Readings & Workshops Blog

The Second Annual Jackie Robinson Poetry Day

James Browning Kepple is a poet, the founder of Underground Books, and president of the New York Browning Society. Each year he helps judge the New York Browning Society’s New York City High School Poetry Contest, which invites over one hundred and twenty public, parochial, and private schools in the New York City area to participate. A resident of Harlem for ten years, he has been a contributor and performer at the Harlem Arts Festival, the Harlem Book Fair, and the New York City Poetry Festival.

Harlem has a deep history of jazz, poetry, social movements, and revolutions. Witnessing its boundaries and definitions encroached upon by the movement of time and gentrification, I wanted to create a link to its illustrious past, as well as a roadway to the future, through the arts, to help secure Harlem’s history in the hearts of its people. It was this sentiment that brought together the first successful Jackie Robinson Poetry Day at the Jackie Robinson Park’s bandshell in Central Harlem last fall. This year we aimed to recreate that success with the support of Poets & Writers.

Underground Books collaborated with various writers and artists in the community to make the day possible. Poet and social activist Bob McNeil hosted the day’s events with bombastic effect. His thorough and deliberate baritone—made even more powerful by the resounding acoustic echo of the bandshell—could be heard from streets over as he brought together the audience, performers, and passersby. Maksym Kurganskyy donated his time to film and edit the event.

Performances included Jana Astanov, Eartha Watts-Hicks, Marc W. Polite, as well as featured readings by Gregg Dotoli, Olena Jennings, Robert Kramer, and Bob McNeil. Guitarist Edgar Alan provided music throughout, and a Facebook live stream video shared the day’s events with those who could not attend. The winner of this year’s Gregg Dotoli Poetry Prize, local blogger and writer Marc W. Polite, performed a moving rendition of his winning poem, “Poetic Ruminations of Mr. Born Nice.”

Children who attended were invited to participate in the Harlem Renaissance Chapbook creation station, sponsored by Underground Books. They had an opportunity to learn how to make their own poetry chapbooks by selecting works from Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Federico García Lorca, Alice Dunbar Nelson, and many others. These young members of the community were able to walk home with their own personalized book of Harlem Renaissance Poetry.

As the show drew to a close, Bob McNeil brought each performer up to create an original piece of spoken word poetry by knitting together one line from each person based upon the last letter of the person before them, which created a flowing new poem straight from the minds of the performers on stage.

Underground Books looks forward to continuing to broaden and strengthen the vision of Jackie Robinson Poetry Day—to bring the community and help highlight Harlem’s literary past—and contribute to its bright new future with the support of organizations like Poets & Writers. 

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program 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 Frances Abbey Endowment, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photo: Performers of the second annual Jackie Robinson Poetry Day (Credit: Maksym Kurganskyy).

Traversing California on the Rural Libraries Tour

The Rural Libraries Tour is a result of a seventeen-year partnership between Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program and the California Center for the Book (CalBook), which sends writers into rural and underserved areas of California to teach creative writing workshops in libraries or at venues promoted by the libraries. Some workshops are bilingual (English and Spanish), some reach teens, and most reach all ages and types of people. As the eighteenth year of programming approaches, the participating writing instructors reflect on their experiences teaching these workshops.

Olga García Echeverría

My visits to libraries in rural areas of Southern California are always a special treat for me as both an educator and an artist. In my regular teaching job, I am used to working with students for an extended period of time. With the Rural Libraries Tour, I am often entering completely new spaces with people I will probably never see again. Yet, in every single workshop that I have conducted during the past nine years, I have felt very much at home. I believe this is because the love of words and the desire to create binds us, regardless of where we are and if we will meet again. The potential for meaningful connections via words and art (even in a short amount of time) is always possible.

My poetic spirit is nourished in amazing ways each time. We don’t just read and write, we share intimate parts of ourselves and, collectively, we create. It’s amazing how often participants linger past the workshop to express how much they enjoyed being able to tap into themselves and write something that surprises them. There is a glow about them that is familiar; I know that feeling of having created something and feeling empowered or proud. These workshops—they’re a dynamic exchange of creative energy and they always reaffirm my love of poetry and community.

