Overwhelmed, Worried, Lonely, Lost? Me too. Maybe we can find some solace in poetry

To paraphrase W.H. Auden, in the wake of COVID-19 there’s a silence that’s washed over the suburbs of Fairfield County. It’s eerie and awful, and were we allowed to travel in these days of national quarantine, we would surely be met with its echo in every city and rural county, on every quiet highway and empty country road, across our own country and throughout the world.

The humans are hibernating and the quieter murmur of the natural world reigns. Meanwhile, the noise of political rhetoric, amplified by social media, is as loud and bewildering as it’s ever been. These past few weeks, I’ve found myself getting lost in both extremes. Confronted by longer stretches of silence, we become attuned to the music of nature – the tap of rain against thawing ground, a faint sound of creaking as the wind bends a nearby tree. Snapping on the television to watch press conferences and catch up on the latest safeguards for my family’s health on 24-hour news channels, I’m confronted with a feeling of historical vertigo. The auspiciousness of this moment is apparent, but how do I make sense of it when I am living it? How do any of us?

Poetry doesn’t provide answers, but it gives us – at least it has always given me – a language for expressing and understanding the uncertainty of the present moment. On May 2, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., I’ll be leading a virtual workshop, “Accessing Your Inner Poet,” designed to help participants read and connect to some wonderful contemporary poetry and generate poems of their own.

My hope is that this workshop, hosted by Westport Writers Workshop, will provide a space to make some sense of what we’ve all been experiencing in this unusual time of trauma and uncertainty. And yet, I recognize the seeming flippancy of touting a poetry workshop in an affluent suburb in the midst of a pandemic that’s hitting communities of color particularly hard, that’s exacerbating already historic disparities in health outcomes between rich and poor, that’s placing healthcare workers and retail employees at risk, that’s pushing thousands of Americans out of the workforce and into poverty, and that’s betraying the weakness of an already frayed social safety net.

As a cancer survivor I am at greater risk than many. I have relatives who are healthcare workers. I am currently caring for and home-schooling my special needs child without the help of many of the doctors, therapists and resources he needs to thrive. Even as I recognize that I have not been as directly affected by the virus or the economic downturn as many others, that I am not sick or grieving, that I am not homeless, incarcerated or experiencing food insecurity, I also know that I am experiencing trauma. If we are conscious and paying attention, we all are: we are worried about loved ones; we are grieving; we are falling ill or recovering from illness; we are unable to make sense of the frailty of the body and the capriciousness of contagion.

Perhaps no era is uneventful. Perhaps every generation feels as if it stands at the center of a whirlwind of event and consequence. I certainly feel as if my adulthood has consisted of a succession of momentous and traumatizing world events and paradigm-altering occurrences. It is in times like these, when we are confronted by events that sew confusion and chaos, that we most need poetry.

In his book, “The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century,” John Burnside explains that poetry “nourishes us, it contributes to our grieving and our healing processes, it gives focus to our loves and to our fears, allowing us to sing them, at the back of our minds, in a deliberate and disciplined transformation of noise into music, of grief into acceptance, of anger at pointless destruction into a determination to save at least something of what remains.” We are living through the history of an especially painful moment. We feel it. And confronted by its trauma, it is easy – too easy – to fall into the trap of looking for solace in the banality of false aphorisms: “it could be worse,” “this too shall pass,” “everything will work out in the end.” They form themselves as easily as weeds, filling the awkward pauses of our conversations. They are as unsatisfying as they are unconvincing. Even as we utter them, we recognize their falseness.

Poetry, with its savage honesty, its ability to express beauty and pain and solace simultaneously, can provide a more satisfying and deeper container for our grief and confusion. Percy Shelley observed that, “poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world.” Lately, it seems that history is working hard to expose this hiddenness as well. Suddenly homebound, we have been afforded a rare glimpse of what the world might be, what it might sound like, without the cacophony that has characterized modern humanity.

For once, we humans have been forced to clear the roads, shelter in place and exit the spotlight. Meanwhile, the rest of creation has emerged from the periphery, demanding overdue attention. For the artist, for the writer, for anyone seeking the solace that comes from understanding our relative unimportance and impermanence, it is a gift worth contemplating.

Writing as Healing: Why I’m nervous about tonight’s writing workshop

This evening, thanks to Westport Writers Workshop, I will be leading a writing workshop at my local women’s shelter. It’s a workshop I’ve been wanting to lead for a long time, and I’m nervous about it.

I’ve been teaching writing for about 12 years now – to college students, to adults, to autistic and neurotypical teens. But tonight is different. Or maybe it isn’t at all.

Let me back up.

I am a sexual assault survivor. I am a survivor of generational domestic abuse. Over the years, for as long as I can remember, writing has saved me. Sometimes I turn my back on it, sometimes I forget about its healing power, or even fear it. But every time I go back to it, it saves me again.

I want to help other survivors learn how to access that lifeline, if it is the right one for them. I want to help them find and have confidence in their voice. I want to help them claim and declare their truth and find strength from the process that leads them there. I want them to have something that is entirely of them, and also magical and powerful, and also under their control.

From almost the moment I learned to write, writing kept me sane, kept me alive. Before that, imaginative and creative play, storytelling and story making kept me – or at least some vital part of me – emotionally safe in moments when I was not physically safe. In moments when I most needed it, in the aftermath of trauma, and sometimes even as trauma unfolded around me, I could always find it.

