Archive September 2017

Traversing California on the Rural Libraries Tour

The Rural Libraries Tour is a result of a seventeen-year partnership between Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program and the California Center for the Book (CalBook), which sends writers into rural and underserved areas of California to teach creative writing workshops in libraries or at venues promoted by the libraries. Some workshops are bilingual (English and Spanish), some reach teens, and most reach all ages and types of people. As the eighteenth year of programming approaches, the participating writing instructors reflect on their experiences teaching these workshops.

Olga García Echeverría

My visits to libraries in rural areas of Southern California are always a special treat for me as both an educator and an artist. In my regular teaching job, I am used to working with students for an extended period of time. With the Rural Libraries Tour, I am often entering completely new spaces with people I will probably never see again. Yet, in every single workshop that I have conducted during the past nine years, I have felt very much at home. I believe this is because the love of words and the desire to create binds us, regardless of where we are and if we will meet again. The potential for meaningful connections via words and art (even in a short amount of time) is always possible.

My poetic spirit is nourished in amazing ways each time. We don’t just read and write, we share intimate parts of ourselves and, collectively, we create. It’s amazing how often participants linger past the workshop to express how much they enjoyed being able to tap into themselves and write something that surprises them. There is a glow about them that is familiar; I know that feeling of having created something and feeling empowered or proud. These workshops—they’re a dynamic exchange of creative energy and they always reaffirm my love of poetry and community.

Tim Z. Hernandez

I’ve driven the road to Hollister, California numerous times over the past several seasons that I’ve participated in the Rural Libraries Tour, but this time was special. After having just released my book, All They Will Call You (University of Arizona Press, 2017), based on the famous 1948 plane crash that killed twenty-eight Mexican migrant workers, I knew I was returning to a community that not only knew the realities of migrant life very well, but more than that, Hollister is positioned on the western slope of the very canyon that the plane crashed down on—Los Gatos Canyon.

I was visiting with students, most of whom had come from migrant farm working families. They had never heard of this story before, but felt an immediate connection to it. They were rapt, and we conversed and shared stories for what seemed like hours. The most beautiful part came in the final minutes when students began asking if one of the passengers on the plane was named Rodriguez. And then another asked about the name Martinez. Another still wanted to know if there was a Ruiz who was killed. They were each going to go home and share this story with their parents. Perhaps they too were related. This is the power of stories, I nodded to myself. I never know what exchange will impact the people I get to work with, as well as myself. But always, I leave feeling grateful.

Susan Wooldridge

I’m happiest when people of all ages and ethnicities appear at workshops. Including the California border towns of Imperial and Crescent City, I’ve visited small libraries tucked in Markleesville, Placerville, Alturas, Yreka, Etna, and Weaverville (in the Trinity Alps), Susanville and Quincy where, always, surprisingly gifted youngsters, teens, and adults appear with their pens and their souls waiting for expression. Most recently, twenty people gathered on round tables at the Shasta Library in Redding.

Our workshops together have welcomed me into the heartland of California as part of a larger mission: to bring love of language to small-town California. I’ve been heartened and changed as part of our years-long, far-and-wide endeavor. I feel delight and honor and, hey, almost “credible!” I feel held and loved by the support and camaraderie (not to mention pay!) provided by Poets & Writers and the California Center for the Book. These years of sessions nourish and transform my own writing. My (almost finished!) book about land and language includes many chapters about experiences and revelations in small libraries—“Damien’s Waterfalls” (South Lake Tahoe), “Sublime Limes” (Colusa), and “Cesar Stealing Words” (Williams), to name a few. Our rural libraries outreach adds a wildly colorful dimension to my writing and life.

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.

Photo 1: Olga García Echeverría (Credit: Maritza Alvarez). Photo 2: Tim Z. Hernandez (Credit: Tim Z. Hernandez). Photo 3: Susan Wooldridge (Credit: Shannon Iris).

The Kindness of Strangers: Spencertown Academy Arts Center’s Festival of Books

Jill Kalotay has been supporting the Spencertown Academy Arts Center as a volunteer for the past ten years. In 2015 she accepted the position of cochair of the Festival of Books with David Highfill, an executive editor at William Morrow, and she joined the Spencertown Academy Board of Directors in 2016.

It is important to me to support the arts, and particularly authors, since my daughter Daphne announced at the age of three that she wanted to be a writer. She has shown me what hard work it is, and how steep the climb to success is in today’s market. The annual Festival of Books, presented by the Spencertown Academy Arts Center, is a way to feature writers and focus on books—and to help ensure that they will be here for some time to come.

