Goodwill and Gratitude: Twelve Years with Poets & Writers

by Jamie Asaye FitzGerald

For the last twelve years, I’ve worked for Poets & Writers, Inc. Founded by Galen Williams in New York City in 1970, and guided for over thirty years by the steady hand of executive director Elliot Figman, P&W is the nation’s largest nonprofit organization serving creative writers. Its mission is to foster the professional development of poets and writers, to promote communication throughout the literary community, and to help create an environment in which literature can be appreciated by the widest possible public.

I was hired as a program assistant in 2005, and have directed the California branch office of P&W and its Readings & Workshops (West) grant program for the past three years with the help of program coordinator and fellow poet Brandi M. Spaethe. I didn’t understand at the beginning how foundational the organization’s mission and key values of service, inclusivity, integrity, and excellence were, but over the years these tenets have seeped into my bones and informed my work and my life. I consider my time at P&W as post-post-graduate work—my unofficial PhD in literary community.

I first accepted the job about a year out of grad school. I had finished an MFA in poetry at San Diego State University and was in what I would call “workshop recovery,” piecing together paid work and trying to find a way to move to Los Angeles to be with my sweetheart, who I had been in a long-distance relationship with since going to grad school.

I thought I would try to find a job as an adjunct instructor, but I was also interested in working in the arts for a service organization. I wanted to work for a cause I could believe in, whether that was teaching or the arts. Landing the P&W job was an example of the unpredictable ways in which personal efforts and relationships combine to make great things happen.

My sweetheart lived in Little Tokyo, pre-dating the Downtown L.A. boom, in what I would call an unconventional building. Across the hall was a musician-writer friend, Alanna Lin, who had studied writing at Cal Arts with someone who now worked for Poets & Writers. That person turned out to be writer Cheryl Klein. The connection was shared. I called Cheryl to inquire about a job at P&W. No openings, but we hit it off, talking about grad school and the reading series I co-curated. I sent my résumé anyway, and a note of thanks, and within a few months received a call. Ryan Tranquilla, the director at that time, was leaving to devote more time to his growing family. Cheryl would be filling his shoes, and she needed a new program assistant. “Are you still looking for a job in L.A.?” she asked.

Prior to grad school, I had worked in the corporate sector making a corporate salary and reaping corporate benefits. My career as an advertising copywriter came with a tinge of glamour—it’s what Elaine on “Seinfeld” did for a living. I got to work with art directors and graphic designers, interact with stylists, photographers, and makeup artists. I even had an employee discount! My job was creative, writing copy for fashion magazine, catalog, and newspaper ads.

On the surface, there was nothing glamorous about the California office of P&W, with its walls in need of a fresh coat of paint and fake wood veneer peeling from old particleboard furniture. The program assistant job I was accepting was also primarily administrative, not obviously creative as my past jobs had been.

I accepted the job because deep down I knew it would be good for me—it was a step in the right direction. Friends and faculty from my MFA program where flabbergasted when I told them I was going to work for P&W in Los Angeles. It would take a few years of being with the organization for me to gain the depth of experience to understand what they already knew—just how special P&W is.

The Readings & Workshops grant program, which I oversee for California, Houston, Seattle, and Tucson, and which my colleague Bonnie Rose Marcus oversees for New York State, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C., helps to pay fees to writers who give readings and/or teach creative writing in community settings. This means, I help give money away to writers. Not a bad job!

Administering the program has given me a broad view of what is going on in the literary world—what events are taking place where and which writers are actively participating in these types of activities. Each day, I provide technical assistance, guidance, and advice to writers and literary presenters who call or e-mail, and I receive their thanks for the funding from Poets & Writers. I’m also able to direct some of the funding we have to programs that reach people who might not otherwise have a chance to be exposed to the literary arts.

In addition to the grant program, I have had the opportunity to work on writing contests, contribute to the incredible resource that is, co-edit the Readings & Workshops Blog, and so much more. I help P&W fulfill its mission of promoting communication throughout the literary community by convening literary roundtable meetings throughout California and in our program cities, as well as workshop leaders retreats for teaching writers who work with underserved groups. These events bring members of the literary community together to talk about issues important to them, to share resources, and connect with one another. Through these events I’ve come to know communities in different parts of the state and in our select cities. Each place I go to talk with people—and get people to talk to each other—I see the vibrancy of the literary arts, the amazing activity taking place, and the desire people have to connect. Again, I receive their gratitude for the opportunities P&W provides.

