Readings & Workshops Blog

An Industry of Writers and Our Greatest Freedom: A Snapshot From the New York Literary Scene

Winner of the 2017 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award for fiction from Poets & Writers, and one of the “5 More Over 50” debut authors in the November/December 2017 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Joan Dempsey is the author of the novel, This Is How It Begins (She Writes Press, October 2017). She received an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles and was the recipient of a significant research grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. Her writing has been published in the Adirondack Review, Alligator Juniper, Obsidian: Literature of the African Diaspora, and Plenitude Magazine, and aired on National Public Radio. 

On a crisp, clear October morning, the three of us hustled down Vesey Street in Lower Manhattan, not wanting to be late for our meeting with Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at the New Yorker. We hurried past chain-link fences, shrouded to obscure what remains undone in the wake of 9/11. We waved away hawkers who propositioned us with memorial tours. We tried not to think about going up thirty-eight stories in the One World Trade Center building.

I was in Manhattan as the winner for fiction of the 2017 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, which includes an all-expenses-paid whirlwind tour of the New York literary scene. Brian Evans-Jones, the winner for poetry and a fellow Maine resident, kept pace beside me. Both of us trotted along after Bonnie Rose Marcus, director of Readings & Workshops (East) and the Writers Exchange, who kept us on schedule as we rushed from one meeting to the next.

By the end of our six days, we’d gathered with nearly thirty people working in the literary world. The meeting with Treisman came on our second morning, but in hindsight it feels like the culminating event because it so well personifies the collective spirit of the week.   

The guard in front of the revolving doors at One World Trade Center tried to shoo us down the block, assuming we were there for the 9/11 tour. We stated our purpose and were suddenly inside the cavernous lobby, the ceiling an impossibly high sixty-five-feet overhead. Other guards scrutinized our IDs, photographed us, carefully searched our bags, and ushered us through the metal detectors. We made nervous small talk, each of us keenly aware that we were heading up into the sky that used to house the twin towers.

The New Yorker offices are as lovely as you might imagine: walls lined with framed cartoons and magazine covers, books and papers everywhere, the distinctive Irvin typeface gracing the signs that indicate who inhabits each office. Walls of glass abound, maximizing the sweeping views out to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty and all the way uptown to the Empire State Building.

In Treisman’s office, she encouraged us to step right up to the window to get the full view; it was impossible not to think about those who had jumped. Far below, the twin reflecting pools occupy the footprints of the original towers. We talked about editing Alice Munro, the significance of fiction, and the gravity of fact-based journalism during the Trump era. “It’s no secret that we’re not fans of Trump,” Treisman said fiercely. I felt a similar fierceness—an urgency—in each of our meetings, an undercurrent of purpose that writers in gentler times are spared.

As we toured the New Yorker offices, a few people glanced up and smiled, but most were assiduously tending to their work. The quiet buzz of dedicated, brilliant, and creative industry I felt in that office was echoed in every other meeting that week. It filled me with a sense not of comfort, exactly, but of certitude. Literary artists continue to use words as writers have always used words: to speak truth to power, to inspire and bear witness, to exercise our greatest freedom. I am proud to be among them.

The Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award is generously supported by Maureen Egen, a member of the Poets & Writers Board of Directors.

Photos: (top) Joan Dempsey and Brian Evans-Jones at the New Yorker offices (Credit: Bonnie Rose Marcus). (bottom) Joan Dempsey and Brian Evans-Jones with judges for the 2017 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award Tania James and Cynthia Cruz (Credit: Margarita Corporan).

Making Ourstory

Nancy Agabian is the author of Princess Freak (Beyond Baroque Books, 2000) and Me as Her Again: True Stories of an Armenian Daughter (Aunt Lute Books, 2008), which was honored as a Lambda Literary Award finalist for LGBT Nonfiction and shortlisted for a William Saroyan International Prize. Her novel manuscript The Fear of Large and Small Nations was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Agabian teaches creative writing at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University and for Heightening Stories, a series of community-based writing workshops online and in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, New York where she lives.

