“Topless in America” and Other Words to Speak to Healing From Cancer

Breast Cancer AwarenessDuring Breast Cancer Awareness month, several pieces have been circulating that speak to the power of words when it comes to deeply engaging with what it means to find a cure and/or healing.

Poet Nikky Finney’s astonishing poem, “Topless in America” tells the story of Paulette Leapheart, who walked topless (after a double mastectomy following her Stage 2 breast cancer diagnosis) with her daughter from Biloxi, Mississippi to Washington, D.C. summit. Listen to Finney read her potent poem and you can also see the poem transcribed here.

“Don’t Think Pink” published in Psychology Today by writer Harriet Lerner (author of The Dance of Anger) succinctly raises questions about how breast cancer prevention is portrayed in teddy bears and pink ribbons here. The TLA Network’s own Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s “Take Down the Bras and Really Work for a Cancer Cure” published in The Huffington Post looks at how the reality of saving lives gets muted into the illusion of saving breasts here.

In poetry and prose, out loud and on the page, these pieces — as well as many others (please share them in comments below) — aim us toward finding greater depth and healing.

Coming Home to Body, Earth, and Time: Writing From Where We Live with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

vistaI’m delighted to be offering an online class about writing from where we live, from our bodies to the cosmos, as part of the Transformative Language Arts Network. Since I usually interview teachers about their upcoming classes, here I am interviewing myself about the details and impetus behind “Coming Home to Body, Earth and Time: Writing from Where We Live,” which runs from June 29 – Aug. 9, all online, so you can engage with the class from anywhere at anytime. Register by June 10 to take advantage of the Summer Buzz sale, and save 10% on the class (and all other upcoming class this summer and early fall).

Caryn-the-Interviewer: So Caryn, and by the way, I love the way you spell your name, what led you to develop this class?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: Thanks, Caryn, and yes, I like the spelling too. My mom found it in a novel she was reading when pregnant with me. As for the class, I’ve been grappling with what it means to live in a body and in a place forever, it seems, and some years back, it became very apparent to me how our bodies are our most local address. Where I live sparks a great deal of my writing and my understanding of how seasonal tilts around us speak to seasonal tilts within us. So I wanted to offer others gateways into exploring what inspiration, ideas, breakthroughs and meanings we can find by sinking our roots further into where we live, starting with the body, and rippling out to explore the home, watershed, ecoregion, earth and cosmos.

CtI: Interesting, and you know, my mom found the spelling of my name in a novel too when she was pregnant. So what can people expect in this class?August2505 026

CMG: Each week will include ample writing prompts and discussion about ways to engage with embodied writing that truly homes in on where we live and who we are, so it’s very much an exploration of how we name and claim ourselves, and what stories we tell ourselves and are told by our culture about, based on where we are, who we’re supposed to be.  A lot of the writing prompts are aimed toward greater liberation and awareness, which obviously go hand-in-hand. For example, in week three, we’ll look at watershed moments in our lives — moments that changed everything for us or at least one big thing — and from those moments, what greater possibilities opened out as well as what stories ended or very much changed. By honoring how our narratives have shaped our lives, including what stories we needed to hold tight to as scaffolding to get to the next place, we can cultivate greater freedom to change what no longer serves us.

Each week will also include a visiting writer via his/her writings, interviews, and a little essay I share about the writer, and these writers span genres, such as essayist David Abram, novelist Barbara Kingslover, singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, and poet William Stafford. We’ll also have a short discussion on the craft of writing powerfully since we can best understand and evoke the places we are when our images are vivid, our rhythms strong, and our stories evocative.

CtI: You’re someone who writes in many genres. Would you say “writing from where you live” is evident in all your own writing?

13217411_10103624025251309_7965765541683291477_oCMG: Good question, Caryn, and of course, as with most things, the answer is “it depends.” I’m very focused on the physical place of where I live and travel because I find such sustenance from where I am at this very moment, particularly the living earth. Right now, I’m writing answers to your questions from my front porch, and I live in the country with an up-close view of Osage Orange and ceder trees filled with songbirds broadcasting their love and fight songs. Most of my poetry, if not all, finds grounding in images of place, but then again, just about all poetry uses images, and images always evoke the senses: what we can see, touch, taste, hear and smell. Plus, I see the poem as a house of its own that readers enter, find a good sofa to lie down on, and then spend a little time in, listening to the voices of this place. My two memoirs, The Sky Begins at Your Feet: A Memoir of Cancer, Community and Coming Home to the Body, and Poem on the Range: A Poet Laureate’s Love Song to Kansas are both very place-focused, and Sky is also speaking from the place of the body in a time of great change. My novel, The Divorce Girl, and novel to be published next year, Miriam’s Well, are stories in which the protagonist is shaped and infused by her place — where she lives and travels, and how her internal landscape shifts as well.

