Poets & Writers Blogs

Balakian, Nguyen Win Pulitzer Prizes

Today in New York City, the Pulitzer Prize board announced the winners and finalists of the 2016 Pulitzer Prizes. Of the twenty-one categories, the prizes in letters are awarded annually for works of literature published in the previous year by American authors.

The winner in poetry is Peter Balakian for his collection Ozone Journal (University of Chicago), a collection of poems “that bear witness to the old losses and tragedies that undergird a global age of danger and uncertainty.” The finalists were Diane Seuss for Four-Legged Girl (Graywolf) and Elizabeth Willis for Alive: New and Selected Poems (New York Review Books).

Viet Thanh Nguyen won in fiction for his debut novel, The Sympathizer (Grove), “A layered immigrant tale told in the wry, confessional voice of a “‘man of two minds’—and two countries, Vietnam and the United States.” The finalists were Kelly Link for Get in Trouble: Stories (Random House) and Margaret Verble for Maud’s Line (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). 

Prize administrator Mike Pride announced the winners and finalists at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. Each winner receives $10,000. A complete list of winners and finalists in each of the twenty-one categories, including journalism, literature, and drama, is available on the Pulitzer Prize website.

The 2015 winners included poet Gregory Pardlo and fiction writer Anthony Doerr.

Hungarian-American newspaper publisher and journalist Joseph Pulitzer established the Pulitzer Prizes in 1911, and the first prize was administered in 1917. In celebration of this year’s centennial, the Pulitzer board has partnered with individuals and organizations across the country for its Campfires Initiative, which hosts events with the aim “to inspire new generations to consider the values represented by Pulitzer Prize–winning work.” 

Nominations for the 2017 prizes will open in May.

Creative Writing for the Underserved: Ideas, Inspiration, Revelation

On March 31, 2016, during the AWP Annual Conference & Bookfair in Los Angeles, Poets & Writers brought together P&W–supported teaching artists Dorothy Randall Gray, Michael Kearns, Mike Sonksen, and Leilani Squire for the panel presentation “Creative Writing for the Underserved: Ideas, Inspiration, Revelation.” Panelists spoke about best practices, what motivates them to do what they do, and how teaching writing to underserved groups has enriched their writing lives. Below are some highlights from the conversation, as compiled by Readings & Workshops (West) director and panel moderator Jamie Asaye FitzGerald.

Classroom Approaches

"I look at longevity as a starting point, and have them write about all of the 'selves' that have gotten them to where they are today."
—Michael Kearns, who works with GLBT seniors

"We spend a lot of time just talking, working through issues, then do a timed writing. I listen and witness. That's a big part of it."
—Leilani Squire, who works with veterans and their family members

"I begin the class with three minutes of silence. I work with teenage identity and bring in poems about that. I've had them read [Paul Laurence] Dunbar's 'We Wear the Mask.' I've even had them make a mask, think about the layers of their identity and list them. I try to show them how poets are always talking to each other and that they are part of the conversation. I also use a little hip-hop, documentaries, current events."
—Mike Sonksen, who works with teens

"Sometimes these populations don't want to feel because it hurts too much. I try to get them to connect with their feelings. Music and visuals help. One reward for doing the writing is letting the kids be DJ and pick out the songs. To get them to open up, be silly, bring a visual, ask an easy question like 'What's your favorite food?' or 'What do you want to eat when you get out of here?'"
—Dorothy Randall Gray, who works with incarcerated youth, women, and the homeless

The Effect on Their Writing Lives

"If I tell them to write deeply, to go for the jugular, how can I not do that myself?"
—Squire

"My stakes are higher. I am deepened by them."
—Kearns

"Not only do I have to deal with the truth; I have to face my own truth. I believe in sticking a pen in my own vein. As they tell their stories, I tell my stories."
—Gray

On Self-Care

"Being in the trenches is taking care of myself. Dealing with horror, pain, and abuse—it's contradictory, but it is comforting that I can hear and be empathetic.... And I have my daughter when I feel overwhelmed."
—Kearns

"You get worn out. Performing poetry and doing freelance writing helps. I keep my writing career active. Then there are the two kids who really get it, there's the e-mail from a kid five years later, and the kid who stays after class to help clean up."
—Sonksen

"Meditation. Adjusting my own beliefs. Compassion is a big part of it, and being as gentle and loving as possible."
—Gray

"I have to walk in centered, whole, and confident or I'll get beat up. I'm a practicing Buddhist. I go to Native American lodges, which helps me gain answers to questions I ask. I cuddle with my dog."
—Squire

