The WinS Blog

Welcome to the WinS (Writers in Schools) blog, where we post dispatches, updates, and reflections about our author visits with DC high school classrooms, teen parent groups, and youth facilities.

In the coming weeks and months, we’ll expand the content here to feature helpful, downloadable resources for teachers, writers and students, as well as showcase exceptional student work, so make sure to check back soon.

To learn more about PEN/Faulkner’s Writers In Schools Program or to make a request for an author to visit your classroom, click here. To contact Writers in Schools with questions or concerns, email us at wins@penfaulkner.org.

Our Summer Supper & Book Club Comes to a Close
with Comic Artist Matt Dembicki

matt_dembickiWhen D.C. Conspiracy founding member Matt Dembicki walked into the last session of this year’s PEN/Faulkner’s Summer Supper and Book Club, he was carrying a massive portfolio of current projects—including sheets detailing his creative process, a stack of Magic Bullet (the bi-annual comic tabloid published by D.C. Conspiracy) and copies of his other works.

The focus of this session was his 2012 anthology District Comics: An Unconventional History of Washington, DC, which highlights “some of DC’s lesser known moments, with stops along the way for a duel, a drink in the Senate speakeasy, a shoe-shine, and much more.”

Before the writer’s arrival, the Supper and Book Club members, had taken turns reading “Banned in DC” from the anthology, a story about DC punk band Bad Brains that Dembicki wrote and Tom Williams illustrated.

The Summer Supper and Book club members wanted to know how and when Dembicki developed his style; which was his favorite story in the anthology; how long  DC Comics: An Unconventional History of Washington DC took to produce; and which were his favorite cartoons?

District_coverAfter telling them about his background, creative process, and influences, Dembicki stressed that, “whether you are a musician, writer or artist, you listen to these people and have these influences but you eventually develop your own style,” which is what he said he did.

Growing up in a Polish immigrant home in a predominantly Polish speaking community, Dembicki pointed out that English was not his first language, and Marvel Comic books (gifts from his mother) became his portal into the English speaking world. Not only were the comics teaching him English, but with every lesson and revelation, his self-confidence also grew.

An award-winning graphic novelist, Dembicki has created a niche for himself in the graphic world by telling stories that reflect his ideals. The writer said he owed his affinity for nature to having grown up on the New England coast in an era when Jaws was released and a fascination with sharks was part of the collective culture.

In a review of the widely read and acclaimed Mr. Big: A Tale of Pond Life (co-written with his wife Carol Dembicki), Publishers Weekly wrote, “Filled with naturalistic detail, Matt Dembicki’s artwork switches perspective fluidly, moving above and below the water to stay close to the action,” which seems to hold true in much of his work.

Dembicki ended the evening by reminding book club members that the line between literary fiction and comic art and graphic novels is often very thin: “Comics are really just another way to tell stories.”

This is the last dispatch for this year’s PEN/Faulkner Summer Supper and Book Club. Thanks for following along with us this summer, and look for the Summer Supper & Book Club Podcast, which we’ll publish in a few weeks!

Kangsen Feka Wakai
Writers in School Intern



Derrick Weston Brown visits the Summer Supper & Book Club!

Derrick Weston Brown

Derrick Weston Brown writes the kind of poetry that generates conversations that are at once discomfiting, engaging, and necessary. So when PEN/Faulkner’s Summer Supper and Book club gathered on an unusually mild Tuesday evening to discuss Wisdom Teeth, the poet’s 2011 collection of poems, the voices rose, perspectives varied, and confessionals were the backdrop of a candid conversation about family, the Metro, hip-hop, cartoons, race, class, and colorism.

Brown was the Supper and Book club’s lone poet guest this summer. Brown is a keen observer of the city, whose collection was described by poet Tony Medina as, “Full of wit and whimsy. Wisdom Teeth postulates a poetics of heart-whole appreciation and honesty—for love and life, for family and friends, for literature and history, for pop culture and the poet’s ever-cognizant powers of observation.”

Brown’s DC is one animated by the sights of U Street, the sounds of Adams Morgan, and the Metro’s discordant smells; but Wisdom Teeth is also about a son’s attempt to understand a seemingly distant father and the foibles of childhood. It is an homage to the city in which the poet found his voice, a place he has called home for the last thirteen years.

