Our Program Director Laurin Macios announces two programs for teachers this summer. If you are a teacher or if you know someone who is and might benefit from these two programs, let them know about the professional development seminar in poetry at UMass Boston and about the twelfth annual Poetry Institute for Educators at Boston University.
On March 21 students in the Commonwealth will have the opportunity to hear and work with an amazing poet who has won many national prizes, including at least one prize for each of the three books she has published in the last eleven years. The latest, Lucky Fish, published by Massachusetts-based Tupelo Press, won the gold medal in Poetry for the Independent Publishers Book Awards and was featured in the New York Times and on the PBS NewsHour ArtsBeat. Her honors and awards include a Pushcart Prize and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Teachers, time is running out, but you can still register for Student Day of Poetry, which will be held at U Mass Boston. The last day for registration is this Friday — the 7th of March. [Read more...]
Lisa Stott, who teaches at the Wetherbee School in Lawrence and organized a Student Day of Poetry, contributed the following story.
Lately it seems that Lawrence has been in the news only to highlight the state’s designation of the Public School System’s “underperforming status” and announcement of its newly appointed receiver. But on January 10, 2012, over 275 middle school students and teachers at the Emily G. Wetherbee School certainly defied the recent tag name and caught a break from all the talk of what to do to raise the test scores of a 22% English language learner population when they gathered in the school’s auditorium for a day of student poetry. The event was hosted by Associate Dean of Students at Brandeis University and slam poet, Jamele Adams aka Harlym 125.
Students packed the theater in anticipation of the film, Louder Than A Bomb, a documentary that tells the story of four Chicago high school poetry teams as they prepare to compete in the world’s largest youth slam. After the 99 minute film, students’ eyes were glued to Harlym 125 as he made his way down the aisle while performing his own poetry. He spit words of truth that students could understand – words in which they found identification, hope and most of all, inspiration.
He taught them about public speaking, the importance of holding one’s head up, and projecting voice. When taking questions from the audience, he asked students to stand. He came at them with questions of his own including, “What is 4 times 8? Now multiply that by 10. And who was the sixteenth president?” It was certainly an interdisciplinary lesson and the kids never saw it coming. They just went with it.
The next forty minutes involved students writing on their own. They were given an assignment to reflect on the previous five years and then to add a line for future advice which stated, “Because in the next ten years…” Students scattered around the auditorium, on stage, in corners and into the foyer. They sat on window sills and congregated in small groups, pairs, or chose to write independently. School principal, Colleen Lennon looked around and was thrilled. “Look at that group of 8th grade boys writing. Every single kid is engaged,” she said.
Lou Bernieri of Phillips Academy and the Andover Teachers Breadloaf Network added, “Eighth grade boys writing passionately…that’s worth the price of admission. Excuse me, where were the discipline problems in that room full of cheering youth? I couldn’t find them.”
The student sharing in the form of open mic was the most powerful part of the day. The respect and love the kids showed each other, the enthusiasm and joy everyone shared and the prodigious amount of writing done in a short time were all unforgettable. All of this came as a result of the four hour literacy event scheduled by veteran teacher, Lisa Stott. What a long way it went in terms of enriching the lives and experiences of all who attended. There was nothing scripted, no talk of standardized tests or how to maximize learning time. It was, in the words of Harlym125, “a writing evolution.” And to think, it was led by students.
Here are poems written by Wetherbee students: Jeremy Duran, Marisah Colon, Chanlennys Perez. Chantal Perez, and Abigail Heredia. These students are in the fifth through eighth grade.
By Jeremy Duran
I explode like a toxic bomb
Dropping on every one I don’t like
Toxic gases inhaled by my enemies
Dodging bullets as they shoot
Two shots fired
Those two bullets penetrate my enemy’s head
He collapses to his knees
Suffers trying to yell for help
While blood gushes out of his mouth
We are now in a slaughter house
Shots fired at me
Penetrating my shoulders
Thirty seconds after
I wake up from this dream
Back to a life
With eyes opened wide
And my heart racing at 100 miles per hour
By Marisah Colon
I want you to do me a favor
All I want is for you to listen
I want you to know
That He is here
Here to help you
Here to love you
Here to make things o.k.
And this “He”
I call many names, such as
And I know
He is here
He has helped me
Helped me live my life
Get through the divorce of my parents
And when my mom wasn’t talking to me
When I accepted Him in my life
Everything got better
She started talking to me again
I can now set aside my problems
And help you see Him
Pray to Him
Talk to Him
So that you can see that
He is a life saver
He may take away your family
Only to put them in a better place
By Abigail Heredia
My heart pumps
As tears drip down his face
What’s wrong I wonder?
