Caits Meissner sat down with us to talk about her upcoming online class, “Poems as Prayers: Writing Toward a Just World.” The class begins Oct. 23. More here.
What do you see as the relationship of poetry to prayer, and prayer to social change?
There is a course to be made about religious tradition in social justice movements, but this isn’t it. I use prayer here in the loosest sense of the word, drawing on the simple idea that when we launch our wishes and hopes into the universe with earnest intention, they amplify. The object of devotion may be a higher power, but also may be nature, the universe, the commitment to reducing harm, a deeper sense of self love or humanity itself.
The way I’m thinking about prayer in this course, as intentional wishing and visioning that extends beyond the self, is a different energy than protest, and railing against what is—a necessary strategy, but not the only one.
I’m thinking of prayer as an impassioned call to forces beyond the human realm to support our collective betterment, to protect who is vulnerable, to uplift who is ignored, to create harmony and equity and peace and justice and environmental responsibility. To call in the gods or ancestors or universal light energy or natural intelligence to give us the strength and tools to help dream and build a better world.
What motivated you to put together such a visionary class?
My own desperation for something different drove me forward. I have always been drawn to resistance art, and while I find that incredibly important, in this terrifying era we’ve entered, I also craved something more—hopeful may the wrong word—perhaps more fitting is visionary. The concept of emergence in social change began to stir me up.
It was Adrienne Maree Brown’s book Emergent Strategy that really got my gears turning about a course that tied together inspiration from a wide array of sources to propel us into the possibilities for healing our society. Brown looks at biomimicry, speculative fiction, posts tarot cards on her social media—she is ideating new social justice practices from an amazing mix of movement work, divination, nature and art.
I am certain that hidden in the natural intelligence of our bodies is a creative force more profound than what is easily accessible in the rigid and fast pace of modern society. I think it takes playing outside our go-to inspirations to draw up what has previously been untapped. I wanted to push myself, and others, to dream forward and innovate in our poetry practices, the way Brown is asking of those engaging justice work.
What can people expect to experience, learn, and write in this class?
There will not be much, if any soap-boxing or pontificating from me, as the facilitator. I am no expert, I am a fellow seeker. Rather than reading my thoughts and ideas on a subject, I see my role as cultivating process and possibility through curating readings.
I want to encourage participants to listen to what their bodies reveal, and then act on their gut impulses, what pulls them towards creation in what I offer. I would also like to gently push participants past nerves or fear to try something new. Therefore, we’ll engage a large range of material in order to unlock new pathways in the brain. I encourage participants to arrive expecting to play, and to challenge themselves to write towards creating an image of a just world, rather than (always) against it.
Participants should come ready to journal in response to questions, write for 15 minutes based on sometimes strange or even silly-seeming prompts, to read about a 20 page packet each week of poems and essays, to write another poem (I suggest writing a draft in 15 minutes, but it’s up to the writer) and to post the work they’d like feedback on in the forum—1 or 2 short pieces weekly.
How has prayer and social change spoken through your writing, and can you share an example?
I often use poetry as a space to work out questions and ideas about the world—as writers tend to. And though I write from a variety of perspectives, the lens I employ that most closely resembles prayer, for me, is gratitude. I’ve written tender praise poems for women in prison, and girls in jail (this one is a poem-comic). I am also at work on a series of more personal comic-based “pep talks” that explore what is good in daily life, not always connected to an anchored social justice issue, but for example, how I’ve pulled myself out of depression, or how to connect to a partner romantically when totally broke!
I also have a silly personal example that illustrates the kind of, wait, huh, what just happened? Did I write that into existence? As a young poet in my early twenties I was depressed. On the train home after seeing my favorite poet at the time, Pulitzer Prize-winning Yusef Komunyakaa, I wrote a poem asking him where his gift of writing derives from, and calling out for the experience of pain in order to write like him. Of course, Yusef’s life story is incomparably more intense than my own has ever touched close to, but still. A few months later and I experienced a romantic break up that kicked the light out of me—that really awful, gutting kind of ending. And then I got a letter. I was going across the world to a writing conference, on a full scholarship, completely free. To study under Yusef Komunyakaa for two weeks.
Magic? Prayer? I don’t know. I am sparked by the ideas presented in quantum physics, and what are thoughts but energy? Maybe there is something here to be harnessed intentionally in our writing towards a better world.
Anything else participants should know?
Yes! When you take a class with me, you invest materials that can be used to make poems for years. I am not exaggerating. Each week’s packet comes with approximately 10-15 optional prompts that can be revisited again and again (you’ll only write 1-2 poem drafts each week during the course). Erika Jeffers, who took this class with me live at Poets House over the summer wrote me a wonderful email about how she used the curriculum again to produce more work. With permission, I’ll share what she told me:
“On the last day of class, I think I mentioned to you that I was planning on taking a week off from New York and staying at a cozy house in CT to write and revisit the ‘Poetry as Prayer ‘ class syllabus and I did just last week! In the mornings, I tackled one week and in the afternoons, I worked through another week and I had the entire 6-week workshop experience all over again, but condensed in a week. The workshop was truly a magical experience for me; and I’m not just saying that, I wasn’t writing for a year before the class. I wouldn’t say I was stuck (maybe I was), but I wasn’t really inspired and I had convinced myself that I wasn’t good about writing specific topics, but the workshop showed me that yes, I can branch out; yes, I can be experimental; and yes, I can be a witness and write about what’s going in the world around me. Overall, I left the workshop with a new confidence! Now that I’m back, I’m working on finishing up my chapbook!… Thank you soooo much! It was such a pleasure to work with you and this amazing, life-changing class syllabus.”
I’d say, like most experiences, you get out of it what you put into it.
More on “Poems as Prayers: Writing Toward a Just World” here.