Poets & Writers Blogs

Winter Turns to Spring

Kathy Wilson’s background includes many years in the theater both as an actor and teacher. She attended Marymount Manhattan College, earning a degree in Communication Arts, and has taught numerous writing courses at MMC for both Continuing Education and the Center for Learning and Living. Active in the P&W-supported writing workshop at the Goddard Riverside Community Center for over a decade, she published a chapbook, and has read many of her essays for the Poets & Writers annual Intergenerational Reading events held at Barnes and Noble in Union Square. The International Library of Poetry’s 2007 collection published one of her poems “Congito Ergo Sum: I Think Therefore I Am” and her memoir, Out of the Rabbit Hole, was published by Fulton Books in September 2015. Wilson has lived on the Upper West Side in New York City all of her adult life.

Writing had always been a dream put on the back burner. It wasn’t until I was downsized from my full-time job in 2001 that I was able to join the senior writing workshop, funded by Poets & Writers, at the Goddard Riverside Community Center. Finally, I could focus on writing, in what was a noncompetitive and supportive atmosphere. I could write openly with trust and develop my own voice.

The seed of my memoir began with a writing prompt, given in class by our talented and intuitive teacher Veronica Golos: “Write about your earliest secret.’’ I wrote about the guilt I remembered having at three years old when I threatened to drown my beloved toy bear “Poochie” because he would not speak to me. My mother told me he would, if I was a good girl. “Poochie,” was selected to be read at the workshop’s annual reading, after which it was submitted and chosen for the Poets & Writers’ Intergenerational anthology Where I’m From. I became aware that I had a real gift for storytelling and I had quite a story to tell.

Elena Alexander, an accomplished poet, became our second instructor at the Goddard Riverside Community Center. Her dedication and talent guided our group through publishing our own individual chapbooks. This generated even more motivation for me to continue writing my memoir, written from a child's point of view, about how she survives an environment of alcoholism and violence.

When my memoir, Out of the Rabbit Hole, was completed I wondered, now what? At my age I did not want to go the agent route with months or years of submitting to literary agents. I began researching various self-publishers with much hesitation, many were trying to “sell’’ their company, plus reviews from authors that used them were very mixed. Through Poets & Writers, I was recommended to Deborah Englander, experienced editor and writer, and contributor to the Savvy Self-Publisher, a column on self-publishing in Poets & Writers Magazine. Deborah was informative and very clear about what I should expect when choosing a publisher and helped me to firm up my commitment to self-publishing. Armed with her expert advice and through more research, I chose Fulton Books. A tremendous feeling of accomplishment surged through me when I held my book for the first time. As a senior, it no longer seems the winter of my life, but a new beginning, I am an author!

I am excited and take great pride in the positive response I have received about Out of the Rabbit Hole. One review states: “Beautifully written, poignant, sensitive, and with attention to detail, it evokes the sight, smells and sounds of the 1940s and 1950s.”

Currently, I am still a member of the Goddard Riverside writing workshop, where I continue to develop my writing skills, and where I have made many close friendships over the years. It is an inspiring and multitalented group.

Writing is no longer on the back burner. It’s time to start another book, in this newly acquired springtime of my life.

Photos: (Top) Kathy Wilson. Photo Credit: Christina Freudenthal, (Bottom) Goddard Riverside Writing Class. Photo Credit: Walter Grutchfield

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.

Deadline Approaches for Christopher Doheny Award

Submissions are currently open for the Center for Fiction’s third annual Christopher Doheny Award, a $10,000 prize given for a book-length work of fiction or nonfiction on the topic of life-threatening physical illness. The winner of the prize “must demonstrate high literary standards while exploring the impact of illness on the patient, family and friends, and others.”

In addition to the cash prize, the winner will receive production and promotion of the book in an audio format from Audible, Inc., and assistance from Audible to pursue print publication. This year’s judging panel includes writer Charles Bock, previous Doheny Award–winners Michelle Bailat-Jones (2013) and Mike Scalise (2014), and two representatives of Audible.

Fiction and nonfiction writers who have previously published works in literary journals, or have published a book with an independent or traditional publisher, are eligible to apply. Using the online submission system, submit a previously unpublished manuscript along with a list of previous publications, a synopsis of up to two pages, and a one-paragraph bio by December 15. Submissions can be made via postal mail to the Christopher Doheny Award, Center for Fiction, 17 E. 47th Street, New York, NY 10017. Visit the website for complete guidelines.

Supported by Audible, Inc., and the friends and family of Christopher Doheny, who died of cystic fibrosis in 2013, the Center for Fiction’s Christopher Doheny Award recognizes literary excellence “by a writer who has personally dealt or is dealing with life-threatening illness, either his or her own or that of a close relative or friend.”

Photo: Christopher Doheny

Art and Activism: It Is What We Are

Nikia Chaney is a poet from the Inland Empire of Southern California and the author of two chapbooks, Sis Fuss (Orange Monkey Publishing, 2012) and ladies, please (Dancing Girl Press, 2013). She is founding editor of shufpoetry, an online journal for experimental poetry, and founding editor of Jamii Publishing, a publishing imprint dedicated to fostering community among poets and writers. Chaney has won grants from the Barbara Demings Fund for Women, Poets & Writers, and Cave Canem. She teaches at San Bernardino Valley College.

poetry pinwheels A short while ago I would not have used the title activist. I would have just said that I loved community service and most times don’t think of volunteering, but this past fall, Lisa Henry asked me to help her teach a community workshop about art and activism.