Sitting at a folding table at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, I worry that I am not queer enough. Some of the texts I’ve brought in to teach the Creative Writing From Queer Resistance workshop feel like old friends, read long ago, but others I haven’t even read yet. We will consider them each week on what I conceive as a timeline of queer liberation: Stonewall; feminist lesbian liberation; AIDS and Act Up; trans, bi, and gender/sexual fluidity; and marriage equality. But isn’t categorizing ongoing activism into History with a capital H decidedly not queer? And how am I an expert on resistance? I’m a forty-nine-year-old bisexual cis woman still healing from an abusive relationship six years ago, undergoing menopause, and caring for my elderly parents. How will I speak to the young people who sit around the table with me?

We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.  —Audre Lorde

The gallery walls are hung with images of naked bodies. Workshop participants, women and nonbinary, introduce themselves. A pattern emerges: They want to reconnect with their writing. They have felt alone in the current political moment. They have wanted a place where they can be all of who they are—in race, culture, religion, and identity—and where queerness is not the otherness in the room. Someone asks, “When we discuss the texts, do we have to analyze them, or can we talk about the feelings and experiences they call up in us?” Over the next few weeks, our conversations crackle and spiral, one person’s thoughts inspiring a response in someone else; people want to talk about their lives with each other as much as they want to write. 

The danger in writing is not fusing our personal experience and worldview with the social reality we live in, with our inner life.... What validates us as human beings validates us as writers.  —Gloria Anzaldúa

Halfway through the workshop, someone brings pumpkin chiffon cake on the evening we discuss Hunger (HarperCollins, 2017) by Roxane Gay, and it’s an experience. So is Gay: We have three other texts to discuss, but her descriptions of what she feels she deserves and doesn’t deserve in the way of love, as a survivor of gang rape, is enough for us. Someone says, “What she says about sexual violence in relation to queerness is something we don’t always want to admit.” We talk about accepting sexuality not as fixed biology, but humanity. Something shifts in me; I let go of my fear and find my purpose in holding the space.

My warmth was hidden until I found the right people with whom to share it, people I could trust.... —Roxane Gay

When someone asks, “Can we read non-American or non-Western texts?” I ask for their input. At our final workshop two folks bring in a nonfiction story called “The Woman Who Loved Women” from The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices (Anchor, 2003) by Xinran, and a science fiction short story called “The Worldless” about a genderless future by Indrapramit Das. As the pair discusses what compelled them about each piece, I realize that we all make our own queer herstories, shaped by the spaces we form together. The words of the authors we have read these past weeks are actually in conversation with us...and we speak back to them.

You will read words...that don’t ring true to you. Please, take a pen or pencil and cross them out. Write in a word you like better. And when that word doesn’t work for you anymore, use another word. —Kate Bornstein

Part of ourstory is language, which shifts and changes as we speak and write. As workshop facilitator, I strive to not take up too much room, but my feelings and experiences belong to our queer writing space too. As someone in the workshop says, “Showing up here is an act of resistance.”

The Creative Writing From Queer Resistance workshop will read from their work on Wednesday, December 6 at 6:30 PM at the Leslie-Lohman Museum in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood. For more information about the reading, please visit the events page.

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: Taken during rehearsal at the Leslie-Lohman Museum, (top) Nancy Agabian, (middle) Priya Nair, (bottom) Katrina Ruiz (Credit: Maria Jose Maldonado).

Adopted Korean Writers Read for a Global Audience

Julayne Lee is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection, Not My White Savior (Rare Bird Books, 2018). She is a Community Literature Initiative scholar and a Las Dos Brujas alum. She has been published by the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, Cultural Weekly, and Korean Quarterly. As part of the Writ Large Press #90X90LA project in 2017, she hosted the first-ever reading with adoptees of color in Los Angeles and is launching a writing workshop for those who identify as adopted people of color or racially ambiguous. Lee is cofounder of Adoptee Solidarity Korea – Los Angeles (ASK-LA) and can be found on Twitter @julayneelle.

