Readings & Workshops Blog

If You Can Talk, You Can Write: Meera Nair on Writing Workshops for Nepali and Tibetan Workers

Meera Nair was born in India and moved to the US in 1997. Her first story collection, Video (Pantheon Books, 2003), received the Sixth Annual Asian American Literary Award for fiction, and was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year and a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book. Nair is also the author of the children's book Maya Saves the Day(Duckbill, 2013) and the forthcoming, Maya In a Right Royal Mess. Her fiction and essays have appeared on NPR, the Washington Post, and the New York Times among other publications. She has received fellowships from the New York Foundation of the Arts, MacDowell Colony, and the Queens Council of the arts.

What makes your workshops unique?
I've taught or continue to teach writing to undergrads and graduates at places like NYU, Brooklyn College, and Fordham, but recently I've had to rethink my pedagogy. Now I'm creating workshops for people who don't think of themselves as writers—who have no preconceived notions of craft, or conveyance, who have never agonized over choosing a point of view.

I'm currently doing a four-week workshop series for Nepali and Tibetan domestic and nail salon workers at Adhikaar, a nonprofit organization, where participants are writing personal essays on living and working as immigrant, POC workers in America. I want to give a big thanks to Muna Gurung, who has helped to interpret at the workshops, and Ryan Wong, and Kundiman who helped to set all this up. The challenge is to create a space where writing is no longer seen as “a mystery, a privilege of caste” as David Barthlomae called it. Which means I have to find methods by which participants are guided to privilege their own experiences, histories, oral testimonies, and the act of “talking to themselves” as something that is important and necessary.

I've tried to go back to the way South Asian people interact, how they are generous, expansive talkers and natural storytellers. The writers generate material using oral history methods, where I, as the facilitator, try to ask the questions and then disappear into silence while the participants talk. Once the words are said, once they exist in that shared space, once the writer has generated them, it's easier to take the next step—that of writing the words down in sentences. That step requires the writer to think about language and shaping the material, to think about rhythm and structure, but it also invites the writers to see that they already possess story, words, excitement, details, arcs—all those craft-y things.

What has been your most rewarding experience as a teacher?
I love that moment when the student understands that all writing is revision. It takes guts to revise and student-writers resist touching those initial, God-given sentences—but it's a beautiful thing when they look at that final draft and see that it's good because they learned to be brutal and ruthless with the work.

What affect has this work had on your life and/or your art?
I hear stories about people's lives that I would never have access to without the work I do outside the academic setting. Like all writers, I am a voyeur and a listener at keyholes, so to speak—and everything is material for my writing, whether I use it or not. I'm currently working on a collection of stories set in Jackson Heights, Queens, and I am getting insights and access into the lives of my characters I wouldn't have otherwise.

What is the wildest thing that’s happened in one of your workshops?
One semester I taught a workshop on writing about food and love, and three students, or maybe it was four, discovered for the first time in my workshop that they had issues with food/eating/body image and had to start therapy. I have retired that particular curriculum since.

Photo: Meera Nair.  Photo credit: Meera Nair.

Support for Reading & 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 form the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

In Their Own Time: Teaching Artist Caroline Brown on Trust and Boundaries

Caroline Brown is a teaching artist and educator who develops and implements community-based arts programming. Highlights of her work include collaborations with AIDS widows in rural Kenya, incarcerated individuals and those in reentry, military veterans and their family members, and women living with HIV. Most recently Brown has worked with Recovery Cafe, Path With Art, Senior Housing Assistance Group, and the Freehold Engaged Theater Program at the Washington Corrections Center for Women. She is also a faculty member at Cornish College of the Arts and the Art Institute of Seattle. She blogs here about her experiences teaching a P&W–supported workshop series for the Organization for Prostitution Survivors in Seattle, Washington.

Caroline Brown

As an instructor of Community Based Arts at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington, I teach students to use their artistic skill set to make a positive impact on marginalized communities. I tell them there’s no formula for our work; however, there are essential principles for building a successful project, two of which are trust and boundaries. We must trust ourselves, trust the community’s level of participation, and trust the ambiguity of the creative process. We must also keep our expectations realistic.