Lisa’s nonprofit organization, SALT (Soul, Art, Literature and Time) + SPICE (Socially Productive and Inspirational Community Events), offers classes, workshops, readings, and other cultural events to the public in the Inland Empire. My favorite SALT + SPICE workshop series included a panel and reading that focused on art and motherhood, a family community workshop that involved creating a ragdoll, and a workshop dedicated to Maya Angelou.

During all these events, the community was allowed to create, write, speak, give voice, and engage with the subject matter and the writing. I loved watching participants laugh and enjoy themselves. I’ve always thought of SALT + SPICE workshops as joyful gatherings. So when Lisa asked me to lead a workshop on activism, I was deeply honored, but initially reluctant.

Being a workshop leader is actually quite fun—every class is different, and what the participants bring in always amazes me. However, I was reluctant because I didn’t consider myself an activist, and never looked at my own volunteer activities as a form of social protest. I teach poetry classes to individuals with mental illnesses and I volunteer at at-risk youth after-school programs. How is this activism, I thought? Isn’t activism holding signs and marching for a cause? Isn’t activism big and loud and full of righteous protest? I took some time to consider Lisa’s request and did a little research. This quote was one of the first things I found:

"I see protest as a genuine means of encouraging someone to feel the inconsistencies, the horror of the lives we are living. Social protest is saying that we do not have to live this way. If we feel deeply, and we encourage ourselves and others to feel deeply, we will find the germ of our answers to bring about change. Because once we recognize what it is we are feeling, once we recognize we can feel deeply, love deeply, can feel joy, then we will demand that all parts of our lives produce that kind of joy. And when they do not, we will ask, 'Why don't they?' And it is the asking that will lead us inevitably toward change." —Audre Lorde

I think we forget about the quiet, powerful moments of protest. Writing is protest. Each day we push past the immediate judgements and stereotypical assumptions we make. We write and challenge each other in that writing to see us and everyone else for who we really are.

During the workshop, we explored Lorde’s ideas and questioned the nature of activism, diving into the “what” of what we individuals are doing to change the world, about how we won’t tolerate injustice. Everyone discovered they, too, were activists, fighting every day to make the world better. Lisa concluded the workshop by taking the participants on a field trip to downtown Riverside to the Center for Social Justice & Civil Liberties. Later, I created poetry pinwheels to honor the ideas.

It’s wonderful to teach others, help them write, and work with their poems, but sometimes you teach and learn more about yourself than you thought you would. I’m thankful to Lisa for accepting the title of activist and trusting me to give it to others in return.

Photo: poetry pinwheels     Credit: Nikia Chaney

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

Workshop Attendees Speak Out to End Isolation

Jamie Asaye FitzGerald, director of Poets & Writers' California Office and Readings & Workshops (West) program, describes her visit to a writing workshop led by P&W-supported writer Alicia Partnoy for the organization Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC)

Alicia Partnoy is a poet, translator, and survivor of the Argentine genocide. She is best known for her memoir, The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival (Cleis Press, 1998). Her most recent book is the poetry collectionFlowering Fires [Fuegos Florales] (Settlement House Books, 2015), and other works include Little Low Flying [Volando bajito] (Red Hen Press, 2005), Revenge of the Apple [Venganza de la manzana] (Cleis Press, 1992), and with Gail Wronsky, So Quick Bright Things [Tan pronto las cosas] (What Books Press, 2010). Partnoy teaches at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and presides over Proyecto VOS-Voices of Survivors.

Sylvester Owino and Alicia Partnoy This past September, I had the opportunity to sit in on a bilingual English/Spanish writing workshop taught by P&W-supported poet and memoirist Alicia Partnoy. The workshop was part of a retreat held in Malibu, California, by Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC). CIVIC is a national nonprofit organization that works to end the isolation and abuse of people in U.S. immigration detention through visitation, independent monitoring, storytelling, and advocacy. 

The retreat's workshop brought together CIVIC staff, volunteer visitors from nearly twenty states, and people who were previously held in U.S. immigration detention to help them tell their stories. It was a day of personal exploration and joining together in passionate commitment to a cause.

"Writing about the abuses against us was the only way to let it out," recounted Sylvester Owino, who was detained by U.S. immigration for nine years before regaining his freedom.

Owino's statement, which came after a group writing exercise, echoed what workshop facilitator Partnoy described earlier in the day—after she "disappeared" and was imprisoned in Argentina, and having arrived in the United States as a refugee, she felt desperate because no one knew the stories. She wrote her memoir, The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival, and earned a PhD, out of desperation—to have the stories told, to show the suffering she went through and the suffering of others. "We cannot speak for others if they die," she said, "we speak without them."

Partnoy spoke of "testimonial texts" and "testimonial value" and explained that stories, poems, pictures, and paintings are all "texts." Novels can be written based on testimonials. Poems can tell a story. If a letter was found in the pocket of someone who was killed while crossing the border, it has testimonial value.

