ITHACA, NY — Ahead of Spring Writes Literary Festival, taking place Thursday through Sunday, we sat down with Tompkins County Poet Laureate Zee Zahava to discuss the craft of writing.
What exactly does a poet laureate do?
“I would love to tell you,” said Zahava, the effusive two-time laureate who has lived and worked in Ithaca for most of her life.
Each year, the Community Arts Partnership in concert with the Tompkins County Legislature selects the position; its goal is to honor local talent but also bring poetry into the community.
“Being the poet laureate has given me a tremendous opportunity to take my work out of the studio and into venues in Ithaca,” Zahava said.
She does this by holding workshops in her writing studio and around town throughout the year. Zahava doesn’t refer to herself as a teacher, but rather as someone who “makes space for writing to happen.”
Zahava earned her bachelor’s degree from Ithaca College and then attended the Pratt Institute to learn library science. She returned to Ithaca in the mid-1970s, and eventually became the owner of Smedley’s Bookshop on West State Street from 1981-1994.
When the bookstore closed, she worked as an outreach librarian for Cornell University’s Durland Alternatives Library and opened up her own writing studio in the bookshop’s former space.
“When there were no longer books on the shelves and it was the writing space, it was like the words were still coming out and being created. It was in the air, in the atmosphere instead of between the covers of a book,” she said.
Her Painted Parrot Writing Studio is now in the DeWitt Building, where she hosts writing circles and serves as a literary consultant and writing coach.
Zahava said that she didn’t begin writing poetry until she started writing haiku more than 30 years ago.
“I love the form, when we train our mind to think of the fewest words we can possibly use to capture (an idea) in one breath,” she said.
She has published an international online haiku journal called brass bell, which is temporarily on hiatus.
In our conversation, Zahava offered some sage advice about making space for writing in one’s own life.
1. Carve out a special place to write.
“It’s good to have a writing space separate from the living space,” Zahava said. “If you have a space, even if it’s just a chair, it would probably pull you.”
Many people who write with her do not write regularly, in fact, but do the majority of their writing in her workshop or studio space.
She encourages people to have a taste of poetry every week with her email list, in which she emails out poems every Monday.
2. Read your work aloud.
“You commit to what you have done when you read it out loud, and sometimes you hear words you don’t even remember you had written five minutes ago, or you didn’t know the impact. You get a feeling for how your words are being received, even without a critique,” she said.
One of her favorite workshop styles involves looking at and responding to art, which she finds gets writers into the present moment.
Her advice for sharing aloud: “Trust what you’ve done, honor yourself, be brave and don’t apologize for anything.”
The next art reaction workshop will be Wednesday, May 9 at the CAP ArtSpace gallery in Center Ithaca. (Registration encouraged.)
3. Join a writing group to connect with others.
Zahava said that she is very interested in what happens in group dynamics as opposed to writing alone.
“Writing can be a very lonely process and can be very isolating. Sometimes to gear yourself up, to bring yourself to the empty page, that takes courage and sometimes great effort to carve out time and space,” she said.
Committing to a writing group is an excellent way to delineate that time. She admits that when she first started offering a writing group in 1994, part of her motivation was to force herself to write.
“For the most part, you can’t interrupt yourself, you don’t go off and make a cup of coffee. You stay with it for the hour, you stay focused, and everyone is in that very deep, quiet place. You feel it sitting around the circle; there’s a little buzz of creative energy.”
Zahava will hold her next open writing circle on Saturday, May 12 from 10 a.m to noon in the Painted Parrot Writing Studio. (See registration link above.)
4. Start with a pen in your hand.
When people tell her they feel blocked, she encourages them to sit with a pen in hand rather than in front of a screen. With that tactile sense, it is easier to tune into your internal voice and write what you hear.
“My short story inspiration usually comes from a voice that I hear very clearly in my head that will start the first line. It’s usually a geographically specific voice, a New York voice,” Zahava said. “For poetry, my inspiration usually comes from the present, intimate moment.”
With that New York voice in mind, she will be reading stories from her Bronx-based childhood as part of the Spring Writes Literary Festival, Friday May 4 at Buffalo Street Books.
Spring Writes is an annual event sponsored by CAP, hosting readings, panels and workshops over the course of four days. In its ninth year, the festival will host a total of 45 literary events throughout the weekend.