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Industry is one of the greatest factors contributing to the unique character of a place. Deep coal mines and narrow hollers made much of Appalachia feel like an isolated labyrinth. Western Pennsylvania’s steel mills, with their raging blast furnaces and endless soot, created a real-life inferno. The logging industry turned the Pacific Northwest into a land ruled by mist, danger, and falling giants. What industries have shaped the people and landscape of your home? In an essay, explore the philosophical implications an industry can have on towns and the character and psyche of its inhabitants. 

On March 8, 1941, Sherwood Anderson, author of the American classic Winesburg, Ohio, died from peritonitis. An autopsy later revealed that a swallowed toothpick was to blame. Craft a story in which a seemingly benign object, like a toothpick, ends up as the catalyst for some great change or tragedy. The object can be the focus of the story, as you track its movements through space and time, or it can appear in a brief moment, only to rise back up with great consequence. Think about how the tiniest details can give a narrative a new spin.  

A recent issue of the New Yorker includes poet Timothy Donnelly’s wild ode to one of his favorite guilty pleasures, “Diet Mountain Dew.” The poem barrels along, exploring all the qualities of the less-than-quality beverage, including its radiant green, prominent logo, and commercial history. Write an ode to one of your own culinary guilty pleasures that engages directly with its unsavory elements, such as its ingredients, appearance, and origin. Use your imagination to transform these details into avenues for lyrical observations. 

The Academy of American Poets has named Mai Der Vang the recipient of the 2016 Walt Whitman Award, the largest prize in the country for a debut poetry collection. Vang’s winning manuscript, Afterland, will be published in 2017 by Graywolf Press.

Mai Der VangAs part of the prize, Vang will also receive $5,000 and a six-week paid residency at the Civitella Ranieri Center in Umbria, Italy, and her work will be featured on Poets.org as well as in American Poets, the Academy’s print periodical.

Award-winning poet Carolyn Forché selected Vang as this year’s winner. Of Vang’s manuscript Forché writes, “Afterland has haunted me. I keep returning to read these poems aloud, hearing in them a language at once atavistic, contemporary, and profoundly spiritual. Mai Der Vang confronts the Secret War in Laos, the flight of the Hmong people, and their survival as refugees. That a poet could absorb and transform these experiences in a single generation—incising the page with the personal and collective utterances of both the living and the dead, in luminous imagery and a surprising diction that turns both cathedral and widow into verbs, offering both land and body as swidden (slashed and burned)—is nothing short of astonishing. Here is deep attention, prismatic intelligence, and fearless truth.”

Vang, thirty-four, holds an MFA in poetry from Columbia University. Her poetry and essays have appeared in the Cincinnati Review, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere, and she coedited How Do I Begin: A Hmong American Literary Anthology (Heydey, 2011). A Kundiman fellow, Vang has also been awarded residencies from Hedgebrook, and is an editorial member of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle. Vang resides in Fresno, California, where she teaches and works as a writing and creative consultant.

The annual Walt Whitman Award was established in 1975 to encourage the work of emerging poets. Previous winners include Suji Knock Kim, Eric Pankey, J. Michael Martinez, and Sjohnna McCray, whose 2015 winning manuscript, Rapture, will be published next month by Graywolf. 

Caroline Brown is a teaching artist and educator who develops and implements community-based arts programming. Highlights of her work include collaborations with AIDS widows in rural Kenya, incarcerated individuals and those in reentry, military veterans and their family members, and women living with HIV. Most recently Brown has worked with Recovery Cafe, Path With Art, Senior Housing Assistance Group, and the Freehold Engaged Theater Program at the Washington Corrections Center for Women. She is also a faculty member at Cornish College of the Arts and the Art Institute of Seattle. She blogs here about her experiences teaching a P&W–supported workshop series for the Organization for Prostitution Survivors in Seattle, Washington.

Caroline Brown

As an instructor of Community Based Arts at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington, I teach students to use their artistic skill set to make a positive impact on marginalized communities. I tell them there’s no formula for our work; however, there are essential principles for building a successful project, two of which are trust and boundaries. We must trust ourselves, trust the community’s level of participation, and trust the ambiguity of the creative process. We must also keep our expectations realistic.

During my recent work with the Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS), I discovered I needed to relearn these principles. OPS was founded to address the damaging effects of prostitution and create opportunities for adult women to seek supportive services and heal from gender-based violence. My colleague and I were invited by the OPS staff to conduct an extended workshop using writing, storytelling, movement, and visual art as a form of personal expression and advocacy. For the sake of anonymity, we agreed to create a video with recorded narratives and abstract images chosen by participants.

