How can I combine my passion for the issues of education equity, prison abolition and youth solidarity in one poem written in one thirteen-minute sitting? If you had asked me before 7pm Sunday night I wouldn’t have been able to tell you, but as the sky changed hues we all straggled into a warehouse in North Oakland and sat down in semi-comfortable chairs for the Uniquely Yours workshop. We opened our notebooks and Peggy started feeding us prompts. A few new folks but most of us veterans of this workshop, coming almost every month and forming close-knit bonds around shared expression. I had something on the tip of my tongue but I couldn’t taste it, couldn’t form it into the words that I wanted. My muse felt like an astronaut suspended in deep space with nothing to hold on to.
Then Peggy read the poem “Purple” by Alex Rotella and gave us the prompt, “Write about a moment when you were discouraged, or encouraged, or when you discouraged or encouraged somebody.” In this workshop it is assumed that everything we’re writing is fiction, even if it’s not. This gives us the freedom to write the truth while maintaining anonymity in our own experience. In other writing workshops I will write a piece and people will ask me about it as if the narrator is really me, Alec West, in real life, and the story I wrote was something that happened to me. Outside of Green Windows, I have to stop people and say, “This story is not about me.”
I don’t want what I say in a story or a poem to affect the relationships I have with my friends, my family, my readers, or the community at large. Outside of Green Windows, this happens whether I like it or not, but within the safe space that we all create together, I can write whatever I want, plumbing the pits of my soul for something I would never admit to my closest friend. When I share those secrets with the people around me through my writing, they nod and listen and tell me what they liked about it, then we move on. It never has to enter the relationships I form with those people outside of the workshop and it never leaves the room. With the safety afforded by Green Windows I can write freely and do the kind of self-exploratory work I need to do among others in my community who are doing the same thing.
I wrote this piece that night, based on that prompt. I thought about how discouraging it is for a teacher to have one of your students, someone much younger than you, die. I’m not revealing whether I’ve had that experience or not, but you can judge whether my writing resonates with you, and you can feel it if it is authentic.
To Be Judged
by Alec West
At twenty-four I was young to be a teacher whose student had died. Ricardo had what you would call a magnetic personality. He was tall and solid with long hair that descended to his shoulders like the coned branches of a pine tree. He wore the jail uniform like any piece of clothing you would wear. He seemed to have an air of acceptance of where he was and hope for where he was going. Both of these combined with patience, faith that he would get there, that took confidence. I only remember him really writing one piece in all of the writing workshops we had. He attended a lot of them, as he was in jail for six months after I got there and I don’t know how long he was in before.
Press play. Three months after he got out, a car crash. Ricardo was a passenger and he was dead. I’m not sure if he was 18 yet or not. I wrote in his obituary: “Almost as sad as his young death was how long he had to spend in jail.” Overall, Ricardo spent two and a half years in jail after he skipped out on probation to get a job so that he could support his family. A vast number of the people you will meet in jail are not there for their original crime, but for a violation such as staying out too late, or not checking in with their PO, things that are not illegal but could wind them back up in the system. Often these people are leading positive, productive lives and trying their best, but one misstep led them off track.
How many people are lost to parole violations, not even real crimes? How many are trapped behind walls when they could be connecting or creating with us? What if you were judged and your whole life was determined by what you did or what happened on your worst day?
There is a scene in the movie, “The Mustang” when a therapist asks a group of prisoners incarcerated for violent crimes,
“How long from the idea of the crime to the committing of the crime?”
30 seconds. Fifteen seconds. Ten seconds. Less than half a second. The men answer with certainty as though a game show is asking them what they had for breakfast.
Can you judge the entire character of a person for an action committed without making a decision?
Do you feel safe?
I’m young in my teaching and I’ve only had one student die. I’ve known teachers who have lived through the deaths of several of their students. The loss we feel is mixed with blinding injustice as the world becomes a little less colorful, a little less vibrant, and we all become a little less powerful, despite the efforts we as teachers put out every day to keep the fire burning in our students’ hearts. Our students get snuffed out. We put our dreams into these children, and these children give hope back to us. Then, the system takes these children, takes them away from the rest of us. I am a teacher and I am in my twenties and I’ve had a student die. You can judge whether I am too young or whether this is too much, but this is the world we live in. I’m not ready to make a judgment about the world, and Ricardo will always remain perfect in my memory.
Do you feel safe?
Alec West is a teacher, activist, and author of What Happened When I Stopped Watching TV, his first book, available on Amazon. He lives in Oakland, but is moving to Richmond, and was born and raised in the East Bay. You can find him on Facebook: on instagram @alecwestwriter510, or writing in a local cafe.
Our blogger this month, Roxanne Rocksteady Jones, first attended a Green Windows writing workshop in 2010 and has consistently written with us at every opportunity since. We asked her why she keeps coming back.
I keep coming back to Green Windows because I really got motivated when Peggy first invited me to the class to get over past things and express myself more.
While I was taking the class, I went to a women's group and we had incense and candles and meditated and were asked to take whatever was on our mind and bothering us, from childhood to early age to teen to young adult to adult, and write it on a piece of paper, then read it to ourselves, then ball it up. It made me get rid of what was bothering me. I had been feeling like I had been tortured since a little girl. But as I wrote, I released things through the tears in my eyes, from my stomach, my belly, to my lungs to my throat, releasing it, throwing it up, freeing myself. So my writing is more like a journal: Instead of using my voice, I'm using my writing, screaming so the world can hear me. Instead of marching in the streets with the 99 women's march, I'm the 100th woman, marching with words.
