September 28, 2014

Writing and Healing: Arts Express

On October 11, I'll be in Grand Rapids to lead a writing workshop for people with cancer, family members, friends, and caregivers.  October 4, visual artist Elizabeth Kuth will conduct a drawing and art workshop.  A creative community is already forming. If you are interested, please sign up at Project Lulu. Grand Rapids Arts Express  We would love to have you join us!

The Writing Workshop

Creativity, at heart, is serious play. If you come to this writing workshop, expect that you will do guided writing exercises in an encouraging environment.  Participants might ask: "Must I write about the illness?"  The answer is you can write about whatever you want to!  The focus is positive. Whether beginning or experienced writers, participants will have the opportunity to explore their own images, memories, and landscape. Writing exercises are structured but provide artistic freedom and can help writers find their own material. In session, we experiment with forms, like this definition form, used in the poem "Anxieties" by Donna Masin:

It’s like ants
and more ants.

West, east
their little axes

hack and tease.
Your sins. Your back taxes.

Each person has a unique writing voice, and this workshop is aimed at helping identify and strengthen it. Nobody will be required to share his or her personal writing, but we will have time at the end to read work if he or she desires. We will also talk about ways to revise and answer questions that the participants might have about sharing their writing with family or friends, privacy, and other concerns.

As a writer, I rely on my own daily writing practice. I edited a collection of poetry and prose, Migrations: Poetry and Prose for Life's Transitions. This book brought together the writing of seventy-five Lake Superior region writers and it encompasses changes of many kinds: relationships, health, home, work, aging, relocation, dislocation, environmental changes, and migrations. In order to collect work for the anthology, I brought my writing skills together with my social work skills in this project. As Poet Laureate of Duluth, over a period of a year, I conducted 45 writing workshops and support groups. I visited the Women's Shelter, Family Justice Center, Domestic Abuse Intervention Program, high schools, YWCA's Girl Power, and community groups. I have a lot of experience with teaching, helping people find their strengths, and fostering a supportive community of writers. And personally, my mother suffered acute myeloid leukemia. Serious illness and other significant life events mark us.

Writing about place yields good material. The body is also a landscape. In writing practice, we turn on all of the five senses to both stir and soothe. Here's a poem of mine, "Shore," (from Echo and Lightning) that transcribes or inscribes a feeling into the landscape:

it wasn’t pain but waves
pounding on shore
rolling of small stones
up the slope and back again
breaking waves
with their spatter of white foam
all night long re-living 
that peak or pitch
recognizing, reorganizing
building up and dissipating
all night long
it was the world
creating, recreating, retreating
and waves capitulating

Lately, I've been very interested in exploring layers - history, spirituality, geography, landscape, music, and dreams. Each person has marvelous sources that can become wellsprings for creative work.

I ask participants to give permission to the self to be a beginner. More prompts: Write about a remedy or healing food that was used by somebody in your family. Write about an important object or tool that you received from another person. Sometimes, I ask participants to reach back another generation: Write about what political or social events or life situations affected a grandparent. How did these affect their relationships in the family?  These provide opportunities for exploration and reflection, and the first draft may want to turn into a poem or story.

Journaling Improves Health

Several research studies have demonstrated that writing practice improves health outcomes, helps regulate emotion, increases problem-solving skills, and reduces stress. Journaling is considered a complementary therapy in cancer treatment.  Here is an excerpt of a Rita Dove's "Beethoven's Return to Vienna."

I had been ordered to recover.
The hills were gold with late summer;

This type of poem is called a "persona poem."  The poet wears a mask, becomes another person, and examines another's story.  In these two lines from the poem, Dove uses interesting vowel and consonant sounds, to explore the experience of an accomplished composer and musician who becomes deaf.

Project Lulu is a nonprofit organization founded by the artist Lisa McKhann after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  She helps others go through being "a patient" to becoming actively creative. Some of the former participants went on to develop scripts for staged readings and performances. Art is transformation!

So bring a notebook and pen. Prepare to have fun and relaxation. Lisa McKhann of Project Lulu writes, "art can both elevate and communicate life's simple hardships in a way that deepens our common humanity. Our motto is Reflect - Create - Expand."

Go to Project Lulu to learn more, and to find out more about Elizabeth Kuth and her art workshop. Come and be a part of the healing community.


