Archive January 2018

West Seattle’s WordsWest Literary Series

WordsWest Literary Series is curated by poets Katy E. Ellis and Susan Rich, and novelist Harold Taw. All three live in Seattle, where they came together over their parched need for a reading series in their community of West Seattle. Ellis is the author of three chapbooks: Night Watch (winner of the Floating Bridge Press 2017 Chapbook Competition), Urban Animal Expeditions (Dancing Girl Press, 2013), and Gravity (Yellow Flag Press, 2015). Below, she writes about the inventive format of the WordsWest Literary Series and how it played out at an event last fall with P&W–supported writers Robert Flor and Roberto Ascalon.

WordsWest Literary Series—now in its fourth year of programming—was honored to celebrate Filipino American History Month by welcoming two outstanding local writers of Filipino descent, Robert (Bob) Flor and Roberto Ascalon, to the stage. As cocurator Harold Taw mentioned in his introduction, both writers are “Uncle Bobs” in a culture that gives great respect to the words and lessons of previous generations, and that acknowledges the importance of family and really good food!

One of the unique things about WordsWest is its trademark “braided” reading format, where writers take turns reading in short intervals. Both audience and readers get to experience a sense of spontaneous collaboration on stage. (It’s a “living anthology” of words unfolding in a never-to-be-duplicated fashion right before your eyes!) So, Flor and Ascalon traded off reading their poetry in five-minute segments, weaving their poems together with fascinating connections of common history that branched into current themes of what it means to be “home and away” in this country.

Roberto Ascalon was a stunning reader. The audience was on pins and needles as he took us into a Filipino fish market full of magical sensory images and strong characters. His love poem moved us with its unique form that didn’t quite rhyme, but felt like a song in its turning back and repetitions, and gorgeous images of seeds and growing. Bob Flor read from his chapbook Alaskero Memories (Carayan Press, 2016) about life in Alaskan canneries in the 1950s and 1960s. It is invaluable to have someone like Flor share his past experiences not only as a Filipino American with current ties to the Philippines, but as an older gentleman with an eye for details that only a poet can put down on paper. In one touching moment on stage, when the writers first traded turns at the mic, Ascalon acknowledged Flor’s age and life experience, and noted how honored he was to be reading with a Filipino elder. It was a lovely, intimate exchange between writers, between their poems. 

Another unique part of a WordsWest Literary event is the West Seattle Favorite Poem Project, wherein we invite a member of the West Seattle community to share a favorite poem and tell us why it’s a favorite (think Robert Pinsky, U.S. poet laureate 1997–2000). On October 18, we heard a favorite poem from Alexis Acciana of Reading Partners, an awesome organization that connects volunteers with kids who struggle with reading. Acciana gave us a lively, lovely reading of Billy Collins’s poem “On Turning Ten.” The favorite poem portion of WordsWest has been a great way for people who don’t usually connect with poetry to get involved in the literary arts (and to promote their local business or to raise awareness of their cause).

Our WordsWest “braided reading” format, our dedication to inviting writers of diverse experience and cultural background, the cozy, one-of-a-kind coffeehouse atmosphere at C&P Coffee Company, community participation, and an audience now reliant on monthly literary nourishment has made WordsWest an ongoing success!

Support for Readings & Workshops in Seattle is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photos: (top) Roberto Ascalon and Robert Flor (Credit: Donna Miscolta). (bottom) Two “Uncle Bobs” reading (Credit: Donna Miscolta).

Teen Writers Find Their Creative Voices

Christine Adler is the president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA) and former editor of Inkwell. Her articles, essays, poems, and book reviews have appeared in various print and online publications throughout the Northeastern United States and Canada. She has an MFA in Writing from Manhattanville College, and is represented by Ann Leslie Tuttle of Dystel, Goderich & Bourret LLC. Adler leads the Teen Creative Writers Workshop at Somers Library in Somers, New York, and is currently at work on her second novel.

The Teen Creative Writers Workshop at Somers Library was created for teens who love to write, those middle and high schoolers who’d tell you writing is their thing. We cover all genres—essays, fiction, fan fiction, poetry, you name it. We wanted to create a safe setting for writers where they can share their work and receive constructive feedback, while learning how to give helpful critiques to each other. We also discuss various genres and how to strengthen important elements in each one.

When a new writer attends the workshop for the first time, we talk briefly about how to give and receive feedback. This way, everyone knows we’re using the same guidelines and have the same goal in mind: to help each other improve. I give the group a prompt and have them write for a few minutes. Each student is then invited to share and read what they’ve just written, or read something they’ve brought with them. I also read what I write from the prompts and solicit feedback from the group.

Every writer knows it can be hard to separate your work from yourself, especially when opening up to criticism. If someone is still shy about reading, I ask them to trade work with another writer in the group and read each other’s work aloud. This gives the students an opportunity to experience reading to a group, and also helps illustrate that the critiques are focused on the writing, and not on the writer.

