Back to School

Red Apple

It’s that time of year again: there’s a slight chill in the air, the leaves on the trees are starting to change color, and today thousands of students in D.C. headed back to school.

Here at PEN/Faulkner, we have our share of back-to-school jitters. In the downtime between setting up visits for the fall, I’ve been ordering new sets of books, and cleaning off my admittedly cluttered desk. It reminds me of the days, not so long ago, when this time of year was associated with new pencils, uncreased notebooks, and covering textbooks with old, paper grocery sacks.

September seemed so full of possibilities, that I got in the habit of making resolutions to commemorate each new school year. Each year I promised myself to keep organized 3-ring binders with color-coded tabs to signify each subject area. More often than not, by October, I was carting around a backpack full of loose, wrinkled papers and getting looks of consternation from my teachers as I sifted through the mess to find my homework assignments. It was definitely not what I’d had in mind when I ransacked the shelves at Staples only a month before.

Even though I could never seem to find that foolproof organizational system that would keep me in line (see: admittedly cluttered desk), each school year did seem to deliver on that September promise of change and growth. There is no way that I could have known at the beginning of eleventh grade, that I would read Their Eyes Were Watching God, which would eventually become one of my favorite novels, and a book that I return to again and again. So, maybe my 16-year-old vision for a color-coded index card for each page I read over the entire year (a real goal) did not work out (I quit after a particularly dry chapter in my Trigonometry textbook), I did find something in school that—not to sound dramatic— changed my life.

As I go into this new school year, I’m approaching it with that open-mindedness. I’ll set goals for myself, organizational and otherwise, and I’ll have a plan in my mind of how I want those goals to unfold. But life has a way of deviating from expectations, and it’s those surprises that offer the biggest opportunities for learning. So, here’s to the 2013-2014 school year and everything that it has in store!

— Ariel Martino

And then, just like that, the Summer Supper & Book Club was over…

Ebenbach author photoEarlier this month, PEN/Faulkner wrapped up its Summer Supper & Book Club with a visit from DC-based author David Ebenbach came to Hill Center to meet with students and to discuss his story collection Between Camelots. We’d come a long way from that first visit with Susan Richards Shreve back in July, and students were primed and ready to discuss reliable vs. unreliable narrators, and we spent a good deal of time discussing (and debating) what makes a story satisfying to a reader? Some contended that short stories are hard to deal with because they so often end ambiguously. Without some firm ending to grasp, what’s the point?

When Ebenbach joined the discussion, he asked the students why they felt inclined to find closure in a story. What makes an ending good? Using the title story of his collection as a jumping off point to discuss endings, students debated the relative merits and flaws of ambiguous endings. While there was no class-wide consensus reached about whether ambiguous endings or tidy endings are preferable, Ebenbach hit the point home that, at least for him, a story is about capturing, depicting, and communicating (as best as one can), a particular emotion, mood, or moment. 

It was difficult to say goodbye, and some students lingered at the end of the session so that we co

Ebenbach book jacket

uld continue to talk about the books we’d read, the stories we’d explored together, and the authors we’d met. With the regular school year upon us, the Summer Supper & Book Club already feels like ancient history. Never fear, however, we’ll be doing it again next summer, so if you’re a high school student looking to meet and discuss great literature with some of DC’s finest authors, keep your eyes here on the WinS Blog next spring.

In the meantime, PEN/Faulkner’s staff wants to thank all of the authors and students who joined us for this incredible program. You made our summer!


Who’s Afraid of Poetry? Derrick Weston Brown Visits the Summer Supper & Book Club

Derrick Weston Brown at PEN/Faulkner's Summer Supper & Book Club

Last night, the Summer Supper and Book Club talked about A Tribe Called Quest and bar brawls in Adams Morgan—all for the sake of poetry week and our discussion of Derrick Weston Brown’s Wisdom Teeth, of course. We started by talking about the music and musicians who we felt were the most poetic. Emma and Amuche cited poets-turned-musicians while Tatyana stuck by Frank Ocean. Manny said that the late, great Freddy Mercury was a true poet, and Donovan selected Jimmy Hendrix as a man who spoke through his guitar.

