Poets & Writers Blogs

Kelly Harris, Daughter of Domestics

P&W-supported poet/activist Kelly Harris, founder of Poems & Pink Ribbons, a poetry workshop for breast cancer patients, survivors, and their loved ones, blogs about Daughters of Domestics, a poetry reading she initiated and participated in in New Orleans.

There's a special relationship in New Orleans between the community and its artists. Go to the French Quarter and watch artists infuse themselves into the daily lives of New Orleanians and tourists alike. Even if you're minding your own business, a singer, dancer, mime, trumpeter, tambourine player, or visual artist can suddenly make you take a detour from your day's plans.

I have been fortunate to have organized several events in New Orleans that create unique intersections between poetry and non-traditional audiences. Most recently, Daughters of Domestics: Poets & Academics Respond to "The Help," featured Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes, Kysha Brown Robinson, and myself. The Help, both the book and film, have created much conversation in New Orleans. In fact, a 1982 documentary about black domestics in New Orleans titled Yes Ma'am showed for a limited run in September.

Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically black college known for graduating more African American pharmacists than any other university in the country, hosted the event. Daughters of Domestics attracted an audience of over one hundred people including Xavier University students and faculty, clergy, local writers, bookstore owners, and even nuns. 

Poems read by the featured poets underscored the struggle of Hattie McDaniel, the first African American actress to win an Academy Award, black women domestic labor, sexism, and Jim Crow. My final poem of the evening, "For All the Times in School I Left Mother's Occupation Blank," was dedicated to my mother who cleaned white people's homes in the late '80s and early '90s for extra income.

Following the poets, Dr. Kimberly Chandler, assistant professor of communications at Xavier, moderated a panel that included Professor Theresa Davis, Dr. Denese Shervington, and Dr. Brenda Edgerton-Webster. The three nationally respected African American scholars discussed the contradictions, complexities, and contentions of the film from the black female perspective. Dr. Davis began her comments by quoting Langston Hughes's poem "Note on Commercial Theatre." The panel provided a lively conversation that ended with a call to action.

Before the close of the event, Dr. Chandler turned the audience's attention to a black-and-white photo of a black woman, who was a domestic worker, on display in the auditorium. The photo was brought in by an audience member who wanted to bring his grandmother's spirit to the event. I believe she was there.

Later that evening, I received an e-mail from a woman thanking me for organizing the event and requesting a bibliography of all the authors and books that had been mentioned. Her call demonstrates the ways in which poetry can have a profound impact. She said, "I need those books on my shelf."

Photo: (top) Kelly Harris; (bottom, left to right) Kelly Harris and Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes. Credit: Jarvis DeBerry.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in New Orleans, 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.

Deadline Extension for Women Fiction Writers

Another deadline extension came across our desks this week, for a story contest offering publication to a female-identified writer of any nationality. Kore Press is now accepting submissions of stories, written in English and coming in at fewer than twelve thousand words, until November 30.

The winner will receive one thousand dollars and the winning work will be published as a chapbook by Kore Press, a Tucson, Arizona–based publisher of literature by women. The chapbooks are bound by hand and distributed via the press's website.

The writer who will select this year's winner has not yet been confirmed, but past judges include Tayari Jones, Antonya Nelson, and Leslie Marmon Silko.

For more information about how to submit a story, and to learn more about the mission of the press, visit the Kore website.

For Beau Sia, Inspiration Works Both Ways

The Inspired Word, a twice-weekly poetry, spoken word, and performance series in New York City, featured P&W-supported poet Beau Sia on September 22. Inspired Word founder and producer Mike Geffner (whose journalistic work has appeared in USA Today, Details Magazine, and the Village Voice) describes the evening.

At my Inspired Word series in Manhattan’s East Village, Los Angeles poet Beau Sia took the stage donned like some kind of rock star: chalk-white jacket flipped up (Elvis-style) at the collar, tight-fitting jeans, and nifty looking maroon-colored shades.

