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Readings & Workshops Blog

Michael Kearns spent ten years as the artist-in-residence at the Downtown Women’s Center in Skid Row and currently helms Writing Works at Housing Works in Los Angeles on a weekly basis. He is the creator and Artistic Director of QueerWise, a collective of GLBTQ writers who have gained a reputation as one of Los Angeles’s stalwarts in the world of spoken word performance.

Michael KearnsWhat makes your workshops unique?
I really spend a lot of time on the prompt and aim for specificity—the same thing I ask of my students. In the case of QueerWise, which meets fifty-two weeks out of the year, it is my responsibility to mix the palette—from the political to the personal, from the past to the present, from the angst of day-to-day to the joy of living more than five decades. I am also very clear about feedback from the group, insisting that no one “rewrite” but rather offer positive comments that embolden rather than weaken each other. Criticism is contextualized in the form of questions that may be pertinent to understanding the material; no rewriting suggestions, please.
 
What techniques do you employ to help shy writers open up?
A writer must feel safe. I can’t say, “Abracadabra! You’re safe.” But I can create a tone. I stress that no one in the room is there to judge and if I get a whiff of it: “See you later, alligator.” While I look at grammar and punctuation (and provide assistance when needed), I also assure students that I’m looking for stories. And I want heart as well as blood and guts. Humor never hurts.
 
What’s the strangest question you’ve received from a student?
It likely had to do with sex, but I’m too old to remember.
 
What has been your most rewarding experience as a workshop leader?
There are so many. I had a man in his fifties come into my workshop, having never written a word. He had been on the verge of death for more than a decade, defying throat cancer on a daily basis. From the first few sentences he read aloud, I knew he was a natural born writer. He had only recently found housing, after living in his van. I looked at his work and simply gave it the attention it deserved. I forcibly made him acknowledge that he is indeed a writer. This led to him going to college to take a writing class and seeking other writing teachers (which I encourage as long as he stays with me). There are times when a person must utter the four scary words: “I am a writer.” That's when the real work begins.
 
What effect has this work had on your life and/or your art?
My life and art are virtually melded and QueerWise enunciates that marriage. I take this work as seriously as I do any other aspect of my varied career. What began as a group of seven or eight writers (GLBT and over fifty) sitting around a table has—in four years—evolved into a successful troupe of Spoken Word Artists. That couldn’t have happened without the support of Poets & Writers. I learn from each student’s particular perspective, and I also learn when I evaluate how the material is landing on various audience members. That synergy gives me and my art a true uplift of the spirit.
 
What is the craziest thing that’s happened in one of your workshops?
In our QueerWise sessions, everyone is encouraged to get up and read (with no apologies, by the way). One night, our senior member (a mere eighty-five years old at the time), walked up to the music stand, confidently carrying a notebook containing his work for the evening. I don’t think he’d uttered a complete sentence when his pants fell to the floor, like a Barnum & Bailey clown act. Since we all share a palpable closeness, it was permissible to laugh. And no one laughed louder than Joe who, for the record, was wearing his Calvins.

Photo: Michael Kearns     Credit: Lisa Palombi

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

Sally DeJesus is a poet, mixed media artist, and optimist. Since 2005 she has been facilitating poetry and art programs at the Concourse House, a homeless shelter in the Bronx, for women and their children. She also teaches art at Jacob's Place in the Bronx, creating and facilitating youth art programs, and founded the Social Action for Kids Camp. DeJesus's poetry has been published in Manhattan Linear, and her mixed media sculptures were selected for the installation “South Bronx Contemporary: Longwood Arts Project’s Twenty-fifth Anniversary.” She was the winner of the 1998 Yonkers Public Library Slam and her first chapbook of poetry is currently being considered in numerous competitions. DeJesus is often found at Union Square Slam in New York City.

I have been facilitating art programs with the children at Concourse House, Home for Women and Their Children since 2005. Concourse House works to eliminate homelessness by providing homeless families with safe, stable transitional housing. They also work with families to break the cycle of poverty through a variety of social services and programs that promote personal growth and independence.

The programs that allowed children to write and perform their own poems were always the most successful of my programs, and I often wished I could share my love of poetry with the children’s mothers, as well. I am so grateful that Poets & Writers, through their Readings & Workshops program, gave me that opportunity this year.