I wasn't sure how everyone present was drawn to the cause, but more than a few had personal connections, whether it had been a husband, a mother, or other family member who was or is currently detained. Partnoy made the point that "when a family member is imprisoned, the whole family is punished." And she noted: "Children imprisoned with parents is the current harrowing situation."

Your mother isn't in prison
your mother has
birds in her blood,
grates and bars
don't detain her
nor padlocks,
nor is she in prison,
nor has she left you.

This is how Partnoy's incredibly moving poem "Lullaby Without the Onion" from her most recent collection, Flowering Fires [Fuegos Florales], begins. Partnoy sang her poem, evoking Miguel Hernández's famous poem, which was set to music, "Lullaby of the Onion" [Nanas de la cebolla]. She also shared work that her mother, painter Raquel Partnoy, and daughter, poet Ruth Irupe Sanabria, have written about their experiences.

As retreat attendees wrote in groups on a palabrarma (word weapon) prompt (credited to Chilean poet Cecilia Vicuña) using the word solidaridad (solidarity) supplied by Partnoy, emotions ran high and tears and knowing nods were exchanged as they began the necessary work of sharing their stories and experiences:

"Who am I without you?" read one participant.

"Lament shared is hope given?" questioned another.

"A hand raises to meet the hand behind the wall."

"We connect."

The hope is for the work generated during this workshop to be published as an anthology—making it the first project to use the voices of detention visitors and formerly detained immigrants together, and giving unprecedented insight into immigration detention and the work of CIVIC. To learn more and support the creation of this compilation, please visit CIVIC’s website.

Photo: Sylvester Owino with P&W-supported workshop leader Alicia Partnoy. Credit: Jamie FitzGerald.

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

2015 National Book Award Winners Announced

On Wednesday night in New York City, the winners of the 2015 National Book Awards were announced. The poetry award went to Robin Coste Lewis for her collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus (Knopf). Adam Johnson took home the fiction award for his story collection Fortune Smiles (Random House). Ta-Nehisi Coates won in nonfiction for Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau). Neal Shusterman won in young people’s literature for Challenger Deep (HarperCollins). Each winner receives $10,000.

Robin Coste Lewis is a Provost’s Fellow in poetry and visual studies at the University of Southern California, and a Cave Canem fellow. Voyage of the Sable Venus is her debut poetry collection, which questions the historical idea and role of the black female figure in America.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for the Atlantic and is the recipient of a 2015 MacArthur Genius grant. Between the World and Me is a meditation on race in America, written in the form of a letter to the author’s son. Coates dedicated his award to his friend Prince Jones, who was killed by a police officer in 2000. In his acceptance speech, Coates said, “I have waited fifteen years for this moment.”

Adam Johnson won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Orphan Master’s Son. He has received a Whiting Award and fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. He teaches creative writing at Stanford University and lives in San Francisco. In his winning collection, Fortune Smiles, Johnson “delves deep into love and loss, natural disasters, the influence of technology, and how the political shapes the personal.”

Publishers submitted 1,428 books for review this year: 419 in fiction, 494 in nonfiction, 221 in poetry, and 294 in young people’s literature. The awards are given annually to American writers who published books in the previous year. The finalists each receive $1,000.

Novelist Don DeLillo received the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters for his lifetime contribution to American literature. Novelist Jennifer Egan introduced DeLillo, and said of his work, “He has an empath’s gift for capturing colloquial rhythm and speech…I’m so grateful to DeLillo for proving to my generation that fiction can still do anything it wants.” 

Meanwhile, James Patterson was presented with the Literarian Award for outstanding service in the American literary community. Patterson donated more than one million dollars in grants to independent bookstores last year, and has donated thousands of books to children and schools in need. Patterson said in his acceptance speech, “I feel compelled to help independent bookstores survive and prosper, and help school libraries any way that I can…let’s find a way to make sure there is another generation of readers out there.”

Read about the winners and finalists, and watch the full video from last night’s ceremony at the National Book Foundation website.

The National Book Foundation was founded in 1986 with the mission to “celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of great writing in America.”

Submissions Open for ScreenCraft Short Story Contest

Submissions are currently open for ScreenCraft’s 2015 short story contest. A prize of $1,000 and a consultation with an Academy Award­–winning writer and a Hollywood literary manager will be given for a short story or novella with “special cinematic potential.” One second-place winner will receive $300 and a consultation with a literary manager, and ten finalists will receive publication on ScreenCraft’s website and will have their stories submitted to ScreenCraft’s network of literary magazines and publishing professionals.
ScreenCraftUsing the online submission system, submit an original short story or novella of up to twenty thousand words along with a $39 entry fee by December 5, or with a $49 entry fee between December 6 and the final deadline of December 19. For an additional $50, writers will receive professional feedback on their work. Writers over the age of eighteen, who have not earned more than $50,000 from professional writing services for film or television in the previous year, are eligible to apply. Multiple submissions are accepted. Visit the website for complete guidelines.

The judges are Emily Cooke, senior editor at Harper’s; Valerie Cates, executive story editor at Random House Films; Cheston Knapp, managing editor of Tin House; and Diana Ossana, Academy Award–winning screenwriter of Brokeback Mountain, which she adapted from a short story. Ossana notes that she is looking for “stories that resonate emotionally, in any direction. I’ll be looking for stories that move me, that are structurally sound, and that have compelling characters.”