He would not answer
I wiped away his tears
But he still would not answer
I looked into his eyes
And someone died
I saw right through him
He would not stop crying
I was worried
Someone passed away…
Love is Truthful
By Chanlennys Perez
Love is hard to believe and
To trust in
Love is just a four letter word
That comes back and forth
To your heart
If you think the love inside you
Has gone away
Well it hasn’t
Don’t get me wrong
I know what love is
Just the thing that pops
Into your head
And when people ask you,
Simply say, “I love you.”
By Chantal Perez
When I look up in the sky
I see a bright light
I remember the day that
I was born
The time that He created me
Also, when He helped me through
The bad times and the good times
And the worst of seeing my mom leave
When my mom walked out
Tears ran down my face
He wiped them off
Made me smile
His name is God
Back by popular demand, Mass Poetry offers its second annual Common Threads group reading and discussion program for April, National Poetry Month.
The texts of the poems, videos of the poets reading their own work and poems from those no longer with us, plus a discussion guide, questions, and links will be available on our website in early March. So start planning your April discussion soon. We urge libraries, schools, churches, senior organizations, colleges, bookstores, book clubs and individuals to plan a reading and discussion of these poems.
Our 2012 selections:
- “The Author to Her Book” – Anne Bradstreet ( 2012 is the 400th anniversary of her birth)
- “The Fire of Drift-Wood”- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
- Poem 1129 – Emily Dickinson ( tell it slant)
- “For the Union Dead” – Robert Lowell
- “The Hardness Scale” – Joyce Peseroff
- “Horseface” – Sam Cornish
- “if see no end in is” – Frank Bidart
- “Out at Lanesville”- David Ferry
- “Baseball” – Gail Mazur
This rich and varied, yet interconnected collection of poets from our Commonwealth will lend themselves to great discussions and enjoyment. Though they are interconnected, they span very different forms.
Plan for potluck and poetry
Make sure you plan to organize a group discussion. For those of you not in organized groups, plan to have 10 friends over for a National Poetry Month potluck—with poetry as the main course.
As a highlight of the Mass Poetry Festival, the five Common Threads poets who are alive will read and discuss their works at a Saturday session.
Friday March 30th through Sunday April 1st Massachusetts Institute of Technology will play host to Massachusetts’ first Louder Than a Bomb festival. The festival, founded by Anna West and Kevin Coval in 2001, originated in Chicago. It is the largest youth poetry slam in the world. The Louder Than a Bomb festival allows youths to showcase their talent through spoken word in the form of a friendly competition. The festival also allows diverse and distant communities to appreciate their differences and similarities as the students listen to their peers express themselves. The Chicago Louder Than a Bomb festival is the subjects of a feature length documentary which captures the inspirational force of the festival.
Louder Than a Bomb expands from Student Day of Poetry
This year, Mass Poetry and Mass L.E.A.P. are teaming up to present the first Louder Than a Bomb festival in Massachusetts. The slam festival expands on the annual Student Day of Poetry, which is separate this year from Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem. Teachers wishing to take their classes to the MIT-hosted Student Day of Poetry on March 30, register here. The Louder Than a Bomb festival requires a separate registration (see below).
Louder Than a Bomb will bring together over 20 teams from across the state. Each team will be comprised of four to six students between the ages of 14-19 who will perform their original poetry without musical accompaniment or props. Teams will perform a mix of individual and group poems which will be scored by judges based on the writing, content and performance. Though the slam festival is home to a competition, it is not the soul of the festival. The focus of the festival is inspiring youth poets to feel empowered by their own voices, as well as to foster a creative community.
The Louder Than a Bomb Massachusetts slam festival will engage students in a number of events. On March 30th from 8-3pm, teams will participatie in an opening ceremony and writing workshops, which will create an open and creative atmosphere for the festival. The workshops will be led by talented poets and performers. Students will also get a chance to share their own poetry and stories during an open mic session MIT’s Kresge Theater.! The festival has a great series of performances set up for participants, including an exciting preview performance by Hoop Suite, which is set to premiere this summer in the Boston area. Hoop Suite is an interdisciplinary act that combines music, dance and spoken word to create a unique performance. You won’t want to miss this exclusive preview.
The cut-off day for registration is January 31st. Teams interested in registering should sign up immediately. To register go to www.massleapcollective.org/louder-than-a-bomb/. Teams who have already successfully registered should start rehearsing. There’s no time like the present! Get inspired by watching and listening to other spoken word poets. Start brainstorming together about the poetry and performances. Have fun with this process, let the creativity flow and remember that the goal of the festival is to have participants feel empowered and creative through spoken word and the community it creates.