Hopes for Their Students

"I hope they find a home in their hearts, where they feel loved and safe."
—Gray

"I hope their voices get louder, not softer; more authentic, more hopeful; more of who they are and not less—because that can often happen as one ages."
—Kearns

"I hope they come to a place of acceptance, understanding; of being listened to, witnessed; to come to some sort of wholeness. My agenda is to promote peace."
—Squire

"I try to give them the tools they need to lift themselves up. Ultimately, I'd like to create lifelong readers and writers. But mainly I use writing as a bridge to help them build identity and future hope."
—Sonksen

We are pleased to be able to support writers who work with underserved groups. For more information about whether your event might qualify for Readings & Workshops support, please see our guidelines or contact us.

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

Finalists Announced for Man Booker International Prize

The shortlist for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize was announced yesterday, and includes Turkish Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk and pseudonymous Italian fiction writer Elena Ferrante. The prize is given annually for a work of fiction translated into English and published during the previous year. The £50,000 prize is split between the author and translator.

This year’s shortlist includes José Eduardo Agualusa of Angola for A General Theory of Oblivion (Harvill Secker), translated by Daniel Hahn; Elena Ferrante of Italy for The Story of the Lost Child (Europa Editions), translated by Ann Goldstein; Han Kang of South Korea for The Vegetarian (Portobello Books), translated by Deborah Smith; Orhan Pamuk of Turkey for A Strangeness in My Mind (Faber & Faber), translated by Ekin Oklap; Robert Seethaler of Austria for A Whole Life (Picador), translated by Charlotte Collins; and Yan Lianke of China for The Four Books (Chatto & Windus), translated by Carlos Rojas.

“In first-class translations that showcase that unique and precious art, these six books tell unforgettable stories from China and Angola, Austria and Turkey, Italy and South Korea,” says chair of judges Boyd Tonkin. “In setting, they range from a Mao-era re-education camp and a remote Alpine valley to the modern tumult and transformation of cities such as Naples and Istanbul. In form, the titles stretch from a delicate mosaic of linked lives in post-colonial Africa to a mesmerizing fable of domestic abuse and revolt in booming east Asia. Our selection shows that the finest books in translation extend the boundaries not just of our world—but of the art of fiction itself.

Tonkin—along with judges Tahmima Anam, David Bellos, Daniel Medin, and Ruth Padel—selected the finalists from a longlist of thirteen books, which in turn was culled from a group of 155. This year the prize combined with the Independent’s Foreign Fiction Prize, and marks the first time the award has been given annually for a single work of fiction in translation. The prize was previously awarded to a fiction writer for a body of work.

The winner will be announced at an event in London on May 16. Previous winners of the prize include László Krasznahorkai, Lydia Davis, Philip Roth, and Alice Munro.

Image courtesy of the Guardian.

Mia Alvar, Ta-Nehisi Coates Among PEN Award Winners

Last night in New York City, the PEN American Center honored the recipients of the 2016 PEN Literary Awards. A selection of winners were announced in February; the winners of the following five awards were announced live at the ceremony.

Mia Alvar won the $25,000 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction for her story collection, In the Country (Knopf). Helon Habila, Elizabeth McCracken, Edie Meidav, and Jess Row judged. “It is rare to find a debut of such depth and breadth, work singing with the grace of a thousand doomed lifetimes compressed into stories both luminous and empathic, populated by memorable characters facing such keenly felt challenges,” the judges wrote.

Ta-Nehisi Coates took home the $10,000 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for Art of the Essay for his critically acclaimed epistolary memoir, Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau).

The PEN Open Book Award went to Rick Barot for his third poetry collection, Chord (Sarabande Books).

Lauren Redniss won the PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award for Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future (Random House).

Jean Guerrero received the inaugural PEN/FUSION emerging writers prize for her manuscript “Crux.” The $10,000 prize was established in 2015 to recognize an unpublished nonfiction manuscript by a writer under the age of thirty-five.

Meanwhile, novelist and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison was honored with the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.

This year, PEN will confer approximately $200,000 in awards, fellowships, grants, and prizes to writers and translators. Visit PEN’s website for a complete list of the 2016 Literary Award–winners.

