Poets & Writers Blogs

Cheryl Boyce Taylor's Once Upon a Time

Longtime P&W-supported poet and author of the collections Raw Air, Night When Moon Follows and Convincing the Body Cheryl Boyce Taylor blogs about the late P&W-supported poet Rodlyn Douglas.

In 2004, I took a leave of absence from the P&W-sponsored Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center's senior writing workshop. I sought out Rodlyn Douglas, a warm and talented poet/performer from Trinidad, to be my replacement. Rodlyn could break into laughter one minute and prayer the next. She knew how to pull work out of people and enjoyed working with seniors.

Each week the group read poems by poets they had never heard of before. Whenever participants asked about her life or her work, Rodlyn never hesitated to share her personal stories.

Rodlyn charged the group with exploring their silences, to look within and be honest. Rodlyn encouraged them to leave a legacy of truth and dignity.

When the group had difficulty opening up, she would say, "Memories and Stories: Once Upon A Time!" This phrase opened doors to hidden places in their lives and enabled them to write from experience and memory. The phrase also became the title of their anthology, edited and published by Rodlyn in 2009.

It is important for me to note that Rodlyn completed this anthology during a period when she was seriously ill. Throughout it all, Rodlyn always expressed to me how proud and happy she was to be able to teach poetry, the work she loved so much.

Photo: Cheryl Boyce Taylor and Rodlyn Douglas. Credit: Desciana Swinger.

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 Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and Friends of Poets & Writers.

A Winner's Advice: Jennifer Perrine

Des Moines poet Jennifer Perrine has been a frequent feature in our Recent Winners pages over the past several years, due in no small part to the careful way she selects contests to enter and tracks presses' responses, and a willingness to dismantle and revise promising manuscripts until they transform into a perfect constellation. In 2008 her debut collection, The Body Is No Machine (New Issues, 2007), won the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award from Southern Illinois University. Her second book, In the Human Zoo, was published by University of Utah Press last May as part of another award, the Agha Shahid Ali Prize. Perrine's poems have also won competitions sponsored by the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation, Third Coast, Bellingham Review, the Ledge, and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg. The poet shared with us recently what she looks for in an contest, the true value of awards, and what not to expect from a writing competition.

What has inspired you to submit your work for particular awards?
Right now I’m most interested in contests that offer something unusual—something other than, or in addition to, a monetary award. I’m at a point now where I have two books in print, and awards that involve travel and readings seem like a particularly effective way to share those books with a wider audience. I also love awards that include travel because they expose me to new communities and landscapes and let me test out my curiosity in a new place. That sort of exploration inevitably leads me to write more poems—or at least, different poems.

I also have a particular fondness for letterpress and book arts, so I seek out contests sponsored by book arts centers or ones that award publication of poems as broadsides. Entering contests can be expensive, and I like the idea that whether I win or not, I’m helping to support this beautiful intersection of poetry and visual art.

I used to submit work quite often to more standard contests—ones that award a monetary prize and publication—but I do so less and less. After some early years of scattering poems to the wind and crossing my fingers, I started limiting myself to sending only to journals and presses that regularly publish poetry that I find pleasurable or challenging. More recently, because I’ve been on a tight budget, I’ve only been sending poetry to contests if I receive something in exchange for the entry fee—a year’s subscription to the journal, perhaps, or a copy of the book that bested the other eight hundred manuscripts. Like travel, exposure to great new poetry changes me, and that’s what I’m out to find—transformative experiences, not just something that will look good on a CV.

How did you know your manuscripts were ready to go out?
With individual poems, I tend to work on each one obsessively until I can’t think of any other possibilities to explore in the work. Then I send it out. I try to send it out at the point where I’m most excited about it; if I let poems sit too long while I move on to another project, I’ll start to gaze back on those older poems with hesitation or doubt. I’d rather put a poem into the world while I’m still surprised by what I’ve written, with the hope that some of that surprise will cling to the poem and reach the reader.

With book-length manuscripts, I take all my poems, spread them across the floor, and arrange them in various ways—removing some, inserting others—until I finally find some order that holds together as a book. I’m not necessarily looking for a theme, but usually patterns will emerge—recurring images, resonances between poems that were written months or years apart—that make the manuscript into something greater than the sum of its parts. I’ll submit a manuscript to several presses, note where it places as a finalist, and the next year I’ll repeat the process all over again, disassembling and rebuilding the manuscript until it finds its final incarnation—the one that a press turns into a book and sends out into the world. With each version of the manuscript, though, I always believe that those poems, ordered in that particular sequence, speak to each other in a way that creates constellations that are more illuminating when taken together and that aren’t dependent on a handful of standout stars.

