Sonya Renee Taylor is an Internationally acclaimed performance poet, actress, educator and activist who’s been seen on HBO, CNN, BET, MTV, and the Oxygen Network. She has performed on stages from New Zealand to Scotland to New York, and is currently residing in Baltimore, MD. She is the creator of The Body Is Not An Apology Movement
by Melissa Rose
Five and a half years ago I was perhaps in one of the most confusing and chaotic years of my life. I was struggling with depression and suicidal ideation, using alcohol to self medicate, and putting myself in increasingly dangerous situations by involving myself in abusive relationships. Looking back now, I can see why I was in that place, where the need to self destruct stemmed from, yet at the time, all I was trying to do was make it through the day in any way I could.
This is the time in my life I did not want to remember. I didn’t want to remember the mess I was, lashing out at anyone who tried to help me. Blaming everyone for my own misery. I didn’t want to think about all of the shame of being in such a low place and being completely out of control. And I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t want to survive and all of my behavior during that time reflected this desire.
As fate would have it, I became pregnant, and my entire life changed. I was able to pull myself back to reality and remember there was a reason for living. I was able to stop the spiral I was in and turn my thoughts to the future for once. I moved on from that dark place and I became a mother to my son and tucked the years I spent on a bender in the back of my mind, like trash stuffed under a bed. But the more years that passed, the more I began to smell the rot I had been ignoring.
I sometimes worry that my history is doomed to repeat itself. I still fear ever slipping back into the person I was all those years ago. It frightens me to think of myself in that place again. To be so utterly out of control. I could pretend that nothing happened, that it was just a “bad time”, but that description didn’t do the experience justice.
Last year, I began writing about the years I didn’t want to think about. I mentally transported myself back to that place and time. I imagined myself as that young woman, confused and scared and alone. I wrote about my selfishness. My cruelty. All of the shameful things I did and said and how I justified it. Where it all came from. Where the self destructive tendencies started. Throughout the process it was as if I was able to cast a light on the shadow of my past and take away its power over me. I was able to face the parts of me I was most afraid of and reflect on them from a new perspective.
Eventually, I would turn these writings into a script. My first one-woman show, entitled “Baggage”. This 50 minute exploration of my past took place in an airport as I flew home from Europe, confused and jetlagged—completely unsure of where I was going to go next. Being separated from those memories for so long unearthed a million feelings I had been ignoring, and as I sifted through them, I was able to embark on my own healing process, and forgive myself for all of the things I was so ashamed of. I was able to see myself not as a monster, but as a human being who did what they had to do and survived.
I knew that to bring my story full circle, I would have to perform my piece, but I was nervous about how an audience would perceive me. I put off scheduling a performance for fear I would be overly exposed. I have written and performed about many personal things, but this piece was somehow different. The raw honesty in it cut me close enough to bleed.
I knew that in order to honor and love that young woman I was, I needed to tell her story. It was the only way to release her from that pain she felt all those years ago. It was the only way to let her know that she was important and worthy of love, even during those dark times. I owed it to myself to make sure I could heal in order to never be in that place again. So I set a date for the performance, and begin practicing my piece, pouring all of the experience into my words and movements. Embodying the woman I was for the first time in years. It felt like I was reuniting with a part of me I hated, and as I began to embrace that character, I was able to love her in a way I never had before.
After the performance, I felt a sense of relief, like I had let go of something weighing heavy on me. I had survived. I wanted to survive. Even during those times. No matter how often I tried to convince myself otherwise.
Through writing and performing my story, I finally was able to unpack the baggage I had been carrying with me for so long.
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.
I began performing spoken word poetry when I was 15 years old. At the time, I was the youngest 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.
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.
Do you prefer to read stories in a book? Listen to them on the radio or in a podcast? See them told live onstage or recorded in film? As you surely know, The Moth showcases stories in any and all formats. For 20 years, The Moth has nourished storytellers and listeners by providing a steady menu of fabulous “true stories told live” (and recorded for later broadcast, etc.).
The Moth’s website describes their anthology, All These Wonders, edited by Catherine Burns with a foreword by Neil Gaiman, as “a new collection of stories about risk, courage, and facing the unknown.”
Interviewed about the new book on Salon.com, artistic director and collection editor Catherine Burns said, “One of these things we say at The Moth is that we’re really trying to find the story about how you became you. We know it’s a tall order but that there’s truth in that, and everyone has that, has stories like that from their life. Will everyone find them and tell them in front of a crowd? Maybe not. But I think that most people, if you talk to them and listen very carefully, there are beautiful things. Everyone has something beautiful to say. We find that again and again.”