(Photo: Mia Alvar, Credit: Deborah Lopez)

Watch a video of the awards ceremony below:

Soul, Look Back in Wonder

Nikki Williams is a multidisciplinary artist: an award-winning photographer, poet, playwright, painter, and producer of Arts Programs for almost thirty years. Williams is very proud that for the last sixteen years, she has been instrumental in becoming the first to introduce ongoing creative writing workshops in domestic violence shelters and homeless shelters, and other cultural institutions in New York City, and very grateful for the funding from Poets & Writers for many of these workshops. 

The seniors participating in WiZdom from the Elderberry Tree, a series of memoir and creative writing workshops for seniors of mostly African American descent whose roots are mainly from the South, were members of the Senior Ladies' and Men’s Club at River Terrace in upper Harlem. This was the first time that any of the seniors had participated in a writing workshop. These workshops, funded through the Readings & Workshops Program, culminated with a special invitation from the Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, to personally meet him and speak about their lives and the legacy of the Schomburg—History meeting History. The day included a tour of the American Negro Theatre, and the opportunity for the seniors participating in the last day of the program to write in the famed Scholars-in-Residence conference room.

You know my soul look back and wonder. How did I make it over?

African American elders, “Been Here Before,” spirits, speak of women bent low by heat and history, wedged between a wing and a prayer, picking cotton and pieces of their lives with equal urgency. Stories resurrected and reborn as quilted art are audible in Grandmother, Nana, Big Mama, and M’Dear tongue. Tales of paving a way out of no way, cutting through cane and cotton.

“My mother was a very strong Black woman with skin that was the color of a dark cup of coffee. She did not take any stuff from anyone. My mother was born on April 16, 1913 in Burke County, Georgia. Her advice to us: ‘Never depend on anyone but yourself.’ My mother worked long hours in the cotton fields.” –Mrs. H. B. Jenkins

Tell me how we got over Lord, I've been falling and rising all these years.

The journeyed stories of people of African descent are stowaways, surviving the Middle Passage. Good men, strong men, resilient men, managed with wit and might to untwist chains and tongue, to tell stories weighted down under iron bit that nudged them a nod toward freedom.

“When I was an MP in the army, one of my buddies, all of whom were white, suggested that we stop off at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant. As we entered the restaurant, all of us in full uniform, a white man came out from behind his desk, walked directly up to me and said, ‘We don’t serve your kind.’ I responded by saying the first thing that came to my mind, ‘What kind is that?’ I could feel the blood rushing to my head. This was 1963. ” –Mr. W. Cherry

Despite degradation and hardship, African American elders speak of an improvised life full of joy that America claims as its own: classical Ellington, Armstrong, Fitzgerald, Vaughn, and Holiday. They carried their stories from southern fields, be-bopped them along northern concrete. Travelled them tray steady on the shoulder of the dining room car, waiter coming home on a chariot swung low and sweet. His movements pure Jazz in its sway.

“The Savoy was around the corner from our apartment building, on Lenox Avenue between 140th and 141st streets. My brother and I would sit on the fire escape where we could see the neon sign and hear the Big Bands. In those days, bands came to Harlem every weekend. Vocalists stood before a mike and just ‘sang’ without elaborate staging; singers like Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington, and Ella Fitzgerald.” –Mrs. B. Bonner

And then we're gonna sing somewhere 'round God alter, and then we're gonna shout all our troubles over.

African American elders place legacy in the womb of the listening ear—an Underground Railroad leading heart heavy souls to the promise land. Harriet Tubman holding a lamp lighting Sojourner’s truth. They have consistently told us that nothing is impossible, no stone too heavy, no river too wide to cross. Take my renewed hand; music my words with trumpet and song. Each note, a stepping stone, a crossed bridge; be amazed child, look back in wonder and see….

You know my soul look back in wonder. How did I make it over?

Photos:  Nikki Williams (top), Claudia Hurst (middle). Senior Citizens Club (Bottom).  Photo credit:  Nikki Williams and Mohammad & G.

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.

Guggenheim Fellows Announced

On Wednesday, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation announced the recipients of its 2016 writing fellowships. Grants of approximately $50,000 each were awarded to twenty-two poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers in the United States and Canada on the basis of past achievement and exceptional promise. 

The fellows in poetry are: Beth Bachmann of Nashville, Tennessee; Rick Barot of Tacoma, Washington; Jericho Brown of Decatur, Georgia; Stephen Burt of Belmont, Massachusetts; Cynthia Huntington of Post Mills, Vermont; Sally Keith of Washington, D.C.; James Kimbrell of Tallahassee, Florida; Deborah Landau of Brooklyn, New York; Ed Roberson of Chicago, Illinois; and Brian Turner of Orlando, Florida.

