In search of a writing community

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Oh wow! Writers in their natural habitats!

In a previous blog post, I wrote about loneliness and the transition from college life to semi-adult life. Short summary: It wasn’t going very well. My way of coping, of abating that loneliness, was to write. Interestingly enough, after I published that post, a stranger on Twitter suggested that writing could also be the cause of loneliness. I suppose this person is half-right; when you’re doing something you love, you’re in the moment, and you can forget where you are. But I don’t want writing to prevent me from meeting people; I decided that writing should help me meet people.

I immediately began my search for writing groups in NYC and Brooklyn, and let me tell you: The quest was exhausting. I left my first meeting feeling utterly disappointed. I was the youngest person in attendance, and felt as if the older members devalued my opinions. They were also creepy.

Then I attended a Gotham Writers’ Workshop course in downtown Brooklyn, which turned out to be a much better experience. I felt included—perhaps it was because the instructor sought to make all writers feel comfortable. Despite this, I’m not sure I’d want to pay $20 for another course. The instructor only allowed us to offer positive feedback. I’m all for positive energy, but I wonder how we’ll improve as writers if we receive only positive feedback. Perhaps I am used to seeing my writing be brutally torn apart, thanks to my journalism experience (starting with the time I got a 76 on my first journalism assignment in Dr. Simon’s freshman news writing class…but that doesn’t really matter…)

Anyways, guys, I’ve finally found a writers’ group. It’s been around for twelve years, with a solid core and a welcoming attitude toward newer members like moi. I’ve attended four meetings so far, recently returning from a session last night, and I feel like I can belong here eventually. I really enjoyed meeting and talking to the other writers. There’s a writer who is a financial analyst by day and a horror screenwriter by night, a former Silicon Valley techie working on a (surprise!) technology thriller, and a librarian writing the next big teen novel (sans vampires).

Here’s the drill: we chat for a few minutes and then take an hour to work on our writing. After the host says stop, we spend two and a half hours reading and critiquing each other’s works. Three types of readers usually show up to these meetings. There are the immediate volunteers. This person is confident enough to be the first to read. Or, this person is overly confident and likes the sound of his or her own voice (ew). There are the reluctant sharers. They look around and see no one volunteering. They decide, after a sigh, to read. There are the oh-god-don’t-look-at-me non-readers. They usually sit in the corner and frantically shake their heads when asked to read. They don’t share in fear that they might be horrible—but by doing this, they might be brilliant writers, but we’d never know it.

I can be any of these three types of people, but I tend to be the reluctant reader. I’ve always been a self-conscious speaker, because I stumble over my words. Good thing I can practice at these meetings! It actually helps to listen to myself. For example, if I struggle with a sentence, I make sure to mark the spot and see if I can smooth it out later.

As much as I love writing and reading my work, my favorite part is the feedback session. Over the years I’ve received countless writing advice from trustworthy writers, and I like to absorb all that I can to become a better writer. Naturally, I want other writers to feel like they’re receiving constructive feedback—something they can use and not just think about. At the last group meeting, our critique got intensely detailed. For about twenty minutes, we pondered if it was right for a particular character to drink Bass Pale Ale. Yes, I know how silly that sounds, but we were all serious! Is this character really a Bass guy? Or would he drink Guinness? Decisions, decisions (As a non-drinker, I tried to play along).

I do worry, however, that some feedback will go unheard. Writers can’t help but feel a small stab whenever they receive critiques. There are some who can swallow their pride, and there are others who feel the need to defend their every word. I’m sure people have felt the frustration of explaining a critique only to find a writer completely intolerant to the idea that maybe – just maybe – they have committed a fault in their writing. Because of this, I sometimes prefer writing feedback, rather than giving it to the person upfront (yay reader’s reports!)

I’m so excited for more writing sessions!

In effort to become more social on the web (I hear writers need to do that these days), here’s a question to end this post: writers, what do you think of writers’ groups?

 

 

 

 

Am I a poet now?

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Courtesy of V.H. Hammer on Flickr. Found through Creative Commons.

I just handed in a short poetry collection that I worked on for a semester. That’s right: poetry.

This class was certainly a transformative experience. I’ve learned to appreciate the emotional stake, the inspired language, and the truth in works of several poets (Sylvia Plath, James Tate, James Wright, to name a few). I’ve also learned a great deal by reading my classmates’ poems and seeing their style. In my poems I talked about myself and my family, and it was weird, because I’ve become so used to writing fictional lives. Some elements in these poems surprised me; they came out of nowhere. Writing poetry helped me explore why I’m the person I am today.

