Archive February 2017

Poets & Writers’ Seventh Annual Workshop Leaders Retreat in Los Angeles

Jamie Asaye FitzGerald, director of Poets & Writers’ California Office and Readings & Workshops (West) program, blogs about Poets & Writers’ seventh annual Workshop Leaders Retreat for writers who teach creative writing to underserved groups, held this past January at 826LA in Echo Park in Los Angeles.

At first we were scattered, sitting at separate tables. Then we joined together in a circle.

Frank Escamilla WLR LA 2017

The first writers to take their places were Sarah Rafael Garcia and Marilynn Montaño of Barrio Writers, a nonprofit reading and writing program that empowers teens through creative writing. Garcia and Montaño rented a car and drove from Santa Ana to Los Angeles, about an hour drive. Both have been recipients of Readings & Workshops (R&W) grants for their work with Santa Ana’s youth.

The next person to join the circle was Oshea Luja of Still Waters, a poet and teacher supported by the R&W program for facilitating creative writing workshops with elders via the organization EngAGE.

Soon to join our circle, all the way from Riverside, was Angela Peñaredondo, who took part in the R&W program’s Intergenerational Workshop Exchange as a workshop facilitator for veterans and their family members at the Filipino American Service Group.

Fifteen other writers—who collectively teach creative writing to the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, at-risk youth; veterans; elders; LGBTQ populations; the homeless and formerly homeless; and immigrants—soon took their places.

We gathered in the workshop space at 826LA in Echo Park for Poets & Writers’ Workshop Leaders Retreat, an annual half-day retreat where teaching artists share resources, best practices, and writing prompts, and write and break bread together. This past January marked our seventh retreat in Los Angeles. Last fall, we held our first retreat for teaching artists in the Bay Area.

In addition to expanding and solidifying the reach of the R&W program, these retreats enable us to further our support of teaching artists who work with underserved groups, to give them the opportunity to network with one another and strengthen their practices, and to honor them both as teachers and writers by spending time writing to each others’ prompts. “It can be isolating as a contractor and writer, so it is impactful to make such contact and connection with others doing similar work. It can inform my practice in a multitude of ways and offer personal support for this challenging work,” wrote one attendee.

This year’s retreat was enriched by a presentation from charismatic teaching artist Frank Escamilla, who works with at-risk youth and is outreach coordinator for Street Poets Inc. Escamilla linked his experiences growing up in the East Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights with his current teaching practice. He recounted how having to share a room with five others taught him early about “being in community” and described how he could count the number of gangs he had to walk through to get to school. As a youth he felt called to start his own gang to gather people together, to protect each other. Later, he realized that his gifts could be used in better ways, which led him to become a poet, performer, and teaching artist—one who initiates young people into the healing practice of writing.

Escamilla shared with his fellow teaching artists some of the techniques he uses to reach this vulnerable population. He addressed questions like: How do you create a safe space within ten minutes? How do we search for the gift within these wounds? How do you deal with silence? How do you offer criticism? Attendees devoured Escamilla’s pearls of wisdom, asked questions, and shared their own methods. We talked about the Native American practice of Council in workshops, African traditions, and how words “can be like bullets or they can be like seeds.” We sat together and wrote from a prompt taken from Audre Lorde: “What do you need to say? [List as many things as necessary],” and shared our responses.

To close and release the circle, P&W program associate Brandi Spaethe read from an exquisite corpse written by the group during the retreat:

Our children will witness the power of our voice, and carry it on
Under their arms they will carry the future like origami, sharpening their tongues
Every breath a fire becoming movement

WLR LA 2017 Group

The Workshop Leaders Retreat is made possible by support from the California Arts Council, a state agency. We would like to thank 826LA for consistently giving this retreat a home and all the teaching artists past and present who have participated.

Photo one: Frank Escamilla of Street Poets, Inc. (credit: Brandi M. Spaethe). Photo two: Attendees of the seventh annual Los Angeles Workshop Leaders Retreat (front, left to right): Jamie Asaye FitzGerald, Dorothy Randall Gray, Marilynn Montaño, Alejandra Castillo, T Sarmina, Jessica Wilson, Leilani Squire, Sarah Rafael García; (middle) Angela Thomson-Brenchley; (back, left to right) Angela Peñaredondo, liz gonzalez, Steven Reigns, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, A. K. Toney, Oshea Luja, Jesse Bliss, Frank Escamilla, Kristi Toney, and Juan Cardenas (credit: Brandi M. Spaethe).

