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Poetry workshop on ‘Why I Write’ brings poets together to create and critique

Stacie Cassarino is pictured workshopping a poem. The poetry workshop took place in Kaplan Hall on May 22. (Brandon Morquecho/Photo editor)

By Maya Parra

May 23, 2024 1:45 p.m.

Stacie Cassarino is guiding the next generation of UCLA poets.

On Wednesday afternoon, the UCLA English department held a poetry workshop with poet and alumnus Stacie Cassarino. The workshop, which took place in the recently launched media lab in Kaplan Hall, lasted from 12-3 p.m. and included readings and feedback of participants’ poetry. The event was an intimate gathering, with only six participants gathered around a center table in the small room.

[Related: UCLA professor Harryette Mullen weaves hope into environmental poetry publication]

The poetry workshop began with a quick five-minute icebreaker where each participant was directed to write their life story on a small index card. After the five minutes, participants were encouraged to take turns reading their mock-autobiography aloud while others gave their initial reactions to what was shared. Though given the same prompt, each writer presented a different take on the question, with some focusing on their academic journey, and others on their childhood memories. Humzah Farrukh, who is a recent graduate, said he came to the event to find community. He found the workshop to be unique and enjoyed the introductory activity, Farrukh added.

“The writing exercise was a bigger part of understanding how to condense your ideas and then get out of your head, but in your head at the same time, if that makes sense,” Farrukh said.

The workshop was the second of its kind this year, as a similar workshop led by alumnus and poet Randy James took place in March in the same location. Similarly, this month’s workshop required each participant to submit three poems of their own work, as well as a short statement, with this particular event inviting the poets to answer the question “Why I Write.”

When the introductory activity ended, each participant was given a printed compilation of everyone’s poems and the feedback process began. Each poet was asked to read aloud their poem and then another was encouraged to conduct a second reading. Once the poem was read twice, participants were asked to provide thoughts and feedback on the piece while the poet refrained from speaking until feedback was done. Farrukh’s sister and fellow alumnus, Umiemah Farrukh, also attended the event and said she liked the rule of not being able to speak while feedback for the poet’s work was being given.

“It was good to be an observer while your piece was being critiqued,” she said. “That’s a little different from most workshops.”

Brian Kim Stefans, a professor in the English department and the organizer of the event, said the workshop’s purpose was to bring in accomplished poets to be able to inspire students and show that it is possible to succeed as a writer after graduation. Stefans added he wanted to create an accessible creative writing event, given the fact that those kinds of classes available on campus often become inaccessible with the various requirements that are needed. Stefans said he hopes that the workshop can serve as an event open to those who typically do not have access to these resources.

“I wanted to create a class for English students who weren’t necessarily creative writing majors, or students who were blocked out at some of these other classes,” Stefans said. “I also wanted to make it available to anyone on campus too, so you don’t have to be an English major to actually take a creative writing class.”

The small-scale nature of the workshop benefited the attendees, as they received extensive personal feedback on their work, Stefans said. The environment also created a comfortable space for participants to feel less intimidated when sharing their personal poetry among strangers, Cassarino said at the end of the workshop. Though each attendee only received feedback for one poem at the time, Cassarino promised to read any other poems participants didn’t share during the workshop and send any notes she gathers at a later time. Humzah Farrukh, among other attendees, said he appreciated this offer and felt the workshop’s feedback helped him grow as a writer.

“I think it took out everything that you’re apprehensive about when you’re writing out of the equation. Humzah Farrukh said. So you just felt comfortable figuring out OK, ‘How can I make my work better?’ but in a non stressful environment,”

[Related: Alumnus Boris Dralyuk to feature timeless works in Hammer Poetry Series]

Wednesday’s workshop was the first Humzah Farrukh had attended, and he credited the small group format as one of the reasons he found the event to be beneficial to him as a poet. Orly Vermes, another attendee of the event, said she attended the workshop because she struggled to find the time to return to writing and saw the event as an opportunity to get feedback while meeting new people. Vermes, who is a doctoral student in art history, believed the feedback she received was very useful.

“(The event) inspired me to want to write more and just getting feedback from other people and revisit work” Vermes said. I’m going to revisit my work after this.”

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Maya Parra
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