Founded in 2012, ScreenCraft is an independent screenwriting consultancy “dedicated to helping screenwriters and filmmakers succeed.” ScreenCraft hosts regular live events in New York City and Los Angeles, a variety of annual screenplay and short story competitions, destination residencies, and an annual fellowship program.

Sharing Stories: Memoir and Song in Northern New York

Linda B. Adams is director of the Gouverneur Public Library in New York, where she wears many hats; one of which is running writing programs for teens and tweens. She holds an MA in English and is a member of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, the Academy of American Poets, and the Horror Writers Association. In her spare time Adams writes stories and novels that she hopes people will read one day and that will keep them up at night. You can follow her @lindabwriter on Twitter.

Public libraries have become the hubs of their communities. In many small towns in the upper reaches of New York State, they may be the only place where people of all ages can gather. And one thing libraries gather is stories; our shelves are full of books that tell the stories of our humanity, whether they be nonfiction, memoir, or the truths wrapped in the imagination of fiction. So much of the time, we forget that stories are not just in books, that they are within us all, and we are living them every day.

As a writer and library director, my goal is to bring writers and writing programs to the small corner of the universe that is Gouverneur. With a small budget, this is not always an easy task. However, thanks to funding from Poets & Writers, we were able to do just that. Michael Czarnecki provided programs at the Gouverneur Library centered around story and our interconnected humanity. A poet and oral memoirist, Michael has a gift for encouraging and bringing out the stories of others. In his Palm of the Hand workshop, he shared a technique that helped to pull stories out of ourselves: flashes of moments in our lives that serve to illuminate the whole.

Whether those who attended the workshop planned a genealogy project, a journal, a memoir, or just wanted to rediscover themselves, they learned that they could write their own stories. Those of us who are writers know how difficult the work is. But we are willing to do that work; many of us need to. The people who attended this workshop would not have described themselves as writers, however, after the workshop, they all left with a small memoir and the discovery that, to some degree, we are all writers.

Michael, along with Sue Spencer, brought home how important story is and the many forms it takes with their program All One Song, which featured Sue’s percussion as a complement to Michael’s oral memoirs and photography. Audience participation was welcome and encouraged. The performance opened a window through which the audience could sense their own connection to nature and its rhythms.

Michael also shared stories of growing up in the 1960s in his performance piece See, It Was Like This. For some attendees, that period in our history was just that. For others, Michael’s stories brought back their own coming-of-age memories. From tales of hitchhiking and being one with nature to watershed moments, he kept the audience’s interest. But those who attended know it was more than that. I could see the way his stories sparked memories and shared experience; it was a palpable thing. Michael is a master at getting at the common heart of us all. He has a way of speaking that draws people in, makes them feel that his stories are their own. And to some extent, they are. We are the stories we tell; we are the stories we share.

Photo: Sue Spencer and Micheal Czarnecki.   Photo Credit: Rachel Hunter, Property of Gouverneur Tribune Press.

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program 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.

Carrying Literary Torches in Communities of Color

Author Charlie Vázquez is the director of the Bronx Writers Center at Bronx Council on the Arts. He is one of the founding members of the Latino Rebels bloggers and writers collective, as well as the New York City Coordinator for Puerto Rico’s Festival de la Palabra, which makes it possible for him to work with prize-winning journalists, novelists, and poets from around the world. You can follow him on his Facebook author page or @CharlieVazquez on Twitter.

Last week, I had the very unique fortune of being invited to read with Nuyorican pioneers Sandra María Esteves, Americo Casiano, and Gloria Fontánez at the Countee Cullen New York Public Library in September. This was organized by Lorraine Currelley of Poets Network & Exchange, Inc., and was funded by the Poets & Writers Readings & Workshops program. It was an added honor to participate in the resulting Q&A, which gave members of the community in attendance the opportunity to ask us questions regarding our history and methods of creating poetry and fiction.

Each writer had a completely individualized approach to writing and its implicit politics of voice and identity. It was fascinating to listen to my fellow panelists’ processes as a writer who works with scribes across multiple disciplines. Sandra and Americo began in the earliest years of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe movement, and Gloria came into writing out of the pure love of storytelling. I began my writing process far away from home during my years on the West Coast—as a way to connect with my Puerto Rican roots.

I ran a reading series in the East Village (PANIC!) upon my 2006 return to New York City, as a way of networking with other writers, as social media was expanding. I wasn’t able to pay my featured presenters then, but as director of the Bronx Writers Center, I’m now able to compensate my writers. It has made a massive difference. The Bronx Writers Center is dedicated to fostering literary culture in the Bronx and administers the Bronx WritersCorps program, which mentors at-risk youth living in shelters in some of the nation’s poorest neighborhoods.

Those of us who take writing seriously know it’s hard work, and although I continue to make myself available for free when youth and teen mentoring is involved, it’s wonderful to get paid for something you spend years of your life trying to perfect.

Photo:  Charlie Vázquez. Photo Credit: Rebecca Beard

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.

National Poetry Series Announces Winners

The National Poetry Series has announced the winners of its annual Open Competition. Each of the five winning poets will receive $10,000 and publication in 2016 by a participating trade, university, or small press.