Author photo: Derrick Weston Brown

We discussed our own relationships to poetry and asked why the form is so often charged with negative associations. Ariel shared her own anxieties about poetic analysis, and Sanjayah and Tatyana commiserated as they revealed their own frustrations with poetry’s occasionally cryptic themes and images. Amuche on the other hand said that she enjoys poetry because it offers a more intimate medium for expressing emotions. Nate asked the group to consider why we apply such a different mindset to understanding poetry than we do to a song or a painting, and adamantly asserted that poetry is not a puzzle to be solved but a form that can be enjoyed just as readily as a sculpture or a song.

With Nate’s impassioned defense of poetry in mind, we took the plunge into Wisdom Teeth. We moved from the poem “Hourglass Flow”—a work that ends with the comforting message that every day is just a draft—to “Malcolm X’s Glasses Speak”—which inventively tells the iconic figure’s story from the point of view of his most iconic accessory. We seemed to spend the most time, however, discussing “Remembering Bonita Applebum,” a poem that centers on a woman described as “the pentatonic scale squeezed into form fitting denim overalls” and “your daddy’s woman before your mama came into the picture.” (She’s also the eponymous subject of the 1990 song from A Tribe Called Quest’s debut album.) 

Derrick Weston Brown stopped by at just the right time to provide some insight into the creation of the poem, which he revealed was an ode to his history and to his ongoing relationship to and love of music. He traced a series of poetic and musical genealogies, connecting A Tribe Called Quest to Kanye West and Keorapetse Kgositsile, the acclaimed South African poet and activist, to Earl Sweatshirt, the L.A.-based rapper who is also Kgositsile’s son.

Book jacket: Wisdom Teeth by Derrick Weston BrownBrown went on to talk about a particular method of writing that he employed in penning many of the poems in Wisdom Teeth: people-watching. More specifically, he called this method “ear hustling,” as it involves being in public and turning an ear toward the people and interactions around you. When he first came to D.C., said Brown, he and his writing buddies would head to Adams Morgan at bar time to watch as patrons spilled into the street and found inspiration in the form of the animated (and often drunken) conversations and interactions had on the street. These late nights of dedicated research have yielded some of his funniest and most vivid poems including “Color Commentary,” which narrates a bizarre street brawl that Brown and his friends witnessed one night.

Bre jumped in to inquire about the poem “Snagglepuss Spills His Guts on E! True Hollywood Story,” which has apparently spurred a fair share of questions over the course of Brown’s many Writers in Schools visits. While he declined to read the satirical poem, which tracks the dysfunctional behind-closed-doors relationship between Snagglepuss and The Pink Panther—he did, however, recite a moving poem about his father from memory. His recitation was met with a room full of snaps. He recounted sending a copy of Wisdom Teeth to his father who acknowledged that he felt he knew his son better than ever after reading his work.

By the end of the night, any apprehension about poetry seemed to have disappeared as Brown entertained the crowd with his verses and anecdotes. We found that even the uncertainties in analysis—which had at first seemed intimidating—actually sparked some of the most interesting discussions. 

Although this was the second-to-last meeting of the Summer Supper & Book Club, it was my last meeting with the group. Thanks to all of you book clubbers for being such an amazing, interesting, and intelligent group. It was a pleasure getting to know all of you, and I’m relieved to hear that I’ll still be seeing some of you around Hill Center. Congrats to Tatyana who just landed an internship in the main office! I’ll be coming to you when I need someone to let me up to the third floor.

 — Jack Nessman





PEN/Faulkner’s Summer Supper & Book Club Talks Beats, Books, and Baltimore with Felicia Pride

Felicia Pride author photoLast night, we kicked off our session with a warm-up exercise in which Summer Supper & Book Club participants were asked to imagine that they were in a band and that they had to pick their favorite characters from literature and film as their bandmates. Book Club members also had to pick a literary name for their band, and the results included such gems as Crazed Expectations, Random Sounds, Purgatory (because they’ll never be as good as Nirvana), The Ultimatum, and Man. Bands featured members as diverse as a drumming Atticus Finch backed by a horn-section composed of Little Women’s March sisters to a DJ-ing Cat in the Hat hyped by Thing 1 and Thing 2. Edward and Jacob from Twilight found work in a couple of bands as well. 

