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Gregory Crosby blogs about Tom Sleigh's involvement in the City College of New York's Poetry Festival. Crosby is a poet and teacher, and coordinator of the City College of New York Poetry Outreach Center. He is co-editor of the poetry journal Lyre Lyre and co-curator of the long-running Earshot reading series.

This past May, The City College of New York’s (CCNY) Poetry Outreach Center presented its annual Poetry Festival on campus at Aaron Davis Hall, a remarkable event for a number of reasons: the impressive number of excited and delightful elementary, middle school, and high school students who read their winning poetry to a capacity crowd; the varied and talented faculty, MFA candidates, and local poets who participated with poems of their own; and the inspiring reading given by this year’s special guest poet, Tom Sleigh. This was the 41st day in a continuous series of festival events dedicated to poetry and public school students. Founded by poet and professor emeritus Barry Wallenstein, and now run by poet and lecturer Pamela L. Laskin, the CCNY Poetry Festival has grown over the decades from a small community outreach event focused on Harlem to a citywide program that sends poet mentors into schools from the Bronx to the Battery to Brooklyn.

“I was part of CUNY poetry affiliation group that Pam Laskin belonged to,” says Tom Sleigh, who teaches in Hunter College’s MFA program, “and every year Pam would tell us about Poetry Outreach and its work, so when she asked me to be the featured guest poet I was happy to say yes.” Sleigh has long understood and appreciated the importance of poetry mentoring in schools. “It was very familiar to me as I’ve always done this kind of thing, teaching poetry in schools of all kinds as a guest poet,” says Sleigh.

“What was particularly wonderful on the day of the festival was hearing so many students, many from disadvantaged economic backgrounds, read their poems,” Sleigh continues. “I think it’s essential that students have exposure to art, especially poetry. There’s so much mediation that goes in our culture, and students, I think, are very often distanced from language; to suddenly hear these really great, idiosyncratic poems from these high school kids, and hear them engaging with language in that way, is wonderful. I hear this young man get up and read this fascinating, funny poem about the NBA, all these basketball players, and think how only he could have written that, and how that kind of expression comes out of mentoring.” Sleigh smiles: “Kenneth Koch would have loved that poem.”

Lately, it feels as if poetry in public schools is a sort of secret agent—a shadowy spy in the House of Test Preparation, a fugitive fleetingly glimpsed by students as they are drilled and drilled again in subjects that have been deemed by some in education as “more practical” or “more real world.” Harried teachers are finding it more and more difficult to incorporate poetry—both reading it and writing it—into curriculums dictated by the current obsession with standardized tests. The Poetry Outreach Center takes some of the burden off teachers by sending poetry mentors to teach and encourage the art of poetry in classrooms where it otherwise might fall off the radar. “It’s crucial to public education,” says Sleigh. “Who knows what that kid who wrote that poem will do next in life, thanks to poetry?”

Photo: Gregory Crosby.  Photo Credit: Gregory Crosby.

Support for Readings & Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Councl 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 London–based nonfiction press Notting Hill Editions recently announced the launch of its international William Hazlitt Essay Prize, which will be given annually for an essay. The winner will receive a cash award of £15,000 (approximately $22,674); five runners-up will each receive £1,000 (approximately $1,511).

Writers of any nationality are eligible, but essays must be written in English. Previously unpublished essays or those that have appeared in either print or online journals, but not in book form, between January 1, 2012, and July 31, 2013, are eligible. Antonia Fraser, Adam Mars-Jones, Harry Mount, David Shields, and Gaby Wood will judge. Using the online submission system, writers, publishers, or agents may submit an essay of two thousand to eight thousand words with a £10 (approximately $15) entry fee by September 1. E-mail or visit the website for more information and complete guidelines.

Devoted to “the best in essayistic nonfiction writing,” Notting Hill Editions publishes both new and classic essays and collections in hardbound editions, having recently featured work by Joshua Cohen, Deborah Levy, David Shields, and W. G. Sebald.

The prize is named for British essayist William Hazlitt (1778-1830), who wrote of the form: “…it makes familiar with the world of men and women, records their actions, assigns their motives, exhibits their whims, characterizes their pursuits in all their singular and endless variety, ridicules their absurdities, exposes their inconsistencies, ‘holds the mirror up to nature, and shows the very age and body of the time its form and pressure’; takes minutes of our dress, air, looks, words, thoughts, and actions; shows us what we are, and what we are not; plays the whole game of human life over before us, and by making us enlightened Spectators of its many-coloured scenes, enables us (if possible) to become tolerably reasonable agents in the one in which we have to perform a part. It is the best and most natural course of study.”