Once a week we met in the community room at the shelter. These women have faced, and continue to face, enormous challenges. Although I was there to facilitate their learning to write poems, and explore and share work by established poets, my interest was honestly more about sharing with them something that has been extremely healing for me. In my own life, in poetry writing and within performance venues, I have found support and encouragement to put my feelings and observations about my experiences—the good and the not so good—into poetry. I wanted to offer the mothers at Concourse House that kind of support.

Our time together at Concourse House was filled with moments that inspired me. Their faces lit up when I first returned their handwritten poems after having typed them on the page, and then again when all the poems were formatted into a chapbook. One mother told me she had stopped writing poetry when she was a teenager, but after our first workshop, she wanted to start again. She asked for extra pencils and paper so she could go to the park and keep writing. During the workshops, a teenager volunteered to provide child care. For one mother, having someone look after her baby during the workshops gave her the opportunity to write, an opportunity she might have missed.

At the final reading, the mothers’ children were there to hear them. One woman asked if her young son could read her poem aloud at the mic. She whispered to me that he had never heard the names of the medicinal teas that had been a part of her life growing up in Jamaica; he struggled to pronounce the words. By way of the poem, a mother and son later found their way into a conversation about her childhood.

On the last day, as I was turning in my pass at the security desk, a mother came running up to me with her baby in the stroller. She asked if she could show me something. As I sat with her in the hallway, she pulled out the blank journal I’d given her a few weeks earlier to take to the park. Opening it up, she revealed pages and pages of poems and asked me, “Can I read one to you now?”

Photos: (top) Sally DeJesus, (bottom) Mother & Son.  Photo Credit: Sally DeJesus, Homesh Permashwar.

 

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.

Allison Geller is a poet and writer, and the associate editor of A Women's Thing magazine. Her chapbook, Write Home, was published in January 2015 by Finishing Line Press. Geller is also a competitive ballroom dancer.

As poets and artists, we have all contributed our time, work, and creative energies for things that we believe in, whether for a nascent (or not-so-nascent) publication, an event, or a cause. But it’s really great to get paid.

That’s why my Roots Poetry Series cocurator Melissa Ahart and I are tremendously appreciative of the grant funding that Poets & Writers has given us. It lets us honor our poets’ time and work while allowing us to keep our monthly reading series free to the public. As one our recent readers commented, “Great atmosphere, great crowd, great readers and a check at the end—does it get any better?”

The New York Times called Roots Cafe, a South Slope, Brooklyn neighborhood hub for coffee, community, art, and music, “a cozy living room with a barista.” As of last November, it’s a living room with poetry readings. Melissa and I started the series because Roots, beloved by both of us, seemed like a perfectly convivial place for poets to gather and read for the public. And to our delight, each reading has drawn a crowd of Roots regulars, friends of the poets reading, locals, students, artists, and the odd Australian tourist.

In choosing our lineups, we focus on pairing emerging with established poets to create a diverse roster of readers while giving newer poets a platform. One of the best parts about the readings is the end, when the readers get to meet each other and express admiration and encouragement for each other’s work. Readers have included Bianca Stone, Adam Fitzgerald, Hafizah Geter, Morgan Parker, Danniel Schoonebeek, Emily Skillings, Matthew Rohrer, and many more.

Roots Poetry Series is always free, with beer and wine served in exchange for cash donations. (After all, where there are poets, there has to be wine.) Our next event will take place on Friday, August 18 at 8:00 PM, when we will welcome Kyle Dargan, Sara Jane Stoner, Mary Austin Speaker and Justin Petropoulos. And stay tuned for news about our November one year anniversary reading, for which we’re inviting back all of our Roots Poetry alumni for a roundup reading.

Finally, we are immensely grateful to Amanda and Christian Neill of Roots Cafe for providing a warm, vibrant home for poetry in South Slope, and to Poets & Writers for giving our readers something to put in their pockets on the way out. This is how art can keep getting made.

Read more about Roots and follow us on Facebook to find out about upcoming readings.

Photos: (top) Allison Geller, cocurator of the Roots Poetry Series. (bottom) Charif Shanahan reading his poems. Photo Credit: Mary Catherine Kinniburgh, Allison Geller.