During my recent work with the Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS), I discovered I needed to relearn these principles. OPS was founded to address the damaging effects of prostitution and create opportunities for adult women to seek supportive services and heal from gender-based violence. My colleague and I were invited by the OPS staff to conduct an extended workshop using writing, storytelling, movement, and visual art as a form of personal expression and advocacy. For the sake of anonymity, we agreed to create a video with recorded narratives and abstract images chosen by participants.

From the start, I experienced a strong reticence from our workshop attendees. They repeatedly asked: What is the purpose of this video? How is it going to be shared? With whom and for what purpose? I reassured them that this project was theirs and they had complete ownership of the final product. As a population that has been consistently exploited, their reservations weren’t surprising. What was surprising was what it triggered in me.

I liked these women and wanted to help them engage in powerful and meaningful expression. I wanted them to be excited rather than reserved, to see this process as beneficial as opposed to threatening. If they didn’t welcome the work, my colleague and I had no right to be there. It was devastating to imagine that I might be harming people who’ve already been through enough.

Three weeks into the endeavor, my colleague and I reluctantly handed over the reigns, letting our participants decide when they wanted to meet. With this came a sense of panic that the video might not come to fruition. Then it happened. One woman expressed interest in recording her writing. I went out of my way to explain our intent: “I know a lot of women are apprehensive." She interrupted, “I’m not. I’m ready to record.” And so we began. Another woman soon stepped forward. Then another. Eventually we had an eighteen-minute piece of six women sharing their poetry, reflections, narratives, and visual imagery as survivors of prostitution.

Several weeks and countless hours of editing later, we presented the video at an OPS open house event. "Reflections of a Survivor" is a culmination of risk, vulnerability, triumph, conviction, and truth. As I looked around at the women taking in the success of their work, their willingness to trust me with their stories honored and humbled me. In short, each participant trusted the process in her own time. In that moment, I was reminded that I needed to do the same.

Amber Pauline Walker's "Kodiak Whispers," from the video project "Reflections of a Survivor," can be seen on YouTube.

Photo: Caroline Brown. Photo credit: Emily Schoettle.

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Seattle, Washington 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.

The Power of Words Where Few Dare to Go: Literary Events in Unlikely Southern California Lands

Ruth Nolan is an author with lifelong Mojave Desert and Inland Empire roots. Her poetry collection Ruby Mountain is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press, and her newest fiction appears in LA Fiction Anthology (Red Hen Press, 2016) and in Desert Oracle. She writes about desert-based American Indian arts and culture for News From Native California, Artbound, Inlandia: A Literary Journey, and Desert Report. Nolan teaches at College of the Desert.

Martin Smith and Paiute elder George RossMojave Desert Writing Workshop: February 15, 2016
Stories from a Paiute Indian elder of traditional chuckwalla hunting techniques who watched a rattlesnake bite—and kill—itself. Stories from a Baker man about the time he hiked far into the Soda Mountains on a hot day, became dehydrated, and walked miles to the nearest bar in town for a thirst-quenching beer, which he credits with saving his life. Stories from a woman who rode a school bus to Death Valley High School that was driven by Edward Abbey. Stories about long desert road trips by a man who showed up on a Harley Davidson and wore his leather motorcycle chaps while he wrote.

These tales, and more, were among the writing samples penned and shared by the twenty-five participants at the February 15 Shoshone-Tecopa Arts and Literature Festival writing workshop, which I led along with desert author Craig Deutsche. Workshop participants drove long distances across the Mojave Desert from tiny towns with inspiring names like Furnace Creek, Lone Pine, Tecopa, and Wonder Valley.

Although some might consider the Mojave Desert an unlikely location for literature to flourish, we were, in contrast, able to demonstrate that the desire and need for a vibrant and community-connective writing workshop is strong and flourishing in this little-known desert region of Southern California. Using prompts drawn from poetry, fiction work, and essays by desert literary greats such as Mary Austin and John Steinbeck, workshop participants wrote their hearts out about their own desert experiences and observations.

