|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.
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.
When my younger daughter was born, she greeted me with her rigid body, as if the air had shocked her. This girl will not easy to raise, I thought. And, for a while, it was true. I was never a believer in old-souls, but Nadia appeared to have come to me with so many lessons already learned. I was never sure who was raising whom. What should my answer have been when, at age two, she said to me, “When I was your mommy, I used to give you your pacifiers”?
“You were a good mommy,” I answered, thinking this was an appropriate response.
Then, when she was eight years old, Nadia was diagnosed with a Ewing’s sarcoma. I had no doubts about what I needed to do now. I had to sit with Nadia in the hospital playing endless rounds of Spit and watching every episode of “S Club 7.” I had to administer medications and change bandages. I had to pulverize Nadia’s food and rub her tummy. One of Nadia’s doctors told me that he and his colleagues would do their best to cure my daughter. My job was to continue to raise her. I was reminded that Nadia would need more than my caregiving.
At first, my writing practice offered no illumination as to what kind of mother I needed to be for Nadia. I have a chapter in my latest book, The Write Prescription: Telling Your Story to Live With and Beyond Illness, in which I write, “Sometimes I just need to throw my words on a page. Splat! I…I…I…, No…No…No…, You…You…You…, How…How…How…, Can’t…Can’t…Can’t… No holding back, no reflection, no filter.” But howling at the page, however necessary, does not make room for reflection.
Over time, as I went back over my words, I began to get tired of myself. I had to get off my rant. The only way to do that was to stop making myself the center of all my thoughts. What became obvious as I wrote was that I had no lightness about me. Nadia—still a child who believed in fairies and dreamed of flying— began to shrink whenever I came near with my somber face. When I told her that her hair was going to fall out, she refused to engage with me and ran to join her brother and sister as soon as she could.
As I began to shape my rants into a book that would eventually become Motherhood Exaggerated, I could see that I was an unsympathetic character. I had to rewrite myself. I would think more like a child. I would laugh more. I would take my cues from Nadia rather than follow my old patterns.
I debuted my new character the day Nadia’s hair fell out. I was awake before her and saw hairs strewn over her pillow and on the sheet. As Nadia slept, I brushed my hand along the top of her head. The hair came off like dandelion fluff. If this weren’t happening to my daughter, I could think it was kind of cool. But maybe I could make it cool for Nadia. So when she opened her eyes, I told her the day had come. Her hair was falling out. “Here. Feel it,” I said. ‘You’ll never have a chance to pull your hair out like this again.” And so the hair pulling began and even brought Nadia’s siblings running to participate. At dinner that night, Nadia presented me with a bowl of “angel hair pasta.”
As I wrote, my character acquired other attributes. Having been raised with a strict moral code, I soon found myself in cahoots with Nadia’s twin brother, sneaking him into the hospital even though he was too young to visit. I had to write compassion into my character so I could see the role I played in keeping my husband out of our children’s lives and to recognize the full scope of his contribution to the family.
What I saw most clearly as I told my story was that I had spent the first eight years of Nadia’s life shrinking from what she needed me to be. When she challenged me, since age four, with her questions about death, when she sobbed over the pain of others, when her first words, “I do”, became her mantra, I was too impressed by her depth, her empathy, and her independence. But Nadia didn’t need answers; she needed a place to bring her fears, a shelter when her own power overwhelmed her. By the end of writing Motherhood Exaggerated I finally understood what I should have said to Nadia when she said she gave me my pacifiers when she was my mother. “You were a good mommy but it’s my turn to be the mother now.”
(Note: Nadia is now twenty-four and healthy and exchanged her dreams of flight for dance.)