Wisdom Teeth by Derrick Weston BrownThe evening began with the poet requesting the Supper and Book club members to indicate their love of poetry with a show of hands, and the results were mixed. He recounted how as a child he not particularly inclined to poetry until his social worker mother handed him a copy of Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic.

Addressing Brown’s line in Hourglass Flow, in which the poet writes; Blame the voice that wants to sound like a poet, but not sound like a poet wanting to sound like a poet. Blame distractions…, the Supper and Book club members wondered if the poet ever caught himself trying too hard to sound like a poet; they wondered what parts of DC inspired him to write the most about and why; and they also wondered if a figure in Forgiveness Poem was real or a creation.

Like an open book, and at times as animated as the graphic characters that have inspired some of his poems, Brown told the group his passion for poetry was rooted in the poet’s ability to take on multiple personas and voices.

Stay tuned for more updates on PEN/Faulkner’s Writers in School Program and Summer Supper and Book Club.

 

— Kangsen Feka Wakai
Writers in Schools Intern



David Ebenbach & The Book Club Explore Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Genre, and Interpersonal Relationships!

You are the experts. You know more about these stories than I do.

david-ebenbachDavid Harris Ebenbach, poet, playwright, academic, and author of the 2005 Drue Heinz Literature Prize winning short story collection Between Camelots, said this to the PEN/Faulkner Summer Supper & Book Club last week when a student asked his interpretation of a story included in his collection. 

The class was suspicious, to put it lightly. However, after Ebenbach insisted that the students’ interpretation of his stories were more accurate than his own, now that the book was published, the students, after time, began to believe him, and for the remainder of the meeting the students stepped into their roles as experts, directing our discussion on Ebenbach’s subtle, melancholic stories of love, loneliness, and people in transition.

The stories in Between Camelots feature individuals at crossroads, either in their personal or professional lives (or sometimes both), struggling to make meaningful human connections. “Whether writing from the perspective of male, female, black, white, gay, straight, Jew or Gentile,” Kirkus Reviews writes, “Ebenbach’s landscape is dominated by individuals struggling to continue in the face of relationships failed, failing or stillborn.”

The title story explores the central themes that this collection is concerned with, namely the difficulty of finding any lasting or meaningful connection with others, and the courage of those who continue to try. In “Between Camelots,” Paul, a lonely bachelor, attends a party where he haplessly waits for a woman that never shows. While waiting for this blind date, Paul meets a strange but intriguing party guest named Max, who, out of the blue, tells Paul that all human relationships are unstable, ephemeral and, consequently, not worth the effort.

Before leaving, Max tells Paul, “I’ll tell you what—here we are, getting along, but at the end of this conversation, I’m not going to give you my phone number or my email address, or anything and I won’t take anything from you. Simple.” To Max, even keeping a person’s phone number is too large a burden to bear.

Book club members had a great discussion on whether or not they believed the things Max supposedly believed. “Why does Max even bother to talk to Paul?” one student asked. “If Max doesn’t like people, and doesn’t want to even get someone’s phone number, why is he even at this party?” asked another. “Can’t he just stay home by himself? He has food at home, right?”

imgresOur discussion also drifted toward the craft of writing, and Ebenbach detailed the kinds of choices an author makes when attempting to tell a story. An artist who writes in nearly every form, Ebenbach urged the students to not limit themselves to only one mode of creative expression. “Different stories require different forms,” Ebenbach said. “I’ve had stories that didn’t work as short stories, but worked when I put the same story into a poem. Sometimes you just have to find the right fit.”

“Although some authors only write in one form, and they’re very good at that, it’s usually a good idea to explore all of your options,” Ebenbach continued. “In fiction you a responsible for creating the world of the story,” he said. “You’ll notice that writers are always doing cute things to try to get your attention, and fiction is great if I want that kind of control. However, if I don’t care at all about the environment of the room, plays are a nice outlet; you only need to really care about dialogue and write out a few stage directions.”

During our discussion we even briefly touched upon the different types of poetic form, comparing the functional obfuscation of a sestina with the neat argumentation of a Shakespearean couplet. The students were not only thrilled to learn about these new forms (ababcdcdefefgg), they asked direct questions of Ebenbach on what each form is technically “good at” to use in their own creative work.

Although it was (technically) my first time attending the Summer & Supper Book Club last Tuesday, it certainly didn’t feel like it. Elizabeth, the students and David Ebenbach made me feel at home, treating me like a familiar presence in the room. They even graciously allowed me to ask (perhaps too many) questions during our discussion.

