“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.
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.

Confessions of a former workshop dropout

by Barbara Burt

Years ago I was a serial writing workshopper. I journeyed to Breadloaf. I commuted to Stone Coast. I popped into local one-day workshops. I scribbled down every “recipe” uttered by celebrity writers. I joined writing groups focused on a particular genre. I joined writing groups focused on a particular sort of criticism. I joined writing groups just because they were there.

Occasionally the experience was worthwhile. Too often, though, fellow workshop participants told me, “Here’s what’s wrong with your story; you need to cut out/add/change these parts. This character does or doesn’t. The writing is too spare/wordy/specific/literary/poetic/ adult/childish…” The feedback was confusing, useless and, most of all, demoralizing.

So I gave it up. I decided to write alone.

Every now and again I’d send a story out to the harsh world of publishing. And sometimes I shared stories with friends. But the act of writing began to feel less vital, less urgent. Was it becoming a sweet little hobby? A form of self-indulgence? I bored myself.

Then I happened upon the Transformative Language Arts Network and read the essays in The Power of Words: social and personal transformation through the spoken, written and sung word (edited by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg and Janet Tallman). The reason for telling and listening to stories suddenly became obvious: the telling of a story changes both the teller and the listener. Forever.

I was inspired to try my hand at writing workshops again. But this time I would change the rules. We wouldn’t talk about the mechanics of writing and we wouldn’t worry about what publishers did or didn’t want to see—we would focus on loving the story. We wouldn’t criticize, we would appreciate. So I put the feelers out and gathered a group of writers who want to tell stories from their life. I call it “From Memory to Memoir” but, truth be told, if the writers bring in fiction, I’m fine with that.

The reason for telling and listening to stories suddenly became obvious: the telling of a story changes both the teller and the listener. Forever.

It’s been six weeks. I have two groups, one with five members and one with six, all strangers. Are these the most generous, creative, honest writers I have ever worked with? Yes! They are amazing. They are kind. Each session is filled with revelation and beauty.

This is why: every person alive is a writer. Everyone has stories to tell. There is no hierarchy of value or importance. And I ascribe to the “TLA Workshop Agreements” by Vanita Leatherwood on page 362 of The Power of Words: Confidentiality; Safety & Grace; Respect & Compassion; Honor; and Speak from our own experience.

In a safe space, we are free to speak our truth and hear others’. Instead of doubt, there is validation. Creativity flourishes. And that’s the best result possible.


Mother’s Day Writing Prompts


In honor of Mother’s Day, explore some of your motherly memories here with the following prompts:

  • Use color to describe your mother and three of four (or more) smilies comparing her to things of that color.
  • Write your mother as a flower. What kind of flower is she? Where is she planted? What fragrance envelops her?
  • In Yugoslavia, Mother’s Day seems more for the children then the moms themselves. The children have a tradition of tying up their mother and ransoming her freedom for gifts. What is an alternative Mother’s Day tradition you would like to have with your mother?
  • Write a letter to your mom with the starting like: “I have always wanted to tell you…”
  • Write about an adventure you and your mother had
  • If you are a mother, describe your proudest moment as a mom so far. Was it the time your child learned to read their first words? When they left the nest to start college? Something else? Recall how you felt at the time and what it meant for you as a mother.

Mortified: Share the Shame


In 2002 the discovery of an unsent teenage love letter resulted in a call for individuals to share their own childhood writings on stage for an audience…and Mortified was born.

Mortified’s motto is “There are a million stories buried in the pages of people’s lives. Our mission is to help people find them.” and for over a decade they have been doing just that-providing a public space for people to reflect on their adolescent hopes, dreams and dramas. From podcasts to documentaries to books to ongoing live performances, Mortified events invite us all to share our most vulnerable selves during the most insecure times of our lives. Participants in Mortified live performances come from a variety of backgrounds and occupations, but the common link of teenage embarrassment becomes the single relatable thread that binds us all in knowledge that we all survived even the most confusing and harrowing experiences of adolescence.
Mortified currently has chapters in Austin, Boston, Chicago, DC/Baltimore, Denver, LA, NYC, Portland, the San Francisco Bay Area and abroad in Amsterdam, Dublin, Helsinki, London, Malmo, Oslo, Paris, and Trondheim. Anyone is welcome to submit their own teenage horror stories to perform in their live events, so “dust off that old diary and unearth those letters” and feel Mortified.

