like Literal has a special role in addressing, in concrete terms and forms, cross-cultural contacts whirling through Canada, the United States, and Latin America. For our part, we are dedicated to resisting this tendency to abstract an entire reality; the publication and, moreover, the events we organize present distinct regions of the Americas in their various and sometimes clashing embodiments.

Photo: P&W-supported writer Sergio Ramírez with Gisela Heffes of Rice University. Credit: Enrique Vazquez.

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.

Reginald Dwayne Betts's Sunday Afternoon

Washington, D.C.-based poet Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of Shahid Reads His Own Palm and the memoir A Question of Freedom, blogs about participating in the P&W-supported reading at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. in April 2010.

Kim Roberts's anthology, Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, D.C., brought D.C. poets together at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. on a sunny April Sunday in 2010. 

As soon as I arrived, I began reading a poem for Mississippi Avenue. The poem is about a couple of kids I once knew. They would play what we use to call throwback. Throwback is a game in which players would toss a football (or any ball) into a crowd of people, and then begin chasing the person who caught it. If the ball is memory, then the boys doing the chasing are hungry to remember. Full Moon on K Street is a little like that: memories we toss into crowds, then chase down. 

Just as good as the reading was Roberts's welcome. She relived the history of the project and the tidbits of D.C. history that can be found within the book as an accompaniment to the poems. Full Moon on K Street is history and poetry. Truth is, Roberts's anthology is about making memories live in the present...that’s what the reading was about too.

Photo: Reginald Dwayne Betts. Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Washinton, 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.

Francisco Bustos's Guest Writers Series

Located in Chula Vista, California, Southwestern College (SWC) hosts a Guest Writers Series. Francisco Bustos, poet, musician, member of the spoken word/music collective Frontera Drum Fusion, and professor of English composition at SWC blogs about the P&W-supported reading series.

Every month SWC invites California-based writers to share their work. We have one bilingual reading and several Spanish language readings each semester. Many writers hail from San Diego County as well as the border cities of Tijuana, Baja, and California, Mexico. Being so close to the U.S.-Mexico border gives us a unique environment, rich in culture and aesthetic diversity. Our invited writers read in various styles, from English to Spanish and from Spanish to Spanglish (a mix of Spanish and English). It is not uncommon to hear audience members switch between languages in the middle of a conversation with a writer. 

On occasion, I participate as a poet/musician in literary and cultural events on both sides of the border. This gives me opportunities to network with writers from North County, San Diego, (the U.S. side of the border) as well as writers from Mexicali (the Mexican side of the border). Because of festivals like the Tijuana Book Fair and other festivals sponsored by the Tijuana Cultural Center, I also get to meet (and subsequently invite) writers who live far from our border region. We've had writers from as far as Mexico City!

This fall we are working on a reading that will involve Uberto Stabile, Spanish editor of the poetry anthology "Tan Lejos de Dios/So Far From God," a compilation of poetry from the Mexican side of the border region. Stabile will be presenting his book across the Mexican border region this November—hopefully, if all works out, with a pit stop at our very own SWC Guest Writer Series.

Photo:  Francisco Busto.  Credit: Gerardo Navarro.

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

Reginald Dwayne Betts Makes Marks

Poet Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of Shahid Reads His Own Palm and the memoir A Question of Freedom, blogs about Washington, D.C.-based writers who are making marks.

"Flat Langston" made quite an uproar last year during the Association of Writers & Writing Programs annual conference. For those who are unaware, there was once a cardboard cutout of Langston Hughes at the Busboys and Poets 14th Street location. It was there before poet, photographer, go-go aficionado, and D.C. native Thomas Sayers Ellis relieved it of its duties. The uproar isn’t as important now, forgotten as most things are forgotten.

All that to say, I love listening to stories of the District's past—about spots along the U Street corridor that once housed poetry, about Toni Asante Lightfoot’s legendary reading series, and nights when Holly Bass, Kenneth Carroll, Brian Gilmore, Brandon Johnson, Ernesto Mercer, Joel Dias-Porter, and others could be found with a sheaf of poems in hand burning the night sky. I dig those stories. I dig, too, that nostalgia is the curse that ruins us. While we celebrate the folks who have made marks on the cultural scene of the District, it seems much too easy to forget about the folks who are making marks right now.