Whether Max’s indictment of interpersonal relationships in “Between Camelots” is to be taken with any real seriousness is debatable. However, over the course my time with PEN/Faulkner, I can say with confidence that our Summer Supper & Book Club offers a convincing alternative to Max’s detached attitude; offering not only good pizza and cold soda, but real, human connection.

—Greg Langen, PEN/Faulkner Summer Curriculum Intern



Summer Supper & Book Club: Danielle Evans Says Hello to our Kids & Goodbye to D.C.

2014 Summer Program - Evans

On July 15th, the PEN/Faulkner Summer Supper and Book club played host to Danielle Evans, author of the critically acclaimed 2010 debut, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, a collection of eight stories.

Evans, whose writing has been described by The New York Times as “whip smart” and “fiercely independent,” was the third writer to visit the book club after appearances by novelists Susan Richards Shreve and Elliott Holt.

A co-winner of the 2011 PEN American Robert W. Bingham Prize for a first book, a National Book Foundation 5 under 35 selection for 2011, the winner of the 2011 Paterson Prize for Fiction and the 2011 Hurston-Wright award for fiction, and an honorable mention for the 2011 PEN/Hemingway award, Evans’s stories have also appeared in The Best American Short Stories 2008 and 2010.

After reading a passage from the story “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” the author opened the floor for questions and a discussion.2014 Summer Program - Evans 2

The club members—most of whom were drawn to the stories “Snakes,” “Virgins,” and “King of a Vast Empire,” three stories that explore abandonment, accidents, family tensions and puzzles—wondered if the title of “Snakes” was merely symbolic; did it have to do with the characters in the story? Was the title a reference to the Burmese snake the grandmother used to talk Tara out of ever going outside again? Were Tara’s parent’s the snakes for leaving their daughter behind even though they knew how the grandmother was? Were Allison’s parents the snakes for giving up on her?

Evans explained that the title “Snakes” was meant to be symbolic, while noting, “You should come into a story with a question, which should be answered by the time the story is done, but with enough left to leave the reader with something more.”

Responding to a question about Liddie’s moral compass in the story “King of a Vast Empire,” Evans reminded the book club that: “As a writer, it is not for me to resolve moral issues.”

It was an energetic visit, which is characteristic of encounters between Evans and students. Sadly, it was her last visit to a D.C. classroom as a D.C.-based author. She’s accepted a professorship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she’ll teach in their MFA program. Our loss is Wisconsin’s gain!

— Kangsen Feka Wakai
Writers in Schools Intern



2014 Summer Supper & Book Club: Elliott Holt Riffs on Writing about Cold War-era Washington

Elliott Holt

Minutes before the thunderstorms that lent the Capitol a brilliant rainbow two Tuesdays ago, author Elliott Holt walked into the PEN/Faulkner Summer Supper & Book to discuss her 2013 novel YouAre One of Them.

Upon its release, the Washington Post declared that, “Holt has found inventive ways to use language that suggest the porousness of identity, the correspondence between self and other, neighbor and foreigner, you and them. Her ingenuity brings distinction to this confident, crafty first novel.”

Set in Washington, D.C. and Moscow, You Are One of Them is a story about two girls growing up in 1980s Washington, D.C. whose friendship is forged and tested by events that marked the era.

9781594205286_YouAreOneOf_JKF.inddOn that evening, book club members reflected on the Sarah Zuckerman and Jennifer Jones’s friendship; the choice of D.C. and Moscow as settings and the story’s ambiguous ending.

Holt told the book club members that the book was loosely based on the Samantha Smith story, which fascinated her as a child growing up in Washington, D.C.  Holt pointed out that the character in her story, Jenny, who becomes a “child ambassador” dies in a plane crash (just as Samantha Smith did), but in her version the Samantha Smith-like character remerges to her friend Sarah, claiming her death was hoax.

Holt, who has also lived in Moscow, said the choice of setting the story in these theaters of the Cold War was because Washington, D.C. and Moscow offered good backdrops for a story that revolves around that frigid conflict.

Last week the Summer Supper & Book Club read Danielle Evans’s short story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, and in preparation for tonight’s meeting, students have read David Ebenbach’s Between Camelots.

— Kangsen Feka Wakai
Writers in Schools Intern