Readings & Workshops Blog

Poets & Writers’ Seventh Annual Los Angeles Connecting Cultures Reading

Readings & Workshops (West) director Jamie Asaye FitzGerald blogs about Poets & Writers’ seventh annual Los Angeles Connecting Cultures Reading at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice, California.

Each year for the past seven years, Poets & Writers has held the Los Angeles Connecting Cultures Reading, which astounds audiences with the diversity of its performers and their unique voices, and the power of the work read to redeem, heal, and delight.

We select five organizations that serve culturally diverse groups and have received support from the Readings & Workshops (R&W) program to help curate the event. Each organization chooses readers to represent them at the reading. This year’s event was held at Beyond Baroque on June 4, 2017 and included 826LA, a writing and tutoring center; Beyond Baroque, a literary/arts center; the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory, serving homeless and at-risk youth; Bittersweet: The Immigrant Stories, a reading featuring the voices of immigrant writers; and Urban Possibilities, serving the urban poor of Los Angeles. It’s wonderful to witness the general comradery between the presenters as they meet and discover one another’s work.

Among the eleven readers, who all gave strong readings, were four teen writers, including Xolo Maridueña, a fifteen-year-old sophomore who attended a R&W–supported writing workshop with Jeff Chang at the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory in March. Xolo read his first poem ever—a poem about falling in love, in which he wrote: “When I would see her, the butterflies in my stomach would turn into pterodactyls,” an experience I’m sure many in the audience could relate to. Also writing on the theme of love was another teen writer, Ashla Chavez Razzano, representing 826LA, who wrote, “a spider’s web taught me to love.” Nadia Villegas, also representing 826LA, read a poem about how “blue nail polish is freedom,” and Vera Castañada from the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory called the neighborhood around Cesar Chavez Avenue where she grew up, “the West Coast Ellis Island.”

So Hyun Chang, representing Bittersweet: The Immigrant Stories, read in Korean his poem “Sugarcane Arirang,” recounting the first Korean American’s long days in the sugar fields of Hawaii, where they would chant a song of hope, “arirang, arirang,” to help pass the time. Hack Hee Kang read a poem using the Korean dish bi bim bap to convey a sense of loneliness and longing, and Jun C. Kim moved silently as a recording of his poem played over the loud speaker.

Ambika Talwar, who hails from India, read on behalf of Beyond Baroque rich, evocative poems about searching for home and “the true power of your own volition.” Jessica Ceballos y Campbell also representing Beyond Baroque, read her poem from Only Light Can Do That, a collection of stories, poems, and essays published by PEN Center USA in response to the 2016 presidential election and ensuing events. Her poem, dedicated to her parents and “all of the magicians” spoke of those who make “gardens, in a world that would prefer us not to exist” and how “When man, woman, and child pour their bodies across the man-made borders they are executing a willed-intention to change what they know of the world….”

Yvette Jones-Johnson, the executive director of Urban Possibilities, spoke powerfully about homelessness in Los Angeles, citing lifelong poverty, losing everything, life after incarceration, abuse, and military trauma as some of the factors contributing to the high rates. Her readers, Keith Brown and Norma L. Eaton, are both alums of the Urban Possibilities writing empowerment program. Brown, a veteran who hails from the U.K., read a gorgeous pastoral poem reminiscent of Wordsworth, and Eaton astounded the audience with a devastating poem about her experience of homelessness. After the reading, she commented: “I felt as though I was the Reincarnation of Maya Angelou! She Understood ‘Why the Cage Bird Sang’ And I know how it feels to be homeless and destitute, knowing that ‘My Name Is Forgotten.’  I wanted the Message to be conveyed with the hope of transforming the hearts and changing the stigma of homelessness…. Sharing the stage with the other artists was phenomenal.  I sat and feasted at the table of literary Art.”

We give our thanks to the organizations, project directors, and writers who made this event possible, as well as Beyond Baroque, for hosting and for their support.

To keep up with Readings & Workshops news and events, such as Connecting Cultures, please be sure to sign up for our quarterly newsletter, Readings & Workshops Presents.