From the start, I experienced a strong reticence from our workshop attendees. They repeatedly asked: What is the purpose of this video? How is it going to be shared? With whom and for what purpose? I reassured them that this project was theirs and they had complete ownership of the final product. As a population that has been consistently exploited, their reservations weren’t surprising. What was surprising was what it triggered in me.

I liked these women and wanted to help them engage in powerful and meaningful expression. I wanted them to be excited rather than reserved, to see this process as beneficial as opposed to threatening. If they didn’t welcome the work, my colleague and I had no right to be there. It was devastating to imagine that I might be harming people who’ve already been through enough.

Three weeks into the endeavor, my colleague and I reluctantly handed over the reigns, letting our participants decide when they wanted to meet. With this came a sense of panic that the video might not come to fruition. Then it happened. One woman expressed interest in recording her writing. I went out of my way to explain our intent: “I know a lot of women are apprehensive." She interrupted, “I’m not. I’m ready to record.” And so we began. Another woman soon stepped forward. Then another. Eventually we had an eighteen-minute piece of six women sharing their poetry, reflections, narratives, and visual imagery as survivors of prostitution.

Several weeks and countless hours of editing later, we presented the video at an OPS open house event. "Reflections of a Survivor" is a culmination of risk, vulnerability, triumph, conviction, and truth. As I looked around at the women taking in the success of their work, their willingness to trust me with their stories honored and humbled me. In short, each participant trusted the process in her own time. In that moment, I was reminded that I needed to do the same.

Amber Pauline Walker's "Kodiak Whispers," from the video project "Reflections of a Survivor," can be seen on YouTube.

Photo: Caroline Brown. Photo credit: Emily Schoettle.

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Seattle, Washington 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.

The Whiting Foundation has announced the 2016 Whiting Awards winners, who were honored last night at a ceremony at the New York Historical Society in New York City. The annual award is one of the largest monetary prizes given to emerging poets and writers. Each winner receives $50,000.

This year's winners are LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Safiya Sinclair, Layli Long Soldier, and Ocean Vuong in poetry; Alice Sola Kim, Catherine Lacey, and Mitchell S. Jackson in fiction; Brian Blanchfield and J. D. Daniels in nonfiction; and Madeleine George in drama. Find out more about the winners at the Whiting Foundation website, and read excerpts from their work at the Paris Review.

Established by the Whiting Foundation in 1985, the Whiting Awards aim to “identify exceptional new writers who have yet to make their mark in the literary culture." More than $6.5 million has been awarded to over three hundred poets, fiction and nonfiction writers, and playwrights since the award’s inception.

Previous winners have included David Foster Wallace, Colson Whitehead, Tracy K. Smith, Jeffrey Eugenides, Lydia Davis, Denis Johnson, Mary Karr, Michael Cunningham, Alice McDermott, Jorie Graham, Mark Doty, Ben Fountain, Tobias Wolff, Jonathan Franzen, Terrance Hayes, and more recently Adam Johnson, Elif Batuman, and Anthony Marra. Visit the Whiting Foundation website for a complete list of past winners.

No submissions are accepted to the award; a rotating group of anonymous nominators and judges, made up of writers, editors, agents, critics, professors, booksellers, and other literary professionals, are selected each year by the Whiting Foundation.

Top row, from left: LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Madeleine George, Layli Long Soldier, Safiya Sinclair, J. D. Daniels, Mitchell S. Jackson. Bottom row: Alice Sola Kim, Catherine Lacey, Ocean Vuong, Brian Blanchfield.

Several years ago, after searching for more than two decades, Navy archaeologist Steve Schwartz and his team found what is likely the San Nicolas Island cave, which had been inhabited by the Native American woman who inspired the popular 1960 novel by Scott O’Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins. Choose a favorite book that is inspired by, or references, factual events and write an essay about what draws you to the topic. Include any further historical digging—whether at an archaeological site or in a library—that you might find particularly engaging. What is it about the specific subject matter that resonates with your personal interests or your own life experiences?

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice shrinks after drinking a potion labeled “DRINK ME,” and then later balloons in size after eating a cake labeled “EAT ME.” Write a story in which your main character is simultaneously confronted by these same two options and consequences. Which one does he choose? Does the sudden transformation in size help or hinder him as the story progresses? What aspects of his personality are brought to the forefront and magnified as a result?

