Sehba Sarwar's Voices of the Displaced

October writer-in-residence Sehba Sarwar blogs about Voices of the Displaced, a workshop led by P&W-supported Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB). A writer and multidisciplinary artist, Sarwar uses her poetry, prose, and video/art installations to explore displacement and women’s issues on a domestic and global level. Her first novel, Black Wings, was published in 2004, and she is currently working on a second manuscript tentatively entitled "Island."

In the spring of 2003, I began co-facilitating a Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB) writing workshop with another Pakistani poet Shaista Parveen. At that time, VBB was still young—we were in our third year and I had recently quit working at a high school, where I had been teaching creative writing and journalism. I didn’t have much salary in those days and my only income was through workshops that VBB writers and I taught at local schools.

Though I had fun with teenagers, I wanted to work more with adults. So Shaista and I began planning a workshop that spoke to the rootless-ness we both felt, whether we were in Karachi, Houston, or somewhere else. Shaista and I dedicated much thought to our workshop title—just as VBB co-founders and I had spent time honing in on the right title for “our” organization three years earlier. We finally agreed on “Voices of the Displaced,” a title that rang true for us. It also attracted a pool of Houston-based writers who were born in other countries or elsewhere in the United States, who had come from communities of color, or identified themselves as GLBT/queer. Project Row Houses offered us a meeting space and co-sponsored the series. We sent out emails inviting people to join—VBB didn’t even have a website at that time. Our first group was intimate with only six participants, but over time, the group expanded. We always brought food and drinks and our gatherings offered formal writing but also a sense of community.

VBB’s Voices of the Displaced series lasted about two years, ending a few months before my daughter was born. But once the formal workshops ended, a group of us filled the void by forming a writing/performance group, Displaced Corps. For another year, we met weekly to write, critique each other’s work, and perform together.

Since that initial spurt of adult workshops and then subsequent break, VBB has gone back to offering writing workshops for educators and students. We also continue working on the issues we explored through Voices of the Displaced by producing theme-specific multidisciplinary shows such as Politiqueer, Artists/Mothers and What’s Color Got to Do With It?

Often I think about the title of our group and recognize that the feeling of “displacement” is true of communities not just in Houston but also in urban spaces around the world. To live in the same city as our grandparents, attend the same schools and colleges as our parents, or stay in the neighborhoods in which we were born is becoming rare. Human migration and movement makes the recording of memories and family stories precious and so much of VBB’s work continues to be focused on revisiting histories through different lenses, capturing neighborhood stories, and teaching workshops that create connections between the past, present, and the future.

Photo: Sehba Sarwar (right) with another workshop participant.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Houston 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.

Kill Your Darlings

10.10.12

Revision is often the hardest part of writing—and, some writers say, a craft all its own. As an exercise in this craft, revisit an essay you've written and try to both significantly cut down the length and restructure the piece, while maintaining the story. We tend to tell stories as they occurred in life, but a narrative can often become mired in chronology. As you restructure, move things around, play with the order, and don't be afraid to get experimental. As for trimming the length, take Faulkner's timeless editorial advice: "In writing, you must kill all your darlings."

Sehba Sarwar's Looking Beyond the Surface News

October writer-in-residence Sehba Sarwar blogs about P&W-supported Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB), a Houston-based alternative arts organization. A writer and multidisciplinary artist, Sarwar uses her poetry, prose, and video/art installations to explore displacement and women’s issues on a domestic and global level. Her first novel, Black Wings, was published in 2004, and she is currently working on a second manuscript tentatively entitled "Island."

Sehba SarwarIn Pakistan, September 21, 2012, was marked as a day of remembrance for Prophet Mohammad in response to a film that went viral and sparked violence in parts of North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Knowing that the time difference between Houston and Pakistan was ten hours, I began checking online Pakistani newspapers as soon as I awoke. By the end of twenty-four hours, more than twenty people had been killed and six cinema houses had been burned. Meanwhile, progressive and secular communities that formed Pakistan’s majority were posting comments asking why extremists weren’t using their energies to offer help to the southern part of the country, where floods once again disrupted lives.

Two days after the protests, I received an e-blast from an Islamabad-based arts organization, Kuch Khaas, announcing screenings of selected best films from FilmSaar International Children’s Film Festival, and of course, in Karachi, T2F had resumed its regular programming. Life was returning to normal—something that must happen since flare-ups are part of daily living all around Pakistan.