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

Photo (top): Teen poet Xolo Maridueña representing the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory. Photo (bottom): (left to right) Brandi Spaethe, Norma L. Eaton, Keith Brown, Jamie Asaye FitzGerald, Eyvette Jones-Johnson, Ambika Talwar, Hack Hee Kang, audience member, Tanya Ko Hong, Jun C. Kim. (Credit: Craig Johnson Photography).

The First-Ever Poetry Workshop at Footsteps

Jessica Greenbaum’s most recent book of poems is The Two Yvonnes (Princeton University Press, 2012). Recipient of an NEA award in 2015 and the Poetry Society’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award in 2016, she is a social worker and teaches inside and outside academia, most recently at Barnard, Central Synagogue, Brooklyn Poets, Footsteps, and for 9/11 first responders through the World Trade Center’s Health Program. You can find out more about her work at poemsincommunity.org.

Last winter, Poets & Writers supported a poetry workshop at Footsteps, the only agency in North America providing services for people venturing out of the insular world of Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy. I had heard about Footsteps through a fellow social worker, Jesse Pietroniro, who was a Footsteps staff member—and I was immediately drawn to working with this community.  (A stellar feature piece about Footsteps, “The High Price of Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Life,” was recently published in the New York Times Magazine.) Jesse helped champion the notion of a workshop to his colleagues, but it was clear that any payment was going to have to come from an outside source. Luckily, a friend introduced me to Emily Rubin, a writer who has been supported by P&W for her workshops with cancer survivors, their families and caregivers, at two hospitals in New York City. Emily told me about P&W’s grant program, and after I reached out to the director of Readings & Workshops (East) Bonnie Rose Marcus, it took P&W almost no time at all to recognize Footsteppers—as they call themselves—as an underserved population if ever there was one.

Because we ran the five weeks of workshops as open door sessions, participants often overlapped from the week before, but each week the room held new people and a varied dynamic. One participant had been writing for years, and was just awaiting the publication of her chapbook, while others came as novices. Very little is as refreshing—and instructive—as the passion of a reader without internalized hierarchies. Discussing the poem of a laureled poet one participant said, “I hate this guy!” This same participant also unpacked more exciting ideas from another well-known poet’s six-line poem than I ever had, adding, “I love this stuff!” Because Footsteppers have learned to survive by listening to their true thoughts, they have honed the tools of a poet—an honest listening—before even stepping into the room.

The big decision in such a workshop is: How overtly therapeutic should the workshop feel—and still offer poetry writing as a means of expression for everyone? In order to best serve the Footsteppers, how directly should I address issues of identity, family abandonment, trauma, and the other emotional weather systems in the world of people leaving an insular community? From the work I had done with 9/11 first responders, and in consultation with studies used by the NEA’s writing program for veterans suffering from PTSD, I decided to offer some model poems that would touch on those issues at a slant, but that the workshop would present itself more neutrally, almost like a cooking class, and that I would follow where discussion and concerns wandered.

As so often happens, class prompts allowed participants to have spontaneous, organic responses. When asked to recount, as if telling the story to a friend, an incident from childhood that remained resonant for them, participants found their way to anecdotes that seem to hold whole microcosms of their bigger histories. And a prompt to follow stream of consciousness did the same.

Find a community with a tragic amount unsaid and you’ll find a workshop with a true reason for finding words. Find people who have lost a profound sense of their past in order to shape their true selves, and you’ll find poems that blaze with life force and discovery.

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 Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photo: (top) Jessica Greenbaum (Credit: Leslie Jean-Bart).

It Happens Every Spring in Harlem: A Festival of Poetry

Gregory Crosby is the author of Spooky Action at a Distance (The Operating System, 2014) and The Book of Thirteen (Yes, Poetry, 2016). He teaches creative writing for the College Now program at Lehman College in Bronx, New York.

The Harlem Rhymers are laying it down, beating out the rhythm of the poem with claps and snaps, a row of middle school girls in matching white T-shirts that pop against the red-curtained backdrop of the Marian Anderson Theater stage, bringing the words home and the house down with their choreographed truth:

Pretty hurts, yeah
We know
But these scars aren’t
Here just for show
Work to be skinny
Work to get money
You’re already beautiful enough
That’s the truth, honey!