This week, select a random year from the last five to ten years, and by combing through your memory, old notes, e-mails, and calendars, jot down a list of events in your life from that year. What were some of your reactions and emotions that accompanied those situations? Write a poem that encapsulates the ups and downs of that single year. Be sure to explore how the intervening years between then and now may have provided you with a wiser, refreshed perspective on past occurrences, and offers a reflective conclusion to your poem.

Submissions are currently open for the 2016 Indiana Review Poetry Prize, given annually for a single poem. The winner will receive $1,000 and publication in Indiana Review. Camille Rankine will judge.

Using the online submission system, submit up to three poems totaling no more than eight pages with a $20 entry fee by April 1. The fee, which includes a one-year subscription to the review, must be mailed separately to Indiana Review, Ballantine Hall 529, 1020 East Kirkwood Avenue, Bloomington, IN 47405. All entries are considered for publication. Visit the website for complete guidelines.

Judge Camille Rankine has written one poetry collection, Incorrect Merciful Impulses (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), and is the assistant director of the MFA program at Manhattanville College. “Poetry can say all the hard things, all the things that you aren’t supposed to say in polite conversation,” says Rankine in a recent interview with Indiana Review. “I’m drawn to poems that have something to say—it can be something large or small, but I want to read a poem that feels like it needed to be written.” Rankine’s full interview is available on the journal’s website.

Eduardo C. Corral selected Caitlin Scarano as the winner of the 2015 prize for her poem “Between the Bloodhounds and My Shrinking Mouth.” Eileen Myles selected Cecilia Woloch as the winner of the 2014 prize for her poem “2006.”

Established in 1977, Indiana Review is published biannually and edited by graduate students at Indiana University. The journal publishes poetry, fiction, essays, and art.

Listen to Camille Rankine read from her debut collection as part of the Poets & Writers’ Page One podcast series below.

Ruth Nolan is an author with lifelong Mojave Desert and Inland Empire roots. Her poetry collection Ruby Mountain is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press, and her newest fiction appears in LA Fiction Anthology (Red Hen Press, 2016) and in Desert Oracle. She writes about desert-based American Indian arts and culture for News From Native California, Artbound, Inlandia: A Literary Journey, and Desert Report. Nolan teaches at College of the Desert.

Martin Smith and Paiute elder George RossMojave Desert Writing Workshop: February 15, 2016
Stories from a Paiute Indian elder of traditional chuckwalla hunting techniques who watched a rattlesnake bite—and kill—itself. Stories from a Baker man about the time he hiked far into the Soda Mountains on a hot day, became dehydrated, and walked miles to the nearest bar in town for a thirst-quenching beer, which he credits with saving his life. Stories from a woman who rode a school bus to Death Valley High School that was driven by Edward Abbey. Stories about long desert road trips by a man who showed up on a Harley Davidson and wore his leather motorcycle chaps while he wrote.

These tales, and more, were among the writing samples penned and shared by the twenty-five participants at the February 15 Shoshone-Tecopa Arts and Literature Festival writing workshop, which I led along with desert author Craig Deutsche. Workshop participants drove long distances across the Mojave Desert from tiny towns with inspiring names like Furnace Creek, Lone Pine, Tecopa, and Wonder Valley.

Although some might consider the Mojave Desert an unlikely location for literature to flourish, we were, in contrast, able to demonstrate that the desire and need for a vibrant and community-connective writing workshop is strong and flourishing in this little-known desert region of Southern California. Using prompts drawn from poetry, fiction work, and essays by desert literary greats such as Mary Austin and John Steinbeck, workshop participants wrote their hearts out about their own desert experiences and observations.

Songs for San Bernardino readersSongs for San Bernardino / Reading Helps Inland Empire Heal: December 20, 2015
The holiday tree was brightly decorated with ornaments at the entrance of the Muffin Top Bakery in downtown Redlands, California, and the atmosphere inside was warm and cheery, the smell of cinnamon rolls seasoning the air. But for those who gathered together this past December 20 for the poetry and prose reading, “Songs for San Bernardino,” this was no typical holiday literary event. This reading, which I coordinated with San Bernardino natives and authors Liz Gonzalez and Jessica Wyland, was intended to bring community together through the power of stories of place to help heal from the December 2 shootings at the nearby Inland Regional Center, a tragedy that ripped through the fabric of this proud but often overlooked part of Southern California.

