TLA, Online Support Groups, and the Opioid Crisis

by Susan Hulsebos

The DEA and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, released a statement in a joint news conference this month stating that the opioid crisis is now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50. Amy Goodman, in her June 7th, 2017 article reporting for the Global Independent News source: Democracy Now!, presents a shocking list of fatality rates from the conference:

“…opioid deaths have now surpassed the peak in death by car crash in 1972, AIDS deaths in 1995 and gun deaths in 1993. After 20 years of heavy combat in South Vietnam, U.S. military casualties represented only one-third of the death toll from 10 years of opioid overdoses.”

This list takes my breath away. Just as cancer took the breath of my son away almost two years ago after his 7 year battle with prescribed Oxy and then heroin addiction. You can’t escape hearing in the nightly news about the daily battle EMT’s and law enforcement have to save victims of opiate related overdose. The city of Everett Washington has just this week filed an unprecedented lawsuit charging a pharmaceutical manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, with the devastation of their city and citizens. As the mother of four adult child who first learned of her oldest son’s addiction with shock and disbelief – before this crisis hit the news – I experienced gut wrenching worry in isolation, confusion, denial and panic as I tried to wrap my mind around heroin? I knew it was deadly and I needed to find someone who could help me get a handle on my emotions, options and yes – who could get past the stigma against “junkies” that even I was carrying around inside my misinformed stereotypes. So I started an internet search for information and help.

What emerged among the horrifying data of low recovery rates with detailed images disclosing the damage addiction to heroin was already having on the brain of my child, was a Facebook page set up to support parents and family members dealing with heroin addiction. It was a closed group. When I was admitted, I found about 1,000 parents, siblings and spouses on the cutting edge of our current crisis pouring out their stories. And I found raw and aching language, post after post, both commiserating, comforting, offering knowledge, resources, support and sobbing over stories. And through the power of shared stories to unite us, these precious aching souls became my new community.

Caryn Miriam-Goldberg, in her introduction to The Power of Words, lays a wide foundation for understanding the practice of transformative language arts and the healing power it holds for social and personal transformation.

“TLA is the practice of connection and community…TLA practice works to resist community fragmentation…TLA is so much about letting and listening to people speak in their own voice, telling their own truths in a language authentic to them…”

I did not know at the time I began to contribute my story and respond to others that this online community would become my life-line. In the privacy of our homes, we regularly wrote how no one wanted to be here, but also how grateful we were for it. We followed each others stories as we dealt with trying to locate and help our addicted loved ones get into treatment. Writing here was unguarded, filled with unconditional acceptance, devoid of stigma unlike hurtful, naive input many of us were getting from our family and community. This group was diverse to it’s core. Even international members found us and were welcomed in with sadness because they had cause to join us, but with gladness that they found us. New comers were given encouragement to post and join their stories with ours. We needed our stories to be understood and to be met with love and acceptance. For me it began to heal some of the isolation and pain.

Then, after two years in this online group, and 3 ½ precious months getting to know my beautiful son again, he was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. Large tumors lined his colon and were spreading through his lungs – the result of years of smoking, drinking and heavy opiate use.

I informed my online community that my son had passed and I stopped posting to the group for fear of discouraging others still hoping their loved one will beat the odds and recover. I looked for and found a new group, GRASP: Grief Recovery After Substance Passing. This national support group facilitates community in person and online. I continue to be helped along by the words I read and contribute. At last look, my former community was numbering over 5,000. My “new normal” is this new community of equally thousands of broken hearts huddled together and “listening” each other through the shock and numbness. Once again, the power of our truths unites us.


Editor’s note: This is Susan’s 5th and final blog post requirement for her TLA certification. We have enjoyed having her share her writing with us!

Sparks! Gathering Tonight!

sparks

Join us tonight at Sparks! A Free Online Gathering for Poetry, Stories, and Songs for  a preview of POW 2017 workshops!

7:00-8:15pm (CDT)

Hosted by Kelly DuMar

Whether you’re already registered for POW in August, or you’re wondering if you should – this is your chance to learn more about some of the wonderful workshops we have in store for you. Workshop leaders will share what they’re presenting and how you will benefit from their unique Transformative Language Arts approach.

Bring a poem to share during a poetry open mic following the discussion and inspire others! Everyone who participates in the teleconference is welcome to share an original poem. Whether you’re reading your poetry aloud for the first time, or you’re a seasoned reader, this is a chance to share your writing in the supportive presence of appreciative listeners. It’s a remarkably fun and moving experience.

