The Dimensions of Suffering

3.21.12

In Sarah Manguso’s memoir The Two Kinds of Decay (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), the author writes, “suffering, however much and whatever type, shrinks or swells to fit the shape and size of a life.” Write about a time in which you experienced suffering—emotionally, physically, or otherwise—and try to focus on how that suffering fit into the shape of your life then, and how it has helped shape the life you know now.

Kelly Norman Ellis on Chicago's South Side

Poet Kelly Norman Ellis, author of Tougaloo Blues and longtime P&W-supported writer and presenter of literary events, dotes on Chicago's South Side and the Neighborhood Writing Alliance.

I’ve lived and worked on Chicago’s South Side for almost thirteen years. As an educator and writer, I am attracted to organizations that express a commitment to writing and art outside the academic community. Our writing program at Chicago State seeks to coalition build with community organizations so that our students realize the benefits and necessity of teaching outside of the academy.

The Neighborhood Writing Alliance (NWA) located on the South Side of Chicago fills this need. NWA runs writing workshops for adults in low-income neighborhoods throughout Chicago, and publishes selected pieces from those workshops in its quarterly award-winning publication, Journal of Ordinary Thought (JOT). Founded in 1996 by Hal Adams, Deborah Epstein, and Sunny Fischer, NWA grew out of JOT, which was founded by Hal Adams in 1991.

Hundreds of Chicago adults have participated in NWA writing groups in a range of settings—from public libraries and public schools (where parents participate) to social service agencies and public housing projects. Workshops are conducted across ethnic lines. In one workshop, I taught African Americans born in Chicago, Mississippi, and Jamaica; Polish immigrants; fourth generation Irish Americans and second generation Mexican Americans. Participants in these workshops write primarily from their own experience, but through writing and discussion make connections between their personal experiences and broader social issues.

Workshop leaders are Chicago-based professional writers and arts educators such as Krista Franklin, Toni Asante Lightfoot, Parneshia Jones, Tony Lindsay, Carlos Flores, and Valerie Wallace, to name a few. NWA also has an impressive Writer’s Advisory Council, which includes Achy Obejas, Alex Kotlowitz, television journalist Bill Kurtis. The legendary Studs Turkel also served on the council before his death.

Our MFA program at Chicago State believes in the connection of writing and social justice. NWA demonstrates this principal at work by providing internships to our writing students on the graduate and undergraduate level, allowing them to experience the successful marriage of art and activism.

Photo: Kelly Norman Ellis. Credit: Natasha Marin.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Chicago is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Charis Books and More: Keeping Doors Open for 38 Years

Elizabeth Anderson is the program director at P&W–supported Charis Books and More and Charis Circle, a unique for-profit independent feminist bookstore and 501(c)(3) social justice literary nonprofit hybrid located in Atlanta, Georgia. She is also a writing coach and fiction writer at work on her first novel, "Paradise Park."

What makes your reading series unique?
Charis Books is turning thirty-eight this year. With bookstores continuously closing, we will be the oldest feminist bookstore in North America and the primary LGBT-focused bookstore in Atlanta. Our events have always reflected the old feminist axiom, "the personal is political." We believe that fiction has the power to change the world and that reading can be a revolutionary act. We maintain a deep investment in helping to center voices traditionally at the literary margins.

What recent program have you been especially proud of?
The P&Wsponsored evening with Sassafras Lowrey, editor of Kicked Out, an anthology of work by homeless LGBTQ youth. Sassafras shared her own story of homelessness and talked about receiving one teen's story via text message because the kid didn't have access to traditional modes of journalistic communication. Sassafras opted to publish it in the book with a standard English translation. That anecdote spoke to me about the value of telling our story despite the obstacles.

What’s the craziest thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
The life of a bookseller is a crazy one. We hear more confessions than priests and doctors. People share. A LOT. Folks come to a reading about how to turn a front lawn into a food producing garden and end up talking about their grandmas who, as it turns out, were from the same small town. By the end of the night, you have complete strangers hugging and smiling and trading recipes and crying over long dead people. That is the wonder of a reading at Charis.

How do you cultivate an audience?
It's about relationships. It's about remembering people's names and tastes. I call people on the phone. I invite people personally via e-mail and on Facebook. If someone buys an author's book, I remember. If that author is slated to read at our store six months later, I make sure to remind the customer. If the independent bookstore is to survive, it will be because of relationships.

How has literary presenting informed your own life?
It has made me a better writing coach: I can tell you exactly the moment at which you will begin to bore your audience (seventeen minutes, don't ever read for more than seventeen minutes straight, I don't care if you sound like James Earl Jones and are the best looking person on the planet, people will start to glaze).

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
All writers and readers have the potential to be activists if they choose. Bookstores are gathering grounds. They are the places to come and recharge your batteries or lick your wounds or rebuild after a hard political battle. At Charis, we fight to keep the doors open for our community because we believe there is a kind of grace in the act of gathering around stories no other space in our culture can provide.

Photo: Elizabeth Anderson.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Atlanta 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.

The Wanderer

3.13.12

Travel writer, memoirist, and novelist Mary Morris, who teaches a workshop called The Writer and the Wanderer at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, likes to send her students on field trips to light the creative torch. “I like to get my students out of the house, and a little out of their heads,” says Morris, whose most recent book is the memoir River Queen (Holt, 2007). “Go away. Listen. Eavesdrop. Find something new. Bring back a souvenir. What do you take with you? What do you leave behind? Sit outside in one place until a story comes to you.” Follow Morris's guidance: Go on a field trip of your own, and discover the wanderer within you.