Louder Than A Bomb Mass Festival Dates
Friday, March 30th (11:15am – 2:00pm)
Crossing the Street (runs concurrently with and as part of Student Day of Poetry)
Workshops and community building just for registered LTAB teams
Saturday, March 31st (10:00am – 6:00pm)
All LTAB teams compete twice
Sunday, April 1st (12:00 – 6:00pm)
The 8 teams with the highest Preliminary scores compete
Friday, April 13th (6:30 – 9pm)
Finals. The top 4 teams to win Semi-Finals compete for the title of Mass Slam Champion.
Interested in participating in the festival behind the scenes? Volunteers can sign up at the website mentioned above. Many people contribute to the success of the festival: from planning and promoting it, to helping facilitate activities on the actual day. Volunteers can register participants, sell tickets, and keep score among other tasks.
Among those volunteering with Louder Than a Bomb are Eve Ewing and Amanda Torres. Both Eve and Amanda are alumni, former coaches of the Chicago Louder Than a Bomb festival. Eve says of the Chicago festival, “Alumni traditionally return year after year to help organize the festival. That’s partially how we build community from year to year, and part of what makes LTAB special!” It is our hope that Massachusetts can produce such an inspiring community around poetry.
We have presented several stories about the value of spoken word poetry including Dr. Susan Weinstein’s study of the literacy value of spoken word and Nicole L Rodriguez’s President’s Volunteer Service Award for her work in schools as a spoken word poet. Here is a story about what MassPoetry is doing in that area.
Spoken word – the durability of a universal tradition
Amanda Torres is passionate about spoken word poetry. “Before we had writing, we told stories. Spoken word dates back to the griots who would travel and continue to travel, passing stories down from generation to generation.” In addition to the spoken word performers of Africa, Torres might have added the troubadours of western tradition and the oud players of the Muslim and Jewish worlds. Performance seems a universal when it comes to the history of poetry.
Torres, who is School Programs Coordinator at MassPoetry, the co-coordinator of Louder than a Bomb and an organizer of Mass LEAP, believes, “Spoken word poetry is poetry that moves. It is the moment when the written, the spoken, and the seen converge on a stage.” MassPoetry is sponsoring several activities that spur interest in spoken word poetry in Massachusetts schools, including Mass LEAP (Massachusetts Literary Education and Performance Collective).
Torres says, “By supporting Mass LEAP, we are supporting the thousands of young people’s voices who are not immediately inspired by Dickens or Poe but instead by a beat they can ride and make all their own.” Mass LEAP is reaching out to youth in the hope of bringing together communities of different classes, ethnic backgrounds and race. “A huge part of the history of this state is educational equity, and we are continuing that tradition using poetry.”
MassPoetry current projects
Torres lists the projects MassPoetry is supporting. “Currently, we have teachers working in middle and elementary schools in Revere, Roslindale and Roxbury. Through Citizen Schools, we have teachers working in the Garfield Middle School, the Irving Middle School, and Orchard Gardens K-8 School.”
The current outreach is a beginning point. “We hope to send teaching artists to high schools around the state to help teachers prepare their spoken word teams for the first ever Louder than a Bomb slam event in Massachusetts, which will be kicking off this spring.” See the dates below. Louder than a Bomb is a national slam movement that began in Chicago and generated, through a prize winning documentary film, much excitement at last year’s Student Day of Poetry and at the MassPoetry Festival.
“Next year,” says Torres, “we plan to work closely with twice as many middle and high schools in under-resourced areas. Access to poetry should be a right everywhere and not a privilege.”
Public programs planned
Here are the public programs planned by MassPoetry for the coming year:
Friday, March 30th: Student Day of Poetry & Crossing The Street @ MIT (8-3pm) 30 classrooms + Kresge Hall + Student Center Cafeteria
Saturday, March 31st: Louder than a Bomb (LTAB) Preliminaries @ MIT Student Center (9-6pm) Various bout spaces in the Student Center throughout the day
Sunday, April 1st: LTAB Semi-Finals @ MIT Kresge Little Theater (10-5pm) Both semi-finals will be staggered in the Little Theater
Friday, April 13th: LTAB FINALS @ Venue TBA (6-9pm)
We’ll have more about these programs in the coming year. So stay tuned!
MassPoetry is sponsoring school programs to promote poetry, especially spoken word poetry. This interview with Dr. Susan Weinstein is the first of a series of stories on the benefits of spoken word poetry in the classroom. Dr. Weinstein is an associate professor of English and Director of the Secondary English Concentration at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
Dr. Susan Weinstein believes there are many ways to successfully teach students to write poetry, but she is convinced there is one crucial element that can’t be left out: performance. “It doesn’t have to be open mic or a slam contest. It can simply be having all the students read their poems aloud to each other.” Weinstein, an associate professor of English and Director of the Secondary English Concentration at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, has a counterintuitive reason for believing performance us crucial. She believes there is a personal risk in reading your poetry to your peers, but for that reason in a classroom that establishes respect for risk, reading aloud instills confidence and a concept of self to a degree not available in others areas of education.
