Survive… or thrive?

Meg came back! After four weeks in the Northeast working on her own dance practice, Ms. Brooker was able to grace us with her presence today. We decided to begin a new project: a six week writing workshop that will culminate in a printed collection of the women’s work. Today, we discussed the theme of the workshop and wrote our first piece together.

I also learned today that our beloved Officer Warren is moving to another building. The officers get moved around the facility and Officer Warren’s time with us is up. I’m disappointed because he has been solicitous, kind and helpful and I’m afraid that the officer who’s replacing him won’t be. The appointments are supposed to last two years but Officer Warren got a full four in the education building, so I guess I should be thankful I got to meet him at all. I wish him luck in his new posting and hope that he was able to pass on some of his unruffled demeanor to his replacement.

So many new women this week! The group changes gradually but some weeks I get to meet seven or eight new women and try to memorize their names, knowing that I might never see them again. Today, five women came in late after going to a GED class, something that has never happened before. They missed the warmups but jumped right in anyway and one even mentioned with surprise, “Hey, I like this class!”

They walked in as we were discussing what the theme of the workshop should be. “Surviving after jail,” “surviving in jail,” “surviving with family,” “relationships – how to keep them strong,” “loneliness (for people who don’t have any friends or family to support them while they’re in jail),” and several others.

“There’s a larger idea of survival running through all of these,” I said, looking at the whiteboard. “Can we say that the larger theme of this is survival?” They assented. I’m so glad that I asked because I never would have thought of this one on my own. As Meg noticed, this also gives us the chance to talk about what it means to do more than just survive – we thought it could be a game show: Survive… or Thrive? A Family Feud type game where we all decide what constitutes living well versus just getting by.

After all the intro stuff, we moved into today’s exercise – writing an exquisite corpse poem. I am forever indebted to the fine folks at the Unicorn Theatre in London for introducing me to this exercise at a development workshop. I’ve used it several times, always to great effect. It goes something like this: look at interesting images (or be in an interesting space), brainstorm words that come into your mind from those images, write all the words down, do some other theatre-y, creative-y exercises sort of related to the images or words to really get into a creative headspace, then go back to the words. Everyone picks two (either blindly or the ones they like but no one can have the same words) and writes a line of a poem with them. The trick is that they write one after another on the same sheet of paper, and the paper gets folded so that each person only sees the line before hers.

Ours goes something like this:

“Contradictions”

My ancient lord spits flaming red fire!
      Finding serenity can be dynamic,
dreaming of the love that’s waiting for me at home,
Living a life plain and simple, yet full of peace.

Sometimes I feel like I’m in the underworld.
     and feel like I need Zumbalta.
With a neverending thought of this man called the protector,
Surrounded by nature,
      a classical battle begins. 

I get anger and then I get sexy:
the coolness is in the eye of the beholder. 

My time of relaxing has started with my future.
My eruption has caused me to be defensive.

I love how this way of writing takes people into places they would never go on their own. All of the poems that I’ve seen to come out of this are surreal, otherworldly and strange in wonderful ways. That may be because I usually pick somewhat otherworldly themes to work with, but they are rarely literal. Meg is also great about bringing in abstract ideas and taking the group to nonverbal spaces.

We did soundscapes after we looked at the images, before we wrote the poem. The mall was our first go. Closing our eyes, we each picked one sound at the mall to create. I heard cash registers, begging children, shopping bags, walking feet, people chatting, cell phones, and samples being offered. A football game came next, with cheerleaders, football announcers, the beer guy, cheers and fans talking. We then picked one of the images, an underwater scene in which a man was surrounded by a school of fish.

“Don’t worry about being realistic,” I said. “This could be a scene on another planet or in a fantasy world. Those fish could be talking!” Everyone laughed but when we closed our eyes and made the soundscape, I heard all sorts of strange and wonderful noises. Swishes and water sounds, someone saying, “Keep swimming, keep swimming”, then a “don’t attack me!” and someone saying the alphabet (It’s a school of fish – they’re in school!), and that kind of humming you hear when you’re underwater. It was great and we all laughed when we ended it and opened our eyes.

The one hitch in today’s class was a woman, Ms. T, who absolutely refuses to participate. At all. She’s not angry about it, not rude but she quietly sits outside of whatever circle we form and won’t engage. This is the second class where she’s done this and I’m a bit at a loss. I asked her at the end today, “Is there anything we can do make you comfortable enough to participate?”

“No,” she answered. “I don’t open up to groups easily.”

“Well,” I replied, “next time, could you sit in the circle with us? Not participate, just sit with us?”

She shook her head.

“I would really appreciate it if you did,” I said and then they all left. I really don’t want to make a scene in class, especially since this woman might have more willpower than I do when it comes to standing her ground, but it’s not okay for someone to sit out the whole time when we are doing this somewhat silly but also somewhat vulnerable work. If someone really wants to sit out in an exercise, I’ll have them observe and then share their observations but she won’t even be engaged at that level. The women sign up for PRIDE and are expected to participate – it’s a privilege to be in the program. While I certainly don’t want to traumatize this woman by forcing into uncomfortable situations, I also can’t pretend she’s not there, which is what ended up happening today. If she doesn’t at least inch towards me next week, I’m going to have to get a plan into place. For now, we’ll wait and see.

If anyone knows any printers who might be willing to donate some printing and binding for our upcoming collection of writing, please let me know! I’m excited about where this project is going – I’ve seen some remarkable writing come out of our class and I’m eager to share it.

-Katherine Craft

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