It all seemed pretty cool until we quickly found out the sunglasses weren’t a fashion statement. His eyes, you see, were sensitive right now. “This light is painful to me,” he told the packed downstairs Nexus Lounge–a crowd of about fifty people–inside the Irish pub, One and One. He wore ear plugs too. Because his ears were sensitive as well, he said as flat as can be, his arms pinned to his sides like a pair of wooden slats and his neck, as if held by a brace, not budging a smidgen.

He went on to explain that he’d recently had a bad car accident, suffered whiplash, and now had “this brain-stem injury thing,” which meant a sudden jolt could send his world upside down. Which also meant that he had no choice other than to be desperately “low key." He apologized in advance for not being at his best.

Indeed, imagining a poet known for his frenetic performances (on HBO's Def Poetry and as a two-time National Poetry Slam Champion) unable to use his body reminded me of what Gay Talese once famously wrote about Sinatra having a cold: It’s like “Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel.”

“You guys can’t imagine how frustrating it is for me," Sia said early on, "to not utilize my full physical capability."

But a poet of stunning range, Sia still pulled it off brilliantly, reading with such intensity that his body appeared to pulsate. He had us all leaning forward (with poignant pieces about life’s fragility and wisdom gained from working with stroke patients), laughing a whole lot (especially one moment when he cranked up a stiff left arm to count off parts of his poem with equally stiff fingers), and thinking a ton.

“It’s pretty awesome of you guys to be listening as deeply as you are,” he said. “I can feel [it].”

He received a standing ovation, having created, despite everything working against him, a truly magical evening. He could’ve easily blown off the night and called in sick. But he didn't. Instead, he endured all the discomfort and pain and weirdness for the sake of doing nothing more than sharing his words with an audience. It’s what I’ll remember most about that night. Not the words so much, as what he went through to utter them. Could poetry be any more inspiring?

Photo: Beau Sia. Credit: Raymond Hamlin.

Support for Reading/Workshops events 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.

Frost Place Extends Deadline for Residency Prize

Each summer Robert Frost's New Hampshire farmhouse, nestled on a country road with a view of the White Mountains, opens up to one resident poet. This year, writers "at an artistic and personal crossroads comparable to that faced by Robert Frost when he moved to Franconia in 1915" have an extra few weeks to apply for the opportunity, until the end of November.

The residency, which is available for six to eight weeks between July 1 to August 31, offers a poet exclusive use of the non-public rooms of the house (part of it is a museum). The poet will also give a series of regional readings—Dartmouth College will be one of the stops—and in turn will receive a one-thousand-dollar honorarium.

Aside from the spirit of Frost himself, one might find evidence of contemporary luminaries who have recently spent time living at the farm. Among past resident poets are Robert Hass, Major Jackson, Cleopatra Mathis, Katha Pollitt, and Mary Ruefle. Emerging writer K. A. Hays (Dear Apocalypse, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2009) won last summer's residency.

Visit the Frost Place website for guidelines on applying before November 30.

In the video below, a reading of "The Road Not Taken" by Frost accompanies a tour of the woods and poetry trail around the poet's farmhouse.

Self-Publishing Forum Hosts Poetry and Fiction Contests

Celebrating the kickoff of National Novel Writing Month, the website HubPages, a sort of micro-blogging community, is holding a no-fee writing contest—for poets as well as fiction writers. Prizes of five hundred dollars, one hundred dollars, and fifty dollars will be given to writers in both genres, and one overall winner will be offered publication of a poetry or story collection via self-publishing outfit Smashwords (though editing of the manuscript is not part of the prize).

Writers are invited to create a HubPages login and then publish the works they wish to enter as "hubs," or short posts that are housed on the website under a variety of topic headings: poems and poetry, creative writing, and so on. Every post must be accompanied by a photo (a separate photo competition is also being held in conjunction with the writing contests).

The winners, to be announced on December 2, will be selected by judging panels made up of staff members and HubPages users pulled from the more than two-hundred-thousand registered with the site. Entries may be posted (with the tag "contest") until November 22.