 

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.

 

Andrea Fingerson on Workshops With the Inlandia Institute

Andrea Fingerson is a writer and a teacher. She is currently in her tenth year of teaching for the Moreno Valley Unified School District. In 2014 she earned an MFA in Fiction from California State University, San Bernardino. She has written two novels, both of the Young Adult persuasion, and both inspired by her work as a teacher. Her current project is also inspired by her teaching career, but instead of focusing on the lives of students, is concerned with the challenges that teachers face. Fingerson can be found at her blog, in her classroom in Moreno Valley, and leading the Corona workshop for the Inlandia Institute.

What makes your workshops unique?
I’ve had the pleasure of working as a workshop leader for Inlandia over the past two and a half years. The mission of the Inlandia Institute is to recognize, support, and expand all forms of literary activity through community programs in Inland Southern California, and by the publication of books by writers who live or work in and/or write about Inland Southern California, thereby deepening people’s awareness, understanding, and appreciation for this unique, complex and creatively vibrant region.

One of my favorite parts about being a workshop leader is the opportunity to work with new writers, whether they are youth writers or adults, who have come to appreciate the joy that comes from the writing life. My latest workshop started fresh in January, and it was invigorating to see a new group of writers and to expand my community of colleagues. 

I strive to make my workshop a place where writers of all abilities, experience, and genres feel welcome. I love learning from them as I strive to share my knowledge and experience.

What’s the strangest question you’ve received from a student?
I am of the philosophy that there are no bad questions, but I have had some students show interest in publication earlier than I would recommend. Publication can be a long and arduous path, but it is worth it.

What has been your most rewarding experience as a teacher?
It’s always the small things that are the most rewarding. A quiet student who finally feels comfortable enough to share their work out loud with the group. A youth writer whose work continues to progress as they learn the standard formatting for fiction that will allow their wonderfully creative stories to come to life. A new writer whose work is accepted for publication. And, most importantly, someone who is able to complete a project they’ve struggled with for months or longer.
   
What effect has this work had on your life and/or your art?
For me, the greatest benefit of working with Inlandia, and leading these workshops, comes from being an active participant in the writing community. Writing can be an isolating process. I find such workshops and local readings to be invigorating both personally and professionally.

What is the craziest thing that’s happened in one of your workshops?
I always chuckle when I think of the poor mother who brought her middle-school-age daughter, and writer, to the meeting right around Banned Books Week. The conversation included a few references (references only) to some of the more explicit reasons people want to ban books. I never saw the poor woman again, or her daughter, which is unfortunate because such topics rarely come up. My workshops are usually child-friendly.

I also had one sweet writer who always brought her dog to workshops with her. He was a cute little thing, and I always had to spend a few minutes with him, and his owner, after the workshop was over for the night.

Photo: Andrea Fingerson (credit: Jace Martin).

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.

WEX Award Sparks Community, Deepens Commitment

Alicia Upano was born and raised in Hawai'i. She received a BA in journalism from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and an MFA from the graduate program in creative writing at San Diego State University. She worked for newspapers in Washington, D.C. and Silicon Valley, and for a nonprofit documentary film organization in Oakland, California. Her creative work has appeared in the Asian American Literary Review. She currently works for the University of Hawai'i Press and lives on O'ahu.

Six years ago, I sat on a flight back to California from Hawai‘i, flipping through the inflight magazine. A photo captured my attention: Musicians in the 1970s gathered with string instruments on the Windward side of O‘ahu, in a town south of my elementary school. I left Hawai‘i for college a dozen years before, and what was once a mainland adventure had long been replaced by homesickness.

I built a fictional universe around this image and plodded through drafts as the characters emerged: a slack-key guitarist, his estranged wife, and their two grown children that witnessed the fallout. Through the course of 1969, secrets are revealed as their father’s health fails, and one loss threatens to replace another.

Most pages ended up in the trash those first years. Meanwhile, friends sold short fiction to literary magazines and attracted agents with books. I felt too slow, but in truth, thinking about publishing overwhelmed me when learning to write a novel felt hard enough.