Are you also submitting to publishers outside of competitions?
I submit individual poems outside of competitions all the time. I’ve also sent book-length manuscripts during the open reading periods to a couple of presses—Graywolf Press and Four Way Books—that I really love and that consistently publish great books.

It seems that many contests are geared toward publication of first or second books, so I’m sure I’ll be working out a new approach when I submit my next manuscript; I’ll inevitably be sending my work to more presses outside of competitions. That seems appropriate, though, because at this point in my writing life, I’m looking more for a press that wants to publish my work over the long haul than for the recognition a single prize confers.

Is there one prize that has been of particular value to you?
Really? You’re going to make me choose?

Again, the opportunity for travel is really important to me, so I’ve particularly appreciated the Mérida Fellowship Award from U.S. Poets in Mexico, during which I learned so much from fellow poets and from the people who live in and around Mérida; the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Prize, which opened me to the natural wonders of Point Lobos, Big Sur, and Carmel-by-the-Sea, as well as the stone-cold beauty of Tor House; the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award, which was especially delightful because I got to meet the students who juried the competition, so I knew that there were young writers reading my book and finding something worthwhile there; and the Writers at Work Fellowship, during which I spent every day awestruck by the mountains around Salt Lake City and worked every night on assembling the initial version of my first manuscript.

Other awards have meant a great deal to me for other reasons. Early awards from Gertrude, the Connecticut Poetry Society, and the Fine Arts Work Center came just after I had returned to college after dropping out for a couple of years. Those awards gave me some sense that I had made the right choice when I decided to spend more time reading and writing poetry, and less time selling donuts and CDs. At the other end of the spectrum, winning the Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize was wonderful—it was such a relief to find a home for my second book and to know that my poetic muscles hadn’t atrophied after I finished graduate school and started teaching full-time. I know it sounds like a copout, but I value every award I’ve received because each one is a reminder that someone out there is reading my work with care and enthusiasm. I write through, about, and around events and ideas that are important to me; the gratification doesn’t come from the award itself, but from knowing that another human being values the same things I do. Each award reestablishes my connection to the reader, which I can sometimes forget when toiling away on a poem by myself.

What piece of advice do you have for writers looking to contests as a way to get their work into the world?
Decide what drives you to submit to contests. If you’re entering contests for affirmation or money, there are easier ways to earn both. Contests also aren’t the easiest way to get your work into the world; if you just want to get your work out there, you can start a blog, and you can self-publish your manuscript. If, on the other hand, you want to support journals and presses you love, submit work to them. If you have a strong desire to travel or to find a community of other poets, submit to contests that will lead you down that path.

Keep a tight rein on your ego and your envy. Be happy for your friends who win prizes, even—no, especially—if you were competing for the same award. Be gracious, and remember that you’re doing this for the love of poetry, not to be a superstar. If I’m wrong, and you do want to be a superstar, try out for a reality TV show—you’ll have a much larger audience.

Be organized. Make life easier on the contest readers—who are usually your fellow poets—by keeping track of your submissions, so you can notify them if you need to withdraw a piece.

Let your rejections feed your work. Use them as a reminder to keep writing, to keep revising, to keep sending more work out, knowing that one day your poetry will kindle a sense of connection in a reader, someone who will see your poems as kin and give them a home.

Whatever you do, don’t give up. Whatever you do, enjoy the work.

L.A. Times Names Finalists for Best Books of 2011

Yesterday the Los Angeles Times announced the shortlists for its 2011 Book Awards, given in ten categories including poetry, fiction, biography, and the graphic novel.

The finalists in poetry are Jim Harrison for Songs of Unreason (Copper Canyon Press), Dawn Lundy Martin for Discipline (Nightboat Books), Linda Norton for The Public Gardens (Pressed Wafer), and 2011 National Book Award finalists Carl Phillips for Double Shadow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and Bruce Smith for Devotions (University of Chicago Press), which is also on the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award shortlist.

