Poets & Writers Blogs

Olga Garcia's Border Towns

For the month of July, poet Olga Garcia, author of Falling Angels: Cuentos y Poemas, blogs about her experience facilitating poetry workshops as a longtime P&W-supported writer.

It's May 2009 and the scorching sun casts long shadows on the streets of downtown Calexico. I’ve driven 230 miles southeast of Los Angeles, past the Salton Sea, to arrive in this furnace of a city that boasts three-digit temperatures. I’m here to facilitate an R/W-sponsored bilingual poetry workshop at Camarena Library, and I’ve arrived early enough to explore.

When it comes to border towns, Calexico has it all: the U.S.-Mexico border you can walk up to, sniff, stare at, curse, or cross; señores in sombreros and thick leather belts; big women in church dresses, waving religious pamphlets in the air; a corner stop featuring menudo, donuts, and border patrol agents. Sure, there’s a Starbucks, a few Walmarts, but what tugs at me is the historic shopping district, the brick archways and columns, the cement bus benches, and the discount stores.

Hours later, I arrive at Camarena Library, sweaty and a bit anxious. I’ve been teaching for twelve years, yet I feel like a novice. The unknowns of a workshop always stir me. Who will come? Adults? Teens? What language(s) will they speak? I’ve brought three different handouts with me—English, Spanish, and bilingual. I don’t know which one I’ll be using.

Ten minutes until workshop and no one has arrived. Brief panic.  Did I ditch work to go sightseeing? I flashback to Calexico’s rustic downtown, recalling its charm, the chilidogs I ate at a tiny stand and decide that even if nobody shows, the trip was worth it.

They arrive. First a woman and two men. Then a mother with her teenaged son. Within minutes I have a small group curiously looking at the altar displayed on a table. I invite them to pick up the objects—seashells, ripe fruits, pictures of birds in flight, bright-colored plastic flowers purchased at one of Calexico’s fabulous discount stores.

In our introductions I learn that almost everyone is bilingual. Now I know what materials to use, what exercises to dive into. A workshop, though, is much more than a pre-planned lesson. It’s a breathing thing with a collective pulse. Each class generates its own unique energy. In Calexico, the group is intimate and quiet.

I feel the need to chat before we begin. When I tell them I live in Los Angeles, they’re surprised at how far I’ve traveled for this two-hour workshop. “I’ve wanted to visit Calexico for years,” I tell them. They look at me like I’m crazy. I confess that having grown up between two languages and cultures, I have a thing for border towns. I relay my day’s adventures in downtown, how I snapped hundreds of photos and interviewed residents on the streets as if I were a journalist. They laugh, opening up, sharing a few of their own stories and insights about their hometown. We delve into our poetry workshop like this, crossing borders...connecting.

Photos: (Top) Olga Garcia. Credit: Weenobee.com; (bottom) workshop participants. Credit: Olga Garcia.

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

 


InsideOut Teens Tell Stories From the Edge

On May 5 Detroit’s InsideOut Literary Arts Project held its first annual youth writing conference, featuring P&W-supported writers Eddie B. Allen, Matt Bell, Nandi Comer, jessica Care moore, Norene Cashen Smith, and Marcus Wicker. We asked project director Alise Alousi to describe the event.

Who Understands Me But Me: A Youth Voices Conference (titled after a poem by Jimmy Santiago Baca) was the culminating event for a year of programming focused on Baca’s essay collection, Stories from the Edge. InsideOut students used the essays in the collection as a model for developing their own personal narratives.

The goal was to give 150 Detroit public high school students an opportunity to attend a daylong event similar in content and format to that of an adult writing conference. Baca led a writing workshop and presented keynote remarks for the conference, which was supported by Poets & Writers and the JP Morgan Chase Foundation. Workshops were also led by a talented group of local writers including: Matt Bell, Nandi Comer, Peter Markus, jessica Care moore, Matthew Olzmann, Marcus Wicker, and InsideOut founder Dr. Terry Blackhawk. Students preregistered for the conference, choosing their top six workshops from a list of twelve. Titles of workshops included: Trigger, Memory, Return: Juggling the Poetic Flashback; Hustle with a Ghazal: Innovation Through an Ancient Form; Urban Fiction and Realities, and The Event as Inspiration for Flash Fiction. 

Writers incorporated a variety of prompts and techniques into each workshop session. In Marcus Wicker’s session, students read and discussed the poem “Woman Walking on the Road” by Terrance Hayes. Next, Wicker led students through a freewriting exercise by asking a series of compelling open-ended questions about a memory. This is what student Lorenzo Bragg came up with when he was asked to “think about a time when your actions had an adverse effect on another living thing.”

