TLA in Action Series–A Virtual Greenhouse Roundtable: an interview with poets Diane Glass, Liz Burke, and Rachel Gabriel.

Note: In an effort to encourage online creative communities and friendships within our TLAN membership, we will continue to examine models of creative small groups as we develop new ways for TLAN practitioners to keep in touch. We hope this article is the first of many to feature how members support one another. 

Do you have an idea for how TLAN could grow small groups for creative nourishment and support? Please share! Contact Hanne Weedon, TLAN managing director.

Well before the pandemic began, three friends from the Transformative Language Arts Network community created a literary friendship using virtual technology. They shared a passion for poetry and a desire to support one another’s writing. Through monthly meetings, they cultivated, nurtured, and sustained a welcoming environment for producing and revising their poetry. 

“A Virtual Greenhouse–Cultivating, Nurturing, and Sustaining Creative Growth through Literary Friendship” was one of several opportunities offered in the winter of 2020 by TLAN as part of our TLA in Action Series. What follows is a summary of the conversation between Liz Burke, Rachel Gabriel, and Diane Glass, as moderated by longtime TLAN teacher and community member, Kelly DuMar. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 

Kelly DuMar: Tell us about your passion for poetry.

Liz Burke: My love of poetry began with a love of language, the musicality of it, and its potential for creating worlds.

Diane Glass: Yes, with poetry, you’re able to go to the essence of something and really get at the heart of things. 

Rachel Gabriel: Humanity has always expressed its thoughts and dreams through poetry. When I write a poem, I am making one small observation yet joining a community of voices. Poetry is also a wonderful way for me to connect words with images and words with music. 

Kelly: How did your literary friendship develop?

Liz: We met through TLAN, but we really got to know one another during the Right Livelihood Professional Training. That first weekend together, we went through an intimate process of inner discovery. And we also considered how we want to live in this world. 

Diane: I came to the group with an intention: I wanted to write a book, something beautiful for family and friends. Along the way, the primary focus of our group became learning how to write poetry. This is a safe place to bring our work. We focus on the poem, not on our feelings.

Rachel: I studied so much literature in college that I couldn’t write for a long time, but I’ve done a lot of journeying as a writer and as a teacher of writing. In TLAN, you know that if you fall on your face, no one will mock you. They will pull you up and say try again. I [feel comfortable] bringing a little silliness and playfulness to this group. 

Kelly: How does the group work? 

Liz: We meet once a month for an hour, and everyone has about twenty minutes to share their work. We have clear guidelines, but we are always responsive to one another’s needs.

Rachel: We consider whether the poet’s intention is there on the page. Instead of saying whether or not we like a poem, we discuss whether or not the poem is working. It’s energizing to engage with your colleague’s work.

Diane: We share poems through a Google folder so people can see the poem while we talk about it. We listen and receive feedback, but know the poet must make the final decision.

Liz: I like to practice experimentation with form and play. I start with a poem as a nugget and then breathe air into it to inform the poem. In our group, we investigate every word—it’s an exciting process.

Kelly: How have you grown individually and as a group?

Diane: I brought a poem about my stepson’s suicide to the group. I didn’t want to talk with anyone who was emotionally involved. Liz and Rachel opened a door for me to write more. They showed me the possibilities of something bigger.

Rachel: Intimacy develops in a small circle of friends. It’s always amazing what you learn. Diane wanted us to talk with her as a poet. We have made an investment in one another. That allowed this door to open.

Diane: Zoom didn’t get in the way of intimacy for us.

Liz: My poems have become more courageous because of this group. I bring writing about an experience that is very vulnerable, knowing this vulnerability will be held tenderly. It can be tricky [to hold this space for vulnerability] while commenting on what works and what doesn’t.

Rachel: If it hadn’t been for this “greenhouse,” if they [Liz and Diane] hadn’t been nurturing me along, I wouldn’t have been able to write this song [“Hymn for America” in response to George Floyd’s murder]. My whole city [Minneapolis], the whole country was unravelling. I could go to my poetry as a way of conversing with it all, which felt like a gift in the midst of everything. 

-Compiled by Rachel Gabriel.

Diane Glass loves reading poetry, and during a Right Livelihood Professional Training offered by TLAN founder Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg and Laura Packer, she discovered how much she loves writing it. RLPT’s encouragement and that of her two poetry partners, Liz and Rachel, has resulted in a poetry book released this month, The Heart Hungers for Wildness, available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Diane published a memoir as well, This Need to Dance, her story of growing up with spina bifida. Diane completed the TLA certificate and considers this organization her tribe. http://www.dianeeglass.com. 

Liz Burke is a poet, interdisciplinary educator, and writing coach passionate about narrative and arts-based approaches to personal and social transformation. She works with adult students, working-class identified groups, university faculty, LGBTQIA+ communities, women living with the aftermath of sexual assault and harassment, feminist activists, and poets/writers of all kinds. She serves as the TLA Network’s Board Chair. 

