Readings & Workshops Blog

Writing Workshops as Healing Circles

Bobby González is a nationally known multicultural motivational speaker, storyteller, and poet. Born and raised in South Bronx, New York, he grew up in a bicultural environment. González draws on his Native American (Taino) and Latino (Puerto Rican) roots to offer a unique repertoire of discourses, readings, and performances that celebrates his indigenous heritage.

At the beginning of the first in a series of six “Spoken Word 101” workshops at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, I made it clear that I wasn’t going to teach anyone to be a better poet or spoken word artist. We were gathered to support each other as we explored the world of spoken and written word. For inspiration we read and discussed some of the verses of Aja Monet, Charles Bukowski, Nanao Sakaki, Sonia Sanchez, and other authors. Also, every session included the viewing of a YouTube video of these poets reciting their works.

This was the fifth year of the summer workshops at the Bronx Museum, and the participants quickly realized that we were creating in a safe zone. They wrote and shared poetry that disclosed family secrets, personal tragedies, racial angst, and heroic triumphs. The writing and the sharing was an integral part of their ongoing healing process. Tears were shed, voices were raised in anger, and a couple of emotional recitals were reciprocated with huge hugs.

Each session of “Spoken Word 101” resulted in the formation of a family that transcended reading, writing, and performing. Like all families, losses were experienced. Within the last few months, two members of our family passed away. Steve “Latin Gorilla” Lewis and Robert Waddell both died suddenly. We paid tribute to them in open mic readings and reminded ourselves that their thoughts and spirits will live forever in our hearts and in the poetry they left behind.

Through “Spoken Word 101” we all relearned language, dramatic articulation, and the wonder of allowing ourselves to bare our vulnerabilities with friends we barely met but already knew we could trust. That’s the power of poetry. The Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program provides vital financial support for a literary series in an underserved community that is greatly appreciative of this empowering experience.

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program 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 Frances Abbey Endowment, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photo: (left to right) Makeba Higgins, Dara Kalima, Damien Tillman, Bobby González, and Rosa Velez (Credit: Maria Aponte).

Urban Possibilities: Giving Voice to Inner-City Job Seekers

Eyvette Jones Johnson and her husband Craig Johnson are founders of Urban Possibilities, an empowerment program that uses writing and performance to help inner-city job seekers thrive in the marketplace and in life. Craig is a photographer who chronicles their journey and Eyvette serves as executive director. For fifteen years, she was a TV producer creating shows for networks that include CBS, NBC, ABC, and PBS. Today, she uses skills honed in entertainment to help adults find their voices, tell their stories, and bring diverse audiences together to celebrate their talent. 80 percent of Urban Possibilities students are or have been homeless.

Each time an inner-city job seeker walks through our doors, we see unparalleled treasure. To make sure audiences and employers see it too, we know our job is to deliver light into deep dark places. The voices and stories of our students are buried under life’s toughest circumstances: homelessness, joblessness, abuse, addiction, and military trauma, among others. Our students are adults, often marginalized, fighting to survive and searching for work in the homeless capital of America: Los Angeles.

Supported by Poets & Writers from the day we began, our twelve-week Writing Empowerment program at Chrysalis job center is a fueling station that turns pain into power for those making their way back from the abyss. Writing and sharing their truths help ignite their comeback. Weekly classes, most recently led by P&W–supported teaching artist Jesse Bliss, help urban job seekers deal with trauma, rediscover their strength, and tell their stories poetically and with power—all skills needed for a successful job search.

Each class culminates in a public performance by students of their original work. Teaching artists from our partners at the Geffen Playhouse coach students to perform their pieces. In each show, we watch our students take the stage and take flight, including students like Norma and Keith.

In our classes, it is common to have students who have been rendered mute by the brutal blows they’ve faced, and Norma was no exception. A middle class woman hurled into silence and homelessness by domestic violence, she’d lost her will months before we met. Norma said, “I was preparing to take my life but this class opened my heart to see beyond my darkness and despair and showed me the greatness that was always there. Now I use my voice in the service of others like me. I use my talent to create change.”