Songs for San Bernardino readersSongs for San Bernardino / Reading Helps Inland Empire Heal: December 20, 2015
The holiday tree was brightly decorated with ornaments at the entrance of the Muffin Top Bakery in downtown Redlands, California, and the atmosphere inside was warm and cheery, the smell of cinnamon rolls seasoning the air. But for those who gathered together this past December 20 for the poetry and prose reading, “Songs for San Bernardino,” this was no typical holiday literary event. This reading, which I coordinated with San Bernardino natives and authors Liz Gonzalez and Jessica Wyland, was intended to bring community together through the power of stories of place to help heal from the December 2 shootings at the nearby Inland Regional Center, a tragedy that ripped through the fabric of this proud but often overlooked part of Southern California.

Readers at “Songs for San Bernardino” included Chad Sweeney, Casandra Lopez, Frances J. Vasquez, Juanita Mantz, Darlene Kriesel, Alex Avila, Andre Katkov, Liz Gonzalez, Jessica Wyland, and myself, who all have strong connections to San Bernardino. Several read freshly-penned pieces that spoke directly of the impact of December 2, while others read works that reflected the strength, beauty, and strong community spirit of this town. San Bernadino Mayor Carey Davis also spoke. For nearly two hours, all chair and tables at the Muffin Top Bakery were full as the power of the stories and words of some of the Inland Empire’s finest writers gave testimony to the inner strength of this community. Afterwards, the day’s cloudy skies gave way to a gentle late afternoon sun, and rays of light filtered into the room.

Photos (top) Martin Smith and Paiute elder George Ross, (bottom) "Songs for San Bernardino" readers. Photo credit: Ruth Nolan

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

A Courageous or Heroic Act

Connie Perry is an artist, comic performer, publicist, and writer. She joined the late Sue Ribner's Cancer Writing Workshop at Roosevelt Hospital in early 2014, just after her cancer treatment, her "hysterical-ectomy." She is currently a participant in Emily Rubin's Write Treatment workshops at the hospital, where there are exciting plans to publish an anthology. As a freelance book publicist, Perry connects authors to media. As a theater usher, she diffuses customer service stress by performing her one-woman show, "Theatre Obsession: Saucy Tales From the Aisle." She will be performing in the ONE Festival in New York City, April 27 and 30. Her visual arts project, utilizing DeaR postcards as seen in Summer Streets 2015 and the Garment District Arts Festival, will connect with comedy variety shows until the presidential election in 2016. Visit @DeaRcards on Instagram for more information.

As a participant in Emily Rubin's Write Treatment workshops for people dealing with and surviving cancer, funded through the Readings & Workshops program at Poets & Writers, we writers gather close around the table, buoyed by our continuing bravery. Not because we have each had cancer battles, but because we face blank pages. There is courage in our pens, our prose spilling onto our notebook paper. We face our pain, our past, and our present with soon-to-be scrawled imagination.

The time to be heroes is now, when the prompt has been given and the scratch of pens unites. We hum along, intent, concentrating, as the air duct hums above us. We are silent, reaching towards the perfect word or any word that describes or harnesses the beast. Oh rise up to us, dear muse, gather us towards a salvation. Give us this half hour of life, dripping and dropping or drowning upon the page.

Real or imagined, our lives are entwined within the hallowed pools of spilled ink, shards of dreams, and delights wanting to be read aloud. The words carry us along the timeless highway of connection. Do we all hover over our process or do we sail full-bodied towards a new happening, a new pronunciation, or a new verb? A new definition of closeness comes forth from our writing. We are humbled or overjoyed by word choice; one that comes in a flash yet has a very deep hidden meaning from some vivid past experience.

How do we know how to spell so precisely as letters form under our might? Cosmic rays of intelligence streak across the margins, coloring our lives with magic, hope, and truth. Do we dare to be so bold and blunt, to wildly run to the edge of sanity? Of course, we need this catharsis of earned sentences. We need this healing of combined stories. Or, we just need to make shit up.

Oh bold prince of black ink, earn your way across this boundary of paper. Churn and turn out endless drafts of optimism or cheeky promise. Do not let me down by running out of things to say. This writers group gropes forward to acknowledge the awe and to continue a dialogue with the universe.

Time seems to stand still as penmanship erodes to blurs and barely formed missives. Then, time speeds up as breath is baited and imaginations fired by plucking from dreams or sentimental wanderings. Be still our hearts as we transfer life forces to blue-lined commitment.

The planets lend their full support; the gods look down upon the labor with admiration, as long-held truths are laid bare. Simple connections between humans are being honored and trusted amid the pushing forward of language.

