Once a week in the name of poetry, Hila Ratzabi opens her living room to strangers.
They lounge, snug on the red wraparound sofa in her West Philadelphia home, and discuss, over wine and homemade vegetarian food, how to become better poets.
Ratzabi, 34, is their teacher.
A poet and freelance editor, Ratzabi has held the biannual Red Sofa Salon and Poetry Workshop in her living room since 2013. This fall, a small group gathers in her home on Sundays from noon to 2:30 p.m. to read and discuss published poetry, participate in writing exercises, and critique one another's work.
"I think being in a home environment is so much more comfortable for people," Ratzabi said. "It establishes this automatic comfort level. There's something comforting about food, about sitting around a couch in a safe space where we're here to support and critique each other."
Ratzabi, from Queens, N.Y., is the author of the chapbook The Apparatus of Visible Things and editor-in-chief of the literary journal Storyscape. She's been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, received an Amy Award, and was selected by Adrienne Rich as a recipient of a National Writers Union Poetry Prize.
Ratzabi is also the mind behind the Red Sofa Reading Series, a string of poetry readings (food, art, and dancing included) held roughly four nights a year at Old City's Indy Hall. The series celebrated its two-year anniversary on Oct. 9 and will return on Nov. 13 with readings from M. Nzadi Keita, Lisa Sewell, and Sarah Blake.
After moving to Philadelphia from Brooklyn in 2011, Ratzabi said she found the city's poetry scene more accessible than New York's.
"There's an entrepreneurial spirit in Philly," Ratzabi said. "I felt that there was room for me to add to the scene."
Ratzabi models the Red Sofa Salon after writing workshops she participated in while attending the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College. She said she wasn't ready to leave the workshop environment behind after graduating in 2007.
She and her colleagues used to hold casual workshops at their houses on a rotating basis. Ratzabi and her husband, José Villegas, entertained guests on their red sofa - the first piece of furniture they bought together for their Brooklyn apartment. So when she and Villegas packed up to move, they lugged the sofa with them.
"I always had these fond memories of us lounging on this couch and eating food and sharing poetry," Ratzabi said. "It was the memory that made me want to bring it back again in a more structured way, so I had this lightbulb moment when I realized I could actually offer my own workshops. And then I had that red sofa in the back of my mind, so the two sort of came together."
Ratzabi said she tries to establish different themes for each workshop session. Last week, she selected three poems for participants to analyze, each of which had something to do with blackberries, including Sylvia Plath's "Blackberrying."
In the past, participants have focused on establishing truth and persona in poetry. For one "eco-poetry" workshop, participants left the comfort of the red sofa to seek inspiration from locations like the Philadelphia Zoo, Wissahickon Valley Park, and Bartram's Garden.
Ratzabi said she hoped the salon would offer poets all the benefits of a workshop in an academic setting, plus advantages she believes come from working outside a classroom.
"It's interesting because being in an academic setting, there are requirements and things, but outside of the academic setting, it's really people who are taking this on for themselves," Ratzabi said. "You're not getting class credit for this, there won't be external markers of success, and there's no grade at the end. But, hopefully, being motivated by your own practice and by seeing your work improve, that's kind of the gift of the workshop setting."
Shevaun Brannigan, 31, is one of four writers participating in the Red Sofa Salon and Poetry Workshop this fall.
"There's a greater intimacy, and that allows me to write about stuff that I wouldn't have addressed in an academic setting," Brannigan said. "There's a greater level of comfort and a lack of competitiveness. It's really an environment where you feel like your writing is being nurtured."
After participating in a Red Sofa Salon series in 2014, MaryAnn L. Miller, 73, worked individually with Ratzabi on a manuscript of poems. Miller said Ratzabi helped mold the manuscript "into publishable shape."
"People who are writing can really sometimes benefit from writers who know the ropes," Miller said. "People from all different ages and cultures, I think, find it easy to work with her."
The fall 2015 workshop series will conclude on Nov. 8, but Ratzabi plans to continue the workshop for years to come.
"I love having the chance to sit around and talk about poems," Ratzabi said. "It's not something that's part of everyday life for anybody - unless, if it's part of your job, you're really lucky.
"It wasn't part of my job, so I made it happen for myself," she added. "And I can't imagine not doing it in the future."