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, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and Friends of Poets & Writers.

Authors, Publishers and Readers of Independent Literature (APRIL) is a Seattle-based literary nonprofit working to connect readers with independent literature, authors, and publishers. APRIL hosts a regular book club, bookstore bike tours, and an annual festival during one week in March. Frances Chiem, deputy director of APRIL, blogs about two events from this year’s festival which were supported in part by Poets & Writers. Chiem works in environmental advocacy, and her writing has appeared in Fanzine, Two Serious Ladies, and Washington Trails, among other places. She tweets at @f_e_chiem.

Wendy XuAPRIL has built more than one hundred events in four years with the idea that not all readings should consist of an author standing behind a podium. Sometimes you need a gimmick to draw in new audiences.

During March each year, APRIL celebrates authors and their works that are published outside of the Big Five for a week of goofy, fun, and intimate events meant to honor the vitality of great literature and the attention spans of audience members. APRIL has hosted storytelling competitions pitting poets, playwrights, novelists, and drag queens against each other; collaborations pairing theatre troupes with writers of short fiction; a literary séance for Gertrude Stein’s lover, Alice B. Toklas; readings with cheap food pairings, and more.

cast iron potatoes

The 2015 festival marked the third year APRIL has collaborated with Vignettes, a Seattle visual art series debuting new work in homes turned galleries for a night, to invite a dozen artists to respond to a poetry collection. This year, P&W-supported poet Wendy Xu’s You Are Not Dead (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2013) spawned works like cast iron potatoes, a temporal sculpture of shattered china and sod, soft watercolors, and more.

This year also saw more visiting authors than ever before. Xu, along with other P&W-supported writers Shya Scanlon, author of Forecast (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2012) and The Guild of Saint Cooper (Dzanc Books, 2015), and Mary Miller, author of Big World (Short Flight/Long Drive Books, 2009) and The Last Days of California (Liveright, 2014), were brought to Seattle to join more than twenty authors from the Pacific Northwest for the week of performances.

shattered china and sod

The themed reading is, at its essence, a nerdy party hosted at the Hugo House—a Seattle literary establishment—with a full bar, a snack pairing, and decorations to evoke the mood of the occasion. So how to do that when there’s more than one visiting author? After the high point of the art show for Xu’s work, it was a tall order to deliver, but the apocalyptic scenes in both Scanlon and Miller’s novels provided a comically ominous inspiration for the reading. Fecund with rhododendrons to create a sort of funeral-like pulpit with backing music from band Youryoungbody covering David Lynch’s Twin Peaks soundtrack, the group sought to honor the metafictional science fiction of Scanlon’s newest novel and Miller’s evangelical tragicomedy.

"We want people to see readings as something more than hushed sit-down events for the literati. They can be fun and unintimidating ways to find new and relevant work you might not have connected with otherwise," says APRIL cofounder and managing director Tara Atkinson.

More than one hundred people served as witnesses to the speculations about the end of the world, dozens of them buying the small press books by the featured authors.

Photo 1: Wendy Xu; Photo 2: Cast iron potatoes inspired by Wendy Xu's poetry collection; Photo 3: Shattered china sculpture inspired by Wendy Xu's poetry collection. Credit: Tara Atkinson.

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

Marina Tristán is the assistant director of Arte Público Press at the University of Houston, where she oversees day-to-day operations with a particular emphasis in marketing and promotions for their books, authors, and programs. A native of Texas, she has worked for Arte Público Press for almost thirty years.

MARINA TRISTÁN

It has been gratifying to finally begin to see a shift in attitudes about the value of writings by Latinos (which is not to say that there aren’t any problems in the publication and distribution of books by diverse writers). We now have a U.S. Poet Laureate who is Mexican American! And in Houston—where Arte Público is based—the city’s first Poet Laureate was a Latina. Gwendolyn Zepeda held a two-year term from 2013-2015. Not surprisingly, we published her first collection of short prose almost ten years before, back in 2004.

Like all contemporary authors seeking to build an audience for their work, Gwen has read from and talked about her books at a slew of places around the country and in Houston, her hometown. We have been fortunate to collaborate with local community groups like the Multicultural Education and Counseling Through the Arts (MECA), as we did in April to launch Gwen’s second poetry collection, Monsters, Zombies and Addicts (Arte Público Press, 2015).  