The 2015 winners are Justin Boening’s Not on the Last Day, But on the Very Last, selected by Wayne Miller, to be published by Milkweed Editions; Jennifer Kronovet’s The Wug Test, selected by Eliza Griswold, to be published by Ecco; Melissa Range’s Scriptorium, selected by Tracy K. Smith, to be published by Beacon Press; Danniel Schoonebeek’s Trébuchet, selected by Kevin Prufer, to be published by University of Georgia Press; and Joshua Bennett’s The Sobbing School, selected by Eugene Gloria, to be published by Penguin.

Established in 1978, the Princeton, New Jersey–based National Poetry Series is a nonprofit dedicated to “promot[ing] excellence in contemporary poetry” by publishing five poetry books annually through its Open Competition. Previous notable winners of the prize include Terrance Hayes, Adrian Matejka, Marie Howe, and Eleni Sikelianos.

In December 2013, the National Poetry Series was in danger of closure due to lack of funds, but has since been revived and has increased the monetary amount of its Open Competition awards from $1,000 to $10,000. For more information about the organization, visit the National Poetry Series website.

(Photos from left: Justin Boening, Jennifer Kronovet, Melissa Range, Danniell Schoonebeek, Joshua Bennet)

Brave Steps at Los Angeles Poet Society’s Intergenerational Poetry Academy

Readings & Workshops intern JoAnna Schindler blogs about her experience attending the P&W–supported Los Angeles Poet Society (LAPS) Summer Poetry Academy taught by poet and musician Juan Cardenas at Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural and Bookstore. LAPS was founded in 2009 by poet Jessica Wilson Cardenas to fuse the diverse communities of poets, writers, booksellers, and publishers of Los Angeles County into a unified social and literary network.

Juan Cardenas, Jessica Wilson Cardenas, Bee Spaethe

Tucked into an ordinary strip mall in Sylmar, California, cohabitating with a Fresh & Easy and a Denny’s, is one of the Angeleno literary community’s most prized gems: Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural and Bookstore. Founded in 2001 by current Los Angeles poet laureate Luis J. Rodriguez and his wife Maria Trinidad Rodriguez, Tia Chucha’s is a cultural arts center and bookstore that hosts workshops, classes, and events in literature, visual art, music, and dance to unify and empower the community.

This small but vital space is where P&W–supported instructor Juan Cardenas of the Los Angeles Poet Society (LAPS) and cofacilitator Jessica Wilson Cardenas immersed an intergenerational group of teens and adults in the session’s theme: ekphrastic poetry—poetry written in response to another piece of art.

I identify as a fiction writer, but my poetry rarely reaches an audience, let alone the page! With their unmistakable enthusiasm for everyone’s ideas and work, regardless of experience level, Juan and Jessica created a safe space for me and the other workshop participants to take some of our first steps into writing poetry.

We wrote down words, phrases, and images that intrigued us from a poem by Catherine Wagner, which included things like polar bears floating, red race cars, and lemon highlights. After sharing our notes, which to my surprise, varied a great deal from person to person, we wrote poems. Though inspired by the same work of art, our poems were diverse and distinct, ranging from descriptive to introspective, and formal to prosaic.

Juan Cardenas and student

After easing us into ekphrastic poetry with the first exercise, Juan asked us to write two more poems: one inspired by the mural “Healing Through the Arts” on Tia Chucha’s exterior, and another influenced by the live guitar playing of guest artist Nelson Alburquenque. Juan encouraged us to write anything that came to us, as long as it was an elaboration or response to the original piece of art.

Again, each of us unearthed from these same pieces of art vastly different stories and epiphanies: where I saw the haze of a Los Angeles sunset, Malayna, one of the adult participants, saw the clear blue skies of a rural spring; where I heard the echoes of a car stereo, my P&W colleague, Jamie, heard the cry of a hawk.

The LAPS workshop celebrated the cultivation of individual voice and vision. As we studied other artworks, the emphasis was not on what they were supposed to mean, but what we saw, heard, and felt. This was an especially refreshing change for me. Currently, I study literature at UCLA, where we are more often asked to unveil a work’s historical, social, and political significance, rather than reflect on our personal experience of the piece.

As for writing poetry, this intergenerational workshop reminded me that in order to participate in any art form, whether or not it is one’s chosen medium, we must first give ourselves the chance to—without restraint, without judgment. That is the first brave step.

Photo 1 (left to right): Workshop leaders Juan Cardenas and Jessica Wilson Cardenas hold up copies of Poets & Writers Magazine donated for the event, with P&W program associate Bee Spaethe. Photo 2: P&W-supported workshop leader Juan Cardenas with a teen student. Credit: Jamie FitzGerald.

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

WordsWest Brings Literature to West Seattle

WordsWest Literary Series’ cocurators include poets Katy E. Ellis and Susan Rich, and novelist Harold Taw. All three live in West Seattle and came together over their parched need for a reading series in their community. Katy E. Ellis is the author of two chapbooks Urban Animal Expeditions (Dancing Girl Press, 2013) and Gravity (Yellow Flag Press, 2015). Her poetry appears in a number of literary journals and anthologies including Literary Mama, Redheaded Stepchild, MAYDAY Magazine, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Till the Tide: Mermaid Poetry, and the Canadian journals PRISM International, Grain, and Fiddlehead. Susan Rich is the author of four collections of poems including Cloud Pharmacy (White Pine Press, 2014); The Alchemist’s Kitchen (White Pine Press, 2010), a finalist for the Washington State Book Award; Cures Include Travel (White Pine Press, 2006); and The Cartographer’s Tongue (White Pine Press, 2000), winner of the PEN USA Award. Harold Taw’s debut novel, Adventures of the Karaoke King, was published by Lake Union Publishing in 2011. His writing has been featured on NPR, in a New York Times bestselling anthology, and in the Seattle Times. Harold is currently writing a novel about a turbulent adolescence in Southeast Asia and collaborating on a musical adaption of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

WordsWest StaffWhat makes your organization’s series and its program unique?
West Seattle is geographically isolated from the rest of Seattle’s literary venues. WordsWest Literary Series is unique in that it fills the gap in what has been a literary series desert.