The fellows in fiction are: Jesse Ball of Chicago, Illinois; Jennifer Clement of New York, New York; Amity Gaige of West Hartford, Connecticut; Laila Lalami of Santa Monica, California; Jenny Offill of Red Hook, New York; Jess Row of New York, New York; René Steinke of Brooklyn, New York; and Melanie Rae Thon of Salt Lake City, Utah.

The fellows in nonfiction are: Adam Kirsch of New York, New York; Chris Kraus of Los Angeles, California; Amitava Kumar of Poughkeepsie, New York; Glenn Kurtz of New York, New York; Nick Laird of New York, New York; Paul Lisicky of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Amanda Petrusich of Brooklyn, New York; Robert Storr of New Haven, Connecticut; and Sarah Payne Stuart of Nobleboro, Maine.

Edward Hirsch, president of the Guggenheim Foundation, said of the 2016 class, “These artists and writers, scholars and scientists, represent the best of the best…It’s an honor to be able to support these individuals to do the work they were meant to do.”

Established in 1925, the Guggenheim Foundation fellowship program has granted more than $334 million in annual awards to more than 18,000 individuals. This year, a total of 175 fellowships, including three joint fellowships, were awarded to 178 writers, artists, and scholars. For more information about the program and fellows, visit gf.org.

If You Can Talk, You Can Write: Meera Nair on Writing Workshops for Nepali and Tibetan Workers

Meera Nair was born in India and moved to the US in 1997. Her first story collection, Video (Pantheon Books, 2003), received the Sixth Annual Asian American Literary Award for fiction, and was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year and a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book. Nair is also the author of the children's book Maya Saves the Day(Duckbill, 2013) and the forthcoming, Maya In a Right Royal Mess. Her fiction and essays have appeared on NPR, the Washington Post, and the New York Times among other publications. She has received fellowships from the New York Foundation of the Arts, MacDowell Colony, and the Queens Council of the arts.

What makes your workshops unique?
I've taught or continue to teach writing to undergrads and graduates at places like NYU, Brooklyn College, and Fordham, but recently I've had to rethink my pedagogy. Now I'm creating workshops for people who don't think of themselves as writers—who have no preconceived notions of craft, or conveyance, who have never agonized over choosing a point of view.

I'm currently doing a four-week workshop series for Nepali and Tibetan domestic and nail salon workers at Adhikaar, a nonprofit organization, where participants are writing personal essays on living and working as immigrant, POC workers in America. I want to give a big thanks to Muna Gurung, who has helped to interpret at the workshops, and Ryan Wong, and Kundiman who helped to set all this up. The challenge is to create a space where writing is no longer seen as “a mystery, a privilege of caste” as David Barthlomae called it. Which means I have to find methods by which participants are guided to privilege their own experiences, histories, oral testimonies, and the act of “talking to themselves” as something that is important and necessary.

I've tried to go back to the way South Asian people interact, how they are generous, expansive talkers and natural storytellers. The writers generate material using oral history methods, where I, as the facilitator, try to ask the questions and then disappear into silence while the participants talk. Once the words are said, once they exist in that shared space, once the writer has generated them, it's easier to take the next step—that of writing the words down in sentences. That step requires the writer to think about language and shaping the material, to think about rhythm and structure, but it also invites the writers to see that they already possess story, words, excitement, details, arcs—all those craft-y things.

What has been your most rewarding experience as a teacher?
I love that moment when the student understands that all writing is revision. It takes guts to revise and student-writers resist touching those initial, God-given sentences—but it's a beautiful thing when they look at that final draft and see that it's good because they learned to be brutal and ruthless with the work.

What affect has this work had on your life and/or your art?
I hear stories about people's lives that I would never have access to without the work I do outside the academic setting. Like all writers, I am a voyeur and a listener at keyholes, so to speak—and everything is material for my writing, whether I use it or not. I'm currently working on a collection of stories set in Jackson Heights, Queens, and I am getting insights and access into the lives of my characters I wouldn't have otherwise.

What is the wildest thing that’s happened in one of your workshops?
One semester I taught a workshop on writing about food and love, and three students, or maybe it was four, discovered for the first time in my workshop that they had issues with food/eating/body image and had to start therapy. I have retired that particular curriculum since.

Photo: Meera Nair.  Photo credit: Meera Nair.