Complete guidelines, including links to the profiles of each panelist, are available on the Hub Patron of the Arts web page.

M. L. Liebler's Thursday in the D

Longtime P&W-supported sponsor and writer M. L. Liebler, author of fourteen books of poetry including The Moon A Box, which received the 2005 Patterson Poetry Award of Excellence, blogs about curating and hosting Wayne State University's Thursdays in the D in Detroit, Michigan.

On September 22, over one hundred folks packed the Scarab Arts Club in downtown Detroit’s cultural center to hear a wild, fun, and moving reading/performance by a wide variety of literary artists. Thanks to Wayne State University’s Office of Student Affairs and its great staff, I was honored to curate and host Thursdays in the D with Detroit singer/songwriter Audra Kubat, poet Brian Gilmore from D.C., deaf hip-hop star Sean Forbes from Detroit, former slam star Jeffrey McDaniel from New York City, and the insanely talented Jessica Care Moore from Detroit.

I would say 75 percent of the audience had never attended a poetry reading. The audience was made up of urban and suburban students and teachers, senior citizens, blue collar workers, labor activists, college deans, and others, all of whom came together to listen, enjoy, and join in the fun of poetry. It’s a beautiful thing to see the arts thrive in a city that has been hit very, very hard by the recession. Our community is clearly nourished by the arts, and this program was ample proof.

The program began with Detroit’s young singer/songwriter, in the Joni Mitchell tradition, Audra Kubat. Audra’s lyrics are basically poems set to music. Brain Gilmore of the D.C. poetry scene and DC Writer's Corps followed and delivered a great set of poems, with Frank F. Koscielski on piano, as a wonderful homage to Duke Ellington from his book Jungle Nights & Soda Fountain Rags. Next up was Detroit’s Sean Forbes, a deaf young hip-hop artist working with Eminem, who stunned the audience with his cool hip-hop beats and poems as he signed and spoke his work. Jeffrey McDaniel, Pitt Poetry Series author of The Endarkenment, delivered from his old school slam days a fabulous set combining high quality poetry with precision timing and showmanship. To conclude Jessica Care Moore, star of HBO Def Poetry Jam, delivered politically charged poems in the spirit of the late Gil Scott-Heron, Black Star, and Public Enemy’s Chuck D. To put the cherry on the sundae, nationally known Shakespeare impersonator Chuck Wilcox came up to the podium in costume and performed a Shakespeare sonnet!

Folks, I don’t care where you live in this great country (or world, for that matter), it just doesn’t get any better than this. Ah, Thursdays in the D makes me glad to be alive in this wonderful city.

Photo: M. L. Liebler.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Detroit, 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.

A Story Grows in Brooklyn

This fall the Brooklyn Film and Arts Festival is sponsoring a contest for stories and essays centered on the most populous borough of New York City. The organization is looking for "compelling Brooklyn stories from writers with a broad range of backgrounds and ages, who can render Brooklyn's rich soul and intangible qualities" using their actual experiences in Kings County as inspiration.

One prose writer, selected by a panel of Brooklyn authors, will receive a prize of four hundred dollars, and the winning piece will be published on the festival website. The winner will also be invited to give a reading at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, near the borough's downtown area.

Story and essay entries, which should range from four to ten pages (up to twenty-five hundred words), should be submitted via e-mail by November 25. There is no entry fee. For more information, visit the Brooklyn Film and Arts Festival blog.

The video below is a trailer for some of last year's festival offerings, featuring shots of Brooklyn past and present.

ReLit Awards Honor Canada's Indie Press Authors

The 2011 ReLit Awards, celebrating books of poetry and fiction by Canadian authors published with Canadian small presses, were announced last night at the Ottawa International Writers Festival. Presented along with signature rings featuring movable dials of typea gift that almost didn't come to pass this year due to funding shortagesthe awards' focus is on "ideas, not money" (no prize purse accompanies the honor).