After the wild applause dies down, these students from PS/IS 180 beam as they pose for photographs with author Jacqueline Woodson, the 45th Special Guest Poet at the City College of New York’s Annual Poetry Festival. Every May for nearly a half-century, students from New York City public schools have gathered to read their winning poems at this day-long celebration of the spoken word, and to hear poets and writers like Woodson (whose appearance was funded in part by the Readings & Workshops program at Poets & Writers) read their work, along with student poets in the MFA Creative Writing program at the City College of New York (CCNY), faculty, and others.

Founded by the poet Barry Wallenstein, the Poetry Festival is the culmination of a year’s work by the CCNY Poetry Outreach Center. Directed by poet and YA author Pamela Laskin, the center sends mentors into New York City schools to conduct poetry workshops; the day’s readings by elementary and middle school poets are the fruit of those sessions. In the afternoon, the winners of the citywide high school poetry contest (sponsored by Alfred K. Knopf), read their poems from the stage. In addition to reading their work aloud for peers and parents, these students enjoy the thrill of seeing their work in print. All poems read on the day of the festival are collected and published in the autumn in the annual anthology Poetry in Performance. Copies are sent to all participants as well as to school libraries around the city.

In the current educational landscape, when poetry as a subject is often sadly shunted aside in favor of mandatory (and seemingly endless) standardized test preparation, CCNY’s Poetry Outreach Center offers many students crucial exposure to the pleasures of writing poetry. Thanks to the contributions of donors, particularly the generous and stalwart support of the Poets & Writers Readings & Workshops program, the center continues its mission, adding new participating schools nearly every year and welcoming returning ones. Every year or two, a new crop of Harlem Rhymers finds the voice that only poetry can give, and takes the stage at the festival to wow another audience with the power of that voice.

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 Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photos: (top) Gregory Crosby (Credit: Gregory Crosby). (bottom) Jacqueline Woodson and the Harlem Rhymers (Credit: Lesley Simmonds).

Desert Poetry: A Response to the Political Present

Feliz Lucia Molina was born and raised to Filipino immigrants who ran crisis heterotopias (board-and-care facilities) in San Fernando Valley, California. She holds a BA from Naropa University, an MFA from Brown University, and will be joining the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago this fall. A poetry editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, her books include Undercastle (Magic Helicopter Press, 2013), The Wes Letters (Outpost19, 2014), and the forthcoming Thundercastle and Roulette. Her work has appeared in Jacket2, Open Space, Fence, PEN America, and elsewhere. She is based in Chicago and the Southern California desert.

Desert Poetry was conceived and organized by me (Feliz Lucia Molina), Ben Segal, Joseph Mosconi, and Harmony Holiday. The idea for this event transpired at the beginning of nationwide marches and uprisings during the first one hundred days of the number forty-five administration. We sent out a call for the sole purpose of offering space for poets and writers to gather in the Southern California desert (Joshua Tree and Landers) to share concerns, thoughts, practices, and research on issues that are in direct response to the political present. The response to our call was overwhelming as it culminated into a series of twenty-four workshops, readings, and presentations during the weekend of April 7–9. People traveled from far distances including Chicago, Pittsburgh, Oakland, Santa Cruz, New York, Wisconsin, San Diego, and Los Angeles. It was an immediate collective and collaborative atmosphere as people volunteered to help with various tasks.

We created a private Facebook event page to share updates and information regarding the event. Noah Cicero, a writer based in Las Vegas, wrote on Facebook of the event: “Yesterday I went to Desert Poetry in Joshua Tree…. There were like forty poets in the desert, some came as far as upstate New York and Chicago, some with doctorates, some just getting their undergrad, but everyone was allowed to speak and be listened to on an equal footing. I have probably never seen a group with such a lack of hierarchy in my life.” While there were closer to eighty people in attendance, it is true that the mood was indeed non-hierarchical; this was not a goal, but was something that arose in the moment as the urgency to gather and convene was realized.

Poets & Writers provided a number of workshop grants that made it possible to host Joy KMT, Lily Hoang, Cathy Linh Che, and Harmony Holiday who led marvelous and thought-provoking workshops on Black Quantum Futurism Poetics, radical self-care, embodied fairytale magic-making, and the possibilities collectivity within a present-future Black Arts Movement.

We are so grateful to the following presenters for leading us through a collective re-alignment in the great expanse of the Southern California desert.

