Friday, April 17, 2009

Moving Toward Authenticity: Connecting with Self, Others, and Nature Through Transformative Language Arts

Within and around the earth,
Within and around the hills,
Within and around the mountains,
Your authority returns to you.

–A Tewa Pueblo Prayer

The poem, above, has great significance, for it is in the context of the earth, hills, and mountains–indeed, the landscapes in which we live, move, and breathe–that we express and embrace our own unique authority, connecting with those other sentient beings–human and other-than-human–with whom we share this planet.

Through the creative arts, whether it be dancing, painting, or transformative language arts, people can discover and affirm their own unique authority, bringing forth and embracing that which is most authentic about themselves.

The Story of Sherry

Forty-five years old and severely depressed, “Sherry” (name changed to maintain confidentiality) was admitted to a mental health treatment center after a failed suicide attempt.

While on shift one evening at the center, I discovered that one of Sherry’s interests was poetry-writing. So I knocked on her door and invited her to write poems together.

“Sure,” she said, “but then I’m going back to bed.”

So we sat at a table, picked out words from a bowl, and used these words as springboards for our poems. After sharing our creations, we spoke about Sherry’s interest in poetry-writing.

When Sherry’s condition had improved somewhat, she handed me a poem that she had found in a magazine. The poem dealt with issues of separation and loss, much like those Sherry had experienced through the loss of her marriage. Eventually, she shared with me a poem that she herself had written. In it, she spoke about her desire to “embrace change.”

Prior to her departure from the center, Sherry told me that she had begun to write poems regularly. She reflected on the poetry-writing process and how it had helped her unlock emotions and begin to work through her depression. Then she handed me a poem in which she spoke about her desire to “learn new things” and “create something new” in her life. She described the poetry-writing process as a way of “breaking up the log jam.”

Poetry-writing was not a magic pill for Sherry, but it did give her an opportunity to begin to work through her depression and to gain some perspective on her divorce. In the short time that I knew her, I witnessed her gradually opening up as she began to express herself through poetry.
A Consideration of Terms

The words “healing” and “transformation” are both employed in transformative language arts environments. The word heal derives from the Anglo-Saxon word haelan, to heal. Related words include hale, meaning in good health, or sound; and holy. Transform derives from the French transformer, which means to change the form of, to give a new form to, or to metamorphose. Whereas the word heal implies restoration to a state of wholeness or health, transform implies movement toward a new state of being.

One of the goals of the transformative language arts process is to restore one’s sense of wholeness. Another is to create the conditions whereby transformation is possible.

...Whoever you are, no matter how lonely
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

From “Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver

How does transformative language arts help us deepen our connections with self, others, and nature? Three core tenets are critical to the process.

First, everyone in the group has something unique and valuable to share. As part of the group, people announce their place in the “family of things” through the words they speak, the poems they share, and even through the simple act of announcing their name at the start of every group session.

Second, everything in nature is divine. This tenet is reflected in the way in which everyone in group is treated with integrity and respect. We listen deeply, speak from the heart, and practice confidentiality. Respect extends beyond the human community to include Raven, Spider, Cedar, indeed, anything we bring into the process by way of the imagination, experience, memory, or dreams.

The third tenet, we are all connected, is reflected in the words of Walt Whitman, in his poem “We Two, How Long We Were Fooled.” He says,
...We are Nature, long have we been absent, but
now we return,
We become plants, trunks, foliage, roots, bark,
We are bedded in the ground,
We are rocks,
We are oaks, we grow in the openings side by side...

In group, we discover and express our own essential nature and honor that of others. When we meet, we seat ourselves in a circle, ancient symbol of wholeness, totality, and completion.

I am one who
eats his breakfast
gazing at morning glories.
Matsuo Bash

Poetic stems, creating springboards from poetic lines, and using visuals or aromas are among the many tools employed to help us re-connect with self, others, and nature. Poetic stems invite people to add their own responses to lines of poetry. The line “I am one who,” from the poem, above, can evoke such responses as “I am one who likes to laugh,” “I am one who loves the ocean,” or “I am one who feels sad.” I remember the time an individual responded, “I am one who does not want to share.” We move toward authenticity.

Other poetic stems include “If you don’t know the kind of person I am....” (William Stafford) “I am so thankful I have seen...” (Alice Walker), and “In time of silver rain, the earth...” (Langston Hughes). The goal of poetic stems is to give people an opportunity to share something unique and honest about themselves.