In fiction, Joseph O’Connor is shortlisted for Ghost Light (Frances Coady Books), Michael Ondaatje for The Cat’s Table (Knopf), and Alex Shakar for Luminarium (Soho Press), as well as National Book Award finalists Julie Otsuka, for The Buddha in the Attic (Knopf), and Edith Pearlman, for Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories (Lookout Books). Debut authors up for the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction are Chad Harbach for The Art of Fielding (Little, Brown), Eleanor Henderson for Ten Thousand Saints (Ecco), Ben Lerner for Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House Press), Ismet Prcic for Shards (Black Cat), and James Wallenstein for The Arriviste (Milkweed Editions).

Up for the graphic novel honor are Joseph Lambert for I Will Bite You! And Other Stories (Secret Acres), Dave McKean for Celluloid (Fantagraphics), Carla Speed McNeil for Finder: Voice (Dark Horse), Jim Woodring for Congress of the Animals (Fantagraphics), and Yuichi Yokoyama for Garden (PictureBox). The award, the first major literary award given for the graphic novel form, is now in its third year.

Representing creative nonfiction on the biography shortlist are Alexandra Styron's memoir Reading My Father: A Memoir (Scribner) and Mark Whitaker's My Long Trip Home: A Family Memoir (Simon & Schuster). The late biographer Manning Marable, whose Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Viking) was a 2011 National Book Award finalist and is shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award, is also nominated in the biography category.

The winners will be announced at a ceremony on April 20, just prior to this year's Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which comes to the University of Southern California on April 21 and 22. Alongside the winners, the Times will honor novelist Rudolfo Anaya, who debuted in 1972 with the novel Bless Me, Ultima (Quinto Sol Publications), with the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement.

In the video below, Anaya reads from his novel Albuquerque (Warner Books, 1994) and discusses the importance of place to a writer.

Cheryl Boyce Taylor & Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center

Poet and presenter of literary events Cheryl Boyce Taylor, curator of the Calypso Muse reading series and the Glitter Pomegranate performance series, blogs about Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center's P&W-supported senior writing workshop.

Shortly after 9/11 I began teaching a senior writing workshop at Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center. The workshops were designed to create a safe and nurturing space for seniors to express the impact of the tragedy on their lives. Additionally, it offered an opportunity for seniors to recall, explore, and document their own amazing stories. 

The workshop had a wonderful mix of seniors, which made for interesting and, sometimes, challenging sessions. Among our members were a retired school principal, a fashion designer, a WWII veteran, a fiction writer, a multi-lingual social worker, and a Caribbean heiress. Some of them were shy, while others had a more take charge attitude.

That first year we wrote stories, poems, and letters about childhood, parenting, health, and 9/11. We wrote to music, explored poetic forms like haikus, tankas, centos, and free verse, and invited emerging and established poets to read their work and discuss poetry. One of the invited poets was the late Rodlyn H. Douglas. The group fell instantly in love with her warmth, storytelling abilities, and poetry.

During that year, we collected poems and stories for an anthology and made artthe class painted and wrote text on rocks and made picture frames with poems and family pictures inside. The highlight was the P&W intergenerational reading held each summer. We joined other P&W-supported workshops comprised of young and older writers. Readers invited friends, family, and P&W staff. What a joy it was to see them rehearse, then dress up for their special reading. There were many wonderful parts of my teaching experience there, but I couldn't have been more proud than when I heard them read their own work with pride and confidence.

Photos: (top) Cheryl Boyce Taylor; credit: Artis Q. Wright. (Bottom) Rodlyn Douglas (standing) and workshop participant Mae Del Gilmore; credit: Cheryl Boyce Taylor.

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 Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and Friends of Poets & Writers.

Ms. Soulflower's Artistic Future

Devoya Mayo is a poet, playwright, former radio personality, DJ, tastemaker, and events coordinator with P&W-sponsored The Soulflower Group. Based in Fresno, she dedicates her time to curating events that bridge the divide between the diverse communities residing within California’s Central Valley. From 2005–2006, Mayo was P&W’s Central Valley outreach consultant. Under the moniker Ms. Soulflower, you can find her spinning music in dimly lit establishments, organizing and hosting gatherings, and creating art via Etsy.

What makes the Soulflower Group unique?
We are a consortium of designers, DJs, musicians, photographers, poets, and organizers connected by the tenet that creativity and culture are essential in building community wellness.