We dived into a discussion of Patterson Heights, a young adult novel by Felicia Pride that centers on a fictional Baltimore neighborhood—actually a recognizable amalgam of a couple of Baltimore communities—where stable families and gun violence tragically collide. We talked vengeance and honor, and asked whether violence and withholding information from friends and the police is ever justifiable. Conclusions ranged from Donovan’s assertion that violence is a form of weakness to Mecca’s pithy reminder that “snitches get stitches.” Ultimately, we realized that there are no easy answers when a violent drug dealer lords over a community, as one does in Patterson Heights.

Felicia Pride stopped by to talk about her transition from journalism to fiction, the occasionally necessary pressure of writing under deadline, and the nightmare of switching her novel’s point of view from third-person to first-person when she was three quarters of the way through her draft. Asked by Amuche if she’d change anything about the novel, Pride admitted that she tends not to reread her own work once it’s published. Asked if a film was in the works for Patterson Heights, she joked that students were always more interested in the idea than she was.

Patterson Heights book jacket

“And who would play Avery?” asked Pride.

“I’m an actor,” Ta’Kwon subtly volunteered to laughs from the Book Group.

Pride questioned Book Club members about their own writing interests. Sanjaya volunteered her love of fantasy, Tiara talked about writing short stories inspired by her life, and Mecca revealed that while she writes poems, she finds it challenging to be asked to perform them.

Pride, who writes about hip hop and got her start by writing a Mary J. Blige review, went on to discuss the book she considers her baby—The Message: 100 Life Lessons from Hip-Hop’s Greatest Songs. Asked to pick the song she’s living by today, she quoted a verse from Common’s “They Say”: “Writin’ for my life cause I’m scared of a day job.” And she’s doing a good job avoiding one. Right now she’s collaborating on a screenplay, working on a mutli-media project about her family’s history in Baltimore, and doing consultancy through her company, Pride Collaborative. In the future, Pride says, she might like to switch it up again and attempt a Malcolm Gladwell-style idea book—possibly about the pull towards the creative and the challenges of balancing one’s creative inclinations and practical realities.

When Pride asked students if they played instruments, we discovered a host of surprising musical talents. It turns out that Manny plays the cello and violin, Takirra sings and plays the saxophone, Donovan plays guitar, and Tiara sings, plays piano, and even drums a bit. In no time, it looks like we’ll have a PEN/Faulkner Book Club Band.

Oh, and Ta’Kwon reminded us once again that he’s an actor. Keep an eye out for him if Patterson Heights ever comes to the silver screen. He will, of course, be playing the lead role of Avery Washington.

— Jack Nessman

David A. Taylor, the WPA Writers’ Project, and
the Trouble of Writing a History of a Cultural History Project

Soul of a People - book jacketLast night, PEN/Faulkner’s Summer Supper and Book Club looked at the happier side of the Depression as the group discussed Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America by David A. Taylor. Sharing their own associations of the Depression, Tiara and Takirra described bleak images of men, women, and families dying of starvation and disease. They weren’t expecting to see photos of jubilant barrel dancing or impassioned singing in the companion documentary to Taylor’s book. This kick started a broader discussion of the tricky task of writing history—and of deciding which images, events, traditions, and movements are deemed worthy of inclusion in textbooks and which (like the barrel dancers) are pushed to the background or omitted entirely. 

We also tried put ourselves in the shoes of Depression-era taxpayers, assessing the merits of the Works Progress Administration Writers’ Project, which controversially employed writers to write comprehensive travel guides for American cities and regions. The question then (as today) was straightforward, if not uncomplicated: should the government pay writers to document and record the obscure Oneida language and the mule folktales of rural Southern communities? Are all cultural legacies worth preserving? 