Format of the Gathering

  • Kelly will interview workshop presenters on the call for 30 minutes about their POW workshops.
  • We’ll then have 10-15 minutes to ask questions and discuss TLA, your own practice, goals, or vision.
  • We’ll devote the next 15 or so minutes to the open mic poetry readings.
  • You don’t need to be a member of TLAN to participate!

Click here to sign up!

About Kelly DuMar

screen-shot-2017-02-17-at-10-57-26-amKelly DuMar is a poet, playwright and expressive arts workshop facilitator whose chapbook “All These Cures,” won the 2014 Lit House Press poetry contest. Kelly’s poems have been published in many literary journals, and her award winning plays have been produced around the US and published by dramatic publishers. She produces the Our Voices Festival of Women Playwrights & Poets, held at Wellesley College, now in its 9th year. Kelly has a Master’s Degree in Education from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. Her certification in psychodrama and training in Playback Theatre inspire her workshops with transformative energy. Kelly has presented professional workshops at Mass. Poetry Festival, The Boston Book Festival, Playback North America, The New England Theatre Conference, the Transformative Language Arts Conference, ASGPP, The National Association for Poetry Therapy, and The International Women’s Writing Guild. She is a Fellow in the American Society for Group Psychotherapy & Psychodrama, a member of the Advisory Council of The International Women’s Writing Guild, and a Council Member of the Transformative Language Arts Network. Her website it kellydumar.com, and she publishes a bi-monthly essay about the writing life to her subscribers.

“The Skeleton Man” with Joseph Bruchac

Joseph Bruchac is one of the Keynote speakers at this year’s POW conference. Witness one of his enjoyable live performances here:

For over thirty years Joseph has been creating poetry, short stories, novels, anthologies, and music that reflect his Abenaki Indian heritage and Native American traditions. He is the author of more than 120 books for children and adults. The best selling Keepers of the Earth: Native American Stories and Environmental Activities for Children and others of his “Keepers” series, with its remarkable integration of science and folklore, continue to receive critical acclaim and to be used in classrooms throughout the country.

Discount On Classes This Weekend!

Sign up for Cait Meissner’s class, “The Poetics of Witness: Writing Beyond The Self “ or Angie River’s class, “The Five Sense and The Four Elements: Connecting with The Body and Nature Through Poetry” this weekend and receive 20% off the enrollment price!

Both classes run from June 14-July 25th, can be accessed online at your own pace, and are guaranteed to inspire you on your TLA journey. Don’t miss this opportunity!

Read our recent interviews with Cait and Angie and learn more about them and their classes!

Guiding Values in TLA Practices

 

by Melissa Rose

TLAN

“The growth of TLA as a movement and academic field is having, and can further catalyze, profound effects on our culture, such as exploring how language can begin to break through cultural, political and historic agendas, and through the personal fear, rage and despair that disempower individuals and communities. TLA seeks to preserve the richness and diversity of language itself, and the intimacy of human-to-human contact in an increasingly technological age.”

Often times when I am describing my work as a TLA student, I am met with intrigue and curiosity about what exactly TLA is. The answer is broad, because TLA is such a fluid and malleable practice that can easily be molded to fit the community it serves.

Writing, storytelling, theatre, and music can work towards community-building, cultural and ecological restoration, and personal development. Transformative Language artists, scholars, facilitators, and consultants facilitate in many venues, including community centers, schools, prisons, health centers and hospitals, businesses, research facilities, and retreat centers.”

This is one of the elements of TLA that makes it so wonderful. It can exist almost anywhere expression and language is invited. While describing the method we each use for our own TLA practices may vary, the TLA Network has designed a set of guiding values that encompass all of the work regardless of the details.

As we more forward as practitioners and students in TLA, having a firm grasp on the guiding values that fuel our TLA experiences will help us stay grounded in the work we do. While the situations, communities, and details of our TLA experiences may be unique, the values that we strive to hold those experiences to do not change.

Guiding Values

  • Cooperation — collaborating for the good of all.
  • Community-building — fostering community among those of us in the field, and sharing tools and for strengthening our local communities.
  • Empowerment — working in ways that help people, organizations, businesses, institutions and communities further empower themselves.
  • Sustainability — developing sustainable ways to do this work we love, build community, and sustain our individual and collective health.
  • Collective Wisdom — recognizing that we each hold a piece of the truth, and together, we can best honor the love and wisdom guiding us.

Interested in learning more about TLA? Consider getting a certification in Transformative Language Arts from the TLA Network or take one of our classes. 

