Poets & Writers Blogs

Deadline Approaches for Inaugural Cave Canem Chapbook Prize

Submissions are currently open for the Cave Canem Foundation’s inaugural Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize, valued at over $2,500. The annual award will be given for a poetry chapbook by a black writer; the winner will receive $500, publication by Jai-Alai Books, a weeklong residency at the Betsy Hotel in Miami, and a featured reading at the 2016 O, Miami Poetry Festival. Ross Gay will judge.
Using the online submission system, submit a poetry manuscript of 25 to 30 pages with a $12 entry fee by Wednesday, September 30. The winner must agree to complete a residency and lead a craft talk at the Writer’s Room at the Betsy Hotel in Miami from April 10 to April 15, 2016, and to participate in the O, Miami Poetry Festival on April 14, 2016. Black poets writing in English are eligible to apply regardless of previous publication history and career status. The winner will be notified via e-mail by December 31.

Remica L. Bingham and P. Scott Cunningham will serve as preliminary judges for the prize; Ross Gay will serve as the final judge. Gay is the author of three poetry collections, most recently Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), which was recently longlisted for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry.

Established in 1996 by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, the Brooklyn, New York–based Cave Canem Foundation is “committed to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of African American poets.” The foundation hosts writing retreats, craft workshops, panels, readings, and two book prizes. The foundation launched the chapbook prize in preparation for its twentieth anniversary in 2016.

Photo: Cornelius Eady, Toi Derricotte

S. Bryan Medina on the Life of Fresno Poetry and Spoken Word

S. Bryan Medina is a former student of U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera and his poetry has graced stages in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Kansas City. He founded the Inner Ear as a way to free poetry from the confines of academic institutions, making it accessible to all. Medina has been awarded two City of Fresno Commendations, including the 2014 Fresno Arts Council Horizon Award, for contributions to the rich artistic and cultural heritage in Fresno, California. He has been featured as one of the four “Fresno Poets” from writer Nick Belardes’s Distinguished Valley Writers series, and he was an honorable mention for the 2006 Larry Levis Poetry Prize. His work has appeared in journals such as Flies, Cockroaches, and Poets, In the Grove, the San Joaquin Review, Jubilee, and Invisible Memoirs. Medina is a recent graduate of Fresno Pacific University and plans to teach special education.

S. Bryan Medina“Poets here (in Fresno) write killer poems in our unapologetic heat, the exhaust of the traffic, or the dream-inducing tule fog.” —Fresno poet laureate Lee Herrick, author of Gardening Secrets of the Dead (WordTech Editions, 2012)

Central Valley writers seem to revel in Fresno’s bad air and harsh laundry line of obstacles. Its writing history comes from just underneath its rich soil, from the bent backs of field laborers to the city’s war on drugs against the black market methamphetamine trade. The place often found at the top of many “Worst Cities in America” lists now can add to its reputation little to no water, thanks to the drought.

Still, Fresnans continue to find bars and converted backyard stages, open mics and coffee houses, filled with hungry ears eagerly listening for their favorite local poet to say one more thing just before the familiar, “Are y’all ready for the next poet?!” I’m proud to be a part of this scene, now thirteen years strong, keeping spoken word/poetry in the forefront of people’s minds here in the valley by forging and solidifying relationships, such as the one I have with Poets & Writers.

The Inner Ear’s mission is to collaborate with local and national artists utilizing spoken word, art, performance, and music to promote further interest in the arts in Fresno and the Central Valley. The Inner Ear/Beat Down Slam events serve the community by providing a forum for constructive and creative expression in a positive and supportive environment, offering an alternative to violence among Fresno County teens and young adults. The Inner Ear mixes formal poetry aesthetics with rap flair and vitality by taking poetry away from the ivory tower of the universities and moving it to a place where everyone has access. Over the past decade, we have had many participants say that our stage was their first.

This October finds the Inner Ear beginning a yearlong collaboration with the Fresno Grand Opera. Breaking new ground with its first Opera Remix: Music & Verse event, an exciting mix of local spoken word artists and opera musicians will perform together live on the stage of the historic Tower Theater in Fresno’s Tower District. In the months between this and next year’s event, we are excited to get the chance to work with composer Jakes Heggie and Librettist John de los Santos, and share new music by composer Ricky Ian Gordon (Grapes of Wrath) from the Metropolitan Opera in New York!  

