Archive December 2017

An Industry of Writers and Our Greatest Freedom: A Snapshot From the New York Literary Scene

Winner of the 2017 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award for fiction from Poets & Writers, and one of the “5 More Over 50” debut authors in the November/December 2017 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Joan Dempsey is the author of the novel, This Is How It Begins (She Writes Press, October 2017). She received an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles and was the recipient of a significant research grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. Her writing has been published in the Adirondack Review, Alligator Juniper, Obsidian: Literature of the African Diaspora, and Plenitude Magazine, and aired on National Public Radio. 

On a crisp, clear October morning, the three of us hustled down Vesey Street in Lower Manhattan, not wanting to be late for our meeting with Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at the New Yorker. We hurried past chain-link fences, shrouded to obscure what remains undone in the wake of 9/11. We waved away hawkers who propositioned us with memorial tours. We tried not to think about going up thirty-eight stories in the One World Trade Center building.

I was in Manhattan as the winner for fiction of the 2017 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, which includes an all-expenses-paid whirlwind tour of the New York literary scene. Brian Evans-Jones, the winner for poetry and a fellow Maine resident, kept pace beside me. Both of us trotted along after Bonnie Rose Marcus, director of Readings & Workshops (East) and the Writers Exchange, who kept us on schedule as we rushed from one meeting to the next.

By the end of our six days, we’d gathered with nearly thirty people working in the literary world. The meeting with Treisman came on our second morning, but in hindsight it feels like the culminating event because it so well personifies the collective spirit of the week.   

The guard in front of the revolving doors at One World Trade Center tried to shoo us down the block, assuming we were there for the 9/11 tour. We stated our purpose and were suddenly inside the cavernous lobby, the ceiling an impossibly high sixty-five-feet overhead. Other guards scrutinized our IDs, photographed us, carefully searched our bags, and ushered us through the metal detectors. We made nervous small talk, each of us keenly aware that we were heading up into the sky that used to house the twin towers.

The New Yorker offices are as lovely as you might imagine: walls lined with framed cartoons and magazine covers, books and papers everywhere, the distinctive Irvin typeface gracing the signs that indicate who inhabits each office. Walls of glass abound, maximizing the sweeping views out to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty and all the way uptown to the Empire State Building.

In Treisman’s office, she encouraged us to step right up to the window to get the full view; it was impossible not to think about those who had jumped. Far below, the twin reflecting pools occupy the footprints of the original towers. We talked about editing Alice Munro, the significance of fiction, and the gravity of fact-based journalism during the Trump era. “It’s no secret that we’re not fans of Trump,” Treisman said fiercely. I felt a similar fierceness—an urgency—in each of our meetings, an undercurrent of purpose that writers in gentler times are spared.

As we toured the New Yorker offices, a few people glanced up and smiled, but most were assiduously tending to their work. The quiet buzz of dedicated, brilliant, and creative industry I felt in that office was echoed in every other meeting that week. It filled me with a sense not of comfort, exactly, but of certitude. Literary artists continue to use words as writers have always used words: to speak truth to power, to inspire and bear witness, to exercise our greatest freedom. I am proud to be among them.

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

Photos: (top) Joan Dempsey and Brian Evans-Jones at the New Yorker offices (Credit: Bonnie Rose Marcus). (bottom) Joan Dempsey and Brian Evans-Jones with judges for the 2017 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award Tania James and Cynthia Cruz (Credit: Margarita Corporan).

Making Ourstory

Nancy Agabian is the author of Princess Freak (Beyond Baroque Books, 2000) and Me as Her Again: True Stories of an Armenian Daughter (Aunt Lute Books, 2008), which was honored as a Lambda Literary Award finalist for LGBT Nonfiction and shortlisted for a William Saroyan International Prize. Her novel manuscript The Fear of Large and Small Nations was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Agabian teaches creative writing at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University and for Heightening Stories, a series of community-based writing workshops online and in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, New York where she lives.

Sitting at a folding table at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, I worry that I am not queer enough. Some of the texts I’ve brought in to teach the Creative Writing From Queer Resistance workshop feel like old friends, read long ago, but others I haven’t even read yet. We will consider them each week on what I conceive as a timeline of queer liberation: Stonewall; feminist lesbian liberation; AIDS and Act Up; trans, bi, and gender/sexual fluidity; and marriage equality. But isn’t categorizing ongoing activism into History with a capital H decidedly not queer? And how am I an expert on resistance? I’m a forty-nine-year-old bisexual cis woman still healing from an abusive relationship six years ago, undergoing menopause, and caring for my elderly parents. How will I speak to the young people who sit around the table with me?

We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.  —Audre Lorde

The gallery walls are hung with images of naked bodies. Workshop participants, women and nonbinary, introduce themselves. A pattern emerges: They want to reconnect with their writing. They have felt alone in the current political moment. They have wanted a place where they can be all of who they are—in race, culture, religion, and identity—and where queerness is not the otherness in the room. Someone asks, “When we discuss the texts, do we have to analyze them, or can we talk about the feelings and experiences they call up in us?” Over the next few weeks, our conversations crackle and spiral, one person’s thoughts inspiring a response in someone else; people want to talk about their lives with each other as much as they want to write. 

The danger in writing is not fusing our personal experience and worldview with the social reality we live in, with our inner life.... What validates us as human beings validates us as writers.  —Gloria Anzaldúa

Halfway through the workshop, someone brings pumpkin chiffon cake on the evening we discuss Hunger (HarperCollins, 2017) by Roxane Gay, and it’s an experience. So is Gay: We have three other texts to discuss, but her descriptions of what she feels she deserves and doesn’t deserve in the way of love, as a survivor of gang rape, is enough for us. Someone says, “What she says about sexual violence in relation to queerness is something we don’t always want to admit.” We talk about accepting sexuality not as fixed biology, but humanity. Something shifts in me; I let go of my fear and find my purpose in holding the space.

My warmth was hidden until I found the right people with whom to share it, people I could trust.... —Roxane Gay

When someone asks, “Can we read non-American or non-Western texts?” I ask for their input. At our final workshop two folks bring in a nonfiction story called “The Woman Who Loved Women” from The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices (Anchor, 2003) by Xinran, and a science fiction short story called “The Worldless” about a genderless future by Indrapramit Das. As the pair discusses what compelled them about each piece, I realize that we all make our own queer herstories, shaped by the spaces we form together. The words of the authors we have read these past weeks are actually in conversation with us...and we speak back to them.

You will read words...that don’t ring true to you. Please, take a pen or pencil and cross them out. Write in a word you like better. And when that word doesn’t work for you anymore, use another word. —Kate Bornstein

Part of ourstory is language, which shifts and changes as we speak and write. As workshop facilitator, I strive to not take up too much room, but my feelings and experiences belong to our queer writing space too. As someone in the workshop says, “Showing up here is an act of resistance.”

The Creative Writing From Queer Resistance workshop will read from their work on Wednesday, December 6 at 6:30 PM at the Leslie-Lohman Museum in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood. For more information about the reading, please visit the events page.

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: Taken during rehearsal at the Leslie-Lohman Museum, (top) Nancy Agabian, (middle) Priya Nair, (bottom) Katrina Ruiz (Credit: Maria Jose Maldonado).