And what is it about poetry that allows Weinstein to make this claim? “The teens are years when young people are trying to find their place in the world. They are looking at themselves and trying to figure out their place in their family, their race and their gender.” Writing poems almost begs students to take on those subjects.
Experiencing is believing
Weinstein admits that her categorical claim for poetry out loud may sound suspicious to those who haven’t witnessed it. But she has. She began her career as a high school English teacher in Chicago’s Latino neighborhoods and in Bolivia before she got her Ph.D. As a teenager she was an obsessive writer, and she brought that obsession to her pupils. Now at LSU she works with students who want to be English teachers and shares with them her enthusiasm. “Nothing convinces people of the value of sharing poetry like experiencing its effect on students.”
Which is a problem. Today as students take MCAS tests and the career of teachers can rise or fall based on the performance of their students in those tests, establishing the validity of spoken word poetry is falling to people like Weinstein. “The spoken word movement is not that old. It began about ten years ago and only in the last few years have educators begun to think about measuring the success of the movement.”
Establishing the validity of spoken word poetry
Weinstein is one of the first to look at ways of measurement. “So far the evidence is antidotal, which doesn’t lend itself immediately to comparison to the stark numbers of test scores. But we are diving into those antidotes with the tools of an ethnographer.” Ethnographers use a qualitative method aimed at learning and understanding cultural phenomena that reflect the knowledge and system of meanings guiding the life of a cultural group. Ethnography, or field study as it is called in sociology, depends on what Weinstein calls “describing the hell out of the situation.” She emphasizes that interviewing students is critical. “Students bring their own stories and emphasize how writing poetry has given them a sense of themselves and has inspired them to push harder to communicate their lives to their peers.
In the process, they have opened up to writing and have begun to see themselves as writers, an identity that gives them confidence.”
Though Weinstein says there are many routes to making students enthusiasm about writing and sharing poetry, she describes a typical workshop. “Start first with a poem and talk about which lines stand out for them, which images are striking. Don’t go into analysis or make the poem a puzzle, but ask them what they noticed. Pull some of the strong images from the poem and brainstorm about how they
could use that image as a starting point for their own poem.”
She adds, “A teacher may also use a video to start the lesson. There are any number of poetry readings to choose from on the web. Then the workshop leader asks which lines stand out, what images do they remember from the video – the same process as with a printed poem “
But a crucial experience of the class should be the relationship between the teacher and the student. “The room should feel like a family,.” she says. Like reciting a poem, a close relationship is crucial. “The teacher doesn’t have to be charismatic, but the workshop leader
has to really care about the students as people, and the students have to feel that care. The care has to be authentic.”
Field trips to share poetry
Another critical element of the workshop is getting students to know other students from, perhaps, other schools. Weinstein says, “After Katrina, Anna West, a co-founder of the Chicago group Louder than a Bomb and native of Louisiana, brought a group of students to meet other students in Baton Rouge. Meeting a group outside the classroom and sharing their poetry motivated both teams.” Although there was competition between the teams, there was also camaraderie and an excited sharing of something both groups had grown to love.
Further help for teachers
For teachers wanting to incorporate spoken word poetry into the curriculum, Weinstein suggests reading a young adult novel by Nikki Grimes called Bronx Masquerade about a classroom in the Bronx with spoken word poetry. In the story students realize the misjudgments they made when they listen to each other’s poetry. And there is a useful book by Maisha Fisher called Writing in Rhythm,
which examines how literacy learning can be expanded and redefined using the medium of spoken word poetry. The author tells the story of a passionate Language Arts teacher and his work with The Power Writers, an after-school writing community of Latino and African American students.
Also look for Dr. Weinstein’s book on the benefits of spoken word poetry, which she is now in the process of researching and writing.
This is the second of a series of articles on New England presses. Our goal is to help serious writers determine the best match for their work by looking at the editorial and publishing criteria of each press. Perugia Press is now accepting manuscripts for its annual publication.
For this article we interviewed Susan Kan, founder and director of Perugia Press, which publishes first and second books of poetry by women. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Warren Wilson College and offers individual manuscript reviews.
When and why did you begin your press? What drove you to create a new press?
Perugia Press is a nonprofit poetry press publishing one collection of poetry each year, by a woman at the beginning of her publishing career. Our mission is to produce beautiful books that interest long-time readers of poetry and welcome those new to poetry. We also aim to celebrate and promote poetry whenever we can.
I began Perugia Press when I saw that many of the poets I knew had fantastic poetry manuscripts that they couldn’t get published. Around the same time, a good friend of mine self-published a book about the UMass basketball team. His book looked like a “real” book, and he encouraged me to make books. It’s funny that a sportswriter inspired this poetry press!
