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.)
When I started writing fiction I had neither a personal computer nor a cellphone, and that wasn’t yet considered “weird.” The world has changed and keeps on changing at head-spinning velocity. But one thing has been a constant: the importance of getting words down, owning them, treating them like living matter.
It’s been a winding journey with lots of detours.
In the long-ago year of 1994, I won a literary prize.
And soon after I became discouraged and quit writing for four years. During that time I did a stint in jail, got heartbroken and lost most of my money. The rooms I lived in became smaller and the city seemed to grow hands, which would wrap themselves around my neck.
I returned to writing because I had no other choice.
At the time I was a transplant living in San Diego. There happened to be a writing group that met twice a week not far from my apartment. The lady who ran it used the principles of Natalie Goldberg. Set a timer, receive a prompt, get your pen moving. I let my grudges go long enough to eke out words. I discovered I still had a hunger, possibly even a mania. That was “weird.”
Let me stop right there and take a detour to the burning of the Library of Alexandria, the crown jewel of the ancient world. Its succumbing to flames meant the loss of thousands of books and scrolls, irreplaceable Knowledge (yes, I do mean the big “K”). It is impossible to even guess the sheer volume of genius that got turned to powder. If it never happened might we now have the cure to cancer? Could we have landed on the moon 50, maybe 100 years earlier? Slavery abolished sooner? The power of the written word. It’s such that even in death, from out of oblivion, it can beguile.
Back to me. Eventually I went back to school. Grad school for creative writing. After I got out, a story of mine was nominated for a literary prize and a prominent agent from New York contacted me. Soon after, I became discouraged again and began to forget how to write.
How does this happen?
With the speed of a fire.
There is no road that goes absolutely straight. Pitfalls and the unexpected are guarantees. The fairy tale – itself an invention to deal with human folly – is that there are clear signposts and plainly seen adversaries. Kill the dragon, get the damsel, live happily ever after. Except sometimes the dragon comes as a friend, and the damsel’s beauty is just cover, and more often you’re your own worst enemy.
Permit me another detour. The fires this year in Sonoma were on a cataclysmic scale. In some areas it would be difficult to tell apart California embers from the aftermath of Hiroshima. What’s bizarre is that there is also a good kind of fire. Fires in nature, when appropriately scaled, make room for more sunlight and the growth of stronger trees. You burn away the undergrowth, where a lot of creepy things hang out.
As I forgot how to write I also forgot who I was. I couldn’t sleep; maybe because it was like going to bed with a stranger: myself. Everything was an irritant. Headaches were routine. A complete meltdown appeared to be just around the corner. Before the call from the agent, I’d already sunk low. My father had died only a few months earlier and I had lost my job. I wanted to disappear. When I finally put pen to paper again it felt like trying to make a fire using stones. Perhaps there are experts who can do this, not me.
What followed were a lot of grueling workshops. Then one day, I found myself at Green Windows. The AWA method it used felt like reacquainting with an old friend. I subsequently learned that Pat Schneider, who founded AWA, was the spiritual precursor to Natalie Goldberg. It seemed like a circle had closed. At Green Windows there is a particular energy when writing with the group – a synergy – that can’t be duplicated when ruminating alone and pushing your pen in a fearful way. You have to let go, be reckless, and you need to feel like that’s not only permitted, but radically encouraged. I’ve heard pieces written there that had more vitality than much of the “polished prose” I’ve come across. There would, of course, be more travails ahead, more testing of my faith. But what I’ve come to understand is this:
Everyone must take his own journey.
And face his own fire.
What remain, even in the ashes, are words.
So stay weird, stay weird.
These days I do professional critiquing and editing for other writers. You write a draft in a white-hot fever (ideally!) and then a cooler approach is taken to looking at craft elements: plot, action, themes, character, etc. I view my job as not about condemning weaknesses or changing a writer’s voice. It’s about bringing out the best in a writer. Sometimes a person can’t see her own potential, until she is shown what’s possible. There are no limits in this endeavor, just new and ever wider frames of reference. You can find my services here: https://www.fiverr.com/fiction_magic/critique-your-fiction-and-do-developmental-editing I’m happy to offer a discount to anyone who’s been to an AWA workshop.
Below is a short video I find great solace in. It features two poems by Charles Bukowski. The street-wise scribe had much to reveal about courage and inspiration.
