Writing Our Lives: An Interview with Dr. Liz Burke-Cravens

Liz is going to be facilitating her class, Writing Our Lives: The Poetic Self & Transformation starting October 18th and we are excited to be able to share this interview with her about the upcoming class.

TLA Blog (TLA) What inspired you to teach this class?
Liz Burke-Cravens (LBC) I have always been in love with autobiographical poetry, ever since I first read Sylvia Plath as an angst-filled teenager. Somehow, she honored my pain through the expression of hers. I had that sense that she knew me.  I was forever changed and continue to be changed by the poetry I read and write. My inspiration for this class, fundamentally, is my desire to share this transformative expression with others.
I have also been looking for an opportunity to synthesize two classes that I taught a few years ago in the undergraduate psychology program at a small, private university in the San Francisco Bay Area. The first class focused on elements of craft, literary criticism, and autobiographical writing. The other class focused on potential for reading/writing poetry as catalyst for healing and deepening connection, with a particular emphasis on theories of poetry therapy. The upcoming class, Writing Our Lives: The Poetic Self & Transformation, brings together a focus on craft and generating new writing, autobiographical inquiry, and reading/writing poetry as transformative and healing practice. In other words, this class is my way of sharing a framework to creatively examine one’s life, to develop greater self-awareness and understanding of one’s experience, and to empower people with the tools to authentically voice their truth.
TLA: How is writing poetry specifically a transformative experience? What makes the poetic medium different from other forms of expression?
LBC: Writing poetry offers the opportunity to express and explore the complexity of our emotions in relation to our lived experience. It can help you discover feelings you didn’t know where alive in you, explore them with the use of figurative language, and by doing so, enable you to reach new understandings or at least accept what we do not fully understand. When writing about your life, it becomes an examined life. It honors your sufferings, joys, fears and hopes as important and meaningful. Acclaimed poetry therapist John Fox summed up the transformative potential of writing poetry: “Poetry is natural medicine….Writing and reading poems is a way of seeing and naming where we have been, where we are, and where we are going with our lives.” Writing poetry, quite simply, expresses what plain language does not.
TLA: Who/What are some of your favorite poets/poems?
LBC: I would be negligent to not mention Sylvia Plath, not merely because, as I mentioned before, she was the first poet who I felt was speaking directly to me. I carried around her Collected Poems everywhere I went as a teenager! One of my favorite poems of hers is “Tulips.” The first few lines of the fifth stanza take my breath away every time: “I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted / To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty. / How free it is, you have no idea how free— / The peacefulness is so big it dazes you.” Astonishing.
Marie Howe’s work never ceases to resonate with me. Her book What the Living Do, is my current favorite. She has an amazing way of elevating the mundane tasks and happenings of one’s life to intensely meaningful—if not spiritual—proportions. The poem “What the Living Do,” is an excellent example of this. The last few lines capture not only mundane details, they also capture a certain experience of grief: “But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the / window glass, / say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing / so deep / for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m / speechless: / I am living. I remember you.”
TLA: What should students in this class expect?
LBC: Students should expect to be inspired by the work of a variety of contemporary poets, to play with elements of craft, and to generate a new body of work. But beyond what is noted in the class description, I want students to know that as a teacher/facilitator I understand how emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually vulnerable writing can be. I value that aspect of the writing process. My intention is to create a safe, respectful, and engaging learning environment that has space for both the expression of difficult emotions and joyful playfulness.
TLA: Is there anything else about this class you would like to share?
LBC: To learn a bit more about me, and my approach to teaching and writing, I invite people to visit my web site http://www.abravespace.org/. Feel free to contact me with any questions about the class!
lizburkeDr. Liz Burke-Cravens is a poet, educator, writing coach, passionate scholar and determined optimist. As an educator she is committed to critical and transformative approaches to teaching and learning. Her writings have appeared in Ireland and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History: A Multidisciplinary Encyclopedia, Volume 2, The Irish Herald, Soulstice: A Feminist Anthology Volume II, and Sandy River Review. She lives in Oakland, California with her wife, Amber, and their two dogs, Schmoopie and Mr. Bits.

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