Archive July 2017

Never Forgotten: A Nisei Writing Workshop

Naomi Shibata, author of Bend With the Wind: The Life, Family, and Writings of Grace Eto Shibata (Shibata Family Partnership, 2014), is a docent and senior engagement writing instructor with the National Japanese American Historical Society of San Francisco. She also delivers guest lectures on the Japanese American experience to schools, historical societies, museums, service organizations, libraries, and book clubs. Shibata is a University of California graduate and a high technology industry veteran. From April to June 2017, Shibata led a series of P&W–supported writing workshops for second-generation Japanese American elders (the Nisei) with the theme: “Tell your story as you would like it told.” Below, Shibata blogs about her approach to working with the elders and the importance of the project.

In late 2016, I received an invitation to lead a workshop for first-time writers. Sponsored by the Friends of the Little Tokyo Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library and Poets & Writers, the four-part program targeted second-generation Americans of Japanese descent, the Nisei.

The Nisei, now in their eighties and nineties, are the last in a line of storytellers with firsthand accounts of a dark time in American history. Their racial-ethnic community was disenfranchised, incarcerated, and exiled by the U.S. government during World War II. For some Nisei, the time has come to speak of their lives before, during, and after the incarceration. It is time to write about the long road to the American Dream. It is time to tell their stories as they would like them told.

I knew that the success of this workshop hinged on integrating the Japanese American experience with the how-tos of Storytelling 101. Presenting the material in a relevant context would help participants internalize the concepts and release their ideas into words. I also suspected that healthy doses of offbeat humor would lighten and facilitate the learning process for an audience comprised of educators, medical professionals, attorneys, and amateur historians.

The workshop participants shared a common goal—kodomo no tame ni, to write “for the children.” In the winters of their lives, they chose to tell their stories on their own terms. Forthright and candid, they knew that their words were the most priceless legacies. One observer asked these novice writers how they found the courage to reveal so much about themselves. One participant answered for them all when he replied, “I want my grandchildren to know the truth.”

The new voices recorded crossroad moments, human drama, and the value of small acts of kindness. Succinct and uncensored, they spoke of how one teacher’s arbitrary change of a little girl’s name shaped the six-year-old’s resolve always to have her voice heard; how a ten-year-old boy experienced loss when the FBI interned both his parents; and how a young woman valued the simple social courtesies shown to her by strangers.

The workshop participants and I wish to extend our thanks to Alanna Lin Ramage and the Friends of the Little Tokyo Branch library, Los Angeles Public Library Senior Librarian James Sherod, and Readings & Workshops (West) director Jamie Asaye FitzGerald. Their support was instrumental in helping new writers preserve the stories of lives well lived.

Support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the California Arts Council, a state agency, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photos: (top) Naomi Shibata giving an introduction at the culmination reading (Credit: Jamie Asaye FitzGerald). (bottom, left to right): Irma Fukumoto, Adeline Manzo, Hagiko Kusunoki, Vice President of the Friends of the Little Tokyo Branch Library Ron Hirano, Ray Saruwatari, Naomi Shibata, and President of the Friends of the Little Tokyo Branch Library Alanna Lin Ramage (Credit: Jamie Asaye FitzGerald).

An Evening at the Bryant Park Reading Room

Program assistant for Readings & Workshops (East) Ricardo Hernandez blogs about an evening at Bryant Park’s Reading Room series in New York City, co-curated by Poets & Writers.

Since 2003, the Reading Room at Bryant Park has hosted established and emerging poets at an “open air” reading series held in the heart of Manhattan. This summer, the Readings & Workshops program was offered the opportunity to co-curate an evening of this series. Against a backdrop of jugglers, double-decker buses, and the New York Public Library’s Main Branch, Oliver Baez Bendorf, Elana Bell, Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, and Duy Doan shared their work.

Opening the evening, Baez Bendorf read poems from his book, The Spectral Wilderness (Kent State University Press, 2015), many of which interrogate and obfuscate masculinity. In one, the speaker directed us to call him, “giddyup and Tarzan, riot boy/ and monk, flavor-trip and soldier and departure,” each image bucking against what Judith Butler, quoted in the poem’s epigraph, calls “the ambivalent process” of identification.

Next, Bell read one poem written from a hilltop overlooking the settlement of Neve Daniel on the West Bank, dedicated to a woman named “Amal, whose name means hope.” With a piercing eye, the speaker outlines the differences between herself, who has “never drunk rain/ collected from a well dug by [her] own hands,” and Amal, who “moves/ through her land like an animal” and “laughs with all her teeth,” resulting in a tender ode to domesticity and diversity.

Boyce-Taylor read from her latest collection, Arrival (Northwestern University Press, 2017), which tells the story of a recently immigrated Trinidadian girl, her parents, and her stillborn twin brother. In one of the most poignant moments of Boyce-Taylor’s reading, the speaker imagines a moment of kindness in the womb, before her twin’s death: “He handed me the soft bread of his lips. ‘Sell it if you ever need shelter.’ Then he was gone.”