P&W–supported poet Michael Medrano will blog about the literary climate in California's underserved Central Valley throughout the month of July. Medrano is the author of Born in the Cavity of Sunsets (Bilingual Press 2009). His poems have appeared in Askew; Bombay Gin; The Cortland Review; The Packinghouse Review; Rattle; and The Yellow Medicine Review among other publications. He is the host of Pakatelas, a literary radio show, streaming worldwide at www.kfcf.org, and hosts the Random Writers Workshop in Fresno, California.

Today, I write iMichael Medranon a collaborative workspace known as The Hashtag in Fresno’s Tower District, an eclectic neighborhood often described by residents as a wannabe San Francisco or, as the kids on the eastside used to say, that gay neighborhood beyond the tracks. For me, the beloved Tower is more than a Bay Area cliché. It is my home, a place many Fresno poets have written about. It lies just east of the infamous Highway 99, another valley literary icon mentioned by Philip Levine, Gary Soto, and many more. It is where I conduct my literary radio show and lead the Random Writers Workshop, where I write and work on poems for my next book, which, you guessed it, is about the Tower District. You can say mi barrio is central headquarters for my personal arts movement!

Your personal arts movement? I hear my mother say, shaking her head, the pencil in her hand manically circling random letters in a giant word search book she keeps by the lamp.  Where’s my personal art movement, mijo? And while you’re at it, move out of that neighborhood. You know I don’t like you walking the streets by yourself!

Truth is, I stopped showing her my poems a decade ago because she could not stand me writing about familia, especially cousin Pee-Wee who died alone, by the canal, by Target. Don’t get me wrong. Mom has always been there at the big events, like when my book of poems came out, and I followed in that rich Fresno literary tradition by having a big ole, book release party. She teases me about the first poetry reading I co-organized with Tim Z. Hernandez, the much-talked-about reading where we performed to the only two members of the audience—our mothers! 

As a child, we used to take Olive Avenue from our East Fresno apartment all the way to Roeding Park, just west of the Tower. While there, we would picnic, visit the zoo or Storyland, which to us six-year-olds was just as amazing as Disneyland. Later, we would drive back to our eastside apartment down Olive Avenue, the main street of the Tower District. The miniature me would roll down the window, unbuckle the seatbelt in Mom’s 1978 Firebird while the car was in motion and point at all the little mom-and-pop restaurants. Let’s eat there, the restaurant with the big rooster on it! All I remember is that the streets were clean and the neighborhood seemed strangely alive.

Unfortunately, my mother always shot down those requests to visit the Tower. We can’t afford it! was her usual mantra, and who was I to question my own mom? I mean, it wasn’t like I was snooping around in her checkbook. I just took the rejection. Sad as I was in that six-year-old shell of my future self, I would vow, one day, to live in that great neighborhood just east of the freeway.

Ironically, I am completing this first blog post on Independence Day in a business I have supported the last couple of years; a place where I hammer out poems. Sure, the crime has piled on in recent years, and the artists, now, watch each other’s backs, more so in recent weeks. It’s true, maybe I should stray from walking home from the Hashtag at night, and maybe I should listen to my mother. I wonder how many writers have bucked the advice of their mothers. I bet there are many.

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

When writing about our own lives it is tempting to tamper with the truth. We worry about what our fathers, daughters, and even strangers will think of our weak moments. Don’t be afraid. Vulnerability creates trust. Your words are only part of the literary experience. As David Sedaris said in an interview in the Louisville Courier-Journal, “Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize it's just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it.” Have faith in your readers. Identify a poor decision or embarrassing moment in your life. Write an essay about it. Don’t censor your words or thoughts and don't write with anyone else—including your critical self—in mind. Get out of your own way. Be honest. Be funny if possible. But be real.

It’s easy for writers to fall in love with their own characters. We created them, after all; they are part of us. But remember that characters are human beings and all human beings have flaws—sometimes terrible ones. Insecurity, loneliness, addiction, violence, and even pure evil are not easy to write about. However, flaws can also be the most compelling characteristics of our characters. Flaws create conflict, tension, and drama as our characters slug their way through challenges and heartache. In many ways, weakness can be a character’s greatest literary strength.

Choose an inch of space anywhere around you: the sole of your hiking boot, the rusted headlight of an abandoned car, that weathered and broken thumb your grandfather used to pry open the back fence. Write about that inch. As poets we often become overwhelmed by the big picture. We seek to conquer love, injustice, and the meaning of meaning. Take a step back. Focus the scope of your poetry. Writing about a single drop of rain can tell us the most about the sky above.

