Birdseed: a writing prompt with Tayyba Kanwal

Tayyba Kanwal

Birdseed is a series of micro interviews that glean writing prompts, insight and advice from the talented writers leading our workshops.

What course did you teach at Grackle?

I had the pleasure of teaching “Finding your Story: A Generative Fiction Workshop.” We workshopped with an eye to identifying the heart and themes of stories we’ve been working on, and how our craft and shaping choices can hone and illuminate them. We also mined work by authors such as Jenny Zhang and Lesley Nneka Arima to discover hidden elements in our own stories and identify narrative techniques to generate lively new work.

What stands out in your memory as a special moment from your workshop?

Our in-class generative exercises, though fiction, often resulted in new story starts that were uniquely in the voice of each of the writers, revealing layers of personal interests and, sometimes, obsessions, so that we developed a multilayered understanding of each other and became delightfully close as a group by the end of the course.

Do you have a favorite writing prompt for your students?

Ghosts, as with living characters, are more successful as true, complex characters; that is, if they have histories and longings and rages, intentions and regrets. Ghosts are both magical and real. For this exercise, let’s first create a ghost, or rather, a character sketch for this ghost. Jot down notes on: Why might this ghost return to life? What unresolved concerns does this ghost have? With this understanding in mind, write a scene in which this ghost appears to some other character, or write a scene from the ghost’s perspective. Consider why the ghost has chosen to appear.

What is one pearl of writing wisdom you like to offer your students?

Don’t be afraid to be playful with your fiction. Your storytelling is a game whose rules you get to make up. Follow your instinct for the language, rhythms, details and narrative patterns you might choose as you gather your readers under a tent in the woods and regale them with a flash-lit tale.

Tayyba Maya Kanwal’s work appears in Juxtaprose, Quarterly West and other journals and has been anthologized by The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, chosen as a finalist in the CRAFT Fiction Contest and longlisted for A Public Space Fellowship. Tayyba is a recipient of the Inprint C. Glenn Cambor Fellowship. She is a Pakistani-American writer pursuing her MFA in Fiction at the University of Houston and is Fiction Editor at Gulf Coast Journal. Visit her at and on twitter @mayakanwal.

Birdseed: a writing prompt with Georgina Key

Georgina Key

Birdseed is a series of micro interviews that glean writing prompts, insight and advice from the talented writers leading our workshops.

What courses do you teach at Grackle?

I teach fiction classes at Grackle and Grackle. I’m really excited about my Lyrical Prose class, a subject near and dear to my heart. As a reader and a writer, I’m drawn to lyrical passages that don’t take away from the story itself, but instead add depth and nuance to every aspect, including character, theme, place, tone—the possibilities are endless! Finding a poetic cadence, adding sensory detail, or distilling profound meaning in just a few select words can raise writing to another level that sets it apart from mere plot-driven storytelling.

What stands out in your memory as a special moment from your workshop?

That moment when my students and I can identify who wrote which piece, when each student’s voice is so powerful and unique that their work has its own distinct style and cadence. My goal is always to recognize each unique voice and build and enhance their writing, empower them to tell their own story in their own way. 

Do you have a favorite prompt for your students?

One of my favorite writing exercises is the process of distillation. You know those passages you read sometimes where you pause, re-read, and ponder over the author’s intention, taking in each word. As a writer, you are probably in awe and ask yourself how the author achieved such mastery. The distillation exercise gets you closer to writing those passages in your own work. You learn to identify places in your story that lend themselves to this form of lyrical prose. For example, your character is walking through a forest. You could describe the trees, the shade they form, birds singing, etc. But zoom in and consider one aspect of that walk (e.g., stepping over a fallen tree). Now zoom in again (e.g., a beetle crawls into a crevice in the rotting wood). Consider all sensory details—go deep. Then pay special attention to word choice and rhythm (I have a technique for this). Once you’ve written the minutia, think about how this scene might be relevant to the character’s emotions or the theme of your piece as a whole—how could it enhance your intention for your story?

What is one pearl of writing wisdom you like to offer your students?

Writing is an isolating activity—we shut ourselves up in small rooms, behind laptops and earbuds. But for me, the writing community is a vital part of my process. Learning from other writers, receiving feedback, going to readings and conferences, joining writing groups—all these activities deepen our writing practice. Engaging with other writers forces us to look at our writing with new eyes and exposes us to other forms that enrich our knowledge and encourage us to experiment. The camaraderie and critical feedback of other writers inspires us to keep writing and refining our craft. Networking is also an excellent way into the publishing side of writing. It took me several years to finish my first book, at which point I crawled out of my lonely room and reached out to the writing community. At the end of that next year, I landed a publishing deal. Remember, we’re all in this together!