Since the 1950s, South Korea has produced approximately two hundred thousand overseas adopted Koreans. As we’ve entered adulthood, gathering and connecting through our shared experiences have played important roles in our identity formation and well-being. For some, writing has been a means to navigate our adoption journeys, which at times can be very isolating geographically and emotionally.

In October 2017, over two hundred and thirty adopted Koreans gathered from across the country and around the world to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Adopted Koreans Association – San Francisco (AKA-SF) with a conference. A reading with adopted Korean writers highlighted their experiences through poetry, memoir, and fiction.

The reading brought together authors Jessica Sun Lee (An Ode to the Humans Who’ve Loved and Left Me), Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello (Hour of the Ox), SooJin Pate (From Orphan to Adoptee), and former Fresno Poet Laureate Lee Herrick (Gardening Secrets of the Dead). I also shared poems from my forthcoming collection, Not My White Savior. Our writing documents a variety of perspectives and issues including imagining the Korean families we might have grown up in, interrogating the text of our adoption files, highlighting the approximately thirty-five thousand intercountry adoptees without U.S. citizenship, and questioning our place both with family and in America.

Regardless of some of us having met only via e-mail prior to the reading and having our own unique experiences, our writing resonated amongst one another and with the audience. In the discussion that followed the reading, attendees expressed how meaningful and validating it was to hear our honest, raw words. The emotion in the room signified how giving life to shared experiences that have been suppressed can help us release significant thoughts and feelings, and begin to heal. With an ever-increasing focus on mental health for adopted people, this reading was critical in validating our experiences and bridging the isolating divide some of us have experienced.

My hope is that the bonds we formed through our shared experiences will carry us forward to continue this important work of writing and healing, and in turn provide a means of healing for others in our community. While honesty in writing can be challenging, as Aspen Matis, author of Girl in the Woods (HarperCollins, 2015), has said, “Authenticity sings.” And sing we did.

Thanks to AKA-SF for hosting the reading and to Poets & Writers for sponsoring this important reading. 

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: Julayne Lee (Credit: Samantha Magat).

A Street in Brooklyn: Writing Into the Urban Landscape

DéLana R.A. Dameron is the author of Weary Kingdom (University of South Carolina Press, 2017), which is part of the University of South Carolina Press’s Palmetto Poetry Series, edited by Nikky Finney. Her debut collection, How God Ends Us (University of South Carolina Press, 2009), was selected by Elizabeth Alexander for the 2008 South Carolina Poetry Book Prize. Dameron holds an MFA in poetry from New York University where she was a Goldwater Hospital Writing Workshop Fellow. She has conducted readings, workshops, and lectures all across the United States, Central America, and Europe.

I have been an alumna of the Cave Canem summer retreat since 2008, and had the opportunity to participate in smaller New York City workshops in 2008 and 2009. While the summer retreat is life-changing and affirming, and provided me with a long roster of lifelong friends in the poetry world, the prolonged space(s) with Myronn Hardy and Tracy K. Smith as facilitators provided me with a framework of what a community workshop could look like, how to be rigorous readers and writers in an after-work, weekly setting, while also building community. Cave Canem, for me, is about building a community of people who will sharpen your poeming pen.

I did all of this before I entered an “official” MFA workshop table at New York University. I say that to say, when I exited the MFA workshop table, I did not choose a life of teaching poetry in academia (though I would love to teach a class here or there!), but found other ways to pay my bills, and searched for opportunities to teach workshops to folks who went to work from 9:00 AM until 6:00 PM and came and sat down and still endeavored to read and write poetry in a supportive and educational space.

When Cave Canem asked me to teach the Poetry Conversations workshop, billed especially for beginning and intermediate poets, I jumped at the opportunity and said yes. Here, I was able to come home, to open up space for the many levels of poets that would hopefully sign up for the course.

It became very clear to me that I wanted to teach what I live: writing the everyday/the landscape(s) I inhabit into poetry, making it sing.

The “A Street in Brooklyn: Writing Into the Urban Landscape” workshop was at once a survey of Gwendolyn Brooks’s work as a poet. Weekly we read chronological selections from A Street in Bronzeville (Harper, 1945), Annie Allen (Harper, 1949), The Bean Eaters (Harper, 1960), In the Mecca (Harper, 1968), and single poems from her collected works in Blacks (David Co., 1987).

