Reaching Out, Giving Back: Profiles in Literary Citizenship

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I am pleased to present our new Literary Citizenship category of listings for the first time in this issue of Soundings. The idea was born out of a desire to recognize the many ongoing contributions our community members make to the literary world outside the creative writing classroom environment. Even more to the point, we wanted a way to sustain our community's awareness of each member's activities. We have always included a listing in our Announcements section when someone accepts a position on the board of a literary organization, say, or launches a reading series. But when that same individual is still contributing years later, we've had no way to continue appreciating that service and sharing it with our readers, until now.

In this inaugural edition of Literary Citizenship, you'll find people who are leading their own community literary organizations, serving on the boards of nonprofits that publish poetry, editing literary magazines online and in print, serving as readers for literary magazines, writing regular literary columns for publications, and more. We're still evolving our definition of this nascent category, so we expect that over time the nature of the activities we list may shift a bit before it settles. We do know that this will be a standing list from issue to issue; that is, as long as you are engaged in an activity, your listing will remain.

To celebrate the launch of this new category, we've profiled three RWW community members and their contributions to literary life. You'll read about participant Jasminne Mendez (2019) and her community organization, Tintero Projects; alumna Lita Kurth (2009) and her reading series, Flash Fiction Forum; and alumna Kelli Russell Agodon (2007) and her small press, Two Sylvias Press.

May this new feature of Soundings bring you pride in your RWW connection; may you be inspired to your own acts of literary citizenship.

Jasminne Mendez, Tintero Projects

Jasminne Mendez (2019) is on a mission. As Cofounder and Program Director of Tintero Projects in Houston, TX, Mendez is helping grow a community in which emerging Latinx writers can find mentorship, guidance, and opportunity.

Tintero is Spanish for “inkwell,” and the name reflects the organization's goal to be a resource for writers. To that end, Tintero Projects sponsors readings by established and emerging authors as well as writing workshops that bring in guest facilitators to expose participants to writers with expertise in an array of genres.

For Mendez, it's a way of carrying forward the support she received from the spoken-word community in Houston when she was in her early twenties. Now an accomplished poet, performer, and essayist, she remembers that early support with gratitude. "I felt so welcomed and loved," she says. "They were instantly a new family to me. Working with Tintero Projects, I'm able to provide that same kind of experience and kinship to others."

Mendez's passion for this work draws strength from her commitment to celebrating and amplifying the voices of Latinx writers. "My writing centers around my Latinidad. As an Afro-Latina, I hope to write and share the stories of a marginalized and oppressed people. Working with Tintero Projects allows me not only to share my work with the audience that matters most to me, but also to tap into the growing population of Latinx writers and help them get their stories out into the world as well."

As a current RWW participant entering her second year, Mendez sees connections between her graduate work and her work with Tintero Projects. Through RWW, she has had the opportunity to build friendships and network with writers from across the country, and she hopes to bring her RWW and Tintero Projects communities together. In fact, she has already launched this effort: In May 2017, RWW participant Lena Khalaf Tuffaha (2017), author of the poetry collections Arab in Newsland and Water and Salt, led a writing workshop and headlined a reading titled "No Ban, No Wall: Women Writers Unite" with Houston-based poets Cristina Martinez and Carolina Hinojosa-Cisneros. In the future, Mendez hopes to bring more fellow RWW participants, alumni, and even faculty to Houston through Tintero Projects.

She also sees her learning as an asset to bring back to her community. "I've been able to apply what I've learned with Barrie Jean Borich, my first-year mentor, to some of the workshops I taught earlier this year. As my knowledge of books and writers grows, I hope to share that knowledge with the writing community here at home. I know that if I am made a better writer by my participation at RWW, then my community is also better for it."

Creating and running Tintero Projects has its challenges; Mendez says that what should be a five- to seven-person operation is currently being run by just two: herself and her husband, poet Lupe Mendez. Founded in mid-2016, Tintero Projects is still a young grassroots organization. But, says Mendez, "We work tirelessly and passionately to empower the Latinx writing community. It isn't easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is."

The same is true for the kind of engagement Mendez seeks to kindle in the writers she serves through Tintero Projects. "It takes courage and commitment for writers to step out of the comfort of their private spaces and join others in the larger conversation of what it means to be a writer of color in the world today," she says. "Our writing is and has always been an act of resistance; this is not a new trend or a passing fad. We write for our survival, we write as an act of radical self-love, we write to break the silence."

Around the workshop table or in the space of a public reading, participants at Tintero Projects are learning, creating, and supporting each other. This is literary citizenship in its most essential form. As Mendez says, "It is my hope that by building and working for Tintero Projects, I can help not only myself but other writers of color survive, love, breathe, and speak just a little louder."

 

If you live in the Houston area or plan to visit, check out the Tintero Projects website for upcoming events.

Pushcart Prize-winning author Daniel Peña teaches at the University of Houston Downtown and will be teaching a writing workshop for Tintero Projects in the fall; details to be announced on the website.

They are currently planning their 2017-18 lineup, so if you are interested in being a part of their reading or workshop series, please reach out!

Website: https://tinteroprojects.wordpress.com/
Twitter: @TinteroProject
Facebook: TinteroProjects

Lita Kurth, Flash Fiction Forum

Everyone loves to hear stories, and anyone, regardless of attention span, has the patience for flash fiction. That may be one secret to the success of Lita Kurth's Flash Fiction Forum. Every other month, on a Wednesday night, a crowd of at least thirty people (and sometimes up to sixty—standing room only) gathers at Works art and performance center in downtown San José, CA, to hear a curated lineup of a dozen writers read their works of micro-fiction.