Tim Z. Hernandez

I’ve driven the road to Hollister, California numerous times over the past several seasons that I’ve participated in the Rural Libraries Tour, but this time was special. After having just released my book, All They Will Call You (University of Arizona Press, 2017), based on the famous 1948 plane crash that killed twenty-eight Mexican migrant workers, I knew I was returning to a community that not only knew the realities of migrant life very well, but more than that, Hollister is positioned on the western slope of the very canyon that the plane crashed down on—Los Gatos Canyon.

I was visiting with students, most of whom had come from migrant farm working families. They had never heard of this story before, but felt an immediate connection to it. They were rapt, and we conversed and shared stories for what seemed like hours. The most beautiful part came in the final minutes when students began asking if one of the passengers on the plane was named Rodriguez. And then another asked about the name Martinez. Another still wanted to know if there was a Ruiz who was killed. They were each going to go home and share this story with their parents. Perhaps they too were related. This is the power of stories, I nodded to myself. I never know what exchange will impact the people I get to work with, as well as myself. But always, I leave feeling grateful.

Susan Wooldridge

I’m happiest when people of all ages and ethnicities appear at workshops. Including the California border towns of Imperial and Crescent City, I’ve visited small libraries tucked in Markleesville, Placerville, Alturas, Yreka, Etna, and Weaverville (in the Trinity Alps), Susanville and Quincy where, always, surprisingly gifted youngsters, teens, and adults appear with their pens and their souls waiting for expression. Most recently, twenty people gathered on round tables at the Shasta Library in Redding.

Our workshops together have welcomed me into the heartland of California as part of a larger mission: to bring love of language to small-town California. I’ve been heartened and changed as part of our years-long, far-and-wide endeavor. I feel delight and honor and, hey, almost “credible!” I feel held and loved by the support and camaraderie (not to mention pay!) provided by Poets & Writers and the California Center for the Book. These years of sessions nourish and transform my own writing. My (almost finished!) book about land and language includes many chapters about experiences and revelations in small libraries—“Damien’s Waterfalls” (South Lake Tahoe), “Sublime Limes” (Colusa), and “Cesar Stealing Words” (Williams), to name a few. Our rural libraries outreach adds a wildly colorful dimension to my writing and life.

Support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the California Arts Council, a state agency, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photo 1: Olga García Echeverría (Credit: Maritza Alvarez). Photo 2: Tim Z. Hernandez (Credit: Tim Z. Hernandez). Photo 3: Susan Wooldridge (Credit: Shannon Iris).

The Kindness of Strangers: Spencertown Academy Arts Center’s Festival of Books

Jill Kalotay has been supporting the Spencertown Academy Arts Center as a volunteer for the past ten years. In 2015 she accepted the position of cochair of the Festival of Books with David Highfill, an executive editor at William Morrow, and she joined the Spencertown Academy Board of Directors in 2016.

It is important to me to support the arts, and particularly authors, since my daughter Daphne announced at the age of three that she wanted to be a writer. She has shown me what hard work it is, and how steep the climb to success is in today’s market. The annual Festival of Books, presented by the Spencertown Academy Arts Center, is a way to feature writers and focus on books—and to help ensure that they will be here for some time to come.

Housed in a beautifully restored 1840s Greek Revival schoolhouse at 790 State Route 203 in Spencertown, New York, the Spencertown Academy Arts Center is a cultural center serving Columbia County, the Berkshires, and the Capital region. It offers a variety of free and low-cost community arts events, including concerts, readings, theater pieces, art exhibitions, and arts-related workshops and classes.

For the past twelve years, the Festival of Books has been a major fund-raising event for the Spencertown Academy Arts Center. Subtitled “All Things Literary,” the festival provides a stage for authors to talk about their new books, poets to read from their collections, and high school students to read their prizewinning short stories and essays, entered earlier in a contest we sponsor in conjunction with the festival. (You can read the winning entries here.)

The three-day event takes place over Labor Day weekend, and also features a huge book sale, with over ten thousand donated books on offer. “The best books sale in the area,” according to many visitors. All the books are culled, cleaned, and sorted by Academy volunteers—those book lovers who want to get as many books as possible out into the world and bring in money for the Academy so that we can keep our doors open for one more year. Typically all of the authors come without promise of remuneration.