During times of illness or loss, writing has helped me heal, or at least salved the wounds and scabbed over the broken places well enough to help me survive. I want to guide others in their writing so they can access written expression and their writer’s voice for healing too.

Writing isn’t the only way I’ve worked to heal. More than twenty years ago, and after many years of therapy, I decided to become certified as a crisis counselor so I could work on a hotline for the local sexual assault crisis center in the city where I then lived. The therapeutic strategies we employed will be familiar to anyone trained to work with survivors of sexual assault or intimate partner abuse. We would strive from the first moments of interaction to give the survivor back her or his agency.

I’ll illustrate. If I was speaking to someone who had called the hotline, I might say: “I would like to talk to you for a while. Is that something you would like to do? My name is Lisa. Do you want to give me your name, or would you prefer not to?” If I was meeting a client at the hospital, I might say “Would you like a glass of water? I’m happy to try to get you anything I can. Would you like me to stay during the exam? It’s completely up to you.” This may seem counterintuitive. The person I was interacting with had called a hotline or had asked for a victim advocate to be with them. So why all the questions? Because intimate violence robs victims of their agency at the most basic level – at the threshold of the body. With every question we were repairing that rupture.

Years later, when I began taking writing workshops inspired by the Amherst method, I was struck by some key similarities. Writing group leaders using this methodology offer prompts, but also make clear to participants that they can choose to ignore the prompt and write about anything they want during the time allotted. They can choose to share or not share. They can write toward pain or back away from it, or shift topics at any point. The instructor guides, but the writer is in charge of their writing journey.

I’ll be employing a modified Amherst-inspired writing workshop with a half dozen survivors tonight, along with two certified counselors. There will be no “critique”; only supportive feedback about moments in the writing that spoke to us. This is another hallmark of the Amherst method: no tearing anyone else’s writing down when it is in its most vulnerable fledgling state. I want to keep the space safe and empowering. I want to guide the participants through the writing workshop I wish I had been able to attend when I was at my most raw moments of healing. It’s a tall order. I promise to do my best.

Photo by Louis Bauer from Pexels.com

A New Edition for my book, The History of Puerto Rico, will come out in 2021

My publisher, Greenwood Publishing, part of ABC-Clio, has asked me to complete a second edition for The History of Puerto Rico, which came out in 2010. I cannot believe it has been 10 years! In that time so much has happened – environmentally, economically and politically – on the island.


The new edition will include at least two new chapters, one on the status issue and one on Puerto Rico in the Trump era. I can’t wait to get started!

Westport Writers Workshop Asks Me 5 Questions

In advance of upcoming writing workshops I’ll be leading at Westport Writers Workshop, I answered a few questions about my reading and writing life, including what I’m currently reading – Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, which I am reading in this adorably palm of my hand-sized edition from Picador – and my favorite writing quote, which at the moment is from poet/visual artist Matthea Harvey. Read more here.

Leveraging Your Lyric Voice in Prose

Image is of artist David Krakow’s sculpture honoring the life of Rabbi Yossi Raichik. Each metal butterfly in the sculpture represents the life of one of the children the rabbi saved in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. https://bitrebels.com/design/book-of-life-beautiful-butterflies-burst-from-this-stunning-book/

This Saturday, Nov. 9, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. I will be leading a workshop at the Westport Writers Workshop titled Leveraging Lyricism. In this generative workshop we will focus on poetic passages by prose writers, among them, Hilary Mantel, Justin Torres, Eduardo Galeano and Yasunari Kawabata, to explore how they leverage lyricism within their prose to underscore moments of emotional or thematic resonance. We will brainstorm ways to do the same in our own prose projects. But the bulk of the workshop will focus on strategies and generative prompts designed to access the hidden lyricism within each participant’s writing voice. For more information, contact the Westport Writers Workshop.

Leveraging Poetry in Your Writing

I’ll be teaching two one-day seminars for Westport Writers’ Workshop this October and November.

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The first, Accessing Your Inner Poet, on Saturday, October 26, will emphasize the flexibility and accessibility of contemporary poetry. Designed for writers who love poetry, miss poetry, and/or are a bit intimidated by trying their hand at poetry, during this workshop we will read poetry together, explore ways to draft and craft poetry, as well as ways to employ it within prose. The bulk of the workshop will be dedicated to generative prompts and sharing our work in a safe, judgment-free environment.

The second workshop, Leveraging Lyricism, on Saturday, November 9, will focus on exploring the work of contemporary poets who also write prose and discovering how they leverage lyricism within prose to underscore moments of emotional or thematic resonance. We will brainstorm ways to do the same in our own prose projects. The bulk of the workshop will focus on strategies and generative prompts designed to access the hidden lyricism within each participant’s writing voice.

Please come join me! Westport Writers’ Workshop has been the site of great inspiration and writerly communion for me, and I look forward to creating an equally useful and creatively nurturing environment for participants.

Poetry for Everyone!

I’ve been asked to teach a new poetry course at Westport Writers Workshop this summer, and I’m very excited about it. It’s grown since the last time I taught there four years ago. There are new spaces, new instructors and many new workshop options for writers at all levels.

I just finished up taking “The Journey of Writing for Women” with Valerie Ann Leff, and it was amazing. I think I finally have an organizing principle for my memoir thanks to Val’s approach, and I can’t wait to try out some of her prompts and approaches in my own workshop, which will run Friday mornings from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. June 21, 28, July 12, 19, 26 and August 2. Contact westportwriters.org for more information.

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