He pushed and shoved when I only stood
but when he threw that punch I threw my love.
Resentment, fire, anger, and fear
with my punch to his jaw the world became clear.
The intense spark of my fist on his face,
and the lovely jolt of his neck, its grace.

Lorenzo was the first student to arrive at the conference, taking several buses to get to the campus of Wayne State University. We had a chance to discuss how his exposure to writer John Rybicki, who meets with his class weekly at Douglass Academy for Young Men through InsideOut’s writing residency program had inspired him to come to the conference. He told me, “Mr. Rybicki has helped me to express my emotions through writing. He has a passion for living life that has helped me get excited about my own life.”

Central to InsideOut’s mission is a belief in the power of self-expression and language as a means to transform lives and build community. One of the most exciting moments of the event took place during lunch when students, many of whom had never read before an audience this large, shared what they had written in their morning workshops. Students supported each other by snapping their fingers and applauding. This was followed by Baca’s remarks, which took students through his own self-discovery and belief that all individuals should set everyday goals as a way to embrace their potential.

Photo: Marcus Wicker. Credit: Jacob Shores-Arguello.

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 Challenge of Six for Your Fourth

This summer SMITH Magazine is bringing writers another of its famed challenges in literary brevity. Amidst this weekend's celebrations of liberty from it, perhaps now's the perfect time to reflect on the contest theme—work—using six words exactly.

From now until Labor Day, a new sub-theme will be introduced every two weeks, and writers are invited to enter their six-word memoir on that particular aspect of work on the SMITH website. This week's competition, judged by The Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin, asks, "Why do you do what you do?" (Some recent entries: "Who doesn't love the payroll lady?" and "I can work in my slippers.")

There is no fee to enter, and the magazine is partnering with Mercer, a human resources firm, to offer the winner of each two-week-long challenge an iPad2 or Blackberry Playbook. All entries will also be considered for a Six Words About Work book. For more information, to read entries, and to submit your own, visit the contest web page.

U.K.'s Second Oldest Literary Prize Is Suspended

A nearly seventy-year-old literary award that honored works in all genres by young, emerging writers is buckling under the pressure of budget woes. Booktrust, the organization that has for the past nine years sponsored the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, given since 1942 to writers under the age of thirty-five, announced earlier this week that government funding cuts forced it to revamp its program portfolio, shuttering the awardat least for 2011.

The prize, according to author Margaret Drabble, who won the award in 1966 and lamented its loss in the Guardian, is "one of the most romantic and distinguished of prizes," more so than the oldest major U.K. award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, or the Booker. The five-thousand-pound award (roughly eight thousand dollars) is given to writers "at the outset of their careers, when a sign of approval means much more than it does in their cynical, competitive, commercial later years."

The 2009 winner, Evie Wyldwho won for her novel, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice (Pantheon)says the award "gave me a platform to work off, and I'm not sure I'd be in the position I am in now, had the Rhys not brought such a large amount of attention with it," including radio appearances and articles. Among the other poets and prose writers who have taken the prize in the past are Angela Carter, Andrew Motion, V. S. Naipaul, and Jeanette Winterson.

Booktrust, which is pursuing alternate avenues for maintaining the prize, told the Guardian it hopes to bring the Rhys "back with a bang as soon as possible," possibly even in 2012.

In the video below, Wyld reads from her winning book, a "romantic thriller about men who aren't talking."

Kore Press Suspends Poetry Book Contest

Kore Press, whose mission is to publish diverse works by women writers, has temporarily suspended its eight-years-running poetry book competition for 2011. The nonprofit publisher will resume the contest in 2012, following a period of restructuring that, according to the press's business and marketing manager, necessitates a hiatus.

The short fiction contest will go on as planned this year, and the winner of last year's poetry book contest will see her debut published, as well. Michelle Chan Brown's Double Agent will be released in the fall.

In the video below, Brown reads from her chapbook, Clever Little Decoys, published by Love Among the Ruins last year.

Kelly Norman Ellis on Chicago's South Side

Poet Kelly Norman Ellis, author of Tougaloo Blues and longtime P&W-supported writer and presenter of literary events, dotes on Chicago's South Side and the Neighborhood Writing Alliance.

