Archive April 2018

Taylor Mali on Page Meets Stage

A four-time National Poetry Slam champion, Taylor Mali is one of the original poets to appear on the HBO series Def Poetry Jam and is the author of two collections of poetry and a book of essays, What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012). He is the founding curator of Page Meets Stage, a monthly poetry series in New York City that pairs two poets to perform a conversation through their work.

How did Page Meets Stage begin? What was your inspiration?
The inspiration for the series actually started with Billy Collins. I’ve been a fan of his work for years and now consider him a mentor. In the early 1990s, I used to write him a fan letter every couple months or so, and every letter ended with an invitation for him to come read at a poetry slam series that I used to help curate at the Bowery Poetry Club. In 2005, after a decade of these letters, he finally agreed, and he had a wonderful time. I suggested that we arrange another reading with just the two of us and call it “Page vs. Stage.” He liked the idea, and somewhere along the way in planning the format for the night, we decided that it would be interesting if we went back and forth, poem for poem, perhaps having a conversation through our work.

The reading was a great success, in part I suspect, because of the unique format, which the audience loved. Since then, we’ve had several different pairings of poets, always with one representing a more performative style of poetry and the other, more literary. Currently, I work with Mahogany L. Browne, April Ranger, and MaryCae to produce the show once a month and we are still at the Bowery Poetry Club!

What have the challenges been to sustaining such a long-running program?
Promotion has always been the issue. There’s always something good to watch on TV, and people seem happy these days to sit in a comfy chair for a few hours with only their smart phones (I know because I’ve been that person). It’s an awful feeling when you craft a spectacular pairing—with two poets who don’t know each other but whose work blends together in just the right way—and then only two people show up for the show! We’ve had some wonderful pairings that were so poorly attended that I’ve been tempted to call it quits.

Has your mission or your vision for the organization changed over the years? What’s most important for you right now?
In the beginning, I was probably on a mission to garner more respect for spoken word poets. I wanted to show the world that spoken word poets are just as concerned with craft as the next poet; but they understand that how you read a poem is also important. In the thirteen years we’ve been around, the line between page and stage has been bent in some places and blurred in others. There are former slam poets who are finalists for the National Book Award like Danez Smith, university professors such as Patricia Smith and Jeff McDaniel, and even Pulitzer Prize winners and Guggenheim fellows such as Tyehimba Jess.

Furthermore, we’ve had about six poets who have done both sides of the pairing, stage the first time and page the second. So these days, we don’t care quite so much about labels. We just try to craft a great night for people to hear great poetry.

What has been your most rewarding experience as a curator and organizer?
There have been a lot of great pairings and some fantastic ones coming up as well, but a couple of moments have stuck with me. I got to share the stage with Galway Kinnell before he died. Back then we also traded poems during readings so Galway read one of my poems, and I performed his poem “The Waking” from memory, which takes five minutes to recite and is probably the longest poem I’ve ever memorized.

I’d also been trying to get my friend Saul Williams to participate for years, and I finally got him to agree in 2014. I asked what his dream pairing would be, and he said, “Without a doubt, Carolyn Forché.” As luck would have it, I had just taken a workshop with Carolyn, so I was able to set it up. That’s a pairing I would never have concocted on my own, but it remains one of my favorites.

What’s next for the series?
I am hesitant to even mention this because it’s still months away, but two of my favorite poets, Ocean Vuong and Sharon Olds, are scheduled to read together on Sunday, October 28, which will be very exciting.

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) Billy Collins and Taylor Mali in 2005 for the inaugural reading of the series (Credit: Taylor Mali). (middle) Clint Smith and Elizabeth Acevedo (Credit: Taylor Mali). (bottom) Saul Williams and Carolyn Forché (Credit: Taylor Mali).

 

Between the Starshine and the Clay: Kamilah Aisha Moon at Spelman College

Sarah RudeWalker is a poet and an assistant professor of English at Spelman College specializing in Rhetoric and Composition. Her scholarship focuses on the literature of African American social movements, and she is currently finishing a book manuscript on the rhetoric and poetics of the Black Arts Movement during the 1960s and 1970s. Her creative and scholarly work has appeared in Pluck! The Affrilachian Journal of Arts & Culture, Callaloo, and Composition Studies.

With the renewed support of Poets & Writers this school year, the Department of English at Spelman College has been able to deepen our offerings to the Atlanta University Center (AUC) and West End communities in Atlanta by featuring readings and workshops with brilliant African American women poets. This March, poet Kamilah Aisha Moon kicked off what we call “Lit Week,” a week of events coordinated by Spelman College faculty member and noted poet Sharan Strange and Spelman literary scholar Dr. Michelle Hite. The events aim to highlight the possibilities for art and activism that spin out from the dedicated study of English.

Moon, currently an assistant professor of poetry and creative writing at Agnes Scott College, is a Pushcart Prize winner, Lambda Award finalist, and Cave Canem fellow with two published books of poetry: She Has a Name (Four Way Books, 2013) and Starshine & Clay (Four Way Books, 2017). The Poets & Writers–sponsored events with Moon on March 26 included a craft talk and workshop for student writers, and an evening reading for the community.