Audible, Inc., and the New York City–based Center for Fiction have teamed up to create a new literary prize. The Christopher Doheny Award, given for an unpublished book of fiction or nonfiction on the topic of serious illness, will include a $10,000 prize, publication, and promotion of the winning book in print and audio editions.

The award was established in memory of Christopher Doheny, a long-time Audible employee who died of cystic fibrosis in February at the age of thirty-one.

“Supporting writers and literature is the most fitting tribute to Chris, a writer himself who loved reading, discussing, and working with good books,” said Beth Anderson, EVP and publisher of Audible.

“We are pleased to be able to honor Chris, while helping to support some excellent writers working on promising manuscripts,” added Center for Fiction executive director Noreen Tomassi.
   
Writers who have previously published work in literary journals or magazines, or who have published a book with an independent or traditional publisher, are eligible to enter. Both adult and young adult manuscripts are eligible. Writers may submit a completed manuscript and synopsis or two sample chapters of a work in progress and a book proposal, along with a bibliography, a brief bio, and contact information by July 31. Visit the website for complete submission guidelines.

Manuscripts will be judged by a panel of three distinguished writers chosen by the Center for Fiction and a representative of Audible. Writers are encouraged to contact dohenyaward@audible.com for more information.

“We hope that this prize will help talented writers who may be battling chronic or fatal disease tell their important stories,” said Dana Doheny, Chris’s mother.
 
A subsidiary of Amazon, Audible, Inc., provides audiobooks for a host of digital and mobile platforms. The Center for Fiction, the only nonprofit literary organization in the United States devoted solely to fiction, offers writing classes, an expansive library, and a variety of events, awards, and fellowships for writers in New York City. The Center is also accepting monetary donations to the Chris Doheny Award; visit the website to find out how to contribute.

Poets & Writers-supported poet Mike Sonksen, a.k.a. Mike the Poet, led a five-day workshop at the youth writing center 826LA in Los Angeles. Sonksen’s journalism has been published in Wax Poetics, Los Angeles Review of Books, LA Weekly, and OC Weekly. He received Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center’s award for Distinguished Service to the Los Angeles Poetry Community in 2013. His weekly KCET column LA Letters celebrates bright moments from literary L.A. Here, he blogs about his experience at 826LA.

Mike SonksenFor the fifth consecutive summer I taught my Words Spoken poetry workshop at 826LA in the Northeast L.A. neighborhood of Echo Park. We had twenty diverse teens from Downtown, Historic Filipinotown, Silver Lake, Koreatown, Mt. Washington, and South Pasadena. The combination of 826’s ambience and the earnest personalities of the group made for an explosive week of poetry and community building. The writers ranged from twelve to eighteen, plus a few college students who made guest appearances. Close to a third of the writers were returning students, adding to the group camaraderie.

Each day we write four to five poems. Fast writers write more. The prompts alternate between open and closed forms like haikus, quatrains, cinquains, sonnets, odes, elegies, city poems, list poems, epistles, response poems, and collage poems—a mixture of the fundamentals and a dash of the experimental. The five workshop days focus on writing and reciting poetry, but students are also exposed to journalism, cultural history, geography, urban studies, and public speaking throughout each three-hour lesson.

An open mic follows each assignment; inevitably, every student shares his or her work with the group, but some are quicker to open up than others. Learning elocution and the aesthetic beauty of language through reciting poetry is a time-honored tradition. Freedom is encouraged and judgment checked at the door. There’s no shortage of laughter and tears.

A multi-generational extended family forms the bedrock of our writing community. Guest poets Traci Kato-Kiriyama, AK Toney, and Sara Borjas dropped in to share poems and offer writing tips, as did Jamal Carter, Monique Mitchell, and Chris Siders, three former high school students now in college. Marisa Urrutia Gedney, the director of 826LA’s Echo Park location, is an award-winning teacher who makes sure everyone has fun and gets a lot of writing done.

After five summers at 826LA, I have witnessed dozens of students become empowered when writing poems about their lives, families, and neighborhoods. Creative writing, according to the theorist Lester Faigley, allows students to “use narratives to explore the politics of location.” Several of the poets memorized their work, adding even deeper personal meaning to the experience.

There’s nothing more sublime than watching budding writers emerge into poets. We had more writers this year than ever before. I am thankful for 826LA’s perennial hospitality and to Poets & Writers for funding us over the last four years. The workshop gets better every year. The culminating chapbook will be unveiled with a live reading at 826LA on July 24. Come hear the kaleidoscope of voices that form the patchwork of Words Spoken.

Photos: Top: Mike Sonksen. Credit: Chris Felver. Bottom: Sonksen and Monique Mitchell. 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.