Housed in a beautifully restored 1840s Greek Revival schoolhouse at 790 State Route 203 in Spencertown, New York, the Spencertown Academy Arts Center is a cultural center serving Columbia County, the Berkshires, and the Capital region. It offers a variety of free and low-cost community arts events, including concerts, readings, theater pieces, art exhibitions, and arts-related workshops and classes.

For the past twelve years, the Festival of Books has been a major fund-raising event for the Spencertown Academy Arts Center. Subtitled “All Things Literary,” the festival provides a stage for authors to talk about their new books, poets to read from their collections, and high school students to read their prizewinning short stories and essays, entered earlier in a contest we sponsor in conjunction with the festival. (You can read the winning entries here.)

The three-day event takes place over Labor Day weekend, and also features a huge book sale, with over ten thousand donated books on offer. “The best books sale in the area,” according to many visitors. All the books are culled, cleaned, and sorted by Academy volunteers—those book lovers who want to get as many books as possible out into the world and bring in money for the Academy so that we can keep our doors open for one more year. Typically all of the authors come without promise of remuneration.

This year, we hosted an amazing array of artists, and five fiction writers were generously supported by grants from the Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program.

Wesley Brown read from his Dance of the Infidels, a collection of related stories about jazz musicians (mostly real) and jazz lovers (imagined) in 1930s and 1940s New York City jazz clubs.

Rebecca Morgan Frank read from her collection, The Spokes of Venus, and spoke about the inspiration for her poems, in which magicians, wig makers, sculptors, perfumers, and choreographers help conjure these works about making and observing art.

In spite of the incessant rain beating on our tent, on one of the worst days of the summer, Elinor Lipman and Louie Cronin shared the stage for a session called “If These Walls Could Talk.” Lipman’s latest book, On Turpentine Lane, is a romantic comedy about a restless woman who impulsively buys a dilapidated house that soon reveals a mysterious past. Everyone Loves You Back, Cronin’s very funny first novel, features another house in dire need of repair, this one in Cambridge. Town and gown meet again!

Patricia Park read from her novel, Re Jane, set in the disparate worlds of Queens, Brooklyn, and Seoul during the early 2000s. In the novel, Jane Re, a Korean American woman (and orphan), lives with her aunt and uncle in Queens, and feels like an outsider. Park’s animated talk provided glimpses of her own background in Flushing, Queens and described some of the difficulties in getting her novel onto the TV screen. Actor and producer Daniel Dae Kim is adapting the book as a half-hour comedy series.

For the past five years we have been operating as an all-volunteer organization. We rely totally on all the volunteers, donors, sponsors, and kind artists who support us with their valuable time and talents. We are so grateful! And especially thankful to Poets & Writers for their financial backing of writers and events such as ours.

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program in New York is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, with additional support from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photo: Spencertown Academy Arts Center’s Festival of Books (Credit: Peter Blandori).

Writing Workshops as Healing Circles

Bobby González is a nationally known multicultural motivational speaker, storyteller, and poet. Born and raised in South Bronx, New York, he grew up in a bicultural environment. González draws on his Native American (Taino) and Latino (Puerto Rican) roots to offer a unique repertoire of discourses, readings, and performances that celebrates his indigenous heritage.

At the beginning of the first in a series of six “Spoken Word 101” workshops at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, I made it clear that I wasn’t going to teach anyone to be a better poet or spoken word artist. We were gathered to support each other as we explored the world of spoken and written word. For inspiration we read and discussed some of the verses of Aja Monet, Charles Bukowski, Nanao Sakaki, Sonia Sanchez, and other authors. Also, every session included the viewing of a YouTube video of these poets reciting their works.

This was the fifth year of the summer workshops at the Bronx Museum, and the participants quickly realized that we were creating in a safe zone. They wrote and shared poetry that disclosed family secrets, personal tragedies, racial angst, and heroic triumphs. The writing and the sharing was an integral part of their ongoing healing process. Tears were shed, voices were raised in anger, and a couple of emotional recitals were reciprocated with huge hugs.

Each session of “Spoken Word 101” resulted in the formation of a family that transcended reading, writing, and performing. Like all families, losses were experienced. Within the last few months, two members of our family passed away. Steve “Latin Gorilla” Lewis and Robert Waddell both died suddenly. We paid tribute to them in open mic readings and reminded ourselves that their thoughts and spirits will live forever in our hearts and in the poetry they left behind.

Through “Spoken Word 101” we all relearned language, dramatic articulation, and the wonder of allowing ourselves to bare our vulnerabilities with friends we barely met but already knew we could trust. That’s the power of poetry. The Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program provides vital financial support for a literary series in an underserved community that is greatly appreciative of this empowering experience.

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) Makeba Higgins, Dara Kalima, Damien Tillman, Bobby González, and Rosa Velez (Credit: Maria Aponte).