The 2011 awards went to poet Dani Couture for Sweet and Craig Francis Power for his novel, Blood Relatives, both published by Toronto-based Pedlar Press. Tony Burgess won for his short story collection Ravenna Gets, from Anvil Press in Vancouver. The winning books were all published in 2010.

There is no entry fee for presses to submit books, which are due at the end of January each year. Visit the ReLit website for submission guidelines.

In the video below, Couture reads three poems from her winning book, including the title piece.

Whiting Awards Help Early-Career Writers "Negotiate With Their Doubts"

Last night in New York City the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation offered another group of emerging writers what could be a life- and career-altering gift. Since 1985, the foundation has annually offered fifty-thousand-dollar prizes to ten writers whose early work suggests the promise of a flourishing careerJeffrey Eugenides, Yiyun Li, Jonathan Franzen, Mary Karr, and Terrance Hayes are among the 270 poets, authors, and playwrights to have received the award in the past.

The 2011 Whiting Writers' Award honorees, most of whom have published only one book, are poets Don Mee Choi, Eduardo C. Corral, Shane McCrae, and Kerri Webster; fiction writers Scott Blackwood, Ryan Call, Daniel Orozco, and Teddy Wayne; memoirist Paul Clemens; and playwright Amy Herzog. None of these writers applied for the award; winners are nominated by a group of anonymous literary professionals, which have historically included editors, agents, bookstore owners, and critics.

Poet Mark Doty, who received the Writers' Award in 1994, delivered the prize address, encouraging the winners to "savor this brilliant occasion of attention and celebration" and store it for those inevitable occasions where rejection and self-doubt threaten to define the day.

"May these awards...help you to negotiate with your doubts," he said. "May this award lend you aid and comfort while you move ahead in what I hope will be a long, happy work in service of what is real."

In the video below, Don Mee Choi reads from her book, The Morning News Is Exciting (Action Books, 2010).

M. L. Liebler Retreats

Longtime P&W-supported sponsor and writer M. L. Liebler, author of fourteen books of poetry including The Moon A Box, which received the 2005 Patterson Poetry Award of Excellence, blogs about the second annual Detroit Michigan Writers' Retreat in downtown Detroit.

On the morning of September 17, about forty or so metro-area writers attended the second annual all-day Detroit Michigan Writers’ Retreat sponsored by Metro Detroit Writers and Springfed Arts at the legendary Virgil H. Carr Cultural Center in the heart of Paradise Valley. Folks arrived early for coffee, greetings, and to meet new writer friends. John D. Lamb once again offered an affordable, excellent retreat as he has since 1998. The retreat, for many years, was in northern Michigan, and each retreat featured a great lineup of acclaimed writers such as Michael Moore, Ben Hamper, Joyce Maynard, Thomas Lux, Alicia Ostriker, Dorianne Laux, and Billy Collins, among others. Last year, John moved the event from the wilderness of northern Michigan to the center of the city.

This morning began with a poetry craft talk by Denise Duhamel, who stressed the need to bring the concrete experiences of life into poems to make them as real as possible for audiences. She used examples from great works by Pablo Neruda, Ezra Pound, and Etheridge Knight. Denise was followed by Ohio novelist and memoirist Robert Olmstead, who offered detailed fiction techniques that reached many of Detroit’s fiction writers.

Following Robert's talk, writers took to the park in front of the Carr Center for lunch, gossip, and other writerly things. After lunch, E. Ethelbert Miller gave a motivational talk about the importance of being “activists for literature." I could hear by the discussions that followed, Miller's ideas resonated with Detroit-area writers. The afternoon craft talks ended with a strong presentation on memoir writing techniques and ways to get the most from our life stories. Miller shared his memoir on growing up in Trinidad and coming of age in New York City.

The day concluded with an open mic by the participants. This is the chance for attendees to share their talents, and I always find it very inspirational. Topics ranged from world peace to an exploration of diversity and multiculturalism. I was particularly struck by Ami Mattison, a Guam poet, who read an engaging poem about her life as a member of the Chamorro people.

By 6:00 that evening everyone left the retreat invigorated, charged up, and ready to take on their writing in new, inspirational ways... Success!