Of her own work and inspiration, Brooks said: “I wrote about what I saw and heard in the street. I lived in a small second-floor apartment at the corner, and I could look first on one side and then the other. There was my material.”

Reading Brooks is not only an exercise in understanding the mastery of writing the ordinary (Black folks in Chicago, the urban landscape writ large, etc.) into extraordinary poetry, but quickly I found that to teach Brooks over the span of her career, as documented in Blacks, is to also teach a Black history course, a Chicago history course.

Then, to charge the poets to do as Brooks did, and look out of their own windows for the poetry of their everyday lives, they included their own poetic historical markers of where and who they are now, especially in the context of gentrification, “urban renewal,” and the general displacement of Black cultural markers, people, histories, and stories.

At the last class there was an overwhelming sadness, but also a triumph. We had been through a literal journey together. At my urging, I asked poets to write about their neighborhood, a place that no longer existed, a place that showed NYC Black History—a mural, a statue, a hanging tree—and to write those things into sonnets, in rhyme, as ballads, as Brooks did in her early years. Together we coined the term “Brooksonian” and looked for moments when she shined the best, and then applied it to our poems that we brought to the table for workshop.

As the weeks progressed, and we marched along the historical timeline from 1945 (A Street in Bronzeville) to 1968 (In the Mecca) and beyond, we watched Brooks’s work open up, and we talked about what it meant to be a poet moved by a historic moment, and what it meant for Brooks to break open, even more, the poetic form. We talked about the uses of poetry, the politics of it, the immediacy and need. That same day a participant brought in a poem that referenced, as Brooks might have (and did for her Chicago Black people), Eleanor Bumpers, who was shot and killed by police in 1984 in the Bronx, as well as the now no longer existing Slave #1 Theater in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and all I could do was shake my head in awe: We had arrived.

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: (top) DéLana R.A. Dameron (Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths). (bottom) Workshop participants (Credit: DéLana R.A. Dameron).
 

Access for All

Kenny Fries is the author most recently of In the Province of the Gods (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017), which received the Creative Capital literature grant. His other memoirs include The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory and Body, Remember: A Memoir. His books of poems include In the Gardens of Japan, Desert Walking, and Anesthesia. He is the editor of Staring Back: The Disability Experience From the Inside Out, and was a Creative Arts Fellow of the Japan/U.S. Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, and twice a Fulbright Scholar (Japan and Germany). Fries teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at Goddard College.

For those of us who live with disabilities, when we think of access we mostly think of physical access: ramps, lifts, and technological aides. But cultural access is just as essential as physical access to an inclusive society.

Cultural access is a two-way street. People with disabilities need to see themselves represented—not stereotypically and as fully human—in our culture. But disabled and nondisabled alike benefit from access to disability culture because the experience enriches all of us.

I recently completed a fifteen-city tour for In the Province of the Gods, a memoir about my time as a disabled foreigner in Japan. Immersing myself in Japanese culture and meeting with artists, disability studies scholars, and atomic bomb survivors, while at the same time coming to terms with my HIV diagnosis, I learn about how Japan views impermanence and mortality.

Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program supported three tour events that increased access to disability culture. I read and was in conversation with writer Susan R. Nussbaum at Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago, which is committed to making our society more inclusive of people with disabilities by “removing barriers so people with disabilities can live the future they envision.” Access Living’s Disability Arts & Culture Project is exemplary of the centrality of disability arts and culture to such inclusion.

The audience at Access Living included people with disabilities of different ethnicities and sexualities, Chicago-based artists, as well as students from the Program on Disability Art, Culture, and Humanities at the University of Illinois, Chicago. A wide-ranging discussion about my writing process for In the Province of the Gods; my intersecting identities of being disabled, gay, and Jewish; and what it means to be considered “other” both in Japan and the United States ended the evening.