Keith was silent in another way. A soldier in the British Army for over twenty years, he lived from a young age with the ravages of war and in the daily human wreckage of combat zones. He survived in a band of brothers, but watched many of them fall. His closest friend died in his arms in the heat of battle. As a soldier and a Brit, he was taught to keep it all in, buttoned up tight. “Expressing your feelings was something you just didn’t do. But I learned by sharing my story the burdens I carried magically started to lessen and this incredible feeling of empowerment took over. Now in expressing I have the ability to receive and give back,” said Keith.

Norma and Keith were featured artists at Poets & Writers’ Connecting Cultures Reading this summer. As my husband Craig and I watched them poised on the stage, they affirmed beliefs that have become our true north: that there is a sea of untapped potential in inner-city communities just waiting to be set free; our history, no matter how devastating, does not have to dictate our destiny; and the greatest treasures are often buried where many least expect to find them, like the exquisite gold in plain sight walking the streets of Los Angeles’s Skid Row.

Support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the California Arts Council, a state agency, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photos: (top) Eyvette Jones Johnson (Credit: Craig Johnson Photography). (middle) Eyvette Jones Johnson with Norma L. Eaton and Keith Brown (Credit: Craig Johnson Photography). (bottom) Urban Possibilities workshop reading group shot with Chrysalis staff (Credit: Craig Johnson Photography).

The Power of Teaching and Storytelling: A Workshop for Bangladeshi Seniors

Ashwak Fardoush is a writer and a teacher. She was born in Bangladesh and emigrated to the United States with her family at a young age. Her writing explores issues related to gender and sexuality, trauma, body politics, immigration, and holistic writing practices. She facilitates workshops, coaches, and tutors writers to help them venture into unexplored terrains in their writing. Her work appeared in the Margins. She also has a blog about writing.

When India Home invited me to facilitate a bilingual memoir writing workshop for Bangladeshi seniors this year, I knew that I couldn’t pass up such an incredible teaching opportunity. The participants were a few decades older than me, and the sessions were conducted entirely in Bengali.

The night before each class, I would take out Zahir Raihan’s Borof Gola Nodi (translated as River of Melted Ice): a slim book that had its spine falling apart, pages yellowed from age. I had taken out the same book from my aunt’s bookcase over two decades ago. I remember reading that novel one morning when shadows and light played on the veranda floor of my aunt’s rented house. That was many, many moons ago. I had left Bangladesh twenty years ago only to return back to the country once for a handful of days. During my visit, I found Raihan’s book again in my aunt’s home, this time an apartment where the windows looked out at tall buildings that blocked out the light. When my aunt saw the book in my hand, she smiled and told me I could keep it.

When I prepared for the workshop, the novel stayed by my side. In the evening I was immersed in the world of the characters. It was the training ground for the following morning when I would live inside the world created on the page by the writers who came to my workshop.

For eight weeks, the Bangladeshi seniors and I met every Thursday morning. I could see that time had left marks on their bodies. Slouched back, trembling hands, age spots. Time had left behind stories, too. The participants would lean over their marble notebooks and scribble away to capture these stories. They mapped out their lives on the page, sometimes traveling to far-flung places or going deep within themselves. Sometimes personal stories would unfold against the backdrop of history, desires would run up against societal expectations. The seniors excavated memories from their long, rich, vibrant lives and shaped them into poems and personal essays.

I could see how much the writing workshop meant to the seniors. Salema Khatun said, “I had put away my writing for twenty years. After my husband’s death, I took on the full responsibility of my family. But I have written four poems in your class. Look what you have done for me.”

The workshop not only became the space for the seniors to write their stories but also a site for them to share their testimonies—tales suffused with pain, joy, love, loss, dreams, and despair—and be witnessed with respect and camaraderie.

The workshop was meaningful for me, too. I found myself writing alongside the seniors in Bengali after so many years of not writing in that language. Once, I read aloud what I wrote: about being on a boat and moving through the drying Kopothakho River in Jessore, Bangladesh and watching the boatman pushing aside the water hyacinths with his paddle.

Raihan’s novel still sits by my bedside. That book was the boat that bridged the gap between many worlds—between the participants and me, between Bangladesh and the United States, between the different versions of myself.

Through the writing workshop the participants and I coauthored an experience, a story in itself that soon became part of our life’s narrative.

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program 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 Frances Abbey Endowment, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers. 