More than ever, I appreciate that even though I’m based in Houston, I’ve woven my work so that I remain connected to alternative art and communities in Pakistan. The reality that I know is not reported in mainstream media. Sensationalist news always makes headlines, but I believe it’s also important to write about an independent arts organization screening children’s movies—despite the burning of cinema halls. Many organizations and independent artists in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Iraq continue to do the same, and their realities exist parallel to the deaths and protests that are reported to outside communities.

Through my work with Voices Breaking Boundaries, we create productions that juxtapose art and images from Pakistan and Houston so that our audience can find parallels between the two places. The purpose of these productions and workshops is to open space for innovative art from Karachi and Houston while also breaking down stereotypes about the issues we research. Further down the road, VBB is looking to expand research into other countries, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Mexico, so that our audiences can experience art from unexpected communities about issues that are largely unknown. Using digital space and live performances to create alternative productions is even more critical in these times, when divisions in the world are more fractured. As Patti Smith said, in her 2010 visit to Houston: “We create art to illuminate.” As artists and writers, it’s important for us to dig deeper beyond the surface news—all around the world.

Photo: Sehba Sarwar. Credit: Emaan Reza.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Houston 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.

2012 National Book Award Finalists Announced

The National Book Foundation announced the finalists for the sixty-third annual National Book Awards today. Among the most prestigious literary honors in the United States, the awards are given for books published in the previous year.

The finalists in fiction are Junot Dí­az for This Is How You Lose Her (Riverhead Books), Dave Eggers for A Hologram for the King (McSweeney’s Books), Louise Erdrich for The Round House (Harper), Ben Fountain for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco), and Kevin Powers for The Yellow Birds (Little, Brown).

The finalists in poetry are David Ferry for Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations (University of Chicago Press), Cynthia Huntington for Heavenly Bodies (Southern Illinois University Press), Tim Seibles for Fast Animal (Etruscan Press), Alan Shapiro for Night of the Republic (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), and Susan Wheeler for Meme (University of Iowa Press).

The finalists in nonfiction are Anne Applebaum for Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956 (Doubleday), Katherine Boo for Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (Random House), Robert A. Caro for The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 4 (Knopf), Domingo Martinez for The Boy Kings of Texas (Lyons Press), and the late Anthony Shadid for House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

The finalists were announced this morning by the chairman of the National Book Awards, David Steinberger, on the MSNBC program “Morning Joe.” The year’s selections include writers both emerging and established, with two of the finalists representing debut works. “We are particularly pleased that the finalists include some of the most well-known literary names in America and new names and faces to the National Book Awards,” Harold Augenbraum, the executive director of the National Book Foundation, said in a statement.

The winners—one each in fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and young people’s literature—will be announced at the National Book Awards benefit dinner and ceremony in New York City on November 14. They will each receive $10,000, and all finalists will receive $1,000. Elmore Leonard, whose most recent novel is Raylan (William Morrow, 2012), will be awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. New York Times chairman and publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr. will receive the Foundation’s Literarian Award for Outstanding Contribution to the American Literary Community.

Publishers submitted 1,285 books for the 2012 awards, including 311 in fiction, 479 in nonfiction, and 181 in poetry. The finalists are selected by four panels of judges, comprised of distinguished individuals in the literary community. Established in 1950, the New York City-based National Book Foundation gave the first annual National Book Award to poet William Carlos Williams; William Faulkner received the award in fiction the following year. Recent winners have included fiction writer Jesmyn Ward, poet Nikky Finney, and nonfiction writer Stephen Greenblatt. The Foundation also recently released the recipients of the 2012 5 under 35 awards, which honor emerging writers under the age of thirty-five.

You Know What I’m Saying: Luis Rodriguez’s Ongoing Odyssey

On September 23, P&W-supported poet and creative nonfiction writer Luis Rodriguez gave a reading and talk at the Fullerton Public Library in Fullerton, California. P&W’s Andrew Wessels reports.

As Sunday afternoon temperatures climbed toward triple digits, a large crowd gathered in the comfortable confines of the Fullerton Public Library’s new Community Room. Families, teachers, and high school and college students waited for the arrival of Luis Rodriguez, author of Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. and director of Tía Chucha’s Centro Cultural, in Sylmar, California.

Greeted by applause following Gustavo Arellano’s introduction, Rodriguez began his reading neither with an excerpt from one of his books nor an anecdote about his life in particular. Rather, Rodriguez began by connecting his life and the lives of everyone in the audience to Homer’s Odyssey. The connection made, though, was to Odysseus’s son Telemachus rather than the famous hero. Rodriguez wanted to talk about the process of maturation and growth, the process of finding one’s way in life.