At Georgetown University I helped inaugurate a disability studies minor, which draws on course offerings ranging from anthropology to English, to nursing to theology. I read from and talked about In the Province of the Gods both at a packed event open to the public, as well as in the more intimate setting of a freshman seminar titled “Disability, Culture, and the Question of Care.”

I read at the University of Houston’s Medicine and the Arts Series, part of the Honors College’s Medicine & Society Program, which gives pre-health professionals, other students, and the public an opportunity to connect the arts to “the meanings of illness and caregiving.” Programs in narrative medicine and medical humanities are growing across the United States, and it is important that the stories of and by people with disabilities are included to counteract the dominant medical model of disability, which is predicated on eradicating disability either by killing it or curing it. One of the highlights was visiting their Literature and Medicine class, where a student shared his e-mail dialogue with a Buddhist professor about my book’s relationship to the process of shedding the self. 

The dialogues in Chicago, Washington D.C., and Houston are examples of what historian Paul K. Longmore calls our quest for “collective identity.” Longmore writes, “whereas the society-at-large prizes self-sufficiency, independence, functional separateness, and physical autonomy, the disability experience puts forth the values of self-determination, interdependence, personal connection, and human community.” On a month-long book tour, these events stood out as they not only increased access to disability culture, but also the importance of such values during the turbulent times in which we live.

Support for Readings & Workshops in Chicago, Houston, and 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) Kenny Fries (Credit: Micheal R. Dekker). (bottom) Libbie Rifkin, Teaching Professor at Georgetown University, and audience (Credit: Kenny Fries).

John Fox and Project Avary: Helping Teens Heal Through Poetry

John Fox is the author of Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making (TarcherPerigee, 1997) and Finding What You Didn’t Lose: Expressing Your Truth and Creativity Through Poem-Making (TarcherPerigee, 1995), and his work is featured in the PBS documentary Healing Words: Poetry and Medicine. In 2005, he founded the Institute for Poetic Medicine and his chapbook, The Only Gift to Bring (Seasonings Press, 2015), is available through the institute. Fox blogs about his experience leading writing workshops for Project Avary, an organization in San Rafael, California offering long-term support, resources, guidance, and training for children with incarcerated parents.  

In the spring of 2016, Zach Whelan of Project Avary called the office of the Institute for Poetic Medicine to ask if I was available to bring poetry to the teens they served. This residency would occur during a mid-June, two-week summer camp.

Zach and I spoke for over an hour. I was impressed with three things: 1. The seasoned care the Project Avary staff holds for teens with a parent or parents in prison. 2. The solid and proven program Project Avary has built, which includes a commitment of ten years to a child from the age of eight through their teen years. 3. Zach’s openness to not only poetry writing, but my focus on poetry-as-healer.

By the end of our talk and in subsequent meetings, we agreed to collaborate in an ongoing, mutual process that would bring poetry into the lives of Avary participants.

I would learn about the acute challenges faced by these teens—their sense of loss and abandonment, the societal stigma attached to having a parent in prison, as well as their capacity for resilience and how much they could teach us. I needed to learn and understand that reality to better know what my optimum role could be in joining this team. This process helped me in the selection of relevant poems that could serve as catalysts for writing.

In turn, Avary would learn from me how poetry can make a direct impact on the teens and their ability to dive into their issues of concern. Through the durable capacity of a poem, using the tools of poem-making, and by the natural strength of a supportive community, we could create a safe and generative way to explore and express. This mutual, encompassing collaboration becomes particularly important because the time to nurture and tend to their creative voices does not end with our limited time together—it actually begins!

What I can report to you is that Project Avary has incorporated poetry writing workshops into the core of their curriculum.

The conclusion of my two-year summer camp residency (with forty new campers joining each year) included a two-hour evening program where all participants shared their poems (also songs, skits, magic tricks, etc.) with the entire community. Avary calls this “The Untalent Show” with the emphasis on making it an open invitation to everyone—especially those who might feel they have nothing worthy to offer.

When a poem was read, there was a palpable quieting of a mostly young and happily raucous group at summer camp, which included dozens of young counselors and other staff. The people listening were less “audience” and more like family member, sensitive to their brothers and sisters, and cheering them on.