Photo: (bottom, left to right) Salema Khatun, Farida Talukdar, Quamrun Nahar, and Ashwak Fardoush. (top, left to right): Haque Mohammad, Md. Hoque, Rafiqul Islam, and Md. Mokbul Hossain. (Credit: Sabit Bhuiyan).

Echoes in These Streets: A Reading Series for Women Overcoming Homelessness

Daniela Jungova is the Development & Communications associate at Calvary Women’s Services, the award-winning organization that empowers homeless women in Washington, D.C., to transform their lives through housing, health, education, and employment programs. She feels lucky to have had the opportunity to witness the inspiration that poetry offers to women overcoming homelessness.

“Poetry is people conveying their dreams through words,” mused Sonja Berry, who attended all three of the Echoes in These Streets poetry readings at Calvary Women’s Services—an award-winning organization empowering homeless women in Washington, D.C.

The P&W–supported reading series took place over the course of three beautiful summer Sundays (July 9, 16 and 30) and featured five outstanding poets from the D.C. area—Teri Ellen Cross Davis, Hayes Davis, Katherine McCord, Saundra Rose Maley, and Nancy Arbuthnot. The poets were selected for their cultural relevancy, as well as the ability to connect with diverse populations—the majority of women living at Calvary are survivors of domestic violence, are learning to manage a mental illness, and/or are in recovery from substance abuse.

For many women facing similar challenges, closing up to the world is an easy way to cope. Berry, who came to Calvary four months ago, says that the poets’ openness was a true gift: “Seeing the poets describe reality in metaphors made me feel inspired, and, well, curious.”

Indeed, all five of the presenting poets got quite personal. Their poems tackled issues such as ordinary life, identity, depression, stereotypes, fatherhood, even breastfeeding. Some delivered their works boldly, fearlessly offering their musings to the world. Others invited the audience to an intimate conversation, softly whispering as if to a best friend. All of them though, voiced their inner thoughts in a genuine and relatable way.

Hayes Davis wrote in his piece “Musings”: “One myth that’s part truth / is men don’t always share sadness that rests / on a foundation of vulnerability.” In “Gaze,” Teri Ellen Cross Davis wrote: “Standing, I name myself / shedding the fiction of availability / becoming nonfiction.” In her piece about islands, Katherine McCord contemplated: “After all, swimming is all / luck. We have no gills / and islands are all light. / Escape that.” Saundra Rose Maley described a hot summer night scene in “First Blues”: “Televisions gone bleary / blinked / in front of men / in undershirts drinking beer.” In “Song,” Nancy Arbuthnot observed: “The best things are nearest / breath, light, flowers / the path just before you.”

Arbuthnot, a poetry teacher at the Naval Academy and longtime volunteer at Calvary Women’s Services, says most of her poems, like the one above, explore everyday life, spirituality, and the way we confront major life issues. Perhaps that’s why her poems resonated so strongly with women at Calvary. She feels the same way about them: “Echoes in These Streets was held on Sundays, and attendance was voluntary. The women who showed up were clearly very interested. They were an incredibly receptive audience, which is what every poet certainly appreciates. It’s been delightful—it made me wonder who really is giving and who is gaining.”

Echoes in These Streets brought much joy and inspiration to women at Calvary, who have long enjoyed experimenting with their own creative abilities. Even though the reading series is over, women at Calvary will have the support they need no matter what artistic endeavor they decide to undertake in the future—Calvary’s literacy and arts program, LEAP, runs year-round and is designed to empower women in understanding and using their own talents and strengths.

Elaine Johnson, who coordinates LEAP and witnesses women’s artistic sides firsthand, noted: “Echoes in These Streets deepened women’s relationship with writing. At the last session, the women were discussing the idea of continuing to meet on Sunday evenings to share and discuss their own poetry—and I see that as evidence of the lasting effect of the series!”

Nancy Arbuthnot agrees: “I think it’s really great that Poets & Writers makes it possible for poets to go out to communities like Calvary. Echoes in These Streets clearly showed that the audience and poets alike benefit from these readings.”

The staff and residents of Calvary Women’s Services would like to thank everyone who participated in the readings and savored poetry as a tool for self-expression, empowerment, and acceptance. A sincere thank you also goes to Poets & Writers who made it possible for the five brilliant poets to present their work to women at Calvary. There is no way these three wonderful evenings would have been possible without your generous support. Here at Calvary, your gift of poetry will certainly keep on giving.

