Digital Dialogue

12.12.13

Conveying how people communicate is a formidable challenge for the creative nonfiction writer because technology has changed—and continues to change—the very fundamentals of human interaction. Describing a series of e-mails or texts relates far less emotional information than depicting a verbal conversation in which a writer can chronicle facial expressions, voice inflections, and other physical details that inform the exchange between characters. But this is our modern reality. Write about an occasion in your life that exemplifies the shortcomings of communicating in the digital age. Capture the sensations of frustration, humor, and confusion that often dramatize miscommunication.

Poetry Foundation Launches New Criticism Prize

The Chicago–based Poetry Foundation has established a new annual award for poetry criticism. The $7,500 Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism will honor book-length works of criticism published in the previous year, including biographies, essay collections, and critical works that consider the subject of poetry or poets.

Submissions are currently open for the 2014 prize, which will be given for a work published in 2013. Publishers may submit books for consideration by February 1. There is no entry fee.

“This must be one of the great historical moments for poetry, as there are so many thriving poetry presses, reading series, and astonishing new poems,” said Poetry Foundation president Robert Polito in a press release. “The Poetry Foundation supports poets through Poetry magazine, our website, and a Chicago reading series, among numerous other ways, both public and behind-the-scenes. But we also are deeply engaged by conversations about poetry, and this award for an outstanding critical book is an exciting addition to our roster of poetry prizes.”  

Books may be submitted for consideration using the online submission form, and must include the author name, title, publisher, and publication date. Two copies of the final book should be mailed to the Poetry Foundation, Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism, 61 West Superior Street, Chicago, IL 60654.

The winner of the inaugural prize will be celebrated at an awards ceremony on June 9, 2014, in Chicago.

The Poetry Foundation’s annual poetry awards include the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, which is given to honor a living U.S. poet for lifetime achievement; and the newly expanded Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowships, which recognize the work of five young poets.

The Inevitability of Change

12.5.13

You are not the same person today that you were five years ago. We all change. Creative nonfiction seeks to explore not only the changes we experience as human beings, but also how those changes impact our relationships with family members, friends, and lovers. Our lives are shaped by joy, disappointment, triumph, and loss. Write about someone you love who has changed due to a particular life event. Examine this individual’s shift in attitude, behavior, and demeanor. Write with humanity.

A Child's Thanksgiving Day

11.28.13

Writing about life from a child’s perspective is challenging. We remember the feelings, thoughts, and concerns we experienced as children, but as writers of creative nonfiction, we must recreate that world and make it accessible to adult readers. Use Thanksgiving Day as a source of inspiration. Watch how the children in your family interact with one another, the adults, the food, and other holiday activities. Write five hundred words that describe Thanksgiving Day from a child's unique point of view.

James McBride Wins National Book Award

Last night at a ceremony in New York City, James McBride received the National Book Award for his novel The Good Lord Bird, published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, this past August.

Victoria Will/Associated Press

A surprised McBride took the stage and said that he had not prepared a speech, as he hadn’t planned on winning. Considered the underdog of the shortlist, he beat out finalists Rachel Kushner, for her novel The Flamethrowers; Jhumpa Lahiri, for her novel The Lowland; Thomas Pynchon, for his novel Bleeding Edge; and George Saunders, for his short story collection Tenth of December. Charles Baxter, Gish Jen, Charles McGrath, Rick Simonson, and René Steinke judged.

McBride, the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir The Color of Water and the novels Miracle at St. Anna and Song Yet Sung, said he wrote his latest novel, about the journey of a young slave in the 1850s, amidst the death of his mother and the dissolution of his marriage.

The poetry award went to Mary Szybist for her collection Incarnadine, published by Graywolf Press. George Packer won in nonfiction for The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The award in young people’s literature went to Cynthia Kadohata for The Thing About Luck.

Maya Angelou received the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, a prize that was presented by Toni Morrison. E. L. Doctorow received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. 

The winners of the National Book Award each received $10,000. The awards are given annually by the National Book Foundation for works of literature published in the previous year.

Keys to Memories

11.21.13

Keys are a sad part of life. They remind us that the world is untrustworthy and unsafe, and that locks are needed to protect our loved ones and possessions from humanity’s less appealing inclinations. But keys are also filled with memories: a first apartment, a new car, access to a home no longer occupied by a friend. Choose a key from your keychain, or perhaps one abandoned in the back of a kitchen drawer, and write six hundreds about it. Begin with a detailed description of the key and segue into broader, more meaningful thoughts.

Instigator of Enlightenment: Juvenile Hall Librarian Amy Cheney

Amy Cheney is a librarian and advocate who has served preschoolers, middle schoolers, adults in county and federal facilities, students in juvenile halls, non-traditional library users, and people of color for over twenty-five years. Cheney has brought numerous writers—including Jerry McGill, Deborah Jiang Stein, Jesse De La Cruz, Luis J. Rodriguez, Cesar A. Cruz, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and Ron Glodoski—to conduct readings, writing workshops, and talks with the youth she serves at California's Alameda County Library Juvenile Hall. P&W has been supporting these programs for over a decade.

Cheney's six-word memoir is: "Navigator of insanity, instigator of enlightenment." Her theme songs are "Short Skirt, Long Jacket" by Cake and "I Can See Clearly Now" by Jimmy Cliff. For more information, follow her blog, Reaching Reluctant Readers.