What recent project have you been especially proud of?
The P&W-supported Soulflower Speakeasy featuring Sunni Patterson, along with Stephen Mayu, Connie Owens, and Joy Graves, was the easy standout of the year. Sharing space with someone who had appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, performed at major spoken-word venues, and worked with several well-known artists and performers—including Sonia Sanchez, Wanda Coleman, and Amiri Barakawas spiritually motivating and an honest-to-goodness awakening. From the moment Sunni walked on stage with her son, she offered us a glimpse into her soul through poetry, reflecting the strife, angst, joy, and hope that many of us were feeling.

How do you find and invite readers?
I find writers via word-of-mouth, social networks, and the occasional open-mic night. You can’t walk down the street in a place like Fresno and not run into a writer of some kind. California’s Central Valley has always been home to a host of heavy hitters like Connie Hales, Tim Z. Hernandez, Juan Felipe Herrera, Lee Herrick, Philip Levine, and Gary Soto.

What’s the craziest thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
One night a crowd favorite walked on stage, placed a gym bag on a stool, and began to read from his chapbook. As he read about the abuse inflicted by various objects, he began to reach into his bag and toss out the offending objects. He threw boots, belts and, yes, even an iron into a crowd of poetry lovers. Needless to say, there were lots of near misses and, afterwards, we enacted a no-Gallagher-type-antics disclaimer for future events.

How has literary presenting informed your own writing and/or life?
When I’m part of an event, or in the process of curating one, my literary antennae are on high alert. I push myself harder and listen more than I speak, which is hard... let me tell ya. The elements that speak to me, or don't speak to me, inform what I want to provide.
 
What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
Very few have the power, resources, or authority to demand more programming. This is how we knew we had to do more than just daydream about what it would be like if we were really to invest in our artistic futures.

Photo: Devoya Mayo. Credit: Joe Osejo Photography.

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

Tin House's Plotto Contest Moves on to Week Three

Tin House Books rolls out the third installment of its fiction-prompt contest, "calling all writers who are obsessed with plot and obsessives who can write a mean story." The weekly competition extracts a story-starter from William Wallace Cook's Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots, originally published in 1923 and rereleased by Tin House last December, and invites writers to take a stab at creating a five-hundred word piece of flash fiction based on the prompt.

Entries are due each Monday (there's no fee to enter), and the winning story will be published on Tin House's Open Bar blog. Last week's champion, for a story that builds off the dilemma of a locked hotel room door, is Richard Osgood, "whose wild take on the situation," according to the Tin Housers, "had us thinking of Becker, David Lynch, and highway obstructionists."

Here's a look at this week's challenge, where {A} is the male protagonist and {B} is the female: "{A’s} profession is a hazardous one—aviator, automobile racing driver, steeple jack, “human fly”—and {B} considers this fact an obstacle to their marriage." The complete contest guidelines are posted on the Plotto contest page.

Cheryl Boyce Taylor's Calypso Muses

Poet and presenter of literary events Cheryl Boyce Taylor, blogs about the P&W-supported Calypso Muse Reading Series in New York City.

In  the summer of 1994, I founded the Calypso Muse Reading Series. I wanted to create a place where Caribbean poets could nuture their work and native dialect. First, I called some of my favorite poets to tell them about the series. They were thrilled and jumped at the opportunity to share their work. Next, I contacted P&W to inquire about its Readings/Workshops program. My next call was to my friend Sigrid, who owned a small cafe in SoHo.

We opened that September to a full house! Rodlyn Douglas, Suheir Hammad, and Hal Sirowitz were my first features, along with a stirring open mic. The series boasted a bevy of poets from diverse backgrounds, some of the poets included: Sekou Sundiata, Jewelle Gomez, Elena Georgiou, and Cheryl Clarke.

Poets from Calypso Muse past have parlayed their voices into writing careers! Hal Sirowitz was awarded an NEA, Suheir Hammad won the Audre Lorde Writing Award, and Rodlyn Douglas was the P&W-supported writer at Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center's senior writing program.

P&W gave Calypso Muse its first grants of twenty five dollars per reader! The support we received helped to nuture our stories. The series' poets reminded audiences that every voice is authentic and deserves celebration.

Since 1994, I have received P&W funding for a number of programs, including: Trini Girls Take Brooklyn, The Womens Reading Series at McNally Jackson Books, and the Calypso Muse House Reading Series. With P&W support, I've become a force in the literary community!