Support for Readings & Workshops 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.

Photos: (top) Hayes Davis, Sonja Berry, and Teri Ellen Cross Davis (Credit: Elaine Johnson). (bottom) Saundra Rose Maley and Nancy Arbuthnot with audience member (Credit: Elaine Johnson).

Never Forgotten: A Nisei Writing Workshop

Naomi Shibata, author of Bend With the Wind: The Life, Family, and Writings of Grace Eto Shibata (Shibata Family Partnership, 2014), is a docent and senior engagement writing instructor with the National Japanese American Historical Society of San Francisco. She also delivers guest lectures on the Japanese American experience to schools, historical societies, museums, service organizations, libraries, and book clubs. Shibata is a University of California graduate and a high technology industry veteran. From April to June 2017, Shibata led a series of P&W–supported writing workshops for second-generation Japanese American elders (the Nisei) with the theme: “Tell your story as you would like it told.” Below, Shibata blogs about her approach to working with the elders and the importance of the project.

In late 2016, I received an invitation to lead a workshop for first-time writers. Sponsored by the Friends of the Little Tokyo Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library and Poets & Writers, the four-part program targeted second-generation Americans of Japanese descent, the Nisei.

The Nisei, now in their eighties and nineties, are the last in a line of storytellers with firsthand accounts of a dark time in American history. Their racial-ethnic community was disenfranchised, incarcerated, and exiled by the U.S. government during World War II. For some Nisei, the time has come to speak of their lives before, during, and after the incarceration. It is time to write about the long road to the American Dream. It is time to tell their stories as they would like them told.

I knew that the success of this workshop hinged on integrating the Japanese American experience with the how-tos of Storytelling 101. Presenting the material in a relevant context would help participants internalize the concepts and release their ideas into words. I also suspected that healthy doses of offbeat humor would lighten and facilitate the learning process for an audience comprised of educators, medical professionals, attorneys, and amateur historians.

The workshop participants shared a common goal—kodomo no tame ni, to write “for the children.” In the winters of their lives, they chose to tell their stories on their own terms. Forthright and candid, they knew that their words were the most priceless legacies. One observer asked these novice writers how they found the courage to reveal so much about themselves. One participant answered for them all when he replied, “I want my grandchildren to know the truth.”

The new voices recorded crossroad moments, human drama, and the value of small acts of kindness. Succinct and uncensored, they spoke of how one teacher’s arbitrary change of a little girl’s name shaped the six-year-old’s resolve always to have her voice heard; how a ten-year-old boy experienced loss when the FBI interned both his parents; and how a young woman valued the simple social courtesies shown to her by strangers.

The workshop participants and I wish to extend our thanks to Alanna Lin Ramage and the Friends of the Little Tokyo Branch library, Los Angeles Public Library Senior Librarian James Sherod, and Readings & Workshops (West) director Jamie Asaye FitzGerald. Their support was instrumental in helping new writers preserve the stories of lives well lived.

Support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the California Arts Council, a state agency, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photos: (top) Naomi Shibata giving an introduction at the culmination reading (Credit: Jamie Asaye FitzGerald). (bottom, left to right): Irma Fukumoto, Adeline Manzo, Hagiko Kusunoki, Vice President of the Friends of the Little Tokyo Branch Library Ron Hirano, Ray Saruwatari, Naomi Shibata, and President of the Friends of the Little Tokyo Branch Library Alanna Lin Ramage (Credit: Jamie Asaye FitzGerald).

An Evening at the Bryant Park Reading Room

Program assistant for Readings & Workshops (East) Ricardo Hernandez blogs about an evening at Bryant Park’s Reading Room series in New York City, co-curated by Poets & Writers.

Since 2003, the Reading Room at Bryant Park has hosted established and emerging poets at an “open air” reading series held in the heart of Manhattan. This summer, the Readings & Workshops program was offered the opportunity to co-curate an evening of this series. Against a backdrop of jugglers, double-decker buses, and the New York Public Library’s Main Branch, Oliver Baez Bendorf, Elana Bell, Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, and Duy Doan shared their work.