In the Salon article, Burns talks about how “highly processed” storytelling had become, with blockbuster movies and television programs—all requiring teams of hundreds to tell the tale. “I think this movement has come up because people love to just connect individually with one person, to hear one person’s point of view,” she said.
“Honesty matters. Vulnerability matters. Being open about who you were at a moment in time when you were in a difficult or an impossible place matters more than anything.” – Neil Gaiman, from his introduction to All These Wonders
The collection contains stories told by well-known writers and stories told by regular people—a scientist, a high school student, a former model, a business owner, and more. The settings range from the quotidian to the wildly unfamiliar; there’s a story about going to summer camp and one about going undercover in North Korea. While each is unique, they all share a sense of intimacy, as if the storyteller is speaking directly to the reader, divulging personal information in a moment of vulnerability.
Hearing (or reading) such absorbing stories is bound to have an impact on the listener. As Neil Gaiman recounts in the foreword to All These Wonders, describing what happened when he became a Moth podcast subscriber, “… every week somebody would tell me a true story that had happened to them that would, even if only slightly, change my life.”
Sparks! Poetry, Stories, & Songs is your chance to go deeper into the world of Transformative Language Arts practice, as well as contribute your own poetry to the TLA community via open mic.
Formally known as Let’s Talk TLA, Sparks! Poetry, Stories, & Songs is a free bi-monthly teleconference moderated by Kelly DuMar, TLAN Membership Chair. At each session, Kelly interviews notable Transformative Language Artists on their work, followed by a poetry open mic. The online gathering open to everyone.
The next session of Sparks! is April 25th from 7:00 – 8:15 PM (CDT) with special guests from the True Story Theater. The June Sparks! session is scheduled for June 15th from 7:00-8:15 PM (CDT) and will feature guest presenters from the upcoming August TLA Conference, The Power of Words.
You can register for Sparks! online gatherings here. (You can also find recordings of previous gatherings.) They take place via Zoom, are free, and open to all. Bring a poem and join in!
As one your new editors of the TLA Network blog, I am looking forward to reading your submissions and engaging in the conversation about the importance of Transformative Language Arts to each of us, as well as the importance of our TLA practice to the community around us. I am fairly new to the field, although I have been telling stories through writing for my entire life. As the title of this post says, I write from Maine, which means I’ll be excited to attend the Power of Words Conference in Maine this summer, where I hope I’ll meet many of you in person.
The conference, officially called the 14th Power of Words Conference: Transformation, Liberation, and Celebration Through the Spoken, Written, and Sung Word, takes place from August 18 – 20th at Ferry Beach in Saco. As a Mainer, let me assure you that this is prime summertime on our beautiful southern coast. I can’t imagine a better place to feed the imagination and create a sense of community. Here’s a photo from the Ferry Beach website:
Picture yourself in one of the chairs on the porch surrounded by fellow conference attendees. You’re all sharing stories, ideas, and reactions to the great workshops/lectures/performances you just attended, while the porch flags flutter in the sea breeze. (Learn more about the Ferry Beach Retreat and Conference Center here.)
Keynoters at the conference include Joseph Bruchac, True Story Theater, Mahogany L. Brown, Susan Bennett-Armistead, and Kelley Hunt. The list of workshops is varied and extensive. To find out more about the conference, visit the conference webpage: https://tlan.wildapricot.org/conference.
Speaking of the conference, if you are planning to attend, you can save $20 by registering before April 25th. After that date, the registration fee becomes $230 for TLA members and $250 for non-members.
I have to say, just thinking about a wonderful seaside conference in August is an effective spirit-raiser in gray late February. And, this year, it seems more important than ever.
Editor’s Note: Latisha and I went to graduate school together. She is a tremendous educator, artist, and advocate. I’m thrilled to share some of her thoughts on theatre, playwriting, and identity — reminiscent of many conversation’s we’ve had. ~CMW
As a playwright, theater artist and educator, the written and the spoken word are intimately intertwined. I often write words intended to be performed aloud, and I speak my written words in order to clarify my thoughts. As a student of both creative and critical writing, I learned how the written word could free my voice and allow me to unravel and express the multilayered — and oft-contradictory — truths of my existence. It is utterly impossible for me to speak about my life as a writer without my social identities informing the narrative. I am a college-educated, 30-year-old black woman who grew up in a mixed class background with a single mother. I was raised in one of the richest counties in the United States, Howard County, MD, with a “private school level” public education system. I received my bachelor’s degree in Screenwriting and Playwriting from Drexel University and my master’s degree in Educational Theatre from New York University. I worked in public school education for about 5 years and have recently changed careers to Arts Administration. And my name is Latisha Jones.