Yet what draws me to this class isn’t just what I write but more so, what I live. As a longtime bioregionalist — someone who keep learning how to live from where I live — I see the body, the landscape, and the night sky as well as the shifting eco-community of what David Abram calls the “more-than-human” species among us as continually showing me the way through the crazy losses and wild joys of this beautiful life.

CtI: Thanks, Caryn, and it’s interesting that you’re writing from a porch with a view of those trees and birds because I’m on a porch with the same view. Maybe we should meet up sometime for tea.

Interview with Denise Low: The Writer in the Public Square

pfr_-_Denise_bw_2k_12-29_t300Denise Low, second Kansas Poet Laureate, had a little chat with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, third poet laureate, about the writer in the public square. Denise is teaching an online class for the TLA Network starting Nov. 9 and running until Dec. 20, “The Word Artist in the Public Square,” focusing on being a writer for life. She’ll be covering public reading basics, publication and personal balance, reviews, blogs, blurbs, conferences, workshops, residencies, contests, grants, and building community.

Denise Low is an award-winning author of 25 books of prose and poetry, including Jackalope (short fiction, Red Mountain Press); Mélange Block (poetry, Red Mountain Press); Ghost Stories (Woodley Press, a Ks. Notable Book; The Circle -Best Native American Books); and Natural Theologies: Essays (Backwaters Press). She has British Isles, German, Delaware (Lenape/Munsee), and Cherokee heritage. She edited a selection of poems by William Stafford in an edition with essays by other poets and scholars, Kansas Poems of William Stafford (Woodley). Low is past board president of the Associated Writers and Writing Programs. She blogs, reviews, and co-publishes Mammoth Publications. She teaches professional workshops nationally as well as classes for Baker University’s School of Professional and Graduate Studies. Her MFA is from Wichita State University and PhD is from the University of Kansas. More at www.deniselow.net, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/denise-low, http://deniselow.blogspot.com, and www.mammothpublications.com

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg (CMG): How did you learn to be a writer in the public square?

Denise Low (DL): Oh, this is a long, long story. Before I was 30 years old, the editorship of the nationally known University of Kansas journal Cottonwood Review became vacant, and I volunteered. Volunteer work is a great starting point. The quick, on-the-job experience was invaluable. They had 35 subscribers, and when I left, we had 100s, including libraries. I found grants for our income stream, and I had added book publications. I learned that reliability, clean writing, and meeting deadlines were seriously important. Since that analog cut-and-paste era, I have adapted to digital media, but the basics of public interaction remain—be dependable, consider audience and polish style, and be on time.

CMG: What gifts and challenges are there to being “out there” as a writer?

DL: Gifts are many—self-awareness, great friends, appreciating enduring works of art, travel (both physical Low.crop.12.smallishand intellectual)—I love the writing life. Writers are my favorite people, because of their interest in history, science, gossip (really, human behavior anecdotes), cultural geography, and more. Yes, writers can be a tad egotistical, but heck, they are worth it. The main challenge is self-absorption. The good writer has a sense of what appeals to an audience, not just what is fun to write. I’m working with a new fantasy writer, self-taught, who loves to spin out his stories. Now he wants to publish. I feel a bit sad that his joy in creating tales will be tempered by demands of writing—point of view, grammar, character development, and so forth. Yet these technical issues make our work comprehensible to others. Also, when he publishes, he will have to promote his works. Now writers have to know how to prepare press kits, approach reviewers and media, schedule readings, and so much more. Cutbacks at most presses plus the rise of self-publishing make it necessary for writers to generate their own publicity. Further, years ago it was permissible at a book launch for writers to mumble passages from their books and get drunk at receptions. Now author presentations are quite professional, often including PowerPoints. This is an exciting time to be an author, and also a challenging one.

CMG: How do you balance your writing time with putting yourself out there in community?

