In January, Poets & Writers convened its third annual Workshop Leaders Retreat for Los Angeles-area writers who teach workshops for underserved communities. Readings/Workshops Fellow Andrew Wessels writes about the day.
In the back room of 826LA  in Echo Park on a wintry Sunday afternoon, a group of dedicated workshop leaders gathered to make connections, share advice, and enlarge each others’ repertoires of writing prompts. The Workshop Leaders Retreat was P&W’s way of thanking the writers who help us fulfill our mission , and providing them with resources to continue their work.
The meeting began with an exquisite corpse poem. Each workshop leader wrote a line (or two) of poetry that communicated something that he or she wanted the group to know. As each line was written, the page was folded over to conceal what came before. The resulting poem, which can be found at the end of this post, included imagery ranging from dinosaurs to DeLoreans .
The group transitioned from the whimsical to the practical, engaging in a free-flowing conversation that covered administrative strategies, contract negotiation, and maintaining good relations with site directors.
They also shared techniques that inspired workshop participants to new levels of writing. Just Kibbe prompted his high-school students to create their poems right on his car. They spray-painted words and numbers connected to their identities on the car, which he continues to proudly drive (and which has been used now by multiple classes as a mobile writing platform).
Why do writers do community work, especially when the pay is minimal and the Blue Book value of one’s car might be lowered as a result?
“Part of writing is to teach how to be in the world,” offered Jeremy Radin, who has taught workshops for teens and people with eating disorders.
After a lunch break, the group reconvened for the highlight of the afternoon: the writing prompts. Radin began by leading the entire group through one of his tried-and-true workshop sessions. Here’s the prompt:
“You are the ghost that haunted the house you first lived in. The one that makes the house creak and the wind sing so strangely in the windows. You (the ghost) have a message to deliver to child-you (the author). It can be a message about child-you’s future, something that is happening right now, something you need in order to be free, etc. What is the message and how do you deliver it? You are a ghost, so moving physical objects requires incredible expenditures of energy. Have at it!”
The fifteen-minute writing session guided by Radin produced a wide range of responses, from the humorous to the emotionally charged. The group then broke into two, led by Traci Kato-Kiriyama and Hannah Menkin. Kato-Kiriyama led her group in a minimalist prompt: “And when…”.
Menkin’s prompt, by contrast, was slightly more involved, beginning with the Rabindrath Tagore quote: “There is a point where in the mystery of existence contradictions meet; where movement is not all movement and stillness is not all stillness; where the idea and the form, the within and the without, are united; where infinite becomes finite, yet not.” Menkin then asked her group members to respond, thinking specifically about the stillness of poetry.
As both groups shared their responses, the energy in the expansive room was anything but still.
(Want to see more prompts? Check out The Time Is Now .)
Exquisite corpse poem:
“Back to the Future Now and Again”
I am on my metaphorical walk back to the future
I am 100 years of age
When I was a boy, I’d stand the broccoli
Up on the plate, pretend I was a brontosaurus
Feasting on trees. Wished I could leave this behind.
Wish I could cry about it
But the tears no longer fall
My only choice is to stand tall
A caffeinated DeLorean sends me spinning
Into the unexpected, yes…
It’s poetry again, coming to soothe the soul,
Opening windows, releasing tears, swirling dust
In the room. Writing rocks.
Pink stains on paper towel, stomach full of cherries.
And scattered she slumped bed-ward, a sink sink sink.
Translate the books into art, into the landscape
Of the sea and sunset.
Voices are verbs unwritten given to pen to paper from tree.
Reverse the reverb and make verbs with me.
They are lining up outside.
Photos: (Top) Just Kibbe with his poetry/art car. (Bottom) Workshop Leaders Retreat attendees. Credit: Andrew Wessels.