Rodriguez read from two segments of his newest book, It Calls You Back, about the incarceration of his oldest son and his own attempts to confront his failings as a father. The first excerpt told the story of his wife’s youth, in which she chose to break free of a patriarchal family situation and become disowned in order to move away for college. The second excerpt was from a letter his son wrote shortly after being released from prison, when he was looking to redeem himself in the same way Rodriguez did from his youthful failings.

The focus on youth and maturation was the major theme of the reading. Instead of giving a straightforward reading, Rodriguez focused his energy on delivering a message: one of help and healing rather than incarceration and punishment. As a reformed gang member whose subsequent life has been dedicated to fighting gang violence and developing opportunities for inner city at-risk youth, Rodriguez’s stories carried the weight of experience and triumph.

Throughout the event, Rodriguez peppered his anecdotes—of gang life, becoming a father, finding his writing voice, and being redeemed through the guidance of dedicated mentors—with two phrases: “You know what I’m getting at” and “You know what I’m saying.” The intonation of these phrases was simultaneously a question and a statement. This duality seemed to be at the heart of Rodriguez’s message, to be simultaneously open and forceful, accepting and strong. At the end of the question and answer session, Rodriguez challenged the entire audience to provide positive opportunities so that all youths can “pick their trouble” through reading and knowledge rather than streets, gangs, and violence.

As Rodriguez left the podium and made his way to the table to sign books, nearly the entire audience gathered in a line that almost encircled the Community Room. As Rodriguez signed books and spoke to each of his readers, it was clear that his words and his works had, like he asked from all of us, created “a space to fail, to heal, and to redeem.”

Photo: Luis Rodriguez (right) signs books for fans. Credit: Andrew Wessels.

Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Natan Fund Launches Nonfiction Book Award

The Natan Fund, a New York City-based foundation that supports Jewish nonprofit organizations and creative projects, has introduced a new award for nonfiction writers. The Natan Book Award will annually give a Jewish writer a prize of $50,000 for a work-in-progress.

The prize money will be given in two stages: an initial award of $15,000 will be given to an individual writer to support the writing process; the remaining amount will finance the book’s marketing and publicity. Nonfiction books on Jewish themes, written in English, which have an existing publishing contract with a recognized commercial or academic publisher, are eligible.

The Natan Book Awards are currently open for submissions. Authors or publishers may nominate books by December 3. Author and Atlantic Monthly staff writer Jeffrey Goldberg and New Republic journalist and editor Franklin Foer will co-chair the award committee, which will announce the winner in April 2013. 

At a recent celebration for the Natan Fund’s ten-year anniversary, New York Times columnist David Brooks announced the launch of the new award. “The Natan Book Award provides Natan a vehicle for bringing its support for creative and meaningful new initiatives into the intellectual arena,” Brooks said. “In ten years of grantmaking, Natan has helped to galvanize innovation across the Jewish and Israeli social sectors. The Book Award will leverage that experience on behalf of a gifted author with groundbreaking ideas.”

The Natan Fund seeks books that focus on issues of Jewish life, history, community, and identity for the twenty-first century, and which reflect “the changing notions of individual and collective Jewish identity” throughout the world.

According to the Natan website, the publisher of the selected book must agree to work with Natan on marketing and publicity strategies—however, the guidelines state, “the award is intended to complement, not replace, the publisher’s marketing efforts.” 

Since it was founded in 2002, the Natan Fund has awarded over 7.7 million dollars to 128 social entrepreneurs and emerging nonprofit organizations. Visit the website for complete submission guidelines and more information on the inaugural Natan Book Awards.

Sehba Sarwar on Houston's Voices Breaking Boundaries

October writer-in-residence Sehba Sarwar blogs about P&W-supported Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB), an alternative arts organization. A writer and multidisciplinary artist, Sarwar uses her poetry, prose, and video/art installations to explore displacement and women’s issues on a domestic and global level. Her first novel, Black Wings, was published in 2004, and she is currently working on a second manuscript tentatively entitled "Island."

Sehba SarwarThis month, as Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB) launches our thirteenth season, I’m reminiscing about Fall 1999, when my friend Marcela Descalzi asked if I wanted to do anything before the start of the next millennium. At that time, Houston offered few options for new writers, performance artists, and grassroots activists.

“I want to create a space for artists to share work about issues that matter to us,” I said. “I also want to perform a poem about political events unfolding in Pakistan, my home.”

