Giving back to the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House

Jimenez-Porter Writers’ House banner by Jenna Brager
Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House banner by Jenna Brager.

This year I served as the initial judge/reader in poetry for the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House Literary Prize contest. Thank you, Johnna Schmidt, for the opportunity.

Litfest is an annual literary contest and celebration. At the spring ceremony, awards are given out for the top three poems and short stories, honorable mentions, and the Writers’ House seniors graduate and receive certificates. I remember my Litfest fondly.

Four years ago I was graduating from the Writers’ House. And when Johnna announced the winners of that year’s competition, I was so surprised that my poem “An invisible middle” had won first place!

I’m thrilled to pass on some of that excitement to the next Writers’ House generation. It was very special to read almost 100 undergraduate poems as an alumna. Choosing 10 to pass along to the final judge (Ocean Vuong!) was an honor.

It was difficult to decide on the top 10 because many of the poems had great potential, voice, and imagery. I definitely saw a lot of my early writing in some of them.

The results of the 2017 Litfest are being announced this week. And I hope that even if I didn’t choose your poem in the top 10, and even if Ocean Vuong didn’t pick yours for the top winners, you’ll still continue to write. We need emerging poets and short story writers. We need champions of the freedom of expression. I’m getting all sappy because I truly believe in this vital community of writers. The Writers’ House matters — your writing and voice matter. I’m so glad to soon call you my fellow Writers’ House alumni.

This year’s Litfest is Thursday, May 4 at 8 p.m. in St. Mary’s Hall at the University of Maryland. Writers will read from the honorable mentions and top winning poems and stories. And the 2017 Stylus will be unveiled. I’ll see you there.

The power of writers as activists

The incredible Taylor Lewis reflects on the power of writers as activists, her experiences teaching abroad in France, going to grad school in Hawaii, and the current political climate in a recent article in The Writers’ Bloc.

Back in 2011, at the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House at the University of Maryland, Taylor had the great idea to start up a literary-arts newspaper on campus — what eventually became The Writers’ Bloc. The University of Maryland had niche newspapers, but nothing like this.

I was grateful to be included in starting the paper, becoming its Editor-in-Chief years later, and am so proud of what it has grown into.

“Since then, it has evolved in ways I could have never imagined,” Taylor writes. “From Writers’ to Writer’s; from a focus solely on arts and writing to music and blogs and activism. The staff has grown exponentially from the few of us who started it, and though I haven’t met many of them, every new generation carries on the legacy, making it bigger and better.”

Taylor is absolutely right when she says, “We do not take kindly to walls.” We as writers, we as creatives, we as thinkers, dreamers, artists, we as immigrants, we as people of color, we as LGBTQ/queer people, we as disabled people, we as indigenous people/Native Americans, we as people.

We don’t take kindly to being walled up, walled off, with borders or bans — everything happening now we are actively fighting and speaking up against. And The Writers’ Bloc has always and seems to continue to offer an important space for these writers and artists.

Taylor leaves us with insight into another language; apt since she is studying second-language acquisition.

Hawaiʻi Loa, kū like kākou
Kū paʻa me ka lōkahi e
Kū kala me ka wiwo ʻole
ʻOnipaʻa kākou, ‘onipaʻa kākou
A lanakila nā kini e
E ola, e ola e ola nā kini e

All Hawaiʻi stands together, it is now and forever
To raise your voices, and hold your banners high
We shall stand as a nation
To guide the destinies of our generations
To sing and praise the glories of our land

Thank you, The Writers’ Bloc staff, for continuing this legacy of sharing your voices. This is so necessary. And thank you, Taylor, for dreaming up that idea all those years ago in the midst of overflowing undergraduate schedules. What a dream — and what a newspaper it has become.

That’s a wrap on AWP 2017

I am not invisible photo

Wow. AWP is over. I am exhausted, and sick (who gave me this cold?!), and heartened by the writing community I’m a part of.

This was my first AWP, and it is just as massive as it sounds. About 15,000 writers, editors, publishers, university professors, etc. attended. It’s like an entire city converging on D.C. for several days, spreading infestations of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, translation, and more.

I’m so grateful that I was able to meet several editors of literary journals who have been so kind to publish me. Meeting fellow editors and writers in person is such a wonderful experience. If I missed you, know that you mean so much to me. I really enjoy broadening my writing community — especially in these times, we need each other more than ever.

I tried to attend as many panels on disability and accessibility in writing as I could — unfortunately, I could not attend them all. I had to listen to my body, pace myself, take breaks, and find some time to eat. The off-site events, too, were supportive spaces, especially the Kick Ass Women Kick Ass reading, Split This Rock’s candlelight vigil for free speech, and the Inner Loop’s joint reading with District Lit, Sakura Review, and the Boiler Journal.