This year, we hosted an amazing array of artists, and five fiction writers were generously supported by grants from the Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program.

Wesley Brown read from his Dance of the Infidels, a collection of related stories about jazz musicians (mostly real) and jazz lovers (imagined) in 1930s and 1940s New York City jazz clubs.

Rebecca Morgan Frank read from her collection, The Spokes of Venus, and spoke about the inspiration for her poems, in which magicians, wig makers, sculptors, perfumers, and choreographers help conjure these works about making and observing art.

In spite of the incessant rain beating on our tent, on one of the worst days of the summer, Elinor Lipman and Louie Cronin shared the stage for a session called “If These Walls Could Talk.” Lipman’s latest book, On Turpentine Lane, is a romantic comedy about a restless woman who impulsively buys a dilapidated house that soon reveals a mysterious past. Everyone Loves You Back, Cronin’s very funny first novel, features another house in dire need of repair, this one in Cambridge. Town and gown meet again!

Patricia Park read from her novel, Re Jane, set in the disparate worlds of Queens, Brooklyn, and Seoul during the early 2000s. In the novel, Jane Re, a Korean American woman (and orphan), lives with her aunt and uncle in Queens, and feels like an outsider. Park’s animated talk provided glimpses of her own background in Flushing, Queens and described some of the difficulties in getting her novel onto the TV screen. Actor and producer Daniel Dae Kim is adapting the book as a half-hour comedy series.

For the past five years we have been operating as an all-volunteer organization. We rely totally on all the volunteers, donors, sponsors, and kind artists who support us with their valuable time and talents. We are so grateful! And especially thankful to Poets & Writers for their financial backing of writers and events such as ours.

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program in New York is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, with additional support from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photo: Spencertown Academy Arts Center’s Festival of Books (Credit: Peter Blandori).

Writing Workshops as Healing Circles

Bobby González is a nationally known multicultural motivational speaker, storyteller, and poet. Born and raised in South Bronx, New York, he grew up in a bicultural environment. González draws on his Native American (Taino) and Latino (Puerto Rican) roots to offer a unique repertoire of discourses, readings, and performances that celebrates his indigenous heritage.

At the beginning of the first in a series of six “Spoken Word 101” workshops at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, I made it clear that I wasn’t going to teach anyone to be a better poet or spoken word artist. We were gathered to support each other as we explored the world of spoken and written word. For inspiration we read and discussed some of the verses of Aja Monet, Charles Bukowski, Nanao Sakaki, Sonia Sanchez, and other authors. Also, every session included the viewing of a YouTube video of these poets reciting their works.

This was the fifth year of the summer workshops at the Bronx Museum, and the participants quickly realized that we were creating in a safe zone. They wrote and shared poetry that disclosed family secrets, personal tragedies, racial angst, and heroic triumphs. The writing and the sharing was an integral part of their ongoing healing process. Tears were shed, voices were raised in anger, and a couple of emotional recitals were reciprocated with huge hugs.

Each session of “Spoken Word 101” resulted in the formation of a family that transcended reading, writing, and performing. Like all families, losses were experienced. Within the last few months, two members of our family passed away. Steve “Latin Gorilla” Lewis and Robert Waddell both died suddenly. We paid tribute to them in open mic readings and reminded ourselves that their thoughts and spirits will live forever in our hearts and in the poetry they left behind.

Through “Spoken Word 101” we all relearned language, dramatic articulation, and the wonder of allowing ourselves to bare our vulnerabilities with friends we barely met but already knew we could trust. That’s the power of poetry. The Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program provides vital financial support for a literary series in an underserved community that is greatly appreciative of this empowering experience.

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program 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 Frances Abbey Endowment, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photo: (left to right) Makeba Higgins, Dara Kalima, Damien Tillman, Bobby González, and Rosa Velez (Credit: Maria Aponte).

Urban Possibilities: Giving Voice to Inner-City Job Seekers

Eyvette Jones Johnson and her husband Craig Johnson are founders of Urban Possibilities, an empowerment program that uses writing and performance to help inner-city job seekers thrive in the marketplace and in life. Craig is a photographer who chronicles their journey and Eyvette serves as executive director. For fifteen years, she was a TV producer creating shows for networks that include CBS, NBC, ABC, and PBS. Today, she uses skills honed in entertainment to help adults find their voices, tell their stories, and bring diverse audiences together to celebrate their talent. 80 percent of Urban Possibilities students are or have been homeless.

