In mid-1800s London, a group of young men gathered to study and discuss the Bible together. Founder George Williams formed this unassuming reading group in 1841 in an effort to provide post-industrial-age urbanites an alternative to life on the streets. It eventually evolved into a world-famous organization, the YMCA. After a decade, the YMCA was on its way to becoming an American institution when a branch was established in Boston, and today, the YMCA is the world's largest nonprofit organization. Nationally, there are more than 2,000 Ys, serving some 16 million people through a variety of programs including child care, day and summer camps, physical fitness, health and arts and humanities programs.
Through the arts and humanities leg of the YMCA, Jason Shinder founded a program he called the Writer's Voice at New York's West Side Y in 1981. In true YMCA fashion, the Writer's Voice has grown to become the country's largest literary arts network and is continually expanding. Novelist E.L. Doctorow and poet Allen Ginsberg are quoted in the YMCA National Writer's Voice brochure, both touting the program's importance.
Valleyites, too, have access to impressive poets and novelists through our own Writer's Voice, operated out of the Phoenix Downtown YMCA by director Julie Hampton, who thinks of the organization as a way to "break down barriers between artists and audiences." She has done exactly that for nearly five years by bringing the public together with accomplished writers through unexpected and informal readings and other opportunities.
Each spring and fall, the Writer's Voice hosts a writer in residence. These writers not only give readings, but also lead workshops in their specialties for qualified applicants. Names like Ron Carlson, Jewell Parker Rhodes, Melissa Pritchard, Allison Hawthorne Deming, Rick Noguchi and Mary Sojourner have graced Hampton's list over the years. Coming this fall is poet Joshua Beckman, whose book Things Are Happening won the APR/Honickman First Book Prize last year. Amazon.com calls him "one of those poets whose work you mustn't miss." Beckman will be presiding over this fall's poetry workshop. Prolific writer Simon Ortiz will assume the writer in residence role next spring.
Hampton, who is also a writer, often finds herself playing counselor to writers wondering what to do next, where to go in their writing lives. She reinforces all the best advice she's been exposed to from visiting writers over the years, pointing out that the main function of the Writer's Voice, which recalls the YMCA's literary roots, is that of acting as a resource to the community.
Those resources are many and varied. Each fall and spring, Writer's Voice offers a plethora of readings, free and open to the public, by all manner of both national and local writers. Also offered are affordable writing and how-to-publish workshops. Writer's Voice members, for $25 a year, receive a discount on YMCA facility membership and discounts at Changing Hands Bookstore and other merchants in addition to Writer's Voice class discounts.
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Hampton's goals for the program, which operates on a shoestring budget, are great, and the results are polished and professional despite the program's financial constraints. Hampton even hopes to start a local literary journal as a vehicle to inform writers of what's out there. The first issue is scheduled for October/November.
Informing the public about the Writer's Voice is Hampton's greatest challenge, one she meets eagerly with a ready smile. People often think of swim lessons and stair climbers when they hear mention of the YMCA. But the Y does not exist merely for mesomorphs.
"Writer's Voice," Hampton says, "really gets back to the Y's mission of Spirit, Mind and Body."
To become a member of the Writer's Voice, contact Julie Hampton, Arts and Humanities Director of Phoenix Downtown YMCA, at 602-528-5543 or visit the ever-expanding downtown Y at 350 North First Avenue.