Learning by Going, #1

“I learn by going where I have to go”  ~~Theodore Roethke

It’s taken me half a lifetime to figure it out, but I’ve always been an experiential learner. Much as I love words, it is difficult to learn to swim from reading a book.

Theodore Roethke’s poem “The Waking” is about a lot more than learning by living, but his line, “I learn by going where I have to go” could certainly be a motto for the work and mystery of learning.

I’ve been doing a lot of learning-by-going in recent years, taking a very non linear path from nonprofit consultant to therapy-based teaching artist.  Just a few points along the way: a masters in family therapy, vocational rehabilitation for vision loss (think learning to read and write braille at age 47), the wonderful accident of landing an internship in a senior high-rise and witnessing how poetry could sometimes be at least as healing as something called “therapy.

I’ve been so busy learning-by-going that it’s often hart to capture or reflect on all this learning and what its benefits might be.  But through Known by Heart, I’ve been given a chance to change that, at least for a while.

In 2015 the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation  (through  a Saint Paul Knight Arts Challenge grant) took a lovely leap of faith and funded Known by Heart Writing Home, a project to provide writing workshops to older adults and to explore the possibilities  of creativity as a key strategy for healthy aging.

The basic arc of the project is to immerse myself as a poet-organizer in the ecosystem of elders in my own community: the Creative Enterprise Zone, to develop writing and poetry experiences that grow out of what I learn, and to provide elders a way to find and share their voices.

And as part of the original request, I proposed keeping a learning journal to share some of the experiences and reflect on the process along the way.

So now that Known by Heart has met the Knight match  and is starting to offer workshops, there’s no time like the present to get started on the reflecting… (thank you funding and programming partners: Saint Anthony Park Community Foundation, Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, Creative Enterprise Zone, and Keystone Community Services Senior Services Program)

Over the next few months as time allows— between workshops on memory, haiku, basic writing craft, and more—I’ll use this space for occasional reflections on what I’m learning and what I’m still puzzled or curious about.

A few questions I might look at:

What would it look like to offer a writing class for homebound people, delivered along with the daily hot meal delivered by Meals on Wheels volunteers?

What would it look like to provide meaningful poetry experiences for people in skilled nursing care who may be  beyond writing and perhaps even language expression?

Is Roethke’s poem :The Waking”  (“I wake to sleep and take my waking slow”) bout life death or both?

What’s the worst mistake I’ve ever made in teaching?

Is there a better title than teaching for this work?

What’s more important, the quality of the art-making or the quality of life benefits of art-making?

Are age-specific workshops the best way to serve the creative needs of elders?

How can sharing the creative work of talented elders change cultural perceptions about aging?

Can something as simple as a poetry class really have an impact on the course of our aging?


New online lit journal advances dialogue about mental health

A couple of my poems were recently published in Amygdala, a new online literary journal dedicated to changing the conversation about mental health in this country.

I really resonate with Amygdala and their commitment to literature that can make a difference.

Here’s a bit more about Amygdala, from their website:

“Amygdala’s goal is to build a sense of community by creating a platform for people to bring mental health issues into dialogue. We seek to achieve this through original works including: creative non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and art. We are looking for work that elucidates the wide range of issues and emotions mental health disorders evoke.….  It is our hope that Amygdala will de-stigmatize society’s view on mental health and create deeper recognition of the importance of mental health services.”

You can check out my poems (part of a series of poems I wrote when I was struggling with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders as part of my masters in family therapy)  at:

The Blanket and the Rats


The Woman Who Can’t Leave The House


Finding the Artist in the Title “Teaching Artist”


March in Minnesota is still winter. Yes, we’ve already hit 70 degrees. Yes, I took this crocus photo Tuesday. And yes, it got nailed with snow yesterday, Wednesday.

Not what Minnesota looks like at the moment, hallelujah...

But that’s okay with me. Winter is a great time to attend to the artist part of being a teaching artist.

