A new season of workshops begin next Saturday, September 6th, with Marie-Elizabeth Mali kicking off what promises to be another exciting group of workshops at the Bronx's own Hostos College. Amongst the educators scheduled this season include activist/historian Louis Reyes Rivera, Marmol Prize winner Annecy Báez and World Poetry Slam champion/Cypher Press author Rachel McKibbens. The names get bigger, the scope broadens but the price stay the same: free.
I talked with Acentos Workshop Director Sam "Fish" Vargas about the history of the workshops, the impact on the Bronx arts scene and the upcoming Acentos Poetry Festival:
CAN YOU SPEAK ON HOW COMMUNITY WORKSHOPS HAVE IMPACTED YOUR GROWTH AS A POET AND EDUCATOR?
These workshops have been an incredible experience for me. I initially started them to help writers prepare for their feature at the LouderARTS reading series. After a few weeks they would bring friends and it just grew exponentially. Seeing the workshops grow has humbled me greatly. After being in the middle of the poetry community for 8 years, I was convinced that we needed something to offer the community. I wanted to give something back to them they could take home and be in awe. As always, I will never let anyone tell me we are shooting too high. We are going to go for the best and work our way down. Did I think I would be able to book a years worth of some of the most academically respected poets? Did I think upcoming poets and educators would jump at the chance to facilitate? Did I think we would have space at the ground zero of the arts movement in the Bronx? I could tell you simply, it would be a big no. I have learned greatly that with hard work and quick wit, anything could happen. With all this, I’ve applied that to my work as I sit down in every class. I have seen my discipline grow and have missed the workshops on Sundays something fierce.
AS THE DIRECTOR OF WORKSHOPS FOR THE ACENTOS FOUNDATION, WHAT ARE THE CRITERIA YOU'RE LOOKING FOR IN AN ACENTOS WORKSHOP FACILITATOR?
Luckily most of the facilitators I’ve booked are people I’ve followed. I know their work and respect them for all they have done in the community. After about 16 weeks of workshops some of the facilitators would be concerned of repeating a lesson plan or not being unique enough to firmly make an impact on the workshop. I’ve decided at one point the facilitators have to have a love and passion for poetry. If they had this, they could at least engage the class in a conversation about poetry. Then, in the back of my mind I had to ask myself if that was enough. I knew (after a horrible class), we had to have facilitators with teaching experience. I would make sure my facilitators are aware that everyone that attends the workshop is hungry for knowledge and they are ready to work. They have to understand they will be at the helm of a class that will dissect every word that comes out of their mouth. So between teaching experience, proper preparation, and a love and passion of poetry, they will be ok.
THERE IS GREAT BUZZ ABOUT THESE WORKSHOPS IN THE POETRY COMMUNITY BUT CAN YOU SPEAK ABOUT HOW THE LOCAL NEIGHBORHOOD FOLKS RESPOND TO THESE WRITING SESSIONS?
The best part about the workshops is the enthusiasm from the college and administrators supporting us. When Martín Espada facilitated a workshop for us, I was amazed at how everyone responded. I had one student who didn’t attend college and had no desire to. He said, “this is really necessary, we don’t have anything like this”. We have people attending the workshops who have never read their work out in the public. The response from the community has been amazingly positive. I am always humbled that I am part of something that could essentially change the artistic scope of the Bronx.
WHAT HAVE BEEN SOME OF THE HIGHPOINTS IN THE WORKSHOPS ONE-YEAR HISTORY? AND IS THERE ANYTHING YOU WILL BE IMPROVING ON FOR THIS UPCOMING SEASON?
I think that having Martín Espada and Lorna Dee Cervantes support us has been the greatest thing for us. Granted, I was in California for Lorna's workshop but reaching out to her and have her show us so much love has been phenomenal. Then, with over 90 people attending Martin’s workshop, well, life can’t get better then that. Of course, we are going to strive to become bigger. There is no reason we should just have one workshop on a Sunday. We are going to push to have one writing workshop and a performance workshop for the youth. So this upcoming year, we will have two classrooms and hope it works out. As the workshops range in ages, I will always want to give the youth more opportunity.
YOU HAVE SOME OF THE MOST RESPECTED POET/TEACHERS IN UNITED STATES POETRY ALONGSIDE A DYNAMIC COLLECTION OF UPCOMING WRITERS FACILITATING WORKSHOPS IN POETICS, PERFORMANCE AND POLITICS, ACENTOS COULD CHARGE A MODEST FEE FOR THESE TOP-NOTCH WORKSHOPS BUT INSTEAD MAKES IT ENTIRELY OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. STRAIGHT UP: WHY KEEP IT FREE? WHY NOT CHARGE?
You know that when NYC forgot about Puerto Ricans and minority Latinos in NYC, The Young Lords were born. They got together and MADE things happen. They never charged for the soup kitchens, Hep tests, and general help for their community. I model what Acentos does on much of what our forefathers paved the way for us. We have to make things happen for our community. If my community can’t afford college or a workshop at an absorbent fee, they are still entitled to gain that knowledge. We are getting something back that has no price from the community: hope. We will never ask much from the community but hard work and dedication to the craft. With that, we feel is enough payment to have wonderful work created within the halls of the workshop.
THIS SEASON'S GROUP OF WORKSHOPS WILL CULMINATE IN THE FIRST EVER ACENTOS POETRY FESTIVAL. WHAT ARE YOUR HOPES FOR THIS FESTIVAL AND WHAT ARE THE NEXT STEPS FOR THE ACENTOS WORKSHOPS?
This festival is what I hope puts Bronx poets on the doorstep of academia. This festival will be an all Latino festival organized by Latinos that will accept everyone under the sun. We want this to be a festival that will bring everyone together under poetry. It will be a networking event where young people and older alike will converse under the banner of poetry. After the festival, the workshops will have to grow and push everyone on writing. There is also the fact that I will be moving to California and I will need someone to make the magic happen. Until then, the Acentos team will work hard today for our community will work harder tomorrow.
A full schedule of Acentos Writers Workshops is here. To sign up, or for more info, contact fish at louderarts dot com.