Photo: Cheryl Boyce Taylo. Credit: Artis Q. Wright.

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 Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and Friends of Poets & Writers.

Jill Patrick: For Atlanta Writers, All the World's a Stage

Playwright Jill Patrick, who runs Working Title Playwrights in Atlanta, Georgia, blogs about the organization's P&W-supported Playwrights &... series.

There is no greater danger than an artist without an outlet, which might be why so many playwrights write in other genres. Launched in 2005, Working Title Playwrights has provided playwrights the opportunity to write in other genres and to present their original work to the public. Held in bookstores and other non-theatrical venues, the readings bring together Atlanta-area playwrights and audiences that may have no interest in live theater. The audience is made up of folks who like to read, poetry enthusiasts, or those who may have just stumbled across the reading.

I was one of the original three Working Title Playwright members to participant in Playwrights &... (along with Pamela Turner and Marian X). I am a decidedly navel-gazing poet, slowly luring adverbs from my belly button. It took the challenge of putting together an hour-long reading of my own work for me to realize that my best writing had variations of the same ingredients: food and family. Eating the Singletaries: Tales from a Tall Redhead was a journey of discovery for me as a writer, and an emotional roller coaster ride for the audience. Not only do I have a lot to say about family, but there is an audience for my work (and not one word of it was meant for the stage). To my surprise and delight, I realized that I am not a playwright who writes poetry, but a poet who writes plays.

Through Playwrights &..., Patricia Henritze (co-author of Anthony+Cleopatra Remix, a re-imagining of Shakespeare's original) presented excerpts from her own memoir, Learning To Talk: My Life Story and Other Fiction. But, the program isn't limited to memoir. Hilary King presented Matthew, Mark, Luke & Potluck: Church Poems. Hank Kimmel paid tribute to the peerless Spalding Gray, The Last Stand of a Stand-Up Comic. Raymond Fast, Karla Jennings,Vynnie Meli, and Topher Payne were also introduced to audiences that may have otherwise been unaware of their diverse, dynamic voices. Playwrights &... will resume this fall with a reading by Lisa Brathwaite, author of True Hotku: 69 haiku celebration of women and our real hotness.

Photo: (left to right) Jill Patrick, Daphne Mintz, Sherry Lee. Credit: Perry Patrick.

Support for the Readings/Workshops events in Atlanta 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.

Pushcart's Winningest Magazines

The Pushcart Prizes, given annually since 1976 for poems, stories, and essays published by literary magazines and indie outfits, purport to highlight the "best of the small presses" in a yearly anthology. Looking to apply some objective analysis to the results (and determine, by Pushcart standards, where his own fiction might be in the most distinguished company), one writer has taken to tracking winning venues over the years.

Since 2008 Clifford Garstang, author of the story collection In an Uncharted Country (Press 53, 2009) and editor of Prime Number Magazine, has looked back at the past ten years of Pushcart anthologies and calculated the most-honored magazines, using a system that awards points for Pushcart wins and honorable mentions. The results for 2012, broken out by genre, were reported last week his Perpetual Folly blog.

This year's tally saw Georgia Review, Ploughshares, and Southern Review taking top slots across all three genres, with Conjunctions ranking in the top five in both fiction and nonfiction. Poetry was the front-runner in its genre of specialization. Big movers in fiction, in relation to Garstang's 2011 rankings, were A Public Space and One Story. In nonfiction, Harvard Review and n+1 made jumps this year, tied for thirty-second place. (Small presses make a lesser showing, though BOA Editions holds the fifteenth spot in poetry.)

Garstang admits that ten-year retrospective he takes naturally favors older journals, as well as magazines that appear in print (only one online journal was highlighted in the 2012 award anthology). "Pushcart has for several years been criticized for discriminating against online magazines," Garstang writes on his blog. "Online magazines have made some inroads in the annual volume. I expect this will accelerate and the problem will correct itself. We shall see. In the meantime, for those of us who submit work to online journals—some of which are excellent—we have to look elsewhere for measures of quality."

For more information about the 2012 Pushcart Prize anthology, visit the prize website.

University Lit Mag Launches Fiction Contest

Barely South Review, the literary journal of the MFA program at Virginia's Old Dominion University, has announced its first writing contest. The Norton Girault Literary Prize for fiction, which will alternate annually with awards in poetry and creative nonfiction, offers one thousand dollars and publication in Barely South.