Opening the evening, Baez Bendorf read poems from his book, The Spectral Wilderness (Kent State University Press, 2015), many of which interrogate and obfuscate masculinity. In one, the speaker directed us to call him, “giddyup and Tarzan, riot boy/ and monk, flavor-trip and soldier and departure,” each image bucking against what Judith Butler, quoted in the poem’s epigraph, calls “the ambivalent process” of identification.

Next, Bell read one poem written from a hilltop overlooking the settlement of Neve Daniel on the West Bank, dedicated to a woman named “Amal, whose name means hope.” With a piercing eye, the speaker outlines the differences between herself, who has “never drunk rain/ collected from a well dug by [her] own hands,” and Amal, who “moves/ through her land like an animal” and “laughs with all her teeth,” resulting in a tender ode to domesticity and diversity.

Boyce-Taylor read from her latest collection, Arrival (Northwestern University Press, 2017), which tells the story of a recently immigrated Trinidadian girl, her parents, and her stillborn twin brother. In one of the most poignant moments of Boyce-Taylor’s reading, the speaker imagines a moment of kindness in the womb, before her twin’s death: “He handed me the soft bread of his lips. ‘Sell it if you ever need shelter.’ Then he was gone.”

Bringing the reading came to an end, Doan shared poems from his manuscript, We Play a Game, selected by Carl Phillips for the 2017 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize. In the poem “Love Trinkets,” Doan’s speaker presents his experiences with love in a poignant litany, detailing lovers who had spurned him; who had deceived him; and one who “was kind, so kind, in kissing/ [him] at all.”

Poets & Writers is thankful for the opportunity to collaborate with the Reading Room, and a special thanks to each of our featured readers!

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program 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 Frances Abbey Endowment, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photo: (left to right) Duy Doan, Oliver Baez Bendorf, Elana Bell, and Cheryl Boyce-Taylor (Credit: Ricardo Hernandez).

Poets & Writers’ Connecting Generations Sixteenth Annual Intergenerational Reading

Christine Penney is newly retired. She is excited and daunted by discovering her voice again in writing through P&W–supported workshops at Goddard Riverside Community Center’s Senior Center in New York City, where she worked as a program coordinator for fourteen years. Many moons ago, she cowrote a one-woman show “Kaethe Kollwitz Presents a Brief History of Modern Art,” and performed it in New York City. Acting in theatre, television, and films in the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City spanned her early years. She raised a brilliant and deeply loved and admired daughter, Kalen Wheeler, in a railroad apartment on the Upper West Side, who is her greatest support.

The Poets & Writers’ Connecting Generations Sixteenth Annual Intergenerational Reading took place on Saturday, June 17 at Barnes & Noble at Union Square in New York City.

Poets & Writers began this event in 2001 to celebrate the work of elders and teens, who have participated in writing workshops supported by the Readings & Workshops program throughout New York City. It began in a community room at Goddard Riverside Community Center’s Naturally Occurring Retirement Community program with ten readers and has grown to thirty-five plus readers.

The age span for the participating readers this year was about fifty years. The seniors were from Goddard Riverside Community Center, Stanley Isaacs Neighborhood Center, Grand Street Settlement, Kew Gardens Community Center, Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center, and the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College in collaboration with Siloam Presbyterian Church. The young adults were from Union Square Slam, Urban Word NYC, and the Capicu Cultural Showcase and La Sopa NYC, the School of Poetic Arts.

For fourteen years I worked behind the scenes as a program director at the Goddard Riverside Community Center. From the time I was hired to the time I retired, Poets & Writers has supported writing workshops with seniors in this community; inspiring writers of a population seldom heard, whose lifetime of experiences could just as well have dissolved into airy nothing, if not for these workshops.

I would peek through the small window of the art room intrigued by these writers and their rapt attention as they listened to each other’s work. Outside looking in through the door, I could feel their churning minds, imagination, and their deep desire to tell their stories before time ran out. I longed to be among them.

When I retired, I entered the writing workshop. The challenge brought me back to my own creative roots, brought me back to me, and renewed my sense of purpose. I got to read my work for the first time in public and it was thrilling.

This year’s Intergenerational Reading featured issues of immigration, race, sexual identity, domestic abuse, parenting, and love.

