Learning by Going #5: “People Are Good”

At one of my partner sites for the Writing Home project, after a writing session I usually stop by the cubicle of the senior services  program staff person to say how things went. Usually I am full of stories, how wonderful people’s creativity and imagination and play and writing were, and how much fun we had, and how kind  and supportive people are with each other.

What kind of support an I talking about? Sometimes a good poem opens a door to people to write about their own experience…poems like “Vision Test”, by Patricia Kirkpatrick or Breathing, by “Mark O’Brien” can encourage people to get pretty deep pretty fast into their own medical or body experiences or traumas. Most of the bodies in a room full of people mostly 65 and older have been through some stuff. And I’ve seen a lot of moments where group participants seem to know how to provide just the right environment of empathy and support to people to move through the re-living an experience that writing can sometimes be.

Sometimes this support is between people who already know each other, as neighbors or from exercise class, or craft group. Sometimes the support is between people who started as strangers a week or two before when they walked into poetry group. They have become close through writing in community.

So one day, without going into a lot of detail (because we’ve agreed in our Writing Home sessions, that “What happens in poetry group stays in poetry group”)  I’m  describing a few  of the day’s lovely moments to Jeanne, who’s worked for decades at the same organization running the senior center activities and overseeing the Meals on Wheels program.

I believe in the power of writing sessions as a way of creating community, I tell her, but it’s one thing to say it and another to see it in action.

Jeanne smiles and stops me, “Naomi,” she says, “People are good.”

I have known Jeanne a long time and I know her to be wise and kind. And at first I shake my head to myself. I have a hard time making a blanket statement like this: “People are good.”

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in a time when homicide rates exceeded even the ugly pitch of current headlines. By the time I left Chicago in the nineties I’d been burgled, robbed or assaulted 5 times; two of the incidents involved a gun or knife.

To put it another way, I grew up in a time and place where it was important to be nobody’s fool, where wariness and skepticism were important values. “People are good” was not imbibed in my baby bottle.

And then there is a certain amount of ugliness going on in the world around me.

So I do not lightly come to the idea of innate goodness.

But on a daily basis, through these little writing sessions at libraries and senior centers, I see people acting out of a positive e hunger for community for goodness, for ways to help each other.

~People bring each other cookies and treats.

~They offer to write for those whose hands don’t do it alone.

to read for those who cannot read.

~They listen.

~They hold each other’s pain.

~They managed on the day after the election to create a space of healing, without getting into politics. (how many times have I yearned for this same combination of compassion and restraint in social settings since then!)

These folks are not just writing wonderful poems; they might be teaching me how to live in the world.

So what do I say to the proposition: “People are good”

When Jeanne says this, I an silent. I don’t know. I’ve got my upbringing; I’ve got the news…I don’t always feel I am good. I have certainly seen other settings where poets don’t behave well; I wouldn’t say they are bad. but I don’t know if I would say they are good.

I can say:

People seem hungry for good.

I can say people have goodness in them and that poetry group, on a good day, can bring out that goodness. It’s one of the privileges of this work to watch it.

Learning by Going # 4: Lucille Clifton, won’t you celebrate with me

won’t you celebrate with me

Don’t be confused by my starting this with the first line of Clifton’s poem, which also stands as its title.

The poem’s final lines are


…come celebrate

with me that everyday

something has tried to kill me

and has failed.


You can find the full text on poets.org


I’m learning how important it is to make poetry and “everyday,” every day thing

The American Academy of Poets has a nice weekly feature called Teach This poem, geared toward K-12 classroom teachers. While the suggested lessons don’t usually fit my “classrooms” or my “students” who tend to be in their seventies and eighties and often have more to teach me than vice versa, I still enjoy the weekly poem selection.

On Monday, November 16, 2016, in honor of MLK Day, Teach This Poem featured Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me.”  I smiled to see it, it’s a poem I count as beloved.  I’m far from the only person to know it by heart, in whole or part. (And I keep finding more and more people who do, most recently David Mura and Margaret Hasse)

And another piece of my response was, yes, Clifton’s voice is a wonderful one to lift up in honor of the national holiday. And lifting up her voice should not just be a once-a-year thing.


