A Cartography of Writing : Monthly Writing Workshops

Gemini Ink has added another option for those in the community seeking opportunities to generate writing.

With many thanks to Gemini Ink, I’ll be leading A Cartography of Writing, which meets monthly to focus on writing new work and learning about contemporary writers and poets. I’ll post some of the exercises and readings here after each gathering.

If you are in the San Antonio area we meet at Gemini Ink each month on the 3rd Tuesday from 6:30pm to 8:30pm. If you are far away, meet us here for our quick notes!

July 2019 : This is our last gathering of this series. Don’t miss out!

June 2019 : Tackling the Difficult in Writing

We open with a visual poem by Fatimah Asghar and Eve Ewing, “From“.  Those who are other are faced with questions like the one posed in this piece – “Where are you from?” Recall an inappropriate question you have been asked or an assumption that has been made, either directed to you or overhead. As a personal note, I have had people ask me through my life if I was half white because I spoke well. I struggled when I was younger to respond. Sometimes the only thing I could say was “No”.  We are witness to inappropriate behaviors often. Claudia Rankine’s “You are in the dark, in the car…“, she puts together vignettes of microagressions. Given our differences we are witnesses to way others diminish another within politics, dominant culture, in our families across generations. Joy Harjo addresses the history of this country in its policies and behavior toward Native Americans within “How to Write a Poem in a Time of War“. And modern policies continue their disregard for those who are other.  Rankine addresses the conflict we feel in not being able to own the history created by hurtful policies in “Some years there exists a wanting to escape…“.

Then we moved to the silences within poetry. I pulled some of Sappho’s fragments, including this one, from Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter.

sappho fragment (2)

The brackets, as used by Carson, are for missing lines. Other translators of Sappho’s work were liberal in adding details. For instance, when Carson translated the following lines “their heart grew cold / they let their wings down” Guy Davenport translated this as “With quickened heart they hovered, / Fluttered, and lit with folding wings, / The doves. My heart is cold. // Their wings folded down, / My heart grows chill.”

I address some of the reasons for missing information within my own book. See my short note here. Ultimately, we all have unique reasons for wanting to write. One of those is surely the need to have a record of our lives. Sappho’s fragments are a reminder we must tell as much of ourselves as possible or someone else will tell it. Similarly, Solmaz Sharif’s “Reaching Guantanamo” is the first of a series of letters from a wife to her imprisoned husband. The letter that arrives is censored. It’s a reminder that words have their power both for the writer and the person receiving those words.

The class closed with two poems by regional poets, Colin Pope and Rodney Gomez. Pope’s “Suspect“, calls into question how others would view us. In this case, a grieving partner who is questioned by police after a suicide. Gomez’ “Ceremony of Sand” is a prose poem and story within his book by the same title. In the piece is a boy whose name is never shared and it becomes a safety net. He thinks he is safe and reveals his name after many years. It’s a cautionary tale. A reminder of holding some things close to us, to naming it.

May 2019 : The Role of the Writer in the Larger World

In coming to a discussion about the artist’s role in the world and their responsibility within it, I always start with immediate family. If a writer is saving | claiming | rescuing themselves through their art they are also, by extension, saving their family and their history (accessible and inaccessible). If we stay at this point we could write for an eternity. But the artist is ever-growing. So we start looking into the outer world. And there is discomfort when before, in family, we found a kind of comfort.

Addressing the larger world is still rooted in what was important to us from the beginning. What is important is often rooted in our identity. For me, I come in through my own queer, people of color, working class, exile/first generation immigrant – among other things. I suggest everyone read Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously: The Immigrant At Work. Danticat addresses, among other things, the process for remaking our world:

“The immigrant artist shares with all other artists the desire to interpret and possibly remake his or her own world. So though we may not be creating as dangerously as our forebears – though we are not risking torture, beatings, execution, though exile does not threaten us into perpetual silence – still, while we are at work bodies are littering the streets somewhere. People are buried under rubble somewhere. Mass graves are being dug somewhere. Survivors are living in make-shift tent cities and refugee camps somewhere, shielding their heads from the rain, closing their eyes, covering their ears, to shut out the sounds of military “aid” helicopters. And still, many are reading, and writing, quietly, quietly.”

Her book also addresses the necessity for travel and movement, mythical homeland, the inevitable pondering of death, self-doubt, the unexpected gifts we find, and the other paths we could have taken.

In Willie Perdomo’s The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon, the opening poem is called “Like Bread”. The poem is a nod to Martin Espada’s incredible book, and also to the poem Roque Dalton – our poetic ancestors maybe. It states, in 12 short lines, reminds us to “find word for what is lost / requires falling…” when we have only pieces.

And when we only have pieces are stories are not complete. But we can pin them together. I use Atsuro Riley’s “Element” as an example of how our lives can be beautiful.