To provoke further inquiry, Ariel played the devil’s advocate by posing the question, “What’s wrong with everyone assimilating and speaking English?” Bre defended the United States as a nation that celebrates and preserves its diversity while Mecca questioned whether the US, in fact, valued all of its cultures. 

Students examine the WPA Guide to Washington, DC as David A. Taylor talks about the Federal Writers' Project.

Students examine the WPA Guide to Washington, DC as David A. Taylor talks about the Federal Writers’ Project.

Conflicted about representations of history in their own textbooks, members of the book club were asked what they’d focus on if they were to write the history of the present. Our newest member, Donovan, talked about the importance of documenting music and the digital revolution, while Takirra thought it’d be important to document the election of Barack Obama as a pivotal moment in American history. David Taylor joined our discussion and spoke to the challenges of recording historical incidents and the even more complicated task of accurately recording the sentiments and mood that pervade certain moments in history. It’s one thing to report the economics of the Great Depression, but it’s quite another to look at the ways in which individual communities and subcultures reacted and adapted to it.

The writing assignment for the week was to create a WPA-style travel guide for their neighborhoods, and when Taylor asked members of the Book Club how the assignment had gone, the room went silent. What if their research approaches were wrong? What if they felt incapable or disallowed from writing a micro-history? Tatyana eventually broke the silence, and talked about approaching the assignment through the lens of her everyday life; for her, history was mostly about who she came into contact with. The fabric of her neighborhood was defined by its inhabitants, not merely its geography. Tiara shared that she’d interviewed relatives who could offer personal anecdotes about her neighborhood’s cultural history, and that the anecdotes she recorded had been told and re-told as neighborhood history for decades.

Washington, DC WPA GuideThe evening ended as Taylor described a contemporary trend in which some writers may consider themselves either a playwright, a poet, a fiction writer, a journalist, a memoirist, etc. He noted that this wasn’t necessarily true for writers during the Depression, and so in approaching his own historical project (Soul of a People), he had to consider more broadly the categorical limitations of “fiction” or “nonfiction.” He pointed out that WPA writers like Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston were more fluid in their pursuits as writers and transitioned from research to novels to anthropological and sociological papers. We all walked away with a greater understanding of the subjective choices that drive the process of writing an official history, and of the important cultural information that can be lost, forgotten, or ignored in the process. 

— Jack Nessman




What do John Cheever, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, & Nelson Algren have in common?

Book jacket of David A. Taylor's "Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America."No, it’s not a strange version of literary “six degrees of separation”, but it is among the many questions David Taylor, sets out to answer in Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America. The answer, then, to the riddle is that all three were employed by the WPA Writers’ Project in the 1930s. They, and countless other writers, editors, and historians, set out on the ambitious project and created the sprawling series of WPA guides that persist as used bookstore gold until today.

If you’ve never encountered a WPA guide before, I highly recommend seeking one out. Far from the generic museum advice and restaurant recommendations that you may find in contemporary guidebooks, these guides delve much deeper into the history and culture of the states, cities, and regions that they profile. The D.C. guide contains an extensive profile on the U Street neighborhood – not exactly a tourist destination at the time – but a stronghold of African American culture, and a site deemed worth exploring by the guide’s author.

In a culture where the humanities and the written word are valued less and less. This book seems especially important in the glimpse that it gives into how artists were valued. The WPA was borne from an effort to put Americans back to work, most specifically the blue collar workers, but also anyone who was teetering dangerously close to abject poverty. It’s incredibly telling that, among these workers deemed worth saving, writers were included.

David Taylor writes, “When Nelson Algren said that the Project gave hope to people who had lost it, he was not being melodramatic. The Writers’ Project set a trampoline under many thousands, writers and nonwriters, who would have otherwise hit the pavement.” I wonder if similar economic circumstances were to occur today, the same “trampoline” would be set under today’s writers.

When Taylor joins us this evening, this is just one of the many questions we’ll likely touch on. To formulate your own answers, check out his work, either in book form, or as a documentary produced by the Smithsonian channel.