On November 12, the Inner Ear celebrates its thirteenth anniversary with a tribute to fellow Fresno poet and former U.S. poet laureate Philip Levine, which will feature poets Corrinne Hales and Lee Herrick with other local writing notables, and music by Benjamin Boone. If you have never experienced in person one of our blowout anniversary events, you're missing what the Fresno scene is all about: fun, exciting, deep, edgy, and funny performances with live music and special guests all happening at the Fresno Art Museum.

To some, poetry is a mystical, invisible power—energizing raw, untamed thoughts put to paper or read aloud in public places. But here in the valley, that slow rhythmic sound you hear is the tactile heart of Fresno’s present, future, and past: the shadow of Philip Levine saying “What Work Is,” the familiar mustache and glasses of Juan Felipe Herrera, the mournful prose of an Andres Montoya poem. Poets here have to write killer poems and produce worthwhile poetry events that are as tangible as the fruit grown here, in the middle of nowhere, where we’re right at home, struggling.

 Photo: S. Bryan Medina     Credit: S. Bryan Medina

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.

National Book Awards Longlists Announced

This week, the National Book Foundation announced the longlists for the 2015 National Book Awards. Annual awards of $10,000 each honor the best book of the year published in the United States in the categories of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people’s literature. The shortlists will be announced on October 14, and the winners will be named during the foundation’s National Book Award Ceremony and Benefit Dinner in New York City on November 18.

The ten finalists in fiction are Jesse Ball, A Cure for Suicide (Pantheon Books); Karen E. Bender, Refund (Soft Skull); Bill Clegg, Did You Ever Have a Family (Scout Press); Angela Flournoy, The Turner House (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt); Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies (Riverhead); Adam Johnson, Fortune Smiles (Random House); T. Geronimo Johnson, Welcome to Braggsville (William Morrow); Edith Pearlman, Honeydew (Little, Brown); Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life (Doubleday); and Nell Zink, Mislaid (Ecco).

Fiction judges Daniel Alarcón, Jeffery Renard Allen, Sarah Bagby, Laura Lippman, and David L. Ulin selected the titles from a list of 419 books.

The ten finalists in nonfiction are Cynthia Barnett, Rain (Crown Publishing Group); Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau); Martha Hodes, Mourning Lincoln (Yale University Press); Sally Mann, Hold Still (Little, Brown); Sy Montgomery, The Soul of an Octopus (Atria); Susanna Moore, Paradise of the Pacific (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); Michael PaternitiLove and Other Ways of Dying: Essays (The Dial Press); Carla Power, If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran (Henry Holt and Company); Tracy K. Smith, Ordinary Light (Alfred A. Knopf); and Michael White, Travels in Vermeer: A Memoir (Persea Books).

Diane Ackerman, Patricia Hill Collins, John D’Agata, Paul Holdengräber, and Adrienne Mayor judged.

The finalists in poetry are Ross Gay, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (University of Pittsburgh Press); Amy Gerstler, Scattered at Sea (Penguin); Marilyn Hacker, A Stranger’s Mirror (W. W. Norton & Company); Terrance Hayes, How to Be Drawn (Penguin); Jane Hirshfield, The Beauty (Alfred A. Knopf); Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus (Alfred A. Knopf); Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things (Milkweed Editions); Patrick Phillips, Elegy for a Broken Machine (Alfred A. Knopf); Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Heaven (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); and Lawrence Raab, Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts (Tupelo Press).

Poetry judges Sherman Alexie, Willie Perdomo, Katha Pollitt, Tim Seibles, and Jan Weissmiller selected the longlisted titles from 221 books.

First conferred to poet William Carlos Williams in 1950, the National Book Award is one of the country’s most prestigious prizes in literature. Other notable winners include Sherman Alexie, Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Carol Oates, and Adrienne Rich.

To learn more about the finalists and judges of this year’s awards, visit the National Book Foundation website. The foundation recently announced that author Don DeLillo will be honored with the 2015 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters during the awards ceremony on November 18.

Booker Prize Shortlist Announced

The Man Booker Foundation has announced the shortlist for the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, which this year includes two American writers—Anne Tyler and Hanya Yanagihara—as well as debut novelist Chigozie Obioma. The annual award is given for a book of fiction written in English and published in the United Kingdom during the previous year. The winner receives £50,000 (approximately $77,000), and will be announced in London on October 13.

