Michael Kearns spent ten years as the artist-in-residence at the Downtown Women’s Center in Skid Row and currently helms Writing Works at Housing Works in Los Angeles on a weekly basis. He is the creator and Artistic Director of QueerWise, a collective of GLBTQ writers who have gained a reputation as one of Los Angeles’s stalwarts in the world of spoken word performance.
What makes your workshops unique?
I really spend a lot of time on the prompt and aim for specificity—the same thing I ask of my students. In the case of QueerWise, which meets fifty-two weeks out of the year, it is my responsibility to mix the palette—from the political to the personal, from the past to the present, from the angst of day-to-day to the joy of living more than five decades. I am also very clear about feedback from the group, insisting that no one “rewrite” but rather offer positive comments that embolden rather than weaken each other. Criticism is contextualized in the form of questions that may be pertinent to understanding the material; no rewriting suggestions, please.
What techniques do you employ to help shy writers open up?
A writer must feel safe. I can’t say, “Abracadabra! You’re safe.” But I can create a tone. I stress that no one in the room is there to judge and if I get a whiff of it: “See you later, alligator.” While I look at grammar and punctuation (and provide assistance when needed), I also assure students that I’m looking for stories. And I want heart as well as blood and guts. Humor never hurts.
What’s the strangest question you’ve received from a student?
It likely had to do with sex, but I’m too old to remember.
What has been your most rewarding experience as a workshop leader?
There are so many. I had a man in his fifties come into my workshop, having never written a word. He had been on the verge of death for more than a decade, defying throat cancer on a daily basis. From the first few sentences he read aloud, I knew he was a natural born writer. He had only recently found housing, after living in his van. I looked at his work and simply gave it the attention it deserved. I forcibly made him acknowledge that he is indeed a writer. This led to him going to college to take a writing class and seeking other writing teachers (which I encourage as long as he stays with me). There are times when a person must utter the four scary words: “I am a writer.” That's when the real work begins.
What effect has this work had on your life and/or your art?
My life and art are virtually melded and QueerWise enunciates that marriage. I take this work as seriously as I do any other aspect of my varied career. What began as a group of seven or eight writers (GLBT and over fifty) sitting around a table has—in four years—evolved into a successful troupe of Spoken Word Artists. That couldn’t have happened without the support of Poets & Writers. I learn from each student’s particular perspective, and I also learn when I evaluate how the material is landing on various audience members. That synergy gives me and my art a true uplift of the spirit.
What is the craziest thing that’s happened in one of your workshops?
In our QueerWise sessions, everyone is encouraged to get up and read (with no apologies, by the way). One night, our senior member (a mere eighty-five years old at the time), walked up to the music stand, confidently carrying a notebook containing his work for the evening. I don’t think he’d uttered a complete sentence when his pants fell to the floor, like a Barnum & Bailey clown act. Since we all share a palpable closeness, it was permissible to laugh. And no one laughed louder than Joe who, for the record, was wearing his Calvins.
Photo: Michael Kearns Credit: Lisa Palombi