An amazing poet/essayist/fiction writer based in Texas, ire’ne lara silva, allows space to recognize and sit with generational trauma. I steer young writers to ire’ne’s work because her work speaks with heart from the first line in without giving the reader the chance to pull away. Those young writers are the first to ask how they can write about family who may be been wrong but who are still living. And so respect or the obligation of respect has a stronger hold than writing and self. Here, ire’ne’s work offers the change to place all of this concern within the body of writing. She speaks of survival tools and how to change their use in order to find joy. We reviewed “let us become want” and “warning for the young wanting to heal generations past”. From the second poem, this last line: we must learn to use our teeth as tools / not weapons”. Both are available in her new book, Cuicacalli/House of Song.

Other poems discussed in May’s class are pieces from Dismantle: An Anthology of Writing from the Vona/Voices Writing Workshop, including Torrie Valentine’s “To the white woman on the plane who doesn’t understand my discomfort when she asks if she can touch my hair”,  Ashaki M. Jackson’s “When Asked How to Remember”, Nikky Finney’s “The Girlfriend’s Train“, Leah Silvieus’ “Migration”, and Monet Cooper’s “We Are Witness To Their Murders”.

Writing for self-survival is necessary. It is one way to ensure those in our future have a larger picture of their history to pull from.

April 2019 : Self-portraits

The Ars Poetica and the Self-Portrait are both useful mechanisms to self-discovery and reclamation. Our April workshop dealt with the self-portrait. We looked at all kinds of poets, enjoying their different approaches to a self-portrait.

Adam Zagajewski, a Polish poet, offers a modern snapshot of what surrounds him that then defines him. Afaa Michael Weaver is both himself and not himself in his self-portrait. A.K. Ramanujan doesn’t quite recognize himself in his reflection. Frances Justine’s “Self-Portrait in the Body of a Whale” starts with a line of truth and then allows her imagination to walk through. Robert Creeley distances himself from the person he could become or, closer now to the end, he is showing himself the person he wants to be, the fighter to the end of his life. Donika Kelly offers “Self-Portrait as a Door“, which suggests she is an access point for the world just outside herself. “Self-Portrait As A Highway” by Sarah Hart is a personal favorite because I love the discovery that unfolds from an open road.

Some self-portrait poems are expressions of what has impacted us, or what cannot be fully expressed. Rebecca Hazelton, in “Self-Portrait as Unsent Lines, Unsent Letter“, is a letter – never sent – which reveals the hurt now increasingly distant that can change us. San Antonio gem, Carolina Hinojosa-Cisneros, offers “Self-Portrait as Bone” in her new chapbook Becoming Cozozotl. The poem is short but speaks to generations of womanhood. Sarah Davies’ “At fifteen, Mother called to me by the name of our dog” finds similarities in unexpected family members. And, to close, Dean Rader’s “Self Portrait as Wikipedia Entry” would be fun to use as a prompt. The prose piece incorporates wiki links within it.

Self-portraits can be developed with any number of approaches, from a daily snapshot to an enveloping family history to an image of your future self to whatever surrounds you. Play with the idea! Consider a portrait done once a month or on the same day every year to see where you are in that moment.

March 2019 : Reimagining/Reclaiming Home

The idea of home is exhausting. This month we looked at small ways we create home, often when the home we knew is no longer accessible to us. Memory does a lot redefine home. C.P. Cavafy’s “The Afternoon Sun” recalls a room with its own memories. In the same vein are poems by William Carlos Williams (“This Is Just To Say“), M.S. Merwin (“When You Go Away“), and Philip Larkin (“Home is so Sad“). How are the spaces full with our memories transformed by distance? How are places we recognize made different or fresh when they are repurposed or reimagined?

The New York Times features a series called “Modern Love”. One of my favorite poets, Maggie Smith, has a piece in the series called “Tracking the Demise of My Marriage on Google Maps“. She tells the stories behind the images caught from google maps. Consider the stories you could tell based on a map. Or of the same house, one year apart for the life of a relationship.

There are strong correlations between where a poet calls home and where they learn to define themselves. Tim Ellison’s “How We Belong Somewhere” asks “How does a poet come to belong to a place? Who are the poets of our American places?” Think of the place you live now or where you came from. How is your writing defined by your home? Consider Natasha Trethewey’s “Pilgrimage“, about the Mississippi River.

And what of those homes you cannot reach or that are temporary? Barbara Jane Reyes’ “dear love,” makes it tangible. It’s a reminder that the missing formulates a kind of home in the heart. Write a letter of a place you once called home even if it wasn’t. This needn’t be a physical home but can be a kind of relationship.

And I closed with a previously unpublished letter from Zora Neale Hurston. She had many interests and her hussle was real. She worked actively to create home where she was and, to document through different research and writing, how African Americans created home. What might your writing speak to in the future? What root do you have within you that comes through in your writing?

