Archive March 2017

Poet Laureate Work: Connecting People to Poetry

Elline Lipkin is the author of The Errant Thread, chosen by Eavan Boland for the Kore Press First Book Award, and Girls’ Studies (Seal Press, 2009). She is the current poet laureate of Altadena, a research affiliate with UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women, and teaches poetry for Writing Workshops Los Angeles. She blogs about a recent P&W–supported writing workshop with Suzanne Lummis at the Altadena Public Library in Altadena, California.

New to Altadena, and still new as its poet laureate, this past fall I tried to think about what programming would best serve this community—an unincorporated area in Los Angeles County, nestled in the San Gabriel foothills and blending into the borders of Pasadena. I decided a poetry workshop in February would be just the thing to build community and generate interest in poetry in advance of National Poetry Month and other planned literary events. Who might come in to teach enthusiastic poets who write for the joy of expression, the desire to play with words, and the chance to connect with community, I wondered.

Then, as a volunteer with WriteGirl, a Los Angeles-based organization that teaches creative writing to teenage girls, I had the pleasure of witnessing Suzanne Lummis lead a poetry workshop. She was brash, funny, direct, and engaging—all the components that make a great teacher. I knew she would be the perfect person to teach a community workshop at the Altadena Public Library.

The workshop was set up in the Altadena Library community room, which they assured me would be large enough. When I arrived at 12:15 PM to set up for the workshop’s 1:00 PM start, there were already people sitting at the tables. By 12:40 PM someone suggested we look for more chairs and ideally, more tables. By the time the workshop started at 1:05 PM, people were standing in the doorway as I scrambled to make more handouts and the staff set up rows of folding chairs. Close to seventy people crammed into the room.

As I’d hoped, Suzanne again was brash, funny, direct, and engaging. She wedged her way between the closely positioned tables and made certain to talk to people at every corner, all while keeping a current of excitement in the air as she called on participants to respond.

Suzanne’s first exercise was to copy down the phrase, “The judge ran down my list of offenses....” The crowd fell silent, and after a scant eight minutes was ready to share.  Suzanne offered on-the-spot critique: “Always stay a step ahead of the reader—don’t go where you think the reader wants you to go.” She emphasized making lines vivid and rich with specificity and moving away from the prosaic.

For another writing exercise, she asked for suggestions she recorded on a whiteboard—names of flavors, fragrances, flowers, and movie stars. The whiteboard was covered with sensory suggestions—chaparral, night-blooming angel’s trumpet, ginger, sassafras, peppermint, and licorice. Helen Mirren, Idris Elba, Barbara Stanwyck, and Marlon Brando mixed in their own column. The assignment was to pick something from each category and “let the words lead you.” “Don’t be literal” was another key piece of advice, alongside, “Keep your writing connected to the sensory and palpable.”

There was barely time to share before the hour and a half was up. A crowd surrounded Suzanne as the event ended. I watched them pour out of the room, buzzing with ideas for their poems, sharing lines and thoughts about the exercises, clearly hungry for the connection poetry brings. I knew I had found the right person for this community, and I was thrilled.

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.

Photo: Elline Lipkin (Credit: Sylvia Gunde).

Bittersweet: The Immigrant Stories

Tanya Ko Hong explores both cultural and personal experiences with her writing, and seeks to bridge the gap between first-generation Korean immigrants and their Korean American children through her bilingual works. She has been published in Rattle, Beloit Poetry Journal, Two Hawks Quarterly, Portside, Cultural Weekly, Korea Times, and Korea Central Daily News. She has an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University in Los Angeles, and is the author of four books, including Mother to Myself (Prunsasang Press, 2015). 

On a chilly January evening, the Korean language reverberated through the Poet’s Garden at Beyond Baroque in Venice, California for the “Bittersweet: The Immigrant Stories” event. In all the mainstream poetry readings I’ve attended, the voices of these first-generation immigrants have been absent. Many immigrants want to express themselves but cannot due to language, social, and cultural barriers. In the Korean writer circles, the few who give voice to the immigrant experience aren’t even confident that their stories are worthy of translation or performance in English. Without translation, these original stories are in danger of dying out with the immigrant generation. I want to prevent that. As Toni Morrison said, “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, you must be the one to write it.”