Alan King and Derrick Weston Brown, for instance, have both been putting in work as poets and workshop leaders around the city, working with the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop at Hart Middle School and Ballou High School, respectively. Fred Joiner, a jack of all trades,  along with Jon West-Bey, Executive Director of the American Poetry Museum, engineered a cultural exchange with Belfast. Add to that Kyle Dargan,  assistant professor of creative writing at American University and editor of Post No Ills. Add still Simone Jackson of Sulu DC, Silvana Straw of DC Writer’s Corp and the Marpat Foundation. More? Melanie Henderson, forth generation D.C. native and winner of the Main Street Rag prize for her lovely collection of poems, Elegies for New York Avenue.

Still want more? Kim Roberts holds it down. Sarah Browning does her thing. So does Melissa Tuckey. Sandra Beasley. All of whom are wonderful, wonderful writers. Maybe this isn't a renaissance, but it damn sure isn't a drought.

Photo: Reginald Dwayne Betts. Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Washinton, 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.

D.E. Connelly's Haiku Workshop Uncovers Desert Water

From May 19 to June 9, 2011, P&W-supported poet D. E. Connelly, author of the manuscript "A Twisted Balance: One-Line Haiku & a Few Senryu," taught a haiku workshop at the Armory Park Senior Center in Tucson, Arizona. We asked her to say a few words about the experience.

D.E. ConnellyThe poet-sage Matsuo Bashō, born 1644, wrote in memoriam of a friend, “never think of yourself / as someone who did not count— / festival of the souls.” Ueda translated this Japanese haiku into English. The poet-artist Marlene Mountain, born 1939, wrote “white sugar white flour white male”—no translation necessary: It was originally written in U.S. English. Mountain’s haiku reflects the three word-cluster device of classic one-line Japanese haiku as well as its device of image juxtaposition: The first and second word clusters are specific images; the third word cluster, “white male,” is metaphoric, resembling one (including males of color and all females) who, offering no nourishment, choose instead to promote oppressive practices that strip people and things of their inherent value. As Bashō’s tone was of his time and place, Mountain’s is of ours—and each poet agitates the soul: Will I be remembered?  How will I remembered? 

Poets & Writers remembered those of us in the Arizona desert at a time when recognition of each individual’s contribution was being white-washed. With its support and encouragement, the Armory Park Senior Center in Tucson was able to host In The Spirit of Haiku: Three Workshops & A Public Reading. Like water in the desert, sponsorship of a poetry workshop at the Center is wonderful, but rare. 

Workshop One, focusing on the haiku of Bashō (as translated by Sato), reviewed the classic poetic devices compressed within this seemingly simple one-line poem (e.g., two unequal phrases; a strong cutting word between; each phrase with its own specific imagery, which might portray the “what,” “when,” and “where” of the poet’s experience; a seasonal reference—all combined to best convey emotion in a syntax natural to the poet). 

workshop participantsWorkshop Two, focusing on the haiku of Marlene Mountain, explored how the initial haiku in U.S. English (introduced, arguably, in the 1950s) evolved into what is currently promoted in English as a form of ten-to-fourteen syllables. Throughout, but mostly in Workshop Three, attendees shared original work: One participant incorporated calligraphy; another haibun; another read haiku in German, demonstrating how sound patterns, even without sense, can convey emotion.

The public reading gave participants a chance to interact with an audience, which included a few people in their twenties from Tucson Youth Development. One youth was deeply moved by an elder’s seasonal allusion of being in her life’s “December,” with feet on fire from pain as well from an urgency to experience fully and profoundly what remains of her life.

A deep bow to Poets & Writers, the workshop participants, the audience, as well as the Armory Park Senior Center who published the participants’ haiku in its July newsletter.
   
Photos: (Top) D. E. Connelly. Credit: Tom Wuelpern; (bottom) workshop participants. Credit: D. E. Connelly.

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.