When I made our first book—Gail Thomas’ Finding the Bear—I wasn’t really thinking I was starting a press. However, I loved the process so much that I published a second book and formally launched the press. This was in 1997 after I finished an MFA in creative writing at Warren Wilson.
It took a few years to arrive at our current mission—publishing first and second books of poetry by women—and to create the national manuscript contest, apply for and receive nonprofit status, and establish ourselves as a literary organization with clout. Read more about the press here.
How many books have you published? What are you looking for in the books you publish?
The 2011 Perugia Press Prize winner—Gloss, by Ida Stewart—is the 15th book we’ve published, marking our 15th anniversary! Excellence comes best this way: one book at a time. I can spend a whole year with undivided attention on the project. And the one-book-at-a-time strategy has created a buzz: people want to know who will win the Perugia Press Prize each year. We have resisted the pressure to expand, and that has paid off. We’ve had three books in a row win national book contests, including Jennifer Sweeney’s How to Live on Bread and Music, which won the James Laughlin Award.
Part of our mission is to publish books that are welcoming to new readers of poetry and interesting to longtime readers. So that’s one thing we look for when screening manuscripts. We look for really good poetry—obviously! I’d say that of the 500+ manuscripts we receive each year, 15% of them are outstanding, and what distinguishes the winners usually has to do with confidence of voice, unity of the manuscript, a discernable project of discovery, levity, and originality. Poems with self-esteem stand apart.
As someone who also offers a manuscript review service, in addition to administering the Perugia Press Prize, I see that many poets early in their careers struggle with voice and thematic integrity. Another way of saying this is poets have a hard time walking the fine line between unity and repetition, as well as avoiding sentimentality and abstraction. Too many poets get mired in telling the facts of a memory or story or event to the detriment of the art of the poem.
Do you select outside judges to choose the manuscripts? If so, why?
Our judging process is unique, as far as I know. The manuscripts are screened by volunteers (poets, scholars, fiction writers, teachers, professors, students—all lovers of poetry) and winnowed down to 16. The semi-finalist 16 are read by a panel of eight judges, often previous Perugia Press Prize winners, teachers, scholars, sometimes a bookseller, and always one undergraduate poetry student. The idea is that I want our books to be welcoming and compelling to an array of readers. The eight judges discuss and rally for the manuscripts. At the end of the day, we have two or three finalists which are read again and slowly by two more judges. The winning manuscript is read by at least a dozen people before the final decision, which I make, taking into consideration all of the valuable feedback I’ve gotten from readers.
I’m proud of this process because it’s fun for the readers, fair to the poets, and has an amazing track record. Many of our books have gone on to win national book prizes.
Check out the Perugia Press Prize guidelines. This year for the first time we’ll also be accepting online submissions during our regular submission period, August 1 till November 15.
Besides yourself, are there others involved in the press?
Yes! The most important people involved in the press are the poets themselves who become ambassadors for Perugia Press. They go out with their books and read and sell and talk about the press. I have maintained relationships with all the poets over the years.
Also involved in the press are book buyers, some I know, most I don’t, who buy and enjoy our books, and occasionally send fan mail.
There are the 500 poets each year who believe in the press’s mission and send their manuscripts in for consideration.
We also have a board of directors that has fiscal responsibility for the press.
And I have a posse of volunteers who step up especially during the contest judging period, but also come forward to help with readings and book fairs.
Lastly, we have donors. The press could not survive without these people, near and far, who send a check every year. Ideally we would find more, a patron or group of patrons willing to establish a fund to publish a second book each year, an editor’s choice or possibly subsequent books by our most successful poets. If you are interested, please contact me.
Approximately how many person hours does it require to take a book from acceptance to publication?
Funny, no one’s ever asked me this, and yet I know a boat builder who gets this question all the time. And she doesn’t know either. Making a book is a hurry-up-and-wait process. And the waiting I’ve come to see as important, too. Time to proof and proof again and then proof once more. Patience waiting for an acclaimed poet to decide whether to write a back-cover blurb, and then waiting for him or her to do it. This year’s book, Gloss, has Terrance Hayes on the back cover. Natasha Trethewey endorsed Beg No Pardon; Marie Howe on Two Minutes of Light; Mark Doty on Red. These kind people and the many others take time to read the manuscripts and write up comments. It’s impossible to quantify those hours.
But one of the unique features of Perugia Press is that we have no backlog. Once a manuscript wins our contest, we begin right away on editing and designing the book. That means a poet could send in her manuscript in November and have her book in hand the following summer. It’s very exciting to be able to turn things around that fast. I know poets who have had manuscripts accepted by other presses and then wait years to see the book.
What have you enjoyed most about the press?