The six shortlisted authors are Marlon James of Jamaica for A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead Books); 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).

The five finalists were selected from a longlist of thirteen authors; Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, John Burnside, Sam Leith, Frances Osborne, and Michael Wood judged. “The writers on the shortlist present an extraordinary range of approaches to fiction,” said Wood, who is the chair of judges. “They come from very different cultures and are themselves at very different stages of their careers.”

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 to writers from the United Kingdom, Ireland, or Zimbabwe, was expanded last year to include writers of any nationality writing in English. Australian writer Richard Flanagan won the 2014 prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Clockwise from top left: Marlon James (Cameron Wittig), Tom McCarthy (Ulf Andersen), Chigozie Obioma, Hanya Yanagihara (Sophia Evans), Anne Tyler (Clara Molden), Sunjeev Sahota (Murdo MacLeod)

Dynamism and Redefinitions: The Asian American Literary Review's A Lettre Fellowship

R. A. Villanueva is the author of Reliquaria (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize. A founding editor of Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art, he currently lives in London, England.

Here in London the rain has paused and the sun, for once, feels keen to crash through the cloud banks which so often crown the city. I think now of two markers, one of geography and the other of time: Washington, D.C. is nearly 3,700 miles and an ocean west of me; and, since September has begun, “Asian American Literature Today” at the Library of Congress took place just over four months ago.

Such resonances are due in large part to the occasion for our gathering and who traveled (from across the U.S. and abroad) to be there. Cathy Linh Che, Eugenia Leigh, Ocean Vuong, and I were awarded The Asian American Literary Review’s inaugural A Lettre Fellowship and devoted the better part of last year each writing with/to established poets, allowing the dynamics of our curiosities, uncertainties, and fascinations drive our correspondences “by letters." Taken as a whole, the experience proved to be as emotional as it was formally innovative. These mentorships and convergences, after all, were happening in the shadow of our debut books and as each of us dealt with tectonic shifts in our lives apart from our writing.

This, by the way, was our methodology: after the AALR paired Cathy with Rick Barot, Eugenia with Julie Enzer, Ocean with Arthur Sze, and me with Ray Hsu, we were free to talk through the spring and fall of 2014. To build "community across literary generations," honesty and idiosyncrasy were encouraged. The exchange between Ocean and Arthur Sze, for instance, feels truly epistolary, with suites of poems and personal stories being traded. My back-and-forth with Ray Hsu seems more associative and roving in comparison, taking the shape of a series of handwritten reflections, Vimeo links and iPhone photos, Post-it Note collages and notebook scans.

Ultimately, the “Asian American Literature Today” event was meant to be the culmination of that project, an enactment of the AALR’s aspiration to represent “a space for all those who consider the designation 'Asian American' a fruitful starting point for artistic vision and community.”

Editor and Smithsonian APA Center Initiative coordinator Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis brought that vision to life in remarkable ways. He invited partnerships with the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center, the University of Maryland Asian American Studies Program, and opened the room to the greater public. This event was also funded by the Readings & Workshops Program at Poets & Writers.

The result was a powerful crossing of voices and a widening of perspectives. Before our reading, we circled up chairs to host an informal conversation about the editorial process, distinctions between writing and publishing, academia and art. We discussed how Cathy, Eugenia, Ocean, and I arrived at this moment together as friends and as peers; we discussed how organizations such as Kundiman, Cave Canem, CantoMundo, VONA, and Poets & Writers support the development of work aware of—and activated by—a very real world beyond our poems.

Ai Weiwei asserts that “[t]he intention to separate art from politics is itself a very political intention.” When it finally came time to move to the lectern and later, to respond to questions about connections with other communities, other struggles, we hoped to trouble such separations. In sharing selections by African American writers along with our own poems and in affirming the work of #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, “Asian American Literature Today” embodied a heart-fraught awareness of these markers—one of geography and again, one of time: Baltimore is only forty miles north of Washington, D.C., and when we read on May 4 in the wake of protests for Freddie Gray, Jr. while a state of emergency remained in effect and the National Guard was still in the process of drawing down.

Which is to say, perhaps what makes contemporary Asian American literature so vital is its refusal to ignore history, to stay quiet, or to pledge allegiance to outworn expectations.