Each WordsWest event is what we call a “living anthology” or “braided reading” where our two featured readers read in short bursts, taking up to three different stands at the mic. This gives the reading a collaborative rather than competitive feeling and leads to lots of surprising connections in the work read aloud. We get to see the authors interacting on stage in a never-to-be-repeated moment.

The WordsWest Literary Series also features West Seattle's Favorite Poem Project, wherein people from local, independent businesses or organizations join each event by reciting a favorite poem and telling us why it’s a favorite.

What recent project and/or program have you been especially proud of and why?
As a whole, WordsWest is something we are super proud of creating in our community so it’s difficult to choose a single pride invoking event, however, our “Kids’ Night” stands out as being both unique and inspiring. Our readers included Sundee Frazier, award-winning novelist of books for young people, along with MacArthur fellow and National Book Award recipient Dr. Charles Johnson and his daughter Elisheba Johnson, reading from their coauthored and illustrated tween novel. It was a packed house with people of all ages and backgrounds. Our local librarian read her favorite poem (“Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll) and promoted summer reading. Maybe it was the fun, sugary snacks, but everyone seemed energized by all the great stories and poems!

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
We’ve had ten events over the course of this past year and the three of us curators still remember a moment during the first event in September 2014, when our first reader took to the stage and we looked at each other, looked around at the crowded coffee shop, and then nodded our heads and smiled, all thinking, “Wow, we really did it!”

Our readers have all been incredible and unique, but one of the highlights of each event is our West Seattle’s Favorite Poem segment. One night we had a local business owner confess how hard it was to find a poem to read for the event. When she mentioned it to her sixteen-year-old son, she was surprised to learn he had a favorite poem at the tip of his tongue! Both mother and son shared their poems on stage that night. (Hers was "The cat's song" by Marge Piercy, and his was "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley.)

How do you find and invite readers?
It’s not a mandate for our series but we do try to select one reader from West Seattle. We are surrounded by incredible writers in our own neighborhood, for example, our state’s poet laureate Elizabeth Austen and award-winning nonfiction writer Lyanda Lynn Haupt. Once we reach out to a reader, we encourage that reader to then invite an author they admire and with whom they’d like to read. Again, we want authors to interact on stage and weave their work together. If they are friends or if they have wanted to meet for a long time, it makes for a meaningful unfolding collaboration.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
West Seattle, along with all of the Puget Sound region, continues to grow in leaps and bounds with more commercial chain stores, expensive and dense housing, which means, of course, more people. In booming cities, literary programs can be a grounding force. By establishing a solid, homegrown literary reading series right in our neighborhood, we hope to help shape (and retain) the heart of West Seattle as it expands. Having access to thought provoking, truly inspiring written and spoken live literature not only brings a community together, but it also lingers in daily life and gives us new ideas and more understanding of the world around us.

Photo (left to right): Katy E. Ellis, Harold Taw, Susan Rich    Credit: Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

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.

Marlon James Wins Man Booker Prize

Jamaican writer Marlon James has won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead Books). James, who was announced the winner this evening at a ceremony in London, will receive £50,000 (approximately $76,000), and becomes the first Jamaican writer to receive the prize.

James, forty-four, is the author of two previous novels: John Crow’s Devil (Akashic Books, 2005) and The Book of Night Women (Riverhead Books, 2009). A Brief History of Seven Killings tells the story of the 1976 assassination attempt on famed reggae singer Bob Marley. The novel, which follows over a dozen different narrators, portrays the cultural and political climate in Jamaica at the time.

“The book is startling in its ranges of voices and registers, running from the patois of the street posse to the Book of Revelation,” said chair of judges Michael Wood. “It is a crime novel that moves beyond the world of crime and takes us deep into a recent history we know far too little about. It moves at a terrific pace and will come to be seen as a classic of our times.”

Along with Wood, the panel of judges—Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, John Burnside, Sam Leith, and Frances Osborne—selected James from a shortlist of five other writers: Tom McCarthy of the United Kingdom for Satin Island (Knopf); Chigozie Obioma of Nigeria for The Fisherman (Little, Brown); Sunjeev Sahota of the United Kingdom for The Year of the Runaways (Knopf); Anne Tyler of the United States for A Spool of Blue Thread (Knopf); and Hanya Yanagihara of the United States for A Little Life (Doubleday). The shortlisted authors will each receive £2,500 (approximately $3,800).