Young women, girls and teens are speaking up with their voices. You know, some people can't speak. Some people can't hear or talk. But they can read with their eyes. Reading, and other people reading your poetry or stories, is inspiring in either a happy way or sad way. They can learn to relieve what is bothering them, too.
Now I'll hand a person a pencil, ink pen, or crayon and say, "I would like to hear your story. Would you like to write it down?" People think homeless people want money or food. Some people just want people to hear their story, to sit and listen, or release something, or just be quiet together. So asking them to tell their story, what's bothering them, they are like. “Oh, I just wanted you to hear this." Sometimes it doesn't make sense, but I don't care. They just want someone to listen. Most people don’t have time.
For 2019 I would like for the city of Oakland or Green Windows to have an open mic where women, men too, but women, can say what's on their mind or what they went through, or what they want to release. Then we can give each other hugs after and let each other know we are loved no matter what gender, race, color or nationality.
When I think about the violence done to people of color and queer people, I want say, “No matter your gender, we are praying for you, be strong, keep your heads up, know that you are loved. I hope they catch the racist haters out there who try to torture you. We are going to kill them with love because love is what makes the world go around.”
Below is a piece of writing that I wrote in a Green Windows workshop. It was published in the 10-year anthology, Writing from Green Windows.
Who’s Your Daddy?
By Sister Roxanne Rocksteady Jones
Trick or Treats
Who’s your daddy?
Ok! Soul Sisters
Girls, here we go
Dancin’ to the beat of Aretha Franklin
and Lady of Soul, Diana Ross
and Lady Sings the Blues
Here near downtown Oakland
the block of 22nd, Telegraph and West Grand Ave
which is now called Uptown
Here on the sparklin’ psychedelic rainbow dance floor
in this ol’ ol’ ol’ red brick building
used to be the Pancake House
which is now called Disco City
Shakin’ our money maker
as the mens would say
Shakin’ what your Mama gave you
Shakin’ our bootays
Droppin’ it like it’s hot
Girls just wanna have fun
Actin’ like our Mamas’ drinkin’ brandy
Vodka with pineapple juice
Laughin’ havin’ fun
Cryin’ talkin’ about the good good ol’ days
about the no good men who almost stole our hearts
Rememberin’ the good good good ol’ ol’ ol’ days
When our Mamas was also on the dance floor
Partyin’ and shakin’ their old money makers
Their groove things
Their asses, as the ol’ men would say
Drinkin’ brandy with milk
7 Up with Courvoisier
Vodka with orange juice
Gin with apple juice
Dancin’ to the Temptations
Gladys Knight and the Pimps
Dancin’ til’ the funkadelics the freaks
Come out at night
Droppin’ it like it’s hot
and our Moms cryin’ about our no good daddies
on the dance floor
as the Godfather of Soul, James Brown
Sings the number one song
I like the girl with the hot pants on
She can do the boogie woogie all night long
Oh my God, he’s singin’ about my Mama
who’s your daddy?
James Brown, Father of Soul
Goin’ back to the good good good ol’ days
Trick or Treat
Who’s your daddy?
When I was a teenager, I was very ambitious. I was convinced that the stories coalescing in my head were so vivid and important that I would make a great working writer, sell enough copies to support myself, maybe have my works taught in English classes, and follow in three of my relatives’ footsteps. What I didn’t fully understand, however, is that being a working writer requires a day job—or in my case two—especially if you’re publishing books by yourself. The major traditional publishing companies were, and sadly still are, the gatekeepers of literature, and generally wary of investing too heavily in unproven writers, which is why I was so determined to do it myself.
In college, I intended to collect my rejection letters to remind myself not to give up. Unfortunately, some time after my sixth rejection, I had a serious health emergency, then life caught up with me, and I misplaced my collection. But at least I never stopped reading, or watching movies, or listening to music, and finding things in life that inspired me, because those experiences help maintain the vibrancy of my stories, and even to help ground them in reality, to make more sense of them. Even generative writing programs like Green Windows have been invaluable. As Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once wrote, “The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable.”
Nobody can really tell you how to write (no matter how much they might want to), because the creative process is an extension of your unique, individual thoughts, feelings and ideal method of expression. When we write, that process is the crystallization of concepts that we wish to transmit, however raw they might be at first. Editing is the process of cutting, refining and burnishing those ideas like gemstones. When we read, watch or experience other things, we are mining … looking for the things that resonate with our own experience.
In summation, we need to look for the things that inspire us, and we will know that they’ve inspired us when, all of a sudden, in spite of whatever obstacles that external forces throw in our way, our world-views and the stories connected to them begin to make sense again.
Below is a piece from a previous Green Windows workshop. Enjoy!
“THE HEARTSCAPE FACTS” THREADS ON WWW.MAPPINGTHEHEARTSCAPE.COM, DATED 07/29/2011
by Rachel Golden
It has long been believed that Atlas Galt, the keytarist for Heartscape, was named after the Greco-Roman god who supposedly held up the Earth on his shoulders. Whoever first started that bull-crap was clearly an Objectivist twat, because any fourth-grade textbook will tell you that Atlas was the Greco-Roman god who held up the SKY on his shoulders, which was no doubt an easier job because the sky is way lighter!
PantherHands: OMG LOL!
RocketSauce: FUCK OBJECTIVISM UP ITS FAT WRINKLY ASS!!!!!
Diogenes: LOL nice one, Rocket!
RighteousPath: Damn, that got political pretty fucking quick.
BigNo: Not even the internet is totally free of politics, sadly. Up north, we have a contemptuous asshat named Stephen Harper to thank for that. Part of me is tempted to go scale Mount Everest for that very reason.