Each time an inner-city job seeker walks through our doors, we see unparalleled treasure. To make sure audiences and employers see it too, we know our job is to deliver light into deep dark places. The voices and stories of our students are buried under life’s toughest circumstances: homelessness, joblessness, abuse, addiction, and military trauma, among others. Our students are adults, often marginalized, fighting to survive and searching for work in the homeless capital of America: Los Angeles.

Supported by Poets & Writers from the day we began, our twelve-week Writing Empowerment program at Chrysalis job center is a fueling station that turns pain into power for those making their way back from the abyss. Writing and sharing their truths help ignite their comeback. Weekly classes, most recently led by P&W–supported teaching artist Jesse Bliss, help urban job seekers deal with trauma, rediscover their strength, and tell their stories poetically and with power—all skills needed for a successful job search.

Each class culminates in a public performance by students of their original work. Teaching artists from our partners at the Geffen Playhouse coach students to perform their pieces. In each show, we watch our students take the stage and take flight, including students like Norma and Keith.

In our classes, it is common to have students who have been rendered mute by the brutal blows they’ve faced, and Norma was no exception. A middle class woman hurled into silence and homelessness by domestic violence, she’d lost her will months before we met. Norma said, “I was preparing to take my life but this class opened my heart to see beyond my darkness and despair and showed me the greatness that was always there. Now I use my voice in the service of others like me. I use my talent to create change.”

Keith was silent in another way. A soldier in the British Army for over twenty years, he lived from a young age with the ravages of war and in the daily human wreckage of combat zones. He survived in a band of brothers, but watched many of them fall. His closest friend died in his arms in the heat of battle. As a soldier and a Brit, he was taught to keep it all in, buttoned up tight. “Expressing your feelings was something you just didn’t do. But I learned by sharing my story the burdens I carried magically started to lessen and this incredible feeling of empowerment took over. Now in expressing I have the ability to receive and give back,” said Keith.

Norma and Keith were featured artists at Poets & Writers’ Connecting Cultures Reading this summer. As my husband Craig and I watched them poised on the stage, they affirmed beliefs that have become our true north: that there is a sea of untapped potential in inner-city communities just waiting to be set free; our history, no matter how devastating, does not have to dictate our destiny; and the greatest treasures are often buried where many least expect to find them, like the exquisite gold in plain sight walking the streets of Los Angeles’s Skid Row.

Support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the California Arts Council, a state agency, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photos: (top) Eyvette Jones Johnson (Credit: Craig Johnson Photography). (middle) Eyvette Jones Johnson with Norma L. Eaton and Keith Brown (Credit: Craig Johnson Photography). (bottom) Urban Possibilities workshop reading group shot with Chrysalis staff (Credit: Craig Johnson Photography).

The Power of Teaching and Storytelling: A Workshop for Bangladeshi Seniors

Ashwak Fardoush is a writer and a teacher. She was born in Bangladesh and emigrated to the United States with her family at a young age. Her writing explores issues related to gender and sexuality, trauma, body politics, immigration, and holistic writing practices. She facilitates workshops, coaches, and tutors writers to help them venture into unexplored terrains in their writing. Her work appeared in the Margins. She also has a blog about writing.

When India Home invited me to facilitate a bilingual memoir writing workshop for Bangladeshi seniors this year, I knew that I couldn’t pass up such an incredible teaching opportunity. The participants were a few decades older than me, and the sessions were conducted entirely in Bengali.

The night before each class, I would take out Zahir Raihan’s Borof Gola Nodi (translated as River of Melted Ice): a slim book that had its spine falling apart, pages yellowed from age. I had taken out the same book from my aunt’s bookcase over two decades ago. I remember reading that novel one morning when shadows and light played on the veranda floor of my aunt’s rented house. That was many, many moons ago. I had left Bangladesh twenty years ago only to return back to the country once for a handful of days. During my visit, I found Raihan’s book again in my aunt’s home, this time an apartment where the windows looked out at tall buildings that blocked out the light. When my aunt saw the book in my hand, she smiled and told me I could keep it.