— Ariel Martino 

Danielle Evans visits
the Summer Supper & Book Club

PEN/Faulkner Staff, author Danielle Evans, and Summer Supper & Book Club Members

Last Tuesday over pizza and safe from the heavy humidity, we had a chance to meet Danielle Evans, author of the critically acclaimed short story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. We discussed “King of a Vast Empire,” a story, which revolves around the survivor’s guilt that lingers after a deadly car crash involving two families with small children. We tackled the titular riddle of the story, which captures the challenging moral ambiguity at the heart of Evans’ stories. The riddle goes like this: a queen leaves her castle to meet her lover, dissatisfied with her ever-absent husband, “the king of a vast empire.” The castle’s guard allows her to pass the gates, and the queen is killed by robbers on the road who do not know who she is. The question posed in the story is: who is most responsible for the queen’s death? The absent king, the queen, the guard, or the robbers?

While Danielle Evans and the PEN/Faulkner staff chose simple, straight-forward ethics and unanimously pinned blame on the murderous robbers, the high schoolers played devil’s advocate, calling out the queen for her lack of common sense, the lover for not recommending the castle as a safer romantic venue, and the king for failing to satisfy his wife’s needs. Divided in their opinions, all that they could agree on was that the actual murderers were by no means the most responsible for the queen’s death. These puzzling moral dilemmas were the theme of the night.

While discussing the story “Snakes,” the conversation quickly turned to a debate about the story’s most troubling character—a sympathetic grandmother who is a cancer survivor, a widow, and a racist who is ashamed of her biracial granddaughter. Book club members were uncomfortable about their reactions to a character who simultaneously evoked their empathy and resentment. Some tried to resolve the disconnect between the grandmother’s good qualities and her racism by acknowledging that the she’d been raised during a time when segregation was the norm while others suggested that her racist comments were simply misleading projections of her resentment for her own (white) daughter who’d run off, leaving her daughter in the grandmother’s care.

"Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self" book jacket.

Evans, struck by the group’s impulse to sanitize the character in order to pity her, acknowledged the anxiety that a label like “racist” creates today but emphasized the need to tackle grayer characters and more complicated forms of prejudice in literature. Book club members who seemed to expect an unequivocal affirmation of good or bad from the author were left with a perplexing and not entirely satisfying ambiguity. The heated session revealed that life and literature often pose troubling questions but present no clean or easy answers. 

— Jack Nessman

What’s Coming Down the Pike
at the Summer Supper & Book Club


Don’t let anybody tell you DC’s not a great book town. We’re thick with bookstores and authors, literary institutions large and small—the Library of Congress, the National Endowment for the Arts, 826DC, etc. etc.

We’re proud to say that we’ve got six of DC’s finest writers involved in our Summer Supper and Book Club, and we thought you, dear readers, might like to know who they are and what they write. Last week, the Summer Supper & Book Club had its first visit from an author, and the room was electric with excitement. You can read Summer Intern and all-around mensch Jack Nessman’s write up of the event over here, in the previous installment of the Writers in Schools blog. 

Here’s a comprehensive list of who we’ve got coming in to meet with students this summer. We’ve pulled together the following links for your Internet surfing pleasure. We’ve got novels, a book of poems, a book of short fiction, and even a work of narrative non-fiction/history on the list. Suffice it to say, our high school participants will be busy reading, writing, and formulating questions for these authors, and as the summer progresses, we’ll post the write-ups of each event right here on the WinS blog so you can hear how the author visit went, so stay posted for more.

Click on the author name to learn more about the writers, and click on the book titles to read up on the texts our Summer Supper & Book Club participants will be reading.  

1. Susan Richards ShrevePlum and Jaggers

2. Danielle EvansBefore You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self

3. David TaylorSoul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America

4. Felicia PridePatterson Heights

5. Derrick Weston BrownWisdom Teeth

6. David Ebenbach Between Camelots

Summer Supper and Book Club:
Susan Richards Shreve’s Plum and Jaggers

Book Jacket for "Plum & Jaggers"

Last night, the Summer Supper and Book Club welcomed four new members from Banneker, Richard Wright, and even Mississippi. We did a speed-read of the first chapter of Plum and Jaggers to catch up, stopping to discuss Susan Richard Shreve’s nonlinear narrative and the unexpectedly quirky writing surrounding its tragic incidents.