Learn more about the history of the TLA Network and its founder, Caryn Mirriam Goldberg

Writing in concert

by Barbara Burt

I have been leading a writing workshop at my local community center. While I enjoy hearing the writing that the four members have worked on over the past week and are eager to share, I think the most fruitful part of the workshop is the prompted writing during the workshop. Often the prompt is met with moans: “I hate these introspective exercises.” “I can’t think of anything…” But invariably, within a minute or two, everyone is writing away, engrossed in their response to the question that may have made them feel a bit uncomfortable at first (although that’s not my aim).

When the time comes to share the prompted writing, at least one or two people find that there is the germ of a story to follow up on, planted in that day’s scribbling. To me, there is definite music in the quiet sound of all that thinking and writing that reminds me of playing chamber music. We are aware of each other, listening, but also intent on our own part. It happens that the music of our own writing is more meaningful, somehow, residing in the harmony of our group endeavor, whether we share it or not.

I wrote this during the most recent workshop:

Writing in Concert

We sit in folding chairs
and set our elbows on the plastic tabletop.
Its bumpy surface doesn’t slow us.
The mah-jongg game in the next room
erupts in loud laughter.
Still, we are not deterred.

Pens scratch.
Hands swish across smooth sheets,
pages are turned, paper rattles.
We hold our breath
or sigh.                                                                                                                                         Sip coffee.
Or rest our foreheads in our hands,
eyes closed, thinking.

There is companionship in writing alone
together.
Our thoughts are secret
but our output obvious.
We start together with the same prompt
then wander separate paths,
secure in the knowledge that
each step is worthy of its effort
and will be celebrated.

Celebrated, whether spoken or
silent.
Celebrated by our fellow writers
in the chamber music of creation.

“Girl Talk”

by Melissa Rose

I began performing spoken word poetry when I was 15 years old. At the time, I was the girltalk5youngest person who participated in poetry slams and open mics in my local area. While this was sometimes an advantage, I often found myself surrounded by adults at least a decade older than me, knee-deep in life experiences well outside my youthful worldliness. I felt awkward in my natural place in life, and as I shared my feelings and thoughts on stage, I never felt quite like I fit in due to never having other young people to write and connect with. I felt like my stories were unimportant. That what I was experiencing–all of the confusion, self-loathing, and insecurity–was strange and unnatural. For years I wrote about what the adults around me wanted me to write about, instead of the things I wanted to express.
 
In 2015 I created Siren, a nonprofit organization founded to uplift the voices of girls who, like me, wanted their stories to be heard. For the last two years we have worked with other organizations that serve the girls in our community, providing spoken word summer camps, weekly after school improv workshops, and writing clubs. During this time I have had the opportunity to witness several young women share their stories and experiences on stage, developing self confidence and personal empowerment as a result.
 
In early April I was invited to collaborate with Cari Ingrassia, an amazing local visual artist, on an installation that would showcase the voices of girls from our community. The installation would be featured in an event called Platform Festival–a multi-disciplined art experience that featured dance, music, performance, and other forms of expression. Cari and I discussed that the project would focus on the “secrets” of girlhood and the messages girls receive. The stories told peer to peer about what it is to be female in our society. We decided on a blanket fort to be our setting for the installation; an impenetrable fortress of girlhood, reminiscent of slumber parties, and chose on three archetypal images to guide us: a doll, a mirror and a telephone.
 
girltalk2The girls who participated in the project wrote powerful pieces of poetry that addressed the issues of body perception, menstruation, virginity, broken hearts, catcalling, and “letting go” of the little girl inside of them in order to become women. We had each girl record her poems and then record some of the most powerful lines from their pieces in a whisper. Cari then installed the poems into each of the archetypes, allowing participants to interact with the poems by listening to the girl’s voices inside of the items. From the outside, the installation resembled something beautiful, frilly, and sweet, but like with the reality for girls around the world, what lingered just below the surface was filled with trauma, pain, and confusion.
 
The night of the event, two of the girls who had worked on the project performed their girltalk10poems live outside of our blanket fort as participants funneled through the installation. Women and men of all ages enjoyed interacting with the various elements of the project, some even moved to tears from the rawness of the experience and the poignancy of the struggles girls encounter that we were trying to convey.
Working on this project also evoked powerful feelings within myself, reconnecting me
with my past and those first few years of performing poetry. The inner turmoil and self-hatred I felt. The confusion and trauma I too experienced growing up as a girl. Witnessing these young women and hearing their own stories, their own self awareness and strength, was a healing experience for that little girl, still living within me. The one I tried to silence all those years ago.
melpromo4
Melissa Rose is a spoken word poet and playwright. She has hosted community spoken word events since 2003 and has been a member of 5 National Poetry Slam teams. She has performed her work across the United States and Germany and was a featured poet at the German National Poetry Slam in 2010. She currently lives in Eugene, Oregon.

