Archive January 2019

If We Just Listen, We Can All Hear Ghosts

For over a decade, Poets & Writers has cosponsored creative writing workshops at Hillsides Education Center, a therapeutic residential and day school that offers individualized education for students with social-emotional, learning, and/or behavior challenges in Pasadena, California. Last fall, poet Douglas Manuel returned to Hillsides for a second time to work with teens. Manuel is currently a Middleton and Dornsife Fellow at the University of Southern California where he is pursuing a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing. He has served as the poetry editor for Gold Line Press, as well as one of the managing editors of Ricochet Editions. His poems have been featured on Poetry Foundation's website and have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, the Los Angeles Review, Superstition Review, Rhino, North American Review, the Chattahoochee Review, New Orleans Review, Crab Creek Review, and elsewhere. His first poetry collection, Testify (Red Hen Press, 2017), won the 2017 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award for poetry. Below, Manuel reflects on his experience with one student who he calls C.

C is at least a full head taller than I am. His cropped blond hair looks even more yellow under the fluorescent lights of the library. I’ve mispronounced the word “thaumaturgic” while reading the class our example poem “canvas and mirror” by Evie Shockley. As soon as the word incorrectly leaves my mouth, C nearly yells to correct me and pronounce the word correctly. I thank him and keep it moving, trying not to smile and steal peeks at C following diligently along as we continue through the poem.

C is in the eleventh grade and is autistic. I’ve been told that he would rather come to my P&W–supported creative writing class than go to his other classes, so each week he comes to both of the Wednesday late morning sessions. Each time he returns for the second session he loudly greets me, and we shake up. All of the students at Hillsides mean so much to me, but I must admit that C is perhaps my favorite. Right now, as I think of his voice, my lips slip into a smile.

My last day with the students was on Halloween. I brought three Halloween poems for the students to imitate: William Shakespeare’s “Song of the Witches: ‘Double, double toil and trouble,’” Carl Sandburg’s “Theme in Yellow,” and Kiki Petrosino’s “Ghosts.” After reading through these poems together, I told the students to choose one poem to imitate. C chose “Ghosts” and asked if I would help him. So, I asked him what kind of ghosts haunt him. I told him that sometimes my dead mother stalks me and visits me when I need her. I asked him if he has any ghosts like that around. He began to tell me about how his favorite YouTube star McSkillet died, and revealed to me that sometimes McSkillet speaks to him in his dreams, and tells him it’s all right to be autistic and don’t mind when people make fun of him. I told C that everything he just told me would be perfect for a poem. He then looked directly at me and quickly began writing.

Every week, in both of the sessions he attends, C tries my assignments and writes. He usually writes very short poems, so in the second session on Halloween, I challenged C to write a poem that filled a full page in his small notebook, which has the character Dory from Finding Nemo on its cover. C gladly accepted my challenge and began scribbling. I watched him as I walked around the room to help other students with the assignment. All of the focus in his body was applied to this assignment. He never looked up from his journal. I had never seen him write for this long without talking to me or other students.

At the end of the class, C shared his McSkillet poem. When he was finished, the whole class was silent because C had never written about anything so serious before, had never been so honest before, or shown how self-aware he was before. He had never revealed how much he hated being labeled autistic, or told the class how much he hated it when people made fun of him.

All of the students at Hillsides mean so much to me, but I must admit that C is perhaps my favorite.

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) Douglas Manuel (Credit: Stephanie Araiza). (bottom) Hillsides librarian Sherri Ginsberg with Douglas Manuel (Credit: Jamie FitzGerald).

Dominican Writers Association Presents Julian Randall and Gabriel Ramirez

Mariela Regalado is a relambia who loves to tell stories, specifically about her experiences as a Dominican American growing up between New York and Santiago, Dominican Republic. As director of college counseling at Brooklyn’s Juan Morel Campos Secondary School, she was named Hometown Hero in Education by the Daily News for her work with students in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Her writing has appeared in Remezcla, Fierce, La Galería Magazine, Harvard Latinx Law Review, St. Sucia, the Manhattan Times, and the Bronx Free Press.

On December 20 the Dominican Writers Association, with support from Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program, hosted a crucial conversation centered on the idea that there are missing voices from the literary canon that deserve to be amplified. The decision to host the event at Word Up Community Bookshop, a multilingual, nonprofit community bookstore run by volunteers in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, was an easy one as they share many of the same values as the Dominican Writers Association, an organization created and run by writers of Dominican heritage in New York City that aims to support and foster the development of creative writers.