Here’s my roundup:

  • It’s the End of the World as She Knows It: Apocalypse Poetry by Women
  • The Politics of Queering Characters
  • Beautiful Mysteries: Science in Fiction and Poetry (got some sweet STEM temp tats from this panel)
  • Body of Work: Exploring Disability, Creativity, and Inclusivity
  • Audio Drama and Podcasting: The Future is Now 2.0
  • Not Invisible: Editors of Literary Journals Speak Out on Disability and Building Inclusive Writing Communities
  • Page Meets Stage with Carolyn Forché, Sarah Kay, and Derrick Brown
  • Writing With and About Dis/Ability, Dis/Order, and Dis/Ease
  • Reading and Conversation with Aracelis Girmay, Tim Seibles, and Danez Smith

Read some of my thoughts on these panels on my Twitter by searching #AWP17 on my timeline.

On Friday, I had a vital and challenging conversation on my panel about disability, accessibility, and building inclusive writing communities. Listening to and talking with Jill Khoury, Mike Northen, Sheryl Rivett, and Sheila McMullin was so powerful.

Mike summed it up when he said, “As editors, we’re always walling someone off.” As gatekeepers, how do we check our privileges and biases and make sure to open the door to others, especially disabled writers, women writers, LGBTQ writers, writers of color, and more. These voices are so often overlooked and left out of publishing. We discussed some ways we try to do this. And I’m always open to hearing how to improve and keep building more inclusive (writing) communities.

Thank you to all who attended our panel and asked important questions. Thank you to VIDA for sponsoring, and to Sheila for planning and leading our panel.

Interview in Crack the Spine

I was recently interviewed in Crack the Spine’s Wordsmith series! They asked me how long I’ve been writing, what my greatest challenge as a writer is, and the best piece of advice on how to stay sane as a writer.

Read on to find out more about the main message in my short story in Crack the Spine, as well as important issues like my favorite word and the pressing question of chocolate or vanilla?

Read the interview.

2016 reflections

Some 2016 accomplishments I’m proud of:

  • Bottlecap Press published my book On that one-way trip to Mars.
  • More of my disability-themed poetry was published. Thanks The Deaf Poets Society, Noble/Gas Quarterly, The Fem, Wordgathering, Words Dance, and others.
  • I got to talk to so many amazing young scientists and women in STEM for stories with Society for Science & the Public. I’m so glad they’re the future.
  • Tabling with my sister Hannah Chertock at the first-ever @dcartbookfair was so much fun. We sold our art, and met amazing writers/artists.
  • I discussed poetry and diversity in literary magazines on panels at Split This Rock’s poetry festival and the Frostburg Indie Lit Fest.
  • My panel was accepted for AWP 2017. Excited to have conversations about building inclusive communities in publishing and literature.
  • I read poetry in NYC at Berl’s Poetry Shop for a Bottlecap Press featured reading. It’s great to meet poet friends in new places.
  • I got an LGBT short story published by Paper Darts. So happy it found a great home.
  • The first of my Forecast stories, detailing various eco-futures, was published by OMNI Reboot.
  • Moonsick Magazine published my short story on migrants, based on a heartbreaking episode of Story Corps.
  • In 2016, I got 13 poems and 5 stories published. I’m so grateful to each and every one of the online and print magazines that accepted my writing, and that rejected me. My writing has grown from each rejection — and I can’t wait to submit more, hopefully get more acceptances, and probably more rejections, along the way.

Here’s to 2017. To submitting more writing, supporting each other, and speaking up loudly! Happy New Year!

What is #OwnYourOwn?

The #OwnYourOwn hashtag has taken off this week. It’s a space on Twitter to encourage and inspire marginalized writers. It’s a call to #OwnYourOwn voice, #OwnYourOwn dreams, #OwnYourOwn story.

This community is rallying around the #ownvoices hashtag as well, which encourages the telling of stories from diverse groups and members of that group.

The hashtag was started by Kaye M., a Muslim American college student who is very involved in the writing and literary world.

Here’s a selection from her #OwnYourOwn announcement post:

I used to judge my own people, my own perspective, and find it wanting. Muslim girls couldn’t have adventures. Muslim girls didn’t have adventures worth writing about. Muslim girls just weren’t worthy of the gilded spines I used to trail my hand over in the local library. We just weren’t.

It makes it seem as though we are the problem. I’ve been asked recently how to stop feeling like we are the problem. We aren’t, dear readers. We are not, we are not, we are not. The push for #ownvoices in literature – the subtle acknowledgement that we make our stories, we make them the thirst-quenching, beautifully mouth watering works of art that they are – proves that.

We are not the problem. We are our own. And we need to be able to own our own, without accepting the manufactured shame from those who would rather us continue to uncomfortably digest co-opted narratives and unhappy stereotypes. Your #ownvoices matter, all of you.

Join the discussions happening on Twitter, blogs, and other areas of the web. The writing community on Twitter is a great space to meet other writers, make friends, find agents, have deep conversations, and more.

The dreaded reading — and how not to suck at it

D.C. science fiction writer Tara Campbell recently wrote an article in the Washington Independent Review of Books encouraging silent writers to go out and read their work! One great way to test if your latest piece is submission-ready, Tara said, is to attend a local reading and actually read your work to others. Audiences at all of the readings I’ve been to have been very welcoming, especially if it’s an open-mic. Tara listed several local readings in the D.C. area.