September 20, 2014

Old Iron Range in Minnesota

Last Tuesday I went to Hibbing with the WDSE Channel 8 Playlist people and we did an interview and video about Night Train Red Dust. We went to the Mitchell Yard which is a 1906 Roundhouse (behind the Sunny Hill distributors near Hibbing). After me, they interviewed a music group from Hibbing. The building is crumbling, and I felt the ghosts of the Iron Range past. I wonder if our nation can continue to sustain economic development that causes environmental degradation. Can we have economic development AND environmental protection?
 Inline image 1 
The Mitchell yard ran 24/7 during WWI and WWII. Now it's owned by an artist, Dave, who has a vision of rehabbing the building to be a pre-vocational school (great place for a machine shop) and artist workshop (he is a sculptor). He has a vision of developing more unity, similar to the efforts of everybody on the Iron Range to help win WWI and WWII. Can we focus our energies on reducing poverty, homelessness, and violence? on creativity instead of destruction?
For Mitchell Yard, fundraising will be necessary! This is a worthy project, and he needs 1-2 million!
I'm standing in front of the old coal fired boiler. Karen Sunderman of WDSE took this photo. They plan to make a program about all of us. Here's a link to the Mitchell Yard website:

September 7, 2014

Drawing Longer Lines: Poets on Fiction

In poetry, the past juxtaposes with the present. They can easily occur simultaneously. The narrator is not a character; character is not important. Often a poet works on the level of language, the sound, rhythm and things in between. Words have denotations, connotations, and associations. A poet who writes fiction faces conventions about character, plot, setting, and dialogue. 

Traditional points of view are first person (I), second person (you), and third person (he or she). In my work, sometimes I need zero person – to omit the “I” or blur it. Rilke did this in his novel, the Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and effectively illuminated need to depart from the self, or to place the self somewhere else—outside the work, and then completely inside of it. Other artists and writers have said the same thing. In order to fully create an artistic work, Dorothea Lange, the photographer, said one must annihilate the self.

Plot generally traces a chain of cause and effect, but sometimes this is too linear. Traditionally, it has been defined by conflict: man against man, against nature, against himself. One aspect deeply related to plot is verb tense. Without present and past tense, causality comes under question. This definition of plot has been problematic--my stories are not like that--and continually I reach for something else.

Other poets have faced this dilemma and have found solutions. W.H. Auden (a poet and librettist) wrote: "Drama is based on the mistake. All good drama has two movements, first the making of a mistake, then the discovery that it was a mistake."  Anne Carson defined metaphor simply as the mind making a mistake. In her definition, the mistake can be a marvelous one. Is the answer then to go deeply into mistakes?

After annihilating the self, can one construct another? Can one step from metaphor to metafiction? Can the forces of language carry into prose? In this essay, Fanny Howe finds a creative solution using form:
Increasingly my stories joined my poems in their methods of sequencing and counting. I would have to say that something like the wave and the particle theories troubled the poetics of my pages: how can two people be in two places simultaneously and is there any relationship between imagination and character?  
There is a Muslim prayer that says, "Lord, increase my bewilderment," and this prayer is also mine and the strange Whoever who goes under the name of "I" in my poems--and under multiple names in my fiction--where error, errancy and bewilderment are the main forces that signal a story. …  
The circumnambulation takes form as alliteration, repetition, rhyme.  
 Q--the Quidam, the unknown one--or I, is turning in a circle and keeps passing herself on her way around, her former self, her later self, and the trace of this passage is marked by a rhyme, a coded message for "I have been here before, I will return". The same sound splays the sound-waves into a polyvalence, a daisy. A bloom is not a parade.    (To read more, go to  Bewilderment by Fanny Howe)
Sina Queyras uses line and stanza breaks in what is actually an essay, "Tightrope: Weighing Pound and Drawing the Line."  The title conveys her skill with language. She references the imagist Ezra Pound.
Writing that is discovering is reaching is tightrope walking.

Nature is not natural and if it is it is not nature.

Take the library to the street; bring the street to the archive.

Not the prayer, the moment before prayer.
She creates multiple meanings with the phrase "drawing the line." It conveys the need to set limits, and to make a mark. This level ambiguity takes effort. Once developed, ambiguity makes poets in prose more difficult. Queyras' economical and evocative statements are written so that poets can understand. In my experience, what one begins to write triggers another topic. The real topic emerges as you go. One must walk across ground shifting beneath the feet while a mountain is building. It takes strength, balance and momentum. Prayer is the conventional response to fear or danger. She brings attention to the moment before, where the actual story or drama resides, the fear or danger that one must write.

Poets who write fiction create interesting works. Queyras says, "Write who and how you know who you are and will" and "Create your own aesthetic."

September 2, 2014