Photo: M. L. Liebler.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Detroit, 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.

San Diego City College International Book Fair

The San Diego City College International Book Fair, which took place in San Diego, California, October 3 to 8, featured P&W-supported writers Cris Mazza, Wanda Coleman, Austin Straus, Christopher Buckley, and Laurel Corona.

Maybe it’s because she grew up in a family of “hunters and gatherers” in the wilder parts of San Diego County that fiction writer Cris Mazza espouses a “stone soup” approach to writing. In other words, she welcomes the happy accidents that find their way into her work and is amused by the prospect of literary critics mining her pages for symbolism.

Mazza, reading from her novel Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, was one of more than fifteen writers to present their work at the sixth annual San Diego City College International Book Fair, which took place on the community college campus. Though small compared to mega-festivals like the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the City Book Fair earns the title of “International” by emphasizing writing from the U.S./Mexico border. City Works Press, a local collective based at San Diego City College (SDCC), recently published Wounded Border/Frontera Herida: Readings on the Tijuana /San Diego Region and Beyond.

Social justice is a common theme in the work of City Book Fair writers. Mazza’s latest novel chronicles the risks taken by trafficked sex workers who serve migrant farm workers in the fields. Mazza said she hoped to bring awareness to the problem. “I usually write something when I’m troubled [by an issue], not inspired,” she said. “But maybe they’re kind of the same thing.”

However, she admitted that she didn’t have any illusions about the power of fiction to stop what government and law enforcement haven’t been able to.

Later in the afternoon on October 8 (the main day of the festival), poet Wanda Coleman alluded to the Occupy San Diego protests happening downtown. Her dynamic voice and musical riffs rang through the auditorium as she bellowed, “It’s way too late—we should have protested the Civil War.”

Other readers and panelists included poet Austin Straus, novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and poet and nonfiction writer Luis Rodriguez, who drew a large crowd that included many young Latino SDCC students. Outside the auditorium, visitors browsed at booths operated by small presses and independent bookstores. A few blocks away, a crowd of protesters—accompanied by a handful of babies and dogs—held up signs saying “End War, Feed the Poor” and “Trickle down?! It NEVER RAINS in Southern California!”

Photos: (Top) P&W staff member Jamie FitzGerald (in hat) with bookfair attendees. Credit: Cheryl Klein; (bottom) Austin Straus. Credit: Cheryl Klein.

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

The Quiet, the Pizzazzy Compete for T. S. Eliot Prize

U.K. poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy is among the writers shortlisted for this year's T. S. Eliot Prize, given for a poetry collection published in the United Kingdom. The award, which Duffy received in 2005 for her previous collection, Rapture (Macmillan), has honored international luminaries such as Anne Carson, Mark Doty, Seamus Heaney, and Derek Walcott since its founding in 1993.

The books up for "the most demanding of all poetry prizes," in the words of judge and poet Gillian Clarke, are:
John Burnside's Black Cat Bone (Jonathan Cape), which won the 2011 Forward Prize earlier this month
Carol Ann Duffy's The Bees (Picador)
Leontia Flynn's Profit and Loss (Jonathan Cape)
David Harsent's Night (Faber and Faber)
John Kinsella's Armour (Picador)
Esther Morgan's Grace (Bloodaxe Books)
Daljit Nagra's Tippoo Sultan's Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!! (Faber and Faber)
Sean O'Brien's November (Picador)
Bernard O'Donoghue's Farmer's Cross (Faber and Faber)
Memorial (Faber and Faber) by Alice Oswald, who won the Eliot Prize in 2002 for Dart (Faber and Faber)

"To me an exciting book is one that makes me want to be a poet—to stop and write a poem at that very moment," says Clarke, who will select the winner with the help of fellow poets Stephen Knight and Dennis O'Driscoll. "All these books are nourishing, exciting, and challenging. Some are more challenging, others more nourishing, but all are tremendously important to us in their different ways—in quiet ways and in pizzazzy ways."

