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.)
I've always loved stories. I've always loved secrets. I literally sat at the feet of my elders while they cajoled, caroused and shared their stories as only they could. Bedtimes were tortuous, because I would strain to listen to the adults while they exchanged their lore in hushed tones at night.
I am fortunate to have a large, diverse, family with expressive, larger-than-life personalities. My father doubled down on his stories, my grandfather spoke piecemeal and cryptically, my mother weaves together tales of tenacity and enduring humor so effortlessly. I have a lot of cultural capital from which to draw my experiences, and for that I am truly blessed.
In my adolescence, I became enchanted with Dungeons and Dragons, along with art house cinema. I learned about the importance of compelling characters being presented in unconventional ways. Often as the Storyteller for our sessions, I had to captivate my audience quickly and unite the players with a common bond that was worth their time and imagination. I can't say that I was always successful, however my strongest friendships are with those that humored me and indulged my fantasy creations.
My writing became more refined throughout college, where I learned about structure and identifying theses. A wise professor advised me to “make your subjects personal.” Since I've received that guidance, I've been able to write passionately about most everything. To this day, I feel as if I write with an edge, or chip on my shoulder.
I feel fortunate to have been introduced to Green Windows by my wife. I didn't know what to expect or if I really wanted to expose my writing, but I took a chance anyways. I found the environment encouraging, welcoming, and I was blown away by the authenticity and vulnerability of the participants. While struggling to find my writing voice, I was encouraged by the growth of others and the creative ways they approached the writing prompts.
Through Green Windows, I've been able to find my unique voice and express myself with conviction. The writing prompts and welcoming atmosphere have inspired me to dig deep and get raw with my writing, drawing upon my unique experiences and perspectives. This process has made me realize that everyone is a vital repository of great stories and truths. I am humbled by the journey and am excited to see where it takes me each month.
Professionally, I've been a psychiatric nurse for about 3 years. I'm tasked with listening to my clientele and discerning truth from delusion or projection, for the purposes of positive health outcomes. I am fortunate to have the trust of my patients who have shared in varying degrees, heartbreaking, nihilistic, zany, grandiose, dangerous, and relatable stories. My role constantly reminds me of the power of trust, secrets, and having a secure place to tell your story. For a person like me, this feels perfect.
At any rate, I will share another piece of myself in the form of a Green Windows writing project. Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoy it.
by Philip Staley
“I'm a kung fu preacher from Wichita, don't fuck with me!” Silas McClellan teetered unsteadily as he always did, propped up at the figurative intersection of angst and bad choices. Kay noted that he had a much larger crowd today. Normally, she would dismiss his ramblings for scrimshaw, slipshod, nonsense, but these were different and hungrier times.
Old Silas had a penchant for pouring cheap alcohol in his myriad wounds and drinking the rest; and we're not talking about the kind they sell at liquor stores. His crazed eyes were red-rimmed and golden, a harsh indicator of his pock-marked liver. The combination of these things lent him a demonic, blood-orange visage.
Kay Kellen had to consider the changes in this part of town, long in shadows and hope. People were disappearing in such disturbing fashion, that even the city's undesirables complained. She had “the sight” or the “undervision”, as it was known in occult circles; to see and interact with the fearsome denizens of worlds best left unexplored.
Additionally, this sight was instrumental in piercing the veil of superstition in the cityscape and the isopropyl alcohol fueled ramblings of amateur and tormented, doomsday preachers. The gang members, ne'er do wells, and other ruffians who composed the Murderers' Row of Junktown approached too. They paid rapt attention to the nuggets of superstitious truth that now affected their collective interests.
Often ignored, Silas McClellan rumbled along in that deep speech, the hate and vitriol of his words punctuated by that horrible, phlegm-racked cough. Occasionally, he spit out blood and blamed the Devil; his captive audience hanging on his threadbare words.
Kay shifted uncomfortably, noticing the small apparitions now creeping amongst the assembled like pickpockets in a town square. Naught creatures who were here to lap up the conveniently assembled packets of fear. The psychic investigator liked the idea of these times, for once feeling useful. However, bathing in this apparent destitution made all previous instances shudder from the abrupt juxtaposition.
Aged in spirit well beyond her 29 years, Kay Kellen rolled up her sleeves and approached the doomsday prophet, eyes blazing with that otherworldly fire and the resolve of the forgotten.
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 .
The Alameda County juvenile hall has an amazing pilot program for incarcerated youth who have graduated from high school, called SEEP (Student Extended Education Program). Traditionally, and apparently in most juvenile halls, there isn’t much for the graduates to do while their peers are in class.
In the Alameda County hall, a small program was started in partnership with Merritt College to give some students college courses. This program runs on love and volunteers thanks to dedicated people like Amy Cheney (who Green Windows is honored to have on our Advisory Board and who used to be the Librarian in the hall) and Louise Anderson (Alameda County Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Commissioner [JJDPC]).