Women Writers Dominate Literary NBCC Awards

The winners of this year's National Book Critics Circle Awards were announced last night in New York City. Among the winners was Edith Pearlman, whose fourth collection of stories, Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories (Lookout Books), had also been nominated for the National Book Award last year, and went on to win the PEN/Malamud Award.

In poetry, Laura Kasischke won for her collection Space, In Chains (Copper Canyon Press), which recently received the first Rilke Prize from the University of North Texas. Mira Bartók won in autobiography for her memoir, The Memory Palace (Free Press).

Awards were also given in criticism, to Geoff Dyer for Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews (Graywolf Press); in biography, to John Lewis Gaddis for George F. Kennan: An American Life (Penguin Press); and in general nonfiction, to Maya Jasanoff for Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (Knopf).

Awards were also given to reviewer Kathryn Schulz, who received the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, and Roberts B. Silvers of the New York Review of Books, who won this year's Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award.

In the video below, Pearlman reads from her winning collection.

Get Lost

In her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Viking, 2005), Rebecca Solnit discusses the importance of allowing yourself to get lost—both in life and in writing—in order to become more fully conscious. The art of getting lost, she says, "is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss." Write about a time when you got lost—physically, emotionally, spiritually, or otherwise—and how getting lost, and perhaps embracing that loss, resulted in something new being found.

The Ten Things

2.28.12

Write a list titled "The Ten Things I Will Not Think About in My Last Seconds of Life." Give yourself ten minutes to freewrite the list, then turn the list into an essay. It can be funny, serious, or strange; the points may be connected or not. The important part is to allow yourself to linger on each item in your list and let it grow into its full potential, perhaps keeping it mind for an essay of its own. For this assignment, make sure to incorporate all ten things from the list into your essay.

Five Things I Know

2.22.12

Read the newspaper today and note the articles that you're most interested in reading. From those, choose a theme or concept that characterizes one or some of them, such as corruption, crime, war, love, or politics. Freewrite about the theme you've chosen, focusing on the articles you've read, your personal experience, and other anecdotes. Then craft an essay titled "Five Things I Know About [Your Chosen Theme]," in which you further explore what you've discovered by reading, thinking, and freewriting.

Ms. Soulflower's Artistic Future

Devoya Mayo is a poet, playwright, former radio personality, DJ, tastemaker, and events coordinator with P&W-sponsored The Soulflower Group. Based in Fresno, she dedicates her time to curating events that bridge the divide between the diverse communities residing within California’s Central Valley. From 2005–2006, Mayo was P&W’s Central Valley outreach consultant. Under the moniker Ms. Soulflower, you can find her spinning music in dimly lit establishments, organizing and hosting gatherings, and creating art via Etsy.

What makes the Soulflower Group unique?
We are a consortium of designers, DJs, musicians, photographers, poets, and organizers connected by the tenet that creativity and culture are essential in building community wellness.

What recent project have you been especially proud of?
The P&W-supported Soulflower Speakeasy featuring Sunni Patterson, along with Stephen Mayu, Connie Owens, and Joy Graves, was the easy standout of the year. Sharing space with someone who had appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, performed at major spoken-word venues, and worked with several well-known artists and performers—including Sonia Sanchez, Wanda Coleman, and Amiri Barakawas spiritually motivating and an honest-to-goodness awakening. From the moment Sunni walked on stage with her son, she offered us a glimpse into her soul through poetry, reflecting the strife, angst, joy, and hope that many of us were feeling.

How do you find and invite readers?
I find writers via word-of-mouth, social networks, and the occasional open-mic night. You can’t walk down the street in a place like Fresno and not run into a writer of some kind. California’s Central Valley has always been home to a host of heavy hitters like Connie Hales, Tim Z. Hernandez, Juan Felipe Herrera, Lee Herrick, Philip Levine, and Gary Soto.

What’s the craziest thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
One night a crowd favorite walked on stage, placed a gym bag on a stool, and began to read from his chapbook. As he read about the abuse inflicted by various objects, he began to reach into his bag and toss out the offending objects. He threw boots, belts and, yes, even an iron into a crowd of poetry lovers. Needless to say, there were lots of near misses and, afterwards, we enacted a no-Gallagher-type-antics disclaimer for future events.

How has literary presenting informed your own writing and/or life?
When I’m part of an event, or in the process of curating one, my literary antennae are on high alert. I push myself harder and listen more than I speak, which is hard... let me tell ya. The elements that speak to me, or don't speak to me, inform what I want to provide.
 
What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
Very few have the power, resources, or authority to demand more programming. This is how we knew we had to do more than just daydream about what it would be like if we were really to invest in our artistic futures.

Photo: Devoya Mayo. Credit: Joe Osejo Photography.

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

Use Your History

2.16.12

Research one of the decades during which you were a child. Make a list of the popular music at the time, the best-selling books, the favorite movies and celebrities. Then write notes about politics—who was president? what were the major political issues in the United States and globally? Then freewrite about the neighborhood where you lived—who were your neighbors? what was the living situation like? what was a typical day for you and the people around you. Finally, choose an event from your life or from history that happened during the time you've researched and write about it, using your research to inform and contextualize what you write.  

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