Springboards are similar to poetic stems, except that lines are used as springboards into longer poems. An excellent example of a springboard is the line, “I have roads in me...” from the poem of the same title by Jimmy Santiago Baca. People begin with the line, then follow it into a poem. In practice, poetic stems and springboards can be utilized interchangeably. It is simply a matter of how the facilitator elects to use them.

Other evocative writing approaches include writing in response to visuals, such as photographs or post cards; to items from nature, such as sand dollars or stones; or to aromas. Aroma vials–including rosemary, chocolate, cinnamon, or coffee–stimulate the olfactory sense, but also the sense of taste. Through the memories evoked, they can lead us into a whole pallette of experiences about which to write.


And what if my words,
my fledgling poems,
were children, were toddlers
trying first steps,
tumbling, skinning knees,
squealing with glee,
splashing mud,
making a mess,
discovering themselves?

Would I hold them
at arm’s distance,
disown them, hide them,
say what I imagine
others will think—
that, after all, they
really aren’t very good?...

From “As They Are,” by Barbara McEnerney

While working at the hospital recently, I invited a patient to participate in an expressive arts circle that I was facilitating. The patient declined, stating, “When I was a kid, I was told that most kids can do art, but that I was the one exception. Ever since that time, I have not done art.”
The above example serves to illustrate one of the reasons that critique is not part of the transformative language arts process. Critique can cut off the creative flow at the very time an individual is beginning to open up. Therefore, one of the group covenants is that we operate from a place of curiosity, rather than critique.

Operating from the curiosity model, people can say anything they want to about their poem–how they came to write it, feelings and emotions it evokes, or how it is related to events going on in their life. When finished, they may invite reflections from the group. Reflections include listening to the poem and selecting from it a detail that stands out. It can be an image, line, or word; or it can be a memory, association, or question the poem evokes. The curiosity model helps support the atmosphere of safety, security, and trust, which is another goal of the transformative language arts process.


Transformative Language Arts, as practiced by myself and others in the field, continues to evolve. Recently, for example, I introduced group drumming into the process, this as a way of helping people move closer to the underlying pulse of language and of providing a unifying experience before writing. I am also working with authentic movement practitioner Elizabeth Russell, co-director of Bodies in Balance, in Portland, OR, to integrate transformative language arts with authentic movement.

We are all creative. It is our birthright as human beings. When we tap these resources in an atmosphere of safety, security, and respect; when we share from a place of openness and honesty, we move toward wholeness and authenticity. Through the creative arts, we are all connected to the sacred web of life.

Brian Moore holds an MA in Transformative Language Arts from Goddard College, in VT, and a certification in poetry therapy. Director of the Cascadia Arts and Healing Center, in Eugene, he facilitates transformative language arts groups at the Pathways Learning Center and the Sacred Heart Medical Center, in Eugene. He also facilitates Healing Landscapes, a writing group exploring the connections between the expressive arts and deep ecology. For further information about Brian and his work, or for information about upcoming workshops and events, contact the Cascadia Arts and Healing Center, in Eugene, at (541) 543-6380. For information about Body Story, Tree Story, an integrated transformative writing and authentic movement workshop, contact the Cascadia Arts and Healing Center, or go to

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Audacity of Reflection Conference

The Audacity of Reflection Conference: Reflecting on How We Lead, will be held March 27 through 29, 2009, UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, 760 Westwood Plaza, Los Angeles, California 90024. Conference Director: Arthur D. Colman, M.D. and Associate Conference Director: Shahin Sakhi, M.D., Ph. D.
On-line registration and details at:

This group experiential learning is for those who are interested in experiencing groups have life of their own, how groups of various sizes act differently on their members and at the same time are reflective of this collective and society at large. This conference is for those who are interested in learning how to function better in groups, understand symptoms and signs of group(s) dysfunction as well as efficiency, those who are interested in learning how to lead or follow better by recognizing their authority and its relationship to their task, to emerging roles, and to their institutions' mission, and those who are interested in learning how to be more efficient citizens of any small or large group in our society.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Singing Children: A Poem by Itoro Udofia