Zack Haber with an exercise on playful relation with the body; Jeanine Webb with Guided Stargazing and Radical Cosmology; Trinie Dalton with Hi-Desert Wildflowers, Hummingbirds, Rainbows; Elisabeth Houston with BABY; Raquel Gutiérrez with improvisational dialogic dyads & The bordering nowhere of difficult terrains; Amanda Ackerman and Michelle Detorie with Feral Writing Practices: Writing across species boundaries and across the terrestrial terrain; Mg Roberts with The bits of life. Everything. Fluxes. Fevers. (Here.) A poem.; Lisa Fishman and Richard Meier with Teaching Against Commodification; Saehee Cho with Making Flatbread While Camping (absent at the last minute but there in spirit); Suzanna Zak with How to Sleep and Eat Outside; Emerson Whitney with Trans non-assimilationism and radical alterity; Vi Khi Nao with The Ethics of Deportation; Veggie Cloud (Kate Wolf and Courtney Stephens) with a film-screening of Robert Kramer’s “MILESTONES;” Ben Segal with Open Discussion on Entering Local Politics; Avi Varma with Co-Work Space for Potential Dropouts; Danielle Pafunda and Reagan Wilson with Working Through Pain; Jennifer Scappettone with Boom, Strike, Bust-Reocuppy Mining, & Weighing the Cloud; ARMED RADII and Mayakov + sky Platform with Post-crisis Poetics: Writing the World System; Anthony McCann with Hike & Reading (to Samuelson Rocks); Melissa Mack with Sonic Meditations; and a distributed molecular guide to the Mojave exploring the poetics of scale as a tactics of resistance to dominant desert representations by Brett Zehner and Kylie King.

For more information about the full program of Desert Poetry, please visit: armsandhugs.tumblr.com. Another event in 2018 is in the planning stages to be announced soon.

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

Photo: (top) Feliz Lucia Molina (Credit: Feliz Lucia Molina). Photo: (bottom) Desert Poetry event (Credit: Feliz Lucia Molina).

Shin Yu Pai on Acts of Literary Resistance and Beyond

Shin Yu Pai is the current poet laureate of Redmond, Washington and a speaker for the Humanities Washington Speaker Bureau. She is the author of eight books of poetry and serves as poetry editor for Lawrence & Crane Publications. In addition to her work as a poet, she has published personal essays and exhibited photography and book arts at galleries and museums. She is a former poet in residence for the Seattle Art Museum and her poems have been commissioned by the Dallas Museum of Art and Yakama Nation Museum.

During National Poetry Month, I inevitably overbook events and find myself scrambling to meet my commitments. Though I love meeting new audiences, by the end of the month, I’m very ready to go back to being an introvert. Two of my favorite events this spring were programs that Poets & Writers helped to make possible.

I’ve been touring a talk for Humanities Washington that focuses on the evolution of my work as a writer—moving from the practice of ekphrastic writing to doing collaborative work with photographers, archivists, musicians, and sound engineers to arriving at a hybrid creative practice that brings together my passion for photography, sound, installation, and text in public art projects installed on bike trails and apple orchards. The talk, which includes a slide show and poetry reading, attracts people from wide backgrounds. At my program in the Seattle suburb of Burien, I talked with painter and experimental filmmaker Ken DeRoux about how working as a former museum curator and museologist has influenced my work. And sculptor Phillip Levine and I chatted about the ways in which the visual and the textual intersect. I can’t wait to visit his studio.

This past week, I visited community college students in Jared Leising’s English class at Cascadia College. I talked to students about the idea of an artful, expressive life versus putting any definition around poetry or visual arts. Before my presentation, I toured a small gallery connected to the lecture hall to view works of art responding to the theme of “resistance.” They ranged from images of protestors in Seattle’s many recent marches to more subtle takes on issues like immigration, Black Lives Matter, and the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Afterwards, Jared and I talked about the strategy of ekphrastic writing—how it invites a response to an object or thing, though the thing can just as easily be a concept or idea. We spoke of how a beginning writer might enact their own resistance on the page by responding to some deeper issue or calling that brings forth some desire to speak.

