Writers in the Schools

Over the weekend I was in Houston for the inaugural Writers in the Schools (WITS) national conference, and it was all kinds of amazing!

WITS is a nonprofit organization now in its 26th year that is headed by Executive Director Robin Reagler and Associate Director Long Chu. WITS sends writers into underresourced communities to provide young people with a chance to work with professional writers. Among the WITS alliance are organizations like Community Word Project in New York, Inside Out Literary Arts Project in Detroit, Badger Dog Literary Publishing in Austin, Wick Poetry Center at Kent State, and Arizona State's Young Writers Program where I work.

The whole conclave was great from the hotel service to the pedagogical training that was shared. Debra and Jeanette were two Houston area teaching artists that talked about their first years of teaching in the program. These women were young but confident, knowledgeable and funny before a crowd.

The most emotional moment for me was listening to Michele Kotler, founding director of Community Word Project. She spoke to a crowd of about 100 teaching artists and alliance members. I could not give Michele's speech justice with a summary but it was a clear-eyed argument (wrapped in a personal story) about privilege, class, art, and literature. I wanted to shout like you do in church. Listening to her, I remembered the importance of literary activism especially in poorer communities where folks are often voiceless.

I'm usually anxious when I think about writing especially about my own writing ambitions. It was nice to focus instead on how to help more young people make their voices heard.

For more information about WITS go to witshouston.org and witsalliance.org

Kid Talk

kids' talk 3
Originally uploaded by Barbara Moors
Ava said something yesterday that reminded me why I love the way children express themselves. Kids will articulate original ideas in their own language. Of course there are times when they repeat things that they hear. But sometimes they will share an observation that’s totally them working stuff out in their brain. That happened yesterday. After going with me to the grocery store and pet store, after Ava helped me cook dinner and then we bathed her and did her hair, she said this: “You do everything to help keep me alive.”

A Poem

Free Falling

You and I are right here
flung hard onto a hawk's wing.
We've grown accustomed to the grisly
view below. Once, I watched video of a hand
blown clean from the body; a pale scorpion
dropping curled in desert sand. A girl's face
with an opening where the nose should be.
These pictures dig holes that never close,
as if war was not blood and bones and teeth
and skin shot through the air, as if I am not made
of the same, as if strategies for torture make sense.
Any day now, I expect to raise myself from this ride,
throw my body full from the bird and land
upright and giant.

--copyright 2010 by Renee Simms

MY MIC SOUNDS NICE "First-Time" Teaser

I'm looking forward to this documentary, "My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women in Hip-Hop," by Ava DuVernay. It airs on August 30th on BET.

I Heart Antoine & Kelly

Jezebel has a great post, "How A Viral Video Star's Rant Got Him A New Home," that follows up on Antoine and Kelly Dodson, the brother and sister who became internet stars after speaking out about Kelly's attack by a rapist. I agree that there isn't one way to read the public's fascination with their video. There were many reasons to love the You Tube clip:

Because of Antoine's theatrical performance.
Because Kelly and Antoine chose activism when they could have remained quiet victims.
Because Kelly and Antoine were so comfortable in their skin.
Because the clip showed a community usually ignored by the media.

Anyway, I'm glad to hear the Dodson family is on the come-up.

Emerging Voices + Strange Cargo

Now, in its 15th year, PEN's Emerging Voices Program is a wonderful opportunity for writers from diverse communities to be mentored, to learn more about the craft of writing, and to present their work to a larger audience in Los Angeles. Here's a description of the program from the penusa.org website:

Emerging Voices

Emerging Voices is a literary fellowship program that aims to provide new writers, who lack access, with the tools they will need to launch a professional writing career. Over the course of the year, each Emerging Voices fellow participates in: a professional mentorship; hosted Q & A evenings with prominent local authors; a series of Master classes focused on genre; and two public readings. The fellowship includes a $1,000 stipend.

