From Poets & Writers, Inc.

Strengthening California’s Literary Network

Since 1970, connecting writers with other writers and with the broader literary community has been at the forefront of Poets & Writers’ work, and in California we’ve been actively engaged in community-building for more than three decades. For the past several years a grant from the California Arts Council’s Statewide and Regional Networks program has allowed us to host gatherings of writers throughout the state, including roundtable meetings designed to connect writers and literary presenters with information, resources, and one another, as well as retreats that bring together writers who lead workshops for underserved groups like veterans, teens, survivors of domestic violence, and formerly incarcerated individuals.

When the pandemic brought in-person gatherings to a halt, Jamie Asaye FitzGerald, director of Poets & Writers’ California office and Readings & Workshops (West), organized a series of online meetings designed to strengthen the state’s literary community, virtually. “In designing these virtual town hall meetings and check-ins, I tried to re-create the experience of an in-person meeting—to deliver the same benefits, as much as possible, of being together in a room, and to create a space for dialogue,” FitzGerald says. “The goals of these meetings are to foster community and strengthen connections, facilitate an exchange of information and resources, encourage literary activity, educate and inform, and share information about the resources Poets & Writers offers, including our mini-grants in support of virtual readings and workshops.”

FitzGerald notes that while pivoting from in-person to virtual events presented challenges, it also offered an important benefit: Distance was no longer an obstacle. 

“In many ways the move to online programming has really opened things up,” she says. “Because anyone anywhere can host or attend a virtual event, being tied to an urban center is no longer make-or-break for literary events. We are finding that virtual events—both those we host and those we support with mini-grants—are allowing us to engage people and spur literary activity in parts of the state that have previously been harder for us to serve.” Before the pandemic FitzGerald organized meetings to serve specific regions of the state. From her home in Los Angeles, she recently hosted a virtual town hall meeting that was open to writers and presenters of literary events all over California. “The meeting drew participants from as far as San Francisco and Butte County,” FitzGerald says. “One writer from El Dorado County, which is three hours inland from San Francisco, told me how excited she is that she can now attend events in any part of the state online.”

While these gatherings are designed to foster community that in turn advances literature, FitzGerald notes that they also provide opportunities to support the California literary community on a basic human level. “Police violence against people of color, especially Black Americans, rising hate crimes against Asian Americans, raging wildfires in California that are a clear result of climate change, family separation at the border, and incarceration of immigrants—these are issues of vital importance to many of the writers we serve, some of whom are directly affected by them,” FitzGerald said. 

As wildfires ravaged California just as the pandemic was at its peak, FitzGerald organized a virtual town hall meeting titled “Poetry in Times of Crisis,” which featured Lucille Lang Day and Ruth Nolan, coeditors of Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California (Scarlet Tanager Books, 2018), and Molly Fisk, editor of California Fire & Water: A Climate Crisis Anthology (Story Street Press, 2020), who spoke about the power of poetry to connect, inspire, and transform in times of crisis. Following a surge of hate crimes in the spring of 2021, FitzGerald organized a meeting titled “In Solidarity with Black and Asian American Communities Against Violence” that offered important resources for both communities and featured poets Michael Warr and Chun Yu. One attendee commented: “Events like these, which bridge communities, cultures, and causes, is how we build our power both as poets and a larger society.” 

Connections made at these gatherings often lead to collaboration. Notes FitzGerald: “I just learned that Mojave Desert Literary Laureate Ruth Nolan and Los Angeles Poet Laureate Lynne Thompson are collaborating on a project after connecting at a P&W meeting. It’s always wonderful to see these real-world connections take shape.” While she looks forward to hosting in-person events again once the pandemic threat recedes, FitzGerald believes that virtual programming is here to stay: “In-person events will be important to encourage and cement local connections, but virtual events will be the connective tissue for writers across the state.” 

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