As I pulled together my belongings to leave, a trio of students stopped me to ask me about translation. Linda had been translating her teacher Jared’s poems from English into Chinese and they didn’t make sense. We talked about how cultural context and story run deeper than words. Though it took me a minute to find my bearings, I remembered that the act of writing about visual arts is its own kind of translation. As we parted, Linda’s friend from Sichuan province said that they so rarely see Asian visitors in the classroom. “We’re so proud of you,” he said. His comment brought me back to the joy of public speaking—that this sharing of work need not be self-indulgent, but what it must be is a gesture towards greater connection and generosity.

Support for Readings & Workshops in Seattle 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.

Photo: Shin Yu Pai (Credit: Piper Hanson Photography).

When Soul and Poetry Meet, A Revue Takes Place

Cynthia Manick is the author of Blue Hallelujahs (Black Lawrence Press, 2016). A Pushcart Prize nominee with an MFA in creative writing from the New School, she has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, Hedgebrook, Poets House, and the Vermont Studio Center. She serves as East Coast Editor of Jamii Publishing and is founder and curator of the reading series Soul Sister Revue. Her work has appeared in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series, African American Review, Bone Bouquet, Callaloo, Muzzle Magazine, Tidal Basin, the Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. She currently resides in Brooklyn.

At the end of 2013, I wanted a change. I had been going to traditional poetry readings for years and they all felt the same—the same writers and their friends, people with an MFA reading with similar graduates, or people with published books. And more troubling, I didn’t see people who looked like me, on stage or in the audience. People of color were hard to find and when I did find them, there was usually only one on stage with a couple of their friends in the audience for support. Fortunately, I’ve never been the kind of person to wait for things to happen, so I created Soul Sister Revue.

Revue is such a strange name, but it reminded me of vaudeville acts, Motown singers performing together, and theatrical sketches of the 1960s and 1970s that told a story. Soul music and poetry go hand in hand, and when you add the African American oral tradition of storytelling, a revue takes place. People put down their phones, and focus on readers of all ages, gender, and race, as they tell their story through poetry. The first reading took place in April 2014 with Hettie Jones (author of Drive and How I Became Hettie Jones), Evie Shockley (author of a half-red sea and the new black), JP Howard, and me, with T’ai Freedom Ford as host. I had positive experiences with poetry residencies and workshops, so I asked people I admired and they responded. I also set a precedent of established writers (Hettie and Evie) reading on stage with emerging writers (JP and I). To gain interest and connect the Revue to music, I advertised using remastered covers of Jet, Blues and Soul, and Ebony; a practice that still continues. 

Old-fashioned revues came and went like rent parties or pop-up shows, so Soul Sister follows that trend by performing four times a year, one show per season. Each show asks, “What is soul?” Recent audience member Terrance Hayes (author of Lighthead and How to Be Drawn) yelled out, “James Brown!” Others answered, “a feeling,” “music in the veins,” and “connection to the universe.” The answers lay in all of that and in poetry. Soul Sister has read at the NYC Poetry Festival, the HiFi Bar, and with the help of a Poets & Writers’ grant, it goes back to Cornelia Street Cafè every year.

Readers have included Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Gregory Pardlo, Cathy Linh Che, R. Erica Doyle, Ebony Noelle Golden, Charlene McClure, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Elana Bell, and Kamilah Aisha Moon. Some poets e-mail poems to soulsisterrevue@gmail.com and others I find through readings across the city, small online journals, poet recommendations, and if I see an audience member that connects to the work, I’ll put them on the list. At the end of the night, I tell the audience that their story has yet to be written, so go out and write a poem. I like to believe that the soul helps them listen.

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 Louis and Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photo: (left to right) Ed Toney, LeRonn Brooks, Janel Cloyd, Noel Quiñones, Cynthia Manick, Purvi Shah, and Yadira De La Riva at the Fourth Anniversary Show (Credit: Cynthia Manick).

Asian American Poets Encounter the South

Tiana Nobile is a Kundiman Fellow and lives in New Orleans. Her poetry has appeared in the CollagistPhantom, Bone Bouquet, TENDE RLOIN, and others. Her chapbook, The Spirit in the Staircase, a collaboration with visual artist Brigid Conroy, is forthcoming in spring 2017.

The history and reality of being Asian American in the South are often rendered invisible when it comes to mainstream discourse. Four Kundiman fellows worked to challenge this erasure by uplifting the voices of Asian American poets in the South through the panel, “Self-Articulation and Solidarity: Asian American Poets Encounter the South,” a hybrid poetry reading and discussion at the New Orleans Poetry Festival on April 21.

