From Poets & Writers, Inc.

Helping Writers Connect

Since 1970 the Readings & Workshops program of Poets & Writers has offered mini-grants to cover writers fees so that reading series coordinators and workshop organizers can pay writers for their work. In a typical year the program supports as many as two thousand events—more than five per day, on average. Over time the program has grown to include events presented in New York, California, and eight cities outside those states: Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, New Orleans, Seattle, Tucson, and Washington, D.C. 

Over the past five decades the program has helped writers connect with audiences in a wide variety of settings: community centers, public libraries, senior centers, homeless shelters, cafés, and bookshops. It has encouraged literary programming offered by a range of groups, from established cultural organizations to grassroots reading series and other informal entities. Along with payment, support from Readings & Workshops has offered writers encouragement and validation. 

In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person events, the fifty-year-old program faced a new challenge. Staff shifted their thinking to find new ways to support writers online: Program guidelines were modified to provide support for virtual events, and staff hosted online meetings for writers and literary presenters to share information as they adjusted to a new reality. 

In response to growing national demands for racial justice, the Readings & Workshops program looked for ways to help amplify the voices of writers who are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC). A new grant opportunity was created to support online literary events initiated by BIPOC writers living in Detroit, Houston, or New Orleans—the three cities that are the focus of United States of Writing, our initiative to empower writers and strengthen literary programming nationwide. To increase access to our grants and give writers full control of the programming, we offered grants directly to writers. (Typically, Readings & Workshops mini-grants require an organizational sponsor.) By eliminating that requirement, writers were able to take full advantage of the potential of online formats to reach audiences directly. 

Nineteen writers were awarded grants of up to $750 to support projects that would engage their communities online. Grant funds were used to compensate the project organizer as well as participating writers and to cover related production costs.

Spoken-word artist Ben Will of Detroit organized a comedy poetry slam aimed at overcoming communal trauma. From New Orleans, poet Daiquiri Jones moderated an online series in which local poets met to discuss race and place in their work. And from Houston, Reyes Ramirez produced and hosted “Houston Eyes, Silver Screens,” a three-part series for which writers of color read original work that responds to pop culture. 

“Paying writers of color to speak their truth in a pandemic was always my intention for this series,” says Ramirez, adding that the grant also covered the cost of providing English and Spanish subtitles, making the event accessible to a broader audience. 

Meanwhile, Poets & Writers literary outreach coordinators in Detroit, Houston, and New Orleans have also offered a range of online programs. Kelly Harris, P&W’s outreach coordinator in New Orleans, curated a reading to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina; in Detroit, Justin Rogers hosted an online reading with three poets who addressed the impact of the city on their work; and in Houston, Lupe Mendez hosted a reading with the theme Hope, Not Fear.

“Virtual events have proved to be a lifeline in these times of isolation,” says Bonnie Marcus, director of Readings & Workshops East. “But we’re hopeful that we can soon support in-person events again.” Jamie FitzGerald, director of Readings & Workshops West, agrees: “It is necessary that we find ways to maintain our connections through this time. For creative people especially, feedback and support are essential. Thankfully, that creativity has helped writers find ways to respond and thrive.” 

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The Readings & Workshops program is supported in part by New York State Council on the Arts, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and California Arts Council. United States of Writing is supported in part by the Hearst Foundations and Amazon Literary Partnership.