Georgina Key is an award-winning author and artist whose debut novel, Shiny Bits In Between (Balance of Seven Press, 2020), was a recipient of the Kops-Fetherling Phoenix award for Best New Voice of 2020. Her poems have appeared in various journals, and she is currently working on her second novel based in part on memories of her childhood in England. Georgina currently lives in Texas where she received her M.A. in English from Stephen F. Austin University. She has taught writing for over 30 years and founded Silver Rocket, a literary zine celebrating children’s voices. Visit the author’s websiteInstagram, or Facebook shiny bits in between for excerpts, news and updates.

a poem by Amy Lowell

The Purple Grackles

The grackles have come.
The smoothness of the morning is puckered with their incessant chatter.
A sociable lot, these purple grackles,
Thousands of them strung across a long run of wind,
Thousands of them beating the air-ways with quick wing-jerks,
Spinning down the currents of the South.
Every year they come,
My garden is a place of solace and recreation evidently,
For they always pass a day with me.
With high good nature they tell me what I do not want to hear.
The grackles have come.

I am persuaded that grackles are birds;
But when they are settled in the trees,
I am inclined to declare them fruits
And the trees turned hybrid blackberry vines.
Blackness shining and bulging under leaves,
Does not that mean blackberries, I ask you?
Nonsense! The grackles have come.
Nonchalant highwaymen, pickpockets, second-story burglars,
Stealing away my little hope of Summer.

There is no stealthy robbing in this.
Who ever heard such a gabble of thieves’ talk!
It seems they delight in unmasking my poor pretense.
Yes, now I see that the hydrangea blooms are rusty;
That the hearts of the golden glow are ripening to lustreless seeds;
That the garden is dahlia-coloured,
Flaming with its last over-hot hues;
That the sun is pale as a lemon too small to fill the picking-ring.
I did not see this yesterday,
But to-day the grackles have come.

They drop out of the trees
And strut in companies over the lawn,
Tired of flying, no doubt;
A grand parade to limber legs and give wings a rest.
I should build a great fish-pond for them,
Since it is evident that a bird-bath, meant to accommodate two goldfinches at most,
Is slight hospitality for these hordes.
Scarcely one can get in,
They all peck and scrabble so,
Crowding, pushing, chasing one another up the bank with spread wings.
” Are we ducks, you, owner of such inadequate comforts,
That you offer us lily-tanks where one must swim or drown,
Not stand and splash like a gentleman? ”
I feel the reproach keenly, seeing them perch on the edges
of the tanks, trying the depth with a chary foot,
And hardly able to get their wings under water in the bird-bath.
But there are resources I had not considered,
If I am bravely ruled out of count.
What is that thudding against the eaves just beyond my window?
What is that spray of water blowing past my face?
Two — three — grackles bathing in the gutter,
The gutter providentially choked with leaves.
I pray they think I put the leaves there on purpose;
I would be supposed thoughtful and welcoming
To all guests, even thieves.
But considering that they are going South and I am not,
I wish they would bathe more quietly,
It is unmannerly to flaunt one’s good fortune.

They rate me of no consequence,
But they might reflect that it is my gutter.
I know their opinion of me,
Because one is drying himself on the window-sill
Not two feet from my hand.
His purple neck is sleek with water,
And the fellow preens his feathers for all the world as if I were a fountain statue.
If it were not for the window,
I am convinced he would light on my head.
Tyrian-feathered freebooter,
Appropriating my delightful gutter with so extravagant an ease,
You are as cool a pirate as ever scuttled a ship,
And are you not scuttling my Summer with every peck of your sharp bill?

But there is a cloud over the beech-tree,
A quenching cloud for lemon-livered suns.
The grackles are all swinging in the tree-tops,
And the wind is coming up, mind you.
That boom and reach is no Summer gale,
I know that wind,
It blows the Equinox over seeds and scatters them,
It rips petals from petals, and tears off half-turned leaves.
There is rain on the back of that wind.
Now I would keep the grackles,
I would plead with them not to leave me.
I grant their coming, but I would not have them go.
It is a milestone, this passing of grackles.
A day of them, and it is a year gone by.
There is magic in this and terror,
But I only stare stupidly out of the window.
The grackles have come.

Come! Yes, they surely came.
But they have gone.
A moment ago the oak was full of them,
They are not there now.
Not a speck of a black wing,
Not an eye-peep of a purple head.
The grackles have gone,
And I watch an Autumn storm
Stripping the garden,
Shouting black rain challenges
To an old, limp Summer
Laid down to die in the flower-beds.