When I prepared for the workshop, the novel stayed by my side. In the evening I was immersed in the world of the characters. It was the training ground for the following morning when I would live inside the world created on the page by the writers who came to my workshop.

For eight weeks, the Bangladeshi seniors and I met every Thursday morning. I could see that time had left marks on their bodies. Slouched back, trembling hands, age spots. Time had left behind stories, too. The participants would lean over their marble notebooks and scribble away to capture these stories. They mapped out their lives on the page, sometimes traveling to far-flung places or going deep within themselves. Sometimes personal stories would unfold against the backdrop of history, desires would run up against societal expectations. The seniors excavated memories from their long, rich, vibrant lives and shaped them into poems and personal essays.

I could see how much the writing workshop meant to the seniors. Salema Khatun said, “I had put away my writing for twenty years. After my husband’s death, I took on the full responsibility of my family. But I have written four poems in your class. Look what you have done for me.”

The workshop not only became the space for the seniors to write their stories but also a site for them to share their testimonies—tales suffused with pain, joy, love, loss, dreams, and despair—and be witnessed with respect and camaraderie.

The workshop was meaningful for me, too. I found myself writing alongside the seniors in Bengali after so many years of not writing in that language. Once, I read aloud what I wrote: about being on a boat and moving through the drying Kopothakho River in Jessore, Bangladesh and watching the boatman pushing aside the water hyacinths with his paddle.

Raihan’s novel still sits by my bedside. That book was the boat that bridged the gap between many worlds—between the participants and me, between Bangladesh and the United States, between the different versions of myself.

Through the writing workshop the participants and I coauthored an experience, a story in itself that soon became part of our life’s narrative.

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program 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 Frances Abbey Endowment, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers. 

Photo: (bottom, left to right) Salema Khatun, Farida Talukdar, Quamrun Nahar, and Ashwak Fardoush. (top, left to right): Haque Mohammad, Md. Hoque, Rafiqul Islam, and Md. Mokbul Hossain. (Credit: Sabit Bhuiyan).

Echoes in These Streets: A Reading Series for Women Overcoming Homelessness

Daniela Jungova is the Development & Communications associate at Calvary Women’s Services, the award-winning organization that empowers homeless women in Washington, D.C., to transform their lives through housing, health, education, and employment programs. She feels lucky to have had the opportunity to witness the inspiration that poetry offers to women overcoming homelessness.

“Poetry is people conveying their dreams through words,” mused Sonja Berry, who attended all three of the Echoes in These Streets poetry readings at Calvary Women’s Services—an award-winning organization empowering homeless women in Washington, D.C.

The P&W–supported reading series took place over the course of three beautiful summer Sundays (July 9, 16 and 30) and featured five outstanding poets from the D.C. area—Teri Ellen Cross Davis, Hayes Davis, Katherine McCord, Saundra Rose Maley, and Nancy Arbuthnot. The poets were selected for their cultural relevancy, as well as the ability to connect with diverse populations—the majority of women living at Calvary are survivors of domestic violence, are learning to manage a mental illness, and/or are in recovery from substance abuse.

For many women facing similar challenges, closing up to the world is an easy way to cope. Berry, who came to Calvary four months ago, says that the poets’ openness was a true gift: “Seeing the poets describe reality in metaphors made me feel inspired, and, well, curious.”

Indeed, all five of the presenting poets got quite personal. Their poems tackled issues such as ordinary life, identity, depression, stereotypes, fatherhood, even breastfeeding. Some delivered their works boldly, fearlessly offering their musings to the world. Others invited the audience to an intimate conversation, softly whispering as if to a best friend. All of them though, voiced their inner thoughts in a genuine and relatable way.

Hayes Davis wrote in his piece “Musings”: “One myth that’s part truth / is men don’t always share sadness that rests / on a foundation of vulnerability.” In “Gaze,” Teri Ellen Cross Davis wrote: “Standing, I name myself / shedding the fiction of availability / becoming nonfiction.” In her piece about islands, Katherine McCord contemplated: “After all, swimming is all / luck. We have no gills / and islands are all light. / Escape that.” Saundra Rose Maley described a hot summer night scene in “First Blues”: “Televisions gone bleary / blinked / in front of men / in undershirts drinking beer.” In “Song,” Nancy Arbuthnot observed: “The best things are nearest / breath, light, flowers / the path just before you.”