I’m learning what I can do

I don’t say this from a position of having this all figured out. Clifton says she was


born in babylon

both nonwhite and woman


I wasn’t born in slavery, literally or figuratively. I’m a middle-class white woman, learning to live with the chronic condition of whiteness, constantly blundering around with my privilege and implicit bias. Like any chronic condition, sometimes I manage okay, other times I screw up. Only this is a chronic condition whose symptoms hurt others more than myself. I do the best I can, knowing I will often fail.

As a teaching artist/poet organizer I am still learning, struggling to figure out ways to bring my personal concerns for promoting equity with the realities of my classroom.

While I often fail, I care about undoing racism. I also care about undoing ageism. These two concerns sometimes bump up against each other in interesting ways in sessions. I am still figuring this out.


Poems keep teaching us. 

In the mean time, I know one thing I can do is bring in a variety of voices, and not just on MLK Day.

It’s a commitment that’s pretty easy and enjoyable to live. There are so many gorgeous and useful poems out there. Below is a very short sample of some poems I’ve used in my own teaching. For those of you that like or need to focus on craft in your teaching, in this short list you can find form example (pantoum and haiku), metaphor/comparison/figures of speech, image and writing from the senses, diction, and a whole lot more.


Natasha Trethewey, Incident

Rita Dove, Heart to Heart, Chocolate

Langston Hughes Suicide’s Note, Harlem

Lucille Clifton, lesson of the falling leaves, homage to my hips, I am accused of tending to the past

Donte Collins, what the dead know by heart

Ross Gay, A Small Needful Fact


Gratitude to Clifton, these poets and every other writer who, through their words, helps me stand for a moment in their experience, and understand it a little better.

Whoever you are, whoever you teach or work with, I hope you will fold them into your own session plans or reading or knowing by heart. And I’d love to hear about the voices you are lifting up. Every day.

Learning by Going #3: The Surprising Value of Free



Teaching free writing classes through the Writing Home project has been turning some of my ideas about money on their heads.

I’ve been surprised at how valuable it has been to offer writing classes for older adults for free

It was something of an accident that Known by Heart Writing Home workshops are being offered at no charge to participants. The budget for the project did not depend on charging participants and in discussions with site partners, I trusted their sense that not charging a fee would make it easier for people to try something new, even if they had enough dollars in their pocket to pay. I was fine with the decision, and yet….

A chorus of inner voices protested the decision to offer classes for free. Like most people, it turns out I have a lot of beliefs about money. In this case, they included:

1.Paying is a form of respect. Artists deserve professional respect and in our society professional respect means money. It’s just plain weird in our culture how one minute someone can be talking enthusiastically about the amazing value of art in people’s lives and the next minute practically fall off their chair when an artist or teaching fee is named that represents something south of minimum wage when all of the artist’s time is taken into account, not even touching the professional training. I don’t like to reinforce the idea that artists should do things for free, just work for love.

2. Paying is a form of ownership. I learned this back in my community organizer days, when I worked organizing tenants. I worked with folks who lived in deep economic poverty. Paying to be part of the tenants union, meant you had a stake in the direction of that group, the power to speak up.

3. Paying is a form of commitment. I’ve seen how paying for something makes me take it seriously.  Even though I’ve been writing for decades now, signing up and paying for a class means I will do the assignments. I’ve seen this time and again in others as well.

4. Paying/charging money is a  form of solidarity. Poets and novelists and dancers and a host of other creative folks rarely make a  living directly from the production of their art. Teaching—in educational systems, in community settings—is one relatively stable form of income stream for many artists. So I don’t want to undermine others’ ability to legitimately charge for their teaching work.

In addition to trusting my site partners’ abundant expertise, I made peace with not charging in the following ways:

1. Many of the older adults I work with don’t have money for all their ongoing bills, much less to pay for a class.

2. Not everything of value is about money. For example, Lewis Hyde in his book The Gift, makes a strong argument for the possibilities of de-coupling creativity and art-making from the money economy.