Here’s a poem that I’m proud of, just because I’ve never written something like this before. I was inspired by my days in New York. I look forward to revising it even more.

To infinity

My eyes burn and the computer
keeps staring at me.
Sighs and clicks
accent the air. The heater
moans its frustrations,
and it’s time to go home, finally.
Thanks for everything, Loan.
No problem.

It’s the smell of piss that gets to me.
Sobbing, a dirty-face vagrant
sits with his back
glued to the wall
Hell’s Kitchen.
Please, I need help.
God will come, a woman responds,
Paper-stuffed Bible in hand.
Eyes down, emails to check,
iPhones, Blackberries—
Subway ads are far more interesting.

Footsteps of I-have-tos
edge me
down the corridor
towards the 7 train.
Wheels whine
a cautionary tale.

Ding.
I jump through
biting doors
and the man who follows—
gray-haired, Wall Street, no ring—
almost loses an arm.

Another man
sits across from me:
balding and sweat
casing his forehead.
What does he see in me?
Our eyes meet, and
his smirk bathes
my body with grease
and scum.

Doors open;
people gush out.
The old woman is always there,
her back a hill,
her arms tethered with
plastic bag weights:
her belongings.

I wonder where her children must be,
and how they could
leave her to beg.
My grandmother, if she were alive,
would never have to do this.

Today, she sits
in front of the staircase
until a cop on a Segway
tells her:
You’re bothering people.
And she will not understand.

Underneath Times Square,
a pulse emanates
from the drums beating in the back,
and pushes out into the crowd—
jolts my heart.
Forward I stride
into a dripping tunnel,
down, down, down we go.
Silence arches over
the March on Eighth Ave,
the New York Diaspora.

A family of
fanny packs and sneakers
walk ahead.
I hear my parents
and turn around
to be reminded of home.
But they’re just impostors.

I yearn for the sky again,
so I go above ground, and
elbows collide
against one another.
Breathing in cigarette air,
I tread in a pool of people
waiting
for the walk signal.
Yellow-bullet taxis roar:
Look out!

Above us gray clouds
cluster once more.
Rain drops like bombs
so we run for cover.

We pack the train.
Suits pop open their
Coors Lights, Bud Lights—
poisons to end
their Nine to Fives.
We wait for the lull.

Tickets, please.

If you’re interested in reading, here’s the original poem:

The computer screen stares
at me, and sighs and clicks
accent the air. The heater
moans its frustrations,
and it’s time to go home finally.

It’s the smell of piss that gets to me.
Sobbing, a dirty-face vagrant
shivers, his back
glued to the walls.
Please, I need help.
God will come, a woman responds,
Paper-stuffed Bible in hand.
No one sees them.

The drone and taps
of heels and I-have-tos
follow me, edging me
down the corridor
towards the train tracks.
Wheels whine
a cautionary tale.

A man sits across from me.
Our eyes meet,
his smirk bathes
my body with grease
and scum.

Under Times Square,
a pulse emanates
from the drums beating in the back
and pushes out into the crowd—
jolts my heart.
Forward I stride.

Elbows brashly push
against one another.
Breathing in cigarette air,
I tread in a pool of people
waiting
for the walk signal.
Look left and right!
One man bravely
edges out on his own
and we surge ahead.

Above us the gray clouds
cluster once more.
Rain drops like bombs
so we run for cover.

We pack the train.
Suits pop open their
Coors Lights, Bud Lights,
choosing their poisons to end
their Nine to Fives.

We do these things
for another
tomorrow—
over and over
again. Maybe
things will get better.

Time is short.
If someone offered me
Forever,
I would take it.

Watch Shane Koyczan’s “To This Day”

A year ago I heard Shane Koyczan’s “To This Day” poem about bullying, and it blew my mind. I didn’t realize until today that the poem was adapted into a video, which I just saw on Upworthy.

Shane’s heartfelt spoken word poem shines light on bullying’s long-term effects. Unfortunately everyone has encountered or has seen bullying happen; I’ve mentioned this numerous times on my blog. Anyone who watches Shane’s video should aim to prevent bullying: tell children about your own stories, heal with other victims, or show this poem and video, which also led to an anti-bullying project called “To This Day.” Shane’s art truly shows the power in words.

Listen or watch his poem. It’s seven minutes long, but it’s so worth it.

Learning to be a poet

We learned how to write tanka poetry a few weeks back. A tanka poem is a traditional Japanese form of poetry. It follows a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic pattern and can go on for a long time. We only stop once we reach infinity – that is, until we feel like we can’t get anything else out of the poem. Each stanza must transition effortlessly from the previous stanza.