Arbuthnot, a poetry teacher at the Naval Academy and longtime volunteer at Calvary Women’s Services, says most of her poems, like the one above, explore everyday life, spirituality, and the way we confront major life issues. Perhaps that’s why her poems resonated so strongly with women at Calvary. She feels the same way about them: “Echoes in These Streets was held on Sundays, and attendance was voluntary. The women who showed up were clearly very interested. They were an incredibly receptive audience, which is what every poet certainly appreciates. It’s been delightful—it made me wonder who really is giving and who is gaining.”

Echoes in These Streets brought much joy and inspiration to women at Calvary, who have long enjoyed experimenting with their own creative abilities. Even though the reading series is over, women at Calvary will have the support they need no matter what artistic endeavor they decide to undertake in the future—Calvary’s literacy and arts program, LEAP, runs year-round and is designed to empower women in understanding and using their own talents and strengths.

Elaine Johnson, who coordinates LEAP and witnesses women’s artistic sides firsthand, noted: “Echoes in These Streets deepened women’s relationship with writing. At the last session, the women were discussing the idea of continuing to meet on Sunday evenings to share and discuss their own poetry—and I see that as evidence of the lasting effect of the series!”

Nancy Arbuthnot agrees: “I think it’s really great that Poets & Writers makes it possible for poets to go out to communities like Calvary. Echoes in These Streets clearly showed that the audience and poets alike benefit from these readings.”

The staff and residents of Calvary Women’s Services would like to thank everyone who participated in the readings and savored poetry as a tool for self-expression, empowerment, and acceptance. A sincere thank you also goes to Poets & Writers who made it possible for the five brilliant poets to present their work to women at Calvary. There is no way these three wonderful evenings would have been possible without your generous support. Here at Calvary, your gift of poetry will certainly keep on giving.

Support for Readings & Workshops in Washington, D.C. 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.

Photos: (top) Hayes Davis, Sonja Berry, and Teri Ellen Cross Davis (Credit: Elaine Johnson). (bottom) Saundra Rose Maley and Nancy Arbuthnot with audience member (Credit: Elaine Johnson).

Never Forgotten: A Nisei Writing Workshop

Naomi Shibata, author of Bend With the Wind: The Life, Family, and Writings of Grace Eto Shibata (Shibata Family Partnership, 2014), is a docent and senior engagement writing instructor with the National Japanese American Historical Society of San Francisco. She also delivers guest lectures on the Japanese American experience to schools, historical societies, museums, service organizations, libraries, and book clubs. Shibata is a University of California graduate and a high technology industry veteran. From April to June 2017, Shibata led a series of P&W–supported writing workshops for second-generation Japanese American elders (the Nisei) with the theme: “Tell your story as you would like it told.” Below, Shibata blogs about her approach to working with the elders and the importance of the project.

In late 2016, I received an invitation to lead a workshop for first-time writers. Sponsored by the Friends of the Little Tokyo Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library and Poets & Writers, the four-part program targeted second-generation Americans of Japanese descent, the Nisei.

The Nisei, now in their eighties and nineties, are the last in a line of storytellers with firsthand accounts of a dark time in American history. Their racial-ethnic community was disenfranchised, incarcerated, and exiled by the U.S. government during World War II. For some Nisei, the time has come to speak of their lives before, during, and after the incarceration. It is time to write about the long road to the American Dream. It is time to tell their stories as they would like them told.

I knew that the success of this workshop hinged on integrating the Japanese American experience with the how-tos of Storytelling 101. Presenting the material in a relevant context would help participants internalize the concepts and release their ideas into words. I also suspected that healthy doses of offbeat humor would lighten and facilitate the learning process for an audience comprised of educators, medical professionals, attorneys, and amateur historians.

The workshop participants shared a common goal—kodomo no tame ni, to write “for the children.” In the winters of their lives, they chose to tell their stories on their own terms. Forthright and candid, they knew that their words were the most priceless legacies. One observer asked these novice writers how they found the courage to reveal so much about themselves. One participant answered for them all when he replied, “I want my grandchildren to know the truth.”