The Five Senses and Four Elements: An Interview With Angie River

AngieAngie River will be teaching the upcoming class “The Five Senses and Four Elements: Connecting with Body and Nature Through Poetry” which begins on June 14th. This class will “help us to slow down, breathe deeply, and experience our bodies in this world.” Below is an interview with Angie about her class.

TLA Blog (TLA): How did you discover, learn about and experience the topic that you’ll be teaching?

Angie River(AR): When I was in college I had a professor, Bruce Goble, who introduced me to the concept of the ‘small noticing’ (a term coined by poet Samuel Green). The small noticing is essentially a focused, mindful, close observation turned into a concise, yet highly descriptive, sensory phrases or pieces of writing. The introduction to this concept made me start slowing down and noticing more things, especially in the natural world.

I began combining nature walks and exploration with writing in some of the classes I taught, and even had the opportunity to co-teach a class with a science instructor that brought together the worlds of biology and poetry! I also spent more time myself immersed in nature when writing. I found some of my best written reflection and contemplation happened when next to a campfire or when leaning against a piece of driftwood at the ocean.

As I age and learn more about myself, I have found the importance in my own personal life of slowing down, communing with the world around me, and turning inward in reflection. My hope is that the participants can use this class as an opportunity to do those things as well.

TLA: Which element do you find yourself writing the most through?

AR: I find peace at the ocean and find myself in life repeatedly drawn to Water, so find myself often writing about this element. However, I think that all the elements have such interesting qualities and can inspire our writing (and our lives!) in different ways. Recently a student in another class I teach wrote a piece with a line in it about the “grass muttering” and ever since I’ve been thinking a lot about the Earth element and the ways that the Earth speaks to us. I think that there are different phases in my life where I am drawn to different elements, as they each have distinct qualities and characteristics.

TLA: Who would benefit most from taking this class?

AR: This class is really great for anyone who wants to take some time to slow down and be more present in the world and within themselves. It is good for novice writers as well as those with more experience. It doesn’t matter where you live either, both rural and urban settings are fine, because we can find little bits of nature everywhere!

TLA: What can students in this class expect?

AR: Each week will have a different focus, and I will provide students with texts (articles, videos to watch, things to listen to, art to view, etc). There will be a few discussion questions where students respond to the texts and we engage in conversation around them as a class. Each week a different form of poetry will be introduced as well. Finally, there are three creative prompts provided each week from which students can pick to do some creative writing. We will engage in the natural world, as well as turn inwards to ourselves, in some way each week.

Specifically, Week One ​will begin with an overview of sensory-based writing and a discussion of the benefits of using the natural world as a way of talking about our bodies and selves. Weeks Two through Week Five will each focus on a different element – earth, air, water, and fire – and the ways we can connect with both with these elements and with our selves through writing. Week Six​ will bring the various writing we’ve done throughout the course together, and will be a time for reflection upon the previous weeks’ work.

My hope with this class is to create a space for students to be able to explore, where they will feel comfortable digging into new ideas and growing new creations.

TLA: Why is connecting to our senses so important in our writing practices?

AR: I think this can be looked at two ways…both in the way that improves our practice, and also in the way it improves our writing. In regard to our writing, I believe that sensory details are really the backbone. Sensory imagery brings writing to life, and can create a vivid picture for the reader.

Connecting to our senses is important in our writing practice, though, as it brings us into our bodies. When we write from a place where we are really connected to our selves, I believe we can more fully engage in our writing. We aren’t detached from it; it becomes more personal. Also, connecting to our senses gives us so many points of inspiration to write from! If going through our day unaware and disconnected we may not notice all the amazing details of life that we can write about, but when more tuned in with our bodies and senses, we are bombarded with material and inspiration, and one almost can’t help but want to write!

Angie River is a writer, educator, activist, and performance artist. She has taught writing workshops and done performances in various states across the country, and is published in “Tidepools Literary Magazine,” “Reading for Hunger Relief,” The Body is Not an Apology webpage, and the upcoming anthology “Queering Sexual Violence,” as well as having her own blogand zines. Angie fully believes in the power of writing to help us gain a better understanding of ourselves, to build connections and community, and to make personal and social change.