I’ve lived and worked on Chicago’s South Side for almost thirteen years. As an educator and writer, I am attracted to organizations that express a commitment to writing and art outside the academic community. Our writing program at Chicago State seeks to coalition build with community organizations so that our students realize the benefits and necessity of teaching outside of the academy.

The Neighborhood Writing Alliance (NWA) located on the South Side of Chicago fills this need. NWA runs writing workshops for adults in low-income neighborhoods throughout Chicago, and publishes selected pieces from those workshops in its quarterly award-winning publication, Journal of Ordinary Thought (JOT). Founded in 1996 by Hal Adams, Deborah Epstein, and Sunny Fischer, NWA grew out of JOT, which was founded by Hal Adams in 1991.

Hundreds of Chicago adults have participated in NWA writing groups in a range of settings—from public libraries and public schools (where parents participate) to social service agencies and public housing projects. Workshops are conducted across ethnic lines. In one workshop, I taught African Americans born in Chicago, Mississippi, and Jamaica; Polish immigrants; fourth generation Irish Americans and second generation Mexican Americans. Participants in these workshops write primarily from their own experience, but through writing and discussion make connections between their personal experiences and broader social issues.

Workshop leaders are Chicago-based professional writers and arts educators such as Krista Franklin, Toni Asante Lightfoot, Parneshia Jones, Tony Lindsay, Carlos Flores, and Valerie Wallace, to name a few. NWA also has an impressive Writer’s Advisory Council, which includes Achy Obejas, Alex Kotlowitz, television journalist Bill Kurtis. The legendary Studs Turkel also served on the council before his death.

Our MFA program at Chicago State believes in the connection of writing and social justice. NWA demonstrates this principal at work by providing internships to our writing students on the graduate and undergraduate level, allowing them to experience the successful marriage of art and activism.

Photo: Kelly Norman Ellis. Credit: Natasha Marin.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Chicago is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Black Lawrence Press Offers Early Entry Fee For Book Award

Poetry and prose publisher Black Lawrence Press is accepting entries to its multi-genre book contest, with a special deal for writers who submit before June 30. Entry to the St. Lawrence Book Award competition, open to both poetry and short story manuscripts, is fifteen dollars (reduced from twenty-five) until next Thursday. (The press offered a similar promotion last year for another of its prizes, with a choose-your-own-entry-fee model.)

The book prize offers one thousand dollars and ten copies of the published book. The deadline for entry is August 31, and finalists will be announced in October, followed shortly thereafter by the winner selection.

Past winners for poetry include Katie Umans for Flock Book, Brad Ricca for American Mastodon, Jason Tandon for Give Over the Heckler and Everyone Gets Hurt, and Stefi Weisburd for The Wind Up Gods. For fiction, Yelizaveta P. Renfro won for A Catalogue of Everything in the World: Nebraska Stories, Fred McGavran for The Butterfly Collector, and Marcel Jolley for Neither Here Nor There.

More details on the prize history and how to enter online are available on the press's website.

Kelly Norman Ellis Bigs Up the Guild

Chicago-based poet Kelly Norman Ellis, author of Tougaloo Blues and longtime P&W-supported writer and presenter of literary events, bigs up the Guild Literary Complex's Palabra Pura literary series.

Once of my first experiences with literary community when I moved to Chicago was with the Guild Literary Complex, a community-based literary organization. Thirteen years ago I attended a writing workshop lead by poet Afaa Michael Weaver. I remember sharing space with then emerging writers Tyehimba Jess, Tara Betts, Reggie Gibson, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and the late Nicole Shields. I found my first Chicago writing family at the Guild and was welcomed into the safe space where we talked and worked our poems into the world.

One of the Guild’s strengths is its commitment to dialogue between artists of different backgrounds and sensibilities. My most recent experience with the Guild was with the Palabra Pura literary series.

Palabra Pura promotes literary expression in more than one tongue through a monthly bilingual poetry reading featuring Chicano and Latino writers and African American writers. I was paired with writer Sandra Posadas in the Puerto Rican neighborhood of Humboldt Park. Hosted at La Bruquena, an amazing Puerto Rican restaurant, the reading positioned our literary discussion in the middle of a community that inspires the art we study and create. These types of interactions are usually the domain of academic institutions, but the Guild believes art belongs to the people who inspire it.

The work of the Guild reminds us that art is not created in a vacuum. The interaction and creative exchange between diverse writers’ communities creates more art, better art, and more safe spaces for that art to breathe.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Chicago is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Contest Seeks Poems of the West—Big Sky or Big City

Oregon-based High Desert Journal is accepting entries for its Obsidian Prize for poetry inspired by the West. All forms are accepted, from "free verse to haiku to cowboy," and the winning poet, selected by Paulann Petersen, will receive one thousand dollars and publication in the magazine.