In his acceptance speech at the London ceremony, James credited Bob Marley and reggae music as his inspiration, saying they were “the first to recognize that the voice coming out of our mouths was a legitimate voice for fiction and for poetry.” James also said, “We talk about diversity, and sometimes I think we just use that to kowtow to political correctness, but one of the things it reinforces is that there are so many ways to tell the English-language novel…this wonderfully malleable, wonderfully flexible language can be used in so many different ways.” James dedicated the prize to his late father.

First awarded in 1969, the Man Booker Prize is one of the literary world’s most prestigious awards for fiction. The prize, which was previously given only to writers from the United Kingdom, Ireland, or Zimbabwe, was expanded last year to include writers of any nationality writing in English, whose books have been published in the United Kingdom during previous year. Australian writer Richard Flanagan won the 2014 prize for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

By Poets, for the Community: An Open Moment

Margarita Cuevas-Cruz is the lead project director of Open Moments NYC, an organization based on the creed "by poets, for the community,” which aims to inspire change in the world while enhancing human potential. She holds a BA in Sociology/Anthropology with a minor in History from Utica College. She uses poetry as a tool to promote activism in worldly issues, the youth, and issues of violence and inequality. Cuevas-Cruz has appeared at numerous high schools as a keynote speaker with the YWCA in the Mohawk Valley, was published in their April 2012 newsletter, and wrote an editorial piece about surviving child abuse in the Utica Observer Dispatch. She has been published in the Sunday Writing Circle's No Apologies anthology and has performed for Latinosnyc at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Word at 4F, Sneakers and Ale's the DoJo, the Poet's Settlement, and the National Black Theatre with the Full Circle Ensemble.

Open Moments NYC is a grassroots organization that provides a way of expression for all ages through writing, leadership, open mics, and interactive workshops. Open Moments (OM) had its humble beginnings in the 1980s, created by Simon Cruz and Francisca Cuevas. The poetry readings took place at City College, where Simon Cruz attended, and at Barnard College, Francisca Cuevas's alma mater. This is important to the inception of Open Moments NYC, because as Francisca's younger sister, I was given the name of the organization as a token of trust and appreciation for my own work as a poet.

In 2008, I had the luxury of meeting other student poets, Keron Alleyne, Samuel Maldonado, Jamila Cain, and Tiffany Williams, who were starting a poetry group. They agreed that Open Moments was a perfect fit to what they believed the poetry group should be on the campus of Utica College in Utica, New York.  

Now in New York City, Open Moments is growing and taking a "nomadic" approach as we go where they need us. Along with Rashawna Wilson, Keron-Alleyne, Samuel Maldonad, Jasmine Cordew, and many others, we work tirelessly to create a safe space for the arts and social justice. We offer teen workshops, workshops with featured facilitators, and thought-provoking events like "Guess Who's Coming to Brunch?,” “Anti-Colonizer Day: Reclaiming Our History,” and “Cadence of Hair." We serve as mentors, workshop facilitators, and performers with the hope of enhancing human potential.

Open Moments NYC, has recently begun receiving grants from Poets & Writers, which has been a huge help for our organization. It helps us to get the best poets and workshop facilitators at events like “Anti-Colonizer Day: Reclaiming Our History,” which is being presented in collaboration with ELKAT Productions, and our monthly writing workshop called the Traveling Pen Series. This series was established for writers who want the time to write at a workshop, but do not have the time to commit to attending every week. Every month, we choose a facilitator and provide donation-based workshops to the community at Project Brownstone, Inc. in Harlem. As the organization continues to thrive, we want to utilize this resource provided by Poets & Writers to live up to our mission of giving back to the community as poets.

“By poets, for the community” is our slogan, because regardless of the topic, we infuse the art of spoken word and writing in order to allow our participants at workshops, and our audiences at open mics, to leave with something to think about.

You can read more about us on our website or e-mail us at openmomentsnyc@gmail.com.

Photo: (top) Margarita Cuevas-Cruz. Photo Credit: Leticia Torres

Workshop Poster (bottom). Design Credit: Rashawna Wilson

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.

Svetlana Alexievich Wins Nobel Prize

Belarusian author and investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich has received the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. The prize was announced today in Stockholm by Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, who called Alexievich’s writing “a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” 

Alexievich is the author of seven books, including Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (Dalkey Archive Press, 2005), for which she interviewed more than five hundred eyewitnesses of the 1986 nuclear plant disaster in Ukraine—including firefighters, doctors, physicists, politicians, and citizens—over a period of ten years. The book was awarded the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction.

Her other works—such as 1988’s War’s Unwomanly Face, comprised of interviews with hundreds of women soldiers who fought in World War II—collect the memories of wartime, including the Soviet-Afghan war, the war in Afghanistan, and the fall of the Soviet Union, creating what Danius calls “a history of emotions—a history of the soul, if you wish.”

“By means of her extraordinary method—a carefully composed collage of human voices—Alexievich deepens our comprehension of an entire era,” the academy noted. “For the past thirty or forty years, she has been busy mapping the Soviet and post-Soviet individual. But it’s not really about a history of events…. What she’s offering us is really an emotional world.”

Alexievich was born in Stanislav, Ukraine, in 1948, and grew up in Belarus. She worked as a reporter for several local newspapers, a Belarusian carp fishing magazine, and a Minsk-based literary magazine before dedicating her work to oral histories. Persecuted by Lukashenko regime for the nature of her writing, Alexievich left Belarus in 2000 and lived under sanctuary for a decade in Paris, Gothenburg, and Berlin, before returning to Minsk in 2011.