And below the video is a bit of my writing done at Green Windows. It’s raw, unedited, and written as my pen managed to stay ahead of my inner critic. The only item I’ve added post-write is the title.
by Joseph Kim
Slivers of rotting dog meat covered the helmet, all the better to blend in with the carrion that infested the city ruins. Wild dogs, rats and roaches were now the chief rulers of a megalopolis that had once spanned over a hundred square miles. From horizon to horizon only twisted rebar, crumbling concrete and mangled steel could be seen.
But Cassandra had the helmet in her crosshairs. It had moved. Something or someone was under it, crouched behind the wreckage of the sixth floor of a former Stock Exchange building. In the building opposite, Cassandra held her rifle, trying not to blink and waiting to shoot between heartbeats.
It had to be him – whatever he’d become. He was the enemy now. Could never be trusted. He had flipped. His message had read:
Come to the city center.
In the center we will play.
Remember Chutes and Ladders?
It was the game they’d once played. A beaten-up board game retrieved by her on a scouting mission, to entertain him while he spent lonely hours down in the bunker surrounded by Women Folk, no other boys to play with. Boys were all raised separately. The idea was it tamed their natural aggressive tendencies by removing the “wolf pack” element. They played the game awkwardly at first, trying to understand the strange 20th century obsession, but in time they found joy in it, an escape. Such a simple world where the stakes were clean and innocent. Not life or death, like now where she was obligated to kill her own son.
I remember a few years ago, I was going through childhood stuff as I started to move the last of my things out of my parents’ basement, and I found poems I wrote when I was probably in the 5th grade. I wrote a few that were what I thought poetry was supposed to sound like, a few that were what I thought cute girls were supposed to write about, and then there was this other one. I was really passionate about the wild world as a kid. I was part of a project that same year where my friend and I raised money to help protect snow leopards. I used to keep a sticker collection, like most 90’s babies, and the front cover was a tree frog. I had a budding monkey stuffed animal collection, and anytime I could, I escaped to the woods behind my house, where no one could hurt me.
I’m a trauma therapist for children and families at an elementary school. A lot of what motivated me to get into the work I do was my own trauma as a kid. I was sexually abused by an older neighbor who also bullied me in front of other kids from age 5 to 10, and my family had a lot of dysfunction, to say the least. School, the woods, books, writing, my own fantasy world: These were what kept me alive. I was that kid who could read and walk through the hallways from classes--to this day, my peripheral vision is on fleek.
This poem I found was about big construction vehicles rolling through a beautiful, pristine rainforest; ugly, metallic machines attacking the sweet greens and damp brown of the earth and bright red of a flying bird leaving its disappearing nest. The animals began to run until the snakes hissed back. The snakes hissed back and led a revolt and the animals turned around and took down those big machines with all the power of them standing up for the protection of their home.
I read this poem, and I knew that the part inside me that, 15 years later, started my own personal revolt against my abuser and the environment that broke my heart and my innocence, started it with this poem and the teacher that asked me to write it and wanted to hear me read it.
I read this poem, and I knew that I wanted to be the person who would ask others to write about how they would start their revolts and then help them start them.
Today, I’m lucky to get to hear those stories and to help re-write them so that the suffering, the cycle of abuse, stops. I try to remember to never underestimate the power of a poem, a metaphor, a story.
When I found Green Windows last year, I was ready to write more of my story, and Peggy and the group of amazing people she manifested every month kept me coming back and writing more. The writing below is an excerpt from a book I’m writing based on my own story and all the stories I’ve heard throughout my lifetime.
Excerpt from Frontera
by Lena Nicodemus
Mama helped Jo learn to stitch when she was old enough to hold the needle and the circular frame. It went in and out to the speed of their singing of songs that neither were old enough to fully understand. Jo would often overshoot the needle and accidentally stab herself in the pad of her index finger.
“Ow!” She would pull her hand back as the costura became tinged with a little red dot of blood.
“Los errores son parte del aprendizaje,” Mama said then, something Abuela had taught her, something that Jo would tell her own children someday as a bookmark for moments of flawless idiosyncrasy.
When the phone rang for the last time, it was months after the accident, and Grandma May lay flat on her bed with the orange curtains pulled closed at any time of day. Stale café and pan sat cold on her nightstand, next to a picture of Grandma May and Grandpa George with Mama, who looked up at her two smiling parents with no expression.
“Vente, vente,” Grandma May beckoned. “Vente por aca.”