As an exercise, we participated in a round robin. One person had to write the 5-7-5 section, the next the 7-7 section, and so forth. The cool thing about this lesson was that the poem’s topic could change at any moment.

Here’s the final product (the title certainly gives you an idea of the poem’s tone):

DAMNED

The bus climbs uphill,

Doors exhaling a goodbye.

The child waves back.

Yellow halts a sudden stop.

It’s time for another day.

 

To wither away

On Grandpa’s dusty brown porch

My brain is emptied

I have become my grandpa

Old–losing touch with myself.

 

Same one must save me

I drown in memories of

The times we would laugh.

Your scent swirls all around me

Please just stop this misery.

 

There is no way out

This retched world you live in

Will soon out-live you

So therefore: damned if I do

And then: damned if I do not

 

I pace the world’s edge

Look down–a long way to go.

Do I leave now?

I am free-falling into sky

Never has death felt so free

 

And liberation

Is what we say to ourselves

When we have a voice

And I just don’t have a voice

And so there’s no salvation.

It’s such a happy poem, right? I intended to make the poem sound optimistic (I wrote the first three lines), because my friends usually say I’m a dark writer. It wasn’t my fault that this poem turned out differently than I expected!

Anyways, I feel like I’ve definitely grown as an amateur poet. It helps to read some fine poets from the past. I also enjoy reading my peers’ work in our workshops. My professor tells me that I need to use poetry to explore and to let go. I found that writing approach hard at first; as a fiction writer, I always sketch out the narrative arc of my stories. I want to feel like I’m in control of the plot, the characters, the setting, etc. Because my stories are fictional, I write to explore other people’s lives, and not my own. That’s not what you should do in poetry.

After taking this poetry course, I’m beginning to understand what it means to “let go.” If I write something and it doesn’t sound like it “fits” in a piece, I shouldn’t put it in the trash right away. Perhaps that word or phrase came out of my mind for a reason. Maybe it needs its own poem. Recently I’ve been writing a lot of poetry about memories of my childhood and my family. Though only a few people have seen my poetry – and I don’t intend to ever attempt publication – I still feel guilty about what I’m writing, but it’s therapeutic at the same time.

I’m revising my poems for the final portfolio, and I might post a few on this blog! So stay tuned.

Time to Wake

Poem #1

I wake at the edge of the bed, wrapped in downy-scented Mickey Mouse blankets,

Arms pinned to my side.

I know I started out at the center, squished between Mom and Sister,

Who gave me warmth that only they could provide.

Mom’s lavender perfume sticks to my pillow.

The ceiling fan wheezes as its blades turn.

Outside, cars whiz by, and light wastes away, sinking into a hill.

The lullaby of ice cream suddenly beckons me—and already I reach for my piggy bank in my

Dresser, surrounded by a mess of underwear, glittery rocks, and sea-beaten shells.

But my hope gets crushed when footsteps burden the old stairs,

And Mom’s hushed voice echoes in the hallway: Con, xuống ăn cơm.

I inhale an errant waft of fresh rice.

***

I am the youngest in my family.

Every day I waited for An and Dan to come home from elementary school. Living in a small apartment, the three of us shared a room. My mother would combine all of our beds and we’d take naps together. I remember feeling so safe during this time, surrounded by my family, and I never wanted to leave. I was always the last one to wake up, and I’d lay in my bed and listen to the whispers of activities going on around me, which soothed me like a mother’s lullaby. 

We had to write about a specific place in our first poetry assignment. I couldn’t find one that stuck out to me, so I thought of the times when I felt comforted and loved: in my bed in Apartment Four on Scott Road – back in the old days. 

A literary semester

It’s my last semester at Fairfield, so I thought I should take all the classes that I’ve been wanting to take. Why not?

Advanced Portfolio Workshop

Led by former Crazyhorse editor, Carol Ann Davis, this class is a capstone course for creative writing majors. By the end of this course we are supposed to have a publishable creative project. I’m choosing to compose a collection of short stories, all dealing with family dynamics. I supposedly volunteered to have my work examined in the first workshop. Don’t ask me how that happened; it’s all a blur. I plan to submit a very dark piece about a man who fights but eventually succumbs to his demons. Vague? Good! I can’t reveal all the good stuff here. Based on my impressions, I anticipate that this class will be beneficial to my development as a writer. Everyone seems interested in their craft, and I look forward to our sessions.