Judith Hannan is the author of Motherhood Exaggerated (CavanKerry Press, 2012), her memoir of discovery and transformation during her daughter’s cancer treatment and her transition into survival. Her essays have appeared in such publications as Woman’s Day, Opera News, The Huffington Post, The Healing Muse, ZYZZYVA, Twins Magazine, and The Martha’s Vineyard Gazette. She teaches writing about personal experience to homeless mothers and at-risk adolescents as well as to medical students, and is a judge of the annual essay contest sponsored by the Arnold P. Gold Foundation for Humanism-in-Medicine. She served as Director of Development of the 92nd Street Y and then for the Children’s Museum of Manhattan. She now serves on the board of the Museum, Jody Oberfelder Dance Projects, as well as on three boards affiliated with the Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York—the Adolescent Health Center (where she now serves as President of the Advisory Board), the Children’s Center Foundation, and Global Health. She lives in New York.
When I saw her in the 6th grade classroom, I was surprised.
It was the first day after spring vacation. After eight weeks “in residence,” I thought I knew every child in the school. But there she was, an unfamiliar face in the third row.
I said, “Hi! I’m Doug. I’m the storyteller. What’s your name?”
The boy in the right front desk said, “She doesn’t speak; she’s French.”
Calling on my two semesters of college French, I said to the new girl, “Bonjour! Je m’appelle Doug.”
Framed in her shoulder-length, dark hair, her face lit up. She returned the greeting in French.
I would have added the French words for “I’m the storyteller,” but I didn’t know them. True, I’d had two semesters of French—but they were both first-semester French. I could only make a few simple statements in the present tense.
My stomach sank. I had a new student who didn’t understand a word of English—and six storytelling sessions to go. But I had been hired by this well-to-do suburban school to use storytelling as a tool to teach the subject of diversity. I wasn’t going to shirk from the added challenge of telling to a more-diverse class.
That day, I told my story largely to the French student. I exaggerated my tone of voice and used as much body language as I could. I looked at her after each line of the story to see if she understood. When she did, she rewarded me with a golden smile. When she didn’t understand, her face showed her puzzlement—and I tried again with added pantomime for her along with a new set of words for the rest of the class. When all else failed, I tried to use a French word as an additional clue for her.
Telling to the One Who Doesn’t Understand
By the third session, I appreciated what an extraordinary listener she was. Her face was a perfect mirror for my story. Now I looked at her as much as possible while I told, not just for her, but for my pleasure in a supremely alert, encouraging listener.
In this session, I got stuck making her understand a crucial part of the story. Mime failed me, as did my minuscule French vocabulary. Then I had an idea. “Would someone look that word up for me in the French dictionary?”
Silence. The teacher’s look seemed to tell me of too many demands on her, of helplessness at being saddled with this disadvantaged student so late in the year, and of resentment that I should expect her to have a special dictionary for an inconvenient, late-entering student who didn’t even speak English.
The boy in the right front desk said, “We don’t have one.” I stopped in shock, feeling the enthusiasm drain out of my body.
I had been proud of this school, which had chosen storytelling as its art form for the year and diversity as its theme. But now a breathing piece of diversity had flown across the ocean and landed in this classroom, and the school couldn’t be bothered to have a French dictionary!
The next time I showed up to tell stories, the boy in the right front desk held up a French dictionary. “Look,” he said. “I got it from the library. But it’s hard to find the words fast enough.”
I said, “Thank you. You are a good friend.”
That day, I had prepared “Jack and the Bean Tree,” an Appalachian variant of the familiar English classic “Bean Stalk” folktale.
The telling went well. All the children were with Jack and me as we explored the world in the clouds. At the end, they applauded.
Then the French girl raised her hand.
Five Words That Changed Us All
I was so surprised to see her hand go up that I didn’t say a word. She had never initiated communication with me.
I called on her. Slowly, she said several words in French, the longest phrase she had so far tried out on me. I repeated what I heard. She said it again, correcting my mispronunciation.
I hadn’t understood any of it the first time. But having spoken it, I caught the first word, “Jacques,” and wrote it on the blackboard. Trying to involve the rest of the class in my decoding process, I said aloud, ‘Like the song, ‘Frere Jacque.‘
As I said it, I recognized the last word, too. “Magique?” I asked. She nodded. This sounded like French for “magic.” I wrote “Magique” on the board.