What motivates and inspires me are the poets! I have totally lucked into meeting and working with the smartest, most talented, most congenial group of poets—the Perugia Press poets. Each individual has been alert to and interested in the editing, designing, and publicizing of her book. I have learned so much from listening to each woman describe her writing and editorial decisions. Their poems slay me. Often, I go back to books I published years ago. Catherine Anderson has a poem (from The Work of Hands, 2000) that has been anthologized in dozens of textbooks. Recently, I reread Almitra David’s book, Impulse to Fly (1998), because I was working on a manuscript review that was structured much like Almitra’s book. What a treasure! And I have become close friends with some of the poets through working together, and a good friend is invaluable.
Why should writers look to your press as a potential publisher?
Any woman who is looking to publish her first or second book of poetry should visit our website, and enter our annual contest.
I also want to stress that readers should look to Perugia Press as a potential source for books. I’m on a little campaign to call on readers. Why is audience an endangered species? Where are the people who enjoy reading and listening to poetry without feeling moved to write it? Where are the folks who attend readings not because they are poets themselves, but because they read it? Perugia Press is for you, too.
Rhina Espaillat is a founding member and former director of the Powow River Poets. She writes poetry and prose both in English and in her native Spanish. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines, including The Lyric, Poetry, Sparrow, Orbis, The Formalist, and The American Scholar, as well as some forty anthologies. Espaillat has eight poetry collections in print, including Where Horizons Go, which won the 1998 T. S. Eliot Prize; Rehearsing Absence, which won the 2001 Richard Wilbur Award; and most recently, Playing at Stillness. In 2004 she became the first winner of the Tree at My Window Award from the Robert Frost Foundation for her Spanish translations of Robert Frost and her English translations of Saint John of the Cross and César Sánchez Beras. That same year she also received the Dominican Republic’s Salome Ureña de Henríquez Award for service to Dominican culture and education
How, when, and why did the Powow River Poets get started?
We began with a small nucleus of some five or six local poets in 1992, meeting at first in one another’s houses, and then in local cafes, then in the Newburyport Art Association and finally in the Newburyport Library once a month, to exchange poems with each other and trade comments and ideas. By then some of the earliest members had moved away or gone on to other interests, and new members had joined.
What was the purpose of the organization?
The chief purpose has always been the same: to get better at what we do by giving each other useful criticism. Additional purposes are the exchange among ourselves of such useful information as publication venues, contest news and so forth, and also the presentation of poetry to the reading public, especially but not exclusively in the local community, and the fostering and encouragement of local students. We run a free reading series that brings well-known poets to Newburyport to read every two months at Jabberwocky Books. We also present readings occasionally at other venues in and around Newburyport, individually or in small groups, often at events sponsored by other cultural groups in the area, such as the Newburyport Literary Festival, the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, the Whittier Home, museums, galleries and book stores. The person in charge of setting up those readings is currently Michael Cantor: you may want to contact him for details about that: ( firstname.lastname@example.org )
Has the purpose changed or expanded over the years? If so, why?
No, we’re still committed to improve as poets, and to serve the community by enriching its cultural and educational life to the extent that we can.
How does it support local poets?
By helping them to hone their craft, hear other poets and gain access to their books and recordings, and attempt new forms and techniques, such as polyphonic readings (readings by several voices), melopoeias (readings with musical backgrounds) and other combinations of two or more arts, including the visual and dramatic arts. I’m happy to report that the group has won a disproportionate number of national and international poetry awards, and has drawn attention and positive commentary from poets out of the area, including Dana Gioia, X. J. Kennedy and Lewis Turco. From eight to twelve of us attend the yearly West Chester Poetry Conference, the largest poetry conference in the country and the only one devoted specifically to the study of poetic craft. Almost all of us have published at least one book, and several have quite a few; a number have also published translations, both of the classics and from the work of contemporary foreign poets.
How many members do you have? How does one become a member?
We currently have twenty-five active members, of whom some eighteen or nineteen attend every meeting. We’re not actively seeking new members, as that’s a large number, and we like to give each poet as much time as possible at each of our monthly meetings. Poets seeking membership are asked to visit a reading first, without any work to share, to see if the group seems right for his needs, and then, if he chooses, to ask Don Kimball ( email@example.com ), the current workshop time-keeper and head of the membership committee, about membership.
What are some of the more exciting things your organization has done in the years since it began?
In addition to the workshop meetings, the bi-monthly readings by guest poets are our most exciting activities. We have presented to the public readings by several former U. S. Poet Laureates, including William Jay Smith and Richard Wilbur, as well as dozens of poets celebrated nationally and internationally. We have taken part in civic events, appeared at the Firehouse Center for the Arts, the Actors’ Studio and other cultural centers, and consistently mentored the work of Newburyport High School’s outstanding creative writing group, Poetry Soup, at the invitation of its director, teacher Debbie Szabo. As individuals, of course, our members have also done quite a few exciting things.