She becomes the fourteenth woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature since it was first awarded in 1901. The last woman to win, Canada’s Alice Munro, received the award in 2013. French novelist Patrick Modiano won the 2014 prize. Alexievich will receive eight million Swedish kronor, or approximately $1.1 million.

Talkin' About the Lunar Walk Reading Series

This blog features a conversation between Gerry LaFemina and Lynn McGee, cocurators of the Lunar Walk Poetry Series, hosted at Branded Saloon in Brooklyn, New York. McGee won the Bright Hill Press chapbook contest for her manuscript Heirloom Bulldog, published in 2015. Her full-length manuscript, Sober Cooking, is forthcoming from Spuyten Duyvil Press in 2016. Her previous chapbook, Bonanza (Slapering Hol Press, 1997), won the Hudson Valley Writers Center/Slapering Hol Press manuscript contest. McGee is a lead staff writer for the Borough of Manhattan Community College of the City University of New York, and has worked in literacy and taught freshman writing at many private and public colleges including George Washington University, Brooklyn College/CUNY and Columbia University, where she earned an MFA in Poetry. LaFemina is Director of the Frostburg Center for Literary Arts at Frostburg State University, where he is an Associate Professor of English. His poetry collections include Vanishing Horizon (Anhinga Press, 2011), which is soon to be rereleased, Little Heretic (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2014), Notes for the Novice Ventriloquest (Mayapple Press, 2013), Steampunk (Small Books, 2012), and The Parakeets of Brooklyn (Bordighera Press, 2005), which won the 2003 Bordighera Prize. Recently LaFemina published a collection of essays, Palpable Magic: Essays and Readings on Poets and Prosody (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2015) as well as a novel, Clamor (Codorus Press, 2013), and edited the anthology Token Entry: New York City Subway Poems (Smalls Books/Red Lashes Productions, 2012).

LaFemina: Lynn and I have known each other for some eight years, and we've been talking about poetry for the entirety of that time. We have both been to countless readings—many of them good and many of them less good. After the Token Entry anthology came out, and we both attended readings for that book, we started to discuss running a reading series together, one that would be a little different from some of the other series in New York. Part of it would be an attempt to limit the open mic parts of the reading; the other would be to work with our writer friends to pair local New York poets with poets from out of town.

At the time I was splitting my living time between Maryland and New York. Now that I live in Maryland full time, I come in to Brooklyn to cocurate the series with Lynn but, because of my mileage hopping, she has to do much of the legwork. When the original home for the series, the Two Moon Café, closed, it was Lynn who found our new home at the Branded Saloon.

McGee: Gerry is being generous; he does plenty of legwork himself! I think things got a lot easier for both of us when Poets & Writers started the online funding application, which is a snap to fill out. Many of the writers we’ve featured have gotten a $50 honorarium, and it feels great to be able to support them and their work in that way. We also put aside our 10% of the door take, so we can provide a cash honorarium on the months we’re not funded.

I think the best part for me of being involved in the series (besides having a mojito with Gerry before the reading!) is hearing poets whose work is new to me and who cause some creaky door in my own writing to open. Like Gerry said, we feature writers from around the country, with poets we know in the area. Many of our featured readers come back and read one poem in the open mic, and there’s a lot of book trading and talking before and after the events.

To throw in a few facts: The Lunar Walk Poetry Series opened in September 2012, and so far, we’ve featured over fifty writers.

Gerry and I have read once ourselves in the series, and it’s been an honor to introduce to our audience (as of October 2015): Amy Holman, Dean Kostos, Hilary Sideris, Richard Levine, Robin Messing, Cornelius Eady, (who later appeared with guitarist Charlie Wauh and poet Robin Messing on vocals), Jean Monahan, Bertha Rogers, Dennis Nurkse, Jan Beatty, Del Marbrook, Mervyn Taylor, Susana Case, Joel Allegretti, Moira Egan, Nance Van Winckel, April Lindner, Ravi Shankar, Phil Terman, Christine Timm, Patricia Spears Jones, Bill Mohr, George Guida, Ann Lauinger, Michael Salcman, Maria Terrone, Elaine Sexton, Michael Klein, Ned Balbo, Jane Satterfield, BJ Ward, Catie Rosemurgy, Jeffery McDaniel, Laura McCullough, Doug Goetsch, Judith Baumel, Willie Perdomo, Austin Alexis, Michele Somerville, Aaron Smith, Natalie Diaz, Ilyse Kusnetz, Brian Turner, Timothy Liu, Nick Samaras, Claudia Serea, Andrey Gritsman, Elizabeth Haukaas, Alice Friman, Stephen Massimilla, Elizabeth Cohen, Margo Taft Stever, Michael T. Young, Gil Fagiani, Maria Lisella, Pamela Davis, Joseph Fasano, Michael Broek, and Suzanne Parker.

If you want to be on our mailing list, drop us a line at lunarwalkpoetryseries@gmail.com.

Photos: (top) Gerry LaFemina, (middle) Lynn Mcgee. (bottom) Audience at Cornelius Eady and Jean Monahan Lunar Walk Reading.  Photo Credit: Lynn McGee and Gerry LaFemina

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.