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
On Sunday night, PBS will begin airing a ten-part, 18-hour series called The Vietnam War. I’m looking forward to watching it, and I’m dreading watching it.
For those of us old enough to have lived through that time, memories of the war are still painfully raw. As a country, we still argue about its lessons. In fact, there is so much controversy, we haven’t done a very good job of telling its history to younger generations.
Perhaps this television series will help correct that. No doubt, creating the documentary was a daunting task. How do you provide a window into so many conflicting perspectives? How do you bring to life so many different experiences?
PBS and the filmmakers wisely decided to open up the dialogue. They are soliciting and publishing personal narratives about the Vietnam experience from anyone with a story to tell (go to http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/the-vietnam-war/vietnam-stories/ to join in). The stories have one thing in common: their diversity, in both the tellers and their experiences. There are stories of soldiers, of children who lost their fathers, of protestors, of conscientious objectors, stories of sorrow, of triumph, of loss, of courage, and more.
I’m sure the 18-hours of documentary will be instructive and often riveting. But these personal stories on the website bring an added dimension and deeper understanding of the effect the war had on us as a people. Together—the artfully crafted film by professionals and the informal heartfelt outpourings of self-appointed witnesses—paint a complicated and more complete portrait of a cataclysmic event.
by Barbara Burt
During the Power of Words Conference early in August, Caryn Merriam-Goldberg offered a generative workshop called, “Writing the Tree of Life: Midrash to Re-Vision Our Lives.” As she explained, “Midrash is the Hebrew tradition of re-interpreting and re-visioning our guiding myths and messages to foster greater meaning, freedom, and authenticity.” After examining different examples of midrash, she invited us to consider it in our writing. For some reason, the folktale of Snow White popped into my head. This and Sleeping Beauty and all the other tales of damsels in distress have long bothered me; these girls sleep until awakened by a handsome prince’s kiss—how passive and unimaginative those heroines are! Yet, through the power of Disney and myriad children’s books, they are role models buried deep in many young women’s consciousness.
I believe that midrash specifically refers to retelling or commentary on the Torah; Snow White is no sacred text but it does carry cultural weight. I decided to try a retelling of Snow White in a poem. Other workshop participants created awe-inspiring poems and stories—all in a scant half hour, once again illustrating the creative power of silently writing together.
Here is the result of my effort, with a bit of editing since the workshop.
Snow White Remembers
I was not beautiful.
That is an embellishment added by the Grimms,
who couldn’t imagine a commonplace heroine.
And my stepmother didn’t really hate me.
She read rebellion behind my solemn stare,
resentful questions in the crick of my eyebrow.
Because she recognized a vestige of the same in her
She had to murder it in me.
But I do not know if she poisoned that apple pie on purpose.
She was a terrible cook.
I’d known those seven woodsmen since childhood.
Caught in a thunderstorm, I came upon their clearing
and sheltered in their cabin.
It was strewn with books left by an unnamed professor long ago.
He’d tried solitude on a summer sabbatical,
only to flee, books in his wake.
As I grew, I escaped to the those bookshelves
when I could,
drinking in word of other lands, other lives.
The loggers paid no mind to my visits.
They were busy in the woods most days.
And I was neat, straightening and dusting
the rows of books.
I left bouquets of wildflowers and pine boughs on the table.
On the day the illness came upon me,
I ran to the cabin after the compulsory midday meal at home.
(Apple pie to finish.)
I was sixteen and sick of arguing,
and the cabin had an extra bunk where I could stay.
I chose a stack of books from the shelves
and buried myself under blankets.
In a day or two I could keep food down again.
She doesn’t want to be found, said the loggers,
turning away searchers at their door.
A year went by
as I read through the pile
until few titles remained.
I was restless;
my attempts to help with cabin upkeep
Chipmunk chatter was no longer delightful.
Almost a housewife, I was no longer just playing house.
The loggers were kind
but their table talk described saws and stands of trees
and they were snoring by dusk.
So when they spoke of a young man new in town,
He is kind to us, they said.
He fingers tunes on his fiddle.
He carries a well thumbed journal
with poems and colored sketches of birds.
Shall we invite him here? they asked.
Perhaps, I said,
But I was fire inside.
That day I entwined flowers in my braids,
chose my eyelet blouse,
and rehearsed clever conversation.
I spied him walking up the path,
deep in thought,
and was pleased by his brown curls and open expression.
Just as he knocked, I opened the door,
and I kissed him.
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.
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.
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.”
Tonight, a story about Maine on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” began by claiming that Maine is the oldest and whitest state in the nation. But what may be true for the state as a whole is not true for its biggest city, Portland, home to recent immigrants and refugees from impoverished and war-torn places around the world. The children among them come with amazing stories.
Since 2005, as many as 3,500 students a year have had the opportunity to use poetry and prose to build their writing and storytelling skills at a special place called The Telling Room. Founded by three writers who believed that the power of story could change a community for the better, The Telling Room today reaches students and teachers in more than 30 Maine towns. Their paid staff of eleven, Teaching Artist in Residence, nine interns, and more than 200 volunteers provide individualized support to the young writers, some of whom are English language learners.
“The Telling Room is a nonprofit writing center in Portland, Maine, dedicated to the idea that children and young adults are natural storytellers. Focused on young writers ages 6 to 18, we seek to build confidence, strengthen literacy skills, and provide real audiences for our students. We believe that the power of creative expression can change our communities and prepare our youth for future success.”
Both a physical place and a wide-ranging program, The Telling Room has been recognized with grants and awards, including a prestigious National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award as one of the top twelve youth arts and humanities programs in the nation.
Every year since the beginning, The Telling Room has published an anthology of writings from that year’s group of students. Titles such as “Swimming to Safety,” “A Day in Three Worlds,” and “The Faithful Doves of My Father” illustrate the variety of experiences and perspectives found in these poems, plays, essays, and stories. As shown in the image above, this year’s anthology is entitled A Season for Building Houses.
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: 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.