The 2012 judge is Cristina García, whose debut novel, Dreaming in Cuban (Knopf), was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1992. Her other novels include The Agüero Sisters (Knopf, 1997), Monkey Hunting (Knopf, 2003), A Handbook to Luck (Knopf, 2007), and The Lady Matador's Hotel (Scribner, 2010).

Fiction writers may submit a story of up to 25 pages via snail mail or Submittable, the online submission system, until February 29. Results will be announced in April.

Page Meets Stage: Philip Levine and Adam Falkner

In November, P&W–supported writers Philip Levine and Adam Falkner read at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City. P&W’s development and marketing associate, Auzelle Epeneter, writes about attending her first Readings/Workshops (R/W) event.

This fall I decided to really make a go of it—I was going to carve out the time to attend my first P&W–supported event. I joined P&W’s staff over the summer to manage the Friends of Poets & Writers program, but between finding my sea legs in this new role and planning (and executing) a wedding, it took me some time to make the space in my schedule.

Being present at an R/W event was of particular importance to me because the program is supported in part by gifts I help raise through the Friends program. My daily efforts contribute toward sustaining all of Poets & Writers’ programs, including Poets & Writers Magazine and pw.org, but I wanted to see firsthand what an R/W event was all about.

On a rainy night in November, I found space in a packed house at Bowery Poetry Club for Page Meets Stage’s monthly offering—that night, Poet Laureate Philip Levine read with NYC-based spoken-word poet Adam Falkner. Page Meets Stage has been around since 2005, and its website describes the series as one that “pairs more page-oriented, academic poets with poets who come from a more spoken-word or performative background. Both poets are on stage at the same time and read back and forth, poem for poem.”

That night, Levine and Falkner presented their work to a crowd of rapt listeners. The juxtaposition was a real pleasure—Levine quiet, distinguished, and simple in his approach, Falkner bold, thoughtful, and raw.  But each showed genuine interest and delight in hearing his counterpart read, and each allowed their seemingly disparate styles to build upon one other. The dialogue developed throughout the evening and resulted in a resonance that left everyone in the room buzzing.

To attend a reading of well-crafted poems by great writers is, to me, a rare treat. But to experience two people in conversation, discovering together how their connections make up similar but unique pieces of the evolution of American poetry, was something else altogether.

Photo: Philip Levine (left) with Adam Falkner. Photo credit: Lee Weston Taylor.

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 Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and Friends of Poets & Writers.

Getting to Know Cheryl Boyce Taylor

For the month of February, longtime P&W–supported poet and presenter of literary events Cheryl Boyce Taylor blogs about her favorite subject: poetry, among other topics. Taylor is the founder of the Calypso Muse Reading Series, which takes place in New York City, and author of the collections Raw Air, Night When Moon Follows and Convincing the Body.

I was born on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, in the town of Arima, a small town nestled between mountains and red hills. My mother grew up in this town as well, and from her I inherited my love of poetry. When my mom was a child, part of her school curriculum was to read and memorize poetry. She was excellent at this, and at the end of every school year she would win the poetry recitation contest.

When I was a toddler, my mother was getting dressed to go to a local poetry reading. I began begging her to take me along. It was already past my bedtime, so she said, "no," but I put up such a fuss that she told me if I could dress myself, I could go. My mother says that I left the room and when I returned I was fully dressed, including socks and shoes. The only thing she had to do was zip the back of my dress. She was astonished because she didn't know I could dress myself. My mother took me to the reading that night... I like to believe that that was the beginning of my love affair with poetry.

As I grew older, I too enjoyed memorizing and reciting poems. In my grammar school years our country was under British rule and we were forced to study and memorize English poetry. We studied the works of Shelley, Byron, Keats, and Shakespeare. These were beautiful works of art, but I began to lose interest. I wanted poems that I could hold, poems that I could ask questions of and find myself in the answers. I longed to see myself in the poems that I loved. I wanted poems that had mangoes, coconut trees, and star apples, poems with brown girls with shiny cocoa skin, and thick nappy braids contained by huge red and yellow bows, not just girls with milk-white skin and ringlets of golden curls blowing in the wind.