The winner, who will receive a fifteen-thousand-pound prize (approximately twenty-four thousand dollars), will be announced by the Poetry Book Society on January 16. Each finalist will take home one thousand pounds (approximately sixteen hundred dollars).

Fourth Time's a Charm for Julian Barnes

The Man Booker Prize was awarded last night to British author Julian Barnes, who had been a contender for the honor on three previous occasions. The author, who once called the prize "posh bingo," won this year for his best-selling novel The Sense of an Ending, published earlier this month in the United States by Knopf (the original U.K. publisher is Jonathan Cape).

Barnes, who was a finalist in 1984, 1998, and 2005, says he stands by his earlier assessment of the award as a sort of game whose outcome is dependent on the fluctuating tastes of the judging panel. For shortlisted authors full of "hope and lust and greed and expectation" he suggests treating the award as a lotterythat is, until you win and "realize that the judges are the wisest heads in literary Christendom."

This year's chair of judges, Stella Rimington, whose Booker jury faced criticism earlier this year about its prioritization of accessible books over those of high literary merit, called Barnes's book "very readable, if I may use the word." She added that it has "the markings of a classic of English literature. It is exquisitely written, subtly plotted and reveals new depths with each reading."

Barnes received fifty thousand pounds (approximately seventy-nine thousand dollars). The shortlisted authors each took home twenty-five hundred pounds (approximately thirty-nine thousand dollars).

In the video below, Barnes reacts to his win.

Story Prize Names 2011 Judges

The eighth annual Story Prize, the twenty-thousand-dollar award given for a short story collection, will be judged by an award-winning fiction writer, a translator and international literature scholar, and a memoirist who curates a celebrated reading series.

Sherman Alexie, whose most recent story collection, War Dances (Grove Press, 2009), won the PEN/Faulkner Award, will be joined by Indiana University professor Breon Mitchell, who has translated the fiction of Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass, and Franz Kafka, among others. Completing the jury is Louise Steinman, curator of the Los Angeles Public Library's ALOUD reading and conversation series and author of the memoir The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father’s War. The three will select the winner from a trio of finalists chosen by prize director Larry Dark and founder Julie Lindsay.

The Story Prize is still accepting entries of story collections published during the second half of 2011. Submissions must be made by November 15.

Finalists will be announced in January, and the winner announcement will follow an evening of readings and interviews with the finalists in New York City on March 21.

M. L. Liebler: Fall in Detroit

Longtime P&W-supported sponsor and writer M. L. Liebler, author of fourteen books of poetry including The Moon A Box, which received the 2005 Patterson Poetry Award of Excellence, blogs about the kickoff celebration for the second annual Detroit Michigan Writers' Retreat in downtown Detroit.

Summer in Detroit is over... the season is turning from hot and humid into fresh apple fall. There isn’t any frost on pumpkins yet, but it won’t be long before the first snowflakes fall.

Though temperatures may be dropping, Detroit's literary scene is just warming up. On September 16, Detroit kicked off another full season of literary activities with our annual Detroit Michigan Writers' Retreat in downtown Detroit. A good number of folks packed the small theater at the College for Creative Studies to listen to a diverse group of writers.

This year's readings started with the urban narrative poetry of Rutgers's Tara Betts. Tara was followed by A. Van Jordan, the current writer-in-residence at the University of Michigan, who delivered a spirited reading that combined quantum physics and comic book heroes. Poet Denise Duhamel whooed the audience with her hilarious poems that explored Barbie, sex, and other contemporary and uniquely American topics.

Readers were treated to a little fiction from Ohio novelist Robert Olmstead, as he read from his bestselling novel Coal Black Horse. Robert left the audience wanting more (and sold quite a few copies of the book!). Roger Bonair-Agard kicked it up a notch with a performance-based reading. He read poems featuring interesting moments from his childhood in Trinidad, one of which was a wonderful poem about how his aunt took him to the barber against his mother’s wishes.

Photo: M. L. Liebler.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Detroit, 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.