The new voices recorded crossroad moments, human drama, and the value of small acts of kindness. Succinct and uncensored, they spoke of how one teacher’s arbitrary change of a little girl’s name shaped the six-year-old’s resolve always to have her voice heard; how a ten-year-old boy experienced loss when the FBI interned both his parents; and how a young woman valued the simple social courtesies shown to her by strangers.

The workshop participants and I wish to extend our thanks to Alanna Lin Ramage and the Friends of the Little Tokyo Branch library, Los Angeles Public Library Senior Librarian James Sherod, and Readings & Workshops (West) director Jamie Asaye FitzGerald. Their support was instrumental in helping new writers preserve the stories of lives well lived.

Support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the California Arts Council, a state agency, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photos: (top) Naomi Shibata giving an introduction at the culmination reading (Credit: Jamie Asaye FitzGerald). (bottom, left to right): Irma Fukumoto, Adeline Manzo, Hagiko Kusunoki, Vice President of the Friends of the Little Tokyo Branch Library Ron Hirano, Ray Saruwatari, Naomi Shibata, and President of the Friends of the Little Tokyo Branch Library Alanna Lin Ramage (Credit: Jamie Asaye FitzGerald).

An Evening at the Bryant Park Reading Room

Program assistant for Readings & Workshops (East) Ricardo Hernandez blogs about an evening at Bryant Park’s Reading Room series in New York City, co-curated by Poets & Writers.

Since 2003, the Reading Room at Bryant Park has hosted established and emerging poets at an “open air” reading series held in the heart of Manhattan. This summer, the Readings & Workshops program was offered the opportunity to co-curate an evening of this series. Against a backdrop of jugglers, double-decker buses, and the New York Public Library’s Main Branch, Oliver Baez Bendorf, Elana Bell, Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, and Duy Doan shared their work.

Opening the evening, Baez Bendorf read poems from his book, The Spectral Wilderness (Kent State University Press, 2015), many of which interrogate and obfuscate masculinity. In one, the speaker directed us to call him, “giddyup and Tarzan, riot boy/ and monk, flavor-trip and soldier and departure,” each image bucking against what Judith Butler, quoted in the poem’s epigraph, calls “the ambivalent process” of identification.

Next, Bell read one poem written from a hilltop overlooking the settlement of Neve Daniel on the West Bank, dedicated to a woman named “Amal, whose name means hope.” With a piercing eye, the speaker outlines the differences between herself, who has “never drunk rain/ collected from a well dug by [her] own hands,” and Amal, who “moves/ through her land like an animal” and “laughs with all her teeth,” resulting in a tender ode to domesticity and diversity.

Boyce-Taylor read from her latest collection, Arrival (Northwestern University Press, 2017), which tells the story of a recently immigrated Trinidadian girl, her parents, and her stillborn twin brother. In one of the most poignant moments of Boyce-Taylor’s reading, the speaker imagines a moment of kindness in the womb, before her twin’s death: “He handed me the soft bread of his lips. ‘Sell it if you ever need shelter.’ Then he was gone.”

Bringing the reading came to an end, Doan shared poems from his manuscript, We Play a Game, selected by Carl Phillips for the 2017 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize. In the poem “Love Trinkets,” Doan’s speaker presents his experiences with love in a poignant litany, detailing lovers who had spurned him; who had deceived him; and one who “was kind, so kind, in kissing/ [him] at all.”

Poets & Writers is thankful for the opportunity to collaborate with the Reading Room, and a special thanks to each of our featured readers!

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program 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 Frances Abbey Endowment, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photo: (left to right) Duy Doan, Oliver Baez Bendorf, Elana Bell, and Cheryl Boyce-Taylor (Credit: Ricardo Hernandez).

Poets & Writers’ Connecting Generations Sixteenth Annual Intergenerational Reading

Christine Penney is newly retired. She is excited and daunted by discovering her voice again in writing through P&W–supported workshops at Goddard Riverside Community Center’s Senior Center in New York City, where she worked as a program coordinator for fourteen years. Many moons ago, she cowrote a one-woman show “Kaethe Kollwitz Presents a Brief History of Modern Art,” and performed it in New York City. Acting in theatre, television, and films in the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City spanned her early years. She raised a brilliant and deeply loved and admired daughter, Kalen Wheeler, in a railroad apartment on the Upper West Side, who is her greatest support.