Meanwhile, Ariel and returning members shared their thoughts on the novel as well as vibrant portraits of their own eccentric families. We regrouped to share our favorite literary families. Highlights included the Prynne family from The Scarlet Letter, the Marches of Little Women, and the Berenstain Bears.

When Shreve arrived, she revealed that the basis for Plum and Jaggers was a real-life comedy troupe of siblings fronted by David Sedaris. She went on to recount a hilarious four-hour meeting with Sedaris—then house cleaner, now best-selling author—which fittingly concluded with him asking if he could take a shower in her apartment. 

Susan Richards Shreve author photo

Our book club members, many of them writers, were eager to learn about the excitement and struggles of achieving success as an author. Some seemed surprised when Susan (who is one of D.C.’s most recognizable literary voices, as well as the Co-Chairman of the PEN/Faulkner Board of Directors) shared her fears of press, her mixed feelings about her early novels, and the joys of anonymity. She recounted taking a summer-long camping retreat with her children when her first book was published so that she wouldn’t have to face the reviews. She also spoke about writing successfully under a pseudonym when no one would publish a middle-aged white woman’s novel narrated by a twenty-year-old African American protagonist. The colorful talk, which concluded with a brief reading and book signing, was filled with honest advice for the group’s young writers to sharpen their skills through practice and to write first and foremost for themselves. 

Next week, author Danielle Evans will join us for a discussion of her short story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. Check back in here at the Writers in Schools blog for more information about the program as it progresses and for write ups of author visits after they happen. 

— Jack Nessman


Jack, Meet the World; World, meet Jack, PEN/Faulkner Summer Intern & WinS Blog Contributor


Jack Nessman

Jack Nessman: newly-minted WinS Blog author.

Editor’s Note: Today marks the debut of a new voice here at the Writers in Schools blog. PEN/Faulkner Summer Intern Jack Nessman has joined us for the summer to help out in a number of program areas. As a D.C. native and graduate of Wilson High School, Nessman is used to the swampy mid-Atlantic heat, the crowded Metro, and he knows well the importance of strong, reliable air conditioning. He’s also a literary guy, a University of Pennsylvania undergraduate, and staffer at Penn’s incredible Kelly Writers’ House. Luckily for all of us, he’ll be helping with the implementation of our Summer Supper & Book Club, working with program authors and participants from now until the end of the program in August. We’re happy to have him, and we’ll be sharing his insights about the program as the summer pushes on. Here’s Jack’s first dispatch!


During the heavily-traveled first week of DCPS summer vacation, ten high schoolers from across the District made it down to the Hill Center to chat with us about their literary interests, their creative writing pursuits, and even the trials of their love lives. One trekked through the heat from dental surgery, her mouth still numb from Novocain, her aunt accompanying to act as her translator and a stand-in-reader.

The meeting turned into a reunion when two members realized that they’d been first–grade classmates nearly a decade ago. We began the session by introducing ourselves over Subway sandwiches and broke the ice with fun facts that covered everything from the unusual origins of our scars to the realization that one member was the fastest female runner in the District. We reviewed the curriculum before plunging into a group reading of the opening chapter of Susan Richards Shreve’s Plum and Jaggers. We were all drawn in by the account of the terrorist attack that orphaned its main characters even as we tripped over Italian words and names we couldn’t yet pronounce. When asked about their favorite characters from literature, Tatyana admitted that she didn’t have one but predicted that Charlotte, one of the young characters in Plum and Jaggers might become hers. We debated a point in the novel—a comment that home wasn’t a place but with the family—which touched home with Tatyana, who’d recently transferred schools, and Tiara who’d just moved from Memphis. Both acknowledged a sense of displacement from friends and loved ones but also the new opportunities that these tough transitions brought. As it was our first session, we broke left a little early, thrilled not only to walk away with free books and leftover sandwiches, but also to kick off the program and the first of six exciting author visits lined up for the Summer 2013 Supper and Book Club.

— Jack Nessman
PEN/Faulkner Summer Intern, 2013