Reaching Audiences and Writers with Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa

Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa is a novelist, memoirist, and short story writer whose work is grounded in the Puerto Rican communities on the island and in New York City. Her novel Daughters of the Stone (Thomas Dunne Books, 2009) was shortlisted for the 2010 PEN America Award and has been included in Breaking Ground/Habriendo Caminos, an Anthology of Puerto Rican Women Writers in New York 1980-2012 (Editorial Campana, 2012). She was a 2006–7 Bronx Council on the Arts Literary Fellow and is a three-time BRIO/ACE award winner. She is currently at work on a second novel titled People of Endurance. P&W has supported Llanos-Figueroa as both a reader at La Casa Azul bookstore and workshop leader with DeAlmas Women’s Collective, both in New York City.
Dahlma Llanos-FigueroaHow does giving a public reading inform your writing?
When I sit down and write my novels, I am creating a monologue. Only when I go out and share my words with readers am I participating in a dialogue. I get as much as I give. The audience welcomes my reaching out to them. They know I value their questions, suggestions, and ideas. Even small turnouts can be valuable in unexpected ways. They provide an intimacy that allows for each attendee to interact with me on a personal level, often expressing opinions that would never surface before a larger audience.

What are your reading dos?
I try to tailor my presentation to the needs and experiences of the audience. My novel spans the entire voyage of Afro-Puerto Ricans from Africa to Puerto Rico to New York City, as told through the lives of the women in one family. In East Harlem, I often choose an excerpt set there or a chapter on migration to a new city. In Puerto Rico, I choose chapters set there during colonial times. In high schools, I select excerpts that focus on parent/child relationships.

…and your reading don’ts?
I never cut off a question or response. No matter how much I agree or disagree, I give the speaker the space to express him/herself. I hope that the reader enjoyed my work, but if they didn’t, they are entitled to their point of view. And I might even learn something new.

What’s your writing critique philosophy?
When teaching, I tend to ask questions rather than make pronouncements. I believe by asking a question, you invite the writer to reconsider rather than defend. “How can this emotion be communicated in the character’s body language?” is better than “Show don’t tell!”

How do you get shy writers to open up?
Breaking up into small groups allows for a more personal, less threatening experience. I recently took a workshop with Cristina Garcia and loved the way she broke us up into groups of four. After each critiquing session, the groups rotated, allowing for each writer to get critiques from everyone. Getting feedback from three people at a time is better than sitting through twelve critiques that often get repetitive and feel like badgering. It’s a time consuming process, but well worth it. Also, you can always do an in-class small group critique, and then have the rest of the feedback in writing.
A safe, welcoming environment makes my job as a workshop leader much easier. In my P&W–supported workshop for the DeAlmas Women’s Collective, a group focused on women’s spiritual and emotional well-being, the intimate workshop space was set up with lighting, music, candles, and incense. The focus was on finding the story within, and the participants were asked to bring images significant to them. We created a Sacred Journal, and used meditation techniques and visual prompts to tap into memories, which yielded some outstanding memoir pieces. Because the group members were comfortable with the environment and each other, the sharing came easily.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs in the community?
I have heard people in the industry justify the lack of Latino books being promoted by saying that Latinos don’t read. I wish they could see the crowds of readers who come from all over the city to attend literary events at La Casa Azul, the only Latino bookstore in East Harlem. My P&W–supported reading was standing-room-only. People in the community are thirsty for literature that reflects their reality and grateful to authors, who respect them enough to read there.

Photo: Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa. Credit: Orlando Gonzalez.
Support for Readings/Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, The Cowles Charitable Trust, the Abbey K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Tilted Naked Weirdo


In “Why We Write: Tilted Naked Weirdo” (Poets & Writers Magazine, July/August 2013), Nancy Méndez-Booth writes that by allowing herself to explore her “uglies”—the weirdest, most uncomfortable, or embarrassing parts of her life—she has been able to find her truest voice. “Writing honestly makes me feel stripped and exposed,” she writes. “I put everything I’d rather hide right on the page for the world to see. It horrifies me.” Write an essay about your own uglies—the strange, the silly, the discomfiting and weird—the parts of your life that few people know but you.

Be Not Proud


"This is one of the few stories I’ve written for myself, about myself," wrote the late Sean Rowe in the introduction to his essay about his experiences in jail, "An Insider’s Guide to Jailhouse Cuisine: Dining In," which was originally published in Oxford American and reprinted in the third volume of The Best Creative Nonfiction. “That’s a dangerous practice. It’s dangerous because the more personal you get in a story, the harder it is to stay honest. Here I think I pulled it off, but at a price: I had to reveal things I’m not proud of to get at something bigger than me.” Write an essay about something—or a host of things—you’ve done that you’re not proud of. Be honest about what you did, what consequences you faced, and how you feel about it now. What lessons did you learn about yourself, and about life, that you can pass on to your readers?

Cincinnati Review Contest Open for Submissions

The Cincinnati Review is currently accepting entries for its 2013 Robert and Adele Schiff Awards in Poetry and Prose. Two winners will each receive one thousand dollars and publication in the Cincinnati Review.