Howitzer: Fuck Stephen Harper!
LunarRover: Wait a goddamn minute… I think I know the smart-ass piece of shit who wrote this post in the first place.
BigNo: Do you, now?
LunarRover: I’d accuse Biggie, but that’d be too easy, and frankly he’s not one with an affinity for Greco-Roman gods. Diogenes the dog, I accuse you! Do you hear me? J’accuse!
Diogenes: Ruh-roh! Guilty as charged.
LunarRover: More like “guilty as fuck”!
VMyson: Bad dog. No biscuit. LOL.
Howitzer: Holy shit, I love this fucking forum so much!
LunarRover: And the forum loves you, too, Howie.
SidPernicious: I don’t love Howie, gaymo.
VMyson: That’s because you’re an asshole, Sid.
Howitzer: LOL TRUE DAT!
SidPernicious: I’d rather be an asshole than a gaymo, like you gaymos!
Diogenes: Aw, sorry to hear you’re not comfortable with your sexuality, Sid. You might want to get in touch with someone at PFLAG, and maybe get some shit off of your chest.
SidPernicious: Why the fuck would I do that, when I have you chodes to get into bitch-fights with?
BigNo: I think what my associate meant is that you should do yourself a favor and “get some santorum off your chest,” Sid, because I’m pretty sure I can smell it from here.
RocketSauce: Yeah, Sid, it’s not our fault you’re so deep in the closet, you’re finding Christmas presents!
RighteousPath: Embrace your queerness, Sid! We believe in you!
VMyson: OMG I’M DYING!
SidPernicious: FUCK YOU PUSSIES!
SidPernicious has logged out.
VMyson: LOL what a dumb-ass!
Howitzer: Some motherfuckers just don’t have the introspection to be able to laugh at themselves.
LunarRover: Wait a sec, do kids these days still say “gaymo” when they want to insult people on the internet? Seriously?
Diogenes: I know, right? It’s so last decade…
BigNo: Kids are so unfashionable.
Green Windows has recast how I see myself. Yes, I am a writer. Yes, I have a community to draw from. Yes, my words have a place. - Catherine
You like me best when it's cold out. Something sexy about more clothes over less. That gray shirt with your coiled strength below it: that thin barrier smooth against my pushing shoulder blades.
You like me best, but you love him most. "He's my best friend, mama."
He likes me best when he's giggly. It turns out that the most base human state is polarity. Within ten minutes, gleeful hee hees and ha has, wailful mourns and utter ambivalence.
I’ve been writing with Green Windows for about 4 years now. I met two of the regular attendees at a coloring club meetup. I was feeling brave enough that day to venture out of my normal routine to do something like that, and holy hell am I glad I did. My first night there I heard writing like I’ve never heard before. Not like the crap they made me read in school, not the forced-to-sound-like-this writing from my creative writing class in college, not what I always thought poetry “should” sound like. I heard real, raw, authentic voices from real, raw, authentic people. We were writing at Chapter 510 then, and being in a space that could hold the creative energy for youth helped me work through some shit. It also inspired me to start a group at the elementary school where I worked using the same method that we use at Green Windows after reading Pat Schneider's book about the AWA method. Listen to some writing by an inspired 10-year-old sometime. It changed my world.
This group of people has become more than just a creative outlet for me. It’s where I sort out all the things inside and around me and find a way to feel all the feelings and have other people witness me doing it. It’s become a group of fellow soul travelers, friends, mentors, and family. I honestly cannot imagine my life without it.
When Peggy offered to take me on as her apprentice, I was beyond honored. I told her that no matter how busy my life can get, I’m learning how to make time for the things, the spaces, and the people that feed my life. What would be my life be without them anyway? Green Windows and the community of people that are part of it fit all those categories. As a therapist and someone who’s participated in and facilitated healing spaces for years, I can confidently say there’s something really special going on at Rock Paper Scissors every 4th Sunday of the month.
Writing a blog post means I’m sharing my work, too. I thought about adding a fun poem, one that invokes a laugh or at least a chuckle. Maybe one of my short pieces about my mom’s tomatoes or my brothers’ paper towel karate belts or how my dog looks at me when she pees or the time I met a human bunny rabbit on the Lost Coast. But the bravery of folks to speak truth inspires me everyday to speak mine more, and lately I’ve been encountering too much of that bravery to keep crawling back into my cave where it all feels easy and protected. I shied away from true tales of horror inflicted on women and children for many years, because it reminded me too much of mine. Maybe that’s where you, reader, need to be right now, and so I’ll give the disclaimer that this is not a fun piece. It’s a part of a journey, the part where it’s all super thick forest with no map, no machete, no rope. Hopefully, hearing a piece of my story will give you strength to write yours.
(more about Lena)
men teach me to like rape
by Lena Nicodemus
ferns & nitrous ice fog on the cold sand
a fallen tree trunk
lifting up on hips & lifting up of t-shirt
a stupid fucking visor hat
and when you look at me you look nervous
but I don’t say no
your hands are cold up my shirt & you
push your tongue too much into mine
but I don’t say no
you stick your hand down my pants
root around for whatever loose change
you’re looking for
and I remember we’re at where people who
go off trails can find us,
not far from the shit food of the national parks lodge
and I still don’t say no
later I say no and I laugh but I’m not sure I’m joking
and you hardly stop to check
I’ve been taught for my whole life to say
yes yes yes
I don’t imagine myself saying no or
why I would
the stories I hear from the couch are
always the same
men getting robbed at gunpoint and women getting raped
and then there are the stories where it’s little boys and girls
and the guns are your cousins
and I guess both guns could be your cousins
and I used to be scared of the word
and have to spell it out when asking friends
if movies had
I could watch them and
I don’t watch anything other than
the office it feels like anymore
because getting surprised by a rape scene in a movie
I thought was rated PG-13
and really 13-year-olds can watch this?
it’ll knock me out and before long
i’m scared to go out or even ride my bike anymore because
all the hey baby’s and looks feel like rape
because when i feel triggered it’s like
I’m being raped
but since I was young,
men teach me to like rape
men teach me to call nonconsensual sex “kinks”
and “it got a little rough”
and stopping to ask me once for a safe word neither of us use isn’t consent
and anyway girls can’t consent to sex only women can
and you didn’t invite a woman back to this apartment, did you?