Teaching and Learning Grammar

Ah, grammar. There are so many bad, horrific, terrifying, embarrassing (OK, I’ll stop) memories of my childhood encounters with grammar. I remember getting back essays with red pen marks all over the pages. I vaguely remember being enrolled in an ESL class, because my English was so horrible. I apparently couldn’t speak English because my parents only spoke to me in Vietnamese at home. I don’t recall much of that ESL class (I did learn Spanish?). Anyways, grammar is my weak point. Yet, in my future line of work, I need to know grammar, so I thought I should finally have a whole course dedicated to grammar. So far, it is really interesting. My professor wants to teach students not only the basics to grammar, but also the history of it.

Issues in Professional Writing: Multimedia Writing

I will have a lot of trouble concentrating in this class. Why? Dogs. That’s why – my professor has DOGS. They’re Huskies, and they are so well-behaved and adorable. But, the whole class seems interesting. I’ve always wanted to build my own website, and that’s apparently one of our larger projects. I think that if I want to go into journalism (right after graduation, down the line, etc.) I would need to know basic web design skills. I like that we’re using blogs, Twitter, and computers to learn. We’re actually applying what we learn in class and what we read from our books. I always enjoy courses with hands-on tasks. As with my other classes, I can’t wait to get started.

Introduction to Poetry

Well. It’s poetry, so I am terrified. But hopefully I’ll survive?

Honors Thesis/Independent Writing Project: Novel Writing

I AM WRITING A NOVEL. That’s all I can say, because, apparently, it’s bad to talk about your writing. It’s the same novel I’ve been working on for over a year, and I am hoping to make serious progress with the help of Dr. Michael White, who is the MFA director at Fairfield.

Internship: Folio Literary Management

Folio Literary Management is a literary agency in Manhattan, so I commute Wednesdays and Fridays to work in the office. I’m an editorial intern so I read, read, read, take out the trash, read, refill the water cooler, read, read and, yes, read. I love it so far.

Work: The Mirror

What can I say? Working at The Mirror has become second-nature to me. It’s a part of my life, and I wouldn’t want to change anything. Of course I am nervous about this semester and the next, when the new staff will have to take over. I’m extremely overprotective of my baby; I think I’ve taken good care of it, so I don’t want things to change. I’m also trying to convince people that working at The Mirror is a rewarding experience. It doesn’t have to be a chore, I say.

We have a lot of competitions that are open to submissions. The first deadline is Jan. 24 for the Society of Professional Journalists’ Mark of Excellence Awards. I hope we win.

Wagner

Don’t ask me why the editor-in-brief, Leigh Tauss, had named it “Wagner.” I guess it’s random – just like the creation of this journal. Leigh has a vision for it – she’s still figuring it out – but I’m glad to be a part of it as the Spelling Witch! Boom. Greatest title ever. If you want to submit, please do.

Poetry for Peace: Young poets take the stage

Cartoon by Lisa Tkach/The Mirror

Cartoon by Lisa Tkach/The Mirror

The winners of the Poetry for Peace contest waited in line for their solos on the Regina A. Quick Center stage. Some took hesitant steps to the microphone stand when their names were called, dragging their gleaming red Mary Janes and black dress shoes across the wooden stage. Others approached the spotlight with some pep in their step, smiling and making faces to their family members out in the audience.

Though different in their heights and confidence, these children gathered in the Quick Center on Friday, Jan. 25, for one purpose: to share through poetry their ideas of peace.

Started in 2008, the Poetry for Peace contest allows students in grades kindergarten through eight from the Bridgeport and Fairfield Public Schools the chance to define peace through creative writing. The reading event used to be held in the Kelley Center, but because of growing popularity, the event had to be relocated to the Quick Center.

According to co-director of Poetry for Peace Dr. Jerelyn M. Johnson, associate professor of modern languages and literature, the judging panel received over 1,000 entries. They then split entries by grades, organizing them into four grade flights. From there on, a panel of Fairfield faculty and undergraduate and graduate students chose the winners, honorable mentions and the judges’ favorites.

The winning poems were published in a booklet, which was also distributed to the audience consisting of the Fairfield University community, parents and children.

Applause punctuated each pause before another poet went to the stage to read. Mothers juggled their children on their laps. Kids smiled to the camera as their parents beckoned from below in their seats. Confidence seemed to grow as the height of the poets increased.

The older children naturally took in the world events which disrupt peace, while most of the younger children compared peace to their own everyday activities.

Credit: Nick DiFazio

Credit: Nick DiFazio

Certain students shared a humorous perception of peace. In his poem “What peace is to me,” Christopher Cirelli, a Fairfield Woods Middle School sixth grader, wrote: “Peace is not getting haircuts.”

There were also poems that gave surprising insight into how aware children are of the present world.