Moon spent the afternoon talking about craft, inviting students to consider the power of their creative work to “bear witness.” This power, she observed, depends on the writer’s ability to practice craft with attention and empathy. One of the worst things we can do to each other, she observed, is to render someone invisible, and writers, who purposely aim to be “mirrors of treachery and glory,” have the power to do just the opposite: to help us see each other, and especially to see the familiar in a very different way. Moon invited students to interrogate this potential in their own work by presenting her work with disarming vulnerability, sharing early drafts and asking students to critique the choices that led to the final versions of her poems.

The reading that evening was lovingly intimate and set up in Spelman style: Audience members entered to find Moon seated at a candlelit table and listened to a recording of the a capella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock as they waited for the reading to begin. Moon opened the reading by noting that although she was never a student at Spelman herself, she fondly remembers the AUC as social stomping grounds for her and her friends. The reading that followed was exemplary of what can happen when the work of a black woman poet is honored within a black women-centered space.

Moon read from Starshine & Clay, whose Lucille Clifton-honoring title is meant to cover a lot of ground—the world of the personal and the public, of the grief and love and joy that exists between the starshine and the clay. Reading her poem “The Emperor’s Deer,” which she first wrote for Michael Brown, she asked the audience to hear it as mourning for the recently murdered Stephon Clark. Reading from the book’s third section, the author asked the audience to acknowledge the ways that personal traumas and historical traumas are intricately connected, to recognize that both the joy and pain of the personal persist while a public trauma blazes and burns. “I never read these,” she admitted, smiling.

We at Spelman commit to continuing to make spaces like these that invite this kind of intimacy between author and audience, especially in ways that honor the work of black women writers. We hope that Kamilah Aisha Moon knows that she has a home here, “on this bridge between / starshine and clay.”

Support for Readings & Workshops in Atlanta 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) Kamilah Aisha Moon (Credit: Sarah RudeWalker). (bottom) Spelman College students with Moon (Credit: Sarah RudeWalker).

Short Story Essentials: Tapping Into the Power of Scene

Allison Alsup’s short fiction has been published in multiple journals and won multiple awards including those from A Room of Her Own Foundation, New Millennium Writings, Philadelphia Stories, and most recently, the Dana Awards. Her short story “Old Houses” appears in the 2014 O’Henry Prize Stories and has since been included in two textbooks from Bedford/St. Martin’s: Arguing About Literature: A Guide and Reader and Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers. Alsup received an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College, and is the recipient of artist residencies from the Aspen Writers Foundation and the Jentel Foundation. In 2017, she and several colleagues launched the New Orleans Writers Workshop, through which she currently teaches community-based creative writing workshops.

I’ve taught writing for most of my adult life, but community classes, particularly fiction workshops, occupy a special place in my heart. Unlike college classrooms or graduate programs, community classes cast a wide net, attracting a spectrum of writers of all ages, diverse backgrounds and experience. Suddenly a cross section of people that might not otherwise connect gather around a table with a single common purpose: to transform seething, raw images and words into comprehensible, moving stories. Here the CPA rubs shoulders with the waitress, the civil servant with the entrepreneur, only to find that when it comes to the vagaries of the human heart, they have more in common with one another than they might have otherwise thought.

Thanks to a recent grant from Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program, I had the chance to witness firsthand the tremendous material such community classes can generate, even in a limited amount of time. Short Story Essentials met for three Monday evenings at a local public library in New Orleans. Though the class was aimed at adults, the library was designed for children. Despite low tables and tiny chairs, and thanks to a steady supply of ginger snaps and tea from head librarian Linda Gielac, we managed to tackle a pretty big idea when it comes to crafting story: how to write compelling scenes.

Each week, we talked a bit of shop and about technique, but the bulk of our time was spent in heavily guided exercises that began with pre-writing, specifically with take no prisoner questions centering on character, motivation, conflict, and stakes. Together these answers helped to clarify what can stymy even the most advanced of writers: a scene’s given function in the story’s overall arc. What followed was a sustained writing period that alternated between gentle nudging on my part about juggling details around setting, movement, interiority, backstory, and dialogue, and brief periods of silence during which participants scribbled at record speed.

Great scenes require both conceptual understanding as well as gusto. Between meetings, many writers used their time to their advantage, typing up rough drafts and revising with an eye towards clarifying choices on the page. Sessions were designed to be sequential with each week’s scene building upon the last. As a result, every writer left with a substantial chunk of story, and in some cases, a complete work.

It would be hard for me to exaggerate the importance such a series has on my own writing. I can think of little else that hones my own understanding of scene more than creating, from scratch, an exercise that leads writers from a given premise through its complication to its apex. Nor can I imagine greater inspiration than listening to the plethora of rich storylines that result: a hitherto loyal employee who, due to a chance mistake, ponders a life of embezzlement; a mother who must shatter her teenage daughter’s naïveté about a nefarious uncle; an immigrant cab driver who must confront his past war crimes. Thanks to Poets & Writers, these stories and more are well on their way.

Support for Readings & Workshops in New Orleans 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) Allison Alsup (Credit: Allison Alsup). (bottom) Sean Gremillion and Asha Buehler (Credit: Allison Aslup).