We feel exhaustion, emotion, exhalation, yet all so exquisite. The senses are full, alive, and driving towards one final statement.

My writing friends, my heroes surround me, excited by the closeness and the exertion, all of us gliding towards a complete piece. Tranquility sets in as the closure sentence rounds out. And for a brave finale, we shall read aloud our work. 

Photo: Connie Perry.  Photo credit: Connie Perry.

Support for Reading & 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 form the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Fighting for the Possibility of Creative Work Featuring Jess X. Chen

Jess X. Chen is a filmmaker, multidisciplinary artist/activist and nationally-touring poet. A member of the Justseeds Artists' Cooperative, her films and artwork have been featured in the Asian American International Film Festival, the Huffington Post, the UN Human Rights Council, and the Asian Cinevision Diversity Screening at the New York Times. Her poetry has appeared in Nepantla: A Journal For Queer Poets of ColorHyphen, the Margins, and is forthcoming in the Offing. Through art, organizing and education, she is working toward a future where migrant and indigenous youth of color see themselves in stories, whole and heroic, on the big screen, and then grow up to direct their own. You can follow and support her journey at www.jessxchen.com and @jessxchen on Instagram.


When I graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, I decided to pursue the performance of my poetry, the directing of my films, and the teaching of youth art education full time. Growing up with an immense stutter that blocked my ability to speak, and constantly being steered away from the wildness of my own imagination by family members, teachers, and mainstream expressions, I never thought this journey would be possible. Along with the father figures who have been absent from my life, I’ve been uprooted from almost every place I’ve called home, and the content of my work—queer, diasporic, and demanding of migrant and ecological justice—makes it hard for me to survive financially in this world, yet I have still found a way to pursue my art. 

Through poetry, I am reminded that if my ancestors have survived their severance from a culture, and my parents still sing the folk songs of their motherland on a karaoke machine, then the human voice must hold all the resilience in the world. Through poetry I have penned my own emotional history and examined that the human body’s ability to rise again and again holds a hope beyond the logic of our rational world. When the windstorms blow me off my feet and all the starlings in the forest take flight, I shudder to discover the eye of the storm in my own words. 

Support from Poets & Writers has played an important part in this journey. It has funded many of my poetry performances in noninstitutional spaces, women of color reading series and multidisciplinary writing workshops with youth of color across the country, regardless of their size. Poets & Writers tells me that these little poems, these workshops are worth several hundred dollars: enough money for a week of meals, a week of NYC rent, or a flight to visit a long-distance lover. In the grand scheme of things, this support is huge for emerging writers of color who constantly spend their first years struggling to balance multiple unrelated or semi-related jobs to make their creative work possible. Because there is no limit to the amount of times I can ask an organization to apply for my funding, Poets & Writers helps set a new standard urging the importance of compensating writers for their cultural work.  

Poets & Writers recently supported a reading where I had the immense honor of opening for black woman poets, Mahogany Browne and Sonia Sanchez at BRIC Arts Media’s Stoop Series. The reading was also the unveiling of a collaborative mural in the same location cocreated by artist and best friend, Jetsonorama, and I that celebrates Sonia and Mahogany’s intergenerational black sisterhood and their radiant oral tradition. Beginning with an open mic featuring local woman poets of color, this multidisciplinary reading and mural unveiling drew an audience of over three hundred people. Most of them were people of color ranging vastly in age and style. This event is amongst the imaginings of spaces I’d dreamt of as a young girl to someday grow up and be a part of.

I’m learning that dreaming cannot sustain itself without the support of community, compensation, and loving creative spaces that each honor the diverse needs of the artist. Thank you for helping with the sustainment of my dreaming. Today, I am working toward a dream where migrant, indigenous, and LGBTQ people of color can see themselves and their own imaginations, whole and heroic on the blank page and big screen, and then grow up to write and direct their own.

You can support this dream by following my art, poetry and film projects on Instagram @jessxchen. You can also check out the work of two incredible incredible queer poets and activists of color: Kay Ulanday Barrett and Sonia Guinansaca who have both taught me so much.

Top photo: Jess X. Chen. Photo credit: Kat Waterman

Bottom photo: Sonia Sanchez and Mahogany Brown in front of a mural by Jess X. Chen and Jetsonorama. Photo credit: Jess X. Chen

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.