We formed a collective, inviting three other women writers and artists—Christine Choi, Donna Perkins, and Jacsun Shah—to join us. Dedicating hours in coffee shops, we finally agreed on Voices Breaking Boundaries as our group’s name. Our logo was the globe viewed from the southern Hemisphere. We wanted to offer a new lens through which to experience the world and to create space for artists and audience members from different backgrounds to gather, share art, and learn from one another.

Without thinking of the outcome, I submitted a grant application to the Houston Arts Alliance and was awarded $4,500. We decided to use the funds to print postcards and pay honoraria to artists. Each of us was teaching at that time, so we didn’t pay ourselves even though we performed at the shows. During our first year, we created monthly lineups in a local bookstore, featuring performance poets, academics, high school students, capoeira dancers, and drummers. In February 2001, after our collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and Himal South Asia (Nepal) to offer a South Asian film festival, we knew we had to respond to our audience and incorporate VBB into a nonprofit arts organization.

VBB Living Room ArtFast forward to Fall 2012. I’m still writing and now draw a salary as VBB’s salaried artistic director. Over the years, VBB has received free performance and exhibition space and has collaborated with many other organizations, including Arté Publico Press, Project Row Houses, DiverseWorks, and Inprint, Inc., and has featured artists such as Arundhati Roy, Bapsi Sidhwa, and Patti Smith—all while continuing to tackle some of the most controversial issues of our times. We have carved a niche for our unique productions, living room art, through which we convert residential homes into art spaces and use the experience to create connections between Karachi, my home city, and Houston, where I’ve lived for some time. The productions, elaborate one night flares, meld spoken word, music, performance and videos with installations.

And around us, more communities of color and artist initiatives have sprung up. Any given weekend, one can cull from an array of choices to experience art. The city is “minority-majority,” serving as a prediction of demographic shifts across the United States. There’s still much work to be done and sometimes I feel challenged by how often we circle back to the same issues: immigrant rights, women’s reproductive rights, education awareness, racial stereotyping, and the United States' role in global conflicts. But at the same time, I’m grateful for the support VBB continues to receive from arts organizations like Poets & Writers. Looking back at 1999, I couldn’t have predicted where our collective would land. I do know, however, that in the wide expanse of Houston, the United States, and the world, there’s room for many more artist initiatives—and that our story speaks to the urgent need for more alternative voices to converge.

Photos: (Top) Sehba Sarwar. Credit: Emaan Reza. (Bottom) Fall 2011 living room art production Third Worlds: Third Ward/Karachi. Credit: Eric Hester.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Houston 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.

Rona Jaffe Foundation Announces Writers' Awards Recipients

The Rona Jaffe Foundation has announced the winners of its 2012 Writers’ Awards. The annual awards honor six emerging women writers of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. Each winner receives $30,000.

This year’s recipients include poet Lauren Goodwin Slaughter of Birmingham, Alabama; fiction writers Julia Elliott of Cayce, South Carolina, Christina Nichol of Sebastopol, California, and Rachel Swearingen of Kalamazoo, Michigan; and creative nonfiction writers Kim Tingley of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Inara Verzemnieks of Iowa City.

The late novelist Rona Jaffe established the awards program in 1995, in order to support women writers in the early stages of their careers. Since then, the program has given more than one million dollars in prize money to over a hundred women.

“This is an extraordinary and ambitious group of women writers,” Beth McCabe, the director of the awards program, said in a press release of the 2012 winners. “They are original, inventive, provocative, and daring. They are taking risks, challenging conventions, and tackling their material with a sense of humor, brio, and confidence beyond their years.” 

Recipients of the awards are nominated by writers, editors, teachers, critics, and other literary professionals. A selection committee is appointed by the foundation annually, and all nominators and committee members remain anonymous. 

“All of our winners are working to complete their first books and for many this will be the first opportunity in their careers to free themselves temporarily from financial worries to focus on their writing,” McCabe added. “This is what Rona had always hoped to achieve with her program and it’s wonderful to see the impact it has had on these writers’ lives.” 

Rona Jaffe was the author of sixteen books. Her most recent novel is The Room-Mating Season (Dutton, 2003). Her first novel, The Best of Everything, originally published by Simon and Schuster in 1958, was reissued by Penguin in 2005, the year that Jaffe passed away.