Birdseed: a writing prompt with Andrew Kozma

Andrew Kozma

Birdseed is a series of micro interviews that glean writing prompts, insight and advice from the talented writers leading our workshops.

What course did you teach at Grackle?

I taught a poetry workshop called “Imagery and the Art of Disjunction.” In the class, we investigated two threads: image narratives and how to use disjunction in poetry. I wish I could explain exactly what I mean by those two things, but that was part of the goal of the class, a shared exploration and definition of these elements that I’ve been obsessed with in poetry for a while now. How do you tell a narrative without a story? How can you create a coherent narrative for the reader without connective tissue taking them from one image to the next?

What stands out in your memory as a special moment from your workshop?

What first time we did an in-class poetry exercise and then read them aloud. It wasn’t just what had been written, which was always interesting and distinctive and gave insight into that particular writer’s voice, but how it opened up the class like an egg being cracked open from the inside.

Do you have a favorite writing prompt for your students?

A lot of the prompts for this class involved attempting to get students to write in ways that weren’t normal to them (and that, really, aren’t normal to anyone). The class wasn’t simply about creating disjunction in the poem itself, but trying to achieve that disjunctive effect through paradoxical tasks in writing. For example, one week we read the poems of Irina Ratushinskaya and Jack Gilbert, and here’s the prompt we started from in class:

Ratushinskaya’s poems were created in the confines of a prison camp for political dissidents. Gilbert’s book THE GREAT FIRES is anchored by the loss of his wife Michiko. Though the poems of both poets are haunted by those losses (of freedom, of country, of love, of togetherness, of understanding), the poems are often not tackling those losses head on, but instead come at them aslant.

Now think about a great loss you’ve suffered. It doesn’t have to be grand, but it should be deep in one way or another, something that leaves a stain on the brain or heart. Now, try to convey that loss in a poem where you do not talk about the loss at all.

What is one pearl of writing wisdom you like to offer your students?

Like the prompt above, it’s a little paradoxical.

First, don’t be afraid to test your limits and try new things that, even as you’re writing them, seem like out-and-out failures. Do what you wouldn’t expect yourself to do. Push yourself past what seems like the poem’s natural end.

Second, don’t be afraid to explore whatever your current poetic obsession is. If you are only interested in writing sonnets about tree parasites or poem with rhymes at the beginning of the lines instead of the end, then let yourself do that. What makes us interesting as writers are our differences, our particular strange interests and quirks, and when your creative brain is done with that obsession, it’ll let you know.

Andrew Kozma’s poems have appeared in BlackbirdThe BelieverRedactionsBennington Review, and Best American Poetry. His book of poems, City of Regret won the Zone 3 First Book Award. A former editor for Gulf Coast and a current editor for Reckoning, he currently lives and teaches in Houston.

Quiscalus Book Club: 12/20/22 Marguerite Abouet

Aya: Life in Yop City
by Marguerite Abouet

Quiscalus is Grackle & Grackle’s book club. We read books translated into English. Join here, anytime.

We can’t speak all the languages, but we can do the next best thing: align our brains in the thought patterns, progressions, and images those languages produce.  Join us for a lively discussion of contemporary books-in-translation

THURSDAY DEC 20, 2022 10 6:30 to 8:30

Aya: Life in Yop City by Marguerite Abouet, translated to English by Helge Dascher(French)

From Words Without Borders: Ivory Coast, 1978. It’s a golden time, and the nation, too-an oasis of affluence and stability in West Africa-seems fueled by something wondrous. Aya is loosely based upon Marguerite Abouet’s youth in Yop City. It is the story of the studious and clear-sighted nineteen-year-old Aya, her easygoing friends Adjoua and Bintou, and their meddling relatives and neighbors. It’s a wryly funny, breezy account of the simple pleasures and private troubles of everyday life in Yop City.

Clément Oubrerie‘s warm colors and energetic, playful line connect expressively with Marguerite Abouet’s vibrant writing. This reworked edition offers readers the chance to immerse themselves in Abouet’s Yop City, bringing together the first three volumes of the series in Book One. Drawn & Quarterly will release volumes four through six of the original French series (as yet unpublished in English) in Book Two. Aya is the winner of the Best First Album award at the Angoulême International Comics Festival, the Children’s Africana Book Award, and the Glyph Award; was nominated for the Quill Award, the YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels list, and the Eisner Award; and was included on best of lists from The Washington Post, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal.