Fifth grader Alec Nardone from Burr Elementary School wrote that in a world without peace, humanity is on the brink of self-destruction: “We’re all on fire – and we don’t even know it / Soon our humanity will be gone, / Burnt.”

Grace Hilton, a third grader from Timothy Dwight Elementary School in Fairfield, brought up origami cranes, the symbol of peace sprung up after the 9/11 attacks, in her poem. She saw peace in the olive branch that Noah had spotted when he arrived on land in the Book of Genesis in the Bible. Nardone and Hilton’s poems showed that, like many of the writings in the booklet, what children know should not be taken for granted.

Not only did the poems serve to entertain and to enlighten, but they also brought into perspective the contrast between the poems and reality’s fragile events that threaten current peace.

Johnson recounted the time when she and the judges met to consider the final entries. Three days later, the Sandy Hook shooting spree occurred, during which 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School were killed, most of them children.

Johnson said to the poets in the audience: “I know I speak for many of us when I say that during that seriously sad and dark moment, your words, and knowing that you and your poems existed, gave us hope. Such is the power of poetry.”

Mariam Anwar, a second grader at Osborn Hill Elementary School, wrote a poem entitled “Peace” and won an honorable mention in the grade K-2 flight.

Her opening line states that “peace sounds like the dolphins jumping in the waves.”

Encouraged by her teacher to think about things she liked when describing peace, Anwar said, “I thought about the beach and that’s how I came up with the dolphins. And I like mangoes,” she added, which referred to her line, “Peace tastes like a mango from a tree.”

She said reciting her poem to an audience was “easy” because “I wasn’t looking at the people.”

In his closing remarks, Poetry for Peace co-director and associate English professor Dr. Peter Bayers said, “We would like to thank all of you, the poets who are here, for sharing your voices with us. I think we would all agree that we have learned from your insights, your beauty and your wisdom. Your poetry attests to the power and possibilities of language.

“Your poetry has changed all of us for the better tonight. And for that: thank you.”

Brenda Perry and Wendy Accomando, teachers at Osborn Hill Elementary School, have been involved with Poetry for Peace from the start and always encourage their students to submit to the contest.

Perry, a fourth grade teacher, described this event as “wonderful,” while second grade teacher Accomando said Friday night’s poetry reading was “inspiring.”

“It’s inspiring for us,” said Accomando. “Poetry is a great medium; [the students] can use words, they don’t have to worry about grammar … they are creative and they’re open to writing things.”

Associate professor of philosophy Dr. Kris Sealey, who coordinated the judging process, would agree with Accomando, believing that poetry is sometimes overlooked in education. “…A lot of time, modes of expression are squashed and lost in formal education,” she said. “We struggle as professors to bring it back – hold on to it and make it grow!”

Sealey also sees the benefits participants would gain from the writing process. She said, “In order for these children to be productive in life, they have to develop their own voice.”

Carol Ann Davis, published poet and assistant professor of English, is working on an “expansion” of Poetry for Peace. The program, called “Poet in the classroom,” seeks to combine the poetry teaching efforts of poets and interested school teachers.

This year, the Poetry for Peace Contest was sponsored by Fairfield University’s Office of Academic Engagement, the Department of English and the Program in Peace and Justice. Poetry for Peace was also a part of the MLK Holiday Observance Week.

Reporting on this event was contributed by Crystal Rodriguez.

Amateur Poetry: Who You’d Be Today

Who You’d Be Today

You’d be eight years old today.

And as with any girl who wakes to

Find herself one year older,

You’d hop downstairs and

Grab me and Dad for

Two sweet kisses,

And your milk.

You’d be a ballet dancer today.

And excitement would take over

Whenever I let you wear

Your pink tutu, white tights, and shiny tiara.

Your teacher might fear your

Spontaneity and free spirit,

But I’d always love you for that.

You’d be a fighter today.

Getting you to bed would mean

Hours of me bribing, and you crying,

But I wouldn’t mind

As long as in the end

You’d sleep peacefully in your bed

With covers wrapped around you tight and

Sweet, sweet eyes contentedly closed.

I can imagine your smile—starry.

I always hope that

It’d be like your father’s, since his

Was always so bright and genuine.

But the light has dimmed overtime,

With the thought of you.

I sit here in my kitchen, on a Saturday morning,

Moving around charred toast,

Sipping on cold coffee,

Thinking of you,

While my friends,

Mothers with daughters of their own,

Go to ballet class.

Their daughters are so nice,

So innocent,

So free,

So loved.

My heart throbs and twists and pulls

And I can’t help but think

About who you’d be today

If you hadn’t died inside me.