I heard about Green Windows on an aimless walk through downtown Oakland at dusk one Spring. I remember the sky was pink and I was climbing my way up from rock bottom and pure Hell. I think I was only a few months sober. Back then, Green Windows was hosted at the original Rock Paper Scissors Collective art workshop on Telegraph Ave. I opened my mouth for what seemed like the first time since I was a kid and spoke about what was really important to me. We sat on unassuming chairs in a paint-splattered room and people listened to me. I never did AA or any kind of structured help program. Green Windows was it for me. Every month I would join a friendly assortment of colorful people, I would write, I would share and I would listen. In this way, I built myself up from broken, devastated pieces into a positive member of a tangible community for the first time in my life.
In Green Windows, you always have the option to pass on sharing a piece of writing. I have never done this. I have written pieces of writing that scared me into shaking, pale-skinned jello in these workshops. Sharing them in a safe, confidential space with warm, loving people who all share their stories in turn has brought me healing that feels divine. Again, you don’t have to share if you don’t want to, and plenty of people choose not to, but I have made serious progress emotionally and spiritually just by saying what I need to say, even if I’m terrified.
After a while of coming to these workshops, you start to see the same people. You admire their writing and then get to admire them as people. None of us are big-shot prestigious writers (at least not yet). Almost everyone is available to talk or share a ride home or a slice of pizza after the workshop. The community of people I’ve met coming to Green Windows over the years is what keeps me rooted in the Bay Area. It brings me pride in my home and I feel like I’m releasing stagnant energy and rejuvenating by writing, reading and listening.
As long as I live in the Bay Area, I’m going to keep coming to Green Windows workshops. This community has played no small part in making me the person I am today. Peggy, her helpers, and all of us do a lot of work to keep the space open to truly anyone who wants to come through these doors and write. The participants in these workshops feel like a cross-section of Oakland and the greater Bay Area and I haven’t seen this diversity in one space anywhere else. Green Windows writers have the privilege of coming to awareness of what life is like for people different from us. This work is important for keeping myself humble and keeping myself engaged in the struggle for justice and in building community. Here, I have the space to dig into myself and find veins of painful, traumatized gold to bring into the light and inspire others. I am grateful to live in a time and place where this is possible.
Below is a piece of fiction I wrote in a Green Windows workshop. I hope you enjoy it.
Different Kitchens, Different Friends
by Alec West
The refrigerator makes a sound that most people don’t hear. My friend Charles grew up on a boat and said that when he had to live in a house he hated the refrigerator. It was so loud, it kept him up at night. He wasn’t used to it.
My friend J used to come over and raid my fridge. He showed me how to cook tortillas on the stovetop. Years later, he admitted that he’d had a gun on him in our house. Old friends were trying to kill him, and he had to protect himself.
My friend Basil also used my kitchen. He is dead now. I remember him standing in my kitchen, having a conversation with my Mom about yogurt-coated granola bars.
“These are actually sweeping the nation as one of the best new things!” he said. His wide eyes were shifty and unfocused, his blond, box-springed hair was like a brillo pad under a wool cap or a hoodie. We went on that afternoon to get drunk in an alleyway with fresh green grass growing. It was springtime, and we were enjoying being young and the bold, deep flavor of loneliness when you have someone to share it with. Then Basil bought a bottle of vodka from a homeless man with my money, and we blacked out in the bathroom of a drug store.
This kitchen, on Lake in Piedmont, by Beach Elementary, was the first place I discovered alcohol. I remember coming home in a nice button-down shirt from the freshman dance and finding the liquor cabinet open.
Vodka and Gin. I filled up two plastic water bottles full, one red and one blue. My friend Red covered the stairs at the Morcom Rose garden with orange, green, white, and yellow puddles from the paints in his stomach. They were inkblots spilled over a page. Somebody was holding their pen up too long thinking about what to write and splotches ran through. Back then there was less loneliness than hope and excitement. I felt like I could still be part of something here if I tried. Red was my first drinking buddy.
Years later, I find myself in my brother Gabre’s kitchen in Eugene, Oregon. He has liquor bottles displayed above the cabinets where he keeps plates and dishes. He was a teetotaller all through high school, and now that he is in college, he is drinking. He felt that he had earned the privilege with his success. My friends and I taught him all about top shelf bourbon and scotch. Now he is a connoisseur and a snob, and at six pm on a weeknight he is shaking the cocktail mixer, fixing a drink.
My friend Hombre’s Dad’s kitchen looks out over the whole of San Francisco. You can see the city shimmering with light and heat and fog and silver and gold during the day and shining with purple and orange at night. It was the perfect place to enjoy a blunt with some close friends. My friend Hombre had sixteen pot plants growing on that back deck in high school. At first, his Dad didn’t notice, then he didn’t care.