Photo: (top) R. A. Villaneuva. (bottom) Lawrence- Minh Bui Davis, Eugenia Leigh, Cathy Che, R. A. Villaneuva, Ocean Vuong. 

Photo Credit: A'Lelia Bundles.

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.

Winners of Academy of American Poets Prizes Announced

The Academy of American Poets announced yesterday the recipients of the 2015 Academy of American Poets Prizes, which honor poets at various stages in their careers. The organization awarded more than $200,000 in prizes this year to poets including Joy Harjo, Marie Howe, Kevin Young, Todd Portnowitz, Kathryn Nuernberger, and Roger Greenwald.

Joy Harjo received this year’s Wallace Stevens Award, given annually in recognition of “outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry.” The award, established in 1994, carries a $100,000 stipend. Past winners include John Ashbery, James Tate, and Adrienne Rich. Harjo is the author of several poetry collections, most recently Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (Norton, 2015). Harjo was chosen by the Academy’s Board of Chancellors; Academy chancellor Alicia Ostriker said of Harjo, “Her visionary justice-seeking art transforms personal and collective bitterness to beauty, fragmentation to wholeness, and trauma to healing.”

Marie Howe received the 2015 Academy of American Poets Fellowship, an annual prize of $25,000 given for “distinguished poetic achievement.” The winner is nominated and chosen by the Board of Chancellors. Howe is the author of three poetry collections, most recently The Kingdom of Ordinary Time (Norton, 2009). Academy chancellor Arthur Sze said, “[Howe’s] poems are acclaimed for writing through loss with verve, but they also find the miraculous in the ordinary and transform quotidian incidents into enduring revelation.”

Kevin Young won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for his collection Book of Hours (Knopf, 2014). The $25,000 prize is given annually for a poetry collection published in the United States during the previous year. Marie Howe, A. Van Jordan, and Donald Revell judged. Jordan said, “Book of Hours exemplifies what poetry can do in the world when language works at its full power.”

Todd Portnowitz received the Raiziss/de Palchi Translation Fellowship for his translation from the Italian of of poet Pierluigi Cappello’s Go Tell It to the Emperor: Selected Poems. The biennial fellowship recognizes “outstanding translations of modern Italian poetry into English,” and offers an award of $25,000 and a five-week residency at the American Academy in Rome. Adria Bernardi, Luigi Fontanella, and Giuseppe Leporace judged. “Portnowitz, in his tireless and remarkably refined effort," said Leporace, "has brilliantly grasped and then seamlessly transposed into English all the imagery and linguistic complexities contained in the work at hand.”

Kathryn Nuernberger is the recipient of the James Laughlin Award for her poetry collection The End of Pink (BOA Editions, 2016). The annual prize recognizes a “superior second book of poetry by an American poet,” and carries with it a cash award of $5,000, as well as a weeklong residency at the Betsy Hotel in Miami. Roger Greenwald won the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award for his book Guarding the Air: Selected Poems by Gunner Harding (Black Widow Press, 2014). Bill Johnston judged. The $1,000 award is given annually for a poetry collection translated from any language into English that was published during the previous year.

Established in 1934, the Academy of American Poets is the largest nonprofit organization supporting the work of American poets.

Photos: Joy Harjo, Marie Howe (credit: Benjamin Norman), Kevin Young

Poets for Cultural Exchange: El Habib Louai in New Orleans

Louisiana poet Dennis Formento lives in Slidell, Bayou Bonfouca watershed, with his wife Patricia Hart, an artist and yogini. He has been published in the Lummox Poetry Anthology (Lummox Press, 2014), the Maple Leaf Rag V (Portals Press, 2014), and on the blog Water, Water Everywhere. Formento’s latest book is Cineplex (Paper Press, 2014). He teaches English at Delgado Community College and is New Orleans’s coordinator for 100 Thousand Poets for Change, a worldwide movement for peace and sustainability.

Poet and translator El Habib Louai, a resident of Agadir, Morocco, performed with a killer band of free jazz all-stars in a show produced by Surregional Press of Slidell, Louisiana. Poets & Writers partially funded the performance, which took place on July 31 at the Zeitgeist Theater in New Orleans.