Tour to End Queer Youth Homelessness Featuring Christopher Soto

Christopher Soto (aka Loma) is a queer latinx punk poet and prison abolitionist. Originally from Los Angeles, they now live in Brooklyn. Their first chapbook, Sad Girl Poems, is newly released from Sibling Rivalry Press. They have an MFA in poetry from New York University where they studied with Eileen Myles. For more information, visit christophersoto-poet.com.

Following the release of my chapbook, Sad Girl Poems (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016), I decided to go on a national tour to end queer youth homelessness. Much of my writing in this initial chapbook discusses my personal relationship to domestic violence, gender tourism, housing instability, etc. I wanted to talk to poetry communities and queer youth across the country about these experiences and about producing poetry in the age of mass incarceration. What does it mean to write about queer youth homelessness while over two million people are incarcerated in the U.S.? What is the historical (and literary) relationship between homeless queer youth and mass incarceration? I wanted to talk about my poems and my histories. I wanted to talk about Vanguard, S.T.A.R. (street transvestite action revolutionaries)The Young Lords, Sylvia Rivera, the Nuyorican Poets Movement, June Jordan, Miguel James, and so on.

Independently, I was able to book events at a handful of universities and organizations. Yet, I was not able to book and venture to smaller organizations which could not afford my travel, accommodation, and reading fees. Artists need to get paid for their labor. We are the thinkers, feelers, culture producers, visionaries in the county! This is where Poets & Writers comes in. At several of my readings in New York City and Chicago, the hosts applied for (and received funding) from Poets & Writers so that I can come speak to their communities. Thank you Poets & Writers! This funding allows me to travel and speak and be paid for the artistic work that I do. I believe that one of the greatest ways to appreciate an artist is to financially support their lives lived as creative people. Currently, the status quo in many literary communities is to underfund artists. Many organizers believe that artists are getting paid with visibility and recognition. These frameworks are false. When artists are not paid it is classist and exploitative (not a privilege). We need to be able to pay for food and rent and living! I am so thankful to Poets & Writers for the funding that they provide to creative people and literary organizations.

I am so thankful for the opportunity to read at all of the universities that have invited me to speak. I remember growing up, and as a teenager listening to spoken word artists feature their work around Southern California venues (such as A Mic and Dim Lights). I wanted so badly to be invited to speak as a feature for someone. I wanted so badly to share my work with the world. Now, years later, I am doing it. I am speaking and writing and traveling and making money from my poems: these little words thrown across the page. My tour dates will be available on my website christophersoto-poet.com and my creative work is also available online for anyone who wants to take a gander. I guess, I will close by saying this: PAY YOUR ARTISTS / END QUEER YOUTH HOMELESSNESS / DEMAND RESPECT FOR YOUR LIFE AND FOR YOUR WORK / YOU DESERVE IT.

Photos: Christopher Soto. Photo credit: Irmand Trujillo

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 form the Louis & Anne Abrons Fondation, the Axe-Houghton Fondation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust and Friends of Poets & Writers, as well as by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others.

Adrienne Perry on Gulf Coast

Adrienne Perry serves as the current editor of Gulf Coast, is a Kimbilio Fellow, and a member of the Rabble Collective. She earned her MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers and is a PhD candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston. Perry's work has appeared or is forthcoming from Copper Nickel, Tidal Basin Review, the Journal of Creative Writing Studies, and Indiana Review.

Adrienne PerryWhat makes your organization (press, series, etc.) and its program(s) unique?
Houston, Texas is fortunate to have a vibrant literary community and Gulf Coast hosts just one of its several popular reading series. Over the last few years, the Gulf Coast Reading Series has welcomed to the same stage authors in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston, and authors who live and work outside of the Bayou City. At any given reading, we offer a mix of poets and prose writers, some of whom are up-and-coming and others who are—like Jamaal May, Caitlin Horrocks, Wayne Miller, and Wendy Walters—established in their careers. A Gulf Coast reading may take place on the shadowy second floor of Rudyard’s British Pub or among the brightly lined shelves at Brazos Bookstore. Parts of the reading may be in Old English or in Korean. Either way, these readings are entirely student-run and they are fierce. As the only nationally distributed journal of literature and fine art in Houston, we feel a need to make each reading worth folks’ while. 