This reading was particularly poignant because Gwen grew up at MECA, singing and dancing in theatrical performances, designing sets, and working summer jobs. Her reading was a homecoming of sorts, and friends—old and new—laughed and cried with her. Clever and very funny, Gwen’s poetry reading was deeply personal and included musings on family, childhood remembrances, and societal expectations. One can only wonder what the future holds for Gwen: U.S. Poet Laureate? Pulitzer Prize winner? National Book Award finalist? Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, Arte Público will continue to do what it has done for the past thirty-three years: publish and promote Latino authors so that American culture includes, values, and reflects Hispanic contributions.

Photo: Marina Tristán    Credit: Carmen Peña Abrego

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.

Bill Berry, Jr. founded aaduna, Inc. in 2010 and published the inaugural issue of aaduna in February 2011. Committed to providing a publication platform for people of colorpeople who have been traditionally denied access to publication platforms, and others who seek a different plateau for creative shifts not generally associated with their previous work­—aaduna is currently read in eighty-three countries. Berry publishes aaduna along with Lisa Brennan, visual arts editor; Pam Havens and Rosemarie Blake, fiction editors; Timothy Ogene, poetry editor; and Ketih Leonard, submissions manager. There is info staff and they enjoy anonymity.

Auburn, nestled in rural and agricultural Cayuga County, and listed by NerdWallet as the best small city in New York State and the fourteenth best small city in the United States to live in, has a vibrant cultural identity. While diversity and multiculturalism are generally associated with larger cities and remain an elusive characteristic for Auburnians, aaduna, Inc. is changing that scenario on an annual basis through aaduna, its online literary and visual arts journal. To further its diversity initiative, a yearly literary fundraiser is convened to celebrate the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance and the racial, social, and artistic interactions between artists and their diverse supporters­—an integral component of the Renaissance’s vibrant cultural exchange and camaraderie.

With the support of Poets & Writers and the New York State Council on the Arts, the May 28, 2015 affair, “In the Spirit of the Harlem Renaissance… Revisited, 2015,” brought downtown to uptown or more specifically, downstate to upstate. Aaduna contributors Cyd Charisse Fulton, Raymond Nat Turner, Dr. Kevin Jenkins, and Catherine C. Poku, all New York City-based poets and writers, traveled to the Finger Lakes region. They joined Auburn contributors Bobbie Dumas Panek, special guests Howard Nelson and Heidi Nightengale along with Rochester-based spoken word performance artist, poet, novelist and aaduna contributor Tearzs in an evening of readings that exposed an audience of more than eighty people to a wide range of poetic magic and diverse themes. Prior to the evening event, Raymond Nat Turner conducted a poetry workshop at Auburn High School hosted by aaduna, Inc., Harriet Tubman Boosters, and the Booker T. Washington Community Center, and funded by Poets & Writers.

The Thursday evening event (which recognized that “back in that era” Thursdays were the day off for domestics who used the day to socialize and party) was filled with words that articulated stories and explored experiences that extolled James Brown, jazz syncopations through the diaspora, raising chickens, urban reflections, multi-racial upbringing, intimate reflections on life, Sly Stone, and love. Readers delivered their work in two rounds, and welcomed the guests when the doors opened and interacted with them during an extended intermission, a central component of this affair—the ability for the artists and guests to lessen the “divide” that often separates creative people from the public. The intermission was “the party within the party.” With a backdrop of jazz and contemporary tunes, pianist Andy Rudy set the ambiance complemented by a slide show that presented the artists, performances, and multi-racial social scenes generally associated with the Harlem Renaissance.

The event took place at Theater Mack, a sixty-five-seat performance space operating under the auspices of the Cayuga Museum of History and Art. Artists filled open space with colorful artwork that added another layer to the festivities. After two and a half hours, guests and readers left the venue feeling empowered, energized, and eager for 2016.