Writer and teacher JP Infante, who hosts a regular series at Word Up, led the conversation between poets Julian Randall and Gabriel Ramirez. The chairs were set up in a semicircle and the two guests sat in the center. Infante opened the conversation by introducing Julian Randall, a living queer Afro-Dominican poet from Chicago and MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Mississippi.

Randall’s debut poetry collection, Refuse (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), won the 2017 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. While browsing the shelves of new and used books before the event, I spoke briefly to Randall, who was wearing a burgundy T-shirt with white bold letters that spelled out the word REPARATIONS. I asked what reparations meant to him and he replied: “It means to me, a redress of grievances, a possibility for a new beginning.... There are certain ways in which we’ve been deprived; even of the ability to begin narratives where we would like to begin them. It means the ability to revise history.”

Gabriel Ramirez is a queer Afro-Latinx poet, activist, youth mentor at Urban Word NYC, and MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Mississippi. The first question of the night was: “What is a poet? What is the function of a poet?” Ramirez replied: “What isn’t a poet? What is it to be a breathing archive?” Ramirez’s work is moving and inspiring with intergenerational moments weaved carefully into his writing. His outfit that evening, a black-and-white checkered suit belonging to his late grandfather adorned with gold accessories that were made in the Dominican Republic, also paid homage to his roots.

The intimate conversation between these poets was shared with a kind audience who embraced them like family. There was a shared connection and a feeling of being seen, validated through the words of poets and writers who demonstrated through their stories and pieces that we are not alone.

Attendees were able to chime in during the conversation and asked for clarification in the answers given by Randall and Ramirez, and some were even comfortable enough to share their own anecdotes. I was filled with solid encouragement that there is a space for Latinx writers. To close the event, both Randall and Ramirez delighted us with a reading of their respective works, bringing to life the challenges and struggles they have both experienced as queer Latinx writers.

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) Mariela Regalado (Credit: NYC Toledo). (bottom) Julian Randall and Gabriel Ramirez with JP Infante (Credit: NYC Toledo).

2018 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Winner in Poetry: The Literary Community

Anushah Jiwani graduated summa cum laude from Hendrix College with a BA in English–Creative Writing and International Relations. She is the 2018 recipient of the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award (WEX) for poetry sponsored by Poets & Writers. She took honors in the 2017 Southern Literary Festival Competition and won third place in the statewide 2017 Jeannie Dolan Carter Collegiate Poetry Contest sponsored by the Poets’ Roundtable of Arkansas. Jiwani also won the Fourth Annual Short Fiction Contest sponsored by the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center in 2017. Much of her writing centers on the duality of her Pakistani American identity and aims to provide a space for the immigrant voice.

In May of 2018, I found out that I was the recipient of Poets & Writers’ Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award for poetry. In addition to a generous honorarium and a reading, Joshua Idaszak, the winner for fiction, and I would get the chance to meet with editors, authors, and publishers in New York City. Bonnie Rose Marcus worked tirelessly to arrange meetings, and welcomed us with open arms in November.

What I learned: editors, publishers, literary agents—they’re all just ordinary people. They want to know about you, and it’s as easy as one simple conversation. This prize creates the opportunity for that conversation to happen, with generous support from the team at Poets & Writers.

Through these conversations, many things became clear: internal relationships mattered, there would be little money in poetry, literary agents wanted novels over short stories, small presses are dedicated to their authors, and within all this business, community around writing was a precious thing.

Among others, I chose to meet with Paolo Javier, who works tirelessly to create community and accessibility around writing at Poets House, and Sarah Gambito, cofounder of Kundiman, who is seeking holistic points of entry and multidisciplinary forms for audience engagement.

These poets have been motivated by lack of opportunity or equity in the writing world, and are trying to create honest spaces for established and growing writers. We talked about embracing rejections, finding the right MFA programs, expanding community programs, the discipline required for publishing one’s work, and our love for literature.

As a writer, I learned an incredible amount about the inner workings of the literary world through this trip. But what was more significant, personally, was being able to connect with other writers of color who shared their experiences about navigating and succeeding in this sphere.

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

Photo: (left to right) Joshua Idaszak, 2018 WEX poetry judge Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, Anushah Jiwani, R&W (east) director Bonnie Rose Marcus, R&W fellow Arriel Vinson, and R&W program assistant Ricardo Hernandez (Credit: Christian Rodriguez).