Amy Cheney and visiting writersWhat makes your organization and its programs unique?
The Alameda County Library Juvenile Hall is a partnership between the public library, the county schools, and the Juvenile Justice Center to serve incarcerated youth.

When we first began the program, 81 percent of the youth said they had never heard a published author speak or read their work.

After authors visited the facility, 60 to 90 percent of the youth wanted to read their book or learn more. Sixty-three percent say they learn something new from author visits.

What’s the most moving or memorable thing that’s happened as a result of an event you’ve organized?
Seeing students, who haven’t had positive reading experiences in the past, wanting to read and reaching for the book (as well as having enough of the books to give them) is consistently memorable and moving.

How do you find and invite writers?
It's a process of intention, reading, research, networking, and luck. There were several artists that P&W helped us fund, who were little known at the time.

Walking home one evening, Jerry McGill was shot and paralyzed when he was thirteen years old. The shooter was never found. Jerry wrote a moving book called Dear Marcus, A Letter to the Man Who Shot Me. We were able to touch upon many issues that are often unspoken, but very real for the youth: getting shot, feelings of revenge, and forgiveness. Disability and life after severe trauma is an extremely important topic for our youth, but not often brought to light.

Deborah Jiang Stein was born in prison addicted to heroin. Her journey was fascinating to our girls.

Ron Glodoski does such an incredible program about physical, sexual, and verbal abuse. It is profound and life-changing for many of our youth to read, write, and explore these topics.

Youth are amazed that Jesse De La Cruz made it out of prison and is doing so well after more than forty-three years behind bars.

It’s also terrific to have well-known authors such as Luis J. Rodriguez, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and others grace us with their presence.

How has literary presenting informed your life?
When I was a rage-filled teen, I was forced—at least that’s how I remember it—to hear Maya Angelou speak in a church basement. I was pissed off I was there, but as the program went on I felt my defenses crack and something that had never been available to me opened up inside. This experience was so powerful, I’ve worked for thirteen years to provide the opportunity for others.

I've also learned a tremendous amount about integrity. Writing a book that reflects the truth is one thing, and living it is another!

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for the community you serve?
I am not even sure how to answer the question adequately. They are invaluable in terms of hope, inspiration, contemplation, freedom, and provocation. Quotes from the students themselves, after meeting Jerry McGill, might help illustrate the value of these programs:

"It was really a very emotional experience. I feel like there should be more people sharing their experience of being victims to people who make crimes; kind of like seeing the other side of the coin. Keep doing the things you're doing in spreading your life story." —S

"I too have been shot and never found out who did it so I can understand that. I know you said that you forgave whoever did shoot you and that makes me think about if I ever knew who did it I would forgive them. I'm going to read your book when I get a chance." —D

"Your story made me want to write more, and to make my own book." —C

"I learned the best thing from you, forgiveness. I'm willing to learn more and hear more from you." —A

Photo: (Left to right) Writer Dream Jordan, librarian Amy Cheney, writer Jeff Rivera, and writer Coe Booth. Credit: David Shankman.

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

Kafkaesque Experiences

11.14.13

We have all experienced Kafkaesque situations in our lives—those moments that are surreal, bizarre, or menacingly illogical, and yet very real. Write about a time when you encountered a Kafkaesque circumstance. Carefully select descriptive words that will effectively represent the complex emotions, weird thoughts, and bouts of confusion that filled your mind and the strange world around you.

Self-Portrait

11.7.13

Writers share many creative qualities and artistic processes with painters. Both are engaged in the difficult endeavor of portraying oneself through art as an artist. Write six hundred words about you as a writer, manipulating your words and sentences like different brush strokes to create an image of how you perceive your artistic self. Be bold. Be thoughtful. Be candid. Self-portraits are rarely flattering. Art is about truth and true artists never spare themselves.

Hurston/Wright Deadline Approaches

Submissions are currently open for the annual Hurston/Wright Foundation Legacy Awards. The prizes are given to published poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers of African descent.

To apply, publishers and may submit four copies of books published in the United States in 2013 with a $30 entry fee by November 22. Submissions must be mailed to Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, 12138 Central Avenue Suite 953, Bowie, MD 20721. Books of poetry, fiction (including novels, novellas, and short story collections) creative nonfiction (including memoirs and essay collections), and general nonfiction are eligible.

Eligible writers must be of African descent from any area of the diaspora. Visit the website for complete submission and eligibility guidelines.

The winners of the 2012 prize were announced last week at an awards ceremony in Washington, D.C. The prize in poetry was awarded posthumously to the late Lucille Clifton for The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 (BOA Editions). Esi Edugyan won in fiction for her novel Half-Blood Blues (Picador); Fredrick C. Harris won in nonfiction for The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and Rise and Decline of Black Politics (Oxford University Press).

Natasha Trethewey, the United States Poet Laureate and author most recently of the collection Thrall, was also honored at the ceremony, along with nonfiction writers Wil Haygood and Isabel Wilkerson.

Founded in 1990 and named in honor of authors Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, the Hurston/Wright Foundation seeks to “discover, educate, mentor, and develop African American writers.”

In the video below, poets gathered in New York City earlier this year for Blessing the Boats: A Tribute to Lucille Clifton, a celebration of the late poet's life and work on the occasion of the publication of Collected Poems.

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