DL: Writing is a solitary, self-reflective act. Paradoxically, we introverted writers participate in so many community activities— readings, conferences, workshops, reviews, blogs, social media commentary, residencies, and more. Keeping a schedule helps me out. I divide my time into blocs for book biz, revision, and drafting new work. Usually, I spend Mondays on promotion and other business, plus office management. Keeping a fairly clean workspace helps me stay productive. Yes, I have lost checks and lots more in piles of papers. Time management people advise us to schedule clean-up time, and they are right. The rest of the week I spend only an hour or so on incoming business. Then I turn to writing chores, including revisions. The end of the week is for drafting new work, my favorite. I never do business or chores on weekends. That way I truly have some quality writing time scheduled. Other people divide up their days differently. Each of us is individual, so the challenge is to find what works best. No one has the exact formula for how to write. This is the delight of the writing process.

Co-Creating A Garden of Healing Words – Over the Phone

by Kelly DuMar


Have you ever wondered – or tried to explain to others – what a Transformative Language Artist is – or does? Our recent phone conference to explore this question with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, TLAN founder, began, last Thursday evening, as dusk quietly fell outside the open windows of my home near Boston. It was 8:00 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, on a lovely summer evening. Soon, voices from other time zones and homes around the US joined the call – some TLA members, some new to TLA. Once we gathered, I invited everyone to imagine we were entering this garden together for our discussion and poetry open mic.

Caryn shared her inspiration and vision for founding the Transformative Language Arts MA degree on social and individual transformation through the spoken, written and sung word at Goddard College, and later, (with other key contributors), the non-profit Transformative Language Arts Association, to sponsor the Annual Power of Words Conference and more.

Caryn described her faith in the hopeful, transformative power of telling stories – in written, spoken, and sung words. She shared her core belief that telling our stories, encouraging others to tell stories and being a non-judgmental witness for each other’s stories, is the heart and soul of what it means to be a Transformative Language Arts Practitioner.

After the interview – and before our impromptu poetry reading – one participant’s comment about her writing resonated powerfully as a core TLA idea:

I wrote myself back to life from being broken. . .

No, I wrote myself into being.

Three people had signed up to read at our poetry open mic, and one cancelled before the call. So I invited anyone on the call to share a poem, and many did, including:

Annette Billings read “Laundry,” “Brava,” and “What You Allow Lingers.”

Trinka Polite read “Caught off Guard,” and “I’m Prepared.”

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg read “Rain.”

Christine Isherwood read “I Place My Faith.”

Kelly DuMar read “Mrs. Bean’s Snow.”

Hearing everyone’s poem read after Caryn’s powerful description of TLA was deeply moving. Annette Billings generously agreed to let me reprint her poem, “Laundry,” so you can have a taste of the poetry we shared with each other in the comfortable quiet of a summer evening in the garden.

Laundry

I hang my soul’s garments outside to dry.
in the yard on a line in front of God and all
nosey neighbors, total strangers
who drive by slowly to gawk.

Deeply stained articles of my life flapping in the wind,
irregular edges, scars soaking up rays,
sewn-on patches and unmended tears
obvious to the naked eye.

I put them out there on purpose,
pin them all on the line in defiance,
string them up with premeditation,
let them fly like flags!

This I do in hopes some splintered spirit
will happen by and see how my soul’s garments
look uncannily like their own –
ones they are ashamed to show.

They will comprehend, such as they are,
my clothes are clean and worthy of fresh air and light.

May it release them, embolden them,
dare them to free their own soul’s apparel
from dark, dank places
and commit them to warm sun and crisp winds,
to drape them, in triumph, beside mine.

© Annette Hope Billings, 2013

[Reprinted by permission from the author from her collection of poetry published this past February, A Net Full of Hope.]

After our Let’s Talk TLA garden visit, I drifted off to sleep with beautiful poems and poets’ voices ringing in my ears. Strangely, a conference call, with the marvelous cadence of authentic, disembodied voices, is a natural space for deep sharing, and deep listening.

If you missed the call, we plan to hold another one in late August, with a new interview subject (TBA) and another poetry open mic. We hope you can join us then!

Here is a link to our TLAN website where you can learn more about online classes, The Power of Words Conference in September, submissions to Chrysalis, our professional journal, and membership (only $35!). Also, if you haven’t already, please like our public Facebook Page to stay in touch and share your news. https://www.facebook.com/TLANetwork
Kelly DuMar is a poet, playwright and workshop facilitator from the Boston area who is currently Membership Chair of TLAN. Her website is http://kellydumar.com

 

Baking Pies & Introducing Gems

By Seema Reza

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One of my favorite quotes by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, founder of the TLA Network, comes from this interview with Joy Jacobson:

“In a lot of MFA programs and writing conferences there’s a real setup for competition. I’ve been to writing conferences where everybody’s lining up with what they perceive as the best poet and vying for validation. There’s the sense that there’s just one pie and there’s so many of us; some people are just going to get bigger pieces. TLA’s answer to that is to bake more pies.”