Why the short biography? Because often times when artists who are minorities are asked to speak about their creative experience, they are asked to talk about their art separate from their social identities — because it “makes people uncomfortable” — or they are asked to be the “representative” for their social identity and are seemly asked to speak for the likely millions of people who may have similar backgrounds. Both demands are nearly, if not completely impossible to fulfill, but many try anyway as a means of survival and learning to live as an artist. This is one of the many contradictions that can, at once, cause great anguish and yet prompt great art. For me, its life within these contradictions, either to explain them, use them or escape from them, which prompts me to create.
Art is often a method to temporarily make peace with the cognitive dissonance of everyday life. When used by the government and other hierarchical structures, the pacifying power of art can crush the critical discourse needed for a thriving, democratic society. In Ancient Greece, the theatre served three main purposes; to serve the gods, to tell the stories of the past and to release the “negative” impulses of the public that were seen as a threat to Greek social and political order. When used personally, the pacifying power of art allows us to find a place a calmness and focus in our chaotic lives. In the world of “Black Lives Matter”, constant stories police brutality, and Trump, the power of art is more necessary than ever to our well-being.
One of the ways I have tried to utilize the artistic power of the written word is by writing well-researched interactive plays for children. When I was a child, learning about African American history was a source of pride. I learned that there were writers, intellectuals, doctors and freedom fighters that looked like me. I was able to draw strength from stories of Harriet Tubman when I was feeling tired and weak; I drew strength from Shirley Chisholm when I needed to stand up for myself and from Sojourner Truth when I needed to speak. However, in working with the public school system, I’ve learned that some these stories which have the power to strengthen the resolve of children and help to prepare them for a society that is not always kind to their presence can sometimes be lost in the shuffle of standardized testing and academic benchmarks.
In order to help solve a problem within the elementary education and remind myself of the humanity of my heroes, I wrote plays that are meant to be performed by children and shown in a classroom environment. When I originally started writing my plays, I was still working in schools, so I had the opportunity to direct and teach children about their history while teaching them how to project and speak with eloquence. The end result was a community event which educated the parents and students that attended, informed the lives of the students who performed, and brought a community to celebrate some of the historical achievements of Black Americans.
The entire process of writing, teaching, directing and presenting these plays is transformative in the way that it gives me a small measure of solace in world where people need to be reminded that #blacklivesmatter, young black boys are tracked based on their reading scores in 4th grade and stories of police brutality are continually featured on the 24 hour news cycle. I cannot change my past or the way that people will perceive me based on external characteristics, but with my pen (or keyboard), I can create some measure of internal peace and clarity; and maybe be a positive influence for the people around me. That’s all any artist really wants, right?
Latisha Jones is the Program Manager and Outreach Coordinator for the Children’s Chorus of Washington. She has her master’s degree in Educational Theater from New York University. She has worked as a theater teaching artist and teaching assistant for the past ten years. Her lifelong passion for the written word started from writing stories in the second grade and morphed into writing plays and movie scripts by time she was in college. She hopes to continue writing historical plays for children and inspire more dialogue.
Editor’s Note: Presenters at the Power of Words Conference wanted to share about their work. This week, we feature a couple of those that did not get posted before the conference.
Juanita Kirton shares about her show.
The monologue that I created started out as a poem in the voice of a slave women who dreams of what it would be like to be free. Her dreams take her on a magnificent journey, from the fields of cotton/tobacco to Nova Scotia. She experience true love and loss. Through her dreams she is able to mentally escape the horrors of slavery.
Juanita Kirton holds a BA in Psychology, an MEd in Special Education, a PhD Educational Administration and a PhD in Developmental Disabilities. In 2015 she obtained a MFA from Goddard College in the Creative Writing/Poetry track. Juanita sings with Riverside Church Inspirational Choir, is a member of Rutgers University South African Initiative Brain Trust Committee, the Pocono Mountain Arts Council, the Pocono Mountain African American Network, volunteers with several local organizations.
Juanita facilitates the Blairstown Writers group in New Jersey, which is affiliated with Women Who Write in NJ and participates in the Women Reading Aloud workshop series. She directs the QuillEssence Writing Collective that coordinates an annual women’s writing retreat at Kirkridge Retreat Center in Bangor, PA, and is currently a poetry editor for the Goddard College Clock House Literary Journal.
Editor’s Note: I’ve known Lyn for several years, and she is an incredible human being. Listening to her talk would itself be worth the conference registration.