The Mentorship Project grew out of PEN USA’s forum “Writing the Immigrant Experience,” held at the Los Angeles Central Library in March 1994, which explored the issues, problems and challenges faced by first and second generation immigrant writers. It was evident from the forum that many of the culturally diverse communities of writers in Southern California have special needs and are often isolated from the literary establishment. In the fall of 1995, PEN USA initiated Emerging Voices as a literary mentorship designed to launch potential professional writers from minority, immigrant and other underserved communities.

Participants need not be published, but the program is directed toward poets and writers of fiction and creative nonfiction with clear ideas of what they hope to accomplish through their writing. There are no age restrictions.

This project is supported in part by grants from the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, The James Irvine Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

And finally, thankfully, the Emerging Voices anthology, Strange Cargo, has arrived with a forward by Janet Fitch. My story, "At Four Thousand Feet and Rising," is featured in the anthology; so is the work of Stephanie Han, Shonda Buchanan, and Denise Uyehara who were fellows in the program with me in 1999.

A reading from the anthology takes place at Skylight Books in L.A. on September 12th, 5 pm.

Ninth Ward

Congratulations to Jewell Parker Rhodes whose debut children's book, Ninth Ward, was chosen as the selection for Al Roker's Book Club for Kids on the Today Show. I'm really loving the cover of this book. Read a review of Ninth Ward here.

About Overrated

Over the weekend, writer Anis Shivani published a list of his "15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Authors," which includes Sharon Olds, Louise Gluck, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Amy Tan among others. Shivani's list created numerous debates on Facebook, Twitter and in the blogosphere.

I think passions ran high because of the snarky tone of the piece, which I really hated. But I also think people cared because Shivani raises legitimate issues about who gets published and why. This is a sensitive topic for any writer, established or not, because the odds are stacked against publication and/or recognition.

I also disliked the fact that there was such racial and gender diversity on a list of OVERRATED writers, when the praise lists contain so few women writers and writers of color. I also think that Shivani should have focused his critical analysis on the institutions that he says perpetuate literary mediocrity like publishers, awards committees, MFA programs, etc. Targeting the writers seemed cruel and beside the point.

Anyway, I look forward to reading Shivani's forthcoming underrated list. And I've enjoyed following the conversations about his list, including this thread linked from the Rumpus; this blogpost by Becca; and this essay, "Becoming a Writer" by Junot Diaz. Someone linked to the essay as evidence that most writers, including Diaz, work long and hard to do what we do.

Depression Era Photos

Huffington Post has a neat slideshow of rare color photos from the Depression Era. The photo above is a couple in Puerto Rico in 1941. Check out the pictures here.

Supreme News

This is an exciting time to be a lawyer. Cases about California's Prop 8 and Arizona's immigration law are making their way through the court system and will likely be decided by the Supreme Court. Both cases will set important precedence.

And now, for the first time in history there are THREE WOMEN on the Supreme Court!! My heart does little flips.

Quotables: Anne Rice and Alisa Valdes

Author Anne Rice made the following Facebook status update announcing that she has decided to leave Christianity:

"In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control," the author wrote on Wednesday on her Facebook fan page. "In the name of ... Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen."

For the entire story go here

And on her blog, The Dirty Girls Social Club author Alisa Valdes wrote this about the discrimination she's encountered in Hollywood:

When someone like me suggests, armed to the teeth with personal anecdotes and examples, that the “liberal” Hollywood elites continue to employ racist, unrealistic and damaging stereotypes of Hispanic women, they laugh it off and decide that I’m crazy.

To read the entire 8/2/10 entry go here.

Poetry by Niki Herd

Please put this book on your list immediately: The Language of Shedding Skin by fierce poet Niki Herd. It is her debut collection and it was a finalist in the Main Street Rag poetry competition. The book is available for preorder here and the general release is December 28th.

A Civil Conversation about Immigration

The Conversation
Originally uploaded by njchow82
The Arizona Humanities Council has a series called Project Civil Discourse and on August 19th they're presenting "A Community Conversation on Immigration" from 6:00-9:00 p.m. at the Rio Salado Conference Center. The event is free, but you need to register.

At the event, participants will sit a table and discuss a topic of the immigration debate for 30 minutes. Then you rotate to a new table to discuss the topic with different people. Three topics will be introduced. For more information go to projectcivildiscourse.com