Readers at “Songs for San Bernardino” included Chad Sweeney, Casandra Lopez, Frances J. Vasquez, Juanita Mantz, Darlene Kriesel, Alex Avila, Andre Katkov, Liz Gonzalez, Jessica Wyland, and myself, who all have strong connections to San Bernardino. Several read freshly-penned pieces that spoke directly of the impact of December 2, while others read works that reflected the strength, beauty, and strong community spirit of this town. San Bernadino Mayor Carey Davis also spoke. For nearly two hours, all chair and tables at the Muffin Top Bakery were full as the power of the stories and words of some of the Inland Empire’s finest writers gave testimony to the inner strength of this community. Afterwards, the day’s cloudy skies gave way to a gentle late afternoon sun, and rays of light filtered into the room.

Photos (top) Martin Smith and Paiute elder George Ross, (bottom) "Songs for San Bernardino" readers. Photo credit: Ruth Nolan

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.

The winners of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Awards were announced last night in New York City. The winners include Ross Gay in poetry for Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (University of Pittsburgh Press), Paul Beatty in fiction for The Sellout (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Maggie Nelson in criticism for The Argonauts (Graywolf Press), and Margo Jefferson in autobiography for Negroland (Pantheon).

Charlotte Gordon won in biography for Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley (Random House), and Sam Quinones won in nonfiction for Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (Bloomsbury). Kirstin Valdez Quade won the John Leonard Prize—given for an outstanding first book in any genre—for her story collection, Night at the Fiestas (Norton). Carlos Lozada, an associate editor and nonfiction book critic at the Washington Post, won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Wendell Berry, the author of eight novels, two story collections, twenty-eight books of poetry, and thirty-one books of nonfiction, received the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award.

The finalists in poetry were Terrance Hayes for How to Be Drawn (Penguin), Ada Limón for Bright Dead Things (Milkweed Editions), Sinéad Morrissey for Parallax and Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and the late Frank Stanford for What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford (Copper Canyon Press).

The fiction finalists were Lauren Groff for Fates and Furies (Riverhead), Valeria Luiselli for The Story of My Teeth (Coffee House Press), Anthony Marra for The Tsar of Love and Techno (Hogarth), and Ottessa Moshfegh for Eileen (Penguin Press).

The finalists in criticism were Ta-Nehisi Coates for Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau), Leo Damrosch for Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake (Yale University Press), Colm Tóibín for On Elizabeth Bishop (Princeton University Press), and James Wood for The Nearest Thing to Life (Brandeis University Press).

The finalists in autobiography were Elizabeth Alexander for The Light of the World (Grand Central), Vivian Gornick for The Odd Woman and the City (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), George Hodgman for Bettyville (Viking), and Helen Macdonald for H Is for Hawk (Grove Press).

Established in 1974, the National Book Critics Circle Awards, which are among the most prestigious prizes for literature, are given annually for books published in the previous year. A board of twenty-four working newspaper and magazine critics and editors nominates and selects the winners each year. The 2014 winners included Claudia Rankine in poetry, Marilynne Robinson in fiction, and Roz Chast in autobiography.

Photos from left to right: Ross Gay (Jim Krause), Paul Beatty, Maggie Nelson, and Margo Jefferson

As we fall into the rhythm of daylight savings time with its additional hour of sunlight in the evenings, think about what it means to you to have a longer day. Is the extra hour of light a reminder of the unstoppable passage of time, or does it fill you with eager anticipation of springtime activities? Do you find yourself immediately motivated to begin new projects or spend more time outdoors? Write a personal essay meditating on how the yearly cycles of sunlight and seasons affect how you view the passage of time, and what large or subtle changes these patterns bring to your lifestyle and emotional state.

Twenty years ago, Scot Rossillo started making rainbow bagels at his bagel store in Brooklyn, New York. In the last few months, with media attention, the popularity of the rainbow bagels has skyrocketed, even resulting in the temporary closure of one of his shops for renovations to keep up with the overwhelming demand. Write a story about a character who has been working on her own creative project for years—toiling in relative obscurity—and suddenly becomes an overnight sensation. How does she handle the increase in attention and demand for her work? What kind of new and unforeseen pressures might create conflict for her, and what kind of sacrifices is she willing—or not willing—to make?

In the story of Pandora’s box in Greek mythology, Pandora, the first human woman created by the gods, opens the lid of a container, thereby allowing all of the evils stored inside to escape out into the world. In contemporary colloquial usage, to “open a Pandora’s box” refers to an action that seems small or harmless but ultimately proves to have disastrous consequences. Write a poem that starts with a seemingly innocent action, which then unexpectedly unleashes a dramatic chain of events. For inspiration, listen to Ada Limón’s poem “The Last Move.”

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