OH, MY STARS AND GARTERS…I’M TALKING ABOUT BELLY BUTTONS!
THE HERNIA JOURNAL: MY WORD-DANCE THROUGH DARKNESS TO JOY – A journey in progress, from belly-ache to belly laugh, from abuse to a-ha, from hell to Hafiz, shared in personal narrative, folktale, and poetic joy.
That’s the blurb I passed on to TLAN for my Saturday, August 13 keynote performance for the 2016 Power of Words Conference. Then I set aside any thought on the subject, so that, in a couple days, I could look at that blurb with fresh eyes.
Five days later, I looked at what I’d sent, and my fresh eyes blinked as if I’d been smacked by a hard gust of wind. I said to myself, “Self, you’ve just committed to sharing a portion of the map of that dark walk into and through the woods, the one that frightens and confuses and excites you, and makes you laugh and cry at the same time. Just a few steps, reflection and folktale connection and poetry. You are going to share from your hike through personal muck and mire, in 45 minutes.”
Oh, my stars and garters…
This writing project grew from journaling while I worked on socio-emotional development activities and stories for educators and storytellers. That work became difficult as I maneuvered over several rough patches—illness and injury, problems with medications, emotional situations…you know, life. In the worst of it all, I wrote and shared my stories. Folks laughed with me, which made me laugh more.
I’ve selected stories and verse from my journal, offered because they lend themselves to the conference theme, “Begin with YES!” But “yes” isn’t just the beginning of transformation. It’s the effective affirmation of every step of each human being’s personal journey. “The Hernia Journal” presentation has its emotional ups and downs, but, yes, we will laugh, because that’s how I roll…or, reel, or trundle, …it’s all good. I always pack joy for the journey, even when I’m crawling, with “yes” in my heart.
The preconference workshop that I’ll facilitate is titled “LAUGHTER, BREATH, JOY: COMMUNAL COMMUNICATION”. That’s what we’re going to share. As a Certified Laughter Yoga Leader (and now, I’m a Certified LY Teacher, too—yay!), I’ve become more aware of the important empathetic connections of laughter, play, and simple stories. Most big folks just don’t play enough, or feel the excitement of telling their own stories without self-criticism and with the lightness of the child’s heart that still beats inside us. I’m hoping folks come to the conference early, and play and laugh and communicate with an open heart and mind.
Lyn Ford is a fourth-generation Affrilachian storyteller and workshop facilitator. Lyn is also a Thurber House mentor to young authors, a teaching artist with the Ohio Alliance for Arts Education (OAAE) and the Ohio State-Based Collaborative Initiative of the Kennedy Center (OSBCI), and a Certified Laughter Yoga Teacher. Lyn’s work is published in several storytelling-in-education resources, as well as in her award-winning books, Affrilachian Tales; Folktales from the African-American Appalachian Tradition, and Beyond the Briar Patch: Affrilachian Folktales, Food and Folklore. Lyn’s 2015 book, Hot Wind, Boiling Rain: Scary Stories for Strong Hearts is a creative-writing resource; Lyn’s fourth book (with friend, Sherry Norfolk), Boo-Tickle Tales: Not-So-Scary Stories for Kids, is set for publication in the summer of 2016. For more information on Lyn’s work, go to her website at www.storytellerlynford.com. Or contact Lyn at email@example.com.
I mustered up my courage to step into the local writer’s group. Attending meant I might have to consider myself a writer — for the first time, at age 50. That was five years ago, and I’ve never looked back. I became a regular, then the facilitator, and now lead two additional writer’s groups in my community.
The next hurdle was reading my poem and short story at a public event. Although I’m comfortable as a public speaker, this was far more personal. It meant sharing my deepest thoughts and feelings. A surge of energy crept up through my body as I stood and read aloud my memorized poem. The spoken word of my written words made it all come together. That was four years ago and I’ve gone on to read, organize and emcee at many public readings.
Last month, I had the pleasure of seeing a live performance of spoken word by Shane Koyczan and felt extremely inspired to incorporate his style of storytelling with the reading of my poems. I was invited to read a few poems at a public event and tried out a simple story introduction to the poems. It was very well received as audience members came up to me later and expressed their appreciation for the story set up.
I am inspired to continue to share my poetry in this way and look forward to new inspirations to grow as an artist.
A native New Yorker, who’s now living her dream of a sustainable life in Hawai’i with wife, Holly, Eila Algood has been expressing herself through writing since childhood. Her published works include, “On The Road To Bliss, A Poetic Journey”, “Rhapsody in Bohemia”, pieces in Frida Magazine and Think Pink Anthology.