While emigration proceedings in Canada prevented one member of Louai’s Neo-Beat Amazigh Band from arriving in New Orleans, and another member remained in New York City, Louai played on. He was backed by Ray Moore (saxes and flute), Jeb Stuart (acoustic bass), Will Thompson (keyboards), and Dave Cappello (drums). Louai also read from his book Mrs. Jones Will Now Know: Poems of a Desperate Rebel (Paper Press, 2015).

About fifty-five people attended at Zeitgeist Multidisciplinary Art Center on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in the Central City neighborhood. Central City is downtown, and O. C. Haley was the main stem of African American business in town decades ago, before much business was diverted to the Canal Street district. Zeitgeist, its neighboring art center, the Ashé Center, and the now shuttered Neighborhood Gallery, came to O. C. Haley in the early aughts, spearheading a revitalization of the area.

Louai captured a diverse audience: Arab students from the University of New Orleans, African American and white scholars, and poets from various scenes around town. A “welcoming committee” of local writers began the session with poems of their own: Valentine Pierce, Scott Nicholson (backed by Will Thompson), Andrea Young and husband, Khaled Hegazzi—whose contribution was a handful of translations of contemporary Egyptian poets—and Jessica Mashael Bordelon. I joined in, reading a portion of Allen Ginsberg’s “America” before Louai’s translation into Arabic of that famed satire.

Andrea Young said she was gratified that poetry in Arabic and English had finally found a crossroads in the Crescent City. She and her husband publish a magazine called Meena, from their homes in New Orleans and Alexandria, Egypt.

The performance not only brought to the city Louai’s translations from the New American poetry and Beat traditions, but also helped open cultural dialogue and exchange. It’s been hard to find Arab poets and literati in New Orleans, despite the fact that it is home to thousands of Arabs, some of whom have had family here for decades.

Louai visited a number of poetry venues in the two weeks that he spent at my house in Slidell: the Tekrema Center for Art and Culture in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans; the famed Maple Leaf Bar Everette Maddox Memorial Reading; and a meeting of the St. Tammany Parish group, 100 Thousand Poets for Change: Northshore. He went on radio: Rudy Mills’s Gumbo Tapado Show on WBOK-AM and WWOZ-FM’s “World Journey” program with Suzanne Corley. On August 1, Louai performed at Fair Grinds Coffee House, accompanied on djembe, tambourine, and castanets by poet/percussionist Gamma Flowers and myself. Finally, he played a house concert at my place with backing by Jeb Stuart on bass—a first in Slidell.  

Photo (top): Louai, Moore, and Cappello. Photo Credit: El Habib Louai.

Photo (bottom): Louai and band. Photo Credit: El Habib Louai.

Support for Readings & Workshops events in New Orleans, Lousiana 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.

Rona Jaffe Award Winners Announced

The Rona Jaffe Foundation has announced the six recipients of the 2015 Rona Jaffe Writers’ Awards, which are given annually to emerging women poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers. The awards “identify and support women writers of exceptional talent in the early stages of their careers.” Each winner receives $30,000.

The 2015 recipients are poets Ashley M. Jones of Birmingham, Alabama, and Britteney Black Rose Kapri of Chicago; fiction writers Vanessa Hua of Orinda, California, Amanda Rea of Denver, and Natalie Haney Tilghman of Glenville, Illinois; and nonfiction writer Meehan Crist of New York City. Visit the website for the winners’ complete bios.

The six recipients will be honored at a private reception in New York City on September 17. The Rona Jaffe Foundation solicits nominations for the awards each year from writers, editors, publishers, academics, and other literary professionals; a committee of judges selected by the foundation chooses the recipients.

Since writer Rona Jaffe established the awards program in 1995, the foundation has awarded more than $2 million to over one hundred twenty women writers. Past recipients include poets Erin Belieu, Tracy K. Smith, and Mary Szybist; fiction writers Rebecca Lee, ZZ Packer, and Tiphanie Yanique; and nonfiction writers Rachel Aviv, Eula Biss, and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts.