Some highlights included a sestina of thumping political injustice by Suzanne Pavel, and lines of poetry from others. In “As a Teacher, I Use My Heart,” Brendan Gellette wrote: “I pull it out in the classroom, leave it on the table.” “Another heart vanished into a steamy mirror, as her father entered,” is how my piece “Bath Time” ends. “You’ll thank me for this some day. And took out his belt and buckle,” wrote George Schirmann. In I. S. Jones’s poem (to be published in Anomaly, formerly Drunken Boat) she wrote: “You break me with love because this is your inheritance, a family heirloom.”

Protesting vaginas and slamming sexual confusion rapped out in beats, contrasted with the quiet rhythmic grace of Tony Morris’s piece: “Behold, time is a precious thing. But when you must, answer the call.” Even Marilyn Monroe showed up in a fictional piece by Kathy Wilson, where Marilyn phoned another actor humbly asking if he was available to rehearse a scene for a Lee Strasberg class.

Young or old, we took our moment, whether unapologetically flinging it out with the raw, passionate urgency of youth, or tiptoeing softly to the end, quietly speaking our truth. The style did not matter. Let no one shut us up about what we see or what we feel, no matter what age, what race, what country, what disability, or sexual orientation we have.

“It made me feel alive, brought me back the anger and injustice I felt as a young adult. Bravo to the young folks’ vulnerability and grit,” said one senior.

“I think it’s a fantastic idea that P&W brings together this wide range of poets in terms of age, race, gender, and life experience. As an emerging poet, it gives me a lot of hope to read alongside seasoned poets because in this particular craft, we play the long game. It gives me hope that if I stay true to myself and what I need out of my work, that I will be alright,” said I. S. Jones.

To return to my creative core is a blessing and the best part is finding a community of like-minded people to share this new discovery with. Thank you to my friends in the writing group, to our loved and trusted workshop facilitator Elena Alexander, and to Bonnie Rose Marcus, director of the Readings & Workshops (East) for inviting me to write this blog. And thank you Poets & Writers for this gift, offering us a platform to express ourselves, listen to others, and learn!

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program 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 Frances Abbey Endowment, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photos: (top): Christine Penney and her daughter Kalen Wheeler (Credit: Margarita Corporan). (bottom): Readers and host Regie Cabico (Credit: Margarita Corporan).

Poets & Writers’ Seventh Annual Los Angeles Connecting Cultures Reading

Readings & Workshops (West) director Jamie Asaye FitzGerald blogs about Poets & Writers’ seventh annual Los Angeles Connecting Cultures Reading at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice, California.

Each year for the past seven years, Poets & Writers has held the Los Angeles Connecting Cultures Reading, which astounds audiences with the diversity of its performers and their unique voices, and the power of the work read to redeem, heal, and delight.

We select five organizations that serve culturally diverse groups and have received support from the Readings & Workshops (R&W) program to help curate the event. Each organization chooses readers to represent them at the reading. This year’s event was held at Beyond Baroque on June 4, 2017 and included 826LA, a writing and tutoring center; Beyond Baroque, a literary/arts center; the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory, serving homeless and at-risk youth; Bittersweet: The Immigrant Stories, a reading featuring the voices of immigrant writers; and Urban Possibilities, serving the urban poor of Los Angeles. It’s wonderful to witness the general comradery between the presenters as they meet and discover one another’s work.

Among the eleven readers, who all gave strong readings, were four teen writers, including Xolo Maridueña, a fifteen-year-old sophomore who attended a R&W–supported writing workshop with Jeff Chang at the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory in March. Xolo read his first poem ever—a poem about falling in love, in which he wrote: “When I would see her, the butterflies in my stomach would turn into pterodactyls,” an experience I’m sure many in the audience could relate to. Also writing on the theme of love was another teen writer, Ashla Chavez Razzano, representing 826LA, who wrote, “a spider’s web taught me to love.” Nadia Villegas, also representing 826LA, read a poem about how “blue nail polish is freedom,” and Vera Castañada from the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory called the neighborhood around Cesar Chavez Avenue where she grew up, “the West Coast Ellis Island.”