3. Barriers: Sometimes people have so many barriers to art-making or  writing that anything we can do to remove a barrier is all to the good. Elders often have mobility issues.  And there’s the barrier of negative messages people have gotten about art and art-making—“you shouldn’t say that” or “that’s not important” or… if offering a class for free can somehow be a counterweight to those messages, then that has value.

4. Pay it forward: Known by Heart’s been given the gift of cash and in kind support so making the resultant programming free to participants feels like a way of paying it forward.

Enough of the inner voices. How has it played out? So far

People value free.

I heard several participants say to me or in how much they’ve wanted a class like this. How they’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this for a long time. And part of what they are looking for is that it’s free.

People show generosity when it’s shown to them.  Participants in these free classes have been so generous with each other—in bringing in treats, in supporting each others words and stories.

People can still manifest a strong commitment to something free. People showed up (which as I’ve observed elsewhere—in an interview with Knight Foundation’s blogger Ira Brooker —is sometimes no small thing). People worked hard on their writing and on supporting each other in their writing.

I have to say my site partners have been abundantly right. Not to negate the importance of my arguments for charging above, but I’ve been learning from this experience.

I can’t speak to whether people’s barriers to paying for a class are perceived or real. But Maybe it doesn’t matter. I haven’t given up my values around seeing teaching artists be well compensated for their work. But it’s educated me a bit about the importance of having free offerings for people. It can open up a certain kind of creative community. It can invite people to the table.

I think that’s worth something.

Learning by Going, #2: You Don’t Even Need a Window



I organize a lot of Known by Heart/Writing Home poetry sessions around windows. There are tons of interesting poems that  feature windows (see a couple below). I also like to connect writing to other art forms, so sometimes we write responding to images of paintings —Many students respond especially to Vermeer, whose paintings are filled with windows, seen and implied.

I also like to introduce something painters call a view-finder.

A viewfinder  can be as simple as a piece of card stock with a rectangle cut in it. There are fancier adjustable versions. Simple or fancy, painters use a viewfinder to select what scene or slice of the world they choose to paint.

I like to introduce writing and poetry craft elements as things, that once we learn about them, give us more choices. For example, we may or may not want to rhyme or have lines with a certain number of stresses or syllables, but once we know what a line is, we have more choices about how we use them in a poem.

And the viewfinder is an object lesson in what to me is the first element of writing craft:

We get to choose what to write about.

And this is one of those places where art-making and wellness intersect. Making choices is a key aspect of art-making, of finding our unique voice, of honing our craft. And to bring in the mental health or therapy perspective, having a sense of choice and making choices even in difficult times or situations, is a key aspect of emotional well-being.

So back to the writing with a view-finder. When I do this activity, writers often choose to focus on something within the room where they are writing. But it’s very helpful to have a window. It gives writers more choices; for writers with mobility limitations, a window with a view is no small thing in maintaining a connection to the world outside.

I give participants each a viewfinder, show how you can include more or less of a scene by bringing the frame closer or farther away from your eye.

It’s such a treat to hear what an array of images or stories a group of writers write looking out the same window. Suddenly one scene prisms into the individual perspectives of the writers.

But I was a little dismayed recently when I walked into a room I hadn’t taught in before equipped with my stack of viewfinders to realize there were no windows that my writers could look out at. I had been in the space a few years before, new it was a basement, but remembered it had windows. But I had forgotten they were not clear glass. No view to the outside world and not much to inspire in the room: Stacks of chairs,  formica tables, drab carpet.

But I shouldn’t have worried. The group dug in with gusto and found thinks to write about I would never have imagined—persona poems from the perspectives of the furniture, internal monologues, a prose poem about a lost loved one.

So what did I learn that day? Trust your writers. If people have made the effort to show up, they will find a way to write something fresh, unique, compelling, from the heart. The writers remind me we have the power of choosing what to focus on in even the most unpromising setting.

That’s something that has a use way beyond that one poetry class.

A Couple of Window Poems:

Alicia Ostriker, “August Morning, Upper Broadway”

Natasha Trethewey, “Incident”


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.