Then I wrote the scene where the mother character decides to return to Hawai‘i and I understood that it was time for me, too. People told me this was a risky move—pricey housing and fewer work opportunities—but family and friends managed on the island, and I figured I could, too.

At home, the book started to take shape. A friend sent me news of the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award (WEX) and encouraged me to apply. When I sent my application at a Honolulu post office, I hoped for some recognition that the story was, finally, moving. That there was a little spark.

My writing is consumed with this fictional family and their complicated love for each other. It often felt like an insular universe, and I’m the only real one there, but winning the WEX Award changed that. I’m incredibly grateful to fiction judge Alexander Chee for finding promise in my work. In his comments, he wrote that my first chapter was “full of a love for the islands, the history, and the music and the people who make that place what it is,” and I got teary, because this is what I have been working to share.

This award also gave me a welcome crash course in publishing. When Poets & Writers asked who I wanted to meet, I poured through the acknowledgment pages of favorite books to learn about agents and editors. It was a particular treat to share with Maureen Egen, sponsor of the prize, how I’d fallen in love with the classic Gone with the Wind as a twelve-year-old in Kahalu‘u. It was my first adult book and I immediately picked up the sequel, Scarlett, edited by Egen.

In New York, I felt surrounded by people who love books, as I do. I share this award with poetry winner Kimo Armitage, an accomplished local writer. His friendship and good humor made me feel like I had a bit of home with me, and his own publishing experiences offer me valuable lessons as an emerging writer.

Before this award, my writing was largely private.  After the announcement, several people told me, “I didn’t even know you wrote,” or new acquaintances said, “I was wondering who won that.” What I discovered in New York is that every book needs a community of champions and advisors, both professional and personal, to thrive. This award invites me into a larger writing community, both on the island and away. Thanks to Poets & Writers, Maureen Egen, and Alexander Chee for making this possible.

Photos: (top) Alicia Upano (credit: Margarita Corporan). (middle) Alicia Upano and Alexander Chee (credit: Kimo Armitage). (bottom) Elliot Figman, Kimo Armitage, Alicia Upano, and Bonnie Rose Marcus (credit: Jessica Kashiwabara). 

The Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award is generously supported by Maureen Egen, a member of the Poets & Writers Board of Directors.

Celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday Through the Arts

Brenda Collins was raised, educated, and currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia. She holds the position of Community Relations Chair at the Shambhala Meditation Center of Atlanta.

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”
―Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island (Harcourt, Brace, 1955)

At the Shambhala Meditation Center of Atlanta, we create activities to support the primary focus of the Community Relations Committee—to bridge communities together for the purpose of creating a culture of kindness. We host events that foster cultural understanding through the arts and conversations about race relations, environmental issues, economic disparity, gender issues, the criminal justice system, sexual orientation, education, and more.

We decided there was no better way to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday than through the arts. We were granted the opportunity with the support of Poets & Writers to honor this day, January 15, with poets, musicians, and performers from all walks of life. Featured poets and performers included Srimati Shahina Lakhani, Nnenne Onyicha-Clayton, Debra Hiers, Waqas Khwaja, BMichelle Tilman, A’nji Sarumi, Jennifer Denning, and the Atlanta Interplay Performers. The Interplay Performers used improvisational tools to express themselves in the moment. The poets read their own works, as well as the work of others revealing their own voices of wisdom.

This event included an open mic and a reflective conversation segment, which directly connected to the conversations the Shambhala Meditation Center hosts about issues that are important to the people of our city and our world. These topics include income disparity, a sustainable relationship with our environment, and improving our many broken systems (i.e. criminal justice, healthcare, education).

From Pakistan to Islam, from Europe to America, all forms of expression were heard and human emotions were experienced leaving us with hope and a sense of renewal. People were so inspired, they did not want to leave. They wanted to continue expressing themselves through poetry and other forms of art. The most memorable moment, for me, was when we all formed a circle for a unity prayer and improvisation session led by BMichelle Tilman.

I thank Poets & Writers for their support in making this project a success, bringing hope and inspiration to all of humanity.

Photo: Brenda Collins. Photo credit: Florence Lemon.

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Atlanta, Georgia 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.