Reginald Dwayne Betts's Poetry in Schools

For the month of August, Washington, D.C.–based poet Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of Shahid Reads His Own Palm and the memoir A Question of Freedom blogs about poetry in D.C. schools, Busboys and Poets, as well as his memory of being P&W-supported.

The Pen/Faulkner Foundation does great things across the district. Not only does the organization bring writers into the classroom, it also purchases a class set of the writer's book for students to read before the writer's visit. I am amazed at the many ways in which teachers and school leaders are able to tap resources and use them to provide students with a literary outlet such as this one.

Another program of note is the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop. For more than a dozen years, and under the guidance of Nancy Schwalb (the organization's founder and current executive/artistic director), the workshop has placed writers-in-residence in classrooms at Hart Middle School, Ballou Senior High School, and Simon Elementary School. The program's drama club also rewrites classic dramas, then presents their adaptations as motion pictures at the end of each school year. It’s not surprising that the workshop is excellent, what is surprising is that it has become a strong component in the academic life of so many students and is a component that lasts beyond the students' elementary, middle, or even high school years. Former students come back each year to volunteer or say hello.

Finally, there is the Folger Shakespeare Library's Poetry in the Schools program. Teri Cross Davis coordinates the program and does a fabulous job of bringing writers into classrooms across the city for four to six week sessions. All of these programs are amazing, but I’ll add this about the Folger program... I was once sent to Dunbar High under their auspices and, ironically, had the pleasure of working with an English teacher whose first year teaching was the same year my mother graduated high school. A program that is able to reach out to young teachers as well as older, more established teachers is one that should definitely be praised.

Photo: Reginald Dwayne Betts. Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Washinton, 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.

Olga Garcia Remembers Bakersfield

Poet Olga Garcia, author of Falling Angels: Cuentos y Poemas and the chapbook Lovely Little Creatures, blogs about her experience facilitating a P&W-supported workshop at Southwest Bakersfield Library in Bakersfield, California.

When the California Center for the Book's David Gernand first connected me with Southwest Bakersfield Library to facilitate a memoir writing workshop, I had a sudden flashback.

When I was eight, my parents packed all five of us kids into an old, avocado-green station wagon and drove us to Bakersfield to pick onions. Once there, we toiled in the vicious heat, snapping enormous green scissors, filling coarse brown sacks with dusty white onions. One foreman came by every so often to halfheartedly shoo us kids off the field. Within minutes after he disappeared, we’d run back to our parents to help with the onion picking or the dragging of sacks that inevitably grew heavier with each added onion.

We were supposed to work the fields for several weeks that summer, but at night while we camped out and fought over the bare mattress laid out at the back of the station wagon, we beseeched our parents to take us home. The smell of onions permeated our clothes, skin, and hair. It burned our eyes and lingered on our tongues. After a few days, my father shook his head in defeat, saying we were the worst workers he had ever seen. As we drove out of Bakersfield, we waved goodbye to the onion fields from the rear window, promising never to return.

Thirty-three years later I’m in Bakersfield again, standing before a group of workshop participants at Southwest Library. It’s a small, ethnically diverse group of nine and their ages range from twelve to sixty. Some of them have aspirations of memoir writing; others have come simply to practice writing. I share my onion story as a means to discuss memoir writing (how place, sound, smell, and taste trigger snapshots of what we’ve lived). We do several exercises to probe into the personal stories archived in their bodies.

One exercise asks participants to write about a memorable place. Another asks them to use one of Sandra Cisneros’s vignettes as a springboard to write about their names. Both exercises produce intimate recollections, and it is through the sharing of these intimate recollections that we connect with one another.

Maria, the library branch supervisor, reveals a long-kept secret. “Well, you see,” she says “my name isn’t actually Maria.” The name was given to her by a group of Catholic nuns in the Philippines and it stuck. A great beginning to a memoir. Maritza, from Guadalajara, Mexico, was named after a character in a Brazilian soap opera. And Gene, the middle-aged man whose Mexican parents didn’t speak a word of English, was named after Gene Autry, the American performer known as the "Singing Cowboy." As Gene shares his story, his wife leans into him and mumbles, “I never knew that.”

Photo: Olga Garcia. Credit: Weenobee.com.

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

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