Submissions are accepted only via Submishmash, and the entry fee for three poems totaling no more than one hundred lines is twelve dollars. The deadline is August 15.

The journal will administer a similar prize for fiction in the fall. The winner of last year's fiction prize was Joe Wilkins for "Enough of Me," selected by Gretel Ehrlich, which was published in the latest issue of High Desert Journal.

In the video below, poetry judge Paulann Petersen's poem "Replenish" is set to music by Portland, Oregon, ensemble Flash Choir.

D.C. Writer Wins Book Prize for Stories Tackling Race, Womanhood, and Otherness

The Poetry Center in Paterson, New Jersey, has announced the winner of the 2011 Paterson Fiction Prize, given annually for a novel or short story collection. Danielle Evans won the one-thousand-dollar prize for her short story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self (Riverhead Books), which earlier this year was longlisted for the Story Prize and given an honorable mention for the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award.

Evans's debut book takes its title from "The Bridge Poem" by Kate Rushin (The Black Back-Ups, Firebrand Books, 1993), whose meditation on the phenomenon of one group's "translating" their lives for the benefit of another group influenced the themes of Your Own Fool Self. "Right now we have a moment with a lot of language about post-racialism and yet a lot of evidence that we are clearly not post-anything," Evans told the Washington Post, "and there's a lot of room for complication, contradiction, and ambiguity, which is good territory for fiction."

Evans received the prize over fellow Iowa Writers' Workshop alumna (and current Workshop director) Lan Samantha Chang's All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost (W. W. Norton), Deborah Eisenberg's The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg (Picador), Patricia Engel's Vida (Black Cat), Lily King's Father of the Rain (Atlantic Monthly Press), Chang-rae Lee's The Surrendered (Riverhead Books), and Cynthia Ozick's Foreign Bodies (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

In the video below, novelist Tayari Jones praises Evans's book. (And in the video here, the Washington Post's video book reviewer Ron Charles—who recently won an award of his own—takes on Evans's collection.)

Kelly Norman Ellis' Chisme Box

Poet Kelly Norman Ellis, author of Tougaloo Blues and longtime P&W-supported writer and presenter of literary events, spotlights Chicago's Proyecto Latina and its famed Chisme Box.

One of the blessings of living and working in Chicago is the great ethnic and racial diversity. I am often humbled at the hard work of community arts organizations in my city and their commitment to representing this great diversity. These organizations bring quality art to the people for little or no charge and are essential relationships in building a literary community outside the boundaries of college classrooms and MFA programs. Because CSU is a university serving mostly black and brown people, the importance of coalition building is critical to exposing these people to the work of writers who live and work in these communities of color. One such organization is Proyecto Latina.

Proyecto Latina is a multimedia project that amplifies the success and impact of Latinas by sponsoring a reading series and a website that allows women to create a culture of self-empowerment, spotlight emerging and established Latina talent, create safe spaces in underserved communities, provide a virtual platform to chronicle stories, share resources, and start dialogue.

The third Monday of every month Proyecto celebrates the creativity of a Latina artist. The roster of writers is very impressive. Writers such as Xanath Caraza, Yolanda Nieves, Awilda Lupe Gonzalez have all graced the Proyecto Latina mike. The website includes advice for emerging writers, interviews with established writers, and information about the work of Latina writers in the Chicago community and abroad.

Also on the Proyecto Latina website is a photograph of the Chisme Box (Chisme means "gossip" in Spanish). It’s described as “a regular at our monthly readings and she loves to interact with everyone. She loves the buzz of a crowded room and has the bad habit of eavesdropping on everyone, but rest assured she can keep a secret. Despite her name she prefers funny confessionals to mean-spirited gossip and is unapologetic about spitting out deposits that don’t sit well with her." The Chisme Box is a way to share stories, information, wisdom, truth. As our writing program grows at CSU, I will be reminded of the Proyecto Latina’s Chisme Box and the ways artist make worlds whereever we go.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Chicago is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Colum McCann Takes IMPAC Prize

The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the most lucrative honor of its kind at one hundred thousand euros (more than one hundred forty thousand dollars), was announced this afternoon. Irish-born author Colum McCann, who currently resides in New York City, won the 2011 award for his novel Let the Great World Spin (Random House, 2009).

