Learning to be crazy and wise: A poetry workshop

For the past six months, I have led a poetry writing workshop at OffCenter, a community art studio. Through teaching I have learned as much about poetry as my students have…

How was I supposed to teach a poetry workshop when I really didn’t know about poetry? My degree is in professional writing, which prepared me to write and edit for the scientific and medical fields as well as the non-profit sector—to be practical, not poetic. My way of creating poetry was to take my prose—usually stream-of-consciousness and autobiographical—and add line breaks, to use dramatic pauses when I performed it. But my background gave me what Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones calls “beginner’s mind,” which she sees as the best way to approach writing that cuts to the heart of what you need to say.

I had some experience leading a writing group. I led an 8-week writing group at ArtStreet, another community art studio and an outreach program of Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless. We began the first class with a simple Exquisite Corpse exercise in which everyone wrote a line on a piece of paper, then passed the paper to the person on their left, who also wrote a line, then folded the paper over so that only the line they’d just written was visible, and passed it on to the next person, who did the same, until we’d reached the last line on the page. Then we unfolded the papers, which by now resembled accordions, and read them aloud. They changed directions quickly, coming up with strange associations, surreal and dreamlike. During that class I also brought in poetry zines from around the country as well as chapbooks by local poets for the group to use as inspiration. We worked also on various poetic genres, including ekphrastic poetry, pantoum, and sestina. Towards the end of our eight weeks together, we put together our own zine: a collection of writings from the workshop, titled ArtStreet Presents: Poetry.

The workshop ended all too soon, but it did pave the way for other opportunities. Two people who regularly attend ArtStreet told me about a new poetry workshop starting at OffCenter Arts. They recommended me as a leader. Another woman was chosen, but I worked closely with her, leading the workshop when she had to miss a session. Then one week I was told that she’d left, and was asked if I’d like to take over the class. The rest, as they say, is history. Each week I come armed with prompts, gleaned for books or the Internet. The participants, like me, have no special background in poetry, but that means that our ideas are fresh, and we have nothing to unlearn. The previous leader titled it Crazy Wisdom Poetry Workshop. “Crazy wisdom” is a Buddhist concept conceived by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan monk, and one of the first to popularize Buddhism in the United States. I don’t pretend to be a Buddhist. I have a Protestant background, though I lean more towards agnosticism. I’ve done some research, though, and Crazy Wisdom to me is something that shocks the mind into becoming awake, like cold water in the face. (Or as the title of a children’s poetry book I found on the bus puts it, “A kick in the head”!) It can’t be taught. The ultimate enlightenment is the anxiety of admitting that we don’t know.

A prompt idea that the other leader used, and which I kept, was to turn one concrete object into another in X number of lines.


Turn a lobster

into a cup of coffee

in three lines.

But I have made this group my own, branching out into multimedia such as found poetry and collage. Which brings me to the question or whether to change the workshop’s title. As of yet, I’ve decided to keep it. There is a long tradition in Western as well as Eastern culture of “madness” and mental illness being tied to creativity. Additionally many artists and writers at OffCenter, myself included, live with a mental illness, so the title is apt.

Arlaina Ash

June 11, 2015

Crazy Wisdom Poetry Workshop

Wednesdays 4 p.m. At OffCenter Arts

808 Park St. SW (near Java Joe’s downtown)