Besides this small college program involving a few youth and a few volunteers, there was nothing for the graduates until some JIOs (Juvenile Institution Officers, the Alameda County Probation staff who work with the youth in the hall) decided to create a program. Officer Nicole Perales and Officer Brian Bingham (who also honors Green Windows on our Advisory Board) started SEEP, with no funding, engaging other JIOs to teach classes on life skills, debate, cooking, gardening, whatever skills they could share. They needed to rely on people who had clearance to enter the hall, a proven track record to work with the young people and who wouldn’t require funding. This fabulous, desperately needed program, was also born out of love and runs on dedication.
Perales and Bingham have seen and supported my work in the juvenile hall over the years, running different kinds of writing workshops with Green Windows, for The Beat Within and with the Oakland Public Library for the Oakland Youth Poet Laureate program. They knew my love, dedication and clearance and asked me to run a series of creative writing workshops with the SEEP students. Thanks to generous individual donations to Green Windows, I was able to run this workshop for five weeks this past Spring.
The creativity of these brilliant and charming young people impressed me, as did their desire to engage themselves while locked up, despite facing uncertain futures or futures certain to contain a lot of time inside and while dealing with all levels of sorrows. Their writing shows they do not easily lose hopes and dreams and loves.
I hope to continue to offer creative writing workshops with these young people, in addition to volunteering weekly to run workshops with The Beat Within. Green Windows needs funding to offer them, though, please consider donating.
This whole post was written to introduce this one piece of writing, written in the last SEEP workshop. Writing like this implores us to offer these young people as many opportunities as possible to authentically express themselves. Our society has much to learn and gain if they do.
- Peggy Simmons
We were all born with the power of
changing the world, emotionally, mentally,
spiritually and maybe of course verbally.
I stand tall on this lovely morning
with my hands bruised from protecting
myself from the haters, eyes red & puffy
from praying and crying, my body slim but
using the bit of strength within my female body. Nobody should
be Judged from a record or a misunderstanding
mistake. We are human beings, please look at
us as one. If nobody wasn't born in different
countries then what is a world? Different
skin tones matter or what would be the real
definition of a human being including their tone
that comes out of their mouth? What’s coming out
of mine are the last words I am ever going to
preach for. They say, “what you do & say will
be used against you”. In the system some
can control themselves & get away, start over
until never again. It is another day that
can be brighter but Hey! What about the
others “maybe”? Can you at least feed us real food
here & there, take us to field trips in the “real life”?
Or cook what I enjoy, for I
think I still remember how to
use my hands. Stress really eats up our
cells and DNA including techniques, that nobody made him or me learn.
Again they say “get it together this is real life”.
Can I be loved one more time? Because that’s
the “real life” not the system.
17 years young now. 5 years pass -
I am free I could have spent the rest of
my life in there, but I did not go down like no
SUKKA, fight! Let your voice be heard
& the victim get on the stand! I am loved,
I started my own restaurant, I travel now.
One day when I am 50, miniature me’s will
be changing the world Amen.
After college, I started journaling. Everyday. I would write as a process of understanding myself better and as a way of saving my impressions of the world around me. I was living in Argentina at the time and there was so much I wanted to capture, to remember, as if writing letters to be opened by another version of myself in another time.
When I moved back to the States, my writing became infrequent for a time. I pursued other means of understanding myself, specifically studying plant medicine, movement and massage. At the time that I found Green Windows, I was six months into my studies in becoming a massage therapist with a focus on Eastern modalities. My teachers were training us to look for harmonies in the body, the things that were working well in our clients, instead of focusing on the seemingly hurt or broken pieces that were our clients’ major complaint. The belief is that by finding what is working well, and supporting that function, the body has more resources to heal itself.
When I found Peggy and the AWA method, I realized right away the natural pairing of what I was learning in school with one of the guiding principles of the AWA method: look for what is working well. I noticed that, in bodywork as in writing, this type of listening creates a safe place where one can reconnect. From here, we can go into the world a little stronger, more ready to adapt to life’s changes.
One of the first things I noticed about Peggy was her ability to reach into the depths of each person in a writing group and spark a match igniting a fury of inspiration, drawing out stories and characters and poetry that set free the writer in every person. The second thing I noticed was the diversity of the group. How rare that such an array of people could come together to create and share. And who was this woman who could speak to all of us? I had to learn more.
Building upon the common ground between my bodywork and writing practice, I direct a person’s attention towards harmony and what works to facilitate an environment that invites our most authentic selves to show up. In tuning our awareness in this way, we nourish ourselves and evoke what we wish to create. When we employ this way of looking for what is strong in a group setting, we begin to understand how Peggy can bring together people from such different backgrounds.
Still Peggy’s magic lies beyond the trust she has in the AWA method, or efficacy in facilitating it, but rests in her belief in and dedication to making this work accessible to each unique voice as fuel for radical conversations. Expanding upon Peggy’s example, I see that the unique voice can take many forms. I witness how the human body’s movement, like words, is a language expressing a unique story. And from my own experience of the creative flood after being in Peggy’s workshop, I realize that freedom of expression holds the greatest potential to liberate the human spirit, and it is precisely this liberation that drives me in all of my work.
- Jenna Frisch, Green Windows Facilitator, former Green Windows Apprentice.
Please submit a post about your experience in a Green Windows workshop or about social justice and artistic expression.