The "genuinely twenty-first century novel that speaks to its time but is not enslaved by it" won the National Book Award in 2009. It was selected for the IMPAC Award from among more than one hundred sixty titles nominated by one hundred sixty-six libraries around the world.

Other finalists this year were Americans Barbara Kingsolver for The Lacuna, Yiyun Li for The Vagrants, Joyce Carol Oates for Little Bird of Heaven and Irish writers Colm Tóibín for Brooklyn and  William Trevor for Love and Summer. Also shortlisted are Michael Crummey of Canada for Galore and Australian writers David Malouf for Ransom, Craig Silvey for Jasper Jones, and Evie Wyld for After the Fire, a Still, Small Voice.

In the video below, McCann discusses his winning novel on a recent episode of City University of New York's video program City Talk.

Claudia Rankine Wins Busboys and Poets Prize

Virginia's Fall for the Book Festival, sponsors of three annual awards for prose, and its partner the Washington, D.C., poetry haven Busboys and Poets have announced the festival's inaugural poetry award. Yesterday Claudia Rankine, author of Don't Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press, 2004) and three other collections, was announced winner of the honor, which is accompanied by a five-thousand-dollar prize.

Rankine joins novelists Amy Tan, who is this year's Fairfax Prize winner, and Stephen King, who received the Mason Prize, as a 2011 Fall for the Book honoree. A fourth prize for nonfiction will be announced in the coming weeks. The authors will appear at the festival, which takes place from September 18 to 23, to accept their prizes.

In the video below, Rankine discusses the lure of unknown, but recognizable, worlds in poems, and the hallmark of bad verse.

Emily Rubin's Dirty Laundry

We asked Emily Rubin, author of the debut novel, Stalina, to share her experience running the P&W-sponsored Dirty Laundry reading series.

In 2005, I cofounded Wash and Dry Productions to produce Dirty Laundry: Loads of Prose (DLLOP), the reading series that takes place in working Laundromats across the country. The idea to bring writers to local Laundromats came about one evening in a brainstorm session over a couple of beers with my friend and writer Gregory Rossi. We wanted to organize a series in a nontraditional setting where writers could share their work with their fans as well as people outside the literary community. 

Sitting outside at Zum Schneider, a new German beer garden on Avenue C, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, we looked down the avenue considering places we might hold the readings. There was a bodega, a church, a Chinese restaurant, and then, at East Fifth Street, the Ave C Laundromat. Our eyes opened wide and we knew we had our venue. At the time, the third annual HOWL! Festival was organizing and the producers invited us to participate. Sam Lipsyte and Legs McNeill read at the first Dirty Laundry: Loads of Prose to more than seventy people at the Avenue C Laundromat that August. The writers and audience were enthusiastic and wanted to know when and where the next Laundromat reading would take place.

Since then there have been more than thirty readings and close to one hundred writers have been presented in between the washers and dryers throughout the New York City metropolitan area. We have taken the show on the road and presented local writers in Laundromats in San Francisco; Boulder, Colorado; and Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Poets & Writers' Readings/Workshops program funded a dozen readings in New York City from 2006 to the present. The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and Meet the Composer have provided additional funding for the program. The series has been covered extensively in the press with articles in the Villager, Time Out NY, Brooklyn Rail, and several international journals as well. It has also aired on television on NBC, Reuters, and the NY Bureau of Russian TV, featuring radio interviews with writers and myself for National Public Radio and the BBC. 

Photo by Taka Kawasaki.

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.

Short Story Maven Edith Pearlman Wins PEN/Malamud Award

Yesterday afternoon the PEN/Faulkner Foundation honored short story writer Edith Pearlman with its twenty-fourth annual PEN/Malamud Award. The prize, given to honor a writer's contribution to the short fiction form, includes a five-thousand-dollar honorarium and a reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

Pearlman is the author of more than two hundred fifty stories published in four books—most recently Binocular Vision (Lookout Books, 2011)—as well as in numerous literary magazines and anthologies such as Best American Short Stories and New Stories From the South. The author, born in 1936, released her debut collection, Vaquita and Other Stories, in 1996.

"Pearlman’s view of the world is large and compassionate, delivered through small, beautifully precise moments," wrote Roxana Robinson earlier this year in a New York Times review of Binocular Vision. "These quiet, elegant stories add something significant to the literary landscape."

Pearlman joins authors such as Edward P. Jones, John Updike, Eudora Welty, Grace Paley, Joyce Carol Oates, and Lorrie Moore in the ranks of past PEN/Malamud Award winners.