Singing Children

by Itoro Udofia

I hear the children singing against the mourning dove’s cry
They tread red earth and praise a blue sky
They eat the raw cocoa
They tell me it’s sweet
I’ve tasted it too
I say, “Too bitter to eat.”
I hear them humming
I’ll try to hum too
I’m no longer a child
But I can still stay in tune
My notes scurry to run with these children of the sun
They sing to me that I cry too much, singing,
“Mother! Give us your teardrops. We’ll drop some in our eyes
We’ll cry into the soil and help you sprout more life
When you can cry no longer
We’ll cry the final batch out
If we do things this way
There’ll be enough crying to go around
One day we’ll cry less. Laugh more
One day we’ll cry less. Laugh more.”
Sing the children against the mourning dove’s cry
They tread red earth and praise a blue sky
They eat raw cocoa
They tell me it’s sweet
I’ve tasted it too
I say, “Too bitter to eat.”
I say, “Soon. Too bitter for you to eat.”

Itoro Udofia resides in Northampton, MA. She is a student at Smith College and a lover of the written and performed word. She believes in the healing powers of music, performance, language and service and is a happier person because of it. She thanks her family and friends for being loving and nurturing.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Terry Hauptman & Jerry Geier: Veiled Lineage

Please come and join the artists of Veiled Lineage: Jerry Geier & Terry Hauptman, as they interact with fellow drummers and poets from the community for a night celebration and exploration of their mediums. Terry Hauptman will be reading samples of her critically acclaimed poetry while Jerry Geier collaborates musically.

All are welcome to participate
First Friday Art Walk and Exhibition Event
Firehouse Gallery 135 Church Street
Burlington, Vermont
Friday, February 6

Monday, January 12, 2009

Barbara Esrig on StoryCorps on the Power of Stories to Heal

Barbara Esrig tells the story of surviving a car accident that nearly took her life and finding meaning through the power of words -- and her story is now featured on the StoryCorps site. Barbara is writer-in-residence in the Shands Arts-in-Medicine program in Gainesville, FL. where she does oral histories for patients to remind them that they are more than just a diagnosis. She's presently collaborating on a book on these oral histories as well as writing about her own work. Listen to her story and check out her amazing work. Barbara has been a frequent attendee at the Power of Words conference, and she has been active in the field of TLA for many years.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Valerie Harris Wins Transformation Award from Leeway Foundation!

TLA member, Valerie Harris is a recipient of the 2008 Transformation Award from the Leeway Foundation. The award is given to 13 women in Philadelphia, PA and the surrounding area whose art over the past 5 years impacts social change in their communities. Valerie received the award in Literature for her community-based Writers Academy/Teen Writers Academy workshops, publishing, and documentary video projects. The Transformation Award comes with a purse of $15,000. Valerie plans to use part of the funds to complete production of "A Highway Runs Through It..." a documentary that she has written and is producing on the history and current issues of the African American community in Darby Township, a once rural enclave on the outskirts of Philadelphia that has been threatened by redevelopment efforts. The documentary project evolved from a 10-week memoir writing workshop Valerie delivered at a senior center in Darby Township in 2006.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Writing Ourselves Home While Living with Cancer by Kirsten Andersen

The Callanish Society is a small, grassroots non-profit organization based in Vancouver, Canada. Dedicated to improving the emotional and spiritual health of its community, Callanish assists those with an experience of cancer in their lives to explore illness and/or death openly and consciously.

Week-long retreats and ongoing support programs are offered by a team of health care professionals and volunteers who believe that communities can develop resilience in the face of illness and healing, loss and death, by coming together in a process of authentic dialogue and in an in-depth exploration of what it means to heal emotionally and spiritually while living with, or dying from, cancer.

The desire for this depth of exploration naturally lends itself to the use of arts as a means of healing. Through the years, Callanish community members have experienced and witnessed extraordinary transformation through the use of art, music and sound, meditation and circles of support. Writing, therefore, seemed a natural addition to further engage in authentic dialogue about what it means to heal, and, in the spring of 2008, Callanish Writes was born.

Coming together to write as a group for the first time, we “landed” in our new space by considering our origins – who we are, who we were. Utilizing the Amherst Writers and Artists’ (AWA) method pioneered by author Pat Schneider, reading out loud for the first time, writing poetry and responding to each other’s work were firsts for many of us and opened a vast door of possibility.

As the weeks passed, we began to examine the terrain of cancer, from diagnosis to the scars that adorn the body and the mind. We wrote about “gooey emotions,” and gave “cause to pause” on the matters of life, with and without cancer, with and without answers.