Since there didn’t seem to be an event celebrating the works of immigrants, I knew I had to do it. Why should my fellow immigrant artists feel invisible, voiceless, and unworthy? This evening was the realization of my dream to celebrate their works with a multicultural audience. Light evening breezes tossed the overhead string of lights as eleven artists shared immigrant experiences of Korean, Mexican, Filipino, and other cultures. Korean poets read selections as originally written, and then American poets read the translations.

Heard in English for the first time, “Sugarcane Arirang” by So Hyun Chang, recounted the first Korean Americans’ long days in the sugar fields of Hawaii. In Korean, the refrain of “Arirang” conveyed the rhythm of life in the fields and longing for home. The translation spoke of the raw and emotional experience. It was not a coincidence that the event date coincided with the one hundred and fourteenth anniversary of the first documented Korean immigrant’s arrival in Hawaii. The bittersweet aspect of the evening was the truth of the immigrant experiences and generational differences, which had been kept in silence for so long.

At the end of the evening, I read “American Dream” in both Korean and English, which ends with the question, “Who am I to you, America?”

The chill of the night was replaced by the warmth of friendship as we physically huddled together to conserve heat. The audience included writers who seldom venture outside of the Korean community, let alone to a Los Angeles venue like Beyond Baroque. The shared laughter and tears began to dismantle the barriers, borders, and fences of race, language, culture, gender, and age that often keep us divided.

On April 29, 2017, I will cohost an event at Beyond Baroque to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, an upheaval shared by Angelinos across cultural lines but seldom discussed today. As with “Bittersweet,” my goal is to bring voices to the shared pain and anguish of our neighboring communities. Let us express and listen to each other. We have suffered in silence too long.

As a poet, I learned to break the silence and have the courage to speak out. My work carries me forward. 

I thank all the participants; my cohost Julayne Lee; and the artists So Hyun Chang, Alexis Rhone Fancher, Christine Gonzalez, liz gonzales, June C. Kim, Soo Bok Kim, Duk Kyu Park, Kuya Paul, and Hiram Sims for making “Bittersweet” such a special night.

Special thanks to Beyond Baroque and their director, Richard Modiano.

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.

Photo one: Tanya Ko Hong (Credit: Alexis Rhone Fancher). Photo two: The Immigrant Stories readers: (front, left to right) June C. Kim, So Hyun Chang, Tanya Ko Hong, Julayne Lee, Kuya Paul, and Soo Bok Kim. (back, left to right) Duk Kyu Park, Christine Gonzalez, and Hiram Sims (Credit: Patrick Hong).

The Risk of Discovery Reading Series and the Queens Literary Scene

Micah Zevin is a librarian poet living in Jackson Heights, New York with his wife, a playwright. He works for the Queens Library and has recently published poems in the Best American Poetry Blog, Headlock Press, the Otter, Newtown Literary Journal and Blog, Poetry and Politics, Reality Beach, Jokes Review, Post (Blank), the Tower Journal, and the American Journal of Poetry. Zevin received his MFA in Poetry from the New School in 2014 and is the founder and curator of the Risk of Discovery Reading Series, now at Blue Cups in Woodside, New York.

Shortly after graduating from the New School, I started to think about how I could continue the same sense of community, support, creative energy, and stimulation that I received from my fellow students and professors. I saw a post on Facebook that was searching for someone to host and curate a reading series/open mic at a new comedy and creative venue in Astoria. The idea was to feature a diverse mix of Queens and non-Queens-based writers, and get local writers from my New School MFA connections and on social media to bring another reading series to the often overlooked borough of Queens and its budding literary scene, which happens to be my home and birthplace.

The “Risk” and “Discovery” in the reading series title was inspired by essays on writing by Yusef Komunyakaa, which emphasize the surprise that can come in one’s writing when challenging subjects or ideas are tackled in an unorthodox or imaginative way. At the most recent incarnation of my reading series, I give my attendees a handout with poetry prompts that asks them to write instant poems (the discovery), and then read them aloud (the risk). These poetry prompts have also been an effective way to jumpstart my own writing and bring things out of me from angles and perspectives that wouldn’t have otherwise been extracted or mined. Featured readers, such as Mathew Yeager, Nicole Goodwin, and Ryan Black, have taken the challenge and read their “instant poems” aloud.