Rachel Gabriel is a multi-disciplinary artist in word, image, and song. Her work as a writer and teaching artist have been honored by The Loft Literary Center where she’s shared a passion for creative writing and literature with youth and adults since 2007. She was awarded a residency at The Ragdale Foundation for her novel in-progress, and has published prose and poetry in several anthologies. In her creative work, Rachel explores topics such as spirituality, gender equality, and phenology. Her outreach and consulting work includes facilitating creative process and development workshops for intergenerational groups or private clients. She is an apprentice in book arts and bibliotherapy, and continues to develop curricula which weaves together creative expression with spiritual wellness. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her husband, son, and daughter. In her opinion, a perfect day includes a walk in Paris, painting by Lake Superior, and dancing in the kitchen.

Kelly DuMar is a poet, playwright, and engaging workshop leader who guides new and experienced writers to aim for astonishment, reclaim their imaginations, and generate enlivening writing experiences. Her Aim for Astonishing photo-inspired process elicits profound personal awakenings, deepens connection with others, and fosters beautifully crafted writing in poetry and prose. Author of three poetry collections, Kelly is also author ofBefore You Forget— The Wisdom of Writing Diaries for Your Children. She produces the Our Voices Festival of Boston Area Women Playwrights, held at Wellesley College, now in its 13th year, and she produces the annual Boston Writing Retreat and the weeklong summer Play Lab for the International Women’s Writing Guild, where she serves on the board. Kelly founded the Farm Pond Writers Collective to guide women writers to write from their personal photos, develop their artistic voices and connect deeply with their creative lives. Kelly inspires readers of #NewThisDay – her daily photo-inspired blog – with her mindful reflections on a writing life. www.kellydumar.com

A letter from TLAN founder Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

As I retire from volunteering for the TLA Network, I’m in awe of the work we do make brave spaces for individuals and communities to break silences, build connections, and envision and embody greater justice, peace, and meaning in our lives.

One of the miracles of TLA is how it helps us grow our sense of belonging. Just by coming together in classes, conferences, trainings, and other projects, we can often find the people who really “get us” and resonate with the song our heart is singing and the work of our callings. Like many of you, I’ve drawn great strength, inspiration, and courage from being with other transformative language artists, which I try to pay forward in my writing, workshops, classes, coaching, and consulting.

I have great trust in the generous leadership of the TLA Network, and I want to give a shout-out in particular to Wendy Thompson, who is bringing her considerable vision to chair the classes committee, something I’ve done for so many years I can’t remember when I started. I have great faith in TLAN’s council, our leadership body, chaired by Liz Burke-Cravens, as they look at TLA and TLAN with new eyes in this time of fast-moving change and challenge.

My work encompasses online classes, Zoom workshops (particularly with people living with serious illness, a group I’ve worked with for 17 years), and coaching people on writing, facilitation, and right livelihood.

I’m grateful to TLAN for helping Laura Packer and me launch Your Right Livelihood, now an independent project in the process of developing a partnership with TLAN.

I spend my days, even when it gets crazy-hot (as it does in Kansas) on the porch, writing blog posts and poetry about the pandemic and a memoir about healing, cancer, and climate.

Being outside to witness the undaunted beauty and grace of the living earth led me to writing (and consequently, TLAN) in the first place, and continues to feeds my soul.

The Uninvited Guest, by Lyn Ford

About a week after “safe-at-home” became the way we play the game of life, we were visited by a storm.  This shushing, persistent deluge of white noise lasted through the night and late into the next morning.

I awakened to an unexpected, uninvited guest.  Something told me to inspect the basement, where I was greeted by at least ten inches of sewer water. This guest had entered through the drain in the cellar floor, and vandalized the place.

Floating in that nastiness were craft and workshop supplies.  Soaked handouts drifted from cardboard boxes, along with twenty years of preschool items, some of my husband’s old tools, things our grown children had left behind, and sundry other items, including the laundry I’d sorted into three baskets—mostly my clothes and all my white underwear.

I numbly summoned my husband.  What he said when he met our guest should not be repeated.

Then the furnace and water heater passed out.  Fortunately, they didn’t die.  An already exhausted heating and furnace repair person returned our call, suggesting we try letting the circuit breakers dry.  It was almost midnight. The water had subsided.  We prepared to pay for more visitors: appraisers, hauling crews, plumbing aficionados, and the microbial cleaning squad.  

Please note:  I didn’t say anything about insurance people.  “Backup” insurance is a separate entity from “flood” insurance.  We had no backup insurance. We do now.

We also lost all the paper items we stored in what we call the “paper closet” under the basement stairs.  We’d purchased our usual bulk supplies long before the run on toilet paper. Now our stockpile was gone.  

That was a good thing.  One young man, dragging items from our basement and tossing them in his truck, said, “It’s a good thing you had all that paper.  It absorbed the water and saved your bottom steps.”

Who knew that toilet paper could swell to the size of Miss Muffet’s tuffet?  We were grateful for that.