Much of this winter I’ve been absorbed with writing poems and essays drawn from a journal I’ve been keeping in Braille. Grants from the lovely VSA Minnesota and Metropolitan Regional Arts Council Next Step Fund, made it possible for me to be the annoying person who seems to always have an out-of-office message on her email.

This is what I love about the label teaching artist. It demands of us that we pay attention to our own creative practice.

If I am never cozied up alone with my own work, then maybe I am still teaching, but I’m not a teaching artist. If I don’t feed my own work, how can I feed the work of others? If I don’t shape my own voice, how can I help others have their voices?

So thank you for your patience as I’ve been nested deep in the burrow of my own work, only apparently hibernating. As spring warms up, I’ll still be working on my own writing projects, but will also shift toward more teaching in community. More to report on that soon.

Time to Get Your Creative House in Order?

I’m honored to be teaching another Springboard for the Arts workshop…

The Big Picture: A Strategy Workshop

is a mini-retreat for individual artists and small arts groups is designed to help you clarify your creative purpose, and access new tools and tips for defining, achieving and sustaining artistic success.

Date: Saturday,October 10, 2015.

For more info or to register: click here

Why I Cannot Show you the Cake or Ice Cream

flowers july 17 15 post IMG_1306

These flowers are from a few weeks ago, from a celebratory reading that was the last session of a poetry workshop I led in a senior high-rise, where I have been having way too much fun in recent months as a teaching artist.

I would love to tell you all about it…about the inspiring human beings who gather for class each week, about the amazing poems they write. About the wit, whimsy, feeling, wisdom, playfulness, intimacy, and kindness that show up each week.

Each of the writers in the group wows me each week with the depth of their experience and their openness to the full range of things they are going through now. And from where I sit (and sometimes stand and sometimes wave my hands around in the enthusiasm of sharing a particularly fabulous poem), it seems to me these individuals have become something more than individuals.

They are also a community, a band of poets, their support and connection formed through the process of learning about, making and sharing poetry. People sometimes share experiences-joys and sorrows—that are as intimate as anything in a “therapy” group.

This makes it hard to show you or give you examples.

Because the stories and moments are not mine to share. Even though we meet each week in a fairly public space in the building, each week we create a protected space where risk, and intimacy and great poetry are possible. And that very real boundary of safety is something we build each week out of our trust that we will all protect each others’ privacy. The stories and the epiphanies are amazing and they belong to the people who shared them in that moment of the group…

So I so much want to give you a window into this work…and I want to respect that invisible wall of safety we create around our work each week.  Which leaves me with this…I brought these flowers from my garden for our reading celebration. I won’t show you the cake, or the ice cream or the illuminated faces of the elders reading their work.

I will just tell you that it was a good year for peonies and poetry and the mock orange smelled amazing and that I learned that people seem compelled to talk with a person carrying a vase of flowers on public transit (maybe that’s another post for another time.) And it was a pretty special party in my book.

Don’t miss Dr. Deep or Memory Matters

If you want a good belly laugh, check out Zaraawar Mistry’s Dr. Deep – “Shake Your Noggin Like a Bobblehead” his new one-man satirical play running through Tuesday, 2/10. Details: click here

Zaraawar Mistry

Zaraawar Mistry

Don’t miss it.

Now’s also a good time to sign up for Memory Matters. This six-week workshop on poetry, memory and performance is a great chance to work in a small group setting with Zaraawar as he offers his unique approach to helping you find your own right way to present your work. I’ll be there to help with the writing  side of things.

The workshop runs Mondays, March 2 to April 6. Space is limited so register today to ensure your space.

Details and registration: click here

This workshop is offered by Known by Heart Poetry and Dreamland Arts and made possible by the lovely Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library

Hope to see you there.

Snow and poetry

Quite content to have missed out on the East Coast snow, but wouldn’t want you to miss out on these poems featuring snow, by Patricia Kirkpatrick and Heid E. Erdrich, the featured performers at the next Known by Heart poetry performance on Monday 2/2/2015

Not what Minnesota looks like at the moment, hallelujah...