Past winners of the awards have included writers such as Eula Biss, Rivka Galchen, ZZ Packer, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, and Tracy K. Smith. The 2012 winners will give a reading at New York University in New York City on September 21. For more information about the winners, and about the Rona Jaffe Writers’ Awards, visit the website

Dream Interpretation

9.26.12

Sometimes our dreams tell a story about our lives. Think about a dream you’ve had—it could be a recent one, one that you recall from your past, or one that recurs. Write down the details of the dream as descriptively as your memory allows, focusing on imagery, narrative, characters, and any odd or distinct details you can recall. Once you’ve written a description, freewrite about what the images, characters, and details remind you of from your waking life. Then, using the material you've generated, write a short essay about the dream. What do you think it meant? What experiences or emotions did it represent? Did it seem real or otherworldly? How did it made you feel upon waking? For future dream analysis exercises, keep a dream diary by your bed and record your dreams first thing each morning.

David Mills’ Poetic Arithmetic, Kooky Koans, and Redemptive Communion

David Mills has taught several P&W–supported workshops at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center in Chicago. He is author of the poetry collection The Dream Detective (Straw Gate Books) and has poems in the anthology Jubilation! (Peepal Tree Press) and magazines, including Ploughshares and jubilat. Mills is also the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship.

What is your writing critique philosophy?
Most of the workshops I conduct are with kids, so I always write on the board “2+2=57,” which means for the hour that I am with them, I don’t want them to worry about spelling or grammar because obsessing over “crossed Ts” could mean losing a moment of genius.

How do you get shy writers to open up?
I try to present a model poem that will spark both conversation and creativity. I remind the students that poetry is not on Mount Parnassus. It’s right t/here, wherever we happen to be geographically and psychically. I make self-deprecating jokes to put them at ease and let them know everything is poetic fair game.

I sweat, so I’ll say: “I sweat while I swim. Use that. ‘How can this guy sweat while he swims?’”

I have abstract expressionist penmanship, so I’ll say: “I write like a blind man with five broken fingers. How’s that possible for a poet?”

I don’t want them to write about my idiosyncrasies, but I hope that by framing them as kooky koans the kids will access their own creative centers.

What has been your most rewarding experience as a writing teacher?
Workshops like the ones P&W sponsored at the Cook County Juvenile Detention come to mind. In one visit, I used Randall Horton’s poignant and ironic poem “Poetry Reading at Mount McGregor (Saratoga, NY).” During his own incarceration, he could never have imagined voluntarily returning to a prison, yet in the poem that’s exactly where he finds himself.

I discuss redemption.

What happens for Randall in his poem is what I hope will happen for these kids. Writing gave him a raison d’etre. Horton writes: “tonight poetry is a sinner’s prayer,” and reflects on how when he was incarcerated he “searched for the… alphabets to help me escape.” He concludes the poem: “How do I say welcome me, I am your brother?”

I got misty-eyed as I read those lines. I think the boys felt what the poem was meant to evoke: union, communion.

There were gangbangers in the class from opposing gangs—African-American and Chicano-American. The teachers had warned that certain guys had to sit on opposite sides of the room. As we discussed the poem, guys started talking across “colors,” opening up. Teachers who weren’t part of the workshop stepped in and stayed.

I asked the guys to write about returning to a place—physically or psychically--that might be filled with pain, fear, anger, or an unresolved question. I asked them to describe it physically, but to then address the wound or fear to a person who had something to do with whatever unresolved feeling was back there.

One Chicano student described a town center in Mexico where an incident had occurred that caused his family to flee to the U.S. What happened to his family is less important than what happened to his peers as a result of his avowal. His poem gave his classmates both insight into and greater empathy for him.

What do you consider to be the benefits of writing workshops for special groups (i.e. teens, elders, the disabled, veterans, prisoners)?
I have only worked with male populations where posturing and bravura run deep. But given an opportunity to see that their vulnerability will not be used against them, these boys will open up. I think some of these young men feel—and sometimes rightfully so—like the words in Patricia Smith’s poem, “CRIPtic Comment”:

If we are not shooting
at someone
then no one
can see us.

There is the sense that these boys feel both seen and heard during our time together. In one of the P&W–supported Cook County Juvenile Detention workshops, I used Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”:

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
     flow of human blood in human veins.

Hughes’s piece has an epic reach—bodies of water of mythic, cultural, and historic proportion. I talked about Hughes’s “knowing.” I got the boys to write about things they knew intimately, using Hughes’ structure to organize their “knowing.” One participant wrote about the various sneakers he has “rocked”:

I’ve known Nikes, shell-top Adidas...

You get the idea.

Another student had lived in Illinois and Indiana, so he wrote about “knowing” distinct parts of these two states, both in terms of geography but also the “temperature” of different communities.

What's the strangest question you’ve received from a student?
I am pretty zany so no question strikes me as strange. I do get a lot of “Why do you sweat so much?”

Photo: David Mills. Credit: Luig Cazzaniga.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Chicago 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.

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