Bringing the reading came to an end, Doan shared poems from his manuscript, We Play a Game, selected by Carl Phillips for the 2017 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize. In the poem “Love Trinkets,” Doan’s speaker presents his experiences with love in a poignant litany, detailing lovers who had spurned him; who had deceived him; and one who “was kind, so kind, in kissing/ [him] at all.”

Poets & Writers is thankful for the opportunity to collaborate with the Reading Room, and a special thanks to each of our featured readers!

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 the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photo: (left to right) Duy Doan, Oliver Baez Bendorf, Elana Bell, and Cheryl Boyce-Taylor (Credit: Ricardo Hernandez).

Poets & Writers’ Connecting Generations Sixteenth Annual Intergenerational Reading

Christine Penney is newly retired. She is excited and daunted by discovering her voice again in writing through P&W–supported workshops at Goddard Riverside Community Center’s Senior Center in New York City, where she worked as a program coordinator for fourteen years. Many moons ago, she cowrote a one-woman show “Kaethe Kollwitz Presents a Brief History of Modern Art,” and performed it in New York City. Acting in theatre, television, and films in the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City spanned her early years. She raised a brilliant and deeply loved and admired daughter, Kalen Wheeler, in a railroad apartment on the Upper West Side, who is her greatest support.

The Poets & Writers’ Connecting Generations Sixteenth Annual Intergenerational Reading took place on Saturday, June 17 at Barnes & Noble at Union Square in New York City.

Poets & Writers began this event in 2001 to celebrate the work of elders and teens, who have participated in writing workshops supported by the Readings & Workshops program throughout New York City. It began in a community room at Goddard Riverside Community Center’s Naturally Occurring Retirement Community program with ten readers and has grown to thirty-five plus readers.

The age span for the participating readers this year was about fifty years. The seniors were from Goddard Riverside Community Center, Stanley Isaacs Neighborhood Center, Grand Street Settlement, Kew Gardens Community Center, Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center, and the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College in collaboration with Siloam Presbyterian Church. The young adults were from Union Square Slam, Urban Word NYC, and the Capicu Cultural Showcase and La Sopa NYC, the School of Poetic Arts.

For fourteen years I worked behind the scenes as a program director at the Goddard Riverside Community Center. From the time I was hired to the time I retired, Poets & Writers has supported writing workshops with seniors in this community; inspiring writers of a population seldom heard, whose lifetime of experiences could just as well have dissolved into airy nothing, if not for these workshops.

I would peek through the small window of the art room intrigued by these writers and their rapt attention as they listened to each other’s work. Outside looking in through the door, I could feel their churning minds, imagination, and their deep desire to tell their stories before time ran out. I longed to be among them.

When I retired, I entered the writing workshop. The challenge brought me back to my own creative roots, brought me back to me, and renewed my sense of purpose. I got to read my work for the first time in public and it was thrilling.

This year’s Intergenerational Reading featured issues of immigration, race, sexual identity, domestic abuse, parenting, and love.

Some highlights included a sestina of thumping political injustice by Suzanne Pavel, and lines of poetry from others. In “As a Teacher, I Use My Heart,” Brendan Gellette wrote: “I pull it out in the classroom, leave it on the table.” “Another heart vanished into a steamy mirror, as her father entered,” is how my piece “Bath Time” ends. “You’ll thank me for this some day. And took out his belt and buckle,” wrote George Schirmann. In I. S. Jones’s poem (to be published in Anomaly, formerly Drunken Boat) she wrote: “You break me with love because this is your inheritance, a family heirloom.”

Protesting vaginas and slamming sexual confusion rapped out in beats, contrasted with the quiet rhythmic grace of Tony Morris’s piece: “Behold, time is a precious thing. But when you must, answer the call.” Even Marilyn Monroe showed up in a fictional piece by Kathy Wilson, where Marilyn phoned another actor humbly asking if he was available to rehearse a scene for a Lee Strasberg class.

Young or old, we took our moment, whether unapologetically flinging it out with the raw, passionate urgency of youth, or tiptoeing softly to the end, quietly speaking our truth. The style did not matter. Let no one shut us up about what we see or what we feel, no matter what age, what race, what country, what disability, or sexual orientation we have.

“It made me feel alive, brought me back the anger and injustice I felt as a young adult. Bravo to the young folks’ vulnerability and grit,” said one senior.

“I think it’s a fantastic idea that P&W brings together this wide range of poets in terms of age, race, gender, and life experience. As an emerging poet, it gives me a lot of hope to read alongside seasoned poets because in this particular craft, we play the long game. It gives me hope that if I stay true to myself and what I need out of my work, that I will be alright,” said I. S. Jones.

To return to my creative core is a blessing and the best part is finding a community of like-minded people to share this new discovery with. Thank you to my friends in the writing group, to our loved and trusted workshop facilitator Elena Alexander, and to Bonnie Rose Marcus, director of the Readings & Workshops (East) for inviting me to write this blog. And thank you Poets & Writers for this gift, offering us a platform to express ourselves, listen to others, and learn!

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 the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photos: (top): Christine Penney and her daughter Kalen Wheeler (Credit: Margarita Corporan). (bottom): Readers and host Regie Cabico (Credit: Margarita Corporan).