“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” So Joan Didion begins her famous essay “Goodbye to All That,” about arriving in—and eventually leaving—New York City. Write about a time when you left something—a city, a country, a job, or a lover. Include details about how things began, but focus most of your attentions on how they ended. For inspiration, read or revisit Didion’s essay, originally published in her essential collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968).

The Intergenerational Reading features teen and senior writers from P&W sponsored workshops. On June 8, 2013, participants gave a reading at the Barnes and Noble in New York City. Manuela Cain, Readings/Workshops (East) intern, blogs about the event.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, in what is considered by many to be the literary capital of the world, I found myself on the top floor of the Union Square Barnes & Noble. To say that I have experienced New York City readings, poetry and otherwise, would be an understatement, and yet I came to this event with few expectations about what I was about to see or hear. For the twelfth year in a row, Poets & Writers has sponsored the Intergenerational Reading: Connecting Generations. This annual event brings together seniors and teens from P&W–sponsored organizations such as GED Plus/Medgar Evers, Goddard Riverside Community Center, Grand Street Settlement, Kew Gardens Community Center, Kingsbridge Heights Community Center, Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center, Stanley Isaacs Neighborhood Center, and Urban Word NYC.

The twenty-seven writers were brought on stage in randomly selected groups. Regie Cabico, the event's host, ignited the room with an unparalleled energy and enthusiasm. If I had any concerns going into the reading, Regie was certainly the man to ease them, as he served as the bridge between the diverse array of writers.

It would be easy to make assumptions about an event such as this. Already a dynamic is set in motion by the mixing of ages and cultures. One might assume that the seniors would have nothing but memories, and the teens something resembling angst and passion. However, what happened on that stage transcended any simple labels or assumptions. At the very essence of the human experience is love, and loss. The five senses simply serve to allow us to take it all in, and with the sharp language, flowing prose, and sometimes shocking revelations, there was a lot to take in.

One young woman, a poet with a strong sense of rhythm and voice, read a piece that fully embodied the experience of a bitter and painful breakup. Later, a senior woman narrated the experience of a later-in-life love affair with a sharp attention to detail. A teen read from his iPhone while a senior joked about not being able to make out her own handwriting. A young woman’s pride and strength was an older woman’s never-fading confidence in the face of growing older. Every question that was raised by a teen’s work was answered by an elder, or vice versa. Each seed of an idea that one writer planted had been grown through the work of another. What became clear through the course of the reading was that a community had taken shape that genuinely surpassed any differences in age or culture. And what better way to light a passion for writing in the young than to reignite the fire within those who are at risk of losing it, or worse, never having had it at all.

To the writers who bared their hearts and souls that Friday afternoon at the biggest Barnes & Noble in New York City, thank you. Thank you for showing us all that writing isn’t simply a tool, or a skill to be used and forgotten, but rather the window to our deepest desires, passions, and drives. To the seniors who proved that youth is more than a number, and the teens who were wise beyond their years, never stop writing.

Photo: Intergenerational Reading presenters. Credit: Margarita Corporan.

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

In honor of Independence Day, take another look at the great document that was signed by Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and the others on July 4, 1776. Reread that most famous sentence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Use it—or rewrite it—in a short story that takes place at dusk on July 4, 2076. Happy Tricentennial?

"For the poetry reader...there are certain emotions you are allowed to feel—sadness, love—but this is such a miserable choice of all the emotions one feels," writes Craig Raine in the English Review. "One feels anger, boredom, chilliness—quite strong emotions, but they don't get much of a run in poetry, and I think they should." Write a poem about anger or boredom or any other "nonpoetic" emotion. If you have trouble getting started, try using the first line of John Berryman's devastating "Dream Song 14": "Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so."

P&W-supported poets Jon Sands, Adam Falkner, and Samantha Thornhill recently performed at North Country Community College in Saranac Lake, New York, as part of their "Poets in Unexpected Places" project. Sands, a poet, essayist, and author of The New Clean (Write Bloody Publishing, 2011), blogs about the experience.

Jon SandsIn 2010 Adam Falkner, Samantha Thornhill, and I cofounded “Poets in Unexpected Places” as a public art experiment. (We have since been joined, as curators, by Elana Bell and Syreeta McFadden.) And for one day in National Poetry Month, Adam, Samantha, and I had "free poetic reign" over the campus of North Country Community College (NCCC).

For over three years, we’ve staged seemingly impromptu poetry installations in public spaces throughout New York City, from the Q train to Times Square to Brooklyn Laundromats to Whole Foods—some sanctioned, some not. The goals are: 1) to blur the line between the artist and the audience 2) to bring poems back into a public sphere that provides the muse for so many of them 3) to challenge a creative public landscape largely curated by corporations, and 4) to acknowledge how many stories are inside every person you see, anywhere.