Her hands are wrinkly and dry. Jo opens the nightstand drawer & takes out the oil, rose, and sandalwood, with corn oil to make it last longer. She rubs Grandma May’s hands. She closes her eyes. She remembers the Sunday school teacher telling them the story of when the ladies, implicitly whorish, washed Jesus’ feet. Jo imagined washing the Sunday School teacher’s feet while he read the story over and over on a loop, incessant and dull. She imagined playing that game where you dart a blade between the webbing of a hand, and doing that to the Sunday School teacher’s feet. She would take the dullness of that blade and slide it between each of his toes as she made him breathe in and out and keep quiet.
The phone rings, and the attic is oddly silent.
The phone rings, and Jo becomes aware of her mother’s radio two floors down, reverberating through the dry, wooden floorboards. The phone rings, and there’s no one on the other line.
The birds of paradise at the edge of the property swivel in the air, being put off by the helicopter blades.
Tomás holds the curling edges of the burning books until they get too hot and he drops them, one by one.
The kiddie pool full of the ceniza of 1000’s of words and letters by underpaid and over-emotional authors starts to melt from the heat. He goes for the phonebooks as well, burning “Aguilar” to “Zafón” and “air-conditioning repair” to “yard waste removal.” There is a book with leather skin, a book with a note written in blue on the inside cover.
Please call me when this is over.
I love you, I miss you. Please come home.”
The signature is illegible, the P.S. unreadable.
The title of the book is “Frontera”. “Border”.
(Originally posted on peggysimmons.net, May 11, 2009. I still volunteer weekly with The Beat Within. I've learned a lot and keep on learning.)
I volunteer with The Beat Within once a week, helping to facilitate their writing workshops in Alameda County's juvenile hall. I love it. I am inspired by the youth, the facilitators and many of the hall's staff. Experiences like this are an important reality check for me - reminding me of how much I don't know and don't understand and giving me opportunities to learn.
Two things have especially struck me in recent weeks from workshops in the hall. Firstly, in a discussion about what life on the streets costs (for issue 14.21) one young man said something like, "Everyone tells us to get off the streets. Get off the streets and go where?" The next week another young man wrote a great rap about being stuck in the "hood life" in which he mentions boys who have no socks to wear. (Marky Bo, page 26 of issue 14.22)
I haven't been able to follow up with the young man who said, "Get off the streets and go where?" So I don't know exactly what he meant. He might have meant, "with five kids in a 1 bedroom apartment, where else could we hang out but on the street?" And/or he could have meant that he and his peers see no other future for themselves, no other way of life but hustling on the streets. Because they have no example of other choices? Because they've been brought to believe it's all they are good for? Because the harsh circumstances of their childhood - home, health, education, violence, family - meant that nothing was built upon what was already a weak foundation? Like the shame and discomfort of going to school without socks. All or none or parts of these things might be true. But it doesn't matter what is true or what is not true, what is right or not right. If he believes there is no other life for him, how do we show him otherwise? How to we make it otherwise?
And how can I better understand what choices these youth think they have and actually have? How can I see better from their point of view? And how can I share what I learn with others who think of those kids as just criminals who stupidly make bad choices and should be punished accordingly, period?
Hearing and reading the writing of these youth, while reading and listening to lots of mainstream journalism too, reminds me of how most of us go through our days looking at the world from inside our own little bubbles. And judging from within them. We interpret what we see completely differently than other people from their own bubbles. And most of us, if not all, just can't see widely enough to judge others fairly. My work and my life are all about trying to find ways to pop, or at least widen, these bubbles. At least my own. I thank The Beat Within and the youth in the hall for helping me try.
by Meg Claudel
Lift my chin to the clouds, the heavens, the clouds
And wish or pray to wish for rain
To wash out the silence, the silence
He left me, behind the noise of highways
And trains at the intersection of 40th and Telegraph.
Dirty foot walks the broken streets
Dirty street breaks the feet of boys without socks
Boys without socks or gone to jail:
Boys without sunsets.
Boys with sunsets on the other side of the wall.
Broken sidewalks. Broken hearts.
Sunsets are free, he says
Once again outside my paid-for window
Sunsets are free
Behind the lines, a steeple, the lines
Once again paid for, this view
This view all the better on the hill
Outside the walls where children know death
More death than I
Walls between free sunsets and children not free
Children already gone
Past my share of grieving
Your sunset's free, he says.
("Meg Claudel" is the pen name used by Peggy Simmons.)
(This poem is in the mural on 40th St and Opal St, Oakland CA and was first drafted on June 22, 2009.)
(These pieces are excerpts from the manuscript What I Want My Words to Do to You, a collection from seven years of Peggy's writing about facilitating workshops in juvenile hall plus writing from incarcerated youth from the same period.)