I love quoting this.  I have quoted this so many times, I think nearly everyone who has talked writing with me has heard it.  I quote it on a page of this very blog.  Because, yes, yes, yes!  Bake more pies, make space at the table for every voice.  We’ve all had that tired conversation about the ‘death of poetry’ and I think this idea is the answer to it–poetry begins to die when it is made an exclusionary practice, a privilege.  Great art inspires more great art.  When we welcome more people to poetry, more people keep it alive.  More people write poems, more people read poems.

In a conversation with Ursula Rucker before a performance of REDBone: A Biomythography, writer and TLA Member Mahogany L. Browne said, “Before I found your work, I didn’t realize there was space for my voice in poetry.”  Browne has written books, edited anthologies, founded the amazing Penmanship press, and empowers voices from all margins and corners of society.  First she discovered the necessity of her own voice and then she set to work freeing the voices of others.  Mirriam-Goldberg says, “For so many people who resonate with TLA, it names what they have been moving toward their whole lives as a writer or storyteller working with others around social change.  individual practice dovetails with community practice.  What are you doing to make and keep community and foster healthy communities?”  How much poorer would the literary, art and social justice communities be if Browne hadn’t felt she could claim poetry, had instead decided to stay silent, to be an accountant?*  And where would we be if we hadn’t had the opportunity to hear her?

As facilitators of TLA work, we bear witness to less literarily accomplished voices that ought to be heard.  So often I hear a piece of writing in a workshop and feel an intense aha!  I wish everyone could read it.  But the publishing world can be stupid discouraging, especially to a novice writer who has put so much on the line by the courageous act of touching pen to paper while looking inward.  Self publishing on a personal blog or on social media is an option, of course, and a solid one, but the audience is limited to an individual’s existing circle.  In order to spread empathy, which I believe is one of the most essential uses of writing and reading, one has to confront the unfamiliar.

In an attempt to facilitate that, I’m proud to introduce a new section of this blog that I hope will grow and flourish and place a wide variety of voices and perspectives on the power of writing in one place: Gems from the Workshops.   I hope you’ll encourage a new voice to submit writing.

*in case the IRS is reading this, there’s nothing wrong with accountants, we need accountants.

 

Seema Reza is a poet and essayist based outside of Washington, DC, where she coordinates and facilitates a unique multi-hospital arts program that encourages the use of the arts as a tool for narration, self-care and socialization among a population struggling with emotional and physical injuries.  She serves as a council member-at-large for the Transformative Language Arts Network, and curates the TLA Blog.

 

Everything You Wanted to Know About TLA Certification

certificationby Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

We’ve just announced the new certification in TLA (http://tlanetwork.org/certification), and already there’s ample interest and some great questions. To help answer questions, I’m interviewing myself, trying to address all I’ve been asked and all I can imagine. Please feel free to ask additional questions in the comments.

Me: Caryn, so good of you to meet with me.

Caryn: Anytime. You know I’m always close by.

Me: That’s so reassuring. So let me kick off this interview by asking why now when it comes to the TLA Certification.

Caryn: For many years, we’ve been talking about a TLA certification. For over six years, we worked at Goddard College to develop this option in MA in TLA concentration for people with vast experience in the field. Because of new Department of Education regulations regarding new certification restrictions when it comes to educational funding, we realized the college certification program wasn’t feasible at this time. In further conversations, some of us at the college and in the TLA Network realized that the not-for-profit TLA Network was a much better home for the certification. We developed this certification to give people a rounded introduction to all things TLA. “Why now?” has to do with several factors: the launch of the certification coincided with the Power of Words 2014 conference because that was a good way to talk about face-to-face with those who were interested. We also just signed a partnership agreement between the college and the TLA Network, and that agreement grants people who complete the certification a scholarship of $1,000 for any Goddard program (spread over two semesters).

Me: Who is this certification for?