What were the words in the middle? I said to her, “Jacques, hmmm-mm, hmmm-mm-mm, magique.” She repeated the whole phrase. It sounded to me like “et le” (“and the”) followed by an unfamiliar word that started with a “Z” sound. I wrote “et le Z” between the other two words.
She shook her head bemusedly and gestured toward the board. With my nodded permission, she went to the board, erased the “Z” and wrote “s H-a-r-i-c-o-t.”
At that moment, I thanked the stars for my interest in the folk musics of North America. One kind of music I had been drawn to was the French Louisiana style called Zydeco. Long ago, I had read that “Zydeco” was a misspelling of the first two words of an early song in that style, “Les Haricots (“The Beans...”)
Trying to hold the interest of the rest of the class, I pronounced the entire phrase aloud, “Jacque et les Haricots Magiques.”
Stories Sew Us Together
Immediately after understanding what I had just said, I spoke the English equivalent. My voice caught as I said, “Jack and the Magic Beans.” I just stood there, facing the board.
There was silence in the room behind me. It was that special silence that only falls when an entire group grasps something, all in the same instant. It took my breath away.
All at once, we understood that “Jack and the Beanstalk” is a story with a secret life in other worlds. We understood that the Appalachian “Bean Tree” shares something with people who didn’t seem to have any stories, with people in some place called France, who ‘don’t speak.’
These people, we realized together, also fear for simple heroes facing terrible giants. They somehow have magic beans in their imaginations, just like we have in ours.
We understood, deep in our bellies, how stories are stitches that hold humanity together.
I don’t know if my other lessons that year had any effect. I don’t know if the other classes in that school ever made a connection between my folktales and their lives.
But that one day, in that one class, I know that—without any intention on my part—multiculturalism actually climbed the thick-trunked vine of story and emerged, dazed and breathless, into the far-away castle of our classroom.
by Caleb Winebrenner
Once a mentor of mine put forth a question “What is your learning edge?” By this, she meant the boundary line between all of our knowledge up until now, and our current experience in the moment. It’s the place where you are feeling the most discomfort, and hopefully, the most excitement about how you are growing and stretching beyond what you previously knew to be true. I find “the learning edge” a useful concept, intellectually. On a personal level, I find that learning edges are places of deep vulnerability.
A few months ago, I came face-to-face with a learning edge that I didn’t even know existed for me. A friend and fellow storyteller asked,”Why don’t you ever talk about your own wisdom journey?”
I tell wisdom stories. I love the parables, the folktales, the dilemma stories. I love what they teach us. Instead of lecturing about deep and profound human truths, I try to find the stories that demonstrate those truths, and demonstrate the power of the human mind and spirit to grow and overcome challenges. I do this, as my friend pointed out, while saying nothing of my own. Facing that incongruity has prompted learning and healing in new directions, and a profound reorientation with my work as a storyteller.
Walking along this learning edge, I am discovering that the inner journey of the storyteller directly influences the storymaking. As a young teller, I have mostly concerned myself with questions of talent, ability, and technique. I’ve focused on developing a “style” or “voice” to my storytelling. But here, at the learning edge, I am not concerned with those questions. I am concerned with a deeper question of my own healing: in a word, integrity.
In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer writes that “good teaching cannot be reduced to technique good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” By this he means that the talents, abilities, and styles of teaching that most directly serve the strengths of a teacher are those rooted in his or her integrity as a person. Much like good teaching comes from the integrity of the teacher, good storytelling comes from the integrity of the storyteller. In being aware of my own strengths and weaknesses, I have discovered and learned from stories that speak more to my own experience and growth than to some abstract “truth.”
There is a word for the stories that speak deeply to experience. They are the stories we love . M. Scott Peck wrote in The Road Less Travelled , “I define love thus: The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” I have adopted his definition, and applied it to stories. In other words, the stories we love, in the deepest way, are the ones that extend us out into the world or deep into ourselves, in order to nurture our own or another’s spiritual growth. As a part of my journey along the learning edge, I have parted ways with stories I like and respect, to give more room instead to the stories I love (such as the one I share below). If the stories I tell cannot nurture my own growth, then they are not authentically mine to tell. I have no heartfelt relationship with them. Given this, then stories I do not love certainly cannot nurture growth in others, which is why I began to tell wisdom stories in the first place.