The Poetics of Witness: An Interview with Caits Meissner

caitsCaits Meissner will be teaching the upcoming class “The Poetics of Witness: Writing Beyond The Self” beginning June 14th. This class will investigate “the power inherent when other people’s stories enter our hands” and will explore persona pieces, manifestos, odes, and our own stories to explore different ways to witness the world around us. Here is a short interview with Caits about the class:

TLA Blog (TLA) Why might this class be important at this time in the world?

Caits Meissner (CM): We live in a society that is both increasingly intersectional, while also spiraling backwards into profoundly oppressive, repressive and unjust terrain. It is a frightening world to wake up in everyday. I often think of the quote from poet and activist June Jordan, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” No one will write the books for us. We must tell history through our unique perspectives. We must drum up the courage to write for a future we cannot envision yet. It is our duty, as well as a healing force for self and others, to find a way to express, push up against, expose, archive, grapple with and bear witness to the difficult times we are living in as a service to the world.

But constant exposure to the injustices proliferating around us can be overwhelming, and as a writer, knowing where to enter the conversation can be intimidating, especially when writing across lines of identity. It is worth unpacking what makes us worried or uncomfortable about this act of witness, and examining how to engage with respect, tenderness, care and ethics. This work alone, the personal questioning process and journey, can begin to create the necessary work of changing our world before the poems are even written.

TLA: How did you discover, learn about and experience the topic that you’ll be teaching?

CM: I first learned the phrase Poetry of Witness after falling in love with poet Carolyn Forche’s work, specifically her book The Country Between Us.  That is her phrase for poems that bear witness to injustice, and her own are exceptional examples. Learning about how to write this way (and I’m still learning) was/is trial and error, immersing myself in conversations and communities that challenged me to look at my positionality, ask questions about my own motivation in the writing and encouraged me to stick out the path, to not shy away or become so fearful of “getting it wrong” that I ignored issues and stories I found deeply important. I was also influenced by my work in various classrooms – public school, prison, needle exchanges, working with people with intellectual disabilities, etc. – and struggled with how to share what I was experiencing without exploiting or stealing the stories of others. Walking these fine lines is an ongoing process in the life of a writer, and certainly in my own.

TLA: Who would benefit most from taking this class?

CM: I believe anyone interested in storytelling that includes the stories of others would benefit from our examination, practice and dialogue. This might be a poet seeking to engage our current political landscape, or a practitioner looking to translate their experiences in the field ethically. It might be a traveler who has witnessed a scene that jarred them, or a reader moved by an account of injustice across the world. It is for anyone interested in approaching the page and the subjects of our writing with deep honor. But one thing is a requirement: must be open to self examination and a process of understanding the journey and perspectives of other people.


TLA: What can students in this class expect?
 

CM: Students can expect to write weekly within provided containers, engage difficult conversations and reflections about our task as writers of witness, find inspiration and challenges in incredible master work, determine the stories that intrigue and call to them and build the beginnings of a possible new project/collection. Some may use this process as a reflective tool, others as a generative engagement. Either, or both, orientations are valuable.

 

TLA: Who are your top 3 favorite poets (and why)?
CM: That is an impossible question! In truth, I cannot answer the question of all time favorite, I am too inspired by too many writers, but I can share who is inspiring me right now:
1. Natalie Scenters-Zapico, who’s book The Verging Cities writes about love and borderlands. I don’t know how to describe it other than aching poetic memoir infused with magical-realism and it is deeply affecting to my heart and senses. I just love it and find myself spending hours in the worlds she builds, returning over and over to her rich poems.
2. C.D. Wright did a lot of really interesting work with poetry before her too-soon passing. I’ve been kind of obsessed with One Big Self, a kind of collaged poetic impression/document of a Louisiana prison experience, and One With Others, which uses oral history, journalism and poetry to examine the civil rights era south through her fierce mentor’s life.
3. Claudia Rankine blew the roof off of poetry and nonfiction alike with her recent book Citizen, which brilliantly addresses race, pop culture, self identity and micro-aggressions through prose poems, criticism and art strewn through out the book. It is absolutely crucial reading.

Caits Meissner is a multidisciplinary writer, artist and community facilitator. She is the author of the hybrid poetry book Let It Die Hungry (The Operating System, 2016), and The Letter All Your Friends Have Written You (Well&Often, 2012), co-written with poet Tishon Woolcock. With a long history in community arts, Caits currently teaches in prisons, public school, and at CUNY and The New School University. She is a Spring 2017 MFA in Creative Writing candidate at City College of New York.