Within the vast terrain that constitutes the South, we all hail from distinct locations—Ching-In Chen from Houston, Kimberly Alidio from Austin, Vidhu Aggarwal from Orlando, and I’m from New Orleans—and our experiences and histories within these places vary greatly. This panel was not an attempt to seek or define a singular narrative; rather, we discussed the diversity of experience and our personal relationships with the South, whether that be as newcomers, natives, or transplants. While our various participations range, they include actively acknowledging and illuminating the deep, complex histories of Asian American existence in southern communities as teachers and standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement as activists through Asians 4 Black Lives. During the panel we shared poems and engaged in a critical dialogue in order to call attention to the fact that yes, we are here, we have been here, and we aren’t going anywhere.

Below, the panelists share their thoughts on the experience.

“Our panel was a map across Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and Maryland. It stitched many Asian American Souths: rural and urban, spectacular and invisible. It is intimate and curious. How we commute between communities in a politically diverse South. How we return again and again to crisis encounters in responses to street harassers and scammers profiting from gentrification schemes. How childhoods in the South birth postcolonial futures. How technologies can translate and transmit the migrant condition. Our panel pushed against various narrows and traps. We don’t claim space for permanent, historical settlements atop indigenous land. We refuse to compete with Black communities for civic attention and resources in the South. This is difficult and collaborative work. Thanks to Poets & Writers for making this glimpse of possibility possible.”
—Kimberly Alidio, author of After projects the resound (Black Radish, 2016)

“For Ching-In and I, the New Orleans Poetry Festival was the third iteration of the ‘Self-Articulation’ panel. For me it felt different speaking in New Orleans, where I grew up, learned to ride a bike, worked in street fairs, and where Tiana Nobile has lived for the last ten years. Kimberley Alido read/spoke brilliantly of the Texas landscape. Tiana read from her manuscript The Spirit in the Staircase, ‘l’esprit d’escalier,’ the French term for the perfect comeback, arriving woefully too late, after the fact. We’ve all had our share of jibes, insults on the street, and the impossibility of ready answers. Ching-In asked me about comebacks I might have up my sleeve, and I blanked. A comeback to what? My instinct was to invite folks in the room to hurl insults at me, so I could test my wits in real time! But I couldn’t even do that. I was too slow! The conversation moved on: to the freeze response. Or whether or not our works were a type of response. But would that always put our work/ourselves in a defensive/offensive posture? In argument? We could have talked more, and did over drinks and crawfish at Tiana’s. It was okay to be slow, to take our time, to meet up again and again and figure it out.”
—Vidhu Aggarwal, author of The Trouble With Humpadori (The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, 2016)

“It’s rare to be seen and allowed space to reflect upon where you live, where you spend time, what you are burning to say and ask. While living in the South, I have felt between spaces, between binaries, between stories. One of the challenges about making sense of our experiences living in the South is that they are so varied and feel singular. Though our experiences living/working in Baltimore; Austin, Houston, and Huntsville in Texas; Orlando, Florida; and New Orleans were varied, to talk, eat, laugh, and poem with other Kundiman South poets at the New Orleans Poetry Festival was to recognize and make sense of each other, to put story to our questions, dialogues, and encounters, to practice generosity with each other and with those we live in community.”
—Ching-In Chen, author of recombinant (Kelsey Street Press, 2017)

Support for Readings & Workshops in New Orleans 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.

Photo: Kimberly Alidio, Ching-In Chen, Vidhu Aggarwal, and Tiana Nobile (Credit: Cathy Linh Che).

Terry Moore on the Show Poetry Series in Sacramento

Terry Moore, aka T-Mo, is the longtime host and workshop facilitator of the Show Poetry Series, sponsored by the Center for Fathers and Families, in Sacramento, California. Among his accomplishments include numerous Best Spoken Word Poet awards, a Best Live Performer award, and a BMA Image award. He has appeared on Showtime at the Apollo and BET, and shared the stage with the Temptations, Maya Angelou, Kirk Franklin, Mary Mary, Dr. Cornel West, WAR, and many others.