Caryn: I’ve been in touch with people who want to study more about TLA, put it into practice in their lives, but for whom getting a graduate degree doesn’t fit right now. I’ve worked with several students at Goddard who already had doctorates, and ended up coming for a semester to immerse themselves in TLA. There are also people who want to do the Goddard program, but the timing isn’t right. Finally, there are some who want to infuse their professions and livelihoods with TLA — from pastoral counselors to teachers to psychologists to activists to artists. This certification speaks to various ways to develop TLA, including active participation in TLA activities in your community and over distances, investigation and study on how TLA is practiced and could be practiced, and ways to enhance your individual practice of TLA, whether that’s storytelling or writing or collaborative community projects. This certification helps people incorporate TLA as an art, study, practice, form of advocacy and celebration in their lives.

Me: You mentioned the Goddard program, and so I wonder how the certification compares to the Goddard program?

Caryn: The certification provides participants with a thorough orientation to TLA, some avenues for developing a TLA practice and connecting with others involved in TLA, and encouragement to be part of the TLA community, help grow that community, and further define and develop TLA in the world. The Goddard program is a much more intensive immersion into TLA because its core is master’s level degree criteria focused on theoretical groundwork in TLA at large and intensively in a specific focus; a deep development in the individual art of TLA, such as writing a memoir or putting together a collaborative performance; and an in-depth community practicum, such as facilitating a series of storytelling workshops, teaching yourself filmmaking for change, or doing some other project that helps people interface with their communities. We’ve designed the certification to be both freestanding as an educational journey, and/or complementary with the Goddard MA-TLA as a first step or a way to develop a plan for right livelihood after graduation.

Me: How is this certification different or the same as other certifications?

Some certification in related fields are much more intensive and focus on a specific approach, such as the certification in poetry therapy offered by the National Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy, which I did and found very helpful. That certification takes people at least two years, and is more involved in terms of the hours and costs. Some certifications are shorter when it comes to the length of time, such as the Amherst Writers and Artists week-long intensives. Yet both the certifications I just named advocate and train people for a specific approach in working with certain populations, a model for how to do workshops. The TLA certification is far less expensive than many programs out there, and it’s also open-ended as to people’s approach (although people who complete our certification may go onto other learning opportunities and vice-versa). That’s because we’re TLA: we bring together people involved in storytelling for social change, writing for healing and growth, spiritual adventuring through theater, and much more so that we can make and keep community across using words aloud or on the page for change. In the “Changing the World With Words: TLA Foundations” course, we offer people exposure to multiple approaches, encouraging people to learn about what fits their calling, community, and focus, and then to educate themselves on specific models for workshops, consulting, coaching and more. The certification incorporates involvement in the TLA community through attending conference and/or participating in classes, and participating in various projects, such as One City One Prompt, or Chrysalis: The Journal for TLA. So overall, this certification is based on coursework and reflection, and but also on action learning through doing TLA.

Me: Is this the only certification in TLA that will be offered?

Caryn: This is a first step, and as a community focused on growing our hearts and minds individually and collectively, we’ll be tweaking and enhancing the certification components as we go. I can imagine a more advanced certification option in the future, either through Goddard or the TLA Network.

Me: How much would this certification cost the average person?

Caryn: We’ve worked to make the certification affordable for people from many backgrounds. The application fee is only $40, membership in the TLA Network is $35/year, online classes are approximately $35/week, and the conference ranges from $160 for super early bird registration to over $200 for regular registration, plus room and board, and for some, travel. The certification overall would cost $500-$1,000 (depending on conference attendance, travel, classes taken, etc.). People can spread out what they do and when they do it over two years. While this might seem like a big number, it’s significantly less than some other similar certifications (although those certifications can be extremely valuable and do have different focuses).

Me: Who makes decisions about who gets in and who completes the certification successfully?

Caryn: We have a small committee reviewing applications for certification right now, and this committee will be reviewing completed certification evaluations and reports by participants at the end of their certification road trip. I believe it’s important that decisions are not based on any one person’s read, but from the collective wisdom of people with experience in the TLA world. As time goes on, we will surely reach out to people who completed the certification to serve on this committee.

Me: How would people get started?

Caryn: The first step is to click on and fill out the application (http://TLAnetwork.org/certification) and pay the $40 application fee. Within several weeks, we’ll be back in touch. Once you’re accepted, you can sign up for classes, join the network if you’re not yet a member, and take other steps. It’s advisable to start with the “Changing the World with Words: TLA Foundations” class to help you map out your focus. Within a few months of starting, we will be in touch to ask you to fill out your certification plan (what options you’ll be pursuing), and we’ll be available to meet briefly on the phone to help you talk through those options.

More information at http://TLANetwork.org/certification and the upcoming online class, Changing the World With Words: TLA Foundations.