So, when I first heard the political and social musings of Calypso, coupled with the African-Griot rhythms of steel pan and dialect, I began to feel the stirrings of different poems taking root inside me. Calypso is an uptempo rhythm with roots in West Africa. Calypso evolved as a way of spreading news around the island, its lyrics explore issues of skin color, hair texture, family life, and everyday political and personal struggle with humor and story... I was finally hearing stories of my life, and the lives of the people I lived with and loved.

At thirteen, I immigrated to New York City. Right away my dialect set me apart. My peers and teachers laughed at my accent, but something inside said: Love your dialect, it is your birthright, part of a proud heritage. Inspired by that voice, during the summer of 1994, I founded the Calypso Muse Reading Series, which brings poets of all nationalities and languages together.

Photo: Cheryl Boyce Taylor. Credit: Artis Q. Wright.

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 Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and Friends of Poets & Writers.

Ploughshares Launches Tri-Genre Emerging Writer's Contest

Starting yesterday, forty-year-old literary journal Ploughshares began accepting entries for a new writing contest open to unpublished poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers. The Emerging Writer's Contest, an expansion of last year's inaugural competition in fiction, will award one thousand dollars and publication to a writer in each genre.

In order to be considered "emerging," writers should not have published a book or chapbook in any form (self-published works included). Ploughshares invites potential entrants with eligibility questions to inquire via e-mail.

Poets may submit between three and five poems and prose writers may submit works of up to five thousand words along with a twenty-dollar entry fee, which includes a subscription to Ploughshares, until April 2. For complete guidelines and to access the submission manager, visit the journal's website.

The winner of the first contest was thirty-six-year-old Thomas Lee, for his story "The Gospel of Blackbird," which appears in the current issue of the magazine, alongside fiction by James Franco, William Giraldi, Ann Hood, and Rachel Kadish. Sample works from the issue, guest edited by Alice Hoffman, are accessible online.

Timothy Donnelly Wins $100,000 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award

The Claremont Graduate University has announced the winners of this year's Kingsley and Kate Tufts Poetry Awards, two of the more lucrative honors in the genre. The one-hundred-thousand-dollar Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, given to a writer in midcareer, went to New York City poet Timothy Donnelly for his second collection, The Cloud Corporation (Wave Books). Donnelly, whose first book, Twenty-seven Props for a Production of "Eine Lebenszeit," was published in 2003 by Grove Press, has also published widely in journals such as A Public Space, the Nation, and the Paris Review.

Debut poet Katherine Larson of Tucson, Arizona, received the ten-thousand-dollar Kate Tufts Discovery Award for Radial Symmetry (Yale University Press). Larson's book was published in 2011 as the winner of the Yale Younger Poets prize the previous year, selected by Louise Glück.

The finalists for the Kingsley Tufts prize were Ed Roberson for To See the Earth Before the End of the World (Wesleyan University Press) and Christian Wiman for Every Riven Thing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Finalists for the debut award were Julie Hanson for Unbeknownst (University of Iowa Press) and Shane McCrae for Mule (Cleveland State University Poetry Center).

Serving as the final judges for the award were poets David Barber, Kate Gale, Ted Genoways, Linda Gregerson, and Carl Phillips. The preliminary judges were poets Jericho Brown, Andrew Feld, and Suji Kwock Kim.

The winners will be feted on April 19 at a ceremony in Claremont, California, presided over by poet Maxine Hong Kingston.

The video below was filmed at Donnelly's Cloud Corporation release party at the offices of A Public Space in Brooklyn, New York.

Elissa Schappell on How a Good Agent Can Save a Career

We sat down with Elissa Schappell recently at a favorite New York City watering hole, Clandestino, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and over drinks and olives discussed the crucial role her long-time agent Joy Harris played in the writing of Schappell's recently published story collection Blueprints for Building Better Girls, published by Simon & Schuster in September. The book received considerable attention, making several “best of 2011” lists. It was also notable for appearing ten years after her debut, Use Me, a collection of linked short stories published by Morrow in 2000.

As is often the case when a first-time author sells a book of short fiction to a major publisher, the contract with Morrow was a two-book deal. The second book—at the time unwritten—was slated to be a novel, which traditionally perform better in the marketplace. Just as Schappell had done when she was writing Use Me, after she completed a substantial portion of the draft, which took a few years, she showed the manuscript to Joy Harris. Watch the video to hear what happened next.