The Poets & Writers’ Connecting Generations Sixteenth Annual Intergenerational Reading took place on Saturday, June 17 at Barnes & Noble at Union Square in New York City.

Poets & Writers began this event in 2001 to celebrate the work of elders and teens, who have participated in writing workshops supported by the Readings & Workshops program throughout New York City. It began in a community room at Goddard Riverside Community Center’s Naturally Occurring Retirement Community program with ten readers and has grown to thirty-five plus readers.

The age span for the participating readers this year was about fifty years. The seniors were from Goddard Riverside Community Center, Stanley Isaacs Neighborhood Center, Grand Street Settlement, Kew Gardens Community Center, Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center, and the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College in collaboration with Siloam Presbyterian Church. The young adults were from Union Square Slam, Urban Word NYC, and the Capicu Cultural Showcase and La Sopa NYC, the School of Poetic Arts.

For fourteen years I worked behind the scenes as a program director at the Goddard Riverside Community Center. From the time I was hired to the time I retired, Poets & Writers has supported writing workshops with seniors in this community; inspiring writers of a population seldom heard, whose lifetime of experiences could just as well have dissolved into airy nothing, if not for these workshops.

I would peek through the small window of the art room intrigued by these writers and their rapt attention as they listened to each other’s work. Outside looking in through the door, I could feel their churning minds, imagination, and their deep desire to tell their stories before time ran out. I longed to be among them.

When I retired, I entered the writing workshop. The challenge brought me back to my own creative roots, brought me back to me, and renewed my sense of purpose. I got to read my work for the first time in public and it was thrilling.

This year’s Intergenerational Reading featured issues of immigration, race, sexual identity, domestic abuse, parenting, and love.

Some highlights included a sestina of thumping political injustice by Suzanne Pavel, and lines of poetry from others. In “As a Teacher, I Use My Heart,” Brendan Gellette wrote: “I pull it out in the classroom, leave it on the table.” “Another heart vanished into a steamy mirror, as her father entered,” is how my piece “Bath Time” ends. “You’ll thank me for this some day. And took out his belt and buckle,” wrote George Schirmann. In I. S. Jones’s poem (to be published in Anomaly, formerly Drunken Boat) she wrote: “You break me with love because this is your inheritance, a family heirloom.”

Protesting vaginas and slamming sexual confusion rapped out in beats, contrasted with the quiet rhythmic grace of Tony Morris’s piece: “Behold, time is a precious thing. But when you must, answer the call.” Even Marilyn Monroe showed up in a fictional piece by Kathy Wilson, where Marilyn phoned another actor humbly asking if he was available to rehearse a scene for a Lee Strasberg class.

Young or old, we took our moment, whether unapologetically flinging it out with the raw, passionate urgency of youth, or tiptoeing softly to the end, quietly speaking our truth. The style did not matter. Let no one shut us up about what we see or what we feel, no matter what age, what race, what country, what disability, or sexual orientation we have.

“It made me feel alive, brought me back the anger and injustice I felt as a young adult. Bravo to the young folks’ vulnerability and grit,” said one senior.

“I think it’s a fantastic idea that P&W brings together this wide range of poets in terms of age, race, gender, and life experience. As an emerging poet, it gives me a lot of hope to read alongside seasoned poets because in this particular craft, we play the long game. It gives me hope that if I stay true to myself and what I need out of my work, that I will be alright,” said I. S. Jones.

To return to my creative core is a blessing and the best part is finding a community of like-minded people to share this new discovery with. Thank you to my friends in the writing group, to our loved and trusted workshop facilitator Elena Alexander, and to Bonnie Rose Marcus, director of the Readings & Workshops (East) for inviting me to write this blog. And thank you Poets & Writers for this gift, offering us a platform to express ourselves, listen to others, and learn!

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program 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 Frances Abbey Endowment, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photos: (top): Christine Penney and her daughter Kalen Wheeler (Credit: Margarita Corporan). (bottom): Readers and host Regie Cabico (Credit: Margarita Corporan).

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