Photos: Bill Berry, Jr. (top), Catherine C. Poku (middle), Bill Berry, Jr., Raymond Nat Turner, Catherine C. Poku, Tearz, Dr. Kevin Jenkins, Heidi Nightengale, Cyd Charisse Fulton, Bobbie Dumas Panek, Howard Nelson, Lisa A. Brennan (bottom)

Photo Credit: Lisa A. Brennan

Support for Readings & Workshops in New York is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, with additional support from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

This blog features a double interview with international poets Dominic Berry and Barbara Erochina, both recently featured in the 2015 Capturing Fire Queer Spoken Word Summit and Slam. Berry has performed poetry on BBC TV’s Rhyme Rocket and UK Channel 4′s My Daughter the Teenage Nudist. Winner of New York City’s Nuyorican Poetry Cafe Slam and Manchester Literature Festival’s Superheroes of Slam, he is currently touring Britain with the family comedy poetry show When Trolls Try to Eat Your Goldfish. Erochina is a Toronto-based storyteller, facilitator, writer, and performer who examines how untold stories transform our lives and our world. Her experiences as an immigrant queer woman, ex-minister and student of Gestalt psychotherapy focus her work towards feeling, embodiment, identity, and spirituality. She has performed on stages across Canada, and after completing a residency program at the Banff Centre for the Arts, has recently composed her first feature-length show.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Berry: I am a queer, vegan poet from Manchester, U.K. who came to D.C. this summer to perform at a number of poetry readings, including Busboys and Poets, La-Ti-Do, and Regie Cabico's Capturing Fire Queer Spoken Word Summit and Slam. I've been doing this as a self-employed freelancer since 2007 and mostly gig up and down Britain. I've had the occasional mainland Europe booking, but this is only the second time I've been invited to share my stuff in the States (or indeed in any other continent), so I've been hugely excited and happy to have this happen.

 

Erochina: I am most interested in the power of stories to heal. There are so many ways to do this work: Personal anecdotes shared with a public audience, politically charged proclamations made over media channels, or even the private choice to become an active narrator of the stories we tell about our own lives. All of these acts of storytelling are transgressive and healing, and it is this choice for boldness that drives me as an artist and a person. Also, I’m a recreational cat impersonator and a queer lady. That’s important, too.

 

How do you prepare for a reading?
Berry: I prepare for any show by allowing myself to be nervous. I always get nervous, every time, after all these years. Nerves are good! I do not try to deaden them with alcohol. Nerves just mean I want to get it right because it matters to me. Sure, too many nerves can be destructive, but being well prepared and having rehearsed loads keeps nerves to a healthy, helpful level.

Erochina: I adore Dominic’s answer! I am all about welcoming the nervousness and knowing that it is a sign that I care, that I am invested. I also tend to have a fairly intense personality which means in preparation for a big performance, I become hyper-focused and immerse myself in my creative work. Thankfully, I have a wonderful partner who is also a poet, so she understands and supports my process by giving me lots of space and feeding me regular meals. Thanks Tanya!

What are your reading dos?
Berry: Something I personally think is a good thing to do is try to learn your poem. Even if it's not fully in your head and you still need to look at paper or a book, you'll say it so much better for all that practice. Eye contact and experimenting with where you will pause is integral—pauses are everything.

Erochina: My main do is to connect with the audience. In Gestalt psychotherapy which I have studied formally, we call this connection, contact. For me, it is really about opening myself up to my audience, and to all the possibilities of our interaction. I like to ask myself: What is the gift I am offering this audience today?

What’s in the works for you?
Berry: Later this summer I will be performing a full run of my video game poems called Up Your Game: The Downfall of a Noob at Scotland's Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I have done so for the past two years (with different collections) and it's a fantastic way to spend a month. If you're in Scotland this August, come check me out!

Erochina: Capturing Fire was an amazing and unique opportunity to lead a workshop of my first show, Wrestling God and Girls. The show traces my younger years and tells the story of what happens when evangelical Christianity is met with lesbian sexual awakening. Both hilarity and emotional trauma ensue. I am spending the summer finalizing the rewrites and rehearsing before doing a run of it in the fall in Toronto. The plan is to take it on tour sometime in late winter. I plan to have many dates in the U.S. and hope to bring it back to Washington, D.C. in its final manifestation. Everyone is welcome to check out my Instagram account @barbaraerochina to follow along.

Photo: Dominic Berry. Photo Credit: Ian Wallis Photography

Photo: Barbara Erochina. Photo Credit: Tanya Neumayer

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

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