So Hyun Chang, representing Bittersweet: The Immigrant Stories, read in Korean his poem “Sugarcane Arirang,” recounting the first Korean American’s long days in the sugar fields of Hawaii, where they would chant a song of hope, “arirang, arirang,” to help pass the time. Hack Hee Kang read a poem using the Korean dish bi bim bap to convey a sense of loneliness and longing, and Jun C. Kim moved silently as a recording of his poem played over the loud speaker.

Ambika Talwar, who hails from India, read on behalf of Beyond Baroque rich, evocative poems about searching for home and “the true power of your own volition.” Jessica Ceballos y Campbell also representing Beyond Baroque, read her poem from Only Light Can Do That, a collection of stories, poems, and essays published by PEN Center USA in response to the 2016 presidential election and ensuing events. Her poem, dedicated to her parents and “all of the magicians” spoke of those who make “gardens, in a world that would prefer us not to exist” and how “When man, woman, and child pour their bodies across the man-made borders they are executing a willed-intention to change what they know of the world….”

Yvette Jones-Johnson, the executive director of Urban Possibilities, spoke powerfully about homelessness in Los Angeles, citing lifelong poverty, losing everything, life after incarceration, abuse, and military trauma as some of the factors contributing to the high rates. Her readers, Keith Brown and Norma L. Eaton, are both alums of the Urban Possibilities writing empowerment program. Brown, a veteran who hails from the U.K., read a gorgeous pastoral poem reminiscent of Wordsworth, and Eaton astounded the audience with a devastating poem about her experience of homelessness. After the reading, she commented: “I felt as though I was the Reincarnation of Maya Angelou! She Understood ‘Why the Cage Bird Sang’ And I know how it feels to be homeless and destitute, knowing that ‘My Name Is Forgotten.’  I wanted the Message to be conveyed with the hope of transforming the hearts and changing the stigma of homelessness…. Sharing the stage with the other artists was phenomenal.  I sat and feasted at the table of literary Art.”

We give our thanks to the organizations, project directors, and writers who made this event possible, as well as Beyond Baroque, for hosting and for their support.

To keep up with Readings & Workshops news and events, such as Connecting Cultures, please be sure to sign up for our quarterly newsletter, Readings & Workshops Presents.

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.

Photos (top): Teen poet Xolo Maridueña representing the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory (Credit: Craig Johnson Photography). (bottom): (left to right) Brandi Spaethe, Norma L. Eaton, Keith Brown, Jamie Asaye FitzGerald, Eyvette Jones-Johnson, Ambika Talwar, Hack Hee Kang, audience member, Tanya Ko Hong, Jun C. Kim (Credit: Craig Johnson Photography).

The First-Ever Poetry Workshop at Footsteps

Jessica Greenbaum’s most recent book of poems is The Two Yvonnes (Princeton University Press, 2012). Recipient of an NEA award in 2015 and the Poetry Society’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award in 2016, she is a social worker and teaches inside and outside academia, most recently at Barnard, Central Synagogue, Brooklyn Poets, Footsteps, and for 9/11 first responders through the World Trade Center’s Health Program. You can find out more about her work at poemsincommunity.org.

Last winter, Poets & Writers supported a poetry workshop at Footsteps, the only agency in North America providing services for people venturing out of the insular world of Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy. I had heard about Footsteps through a fellow social worker, Jesse Pietroniro, who was a Footsteps staff member—and I was immediately drawn to working with this community.  (A stellar feature piece about Footsteps, “The High Price of Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Life,” was recently published in the New York Times Magazine.) Jesse helped champion the notion of a workshop to his colleagues, but it was clear that any payment was going to have to come from an outside source. Luckily, a friend introduced me to Emily Rubin, a writer who has been supported by P&W for her workshops with cancer survivors, their families and caregivers, at two hospitals in New York City. Emily told me about P&W’s grant program, and after I reached out to the director of Readings & Workshops (East) Bonnie Rose Marcus, it took P&W almost no time at all to recognize Footsteppers—as they call themselves—as an underserved population if ever there was one.