Club Information: You can join at any moment during the reading series, don’t worry if you miss the first or second book. We suggest up to a $50 donation for the class, but price is up to you on the payment portal. We want you here, talking about books from around the world! Sign up here. It will collect your information and help us plan.

Hurricane Harvey Childcare Options

Please add options I don’t have here in the comments, and I’ll add them to the list.


Art Mix 

artmix labor day camp: september 5-8th:
for artists ages 3-15 years

students will enjoy creative, skill building fun, as they draw, paint and sculpt, and make masterpieces inspired by artists and artisans of the great state of texas!

Big Power Yoga

Boys and Girls Club

Congregation Emanuel on Sunset at Mandell is offering free childcare for parents trying to clean up. Children must be toilet trained. (FILLED)

City Art Works Parents whose children are not in school the week of September 6-9th may bring them to City ArtWorks studios in Spring Branch for art classes from 10am to noon Tuesday through Friday. Children who show proof of free-lunch certificates or whose homes have flooded are welcomed at no charge. All others will be registered at a reduced rate for $120 for the four days of two hour-classes.

Conmigo  With HISD and other schools out again next week, Conmigo Spanish is hosting a “Harvey Day Camp” next Friday, Sept 8th from 9 – 2 p.m. $50 per child. Ages 4-8. Register by emailing Spots are limited to first 20.

Discover Gymnastics  Due to HISD’s postponed school start date with affects from Hurricane Harvey, we will be offering Camp on Tuesday, Sept.5th through Friday, Sept.8th. Full Days and Half Days are available. Early Drop Off and Late Pick Up will NOT be available. Limited spaces open for Camp next week. Please call us at 713-680-0045 if you need to enroll in Camp.

Figlia Foods Cooking Camp 3 hour camps, 3 days, $180.

Gymboree I received an email from Sarah on the list you guys are compiling and wanted to share that all 4 of the Gymboree centers are open and hosting community open gym from 9:00-2:00. We are going to be open Sat, Sun and even on labor day to invite families in. This is the least we can do to give back to the community.

Mad Science Price varies according to location. Between 100 and 250 dollars.

Main Street Theater $30 a day.

Monart Camps half priced.

Museum of Natural Science Camp from 8 to 3, a pop-up camp, $30 a day.

Language Kids We have reopened a Spanish immersion summer camp at the Bellaire location for next week. We know many parents are struggling with the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey. Some parents are dealing with flooded homes and other parents need to get back to work, and most school districts have postponed the start of classes until September 11. Children need to get back into a routine, but also to have fun, play and learn. We hope this can help. If your home was flooded, we can provide your child with a scholarship. (FILLED)

Nature Discovery Center — I heard they are offering classes, but cannot find a link. (FILLED)

Rice University is working on a program for its staff. I imagine other companies are, too.

Texas Rock Gym  $65 a day, $290 a week Please plan to pack a lunch and snacks. If circumstances make it difficult for you to do so, just let us know ahead of time and we will make arrangements to have food for your child. Due to staffing limits we will have to cap participation to 50 kids per day.

The Tailored Teacher  Drop off care for demo work or just a parent break after the week. We will be available Saturday 9/2, and Monday, 9/4- Friday 9/8. Follow this link to sign up. Select Parents Night Out (yes, we know it’s actually for Day!) and the day and time you will be dropping your children off.

Urban Movement $20 from 9 to 1 per day.

YMCA Camps Day long YMCA camps. $80 a week or free if you have YMCA childcare already. Several locations participate, camp is from 7 am to 6 pm.

Kompany Kids on 2030 Post Oak in the Galleria area is open beginning Tuesday. I can’t find details but they can be contacted at 713-621- 4006.

Theater under the St

ars or Tuts has a special extension of their summer camps broken down into three different age groups. It costs $150 and is 9 am to 3 pm

Friday Nite Live has free childcare from September 5th to 7th to aide in Harvey recovery.




City of Stories

Deciding to throw our hats into a city rich in writing institutions and ideas was a big decision for Grackle and Grackle, founded by Raj Mankad and Miah Arnold in 2015. We wanted to contribute to the city we love, and to extend the presence of literature and story into spaces less traditional and less represented. We have been working as creative consultants as writers and literary experts to businesses and nonprofits; we are setting the groundwork for creating a small literary publishing house for poetry and novels; and we join the talented cohort of other organizations in teaching writing workshops.

With the dedication of this website comes our dedication to work for Houston to make its stories known, its storytellers celebrated, and its literary institutions well known.

We would like to thank our frineds at Core Design Studio for gorgeously crafting the website.

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