Through language, we traveled from the icy peaks of Patagonia to the streets of New York City with a “llama in a limo.” We visited “forests of faith” and mourned “days of hope renewed, but ended.”

Each week we found beautiful and pithy words to “throw off the tongue” and “the grace to move on.” Together, we continued to “let the light (and the bedbugs) bite,” because we had the reassurance that whatever came out on paper could be held by the group - the same support that is such an integral part of the Callanish culture.

Callanish writer, Peter S. reflects on his experience as a participant: When I immersed myself in the inaugural Callanish Writes group, my lymphoma had been stable for a year. Psychologically torn between euphoria for having beat the “Big C” to waiting for the hammer to come down in a possible relapse, I participated in the workshops with an open mind and spirit.

I rediscovered my inner voice, which had eluded me since diagnosis. I was astonished at how concealed words flowed onto the page, and the powerful reaction they evoked. I was humbled sharing the sacred inner thoughts of my fellow writers as they too struggled to articulate their own struggles and perspectives on this journey with cancer. As the weeks passed, writing “in community” was a powerful tool for healing. [I experienced] fear, trust, forgiveness, acceptance, and, most important…love.

Fellow Callanish writer, Eva M., adds: For many of us that have been diagnosed with cancer it is difficult to be truly honest with loved ones about the fear, the trauma, the frustrations that we encounter. For their sake we show our positive outlook. The workshop provided a context which permitted, in fact, encouraged, all expressions that might be locked inside, including the humourous. The group dynamic also allowed each of us to feel less isolated as we discovered similar responses from our fellow writers. Herein evolved the quality of community, sharing the struggles and the laughter.

For Callanish writer Robin F., utilizing the written word as a means of personal exploration was “liberating”: After 60-plus years, I learned to befriend my critics, enough to politely excuse myself from their presence.

Robin further reflects:

A Discovery: Words flowed
Surprising: I made a group of people laugh
Shocking: I spoke in a group of people
More shocking: I spoke my own truth, my own words
Even more astonishing: They listened and responded
Profound: As cancer became one mere aspect of my life, writing became a warm, wondrous expression for me. A welcome tool.
Writing is no longer something I have to do as a chore with feelings of inadequacy.

Powerful: As a result of participating in the workshop I also am aware that to my behavior in all groups has shifted: I am present! With friends, peers, family, experts, colleagues and classmates. I no longer sit in tension, distracted by the fears and critics that used to surround me. Truly transformational.

Eight sessions and thousands of words later, the group published its first collection of writing, Callanish Writes, Volume I, in April of 2008. The brave work of this inaugural group has paved the way for others in the community to explore the written word as a means of transformation and healing during and after illness. As the final entry of the collection, writer Leah C’s poem, “I am,” beautifully articulates the return to wholeness we each seek as part of this ongoing exploration. May such dialogue with ourselves and our community always be part of the journey.

I am

I am
I sense it
the soul cells
taste of wine
a curved neck
and stilltime
the cathedral
a silent mantra
to Mary
or White Tara
on the radiation table
Watching water
and making
its music
beside a tree

Somewhere inside
I am
the inner Sanctum
the Temple
gives me silver wings
and says


Becoming a part of the Callanish community in May 2006, Kirsten's ongoing journey with lymphoma has led her to further explore the transformative power of writing during illness. She holds degrees in literature and journalism and her work has appeared across Canada, in print, radio and television. She is also certified by Amherst Writers & Artists as a writing workshop facilitator.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Images from the 2008 Power of Words Conference

Photos from top left, clockwise: Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg and Kelley Hunt; Heather Mandell and Kathleen Connolly; Marienala Medrano-Marra; Julia Alvarez, Marianela Medrano-Marra and Adele Nieves; Reggie Marra; India Rassner-Donovan and Sherry Reiter. Thanks to Kelley Hunt and Marianela Medrano-Marra for photos.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Rick Jarow to Present at Conference

Rick Jarow, the author of the highly acclaimed Creating the Work You Love, will also be a presenter at the Power of Words conference. More than ever before people are looking for non-traditional careers and work environments. From job sharing and telecommuting to fruit bouquets and blogging we're seeing the traditional 9 to 5 jobs becoming marginalized. The time is right to "find your bliss." Jarow will help bring you one step closer!

I have to say that this lineup is pretty impressive for the money. It's not too late to sign up. It's a great location (gorgeous Vermont in the fall), great people and a great educational opportunity.