By far, my most rewarding experience as a teacher has been witnessing the enthusiasm expressed by the students. When we get into a discussion about books, or writing, or characters’ motivations they become so animated. It’s exciting to have them ask if we can meet weekly instead of biweekly, or if we can continue the workshop over the summer. Their interest shows me that they truly value the time spent, and enjoy learning the craft. I know they won’t all go on to become writers, but there was nothing like this for me in high school. If there had been, I might have had the confidence to start my writing career earlier in life. I love that I can be a resource to help these students start sooner if they wish.

Leading a group of young writers has greatly influenced my own art too. One thing I emphasize to the members is that we’re never done learning, in writing or in life. We can always improve. I’m strong at dialogue, but weaker at character development and world-building. Many of the teens write fantasy, and as a result are world-building wizards. I’ve learned a lot about world-building from them, and I often leave the workshop, go home, and dive into my work-in-progress. We share tips and tools with each other, encourage one another to keep writing, and together, we see our work getting better. For a writer, there’s nothing more inspiring.

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.

Photos: (top) Christine Adler (Credit: Alex Lindquist). (bottom) Teen Creative Writers Workshop participants (Credit: Tara Ferretti).

The Journey

Brian Evans-Jones immigrated to southern Maine from Hampshire, U.K. in 2014. He received his BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Warwick, U.K., and was poet laureate of Hampshire, U.K. from 2013 to 2014. He received his MFA from the University of New Hampshire in 2016. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Outlook Springs, Stoneboat Literary Journal, and the Cafe Review. Evans-Jones is a juried teaching artist in both Maine and New Hampshire, and teaches poetry and creative writing in schools, colleges, and community venues.

You are a poet—or you think you are: perhaps you have never been sure. After all, you don’t have the four or five books to your name that you thought you’d have by now. A couple of competition wins, an award or two, yes, but no book. It seems so complicated, so difficult, this business of getting published. You live in a small town, in a rural state, far away from the publishing centers of America; the editors and poets who throng there seem so far above you.

But you try. You enter awards, send to magazines. The magazines all say no. In April, you get a missed call, a New York number—probably a scam. There is a voicemail, from “Bonnie.” It’s not a scam. You have won Poets & Writers’ Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award—you are going to New York City.

Six months later, you arrive. The buildings are enormous, the streets teeming. You meet Bonnie Rose Marcus, director of Readings & Workshops (East) and the Writers Exchange, tiny and beaming, and go out for dinner with Joan Dempsey, the fiction winner, who fast becomes a good friend. Your nerves are tingling; you almost dread the thought of meeting your first guests tomorrow, these poets who have made it, who have books and books; these editors of famous magazines. What will you ask them, that won’t sound ridiculous? Will they look down on you, will they expect you to know all the poets and trends that you don’t?

Morning comes. Bonnie guides you; the streets seem less alien. The first meeting is with Patricia Carlin, poet and editor. You meet at a coffee shop, get a quiet table in the corner. You’re so nervous, you can’t remember what you said. It doesn’t matter. She’s gracious, interested, friendly. You talk about assembling collections, the benefits and downsides of small presses and regional presses, places to network. She asks if one of your winning poems is available for her magazine, and gives you her card.

Now you feel better. This is going to be okay—maybe even fun. In the next meetings, with agents and other fiction folk, you relax. From the sidelines, you see that all these people—big, important New York City people—are just people: interested in writers, passionate about literature, interested in you.

At dinner, editors from A Public Space, Four Way Books, and Hanging Loose Press discuss magazine life, small press life, poetry. You see that editors simply want their work to be thoughtfully read, the same as you do. Submissions, you realize, can be not a battle, but a communication—maybe even an offering. Someone will like your work—if you take the time to learn what they like first.

The days zoom by. Breakfast with a writer, coffee with an agent, lunch with another writer, tea with a publisher. You grow comfortable with the routine, with the city, with the important New York folk. You meet the president of Farrar, Straus and Giroux and feel entirely at your ease. You love hearing gossip about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Kate Angus tells you eight small presses she thinks would appreciate your aesthetic. The tour of the New Yorker offices is unforgettable.

Suddenly, it’s the end. You’re going home, to your small town, your green and quiet state. Nothing has changed there—but when you sit in your placid town library, New York feels close. You start work on your manuscript. You are a poet. You are ready.

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

Photos: (top) New York City skyline (Credit: Brian Evans-Jones). (bottom, left to right) R&W fellow Sreshtha Sen, R&W program assistant Ricardo Hernandez, R&W (east) director Bonnie Rose Marcus, 2017 WEX fiction judge Tania James, Joan Dempsey, Brian Evans-Jones, and 2017 WEX poetry judge Cynthia Cruz (Credit: Margarita Corporan).