We asked Lucy Flattery-Vickness, Oakland's 2017 Youth Poet Laureate to tell us about her creative process and Green Windows' role within it. Lucy first wrote in a Green Windows workshop when she was 14, part of a series of free workshops run for the Oakland Youth Poet Laureate program at the Oakland Public Library. She's included a gorgeous poem, too. Thank you, Lucy!
How I String Words
It usually starts with a few words strung together, tightrope thin, and a mother-load of procrastination. This line, or assortment of words, will stew in the deepest, dankest parts of me, and it will stew and stew and stew. Then, maybe, I will find a moment with silence, and the sun will be out, and my room will be still and warm and clean. Something may have just happened that requires processing through an emotional sieve. When this happens, then I may find some success in writing a piece.
Creating a piece that walks smooth and balanced on those first tightrope words is always challenging. I never start with a plan, or a beginning, middle, or end. I start with my ear, who tells me that combining my tightrope words will create a heartbeat. I am then left with the task of creating a poem backbone around that heartbeat. I guess you could say I write in reverse.
Green Windows revolutionized my writing process. I stumbled across the workshops and quickly fell in love. I realized that in the space of five minutes, I could create something I was proud of. It was momentous for me to discover that if I just kept the pen moving a whole body could come out — backbone, heartbeat, and all. I also learned something very important for my own well-being. I discovered that I could write about whatever was on my mind and people would listen, and that the process of being received was healing. Although Green Windows is by no means the only program that has helped me develop as a writer, it has always been an intimate space that has allowed me to find even more reasons to love writing.
- Lucy Flattery-Vickness
by Lucy Flattery-Vickness
Like bodies of women
Like waves folding in on themselves
Like bodies of women
Crescents be powerful
Be holders of wisdom
As ancient as the sun
Be tops of hills
That forever hide the other
Sides of things
The tipping point
If you turned the half moon on its side
Would it balance there?
If you tip a woman’s body
Can you see her inner balance take over
We start in diaphragms
In slow breath
That render us fierce
Whisper laugh wisps of ghost stories amongst ourselves
Weave mythology and moonbeams
Together on looms at midnight
Knit strength between fingertips
And name ourselves luna, and crescent, and conquerer
In out tongue, round back is for bearing
For soft landings
Stories into existence
Stories of warriors
With full breasts
And children too
Draped in silver from head to toe
Warriors who moved waters
Who screamed into oceans and heard tides echo back
Who charmed waves, new just
How to make them shake their hips
In this woman
Half moon is company in midnight window
Bertrell Smith is an amazingly talented artist who practices in different media: painting, writing, music, video and more. He has been writing in Green Windows workshops for several years. We asked him to share some of his art as well as a few words about his artistic process. Thank you, Bertrell!
When I create a work of art a lot of things happen or don't happen. If I'm painting I might make a thumbnail drawing while listening to random recordings. I usually find an error, a dot or something, in the canvass and adjust to it.
When writing a rap I jot down a few ideas about the direction for the rap in general and hope I finish it one day. In general this is how I do what I do or what I'm trying to do in the creative realm.
I often question why on earth am I doing these things. Then I remember why and I proceed with caution. It's a way to travel without checking my baggage, I tell myself. I usually put all my materials in one area and plan to spend from a hour to a week or more discussing my problems with them be it the canvas, a musical recording, a piece of paper or video etc.
When I waltz into Green Windows to write, I do something similar. I ask, "Why am I here?" I eventually remember why, eat some pastries and unleash a tension on the page that I've been storing for such an occasion. Green Windows writing workshop in many ways mirrors my creative process. I wish I could find a workshop that helps me in the other areas with the same level of consistency.
- Bertrell Smith
By Bertrell Smith
(Written in a Green Windows workshop, January 2014)
Shut up don't listen to your sorry selfishness. The version of you at this moment of time will be thrown away. I am not playing with you. Ball it up and let the smell from it take you away. Don't talk back to me in predictable anger it will do you no good. I'm happy you are here with me in a dark sadistic way. Now leave all that you know quickly and sweep up the floors. The floor covered with images of your self you placed there in haste, Make a noise, A new one. Not joyful not bitter. Something mechanical and happy. It's not a request you can ignore. I'm commanding you to be a subject of little insight and much pity. You shall grow as I say you will. The descriptions of you will fade and be forgotten as has been stated in the writings on the floor. You will mop after you sweep. I will let you take time to feel horror or hunger, Only one. There is no out at this only in at this. It is not a riddle only a lapse of a memory you wish to forget. Slow down let the pressure inside. To go in .
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