To find out more about Mortified, to host an event, or to listen to their podcast, visit their website at http://getmortified.com




I’m Changing My Story

by Susan Hulsebos

A recent writing class using narrative therapy prompts has revealed to me, once again, how much control the stories we hold in our lives have over our sense of identity and problems. Narrative therapy seeks to unhook us from problems resulting from stories we hold, and support us as we create new stories and an alternative story line we want to live out. I have definitely discovered some stories stored in my heart as a child which have given me problems as an adult. While the meta story for me has always been a felt sense of rejection, it wasn’t until I responded to a recent prompt by writing it out in detail, that I gained a true release in my spirit and new perspective on my story. The prompt asked me to write about a female caregiver from my childhood including things I wouldn’t ordinarily say. Right away my maternal grandmother popped into my head and I began to write. I never thought much aGrandmother Photobout her before. We weren’t close. And I always thought it was me.

What’s amazing about therapeutic writing—getting the whole story out—is how adult perspective on a childhood problem is often all that’s needed. Ahhhh! I sigh as light bulbs start going off as I write, Of course you felt that way. She never had a personal conversation with you or really liked it when you came to visit. She was still in mourning for her husband’s early death and besides—“children are to be seen and not heard” was your family’s child-rearing motto. Grandma was elegant and flawless, I had skinned knees and sticky hands. I was a cute little kid, she was an aging glamour queen.

All of the deeper insights and releases I have experienced while writing to therapeutic story prompts I could not arrive at any other way. There is liberation in writing out our truths without fear of boring our partners, affording a therapist, or having to talk nice. As I began to explore my childhood hurts from Grandma, I ended up writing about the time, as a teenager, I walked into her room and caught her naked. She was standing with one thin leg propped on the bed and clipping her silk hose onto her satin garter belt. This grandmother, a woman I knew as cool, unavailable and uninterested in me, who never bonded with me as a child, laughed and excused my awkward mumbles. She didn’t care at all that her little boobs were hanging down like silk hankies. This was the first time I felt like a lady in her presence, and I bonded with her. I think I asked to borrow her nail polish and left.

There is liberation in writing out our truths without fear of boring our partners, affording a therapist, or having to talk nice.

At this point in the writing, the rest of the stories that came up allowed me to integrate our truths as family and as women. She was born in the early 1900’s. Her life derailed when her husband died at 45 and it never got back on track. She was a glamorous widow maintaining her beauty parlor coif and long painted nails, matching shoes and handbags until the end. What I know to be true is that she lived a very adult life in a very ordered house. As we got older, she played cards with us and we went to lunch, but her inability to grow close with me was not because I wasn’t interesting, smart, or stylish enough. It was because she didn’t have a taste for intimacy with kids.

This truth is the healthy break in my hurting childhood narrative that has healed my relationship her. It wasn’t just me—NO little kid got to sit on her lap or play with her. She didn’t play with toys; she played cards, smoked, and cracked snarky jokes. This type of truth-telling is a big part of regular therapeutic writing. By sorting out our stored impressions and truth-checking them we can stop creating problems for ourselves through buried, harmful narratives.

The goal of narrative therapy, typically led by a professional counselor, is to help the client re-author their story with truths to support a new life experience freed from the problematic stories of the past. I have found this to be a rich treasure of the process. I have re-authored characters in my past who I have come to see as being authentically different and unable to give me kind of love I needed when I was with them. So I’m changing my story.

My new story involves surrounding myself with people and communities where vulnerability, authenticity and supporting each others unique calling is primary. We talk about everything in intimate, sometimes hilarious conversations. And arriving at my new story line is reason enough for me to write regularly and with hope, every day.

Editor’s Note: This blog post was submitted as partial fulfillment of the requirements for the TLA Network Certification program.

What To Tell The Children, by Rachel Kann

TEDx Poet Rachel Kann is a modern-day mystic: irreverently reverent and exuberantly human. Her poetry has been featured on Morning Becomes Eclectic on NPR and as The Weather on the podcast phenomenon, Welcome to Night Vale. She is the 2017 Outstanding Instructor of the Year at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. She’s a Write Club Los Angeles champ and resident writer for Hevria, where she is also featured as a performing artist on The Hevria Sessions. Find out more about her work at http://rachelkann.com