Because we ran the five weeks of workshops as open door sessions, participants often overlapped from the week before, but each week the room held new people and a varied dynamic. One participant had been writing for years, and was just awaiting the publication of her chapbook, while others came as novices. Very little is as refreshing—and instructive—as the passion of a reader without internalized hierarchies. Discussing the poem of a laureled poet one participant said, “I hate this guy!” This same participant also unpacked more exciting ideas from another well-known poet’s six-line poem than I ever had, adding, “I love this stuff!” Because Footsteppers have learned to survive by listening to their true thoughts, they have honed the tools of a poet—an honest listening—before even stepping into the room.

The big decision in such a workshop is: How overtly therapeutic should the workshop feel—and still offer poetry writing as a means of expression for everyone? In order to best serve the Footsteppers, how directly should I address issues of identity, family abandonment, trauma, and the other emotional weather systems in the world of people leaving an insular community? From the work I had done with 9/11 first responders, and in consultation with studies used by the NEA’s writing program for veterans suffering from PTSD, I decided to offer some model poems that would touch on those issues at a slant, but that the workshop would present itself more neutrally, almost like a cooking class, and that I would follow where discussion and concerns wandered.

As so often happens, class prompts allowed participants to have spontaneous, organic responses. When asked to recount, as if telling the story to a friend, an incident from childhood that remained resonant for them, participants found their way to anecdotes that seem to hold whole microcosms of their bigger histories. And a prompt to follow stream of consciousness did the same.

Find a community with a tragic amount unsaid and you’ll find a workshop with a true reason for finding words. Find people who have lost a profound sense of their past in order to shape their true selves, and you’ll find poems that blaze with life force and discovery.

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program 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 Frances Abbey Endowment, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photo: (top) Jessica Greenbaum (Credit: Leslie Jean-Bart).

It Happens Every Spring in Harlem: A Festival of Poetry

Gregory Crosby is the author of Spooky Action at a Distance (The Operating System, 2014) and The Book of Thirteen (Yes, Poetry, 2016). He teaches creative writing for the College Now program at Lehman College in Bronx, New York.

The Harlem Rhymers are laying it down, beating out the rhythm of the poem with claps and snaps, a row of middle school girls in matching white T-shirts that pop against the red-curtained backdrop of the Marian Anderson Theater stage, bringing the words home and the house down with their choreographed truth:

Pretty hurts, yeah
We know
But these scars aren’t
Here just for show
Work to be skinny
Work to get money
You’re already beautiful enough
That’s the truth, honey!

After the wild applause dies down, these students from PS/IS 180 beam as they pose for photographs with author Jacqueline Woodson, the 45th Special Guest Poet at the City College of New York’s Annual Poetry Festival. Every May for nearly a half-century, students from New York City public schools have gathered to read their winning poems at this day-long celebration of the spoken word, and to hear poets and writers like Woodson (whose appearance was funded in part by the Readings & Workshops program at Poets & Writers) read their work, along with student poets in the MFA Creative Writing program at the City College of New York (CCNY), faculty, and others.

Founded by the poet Barry Wallenstein, the Poetry Festival is the culmination of a year’s work by the CCNY Poetry Outreach Center. Directed by poet and YA author Pamela Laskin, the center sends mentors into New York City schools to conduct poetry workshops; the day’s readings by elementary and middle school poets are the fruit of those sessions. In the afternoon, the winners of the citywide high school poetry contest (sponsored by Alfred K. Knopf), read their poems from the stage. In addition to reading their work aloud for peers and parents, these students enjoy the thrill of seeing their work in print. All poems read on the day of the festival are collected and published in the autumn in the annual anthology Poetry in Performance. Copies are sent to all participants as well as to school libraries around the city.

In the current educational landscape, when poetry as a subject is often sadly shunted aside in favor of mandatory (and seemingly endless) standardized test preparation, CCNY’s Poetry Outreach Center offers many students crucial exposure to the pleasures of writing poetry. Thanks to the contributions of donors, particularly the generous and stalwart support of the Poets & Writers Readings & Workshops program, the center continues its mission, adding new participating schools nearly every year and welcoming returning ones. Every year or two, a new crop of Harlem Rhymers finds the voice that only poetry can give, and takes the stage at the festival to wow another audience with the power of that voice.

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program 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 Frances Abbey Endowment, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photos: (top) Gregory Crosby (Credit: Gregory Crosby). (bottom) Jacqueline Woodson and the Harlem Rhymers (Credit: Lesley Simmonds).

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