Clockwise from top left: Ashley M. Jones, Britteny Black Rose Kapri, Vanessa Hua, Amanda Rea, Natalie Haney Tilghman, Meehan Crist

From the Big City to the Boys Ranch: Coe Booth Visits the Bay

Joe Young is the librarian for the Frandsen Library at the Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall and the Lesher Library at the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility, both in California's East Bay region. The Frandsen and Lesher libraries opened their doors in November of 2006, with the mission to promote a love of literature and reading, support educational curriculum, and encourage the development of a lifelong habit of self-directed learning. Young furthers this mission by working to bring a wide variety of authors, artists, and speakers to visit the young men and women his libraries serve. This post is a report on one such P&W-supported event—a visit to the Lesher Library at the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility from Coe Booth. Booth is the author of Tyrell (Push, 2007), which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Best Young Adult Novel and was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults and a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age.

Joe YouungIt was an unseasonably hot May morning in the San Francisco Bay when I pulled up to the Berkeley address where author Coe Booth was staying. Sweat dripped down my forehead and into my eyes as I anxiously knocked on the door. I was nervous!

In my world, Coe Booth is a big deal. Her books Tyrell (Push, 2007), Bronxwood (Push, 2013), Kendra (Push, 2010), and Kinda Like Brothers (Scholastic Press, 2014) fall into the sweet spot of urban fiction for young adults that is exciting, authentic, and has a positive message. Her books also happen to be some of the most consistently popular titles in my libraries.

Coe greeted me with a warm smile. After a quick introduction we loaded into my car and embarked on the hour-long commute to the Byron Boys Ranch.

Established in 1960 on the site of a converted cattle ranch in Byron, California, the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility (colloquially known as the Byron Boys Ranch) is a minimum security treatment center for adolescent delinquent youngsters, and the home of the Lesher Library. After a brief introduction and orientation from the probation staff, the sixty-three young men residing at the Boys Ranch were gathered and assembled in the dusty gym. Then, Coe took the stage and addressed the young men. 

She read and spoke eloquently, honestly, earnestly, with passion and poise. She spoke about being an author and a woman and an African-American. She spoke about where her stories come from, how her characters are born, what parts of herself she puts into her stories, and what she hopes to communicate to the reader. The young men sat and listened, some seemingly indifferent, some in eager, rapt attention.

After talking for the better part of an hour, Coe asked if anybody in the audience had questions. At first the young men were hesitant, but after a bit of coaxing the questions gleefully poured forth: "Are you famous?" "Where do you live?" "How do you come up with characters’ names?" "Are you rich?" "Why did you want to be a writer?" "Do you feel proud of the books you wrote?" "How can I get a book published?" "Could we write a book together?" Coe made sure to answer every question, connecting with each young man who reached out to her.

Coe BoothCoe spent just over two hours with the young men. As we drove back to Berkeley through the shimmering, midday heat, my car’s air conditioning sadly failing us once again, I was struck by how she was both down-to-earth and larger-than-life.

This woman—who I had talked with so comfortably during our car ride, sharing our small, personal thoughts and concerns—was transformed in front of my eyes during those two hours. She stood in front of that group of young men, who were a unique combination of worldly sophistication and childish naivety, and gave freely of herself. She gave them honesty and compassion. She held herself up as a role model—imperfections and all—and told them: "What I have done, you can do." She believed in them and believed in their ability to change and improve, and become the people they want to become. And, even if just for those two hours, the boys believed, too.

Photos: (top) Joe Young. (bottom) Author Coe Booth addressing boys at the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility. Credit: Amy Bowen, Joe Young.

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. 

Michael Kearns and His Troupe of Queer Senior Spoken Word Artists

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.

Words of Wisdom Workshop, Bronx, New York

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.

The New York Poetry Community Grows at Roots Poetry Series

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.

End of the Month Deadline Roundup

Submissions are currently open for several prizes in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, including the New Millennium Writings Awards, the Stone Canoe Literary Prizes, and the Room of Her Own Foundation Orlando Prizes. Their deadline is July 31. To view more contests with upcoming deadlines, visit the Writing Contests, Grants & Awards database.   

The New Millennium Writings Awards are given twice yearly for a poem, a short story, a short short story, and an essay. The winners in each category receive $1,000 and publication in the print journal and on the website. National Book Award finalist Maureen N. McLane will serve as guest poetry judge.

Using the online submission system, submit up to three poems totaling no more than five pages, a short story or essay of up to 6,000 words, or a short short story of up to 1,000 words along with a $20 entry fee by July 31. Multiple and simultaneous submissions are accepted. All entries are considered for publication. All participants receive a complimentary copy of the journal. Visit the website for complete guidelines.