Recently, I convened a meeting in Fresno. An attendee commented: “You guys are the best. I mean, what other arts organization comes to Fresno to do what you do?” I had to admit that I couldn’t think of another organization doing what P&W does to support literary activity. The poet Jane Hirshfield, wrote in one of her event reports for a grant she received: “P&W’s matching grants are a kind of Osmocote or greensand slow-release fertilizer for America’s literary landscape, strengthening the whole ecosystem.”

These days, twelve years is a long time to work for the same organization. I won’t lie: I’ve had to work to keep things interesting for myself (it turned out to be a creative job after all), but I’ve also lasted this long because the job has given me the opportunity to spread so much goodwill. And, in return, I’ve been the conduit of the gratitude folks have for Poets & Writers.

What have I learned? So much. I’ve learned that literary community is real and that you can choose to be a part of it or not. I would know how to build a literary community if it didn’t yet exist in a place. I’ve learned there are many avenues and ways to be a writer. I’ve learned there are also many ways for writers to have agency, to be an agent, whether that’s an agent for change, for the advancement of the art form, or for advancement of oneself as an individual artist. I’ve learned that all these things are interconnected. My work at P&W has given me the opportunity to meet some incredible people—most of them not famous writers, but writers who have courage, insight, and energy (and should be more famous). It has changed what I value as an artist and has made me more aware of how we can all be of service. It has shifted my interests and perspective. It has made me more sensitive and more of an “artivist.” I see that what artists make and do is for others just as much as it is for them. It has taught me to be fearless about outreach—that it’s not about who you know, but how you connect; that it’s better not to do it alone; that partnerships are where it’s at; that it’s individuals pooling their talents that make great things happen; that everyone has something to contribute; that you don’t have to be the world’s most brilliant writer to do great things in the literary world; that publishing isn’t the end all be all of writing success (although it certainly doesn’t hurt); that divides should be respected, but are meant to be crossed; that writing is for everyone, though not everyone’s a writer; that art is here to lift people up out of the mundane and to heal the ills of our society; that we need to put more faith, time, and resources into arts and artists; that there are many artists doing this work for next to nothing, because it’s who they are and they can’t exist in any other way; that they are my people.

In my time at P&W, I hope I’ve been able to make a difference. I’ve been able to stay focused on my writing life, although I’ve had to be very patient in tending it. I’ve also been able to start a family during this period of time. I have two young children, a partner (that same sweetheart I mentioned earlier), and two cats. It has been a real struggle living in an ever-increasingly expensive city and raising a family while working in the arts. We have had the good fortune to make it work. As I reflect on all of the opportunities I have been given to do some good in the literary community, from mentoring young interns to sending writers to teach workshops in rural libraries to recommending writers to teach writing workshops for foster youth to helping a writer get paid for teaching in a juvenile hall to supporting the teaching work of a writer who is helping veterans tell their stories to giving people a chance to see that they are not alone in their struggle to make, create, and share. It’s been my livelihood, and it’s also been a gift.

I wish I could name all of the inspiring people I’ve met during my time at P&W, but I wouldn’t want to leave anyone out. If you’re reading this: You know who you are! I will say that I recently had lunch with former directors Cheryl Klein and Ryan Tranquilla. We talked about our families, about past director Karen Clark—who gets much of the credit for building the program up—but most of all we were very grateful to be among the lucky few who have had the opportunity to carry forward this work.

On June 4, 2017 at Beyond Baroque Literary | Arts Center in Venice, CA, I’ll be celebrating the Readings & Workshops program at P&W’s annual Connecting Cultures Reading—a showcase of writers representing participating organizations 826LA, Beyond Baroque, Bittersweet: The Immigrant Stories, the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory, and Urban Possibilities. I hope you’ll join me!

unnamed-1Jamie Asaye FitzGerald has poems published in magazines and anthologies including the American Poetry Review, Mom Egg Review, and Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes & Shifts in Los Angeles (Tia Chucha Press, 2016). She holds an MFA in poetry from San Diego State University. Originally from Hawaii, she lives in Los Angeles, where she works for Poets & Writers, Inc.

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