I have the honor and privilege of being chosen by the Center for Fathers and Families (CFF) as the featured workshop facilitator and event host for the Show Poetry Series. The CFF offers programs and services that lead to family growth, enrichment, and empowerment. The Show has been around for sixteen years and support from Poets & Writers has played a huge part in its success. It draws all ages (from five years old to sixty years old) and nationalities, and is a beautiful thing for our community.

At each workshop, participants arrive and gather for a social period to get to know each other. They are encouraged to meditate in order to bring out thoughts from deep within. Once they feel motivated, all participants write a story that they best remember, that excites them, or means the most to them. Their writing is shared with the entire group and encouragement is always expressed, especially from the more experienced poets.

Those who feel comfortable are invited to share their work at the mic and receive feedback. Once they receive 100 percent positive feedback either at that time or in a future workshop, they are invited to perform their work at the main poetry event.

The exciting part is that half of the participants are first timers, who were drawn to the workshops and events as audience members. Their families are amazed and our community watches the birth of some great artists.

In addition to the workshop and event, we have created a local Access TV show to highlight the poets and give them the opportunity to see themselves perform and enhance their skills.

Being part of the Show has given me a place to share and test out work that has developed me into an award-winning poet. I’m inspired by the unity, teamwork, and positive atmosphere it provides for our community. I feel blessed to be a part of this movement.

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

Photo: Terry Moore (Credit: J.M. Images Photography).

An Evening With Kelly Harris and Rodrigo Toscano at the University of New Orleans

Carolyn Hembree’s debut poetry collection, Skinny, was published by Kore Press in 2012. In 2016, Trio House Books published her second collection, Rigging a Chevy Into a Time Machine and Other Ways to Escape a Plague, winner of the 2015 Trio Award and the 2015 Rochelle Ratner Memorial Award. Her work has appeared in Colorado Review, jubilat, Poetry Daily, and elsewhere. She has received grants and fellowships from PEN, the Louisiana Division of the Arts, and the Southern Arts Federation. An assistant professor at the University of New Orleans, Hembree teaches writing and is the poetry editor of Bayou Magazine.

The University of New Orleans (UNO) English Department and the Creative Writing Workshop, our MFA program, hosts readings and lectures by local and national poets. In recent years, Marilyn Chin, Shara McCallum, Laura Mullen, Marjorie Perloff, Metta Sáma, and Richard Siken have presented their work at UNO. Our poetry readings are held in the Liberal Arts building, Room 197, aka “the Lounge.” Complete with a kitchenette, restrooms, a brick courtyard, filled bookshelves, conference tables, couches, comfy chairs, restrooms, and seven entrances, this communal space serves as a casual dining area, a workshop classroom, and the site of the annual MFA prom. Reflective of the culture of our program and the city, a motto that suits our events might be: Come as you are. Bring what you can. Students and faculty arrange the furniture and contribute homemade food and refreshments.

Last fall, on the evening of October 26, “the Lounge” was packed with forty to fifty attendees. Current Creative Writing Workshop candidate Elle Magnuson introduced New Orleans poet Kelly Harris. One of our city’s most exciting talents, Kelly Harris opened with her cri de coeur, an elegy comprised of the names and lines of “lost black poets”—names and lines Harris variously scatted and sang. She read from loose pages spread across a table—as she later demonstrated during the Q&A—she scored the poem to indicate her vocal inflection. Kelly spent two years studying music to improve upon her poetry and performance skills. Social consciousness characterized the work she shared, particularly poems from Shame on Her, a manuscript on body politics and African American women. Embracing the public role of the poet, Kelly Harris told the audience, “I want to have an audience that’s janitors, poets, everybody—and that comes at a cost.”

Creative Writing Workshop alumnus Spencer Silverthorne then introduced Rodrigo Toscano. A polyphonic poet with an experimental bent, the longtime Brooklyn resident and recent New Orleans transplant gave a memorable performance from his fifth poetry collection, Explosion Rocks Springfield (Fence Books, 2016). Like Harris, Toscano read from a stack of loose pages. A line from a newspaper article, “The Friday evening gas explosion in Springfield leveled a strip club next to a day care,” serves as the title of each of the book’s eighty poems—a title he delivered with varied nuance each time.