Tall, fragrant bushes, sticky flowers and phosphorescent leaves. Orange hairs, white hairs, purple hairs. Acid and mushrooms and looking at the clouds. Hardcore music. Drum and bass music. Dubstep. A State of Trance.
We found a vast, dark basement full of all flavors of people who did drugs in San Francisco, from hardened criminals to kids like us. Hombre wanted to wear sweat pants and a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt. We told him to go for it, but he didn’t do it. We were too young for ecstasy, we felt, so we took trucker speed, those pills you buy over the counter at the gas station for like five bucks. That and a lot of marijuana, and we didn’t sit down for six hours.
All this is what I remember of my childhood in the East Bay. What were we gonna do? We were making the best out of a teenage situation in suburban California. No, you’re too young to get into the club, but there’s this alleyway and this bag and this homeless guy who agrees to buy you alcohol. I’m not joking when I say that homeless guy became my best friend. His name was J, he was only a few years older than me, and he taught me a lot.
Alec West is a Bay Area native and has been writing and publishing since he was twelve, when a fierce middle-school teacher taught him that he was worth something. He has been published in Slingshot Magazine, The Anthology of Poetry By Young Americans, The Moon, and The Highlander. His first book, “What Happened When I Stopped Watching TV” will be available in print and e-book in December 2018. Follow Alec on Instagram.
A friend told me about Green Windows. I had been in writing classes before but not done writing to prompts. I loved it. I like not knowing what will happen--either what kind of prompts we will get or what my pen will do when it gets one. Mostly it pours out some familiar story from my life but sometimes, and I am grateful for those times, the prompt sets me off on something I would never have thought to write. Even when I write a story I’ve told before, there may be a new insight or I will like the way a group of words sit together.
I’ve been in other prompt-writing groups since, but Green Windows stands out for the variety of writers and writing in it: people of many races and classes and several genders, immigrants and native-born, drop-outs and people with post-graduate degrees. It’s in Oakland, it’s sliding scale, and Peggy so completely welcomes everybody to bring their whole selves in.
I’ve met such good people at Green Windows, and heard such amazing writing, poignant, playful, profound. I met Renee Garcia at Green Windows, and joined her on-line prompt-writing group. Late one night, one October thirty-first, Renee challenged us to start writing a novel at the stroke of midnight, the moment when National Novel Writing Month would start. I wrote for twenty or thirty minutes about why I couldn’t write a novel. The next morning I started writing a novel--a fantasy for older children--which I am still rewriting over three years later. I love working on it.
Peggy encourages us to write either as ourselves or as a character, and I sometimes respond to prompts as some character in the novel. This has either given me material I can use in the novel or insights into my characters that will inform my further writing about them. One prompt was to write about a familiar or habitual walk. So I had a character, Margaret, talk about hers, and it’s in the manuscript now, and here, below:
Excerpt of novel-in-progress
by Nancy Schimmel:
On the evening before landfall in England, Annika said, “I’ve never been in a castle, much less lived in one.”
“The trick is not to stay in the castle much if you can help it,” said Margaret. “You leave the castle early in the morning before somebody thinks up something for you to do. First you go down—down the path to the beach and along the beach to the trail, then up the face of the heugh, back and forth like lacing on a bodice, to the grassy top where the sheep are. Or where they are supposed to be if they haven’t done something stupid like one wander over the edge and another one go to see what happened to the first one and go over the edge but not on purpose and therefore badly, and you may have to stop and do something about it.
“If all is well with the sheep, you go through the meadow. By and by you will come to a hut with smoke coming out of the chimney. However early you have left, Tom will be up and dressed and making tea before you get there. Bring him some honey, he likes that. Sit with him and sip the hot strong sweet tea and listen. Tom will tell you a story about himself and the sheep or his brother and the sea or his grandfather and the Norse raiders. He tells true stories, or truly as he heard them, but he doesn’t dither about exactly what happened or who was there or what day of the week it was, he keeps the story going.”
“I know what you mean,” said Annika. “We had one of those ditherers in the village.”
“Janet’s father is like that,” Margaret replied. “Maybe that’s why Janet likes ballads. No room to argue with yourself about what happened. Anyway, then you tell Tom your story, like you told it to me. I tell him stories I read in a book or heard from the cook or from some traveler.”
“But now you are the traveler,” said Annika.
“That is so,” said Margaret. “I’m a princess, but I’m a traveler, too. I used to hear travelers say things that either made me want to jump on the next ship leaving or be glad I stayed home where there’s hot tea and honey every morning.”
“Are you sorry you are a traveler?” asked Annika.
“Not at all. But I will be glad to get home again.”
I’ve been telling stories since I was three years old. The best years of my childhood were spent guiding my friends on narrated adventures in my backyard (which I would later learn is called “live-action role-playing”). Unfortunately, not all of the stories I told were, in truth, my stories, spun out of my own head, nor written by my own hand… The truth is I didn’t master handwriting until I was 12 (and before the widespread use of personal computers, this was a serious set-back), and a good majority of the stories I told were based on movies and TV shows I had watched, memorized, and faithfully replicated in my own little voice.
In retrospect, I suppose I had to start with the oral tradition before I could move into transcription. There was a good several years of my life where I was able to recite the entire poem, The Owl and the Pussycat, by heart and without prompting, not because I fancied myself a poet, but because my grandfather used to read it to me every night that I stayed over at his house, and it became stuck in my head. It took me a long time to figure out how to tell my own stories, or at least to perfect my own voice when I told them, but if I hadn’t practiced with the masters, I wouldn’t have learned that every idea comes from something before it, that “new” stories are essentially built upon pre-existing narrative structures, and that it is physically and metaphysically impossible for creative impulses to exist in a vacuum.