Fiction/nonfiction writer and teacher Lita Kurth (2009) cofounded Flash Fiction Forum with Tania Martin in 2013. She says, "We wanted FFF to be fun and inclusive, an event any intelligent reader could enjoy." And indeed, she says (tongue in cheek), some of the audience members aren't writers themselves, nor were they dragged there against their will by one of the readers. It's a testament to the quality of the writing Kurth and Martin choose to present and to the broad-based appeal of storytelling. 

For Kurth, it's all about community. Flash Fiction Forum grew out of her RWW Outside Experience, which pushed her to connect with her local community. The RWW connection has continued over the past four years, as several RWW alumni based in Northern California have read their work at FFF, including Tarn Wilson (2008), Elea Carey (2008), and Jessica Barksdale (2015). Says Kurth, "RWW gave me deep and ongoing connections for which I am fiercely grateful." 

But FFF also makes a point of including writers of all experience levels. "So far," Kurth says, "we've featured about 110 readers, some of whom had never read their work in public before. I love that FFF is a vehicle for bringing talented people into what can seem like a small and closed world. We've established a convivial and unintimidating environment." 

In addition, FFF has reached out to other communities in the San José area, with fruitful results. For example, a collaboration with Anshu Johri, a writer from India who first read at FFF, led to an evening of bilingual readings in Hindi and English held at a Hindu temple. "Many personal friendships and cross-fertilizations have arisen," says Kurth, "leading to amazing literary opportunities for us and our participants."

Because both Kurth and Martin each read a piece of their own at every FFF event, their work of literary citizenship actually spurs them on to new writing. Kurth draws on what she learned from flash fiction master Jim Heynen at RWW to produce new stories on a regular basis, and she has published "quite a few" of them, she says.

"I never would have believed what a rewarding literary life is possible almost entirely under the radar," says Kurth. With Flash Fiction Forum, she and Martin are fostering a space that honors the beauty of brevity and draws writers and listeners together in an ongoing conversation, 200 to 750 perfectly chosen words at a time.

 

If you live in the San José area or plan to visit and you would like to attend Flash Fiction Forum, see their website for upcoming events. If you would like to read at FFF, you can submit your work here.

Kelli Russell Agodon, Two Sylvias Press

Where would we be without literary publishers? As writers, we'd be relegated to passing our manuscripts among friends. As readers, we'd never get the chance to read the words our spirits most need. Lucky for all of us, there are a few dedicated souls who use their own considerable talents to bring the voices of other poets and writers out into the world.

Kelli Russell Agodon (2007) cofounded Two Sylvias Press in 2010 with fellow Seattle-area poet Annette Spaulding-Convy. They publish poetry, memoirs, essays, books on the craft of writing, and creativity tools, such as The Daily Poet (a year of poetry prompts) and The Poet Tarot (a gorgeous deck of cards featuring images of classic poets). The press’s name is a tribute to the poetic talent of Sylvia Plath and the publishing and business talent of Sylvia Beach.

For Agodon, the rewards lie in helping other writers fulfill their potential, stretch their capabilities, and see their work brought to light. Over the past seven years, Two Sylvias Press has published more than a dozen poetry books and chapbooks as well as several essay collections and memoirs. As a book publisher, Agodon says, "I love being able to help someone's vision of their book become reality."

Agodon also loves to help other writers on the front end of the process; Two Sylvias Press offers monthlong online writing retreats that, she says, help others "stretch their creativity." Agodon is also the co-director (with poet Susan Rich) of Poets on the Coast: A Writing Retreat for Women, held annually in La Conner, WA. In her words, "The response we've received from the participants fulfills me as a poet myself because I'm able to help others on their own journey."

And in the category of sheer big-hearted encouragement, Agodon hopes to bring back the Russell Prize, named in honor of her parents and last awarded in 2014. It's a cash prize of $500 (and a medal, “because poets deserve medals") for a poet who has not yet published a book or chapbook. For Agodon, the Russell Prize represents a way to honor the support she received as a young poet and to pay it forward.

Working as both an accomplished poet (she has published three award-winning collections of her own poetry) and as a publisher, Agodon exercises a remarkable range of skills. She designs all the covers of the books Two Sylvias publishes, along with handling some editing, some advertising, and all the financial elements. The press "works the other side of my brain," she says. "While there is creativity, it's so different from my own writing. It's creativity in the business sense or visual art sense."

It's also a balancing act. "When I started Two Sylvias Press I told myself, you will always be a poet first and an editor second," she says. "Last year was the first year I saw that change a bit (for the worse). My job as an editor was becoming my life, and poetry was falling to the side. I've had to change that." With an adjustment to her weekly schedule and a renewed focus on her creative side, she's currently at work on her fourth poetry collection.

Agodon notes that having a supportive community of RWW alumni and students has always given her a boost, and her connection with RWW is still going strong in the ten years since she graduated. Two Sylvias Press has published books by RWW community members Michael Schmeltzer (2007) and Lena Khalaf Tuffaha (2017), and in September they will be publishing Kate Carroll de Gutes’s (2010) second book, The Authenticity Experiment: Lessons from the Best and Worst Year of My Life (available now for preorder). 

It's clear that Agodon sees herself as a literary citizen, and Two Sylvias Press lets her efforts reach throughout and beyond her immediate community. As she puts it, "Having a press as a platform to do good work in the world is something I'm quite thankful for."

 

If you want to write new poems this summer, Two Sylvias Press is offering two online poetry retreat sessions in July and August.

Kelli's author website: www.agodon.com

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