M. Scott Peck also wrote that “Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and wisdom.” The problem of not sharing my own wisdom journey is itself the place where my wisdom can be created at least if I let it. Looking deeply at my own life, and the painful, shadowy, and difficult facing of my problems, is the root of any sincere claim I can make to having wisdom.
In other words, the most profound shift in my storytelling has not come in choosing, “I will tell wisdom stories,” but rather in choosing, “I will pursue wisdom as a part of my life and healing.” Only when wisdom is in my life can it be in my stories. On my best days, the stories I tell are the most sublime expression of who I am. On my worst days (and any of the days in between), they serve, like a mindfulness bell, as reminders of who I hope to be.
This has meant facing moments where I feel I have no integrity, no love, and no wisdom. For example, how can I tell a story of overcoming anger when it is such a frequent struggle? This is the story I tell, a Zen parable:
A samurai goes to a monastery and says, “I want to know about heaven and hell.” A monk, undisturbed in his meditation by the ferocious samurai, says “Such knowing requires discipline, friend.”
The samurai grows cross. “Of course I have discipline! I am a samurai!”
“Alright. Such knowing requires patience, my friend,” replies the monk.
“I am patient! I — I have waited for days to seize a castle or fight an opponent!”
“Alright. Such knowing requires integrity, my friend,” replies the monk.
“Integrity! I am a Samurai! A master of honor!” And he grows furious, even drawing his sword over his head.
The monks still sits calmly. He says, “See that feeling? That is hell.”
The samurai breathes, deeply, and puts his sword away. He breathes again, and smiles.
“See that feeling, friend? That… that is heaven.”
In this story, when I tell it, I am both the monk and the samurai not just in my miming, voices, or any of the other tools of technique but in my visceral, in-the-moment living of the story. I know from experience the heat of anger, and I know from practicing meditation the coolness of the monk’s calm.
In pursuing certain kinds of stories, my life has to live those themes for the story to be authentic. The monk and samurai story, at first, had something to teach me. I told it because I needed to experience that lesson for myself. Sharing that vulnerability with students and audiences gave me the resolve to know my anger better, and pursue the monk’s equanimity. It became a story I love, because it holds space for my learning edge.
Admittedly, I still have far to go in life before I master my darker places or lay any claim to “being wise.” But, stories like that one I can now tell from a place of empathetic awareness and experience. In the story, I honor my integrity, love, and wisdom. In honoring that in myself, I can then share all that, in abundance, with others.
- The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life , by Parker J.
- The Road Less Travelled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual
Caleb Winebrenner is a storyteller and teaching artist based in Tempe, Arizona. His unique performances craft world folklore and wisdom tales into warm, engaging events. Trained as an actor, mime, and teacher, his performances and workshops draw out the natural warmth, intelligence, curiosity, and wisdom of all present. He especially loves the opportunity to engage with young people around the issues that matter to them, often through the lens of a parable or story. As Paulo Coelho once said, “The power of storytelling is exactly this: to bridge the gap where everything else has crumbled.” Find him on Facebook and Twitter @storytellrcaleb.
by Kelly Hams-Pearson
Each day begins with a moment of mindfulness. Instead of clamoring out of bed, I pause for a moment in that fleeting nocturnal realm, that place where sleep is twilight and the corner of wakefulness has yet to be turned. Here fresh wisdom and clarity are found around lingering issues that have tugged at my life spirit. Here I am provided the answers to questions that have festered. This state of mindfulness at the brink of waking, while not easily attained, can be acquired with patience and practice. Over the years I’ve trained my body, mind and sensibilities to wake naturally most mornings, well before the alarm, even before the brightening of the sky. I linger in this sacred space for merely fifteen or twenty minutes, rarely more, but this has become the most important time of my day.
