Archive June 2017

Poets & Writers’ Seventh Annual Los Angeles Connecting Cultures Reading

Readings & Workshops (West) director Jamie Asaye FitzGerald blogs about Poets & Writers’ seventh annual Los Angeles Connecting Cultures Reading at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice, California.

Each year for the past seven years, Poets & Writers has held the Los Angeles Connecting Cultures Reading, which astounds audiences with the diversity of its performers and their unique voices, and the power of the work read to redeem, heal, and delight.

We select five organizations that serve culturally diverse groups and have received support from the Readings & Workshops (R&W) program to help curate the event. Each organization chooses readers to represent them at the reading. This year’s event was held at Beyond Baroque on June 4, 2017 and included 826LA, a writing and tutoring center; Beyond Baroque, a literary/arts center; the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory, serving homeless and at-risk youth; Bittersweet: The Immigrant Stories, a reading featuring the voices of immigrant writers; and Urban Possibilities, serving the urban poor of Los Angeles. It’s wonderful to witness the general comradery between the presenters as they meet and discover one another’s work.

Among the eleven readers, who all gave strong readings, were four teen writers, including Xolo Maridueña, a fifteen-year-old sophomore who attended a R&W–supported writing workshop with Jeff Chang at the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory in March. Xolo read his first poem ever—a poem about falling in love, in which he wrote: “When I would see her, the butterflies in my stomach would turn into pterodactyls,” an experience I’m sure many in the audience could relate to. Also writing on the theme of love was another teen writer, Ashla Chavez Razzano, representing 826LA, who wrote, “a spider’s web taught me to love.” Nadia Villegas, also representing 826LA, read a poem about how “blue nail polish is freedom,” and Vera Castañada from the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory called the neighborhood around Cesar Chavez Avenue where she grew up, “the West Coast Ellis Island.”

So Hyun Chang, representing Bittersweet: The Immigrant Stories, read in Korean his poem “Sugarcane Arirang,” recounting the first Korean American’s long days in the sugar fields of Hawaii, where they would chant a song of hope, “arirang, arirang,” to help pass the time. Hack Hee Kang read a poem using the Korean dish bi bim bap to convey a sense of loneliness and longing, and Jun C. Kim moved silently as a recording of his poem played over the loud speaker.

Ambika Talwar, who hails from India, read on behalf of Beyond Baroque rich, evocative poems about searching for home and “the true power of your own volition.” Jessica Ceballos y Campbell also representing Beyond Baroque, read her poem from Only Light Can Do That, a collection of stories, poems, and essays published by PEN Center USA in response to the 2016 presidential election and ensuing events. Her poem, dedicated to her parents and “all of the magicians” spoke of those who make “gardens, in a world that would prefer us not to exist” and how “When man, woman, and child pour their bodies across the man-made borders they are executing a willed-intention to change what they know of the world….”

Yvette Jones-Johnson, the executive director of Urban Possibilities, spoke powerfully about homelessness in Los Angeles, citing lifelong poverty, losing everything, life after incarceration, abuse, and military trauma as some of the factors contributing to the high rates. Her readers, Keith Brown and Norma L. Eaton, are both alums of the Urban Possibilities writing empowerment program. Brown, a veteran who hails from the U.K., read a gorgeous pastoral poem reminiscent of Wordsworth, and Eaton astounded the audience with a devastating poem about her experience of homelessness. After the reading, she commented: “I felt as though I was the Reincarnation of Maya Angelou! She Understood ‘Why the Cage Bird Sang’ And I know how it feels to be homeless and destitute, knowing that ‘My Name Is Forgotten.’  I wanted the Message to be conveyed with the hope of transforming the hearts and changing the stigma of homelessness…. Sharing the stage with the other artists was phenomenal.  I sat and feasted at the table of literary Art.”

We give our thanks to the organizations, project directors, and writers who made this event possible, as well as Beyond Baroque, for hosting and for their support.

To keep up with Readings & Workshops news and events, such as Connecting Cultures, please be sure to sign up for our quarterly newsletter, Readings & Workshops Presents.

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.

Photos (top): Teen poet Xolo Maridueña representing the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory (Credit: Craig Johnson Photography). (bottom): (left to right) Brandi Spaethe, Norma L. Eaton, Keith Brown, Jamie Asaye FitzGerald, Eyvette Jones-Johnson, Ambika Talwar, Hack Hee Kang, audience member, Tanya Ko Hong, Jun C. Kim (Credit: Craig Johnson Photography).