We have a fluid membership of writers who share their own work, or that of authors they love. You’re liable to hear Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, or Jack Gilbert reverberating off the subway walls.

Poets & Writers, the Adirondack Center for Writing, and NCCC brought us not just to English seminars on the NCCC campus, but to calculus classes, cafeterias, and chemistry labs (where Samantha performed her “Ode to an Apron” wearing an apron and safety goggles). I taught a midday writing workshop, and one student, Glen, a veteran and self-proclaimed “macho guy,” wrote a heartbreaking poem about one of his fellow soldiers, then joined us for the afternoon to read it aloud.

Pop-Up PoetsWe stormed into something like forty classrooms that day with no introduction or apology. This gave the night’s culminating reading at the Pendragon Theater a Pied Piper-type feel. We had been gathering students, faculty, and staff throughout the day, from the math major to the cafeteria worker. After poetry showed up for them, they showed up for poetry. The workshop participants kicked off the night for an intergenerational audience of about seventy-five.

Then, with three chairs and a keyboard, we had a poetry show that could just as easily have taken place in Adam’s living room in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. We shared the stories that make us who we are, from my poems that celebrate and mourn my high school days to Adam’s poem “War in Baltimore,” a precise, hilarious, and sorrowed tale of teacher-student interaction. Samantha read her epic “Ode to Odetta” while Adam pulled bluesy notes out of the keyboard.

We stayed after for nearly an hour swapping stories with audience members. One young woman approached with tears in her eyes in response to Samantha’s elegy for a German Shepherd. She too was bitten by a dog who was subsequently euthanized. And this is the point: the hidden connections unlocked through poetry, regardless of whether it’s the Q train platform or a stage upstate. It’s the whisper in the parking lot, if only to yourself: "Damn. Me too. Now...."

Photos: Top: Jon Sands. Bottom, from left: Samantha Thornhill, Adam Falkner, Jon Sands. Credit: Nathalie Thille.
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 Cowles Charitable Trust, the Abbey K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

In You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction—From Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between (Da Capo Press, 2012), Lee Gutkind writes that there are two sides to creative nonfiction: the personal, as found in memoirs and personal essays, and the "big idea"—a public topic, the kind often tackled in literary journalism—each of which tends to attract a different audience. The ideal piece, Gutkind writes, is one that offers both, one that explores a big idea from an intimate perspective. "Writers who can choose a public subject and give it a personal treatment are establishing a 'universal chord': reaching out and embracing a large umbrella of readership." This, he writes, is the creative nonfiction writer’s mission. Choose a "big idea" that interests you—a certain kind of food, a style of music, a political issue, a specific sport—and write down everything you know about the subject. Do further research and record everything you find. Then write an essay, including anecdotes about why the subject interests you, and try to strike that universal chord.

Emerging poets got some good news yesterday: The Ruth Lilly Fellowships, given annually by the Poetry Foundation to five poets, ages thirty-one and younger, will nearly double in value next year thanks to a $1.2 million gift from the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Fund.

The new endowment, announced yesterday, will be put directly toward the fellowship prizes, which currently offer $15,000 to each recipient. The awards, the first round of which will be given next year, will also bear a new name: the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowships.

The Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Fund, which gives a host of monetary awards to young poets each year—including the annual Dorothy Prizes, whose next deadline is October 5—is named in honor of poet Dorothy Sargent Fraser and her husband, Marvin Rosenberg, who met during the Depression while studying at the University of California in Berkeley. Fraser wrote and published poems under the name Dorothy Sargent; Rosenberg, a Shakespeare scholar, bequeathed his estate as a memorial to his late wife “as a means of giving a financial lift to deserving young poets.”

In Tuesday’s announcement, fund administrators Mary and Barr Rosenberg wrote on the Memorial Fund website that while they’ve been able to administer the prizes themselves the past nine years, “now it is time for the balance of Marvin’s bequest to be deployed in a long lasting way for the benefit of promising young poets….We are delighted to make this gift on Marvin’s behalf to the Poetry Foundation, so that the funds can continue to be entirely dedicated to the poets themselves. This is exactly what Marvin would have wished to bring about in Dorothy’s memory.”

The pair—Rosenberg’s son and second wife—is also hoping to find new administration for the Dorothy Prizes. Interested individuals and organizations are invited to contact Mary Rosenberg at marvinr@berkeley.edu.

For more information on the Ruth Lilly Fellowships, and to keep an eye out for submissions guidelines for the new prize, visit the Poetry Foundation website.

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