What recent project and/or program have you been especially proud of and why?
Most recently, Gulf Coast partnered with the Failure to Identify Series and Project Row Houses to bring 2015 National Book Award winner Robin Coste Lewis to the Eldorado Ballroom. We’re proud of this reading not simply because it was an honor to have Robin reading beneath the Gulf Coast, Project Row Houses, and Failure to Identify banners, but because we are eager to pair up with other arts and cultural organizations in Houston to produce exceptional programing. People still remember Caitlin Horrocks’s reading from her story “Mermaid and Knife,” and we know people will remember Robin’s reading for a long time, too.

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
This question brings out my inner drama queen. Recalcitrant audiovisual devices, late speakers, readers who hijack the microphone, albeit in a well-meaning way—but all of the ups and downs have actually been run of the mill. That said, during a reading at the Houston Printing Museum, the artist Chitra Ganesh was talking about the virtues of Choose Your Own Adventure books when the sky opened up and rain pounded onto the roof, interrupting her for several minutes. Or, maybe it was when one of our fiction editors, Dino Enrique Piacentini, brought his own prop—a little red Dirt Devil vacuum—to a surrealist-themed reading at the Poison Girl Bar.  

How do you cultivate an audience?
This is such a good question and I think this is something we still work on. Because we want to both cultivate an audience and at the same time serve those folks who’ve been devoted to us across time. Cultivating an audience is about making sure that our programming doesn’t just speak to one kind of people. We’re conscious of trying to mix up poets and prose writers, include and acknowledge different identities, aesthetics; and our reading series curators, Martin Rock and Erika Jo Brown have been phenomenal at this. Our events are free, but that doesn’t mean we should be nonchalant about the fact that busy people have taken time out of their day to give a nod to art, to beauty. There’s a kind of responsibility in that. We’ve also learned to stop going it alone. When we pair up with others, our programs are inevitably richer.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
Houstonians love literature in a deliciously unpretentious way. Houston comes out to hear writers who bring them pleasure. We don’t stop enough to consider the vulnerability and pleasure that comes from seeing someone read their work. It’s more than self-expression; it concerns a different way of hearing and seeing and, most importantly, reading.

Photo: Adrienne Perry  Photo credit: Lesli Vollrath

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Houston, Texas 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.

Coming to Poetry Late in Life

Since 2011, P&W has supported creative writing workshops for Los Angeles seniors through the sponsoring organization EngAGE, a nonprofit that fosters the arts, wellness, and lifelong learning for seniors in Southern California. It started with workshop leader Hannah R. Menkin, and since then P&W has supported workshops led by Morgan Gibson, Mike "the Poet" Sonksen, Michael C. Ford, and Oshea Luja. The workshops, which now take place at both the Burbank and North Hollywood Senior Artist Colonies, bring together creative seniors in their sixties, seventies, eighties, and some even in their nineties. Participants are multitalented—some paint, some sing, some act—and all of them have discovered or rediscovered a love of writing. In part two of a two-part blog report, Jamie Asaye FitzGerald, director of the Readings & Workshops (West) program, reflects on an interview with a few of the workshop participants. (Be sure to check out last week’s blog post by the McCrindle Foundation Readings & Workshops Fellow, Melissa Sipin.)

Kit Harper, Jean T. Ritchie, Lucius Foster

One of the most gratifying aspects of teaching creative writing is witnessing what flows forth when a student, who had no idea they could write or thought they couldn't, discovers they can. Now imagine if that student were someone in their seventies, eighties, or nineties.

"I don’t believe I wrote a poem before I started the workshop," said Abigail Howard, when we sat down to interview her and fellow participants in the P&W–supported poetry writing workshops presented by EngAGE.

Similarly, Jean T. Ritchie commented: "I have never been involved in poetry writing in my life," and ninety-three-year-old Lucius Foster said: "I’ve avoided it all the way through. But things are changing, things are happening...."

Things really are happening at the Burbank and North Hollywood Senior Artist Colonies, where workshop participants have found out something late in life: They can write—and it gives them satisfaction and purpose. 

"I didn’t know I had it in me," said Ritchie. "And I’m very proud."