My father worked for IBM for 30 years, so we were among the first in our neighborhood to own personal computers in 1994, which served me well in my transcription practice. One of the first writing programs I used to transcribe my stories was appropriately called “Creative Writer,” which you could tell was purposefully designed for small children because it was full of colorful cartoon characters that cracked lame jokes and stale puns, as well as weird-shaped buttons that made squishy fart-noises when you clicked on them. Other than that shameless bit of pandering in the software’s design, “Creative Writer” basically functioned like Microsoft Word, with many spacing and font options for each project, plus much fancier-looking clip-art to use as needed.
Thankfully, I took to typing much faster than I took to handwriting. My middle-school teachers were disappointed that I continued “hunting and pecking” for the keys I needed, despite their pathetic attempts to cover my hands with a thin (but not thin enough) box over the keyboard. I’m pretty sure they only wanted me to master QWERTY-style so that I could become somebody’s secretary, and if I’d been allowed to curse, I would have gladly advised them to “fuck that noise,” but the truth is that I wasn’t allowed to curse until I got to high school and then all bets were off.
Instead of embracing social milestones for most teenage girls—like learning about makeup, armchair-studying fashion in magazines, and/or getting a boyfriend—I spent the vast majority of my high school and college years absorbed in story-driven computer games, like “StarCraft,” and writing fanfiction for multiple other writers’ stories. The important thing, again, was getting as much practice as possible; I wrote before classes, I wrote at lunch, I wrote at the library, I wrote after dinner, and I wrote well into the small hours of the night, and yet still managed to get up in time for school.
Jordan was one of my best friends since I was three, and she introduced me to Green Windows in 2015. These workshops have allowed me to challenge my time-use, to focus on staying positive, and to hone my narrative voice, as well as to listen for that which resonates with me, even if I don’t immediately understand why… It feels to me as if we are essentially building on pre-existing structures and adding our own flourishes in order to express the ideas we generate, with the goal of learning how to share them with others. While most of my computing experience is centered on word-processor use, I figure if the process of writing is at all like I hear coding can be, then Green Windows must be one hell of a hack-a-thon.
Below is a piece from a previous workshop. Enjoy!
EXCERPT FROM “THE HEARTSCAPE FACTS” THREADS ON WWW.MAPPING-THE-HEARTSCAPE.COM, DATED 02/02/1998
By Rachel Golden
Frank Riordan, the guitarist for Heartscape, is not just musically competent – he’s also an astrophysics prodigy. When he was 16, he was placed in an advanced mathematics course where he composed a 10-page essay on the practicality of faster-than-light travel as featured in the classic film, Barbarella. Within a year, this work earned him the attention of the Canadian Space Agency, which offered to pay for his university tuition if he helped them develop a perpetual motion machine. He even took time to help a fellow musician—Philip Taylor Kramer, the bassist from the band Iron Butterfly—on a Top Secret time-travel experiment in the U.S., but good luck getting him to break his non-disclosure agreement with the CSA and NASA.
HighPriest: OMG MIND BLOWN!
Diogenes: Holy shit. I don’t even.
LunarRover: Sounds plausible. I mean, the guy is a genius, after all.
Diogenes: Where to start? I mean, it’s total bullshit, but I have to say it’s the most entertaining bullshit I’ve read this week. Kudos to whoever posted this – you’re a funny bastard.
Howitzer: Dude, it’s not bullshit—don’t ever say Frank Riordan isn’t a goddamn genius, because he totally is. Anything else is fightin’ words!
LunarRover: Whoa, down boy!
Diogenes: Are you seriously polishing his balls right now, Howie?
Howitzer: They never found Kramer’s body! He fucking disappeared off the face of the earth! How the hell do you know Riordan didn’t help him with a time-travel experiment?
Diogenes: The same way I know that Riordan didn’t write a goddamn paper on FTL travel in Barbarella. The premise of undertaking such an endeavor is absolutely impractical, completely insane, and totally stupid!
LunarRover: Jane Fonda is a total fox, BTW.
Diogenes: Don’t get me wrong, I love the shit out of that movie and yes, Jane Fonda is a total fox, but good goddamn, it’s called SCIENCE FICTION for a reason!
RocketSauce: But at least the post is funny, right? You did say it was funny, and that whoever posted it was a “funny bastard,” right? Yes?
Diogenes: Thanks, Rocket. You actually made me smile today. Congratulations are in order, for that is no easy feat.
RocketSauce: Fuckin’ sweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeet!
BigNo: Wow, and here I thought Diogenes might actually secretly be Frank Riordan, posing as an average poster and getting his jollies by trolling the crap out of everyone.
LunarRover: No, no, that’s me.
RocketSauce: HOLY SHIT LUNAR ARE YOU FRANK RIORDAN?!!!!!??!!
LunarRover: No, I’m the average poster that’s getting his jollies by trolling the crap out of everyone. I like to think it’s basically my job.
Howitzer: OMG, if Frank Riordan actually posts on this site, I’m going to freak the fuck out and literally shit myself.
RocketSauce: You and me both, man!
BigNo: Gotta say, Howie, you are a class act.
HighPriest: I think you mean, “clact ass.”
BigNo: No, I don’t, King Pothead. Get your eyes checked.
LunarRover: …the hell does that even mean?
BigNo: It means HighPriest has been hitting the bong too hard and needs to drink some coffee.
HighPriest: Fuck you too, Biggie.