Deborah Szabo adds: The Powow Poets are at the core of a group of poets who serve as featured readers for Poetry Soup, the monthly poetry readings the kids hold at Newburyport High School. Several of the Powows have served as major inspiration for my students, especially, of course, Rhina, whom we fondly refer to as the “grandmother of Poetry Soup.”
What are your plans for the future?
We are considering, at the invitation of Newburyport Art Association Director Elena Bachrach and jointly with Debbie Szabo, the possibility of some shared activity bringing together the literary and the visual arts, and harnessing the talent of the area’s young people. Aside from this project, of course, we hope to continue doing what we’ve been doing so far, and whatever future challenges lead us to accomplish.
Szabo responds to what the Powow Poets are doing in this initiative: The project Rhina mentions will launch in the fall. Students from my Creative Writing class will write dramatic monologues based on the art work being shown at the Newburyport Art Association. It was Rhina’s idea! Not sure yet how the Powows will fit in, but I’m hoping we can use poems they have written from the point of view of inanimate objects as models for my students to read and study before going to the Art Association to write their own.
For this article, we interviewed Joan Houlihan, founder and director of the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference. Her most recent book of poetry is The Us (Tupelo Press), named as a “must read” book of 2009 by Massachusetts Center for the Book. She is also author of The Mending Worm, winner of the 2005 Green Rose Award from New Issues Press, and Hand-Held Executions: Poems & Essays. Her critical essays on contemporary poetry are archived online at bostoncomment.com. She is managing editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review. Joan has been a visiting professor in Columbia University’s graduate MFA Writing Program and Emerson College in Boston. She is on the faculty of Lesley University’s Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is also the founder and director of the Concord Poetry Center.
What are the Colrain Conferences and how long have they been going on?
The Colrain Conference is a weekend (three-day) program, held once a month, that focuses exclusively on poetry manuscripts. Renowned poets along with editors from established presses work with a select group of poets who have book-length (and chapbook-length) manuscripts with the goal of publication in mind. I held the first conference in Colrain, Massachusetts in 2006. Since then, I have developed a smaller “Intensive” Colrain Conference for returnees and/or those with manuscripts close to publication (finalist, semi-finalist, etc.) held in Greenfield, MA.
Why did you decide to concentrate on poetry manuscripts?
I learned from personal experience that virtually no guidance exists for poets who have gone through workshops, long periods of solitary writing, studied with mentors, and/or in MFA programs; for poets who have collected their individual, worked-on poems into manuscript form (or at least added up their poems into a manuscript’s worth of pages); for poets who have many unanswered questions, such as: Is this a “real” manuscript and if so, what are the publishing options? Is this manuscript in fact ready for submission to a publisher? How do editors and publishers make decisions to publish a particular manuscript (or not)? What is the contemporary poetry publishing landscape like? How does one (or does one?) submit outside of the contest system? And especially: who is reading my manuscript and what are they thinking? The lack of substantive feedback on a manuscript from a “decider” is, I think, a lack that not only I felt when trying to publish my first book, but that every poet who reaches a certain stage in their development feels.
So, the venture began as both a personal and an intellectual challenge for me: how can a poet get feedback on one of the most important milestones of his/her poetic life from the person/s who matter most—the editors and publishers?
What features make this conference program unique?
The program design as a whole makes it unique. From the pre-conference work to the all -day manuscript analysis with well-known, well-published poets, to the editorial session with top-notch editors from presses such as Tupelo, Graywolf, Four Way, Barrow Street, Persea and others, to the final wrap-up with advice and strategies for moving ahead with the manuscript, the weekend is compressed, intense, and filled with useful information and honest feedback. This is not a retreat, not a workshop, not a craft lecture and not a “working vacation.” It is a kind of total-immersion experience devoted to the gestalt of the manuscript, from creation, to selection and ordering, to the process of submission. Its purpose is to give the poet a way to see the manuscript that the poet has never had before.
What has been the success rate of attendees getting a manuscript published?
Over a period of 5 years and a total of approximately 350 attendees, there have been over 50 manuscripts taken for publication (1 out of 7). Some of these are chapbook publication (less than a quarter of the total). With only a few exceptions, the manuscripts have not been taken later by the editor who worked with that Colrain attendee. Of the few that have taken a manuscript from someone they worked with at Colrain, they were taken outside of the contest system, either through an open submission period at that press, or solicited some time after the conference. In other words, the point of the program—to educate attendees on the publication process in general, not to serve as talent-scouting operation—has played out just as I had hoped. The education received at Colrain is applicable to the manuscript submission process in general, not to particular presses and editors.