February 2019 : Incorporating fun into writing (games, tricks for editing, building cadence through music)

Start with a free write. Whether it was the best day ever or the worst, spend 5 minutes jotting those things that are crowding the brain. If there’s nothing really, try writing the chronology of your day, from wake up to now.

Lyall Watson (botanist, anthropologist, writer) said “A rose is a rose, but it is also a robin and a rabbit.” Lyall Watson was also the writer who helped introduce the idea of inanimate objects carrying energy from what it belonged to, like a woman losing a ring and catching a fish 20 years later who had that very ring in its belly.

Using this as a writing prompt, choose a creature (person, animal, being of some kind) and an inanimate object. Write a paragraph about each. Then write one connecting the two. Then another connecting them 30 years later.

Nate Marshall’s poem “Palindrome” is a unique poem, with a story at its center that undoes itself. The central figure changes as the story is undone. Note how often the writer utilizes “un-” and other word choices to backtrack. The end of the piece, after much unveiling, reveals what they do not yet know and how it still informs them. Attempt a similar story. It can be difficult to keep the emotional openness and questioning within the Marshall piece but work through it. I mean, how often are there stories about ourselves we wish we could undo? Historically, what stories could we undo?

Ross Gay’s “A Poem In Which I Try To Express My Glee At The Music My Friend Has Given Me” is a jump off poem, taking leaps while enjoying music or the joy of friendship and sharing and creativity. As an exercise, find a piece of music. Try writing to it, incorporating its rhythms and crescendo within your poem. Or break the music down like Tara Betts in “Hip Hop Analogies“.

Another exercise: Pull 20 to 30 words from a song whose lyrics you can recall. Jot them down. Remove half the words but aim to keep understandable phrasing. Then remove another third of the words. Look at what you have left and, if necessary, add a word or punctuation to clarify the message.

Here’s what I did with some lyrics from the classic Cuban song “Lagrimas Negras”:

  1. que tu me quieres dejar / yo no quiero sufrir / contigo me voy mi santa / aunque me cuesta morir
  2. me quieres / no quiero / contigo me voy / me cuesta
  3. me quieres / [estar] contigo me cuesta

This technique can be used to distill something you are having trouble getting to the root of, or to better understand a writing’s message. Or, you can create a one line poem!

Several in the class spoke to wanting to write more consistently. That’s something we all, as writers, desire and life gets in the way. Crafting a writing life, however, is about perspective. Duriel E. Harris’ blog essay has invites us to write about those things that occupy our time instead of writing. One of the responses is a crafted playlist – something to definitely consider to benefit your own writing. I created a soundtrack for my latest book.

Self-imposed homework: write down what you need in your determined space to support your writing. Also, write a list of all those things you want to write about. Every thing, no matter how undeveloped.

And you know me: I’m gonna try to sell you on the quick entry journal. The Journey app is my favorite. One to two lines or one to two paragraphs every other day. It’s helpful for processing ideas.

January 2019 : Conversation (looking at epistolary poems, conversations, and direct address)

First readings: Dorianne Laux’s new work “Ideas of Heaven“; “Conversation” by Ai, and “The Conversation” by Sandra Beasley

Writing to Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus“. Pull one opening phrase or line from this poem and begin a kind of response.

Writing to James Joyce’s excerpt from “Ulysses“. Write some positive moment or idea as told to another – small, beautiful thing – and interject it with yes. As the moment is told, increase the moments of yes.

Read only the first stanza of Carl Phillips’ “To Be Worn Openly at the Wrist, or at the Chest and Hidden“. Using only this first stanza as a guide, make yourself a god. Introduce yourself within your piece using direct address.

Ntozake Shange recently passed away, leaving critical work in acknowledgement of our ancestors and and light within ourselves. Consider “for my dead and loved ones“, a poem that is lighthearted but still necessary. Another of Shange’s poems, “who am i thinkin of”, has us consider who we are writing to and for.

Louise Bogan offers small, terrible truths akin to Emily Dickinson in her tone. Her work is a good reminder on word choice within direct address – how it can affect the narrator’s voice in getting a message across, even if economical.

We close out the evening with two pieces. An Li’s “And again I stare at my chest as if waiting for it to bloom”, let’s us link the innocuous question from an optometry to the questions laid uot before us every day. We closed with Willie Perdomo’s new piece, “That’s My Heart Right There“, which is something so many of us heard in the streets while growing up, something we want to be told and feel – the importance we are to another person. Willie always tells it right. In this case it’s accessible and immediate.

Challenge for this month: daily writing can be difficult to complete and when we fail we start, sometimes, a downward spiral of never writing! For this year try to increase your writing with journaling apps like Journey. There’s no need to go in-depth. A line or two of a color you saw all day or someone you connected with it a discussion you overheard. All of this can be fodder for later writing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s