Established in 1996 by journalist Don Williams, New Millennium Writings is an annual publication that promotes the work of new and emerging writers.

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The Stone Canoe Literary Awards are given annually to a poet, a fiction writer, and a creative nonfiction writer who have a connection to upstate New York, and who have not published a book with a nationally distributed press. Winners in each category receive $500. An additional prize of $500 is also given annually to a U.S. military veteran. The editors of Stone Canoe will judge. Winners will be announced October 31.

Using the online submission system, submit three to five poems or a short story or essay of up to 10,000 words by July 31. Though entrants must have a New York State connection, the submissions themselves may be on any subject. There is no entry fee. All entries are considered for publication. Visit the website for complete guidelines.

Stone Canoe is an annual publication of the Upstate New York YMCA’s Downtown Writers Center, which showcases the work of writers with an upstate New York connection. The publication aims to “promote a greater awareness of the cultural and intellectual richness that characterizes life in the region.”

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Sponsored by the A Room of her Own Foundation, the Orlando Prizes are given twice yearly for a poem, a short story, a short short story, and an essay by a woman writer. The winners will each receive $1,000 and publication in the Los Angeles Review.

Using the online submission manager, submit a poem of up to 36 lines, a short short story of up to 500 words, or a short story or essay of up to 1,500 words, along with a $15 entry fee by July 31. Multiple and simultaneous submissions are accepted. Visit the website for complete guidelines.

A Room of Her Own was founded in 2000 by Darlene Chandler Bassett and Mary Johnson. The nonprofit foundation's mission is "to inspire, fund, and champion works of art and literature by women."

Five American Writers Among Booker Prize Semifinalists

The longlist for the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction was announced this morning. The annual prize of £50,000 (approximately $78,142) honors the best book of fiction written in English and published in United Kingdom during the previous year. This year, the list of thirteen semifinalists includes five writers from the United States: Bill Clegg, Laila Lalami, Marilynne Robinson, Anne Tyler, and Hanya Yanagihara. Writers from Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, India, Nigeria, and Jamaica complete the list.

The longlisted titles are Did You Ever Have a Family (Jonathan Cape) by Bill Clegg; The Green Road (Jonathan Cape) by Anne Enright, who won the 2007 Man Booker Prize for her novel The Gathering; A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld Publications) by Marlon James; The Moor’s Account (Periscope, Garnet Publishing) by Laila Lalami; Satin Island (Jonathan Cape) by Tom McCarthy; The Fishermen (ONE, Pushkin Press) by Chigozie Obioma; The Illuminations (Faber & Faber) by Andrew O’Hagan; Lila (Virago) by Marilynne Robinson; Sleeping on Jupiter (MacLehose Press, Quercus) by Anuradha Roy; The Year of the Runaways (Picador) by Sunjeev Sahota; The Chimes (Sceptre) by Anna Smaill; A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus) by Anne Tyler; and A Little Life (Picador) by Hanya Yanagihara.

The judges—Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, John Burnside, Sam Leith, Frances Osborne, and Michael Wood—selected the thirteen titles from a list of 156 books. “The range of different performances and forms of these novels is amazing,” said Wood, chair of the judging panel. “All of them do something exciting with the language they have chosen to use.” Three of the semifinalists—Bill Clegg, Chigozie Obioma, and Anna Smaill—are debut novelists. The shortlist will be announced on September 15, and the winner will be named at a ceremony in London on October 13.

First awarded in 1969, the prize was originally restricted to writers from the British Commonwealth nations and Ireland. This is the second year that the prize has been open to writers of any nationality writing in English. Previous winners include Salman Rushdie, Hilary Mantel, and Richard Flanagan, who received the 2014 prize for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. To date, Flanagan’s book has sold almost eight hundred thousand copies worldwide.

The Man Booker Foundation also administers the Man Booker International Prize; the foundation announced earlier this month that beginning in 2016, the Man Booker International Prize and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize will merge to form one annual award for a single work of fiction translated into English. The winning author and translator of the reconfigured Man Booker International Prize will equally split a purse of £52,000.

Photos: Top row from left: Hanya Yanagihara, Marilynne Robinson, Bill Clegg. Bottom row from left: Laila Lalami, Anne Tyler.

Where Cast Iron Potatoes Meet Poetry: Seattle's Unconventional APRIL Literary Festival

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.