The First-Ever Poetry Workshop at Footsteps

Jessica Greenbaum’s most recent book of poems is The Two Yvonnes (Princeton University Press, 2012). Recipient of an NEA award in 2015 and the Poetry Society’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award in 2016, she is a social worker and teaches inside and outside academia, most recently at Barnard, Central Synagogue, Brooklyn Poets, Footsteps, and for 9/11 first responders through the World Trade Center’s Health Program. You can find out more about her work at

Last winter, Poets & Writers supported a poetry workshop at Footsteps, the only agency in North America providing services for people venturing out of the insular world of Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy. I had heard about Footsteps through a fellow social worker, Jesse Pietroniro, who was a Footsteps staff member—and I was immediately drawn to working with this community.  (A stellar feature piece about Footsteps, “The High Price of Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Life,” was recently published in the New York Times Magazine.) Jesse helped champion the notion of a workshop to his colleagues, but it was clear that any payment was going to have to come from an outside source. Luckily, a friend introduced me to Emily Rubin, a writer who has been supported by P&W for her workshops with cancer survivors, their families and caregivers, at two hospitals in New York City. Emily told me about P&W’s grant program, and after I reached out to the director of Readings & Workshops (East) Bonnie Rose Marcus, it took P&W almost no time at all to recognize Footsteppers—as they call themselves—as an underserved population if ever there was one.

Because we ran the five weeks of workshops as open door sessions, participants often overlapped from the week before, but each week the room held new people and a varied dynamic. One participant had been writing for years, and was just awaiting the publication of her chapbook, while others came as novices. Very little is as refreshing—and instructive—as the passion of a reader without internalized hierarchies. Discussing the poem of a laureled poet one participant said, “I hate this guy!” This same participant also unpacked more exciting ideas from another well-known poet’s six-line poem than I ever had, adding, “I love this stuff!” Because Footsteppers have learned to survive by listening to their true thoughts, they have honed the tools of a poet—an honest listening—before even stepping into the room.

The big decision in such a workshop is: How overtly therapeutic should the workshop feel—and still offer poetry writing as a means of expression for everyone? In order to best serve the Footsteppers, how directly should I address issues of identity, family abandonment, trauma, and the other emotional weather systems in the world of people leaving an insular community? From the work I had done with 9/11 first responders, and in consultation with studies used by the NEA’s writing program for veterans suffering from PTSD, I decided to offer some model poems that would touch on those issues at a slant, but that the workshop would present itself more neutrally, almost like a cooking class, and that I would follow where discussion and concerns wandered.

As so often happens, class prompts allowed participants to have spontaneous, organic responses. When asked to recount, as if telling the story to a friend, an incident from childhood that remained resonant for them, participants found their way to anecdotes that seem to hold whole microcosms of their bigger histories. And a prompt to follow stream of consciousness did the same.

Find a community with a tragic amount unsaid and you’ll find a workshop with a true reason for finding words. Find people who have lost a profound sense of their past in order to shape their true selves, and you’ll find poems that blaze with life force and discovery.

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 Frances Abbey Endowment, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photo: (top) Jessica Greenbaum (Credit: Leslie Jean-Bart).

It Happens Every Spring in Harlem: A Festival of Poetry

Gregory Crosby is the author of Spooky Action at a Distance (The Operating System, 2014) and The Book of Thirteen (Yes, Poetry, 2016). He teaches creative writing for the College Now program at Lehman College in Bronx, New York.

The Harlem Rhymers are laying it down, beating out the rhythm of the poem with claps and snaps, a row of middle school girls in matching white T-shirts that pop against the red-curtained backdrop of the Marian Anderson Theater stage, bringing the words home and the house down with their choreographed truth:

Pretty hurts, yeah
We know
But these scars aren’t
Here just for show
Work to be skinny
Work to get money
You’re already beautiful enough
That’s the truth, honey!

After the wild applause dies down, these students from PS/IS 180 beam as they pose for photographs with author Jacqueline Woodson, the 45th Special Guest Poet at the City College of New York’s Annual Poetry Festival. Every May for nearly a half-century, students from New York City public schools have gathered to read their winning poems at this day-long celebration of the spoken word, and to hear poets and writers like Woodson (whose appearance was funded in part by the Readings & Workshops program at Poets & Writers) read their work, along with student poets in the MFA Creative Writing program at the City College of New York (CCNY), faculty, and others.

Founded by the poet Barry Wallenstein, the Poetry Festival is the culmination of a year’s work by the CCNY Poetry Outreach Center. Directed by poet and YA author Pamela Laskin, the center sends mentors into New York City schools to conduct poetry workshops; the day’s readings by elementary and middle school poets are the fruit of those sessions. In the afternoon, the winners of the citywide high school poetry contest (sponsored by Alfred K. Knopf), read their poems from the stage. In addition to reading their work aloud for peers and parents, these students enjoy the thrill of seeing their work in print. All poems read on the day of the festival are collected and published in the autumn in the annual anthology Poetry in Performance. Copies are sent to all participants as well as to school libraries around the city.

In the current educational landscape, when poetry as a subject is often sadly shunted aside in favor of mandatory (and seemingly endless) standardized test preparation, CCNY’s Poetry Outreach Center offers many students crucial exposure to the pleasures of writing poetry. Thanks to the contributions of donors, particularly the generous and stalwart support of the Poets & Writers Readings & Workshops program, the center continues its mission, adding new participating schools nearly every year and welcoming returning ones. Every year or two, a new crop of Harlem Rhymers finds the voice that only poetry can give, and takes the stage at the festival to wow another audience with the power of that voice.

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 Frances Abbey Endowment, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photos: (top) Gregory Crosby (Credit: Gregory Crosby). (bottom) Jacqueline Woodson and the Harlem Rhymers (Credit: Lesley Simmonds).