As interrogations of language, Toscano’s text and performance compelled us to consider the impact of words written and spoken, private and public. His fine performance emphasized the contrast of appropriated language from industrial reports and newspapers, and with interjections, onomatopoeia, demotic idioms, interjections, and lyric imagery he engaged listeners. He interacted with the audience frequently, even directing us to repeat the refrain of one poem. However, the most effective moments of his performance may have been the counterpoints to the multiple registers of diction as he ruminated about the language, “What is care exactly?”

Thanks to Poets & Writers’ consistent support and publicity, event attendance by the university and larger community has doubled. Come as you are. Bring what you can. Care.

Support for Readings & Workshops in New Orleans 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) Carolyn Hembree (Credit: Lynda Woolard). (bottom) Rodrigo Toscano and Kelly Harris (Credit: Mimi Miller).

HIV WITH: Writing Within an Epidemic

Theodore (ted) Kerr, is a member of the What Would an HIV Doula Do? collective. He is a Canadian-born, Brooklyn-based writer, organizer, and artist. His work has appeared in the Advocate, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Lambda Literary, BOMB, the New Inquiry, and many other publications. Kerr received his MA from Union Theological Seminary and is the former programs manager for Visual AIDS. 

In 2015, a group of artists, educators, activists, writers, doulas, and healthcare workers came together for an informal think tank to discuss social, cultural, and political issues that surround HIV/AIDS—which include criminalization, stigma, and ways AIDS history is being remembered and disremembered. From there we formed a collective, and started meeting monthly. What became obvious to us soon in the process was that we, as a group, had to check in with each other to figure out what we knew and felt about HIV. Each of us—whether living with the virus or being deeply impacted by it—had different experiences and awareness of the epidemic. At the same time, doula work had become ever more present in our communities—birth doulas, end of life doulas, abortion doulas, gender doulas—folks who fundamentally hold space for someone during a time of transition. We came to understand that we needed to doula ourselves, that is, to hold space for each other in order to better understand the current reality of the virus, to better consider what contemporary responses to AIDS should look like. To do this, we began with a question: What would an HIV doula do?

Since then, our collective has worked to bring community back to the HIV response and begin a conversation around how to ensure that the state and AIDS nonprofit organizations work for people living with the virus, and not the other way around. We do our work in open meetings and at events. AIDS is a public issue and should be treated as such. Long before the response to HIV became professionalized, before it even had a name, the communities affected by it responded in the streets. They protested, walked each other’s dogs, carried caskets, filed paperwork, saved art, held each other’s hands. In the course of our work, we have been reminded of a fundamental truth about the epidemic: No one gets HIV alone. And so no one should have to deal with it alone. When it comes to the virus, it is always, HIV with. So when the opportunity to work with Poets & Writers came up, we jumped at the chance to use writing as a way to bring together people who were living with HIV, or have been deeply impacted by it.

With the support of Poets & Writers, we created a five-part workshop series titled HIV WITH. For each session, a different theme—trauma, spirituality, public health, language, witnessing—and its relation to HIV would be explored under the guidance of a writer and a cofacilitator. For the second workshop of the series, poet and educator Timothy DuWhite and dancer and healer iele paloumpis came together to explore HIV through the interconnected systems of the mind, body, soul, and government. After delivering a powerful presentation on how the state often fails and targets people of color when it comes to HIV, the facilitators assigned writing prompts that had us respond to the ideas presented. iele invited us to get up from our seats, and—based on writing we had done in the room—use our bodies to express a journey we have had with HIV. As a writer, I was moved by this exercise. By the end of the workshop, I felt compelled to write more, buoyed by the shared experience of cracking spines, tears, hugs, comfort eating, and putting proverbial pen to paper. 

So much of writing is about being vulnerable on the page, alone, and then sending it out into the world. So much about HIV is about our bodies, risk, and judgement. Support from Poets & Writers has enabled the What Would an HIV Doula Do? collective to build communal spaces where we can work to reduce the harm of HIV, transform the pain and stigma surrounding it, and be active participants in ensuring it metamorphosizes into health and resilience, through written word. As we continue to uncover what the response to HIV is and needs to be, we are reminded by opportunities like this workshop series that we need each other, that we have each other, and writing can be a way of healing.

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 Louis and Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photos: (top) Theodore Kerr (Credit: William Johnson). (bottom) HIV WITH altar (Credit: Theodore Kerr).

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