InfinityPrincipal: All right, all right, enough of this. This all has gotten simply too silly. Thread is locked. Now for a complete change of mood…
I recall being an unusually keen and observant child, and there seem to be a myriad of stories and memories confirming such. For instance, I was told that from birth until about the age of two, I seldom spoke beyond uttering the Korean words for mother and father, or other short, one-word phrases. Over time, my parents grew concerned and considered taking me to a pediatric developmental specialist, but one day, I requested a glass of water in a full, complete sentence. While I myself have no recollection of this happening, it also doesn't surprise me in the least. I like to collect and gather bits and pieces of things before deciding what to do with them. I especially love stories and storytelling---stories are how I understand myself, others, and the world around me.
I was also a child who experienced extremely intense emotions and did not know what to do with them. I had intrusive thoughts that I knew were troubling and abnormal. There was a lot of yelling in my household, both around me and directed at me. My mother in particular would fly into fits of unpredictable and unrelenting rage. One reason I really enjoyed school and learning was because I could see my friends, my teacher, and get away from my traumatic home environment.
And in my mind, school comprised of two distinct parts: writing, and everything else that wasn't writing. The act of writing itself brought me such great joy. As silly as the stories and poems were, sometimes unoriginal in their content, they were something I got to make myself. I never wanted to stop. Writing was a place where I could let my creativity and odd thoughts be, and sharing my work with others felt fulfilling. I was proficient in other subjects, sure; advanced, even, but I quickly grew impatient waiting to review yet another example for concepts I already understood. I did like reading to an extent but often felt dissatisfied and crushingly disappointed with most of the books I encountered. They simply couldn't hold my interest.
Life continued on and I found myself writing poetry on occasion. Different topics, but usually something abstract and vague. However, my reintroduction to poetry came during my sophomore year of high school. I had just left therapy and was still struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide. After talking to a friend about my feelings, he admitted that he didn't understand what I was going through but wanted to, so he suggested that I try writing a poem. I wrote this very personal poem on the topic and ended up competing in a youth slam where I received a perfect 30. Scores aside, what moved me most was the overwhelming support I received afterwards. People I didn't know showed me love, said they liked my poem. Some of them even thanked me, saying they were going through something similar or knew someone who was. It was the first time I felt heard and realized my voice was powerful. As a sad young person, it meant the world to me.
Thereafter, I became very involved in an organization called Youth Speaks, who also hosted the slam I first competed in. I attended countless writing workshops, open mics, slams, and shows, all free, and served on their youth advisory board for three years. I loved every moment of it and had the chance to apprentice under teaching artists who mentored me. From time-to-time, I performed poems, helped out at events, and sometimes facilitated a workshop here and there. In college, I found my place in CalSLAM, a student-led writing organization, and June Jordan's Poetry for the People program.
During this time, I was also named the first Oakland Youth Poet Laureate and received an award for my writing. Since then, I haven't really prioritized my own writing but I'm hoping to change that. My last year of college, I felt extremely burnt out and all I wanted to do was write again. I veered away from the career path I was set on and at this point in my life, I'm thinking of pursuing my writing professionally.
Where does Green Windows fit into all of this? Everywhere. I met the founder, Peggy, through the various organizations and spaces I've been involved in. She has been one of my fiercest proponents, one of my greatest mentors, and one of my most thoughtful friends and sources of overall support. We see each other in passing at the Oakland Public Library, an opportunity she encouraged me to apply for, and in our work with youth.
Peggy invited me to write with Green Windows sometime last year and it has been my most favorite writing group of any I've ever participated in. Peggy's passion and skill as a writer/facilitator are unrivaled, and I love Green Windows for the community it brings together. I've never written with such a dynamic, diverse group of writers not only from different walks of life but also across styles and genres. This alone has helped my writing grow. Every writer that graces the space is serious about their craft, and hearing others' work as well as receiving feedback on mine has allowed me to develop and challenge myself in invaluable ways. My writing is the best it's ever been and I know that this is in part due to the work at Green Windows.
So how might I describe my actual writing process? I find that I write in small bursts and need to have several projects going on at a time. I'm quite touch-and-go and my focus shifts quickly. Some ideas float around and some are forgotten but I try to capture those thoughts before they're beyond summoning. Sometimes I know exactly how to start, what to write, what I want to say, and other times I start with a freewrite, tapping into something my conscious mind is too busy to notice there. My style has been changing and that's exciting. I'm excited to try something new. I have a lot of stories, a lot of thoughts, a lot of feelings and curiosities, and my writing allows me to explore them all together.
this poem does not contain the word queer
by Steph Yun
i've always wanted to buy one of those flavored lubes;
greens & blues
little need for them, really;
i can lick
just fine, but
this pretty sex store
all recessed lighting &
gave out samples
when i was 17
oh what fun we could have
on skin &
sweat, a palette in
surrender of its usual
to feast on the body before me
but whose body
do i dream of
there is something curious about everyone saying that they
already knew. everyone, that is, but you. you once developed
a great interest in breasts and their form before you felt ready,
even before fully understanding that in time, you would grow
the lust dissipated somewhat, and for a short while, you disregarded
all the bodies and persons similar in some ways to you. you fell in
love with a nice boy, and all the nice 아줌마 that remind you of
your mother in a certain way said you were lucky to find a good man
you smiled, knowing they saw their daughters and nieces in you but never with you.