Joanna Fuhrman was a featured poet for our February 21 event, and upcoming events include poets Matthew Hupert and Bill Lessard on March 21, and Uche Nduka and Francine Witte on April 18 during poetry month.

Featured poets who are paid an honorarium are thrilled that this reading series has received grants from the Readings & Workshops Program at Poets & Writers, which encourages writers to travel and go on tours to promote their collections. The option to pay featured readers attracts a wide range of writers to my reading series, and it has grown and built a regular audience over the last three years.

The Poets & Writers Literary Events Calendar is the perfect place to post information about the series and upcoming featured writers, and posts can be shared on social media.

Ultimately, running a reading series, despite organizational and logistical challenges, is a rewarding experience because it connects writers and literary enthusiasts with one another, and helps build a network in the borough of Queens and beyond.

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program 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 and Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photos: (top) Micah Zevin (Credit: Susan Weiman). (middle) Joanna Fuhrman (Credit: Micah Zevin). (bottom) Audience members at the open mic (Credit: Micah Zevin).

Christen Clifford Talks Experiments & Disorders at Dixon Place

Christen Clifford is a feminist performance artist, writer, and mother. She teaches at the New School and is a curator for the Experiments & Disorders literary series at Dixon Place. Her essay “Mother, Daughter, Moustache,” about gender and aging, was published in the bestselling anthology Women In Clothes and called “a standout essay” by Bookforum. Clifford has been published in Salon, Hyperallergic, the Brooklyn Rail, Smith Magazine, and has work forthcoming in WITCHES. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from the New School Writing Program, where she won the Nonfiction Award. She is the recipient of a NYFA Fellowship, a volunteer mentor with Girls Write Now, and lives in Queens and online @cd_clifford.

Dixon Place is one of New York’s oldest art spaces dedicated to creating new work. Since 1986, we have been a nonprofit institution committed to supporting the creative process by presenting original works of theatre, dance, music, puppetry, circus arts, and visual art at all stages of development. We hope to encourage diverse artists of all stripes and callings to take risks, generate new ideas, and consummate new practices.

Experiments & Disorders is Dixon’s longest continuously running literary series; Tom Cole and I have been curating it together for the last seven years. Each year we have six to eight readings, depending on budgets and scheduling. Usually, Experiments & Disorders is the second or third Tuesday of the month. Tom and I are committed to new work—we always find some writers through submissions, and we often like to pair a less experienced writer with a more experienced writer, though that doesn’t always happen. We love to pair works across genres, so that in one evening we might have fiction read by the author and a performance text read by actors, or a poet and an essayist.

I moved to New York in 1989 and I was terrified of Dixon Place, but I’d heard about it. It was in a loft on the Bowery and real artists did crazy art there. As a white Catholic girl from a working class family in Buffalo, I was too scared to go to Dixon Place! Ellie Covan started Dixon out of her apartment and now, thirty-one years later, it’s a gorgeous downstairs theatre fully accessible with an upstairs lounge and bar. At Dixon, I saw the hilarious Reno, lots of dance, Tom Murrin, and experienced the workshops of Taylor Mac. I think it’s kind of funny that I wound up as a curator at Dixon Place. 

It’s a home for experiments. I love all of the new work! Last month, we had Heidi Julavits and Leslie Jamison, and they both read work that they’d never read before. It was such an intimate gift.

Our upcoming events include Alex Borinsky and Marisa Crawford on April 18, Jenny Offill and Hafizah Geter on May 16, and Mary Gaitskill will be reading on July 18.

We are so grateful for the Poets & Writers grants that help support the writers that read at Dixon Place. This support means our writers get more money, and hopefully more respect, which we hope all leads to even more time to write.

I am healed by our poets and writers. That hour in the near dark at a reading, surrounded by language and humans, saves me and gives me hope.

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program 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 and Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photos: (top) Christen Clifford (Credit: Christen Clifford). (middle) Candace Williams (Credit: Christen Clifford). (bottom) Celeste Finn and Buzz Slutzky (Credit: Christen Clifford).