Sunday, February 09, 2014

From Poets & Writers to Homeboy Industries: An Interview with Cheryl Klein

Olga García Echeverría

The first time I ever got a check for doing a public reading, I was awed. I stared at the check for a long time as if it were a rare gem, wondering, Who gives money to poets? Whoever these crazy guardian angels of the arts were, they totally rocked and I loved them. For as long as I can remember, Poets & Writers has been partnering with local organizations, independent presses, schools and community spaces to support writers and to foster the arts.

Poets & Writers is an organization that has been around since the 1970’s. I know there’s a central office somewhere in NY, but when I think of Poets & Writers, it's more personal; I always think of Cheryl Klein and Jaime FitzGerald, the two women who have long been running the Poets & Writers' office in California.

Cheryl and Jamie have spearheaded countless P&W events on the West Coast. In my own writing and teaching career, they have been instrumental in my being able to do creative writing workshops in a variety of places. Thanks to them and to partnering organizations, I have traveled from Mecca to the Salton Sea to Kern County to Calexico to San Diego to Riverside and throughout Los Angeles. And I am not alone. Every year, P&W hosts a Workshop Leaders Retreat, where those of us who conduct workshops during the year have an opportunity to connect with one another, dialogue about our experiences, share strategies, break (sandwich) bread and write.

This year's retreat was two weeks ago, where Cheryl announced that after 11 years as director at P&W, she would be leaving the organization to become a full-time grant writer for Homeboy Industries. She shared she was excited about the new job and yet somewhat sad to be leaving such a unique non-profit where she was surrounded by a community of writers. However, she expressed comfort in knowing that she leaves the directorship of the West Coast P&W office in great hands, Jamie FitzGerald's. 

I was able to catch up with Cheryl this past week, first via email and later at the Homegirl Cafe where we split a delicious "tastes-just-like-high-school" coffee cake. Like so many other West Coast poets and writers who have worked with Cheryl, I want to cry out, Don't go! We'll miss you! But I think we all know we will be seeing a lot of Cheryl in the literary world, so instead I will cry out, Congratulations on your new gig and thank you for the interview.

Cheryl Klein at Homegirl Cafe

What are three of your most memorable P&W experiences?

In no particular order, off the top of my head:

1. Sitting in on the workshops we support, and writing alongside seniors, teens, veterans, etc., is always an honor and a lot of fun. A couple of years ago, when I was going through a tough time, writer Hannah Menkin handed out fortune cookies and asked us to write a poem based on our fortune. I could barely read my poem without crying, but in a good, healing way.

2. Trips to New York for the California Writers Exchange contest are my one brush with publishing-world glamour. Once a board member treated us to lunch at the Rainbow Room. Afterward he asked, "How did you like the Veuve Cliquot?" It was like he was saying gibberish words. It took several more minutes of conversation until I was like, "Oh! You mean the champagne!"

3. People often call our office to ask for advice about writing and publishing. A lot of them are characters, but no one has topped the drunk guy who called me from a grocery store parking lot in Arizona. In between telling me about his book and his marriage, he mentioned that he was about to drive home. So instead of trying to get off the phone, I actually tried to keep him on the line so he wouldn't drive drunk. Sometimes the definition of "service organization" ends up being really broad.

What, if any, changes have you seen in the California literary world during your time as director of the West Coast offices of P&W?

One change that is California-specific: Funding for public colleges and universities has been cut a lot. They used to be some of our "wealthier" partner organizations, but it's getting harder and harder for them to pay writers to visit campuses. The other changes I've noticed have affected the entire literary world. The publishing world has consolidated in ways that make it hard for all writers who aren't J.K. Rolwing, but at the same time, small presses and indie writers are doing all kinds of fun things with the internet, print-on-demand, and other new technologies.

It's your lunch hour at Homeboy Industries and you can eat at Homegirl's Café for free with any contemporary writer of your choice. Who is that writer and why does he/she get to eat with you instead of all the rest of us?

One of the best books I read last year was Good Kings Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum. It takes place in a nursing home for disabled kids, and she does an amazing job of capturing the voices of those who work and reside there. She reveals problems with "the system" without demonizing the individuals who are part of it. It's a funny, hopeful story about a community empowering itself, but it never gets schmaltzy. Besides the fact that Nussbaum is a talented writer whom I would love to meet, I also think she would appreciate how Homeboy Industries is home to so many people who've managed not to give up on themselves, even when the system and sometimes their own families did.

I once met a man who believed he was the reincarnation of Oscar Wilde. He kept quoting Wilde so wildly that I actually began to believe him. If a deceased writer could reincarnate in you, who would that be and why?

My seventh grade English teacher assigned everyone to read a different biography, which she chose based on what she knew about our interests and personalities. I got assigned Mary Shelley. Believe it or not, I still haven't read Frankenstein, but I've always felt an affinity with her. My work has gotten increasingly dark in recent years, so maybe she's making herself heard.

Literary pet peeve?

An overused title construction is "The _____'s _____." Usually the first blank is some sort of exciting profession, and the second blank is a female relation or subordinate. At the very least, I would like to read a book about the male relative/subordinate of a woman who has an exciting profession. (In spite of this pet peeve, The Magician's Assistant is one of my favorite books.)
Your writing essentials?
Laptop, coffee, and a book that inspires me.

Do you think there's a genre currently missing in the literary world?

Probably nothing is missing, but we need more queer ghost stories!

You've been given a can of spray paint and invited to tag eleven words that sum up your experience of eleven years at P&W. What do you tag?

MFA's dream job
I heart crazy poets
Lots of data entry

And anything else you'd like to add?

Thanks so much for this opportunity! I love reading your posts on La Bloga!
Cheryl Klein’s first book, The Commuters: A Novel of Intersections, won City Works Press’ Ben Reitman Award. Her second novel Lilac Mines was published by Manic D Press in 2009. Cheryl currently favors any kind of bread that can be turned into bread pudding, cringes at the word "orbs" when substituted for "eyes," and hears snakes speaking to her in endless ssss's. She lives in Los Angeles and blogs at:

To find out more about Poets & Writers:


Diane said...

You ask the best questions! And if we (CA writers) have to lose Cheryl Klein, I'm so glad it's Homeboy (and the Homeboy writers as well) that will benefit.

Amelia ML Montes said...

Great bloga posting today, Olga. Here's hoping the situation in Califas gets better and funding for visiting authors returns. Gracias for this wonderful interview!

Anonymous said...

Really nice rea, Ms. Olga.

Unknown said...

I love to read your post Olga. .. is really good information..