I thought it was time again to share some of the work I’m doing in the local juvenile hall (Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center). For the last nine years, I’ve volunteered with the magazine The Beat Within doing weekly writing workshops in the hall and editing the writing for publication. I also facilitate a 5-week poetry workshop once a year in an English class in the hall for the Oakland Public Library, leading up to the Oakland Youth Poet Laureate application deadline (February 5th this year!). With Green Windows, I’m now regularly facilitating a weekly writing workshop with youth in the hall who have graduated from high school. Traditionally, these youth do nothing while their peers are in class. Probation staff in the hall took it upon themselves to organize classes for them: Anger Management, Financial Literacy, Gardening, Sex Ed, Chorus, whatever a staff can offer. You can read more about this program in this blog post from last June.
These writing workshops, all of them, have gotten harder over time. I’m not sure why but I have two thoughts: 1) There seems to be more kids who have a really hard time maintaining focus. And the amount of time they can focus is less and less with more and more kids who seem to not ever focus at all. 2) The discipline in the hall has gotten more lenient, which in a big way is a good thing. But it means the kids can go through a whole program and/or a whole class talking to each other loudly, not working, without any consequence or reaction. I have no authority, so I try to convince, cajole, reward, adapt the work to the individual and sometimes guilt-trip by telling them why I am there.
I am there to get their own thoughts and imagination on paper. And I am disappointed when I don’t, because it's a loss for me and for the world that might read them. But just being there matters. Even the most recalcitrant writers ask me when I’m coming back. They thank me in the end for “helping me express myself.” They’ll chat with each other about their cases and gossip about their girlfriends through the whole workshop and then tell me that the workshop will help them be creative and control themselves in their future. All of this can happen and be true. I am always drawn back to the idea that just being there, regularly, even relentlessly, and determinedly demanding of them to be their true selves on paper counts. Who do they count on to show up? Who is asking them to be true to themselves?
I’d like to tell you about the young people I get to meet. Here, now, I’ll tell you about two very different people.
Kalani has focus and tries almost every time, almost every prompt I give him. He can write short, powerful pieces that make the reader understand a little better what it feels like to be an incarcerated young man facing an uncertain future. He also has a remarkable imagination, able to create both characters and settings that go well beyond his personal experiences. The themes in his fiction, though, are always about family bonds and trying to care for family amidst scarcity, violence and addiction. He has written about the challenges facing a boy simply coming home after school and about a man hunting in the wilderness to get food for his family. Strong bonds between brothers reoccur in his fiction. In all the years I’ve been doing writing workshops in the Alameda hall, I have met few young people with this versatility of talent or this willingness to do real, challenging work.
A judge (not a prosecutor, thanks to California Proposition 57), recently decided to put Kalani back in juvenile court, to not try him as an adult and send him to adult prison. This is a victory. I do not know why Kalani is locked-up, though I know it’s serious. I never ask. These young people are not their crimes. Kalani is intelligent, creative, thoughtful, and kind. He prioritizes his family and he tries new things to better himself and broaden his world. Why would I need to know more?
Nia is 18 and has been told for months that she’ll be sent to a group home soon. She wants to go home. Why any of that needs to happen when she’s a legal adult, I don’t know. Group homes lie about interviewing her when they haven’t. She is angry. I would be angry too. She is in a class full of young men who miss their girlfriends. She’s a young woman who is easily charming and easily charmed but clearly she draws bold lines around herself. Nia is quick and clever and wants books and poetry with language that doesn’t bore her. She is a clear and precise writer and writes quickly. Every day she’s not in the mood to write, and almost every day she does anyway. One day she said that she was too angry to write. I said, “Write out your anger, don’t hold back, don’t worry about being appropriate, you don’t have to show it to me or anyone.” She did and said she felt better afterwards. In her evaluation she wrote, “I learned that writing down my feelings really does help me cope with my time.”
Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions about this work, or if you'd like to volunteer with The Beat Within.
Below, you ‘ll find two pieces of writing from Kalani, one from Nia and a piece I wrote in one of these workshops last Fall.
- Peggy Simmons
I’m scared because I don’t know what to do
I’m scared because I only have 1 life not 2
I’m scared because they offered me more time than I lived
I’m scared because I have no control in life
I’m scared because I can’t trust no one
I’m scared because the ones you love will hurt you
I’m scared because no one looking out for lil’ bro
I’m scared because I’m not living at home
The room I was in was small
fit about 5 people at most
But the room had AC so it was never hot inside.
I remember this room because most of my teachers
wanted me in detention
instead of being in their class.
The room walls were all beige with desks all facing the wall.
So 2 days ago
I spent my 18th b-day
in a jail cell. Ever since I turned 13
I always dreamed
about my 18th B-Day
and how I would have
the sexiest dress on
with the baddest heels.
The longest red
hair and makeup
to die for.
My 18th b-day
was supposed to be
the happiest day
for me. Instead,
once I woke up
I had to
stand in a door
and wait for somebody
to pop my door.
I had to sweep,
down my cell.
I was being talked
rather than talked
I never imagined I would spend
the best day of
my life in a jail cell.
I Want Your Expressions
I want your words to come from your bellies
I want your words to come out colorful and complex
I want your words to shatter your shells
So we can really see you
We need to really see you
I want your words to hit us in the gut
I want your words to show us new lights
I want your words to shatter our blinders
So we can really see you
We want to really see you
We are stuck, each of us, between walls
Walls built between people, between neighborhoods
We can’t see each other
We pretend the world is the world within our walls
We live small. We live blind. We live selfish.
Tend our gardens and ignore the smoke on the other side.
I want your words, I want our words to explode
So we can see each other.
- Peggy Simmons, (Written in the last Fall 2017 workshop in the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center SEEP workshop.)
Please submit a post about your experience in a Green Windows workshop or about social justice and artistic expression.