Her article also introduced me to a 2015 piece by E.A. Aymar on how not to suck at readings. He warns against shitty delivery and reading for too long. I’d also add practicing reading — sometimes I practice in front of a mirror, or in my head on my long Metro commutes. It helps me feel like once I get up on that stage or in front of people, I’ve done it before. There’s some excellent advice in both of these articles.

Gotta’ have that grit. Gotta’ have that hustle

If you’re trying to get your art or writing published in literary magazines, you should really read Lincoln Michel’s Ultimate Guide to getting published on BuzzFeed. Michel is the Editor of Electric Literature.

Some of you might be thinking … why BuzzFeed? What does BuzzFeed know about literature? Well, BuzzFeed has been incorporating a lot more literary coverage. Saeed Jones is their Literary Editor. He’s launching an Emerging Writers Fellowship and a lit mag sometime next March. And Michel’s guide is published in their Books section.

“The most important part of submitting is persistence,” says Lincoln Michel.

Keep writing! Keep submitting!

Just remember, persistence really is key.

‘Cemetario General’ in Cacti Fur

My poem “Cemetario General” was published in Cacti Fur. I wrote this poem in Chile, while traveling through that beautiful land of friendly people. People in Chile kiss you on both cheeks when they meet you.

I went to Chile in 2013 for a winter-term trip through the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House. We visited Santiago, Valparaíso, and Pucón. Valparaíso was my favorite place — a port city built on rolling hills with old pulley systems that bring you to different levels of the city. It’s also one of the most artistic cities I’ve visited, with artist colonies, graffiti, and murals everywhere. It’s inspired several poems.

Through my class, we learned about Chile’s haunting past in which dictator Augusto Pinochet overthrew the president and caused forced disappearances and murders of thousands of people. This is a very politically-inspired piece.

We toured Cemetario General, the largest cemetery in Santiago. One of the plots, Patio 29, was used to bury these disappeared and unidentified. In addition to the plot, there were walls and walls of crumbling concrete with boxes — and bodies, the remains, maybe only what could be found of a loved one, inside. While we toured, learned, and paid our respect, we passed a cemetery worker who was cleaning the grounds. I was caught reflecting about his job, and this piece was the result.

You can read the poem here.

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An Approach to Teaching Poetry With Afghan Women Writers

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Alaha Ahrar recites a poem in English and Dari. Photo by Marlena Chertock.

On March 29, in a Saturday morning panel at the 2014 Split This Rock poems of provocation and witness poetry festival, the Afghan Women’s Writing Project shared words and curriculum from Afghan women poets with a group of about 25 women and two men in the Human Rights Campaign building.

Formed in 2009, AWWP offers women in Afghanistan a community to share writing and learn the craft. AWWP is working to help Afghan women become professional writers by offering them a space to work on their craft and share their writing among themselves and others. Afghan women who participate in the workshops can write in English, which is unique, since many women in the country don’t learn English, said Richelle McClain, the panel leader and executive director of the project.

Split This Rock participants’ passionate engagement in a variety of diverse panels demonstrated poetry’s power as a political and educational tool for articulating and sharing sensitive personal and cultural stories. This potential for poetry to breach social and cultural barriers was exemplified in the poems Afghan women writers shared in the panel.

McClain discussed AWWP’s “Lessons from Afghanistan: A Curriculum for Exploring Themes of Love and Forgiveness,” available online, which contains five sections, ranging from personal definitions of love to exploring forgiveness in the face of abuse that these women face in Afghanistan because of their gender. The curriculum provides poems, objectives, classroom activities, writing prompts, and sample questions to explore love, forgiveness, and other themes. It also offers a list of suggested resources. Some activities include questionnaires, small group discussion, and writing individual or group poems about themes like self-love and effective communication.

Educators can use the curriculum’s prompts for writing exercises in their classrooms. Teachers can download individual poems or the entire curriculum by requesting permission from Stacy Parker Le Melle at stacy@awwproject.org. The project also encourages theatrical readings of the work.

During the panel, McClain asked festival attendees to recite several poems from the project. Alaha Ahrar and Mahnaz Rezaie, two Afghan women who attended university in America, read their poems in English and Dari, one of the official languages in Afghanistan.

Poetry has a long history in the country. Ahrar said her great-grandfather was a Sufi poet, part of a deeply mystical tradition. As several recent news articles attest, writing poetry is a gravely perilous pursuit for many Afghan women.

AWWP pays for Afghan women’s transportation to and from writing workshops in Afghanistan, because it is dangerous for them to share their opinions and write in the country, McClain said. The workshops are held in an undisclosed location for increased security. Ahrar added that many of the women remain anonymous when they write. Due to these safety concerns, AWWP only recruits in the country through word of mouth.

Some of the women bring their daughters to the workshops, to expose them to the open atmosphere, McClain said.

Ahrar ended the session by reading her poem titled “Desire for World Peace,” first in Dari, then in English.

“Afghan women have a lot of hope for their country,” she said. “We are very optimistic.”