We’re grateful for a lot of things.  The basement is clean.  It is also dry, dehumidified and sanitized.  The water heater and furnace circuit breakers dried out on their own (free!).  The house creaks a bit more, as does our budget.  But we’re warm, safe and happy.  And I have new underwear.

Our unexpected guest helped us realize and appreciate what is important.  Life is good.  And I hope this guest doesn’t invite himself to our home again.

The Guest House
by Rumi  (as translated by Coleman Barks)

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house
Empty of its furniture,
Still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
Because each has been sent
As a guide from beyond.

The Masks We Wear: A Story for These Pandemic Times, by Lyn Ford

Let’s begin with a story.

Once a man who could not see lost his walking stick and could not find his way to the home he shared with his mother.  He called for help, but no one seemed to hear, and he stumbled along a rugged path.

Then he heard someone call out to him, “Hello, you, perhaps I can help you.”  The man walked in the direction of that voice, and tripped over something, no, someone, another man, who dragged himself on the same rugged road, for he had no legs and sought a place of shelter.

The two of them rested a while, and talked.  Now acquainted, they realized they both faced great difficulties.  They also knew they could help one another.

The man who could not see carefully took upon his shoulders the man who could not walk.  He became legs for his new friend and this new friend became his eyes.  They soon found an easier trail.  Both men made the journey safely to the mother’s home.  She joyfully greeted them both as her sons.  

And all their lives were easier for this. ———-

This is an incredibly old fable, sometimes attributed to Aesop the storyteller, but its motif is found in stories in Europe, Asia, and North America.  Valuable old stories travel far.

Recently, I walked across an almost empty parking lot, and passed a few masked people.  Being who I am, I tried, at a safe distance, to make eye contact. Behind my own mask, I smiled and said, “Hi.”

No one spoke or looked directly at me.  Shoulders hunched, eyes to the ground, brows furrowed, strangers remained strangers.  I thought, are masks distancing us even more than we already must be, or is it the fearful, lonely frustration behind them?

Masks can help us stay physically healthy in these pandemic times, but they can’t protect us against our fears.  They may help preserve our physical wellbeing, but they won’t lift our spirits, or bring us joy. 

We must communicate hope and empathy, and let our hearts shine.  No matter how much masks obscure, they don’t hide our eyes, our body language, or our voices, tools that have always been important to sharing our stories.  Now, they’re even more important to sharing our humanity, showing others that we’re safe havens for one another, even when we must remain separated.

To be whole, to make the journey easier, to find shelter, the two men in my folktale adaptation needed one another.  Together, they found possibility and hope.  One couldn’t see, but heard the voice of his new brother.  One couldn’t walk, but recognized the strength of another.  Both were willing to ask for and receive help.  If either had ignored the other, where might each have ended his journey?  And what might have happened to that mother, who was alone?

Our present situation may not be a “happily ever after” narrative.  Real life isn’t.  But we can live this story together, and communicate.

We can be there for one another, even behind the masks we wear.

Masks, Capes and the Strength to Smile, by Lyn Ford

The times we’re living in are, at the least, confusing. We’re safe if we’re stuck at home. Some of us are working and worrying, some of us are burdened with lost work and worrying, all of us are facing an unhealthy, viral fear for others’ wellbeing as well as our own, and–wait for it–worrying. 

It’s empathetically important to be concerned for ourselves and others right now, but all this safe distancing and masking takes its toll. We miss hugs, family visits, physical face-to-face conversations, screen-free smiles and up-close laughter. The concerns of our times require approaching each day with the gravity, information, and common sense that will get us through this novel coronavirus pandemic. But who wouldn’t love to feel weightless for a while?

Weightless. Flying above all this trouble. Superheroes, wearing capes and tights instead of masks as we do what we can to save the world, our efforts accompanied by our own, powerful theme songs. 

Superheroes, smiling, even though it may be concealed behind our masks.

This week, and in the weeks to come, we can dare to be our own superheroes. If we must wear annoying yet protective garments and gear over our faces, we can don our imaginary capes, too. We don’t have to wear the tights–who needs more pressure? Let’s figure out our superpowers, some way to help others. Let’s find or create our own theme songs, and do some little thing that makes us smile, like dancing in pajamas or writing and sending letters or giggling with our goldfish. 

In these serious times, we need to experience the freedom and joy of not taking ourselves too seriously.  Finding ways to smile is one of the healthiest things we can do. Daring to laugh, just because we can, is uplifting and fulfilling. 

This challenge might become our origin story, the starting point for a new chapter. We face the challenge by staying healthy, optimistic, and resourceful. And it’s okay to occasionally feel helpless. Superheroes have weaknesses, but we acknowledge them, work beyond them, and develop some strategy that keeps us going.

We can wear those masks and smile behind them. We can wash our hands while we sing our theme songs. We can be the joy that gives others strength when they hear our voices.

We should thank the superheroes who are risking their lives to provide services and care. And we should be superheroes ourselves while we’re safe at home.

“Mix a little foolishness with your prudence: it’s good to be silly at the right moment.” (Misce stultitiam consiliis brevem; dulce est desipere in loco.) – Horace