Can you put that success rate in terms of the general poetry population who submit a manuscript for publication?
I don’t know the numbers of poets who submit manuscripts for publication, nor how many times they submit. All my knowledge of that is anecdotal. Based on what attendees report, and from what the editors say at the conference, every press is inundated with more submissions every year and most independent (i.e. non-trade) presses have instituted contests as a way to both raise money for the press and to control the submissions such that the 400 to over 1,000 that come in will come in at only a certain time of year. Some presses have shut down submissions entirely due to the backlog of those accepted and waiting. Suffice to say it is getting more and more difficult, especially for a first book publication (most, but not all, our attendees).
Have any attendees won awards?
Yes. So far, Colrain manuscripts have won the following awards:
- The Bakeless Prize
- Editor’s Choice Akron Poetry Prize from University of Akron Press
- Gerald Cable First Book Award
- T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize from Truman State University
- Orphic Prize from Dream Horse Press
- Levis Prize from Four Way Books
- Wick Prize from Kent State Press
- Kenneth and Geraldine Gell Poetry Prize
- Four Way Book Intro prize
- Beatrice Hawley Prize from Alice James Books
- Patricia Bibby First Book Award
- Emily Dickinson Prize from the Poetry Foundation
- Marsh Hawk Press Prize
- Lexi Rudnitsky Poetry Prize from Persea Books
- Grayson Press Chapbook Prize
- Nightboat Books Poetry Prize
The complete list of published manuscripts is here:
Tell us a little about your faculty members.
When I started the conference, I hired what fortuitously turned out to be my “core” faculty: the editors and poets who picked up on what I was doing immediately, met the challenge with excitement, and became experts in this new manuscript evaluation methodology. They return many times during the year. Fred Marchant, someone I greatly admire as a teacher and poet, and well-known in the Boston area, was my first co-teacher.
Besides the hope of getting a book published, what other advantages does Colrain offer?
The biggest advantage Colrain offers is that of receiving realistic feedback from press editors. Poets do not have the advantage of knowing what an editor thinks of their manuscript because they receive minimal to no feedback on their submission (s). If they do receive feedback, it isn’t the kind that helps them know what to do. Other advantages include the opportunity to work with top-notch poets and teachers, and to make contacts with advanced poets at a similar stage in their career. The “hope of getting a book published” is translated at Colrain into solid knowledge poets can’t obtain elsewhere in the poetry world or in academia. Such knowledge is, to use a cliché, empowering.
How has Colrain changed and developed over the years?
I began Colrain with the idea that it would take place a few times a year and enroll up to 30 or so participants each time. After organizing two large events like this, I realized I needed to bring it down to a more manageable size and to instead hold it more often. It became a 12-14 people conference (divided into two groups) held about once a month (it is not held in December). I email a feedback form to participants after each conference asking for suggested changes along with comments. I’ve tinkered with the pre-conference work until finding the right combination, invited a variety of editors and teachers, and I have added new venues so that people have a choice of location and types of accommodation. I haven’t changed the original design of the program—it just works.
Since this conference assumes the poet has a manuscript, what are the other requirements for application?
Applicants who have accumulated a lot of poems that reach a certain page count but obviously need work are turned away. I look closely at the work samples applicants submit. There is a level of skill implicit in having a manuscript, but sometimes I get applications from poets who have obviously been writing without benefit of workshops or critical feedback and have lots of work to do on individual poems. I don’t accept these applicants. This program is not designed to workshop individual poems. Not only that, Colrain is not the place to come for your first experience in getting critical feedback! In fact, one change I made early on was not to accept anyone who hadn’t been through some kind of workshop/critical feedback experience—the two times I did (thinking poets who wrote on their own and just wanted knowledge of the book publication arena should be able to come if their work qualified them) were disastrous. For them. I had forgotten how strange and disturbing it can be to have your work held up in a critical light for the first time and these people were defensive, unable to take in the information, and generally unhappy. They had not yet developed any critical distance from their poems. It just didn’t work. So, experience in a workshop-type environment, or with a rigorous mentor, or with an MFA program, counts. They need to be able to hear what’s being said.
What do you expect poets to enjoy most about the conference?
Our meals are lively, filled with excited talk, and we all eat together, three meals a day, faculty and students, at the same time, same place, every day. The food is fantastic. At the Round House, the owner, Rebecca Tippens, is a wonderful cook and community-conscious person. The surroundings at all locations create a sense of unity and these poets working at a high level share a sense of purpose. Our Sunday evening readings come at the end of two days of intense work and we have great fun that night. But after every conference, the observation made most often is about the thrill of receiving useful knowledge, how that translates into a clearer sense of direction, and, especially, a renewed confidence in working on and submitting the manuscript.
Here are some direct comments from participants: