Monday, March 30, 2015

Going Back to Where it All Began

By Kristin Battista-Frazee

It’s always good to reflect back to the beginning. It gives you a chance to see how far you have come and gives clarity for future plans. On Sunday, March 22 I presented at The Writer’s Center and it was wonderful to recall the start of my writing career.

I first came to The Writer’s Center in 2006, and I didn’t have grand plans to be become a famous writer (although it would be nice) I just wanted to become a better writer for work. I enrolled in a business writing course where I met Rick Walter, teacher extraordinaire and perpetual optimist. Rick was the catalyst for me embarking on this crazy endeavor to get published. He took a genuine interest in my efforts to improve my writing and even after the workshop ended, we would meet to review my work. Most importantly Rick believed in my writing potential. 

In one of those meetings I was brave enough to share the first 17 pages of what would be become my memoir The Pornographer’s Daughter.  I knew I had an usual story; my father was prosecuted by the federal government for distributing the adult film Deep Throat in the 1970s. The impact on my family was profound and shaped who I am today.  To tell the honest truth, those pages I provided to Rick were not very good, maybe even awful. But Rick recognized an opportunity and said the almost magically words, “I think this is sellable.” This changed everything. 

After my meeting with Rick, I had the unshakeable desire to get published. It seemed a daunting task, but if Rick thought my story was worthy to print, maybe someone else would too. I had to try. So for the next eight years I juggled a full-time job and family life; I made my plans and wrote as much as possible to improve my skills. A had two-fold strategy. First, I had to become a good writer and secondly, and of growing importance today, I had to develop a platform to grab the attention of an agent and ultimately a publisher.  Here some things I learned along the way. 

  • Learn the difference between constructive criticism and bad advice.  You’re the one most dedicated to your story, having spent an exorbitant amount of time with your characters and researching your topic. Don’t ignore that nagging voice in the back of your mind if suggested changes or criticism just doesn’t feel right. Also don’t make changes just to force a fit with an agent or publishing house. In the end it will produce a bad result.
  • Have an unfailing optimism that you will be published despite the difficulty.  If you don’t believe you will be published, no one else will either. Shut out the negative noise about hard and unlikely the success of seeing your book in print, it’s worthless to dwell on it.
  • Surround yourself with people who believe in your story and in you as a writer.  Without my writing group, my family and good friends, my book might not have been accomplished.
  • Practice writing as much as you can.  Freelance articles, blog, journal, long Facebook posts, etc.  This work helps hone your platform and thoughts about your book.
  • Find other writers to collaborate with and review your work.  I found other like-minded writers at The Writer’s Center, and their support was key to getting published.
  • Create your marketing platform and write a great book at the same time. You’ll need both for a chance to sell your book and have a publisher take you seriously.
No doubt it was a rocky road to seeing my book on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. I lost an agent, gained a new agent, and suffered more rejections from publishers then I care to remember. But there were bright spots, too, like writing for The Daily Beast and having my story optioned to sell as television series, and finally a book deal with Skyhorse Publishing. My memoir was published in September 2014. What can I say, it has been a wild ride. It was great to come full circle and back to The Writer’s Center where it all began. 

Follow me on Twitter @porndaughter and Facebook.
Visit my website,

Monday, March 23, 2015

An Interview with Novelist Nicole Idar, Winner of a DCCAH Artist Fellowship Grant

The Artist Fellowship Grant is a terrific opportunity from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for D.C.-based writers who've been resident in the District for at least two years. The Writer’s Center’s 2012 Undiscovered Voices Scholarship recipient Nicole Idar was recently awarded $9,000 by DCCAH. We asked her about that and much more.

Tell me more about the grant.

The grant offers up to $10,000 and the benefits aren't just financial—there's a feeling of community from being part of a cohort of D.C.-based artists working in other fields, like visual arts and performing arts. The DCCAH offers career development opportunities specifically for grantees—one was a communications and marketing workshop led by Massey Media, a D.C.-based public relations company. I'm grateful to the DCCAH and the judging panel for this opportunity to be a D.C. Artist Fellow.

Tell me about your work.

I've just completed my first novel, a historical fantasy. I was born and raised in Malaysia, and in my fiction I find that I often draw inspiration from Asian history. The fantasy part—I grew up reading authors like Madeleine L'Engle and Ursula K. Le Guin and C.S. Lewis, and I think the fantastical elements in their works were what first drew me to their books. I also loved Enid Blyton growing up, and some my favorite Enid Blyton books were fantastical tales, like the Faraway Tree series; one of the best things about the Faraway Tree as I recall was that once you climbed to the top you didn't have to climb down again--there was this slippery slide inside the trunk, and you could ride on a little cushion all the way to the ground. I loved that idea and I still do. Fantasy appeals so strongly to the human imagination; I sometimes find that I remember the fantasy novels I read as a kid better than the realist novels I've read as an adult.

Right now, I'm working on a collection of short stories and some essays. I love translating Malaysian literature as well; I've been working on a couple of translations of works by some of my favorite contemporary Malaysian writers like Sufian Abas, for Asymptotea journal of world literature in translation. I find that translations sharpen my instincts as a writer—I'm forced to notice how each word is used when I'm reading in a different language, and I find that afterwards I experiment more with syntax and word choice and style . . . it's as if reading or hearing a different language opens up new ways of expressing myself.

What are you reading right now?

OK, I am so excited to be reading this book: I got my hands on an advance copy of an epic fantasy, the first in a series, called The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, a brilliant writer whose work has been recognized by all three major speculative fiction awards, the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy. The Grace of Kings is about two rebels who become friends and then find themselves on opposite sides as leaders of rival factions in the battle for control of a fantastical world inspired by Chinese legends and history. I'm loving it. The book will be available April 7 for anyone who wants to check it out!

What are you watching right now?

Season 6 of The Vampire Diaries—I am obsessed with that show—and The Good Wife. I'm really worried about what I'm going to watch when those two shows wrap up. And I'm waiting for Game of Thrones to start up. I also loved an ABC sitcom that lasted for about 6 episodes or something; it was called Selfie and John Cho was in it. I really wish that show had kept going!

What is your advice to other writers?

I don't know if I'm qualified to offer any advice. I can offer an observation. When I was writing my novel, I felt like it was taking forever . . . I had these characters in my head and I'd write all these scenes without any clear sense of an overall plot, which can be a pretty messy way to write a book. Then I realized that these scenes I was writing was kind of like field research. I was observing my characters interacting the way a zoologist might observe a herd of elephants. I was quietly taking notes. Eventually, I found a structure and a shape for my novel, but for me at least, I found that I had to go through a period of quiet observation, getting to know these characters, before I could write the novel. Nothing I wrote in that period was wasted. It all ended up somewhere. So I guess if anyone out there ever feels discouraged while working on a novel, maybe say to yourself, "Hey, I'm doing field research!" I wish I'd thought of that back then!

Nicole Idar teaches writing at George Washington University and is editor-at-large (Malaysia) at Asymptote, a journal of world literature in translation. Her work has been published in World Literature TodayRattapallax, and The New Ohio Review. In 2014 she was awarded fellowships from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the Library of Congress. She holds an M.F.A. from George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard University, and she is the first Malaysian writer to be selected to attend the Clarion West Writers Workshop.
If you’d like to learn more about Idar’s work, visit her blog
Author photo by Tyrone Turner.

Monday, March 16, 2015

March 21: Even though the Whole World is Burning

Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin has won almost every major poetry prize that exists, including two Pulitzers. His legacy is based not only upon his writings, however, but also the singular form of environmental activism and land stewardship he embodies.

Now in his 87th year, Merwin has dedicated over three decades to preserving and regenerating native plants and palms on a 19-acre site on the north shore of Maui, Hawaii. Called the Merwin Conservancy, the preserve holds the most comprehensive private collection of palms in the world, with over 800 species. These tangible actions for the environment go hand-in-hand with his poetry, offering important insights for an era marked by environmental degradation, human disconnect with natural processes, and rapid climate change.

Merwin is a vibrant, humorous, and challenging subject and has not been involved in a feature documentary before. Even though the Whole World is Burning is an intimate portrait of a man who is often called a “national treasure.”

The Writer’s Center will hold a free screening of the film on March 21 at 7:30 p.m., followed by a discussion of Merwin’s writing lead by Maryland Poet Laureate Stanley Plumly and novelist Howard Norman. This event is presented in partnership with The Environmental Film Festival. 

For more information about the film, visit

For more information about The Environmental Film Festival, visit https://www.dcenvironmentalfilmfest.org

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Splendid Wake 3

On March 20th A Splendid Wake will celebrate Georgia Douglas Johnson and the “Saturday Nighters,” poet May Miller, the Federal Poets, Poetry Workshops born during Poetry and the National Conscience conferences, and the Modern Urban Griots.

A Splendid Wake arose from a desire to honor the poets of the past decades by creating an online resource that documents and preserves the remarkable literary history of Washington poetry from 1900 through the present. Articles about the poets, movements, publications, readings, sponsoring institutions, recordings and broadcasts provide a picture of the diverse and unique life of poetry that evolved over more than a century in the Nation's Capitol. This lively event is the third annual gathering that presents the work collected over the last year.


  • Regie Cabico, host
  • Kim Roberts and Michon Boston on Georgia Douglas Johnson and the Saturday Nighters
  • Miller Newman on May Miller
  • Judith McCombs on the Federal Poets with Donald Illich and Dorrit Carroll
  • Linda Pastan and Rod Jellema on poetry workshops with Siv Cedering, Primus St. John, Roland Flint, and others
  • Toni Asanti Lightfoot on Modern Urban Griots with Brandon D. Johnson, Holly Bass and Twain Dooley
  • and Sunil Freeman, in the important role of Timekeeper!


Co-editor of Flicker and Spark: A Contemporary Queer Anthology of Spoken Word and Poetry and Poetry Nation: The North American Anthology of Fusion Poetry, Regie Cabico, the evening's host, has received awards in National Slam competitions and for his work as slam coach for individual and team competitors in the U.S. and Canada. He is co-director of La-Ti-Do, a weekly spoken word and cabaret series in D.C.

Georgia Douglas Johnson—poet, playwright, and composer—brought together Kelly Miller and his daughter May Miller, Alain Locke, Carter G. Woodson, Angelina Weld Grimke, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, and many others at weekly salons at her home on S Street in D.C. Her life and works will be presented by Kim Roberts, a true D.C. force for poetry and the author of four collections of poetry, the editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly and the anthology Full Moon on K Street. Michon Boston will also discuss Johnson. She is a writer/producer and author of “Iola’s Letter,” a play based on the events that transformed Ida B. Wells from a journalist to a staunch anti-lynching activist. Boston’s plays have been produced at the Source Theatre, the National Black Theater Festival in North Carolina, and the Kennedy Center.

May Miller was a Washington poet, playwright and educator whose literary career began in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Her father, Kelly Miller, was a nationally known author and philosopher, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a professor of sociology at Howard University. He was the first African American to attend Johns Hopkins University where he studied astronomy. W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington visited their home. May remembers having to give up her room for Paul Laurence Dunbar. When May Miller received an award for a play, the event was attended by Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, and Jean Toomer. Miller served as chair of the Literature Panel of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Her niece, Miller Newman, will provide a picture of May Miller’s life. Miller Newman is a senior faculty member in the Department of English Composition and Reading at Montgomery College. She is a poet, essayist, and aspiring novelist with a doctorate in Higher Education Administration.

The Federal Poets Workshop, founded in 1944, is the D.C. metro area’s longest running workshop for poets. Members meet monthly at Tenley Public Library to critique poems and produce a biannual journal. Craig Reynolds, Frank Goodwyn, and Nancy Allinson have served as presidents. Don Illich is the current president. At least five workshops and two readings series have emerged from Federal Poets. Judith McCombs, vice-president of Federal Poets since 2005, is a poet and literary scholar. Her poetry has appeared in many publications and published The Habit of Fire: Poems Selected & New in 2005. She directs the Kensington Row Bookshop Poetry Readings, edits for Word Works DC, and is on the Splendid Wake board. Don Illich, current head of Federal Poets, has published poems in The Iowa Review, Nimrod, and Rattle. His poetry has been nominated four times for the Pushcart Prize. His chapbook, Rocket Children, was published in 2012.  Doritt Carroll received her undergraduate and law degrees from Georgetown University. In Caves and GLTTL STP were published by Brickhouse Books and her poems have appeared in Poet Lore, Plainsongs, and Journal of Formal Poetry.

Rod Jellema ran a series of conferences at the University of Maryland beginning in 1968, Poetry and the National Conscience, and sent letters out inviting folks to join a fortnightly writer’s workshop already in progress. The existing group—Siv Cedering, Eddie Gold, Primus St. John, and Bill Holland—were joined by Linda Pastan, Ann Darr, Roland Flint, Gary Sange, and Myra Sklarew. Others who joined occasionally were Elisavietta Ritchie, John Pauker, Henry Taylor. “Notable sit-ins or drop-ins were Gene McCarthy, Bill Stafford, and Stanley Kunitz,” says Rod Jellema, who adds, “Ann Darr estimated that the members of the workshop published more than sixty books.”  Linda Pastan and Rod Jellema will reminisce about this workshop. Jellema, professor emeriti, University of Maryland, founded the Creative Writing Program, and is the author of five collections of poems, the most recent, Incarnality: The Collected Poems. He is currently working on a history of early New Orleans jazz, Really Hot: A New Hearing for Old New Orleans Jazz. Linda Pastan has published thirteen volumes of poetry, most recently Traveling Light. Two collections have been finalists for the National Book Award. A new collection, Insomnia, is due out from Norton in fall 2015. In 2003, she received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement.

The way Toni Asanti Lightfoot tells it, The Modern Urban Griots got their start on a cold February night in 1994 at a place called “It’s Your Mug Cafe” at 2601 P Street, N.W. in Georgetown. She says that this series “had a broad impact. It influenced the establishment of numerous poetry events on U Street, N.W., as well as Blackman’s Freestyle Union hip-hop workshops and created a commitment to community and education.” The group included Brandon D. Johnson, Holly Bass, Twain Dooley, and Lori Tsang, among others. Beloved hecklers were The Brock Crew, Kenny Carroll, Brian Gilmore, and Joel Dias Porter (DJ Renegade). The group performed at the Whitney Museum in NY, the Nuyorican, and smaller venues around the city. In recent times the group reunited at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage. Toni Asanti Lightfoot, is a poet, educator, activist, and has an MS in Traditional Oriental Medicine. Her work has been anthologized and can be seen on YouTube. She is editor of Dream of a Word: A Tia Chucha Press Anthology. Holly Bass, a Cave Canem fellow, writer and performer, studied modern dance and creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and earned a master’s degree in Journalism from Columbia University. In 2011, The Root and 2012 Best Performance Artist in Washington City Paper named her one of the Top 30 Black Performance Poets internationally.  

Brandon D. Johnson, founding member of Modern Urban Griots and The Black Rooster Collective, received a BA from Wabash College and a JD from Antioch School of Law. He is a Cave Canem Graduate Fellow, the author of Love’s Skin, Man Burns Ant, the Strangers Between, and has work published in numerous anthologies. Twain Dooley, born in D.C., served on active duty during Desert Storm, and after a two-year stay in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (as a civilian), returned to Washington and began to perform for a variety of audiences. Author of several books, he has opened for Amiri Baraka and Jimmy “JJ” Walker, won top honors on the DC/Baltimore Slam Team, and is currently working on the story of his life, “None of This Makes Sense.”

What: 3rd Annual Public Program Celebrating Poetry in the Nation’s Capital from 1900 to the Present
When: Friday, March 20th, 2015 from 6:30-8:30 P.M.
Where: George Washington University Gelman Library, Suite 702, 2130 H Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. (near Foggy Bottom Metro stop).
Cost: Free and Open to the Public
Splendid Wake-up Blog:
For more program information contact Joanna Howard