Foster held P&W staff rapt as he read a poem about his escape from a German POW camp in which he exchanged clothes with a German civilian and rode off on her bicycle, then regaled listeners with other stories of his incredible World War II experiences.

Kit Harper, who has always been an avid writer, credits the workshop with rekindling her passion for poetry: "It is the great passion of my life, I love it very much, and I am at my happiest when I am sweating over the computer." She continued, "I’m grateful that I’ve been given this gift, and I want to do something of value with it."

Harper commented that the workshop has taught her "to blow Darth Vader off my shoulder. The little critic that says: You can’t do it. You’re not Dylan Thomas. That stuff goes on forever!"

The workshop gives students the tools to steer clear of other barriers. “I keep practicing,” says Howard, “I keep picking up the pen. It’s like I forget how to do that. And we come here together and I remember how to do it again.”

It doesn’t take a study to see how these writing workshops are enhancing the lives, not just of the seniors in these workshops, but of the teachers who teach them, and anyone who comes to listen to their wise and wonderful words.

See photos and video from the 2015 Lit Crawl event, On Being a Kid: A Poetry Reading by Los Angeles Senior Artists, which featured participants from the P&Wsupported EngAGE writing workshops at the Burbank and North Hollywood Senior Artist Colonies.

Photos (from left): Workshop participants Kit Harper, Jean T. Ritchie, and Lucius Foster. Photo credit: Tess. Lotta.

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

What Poetry Pulls Out of You

Since 2011, P&W has supported creative writing workshops for Los Angeles seniors through the sponsoring organization EngAGE, a nonprofit that fosters the arts, wellness, and lifelong learning for seniors in Southern California. It started with workshop leader Hannah R. Menkin, and since then P&W has supported workshops led by Morgan Gibson, Mike "the Poet" Sonksen, Michael C. Ford, and Oshea Luja. The workshops, which now take place at both the Burbank and North Hollywood Senior Artist Colonies, bring together creative seniors in their sixties, seventies, eighties, and some even in their nineties. Participants are multitalented—some paint, some sing, some act—and all of them have discovered or rediscovered a love of writing. In part one of a two-part blog report, Melissa Sipin, the McCrindle Foundation Readings & Workshops Fellow, reflects on an interview with a few of the workshop participants. (See part two by Jamie Asaye FitzGerald, director of the Readings & Workshops (West) program.)

Oshea Perry-Luja, Felicia Soisson-Segal, Abigail Howard

“It always helps me to look at the world in the kind of sensuality that poetry pulls out of you,” said Felicia Soisson-Segal, one of the participants in the P&W–supported poetry workshop for residents at the Burbank Senior Artists Colony.

After an hour-long drive across the sprawl of Los Angeles, from the Westside to Burbank, I had just arrived with my colleague, Readings & Workshops (West) director Jamie Asaye FitzGerald, to meet with a group of senior writers for an interview on the workshop series and their creative process. What Felicia said struck me in a profound way, reshifting how I understand poetry’s effect on my daily life—how it allows me to think-feel the world more sensually, to be more present, even after enduring the mind-numbing traffic of L.A.

I first met Felicia and the other participants after Poets & Writers and the cosponsoring organization EngAGE held a reading for seniors from the North Hollywood and Burbank Senior Artist Colonies. The event was called “On Being a Kid: A Poetry Reading by Los Angeles Senior Artists,” and the poems that were read during the event harkened back to Felicia’s sentiments, that the power of writing allows one to think-feel the world, as if we were curious children again. 

Abigail Howard, another Burbank workshop participant, expounded on what Felicia said by describing the writing process: "When I started the poetry workshop and started writing poetry, something opened up. And the feedback from other people said: This was okay; what opened is good.” She continued, “It’s as if I lived in a little dark cave inside of myself and I was able to open up little tiny windows to let something out that I didn’t even know was there. And then that got bigger and bigger.” Abigail’s words reminded me that it is poetry then, and what it pulls out of you, that liberates you from the “dark cave,” which alludes back to the centuries-old allegory of Plato’s cave and the enlightenment of self.