Using the online submission manager, poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers may submit up to eight pages of poetry or up to forty pages of prose with a twenty-dollar entry fee, which includes a year-long subscription to the magazine, by July 15. Simultaneous submissions are welcome, and all entries are considered for publication. 

Winners will be announced October 1, and the winning work will be published in the Summer 2014 issue of the magazine. Visit the website for complete guidelines.

Established in 2003 and published twice yearly at the University of Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Review is a print journal that publishes both emerging and established writers. General submissions of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, translation, and visual art are accepted online and by mail between August 15 and April 15 annually.

Imaginative Nonfiction

In A Chance Meeting: The Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, nonfiction author Rachel Cohen investigates the relationships and interactions between various writers—Henry James and William Dean Howells; Carl Van Vechten and Gertrude Stein; Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore—and while the book relays actual encounters, many of the unknown details (what clothes were worn, what the subjects were thinking) are imagined. Write a letter to one of your favorite writers, living or dead, telling him or her about your work, your life, and how their writing has influenced you. Then write an imagined response, from the writer to you.

Found Essay


Spend a few moments looking around your kitchen, office, or bedroom, and gather any found objects (not including books, magazines, or journals) that contain text: post-it notes, receipts, a piece of mail, the packaging of food or household products. Freewrite for fifteen minutes, recording as many words and phrases from the objects as you can, and taking note of any connections, associations, or themes that may arise. Then write an essay about what you find.

National Book Critics Circle Launches First Book Award

The National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) has announced the creation of the John Leonard Award, a new prize honoring a first book of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, biography, criticism, or autobiography. The recipient of the award—who will be selected by the NBCC’s member critics and editors—will be announced at the annual NBCC awards ceremony in early 2014.

The new award is named in honor of John Leonard, a literary critic and former editor of the New York Times Book Review. A founding member of the NBCC, Leonard (1939–2008) was known not only for his criticism of books, film, and television, but also for his encouragement of young critics and the attention he paid to debut writers. “One of the first American critics to write on Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Leonard shared his enthusiasms with a wide reading audience,” the NBCC reported in a press release. “In creating the John Leonard Award, the NBCC recognizes his commitment to nurturing new authors.”

Founded in 1974, the National Book Critics Circle Awards are given annually "to honor outstanding writing and to foster a national conversation about reading, criticism, and literature." The awards are open to any book in English, including translations, published in the United States in the previous year. Poet D.A. Powell and fiction writer Ben Fountain received the 2012 awards. The John Leonard Award will be the first award selected directly by the NBCC’s membership—which is comprised of nearly five hundred book critics, editors, and authors nationwide—rather than by its board of directors.



Often found in the work of Elizabethan and Romantic poets, anaphora—a Greek word meaning “the act of carrying back”—is the repetition of a word or expression at the beginning of successive lines, sentences, fragments, or verses. Write a short anaphoric essay beginning each sentence with the same word or phrase.

The Things You Carry


Make a list of the physical objects you carry with you: a wallet and phone, a journal and pen, medications and mementos. Then make a list of the non-objects you carry: memories, ideas, dreams, scars (literal or figurative), the people or places of your past. Once you've created both lists, write an essay that incorporates and investigates the items on each. Why do you carry these things? What do they mean to you? Do the physical items relate to the mental ones? Use "These are the things I carry" as your opening line.

Texas Undergrad Wins $50,000 Literature Prize

Katherine Noble, a senior in the English Department at the University of Texas in Austin, has received the Keene Prize for Literature for her collection of poems, “Like Electrical Fire Across the Silence.” She will receive $50,000. 

Noble is the first undergraduate to win or even place in the Keene competition, one of the world’s largest student literary prizes, which has been given annually to University of Texas students since 2006. Graduate students in the university’s Michener Center MFA program typically take home the award. 

“The judges were impressed by her audacious combination of spirituality with sexuality, by her wide range of literary reference, and her bold experimentation with the form of the prose poem,” said Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, chair of the Department of English and the award selection committee, of Nobel’s poems.

“I have been affected by images from biblical myths since I was a young girl,” Noble said in a press release, “and the narrators in my poems often wrestle to understand how God interacts with the physical world.”

In addition to Noble, three finalists will each receive $17,000. They are Corey Miller, a current Michener Center graduate student, for his collection of poems “The New Concentration”; Karan Mahajan, also a Michener Center graduate student, for an excerpt from his novel “Notes on a Small Bomb”; and Jenn Shapland, an English Department graduate student, for her essay collection “Finders Keepers.”

Fiction writer Fiona McFarlane, a Michener Center graduate, whose stories have appeared in the New Yorker, the Missouri Review, and elsewhere, received the 2012 prize

Established by the the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas, the Keene Prize is given in honor of E. L. Keene, a 1942 graduate of the university who “envisioned an award that would enhance and enrich the university’s prestige and support the work of young writers,” which would be given for “the most vivid and vital portrayal of the American experience in microcosm.” The award is given to enrolled undergraduate or graduate students for poetry, fiction, nonfiction, or plays. 


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