Not what Minnesota looks like at the moment, hallelujah…


Patricia Kirkpatrick, Letter from United

Heid E. Erdrich, Last Snow

Enjoy…and of course, we hope you can join us and live and in person on February 2 for poetry, memory and the things we care about enough to carry in our hearts.

Known by Heart Poetry Performance featuring

Heid E. Erdrich and Patricia Kirkpatrick

Hosted by Naomi Cohn

February 2, 2015, 7 pm

Merriam Park Branch of the Saint Paul Public Library,

1831 Marshall Ave, Saint Paul 55104

Free and open to the public

Want to get hands-on?  If you want to try your own hand at integrating poetry and memory, check out the Memory Matters workshop, starting 3/2 at Dreamland Arts.

Details and registration:Click here

Both Known by Heart performance and the Memory Matters workshop made possible by the lovely people at the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library.

Poetry and memory have a heartbeat even in the dead of winter…

Join Known by Heart to enjoy our next poetry performance with award-winning poets Heid E. Erdrich and Patricia Kirkpatrick on February 2…and take part in the Memory Matters Workshop, starting March 2. Details below and on our Events page

Heid E. Erdrich and Patricia Kirkpatrick, February 2, 2015


Patricia Kirkpatrick--photo credit, Katherine Klein Sawyer

Patricia Kirkpatrick–photo credit, Katherine Klein Sawyer

Heid- for blog

Heid E. Erdrich–photo credit: B FRESH Photography and Media

Watch these poets bring their magic to the next Known by Heart poetry performance, February 2, 2015, 7 pm, at the Merriam Park Branch of the Saint Paul Public Library (Event details)
I can’t wait to see what they bring to poetry, memory and those things we care about enough to carry in our bodies, to know by heart…

Memory Matters Workshop, starting March 2

Zaraawar Mistry

Zaraawar Mistry

I’m excited to be teaming up again with Zaraawar Mistry to offer a new session of the popular Memory Matters Workshop on poetry, memory and performance. Wherever you are with your own writing, this fun, 6-week workshop is a great chance to learn ways memory and performance approaches can bring life to your words, whether as text or out loud. The final session, April 6,,2015, will be a chance to perform your work at Dreamland Arts. Space is limited. More info and registration at Dreamland Arts website

Both event and workshop made possible by the lovely Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library


Where we store lost memories

Chicago still has a bit of the crusty charm I remember from childhood

Chicago still has a bit of the crusty charm I remember from childhood

Earlier this month I got to go back to Chicago with one of my sisters. We grew up there and I lived there in my twenties and thirties. Seeing old friends and revisiting remembered places certainly kicks up a fine dust of memories. I was struck by the different qualities of our respective memories. A lot of my memories have been polished down to images and some associated emotions. My sister, meanwhile, has all that too, but she has a much richer memory of details and information, what happened where and when.

By comparison, I seem to have dumped vast quantities of things: old phone numbers, addresses, dates. And perhaps this makes some sense. In recent years I’ve leaned hard on memory as a practical strategy for vision loss. Things remembered don’t have to be looked up or read off a page.

So I buffed up my memory for memorizing terminology for grad school and for numeric codes I need to put on diagnostic assessments and treatment plans for my therapy internship. I leaned on it to memorize the 246 contractions or abbreviations used in Grade 2 Braille. I used it up committing poems to heart.

And, perhaps that meant that my mind dumped a lot of information about what happened where and when in my many years in Chicago many years ago. Or perhaps dump is not the right word. more like those old memories were crumpled, crushed and pushed aside.. They’re still in there somewhere, but something like an old ball of tinfoil shunted under a kitchen cabinet by the deft paw of a cat long gone. Even if you noticed it amid the hard-to-reach dust bunnies, it would be hard to unfold and make sense of its original form.

The late lamented feline champion of tin-foil-ball soccer.

The late lamented feline champion of tin-foil-ball soccer.