Oshea Luja, the workshop facilitator for Burbank, instructed his classes with this in mind, saying: “I believe we have been working on the soul.” Over the course of the workshops, Oshea and the participants became very close, affectionately dubbing themselves “Oshea’s OWLs—Old White Ladies” after they visited one of his open-mic sessions for youth in Inglewood and recognized they were among the few white audience members there. Oshea described the workshops as a harmonious cross-cultural and cross-generational experience: “We all come from different backgrounds, and yet we are able to harmonize through writing. It’s been music that we’ve been creating together.”

It is my belief that poetry brings out what the body think-feels, which is what D. H. Lawrence once said: “The body’s life is the life of sensations and emotions.... All the emotions belong to the body, and are only recognized by the mind.” This is what poetry pulls out of us: the ageless and timeless inner life.

See photos and video from the 2015 Lit Crawl event, On Being a Kid: A Poetry Reading by Los Angeles Senior Artists, which featured participants from the P&W–supported EngAGE writing workshops at the Burbank and North Hollywood Senior Artist Colonies.

Photos (from left): Workshop leader Oshea Luja and workshop participants Felicia Soisson-Segal and Abigail Howard. Photo credit: Tess. Lotta.

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

The Fifteenth Annual Jubilee of Reading Book Club Conference

Myguail Chappel works in the DeKalb County Public Library's Adult Services department. For over ten years Chappel has coordinated diversity programs including One County, Many Voices; Pub Fiction; International Café; the Jubilee of Reading Book Club Conference; and outreach programs to local nonprofit community organizations in the DeKalb community in Decatur, Georgia. Throughout his tenure, Chappel has leveraged funding from Poets & Writers to develop poetry readings and literary readings that highlight the talents of local and national writers who share in the library’s vision of inclusiveness, diversity, and education to nontraditional library patrons and avid library users.

What makes your program unique?
The DeKalb County Public Library’s annual Jubilee of Reading Book Club Conference is unique because it allows booklovers and book clubs an opportunity to meet national and local award-winning authors in an intimate setting. The format of the conference allows attendees to hear each author discuss their writing, ask questions of the author, take pictures, and receive a personalized signed copy of the author’s work. This one-of-a-kind library event is held annually and with the assistance of Poets & Writers, this past year we were able to leverage resources and invite two nationally known authors Nea Simone and Deborah Johnson.

What recent program have you been especially proud of and why?
With the assistance of funding through Poets & Writers, our annual April Poetry Month program, which honors the works of poets, was a highlight for the DeKalb County Public Library. Poet Theresa Davis performed to poetry enthusiasts. Many attendees expressed they were new to her work, but had seen a listing of the event on the Poets & Writers Literary Events Calendar. This helped to expand the library’s publicity resources and allowed for the poet to gain new followers.

What was your most successful literary program, and why?
The most successful literary event has been the fifteenth Annual Jubilee of Reading Book Club Conference that was held on December 5, 2015. Normally we cap registration at one hundred attendees, but with the assistance of Poets & Writers we were able to accommodate over one hundred and fifty attendees. The energy and reception for the conference was magical. Authors and book lovers e-mailed me after the conference expressing that the event was both informative and fun. Author Deborah Johnson wrote, “I am sending you a proper, written thank you but just wanted to send a quickie now to let you know how honored I was to be asked to participate in the Jubilee of Reading. What a fantastic event—everything so well organized and with such fantastic participants.”

What’s the most memorable thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
Every event that has been hosted has had memorable moments. The most common theme for me would be seeing the joy that literary and poetry readings bring to the audience and the authors. The written word is sacred and to have that sacredness shared from each individual author’s perspective opens up the diverse world we live and participate in.

How do you cultivate an audience?
DeKalb County Public Library has created a great literary following through programming that we offer throughout the year. At the programs, we ask if attendees would like to be contacted about future events and use this database as a way to advertise, along with publicity through local newspapers, flyers, and Poets & Writers' resources, including the free Literary Events Calendar.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
A value cannot be placed on literary programs. The readings have allowed community participants an outlet to begin sharing their stories: to heal their inner conflicts and place value on their lives. Hosting authors has increased our community value by educating the public and creating a more educated society, gaining new readers, and allowing for diverse groups of people to connect and share their love of reading. The programs also give authors a platform to share their work and expand their audience.

Photo: Author Nea Simone at the Jubilee of Reading Book Club Conference. Photo credit: Angela Ried.

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Atlanta, Georgia 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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