Support for Reading & 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 form the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

James Hannaham Wins PEN/Faulkner Award

The PEN/Faulkner Foundation has announced James Hannaham as the winner of the 36th annual PEN/Faulkner Award for his novel Delicious Foods. The $15,000 award is given annually for a book of fiction by an American author published in the previous year.

Delicious Foods (Little, Brown), Hannaham’s second novel, tells the story of an African American boy who tries to save his mother—who struggles with drug addiction—from a farm where she is held captive. Hannaham, who is interested in experimentation in prose, wrote the novel from the perspective of the boy, the mother, and crack cocaine. Hannaham lives in New York City and teaches at the Pratt Institute.

“This exceptional novel is impressive for many reasons and speaks to the American experience today in a variety of ways, from the entrapment of perspective because of poverty and drug use to the heroic perseverance of character even after the worst of choices and atrocities,” says Sergio Troncoso, who judged this year’s prize along with fiction writers Abby Frucht and Molly McCloskey. “Delicious Foods is a standout work of fiction that will surely expand a reader’s empathy for the struggles of a variety of groups and individuals freeing themselves from modern enslavement.”

The finalists for the prize were Julie Iromuanya for Mr. and Mrs. Doctor (Coffee House Press); Viet Thanh Nguyen for The Sympathizer (Grove Press); Elizabeth Tallent for Mendocino Fire (HarperCollins); and Luis Alberto Urrea for The Water Museum (Little, Brown). Each finalist will receive $5,000. The judges­ selected the finalists from nearly five hundred novels and story collections from 165 publishing houses.

Hannaham and the four finalists will be honored at an awards ceremony at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., on May 14. Recent winners of the prize include Atticus Lish for his novel, Preparation for the Next Life; Karen Joy Fowler for her novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves; and Benjamin Alire Sáenz for his story collection Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club.

AAWW Announces 2016 Margins and Open City Fellows

The Asian American Writers Workshop (AAWW) has announced the ten recipients of its 2016 Margins and Open City Fellowships. The fellowships are given to emerging Asian and Asian American creative writers and journalists based in New York City. Fellows receive $2,500 to $5,000, publication in one of AAWW’s online publications, and career development.

The 2016 Margins Fellows are poet Jen Hyde, fiction writer Vt Hung, fiction writer and filmmaker Steven Tagle, and nonfiction writer Wei Tchou. The fellowships each include $5,000, publication opportunities in the Margins, a residency at the Millay Colony for the Arts, writing space at AAWW’s offices in New York City, and guidance and mentorship from writers and editors in the AAWW community.

The Spring 2016 Open City Fellows are nonfiction writers Jai Dulani, Rahimon Nasa, and Thanu Yakupitiyage. Each fellow receives $2,500, publication in Open City, and career development opportunities to “craft narratively driven creative nonfiction and reportage about issues that matter to the 1.6 million Asian immigrants who call the five boroughs home.” This year, AAWW also awarded three Spring 2016 Open City Language Justice Fellows to Liz Chow, Yichen Tu, and Rong Xiaoqing. The fellowships, which offer the same benefits as the Open City Fellowships, are given to Asian-language immigrant journalists. The inaugural fellows will spend six months developing stories from New York City’s Chinatowns and beyond. All three fellows are journalists who have covered New York City immigrant communities for Asian-language media outlets.

The Margins and Open City fellows were selected from a group of more than a hundred applicants by a panel of writers, AAWW board members, and former fellows. The Language Justice fellows were nominated by members of the AAWW community. Applications for the Fall 2016 Open City Fellowships will open in April; applications for the 2017 Margins Fellowships will open in July.

Established in 1991, the AAWW is devoted to advancing the creation and publication of Asian American writing. Read more about the AAWW, which celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary this year, in Arvin Temkar’s article “AAWW Continues the Conversation” in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Photos, top row from left: Jen Hyde (Patrick Delorey), Vt Hung (Diana Mai), Steven Tagle (Christopher Smith Photography), Wei Tchou. Middle: Jai Dulani, Rahimon Nasa, Thanu Yakupitiyage. Bottom: Liz Chow, Yichen Tu, Rong Xiaoqing

 

Mai Der Vang Wins Walt Whitman Award

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. 

In Their Own Time: Teaching Artist Caroline Brown on Trust and Boundaries

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.

Winners of the 2016 Whiting Awards Announced

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.

Deadline Approaches for Indiana Review Poetry Prize

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.

The Power of Words Where Few Dare to Go: Literary Events in Unlikely Southern California Lands

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.

Gay, Beatty, Nelson, Jefferson win NBCC Awards

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