But what about the poetry? With their permission, I’m able to share some of the poetry by these young Project Avary participants.

LOVE

I didn’t want love.
Love is like dead tissue that won’t fall off.
I thought i didn’t need Love
but everyone wanted Love.
Did i need love.
What was the point of Love.
Did i want Love, did i need Love.
Would love make me happy.
The truth was i wanted love.
But would love want me.

—Monique Cook, age 13

UNTITLED

She was pure in a world not ready for her.
A rose born without thorns.
A body of water with no ripples.
A mirror with no cracks.
She was content in every sense of the word.
But she was born in a world with no intention
of keeping her that way.

—Malayah, age 16

TO ANGER

As you grip my mind
& sway my heart
spark dark flames
in the night of day
you keep notorious thoughts
tenaciously raising
barriers, levels
depleting every second
every month, every hour
contemplating my next act,
my next task & past actions;
forgetting present endeavors,
forgetting my loving nature,
forgetting the roots of my life,
forgetting me.

—Joseph Gladney, age 18

Support for this event was provided, in part, by Poets & Writers, thanks to a gift from Diana Raab. Additional support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the California Arts Council, a state agency, the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, and by the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photo: John Fox (Credit: Valerie Knight).

Urban Word NYC’s Youth Board Meets Poets & Writers

Dora Palacios, a Latina poet born in Queens, New York, in 1999, has been writing since the seventh grade. Her drive to keep writing was inspired by her English teachers throughout high school. After graduating high school, Dora joined the Youth Leadership Board at Urban Word NYC. She aspires to become a better writer with the help of her mentors and people who surround her.

The Youth Leadership Board (YB) at Urban Word NYC focuses on bringing together young creative artists to express themselves and, through their work, send social, political, and personal messages into New York City’s communities. Urban Word NYC has received funding from the Readings & Workshops program since 2005, and our program director Shanelle Gabriel was interested in exposing the youth board to literary organizations in New York City. On August 15, the youth board met with some of the staff at Poets & Writers, including Readings & Workshops (East) director Bonnie Rose Marcus, Readings & Workshops (East) program assistant Ricardo Hernandez, Poets & Writers Magazine senior editor Melissa Faliveno, and senior online editor Jessica Kashiwabara.

The youth board had many questions that probably every writer has, but in particular we wanted to know: “How can I get my work published?” We learned that Poets & Writers, in addition to funding writers who participate in literary readings and conduct workshops through its Readings & Workshops program, has many resources for writers who are just beginning, as well seasoned and professional writers. The magazine’s July/August 2017 issue includes a special section on literary agents who are seeking writers and eager to read new work. Included in every issue, and on the website, is information about contests and awards with upcoming deadlines. Poets & Writers Magazine and pw.org will be your best friend when looking for resources!

After meeting with the staff at Poets & Writers, a few of us YB members were talking about publishers and publishing. We came to the conclusion that it is really worthwhile to submit your work to journals and contests. It can boost your mood, whether you receive feedback or not, and will get your work out to the public. It also motivates you to keep writing and attend workshops. If you ask me, trying to get your poem published in a magazine is just a step closer to winning first place!

As a young poet, I often lose focus and it becomes arduous to gain that drive back. Seeking motivation in the wrong places, I force myself to come up with a poem that I am not really satisfied with. In reality, the motivation I need is found in my everyday routine—waking up, waiting for the F train to arrive—or how I feel that day. For me, taking one simple action and trying to connect it to the other images around me helps to create a poem, like comparing a melancholy day to the flourishing blue sky.

Poets & Writers has inspired me to keep trying to get my poetry published, no matter how many times I lose my way on the path. Now that I have met with the encouraging staff at Poets & Writers, I don’t think it’ll be as difficult to stay motivated.

Thank you to our youth engagement coordinator Shannon Matesky, and our program director Shanelle Gabriel for reaching out to Poets & Writers. The youth board looks forward to working more with the organization! Thank you for having us!

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) Dora Palacios (Credit: Shannon Matesky). (bottom) Urban NYC Youth Leadership Board members with Poets & Writers staff.

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 brilliant 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).

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