In this period of quiet contemplation, this time of pause I’m always gifted with a simple word or phrase to meditate and reflect upon. Carrying it with me into the day as a token, a prayer, a mantra, it turns over and over in my mind, providing me with greater clarity and understanding. This exercise has allowed me to find my true voice. Through this discovery my writing, speaking and living practice has been formed.
Once up and out of bed, I shower and dress, eager to complete tasks that comprise morning ritual, tasks that allow me to walk upright, vertical on the solid ground of the day. Moving from the comforting cocoon of bed, the sanctuary of bedroom I go in search of my writing space. Currently, that is the perch at the end of my kitchen breakfast bar. Through the years I have created writing space all over the house: an oak partner’s desk in my bedroom, a book lined loft on the second floor, a corner hallway desk crafted by my husband’s hand, even a writing room converted from the bedroom my daughter vacated. She never looked back as she departed for college, deployment to Afghanistan, marriage and ultimately West Texas residency. Over the years, in bursts and spurts of what I thought to be inspiration or divine vision, I’ve created half a dozen writing enclaves in my house but it is that corner at the edge of the breakfast bar that is my “sweet spot.” My point? Seek and you will find the piece of creative real estate that is right for you.
I write every day, something; anything. It doesn’t matter how little, how much, what genre or whether it is “good,” worthy of showing or even re-reading. Words are always worth the invested time.
No matter how dark the previous night, morning is a time of renewal. Senses and sensibilities are keen. It is the perfect time to practice flow writing: writing from stream of consciousness, devoid of the preoccupations of studying, reflecting and perfecting words. This is a writing process that allows initial thoughts to tumble uninhibited upon the page. I have found what is most helpful during this process is to reflect back on the brilliant diamonds gifted to me during my morning meditation; that simple word or phrase that was placed upon my spirit at the cusp of the day. Often times to make a connection, to glean greater meaning from the meditative phrase I reach for a companion prompt by scanning the stack of poetry, philosophy and world theology books stacked high on my kitchen counter top, selecting a random passage for inspiration.
After five or ten minutes of reading, I put the book down. Jotting the date and time across the top of my journal page I begin the write. There is no need to time myself. Instead I write the length and width of an entire notebook paper sized, narrow-ruled page. Through this practice I have discovered that even in the “flow” I am able, to develop natural closure with a symmetry that creates an “essay of the day”. Reaching the end of the page I close the cover, letting the words, the musings incubate anywhere from a few months to as long as half a year.
My final step is to revisit a previous journal entry. Here I review, revise, and rework my thoughts from an earlier morning. It is during this reflective process where the previous entries take shape as poetry, essay, fiction or in some cases, nothing more than cathartic rant. Even at this stage there are many revisions ahead, but I’m rarely disappointed and often surprised by the force of my raw emotion, the vivid imagery and expression. This process is much like peering into a mirror; viewing a simultaneous image of who I was those months before and who I have become.
It provides an awareness that while difficult to articulate, is quite liberating and healing. It is the power of words as witness manifested through a dedication, a perseverance to simple and sustained morning ritual.
Kelly Hams-Pearson writes and performs poetry, creative essay and original theatre from her woodsy perch along the river in Parkville, Missouri. When she is not working as one of the directors for a local government agency or as a volunteer hospice counselor, she facilitates workshops and writing sessions. Possessing the belief that everyone must be given the ability to affirm their creative voice, to share their life story through the open, equal opportunity mediums of artistic expression, she focuses on sharing her craft with youth most at risk for entering the juvenile justice system. Working in the genres of poetry, creative non-fiction and story-telling, she has won several writing fellowships and state contests with her most recent work appearing in The Crucible, Origami, The Black Chronicle and Splendid Table. Channeling the spirit of the late great June Jordan’s revolutionary blue print, Poetry for the People, Kelly stresses to inexperienced, often tentative artists the simple truth that hope floats not on air and expectations but through the power of words.
By Seema Reza
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.