Violence, Silence, & Witness Poetry: The Power of Creative Writing to Free the Independent Voice

“Designing and Conducting Writers Workshops to Awaken Social Consciousness” (my capstone project for my Individualized Master of Arts from Antioch University Midwest) was born from my desire to help strengthen and provoke silent voices of my community by supporting their interest and abilities in creative writing. In combination with my passion for equality and justice for all sentient beings, a deep affection and aptitude for creative writing fostered my efforts toward undoing the “knots of silence,” the focus of Louise Dunlap’s Undoing the Silence: Six Tools for Social Change Writing. The statement that David James Duncan made during the opening of his essay, “When Compassion Becomes Dissent,” resonates with my motivations for this project: “Creative Writing requires a dual love of language and of life, human and otherwise” (Duncan, Orion Magazine). My love for both inspires me to use creative writing techniques as a resource for empowerment, and as a contribution to the prosperity and verve of a non-profit social service organization whose mission is to activate change within their community. Enhancing their creative writing abilities can improve both individual and collective communication skills, and help such an organization confidently and accurately express their noble messages to the public.

When I began my IMA journey, I wanted to flood my world with reading and writing. I wanted to become enflamed and ravaged, impassioned and seduced, injected with a serum of pure bliss, exquisite body and mind sensations supplied by grand adventures in literature and the practice of reading and writing poetry. I sensed a tremendous urge to leap inside a tornado of books, journals, essays, poetry, poetry, poetry. I wanted to become the object that floats in the center of a swirling tornado of creative writing. I wanted to breathe words, eat them, absorb them, suffocate myself with beautiful syntax until I was the art itself.

My plans were to become an instructor of literature and creative writing. I wanted to represent the tornado, so that others could look to me as a source of inspiration and knowledge. I wanted others to reach out, dip their hands inside my circulation of poetic vision, imagery, texture and sensation. I wasn’t sure of the details, but I knew that an experience inside a funnel rich with imagination, education, and art would offer me everything I desired to acquire in order to become the tornado, a part of nature’s fierce energy force, fully prepared to live the life of a writer and instructor. I wonder, if you touch me now, do your fingers feel the mist of Sylvia Plath’s essence? Do you see W.H. Auden’s cloudy image streaking by? Can you taste Nick Flynn’s honey that drips from his book Blind Huber? Do you smell a coppery whiff of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood? What would you feel if you float with me?

The vision of my future beyond my academic career has changed only in the way that creative writing has changed me into that tornado. I am looking out from the inside of it. I have filled in the walls of my wind and vapor with as much knowledge of craft as possible, and I experience the language holding me, causing me to drift and glide and hang in holistic reverence and industrious enlightenment. A primary product of my cyclonic motions is reflected in my personal writing. My desire to instruct creative writing persists, but I have also learned how to become a masterful writer.

I have cared for my own writing, not only because writing is my ever-present flashlight inside my literary tornado, but because a good instructor can only teach to the extent of her personal knowledge. During my research, I met a writer and instructor of creative writing, thirty years in the field, who told me that an instructor of writing must experience the practice of the professional writing life before they can proficiently advise other writers – wise advice, which helped my intuitive thoughts become effable. The IMA program inspired and equipped my abilities to affect the world with my own writing through publishing. Therefore, I am a force capable of impacting far more of earth’s surface than I had ever anticipated. I have prepared, applied, and illustrated my writing and teaching competencies throughout my capstone project.

The tools for this project were discovered and absorbed by engaging in a whole master of arts program. Each course of study was useful and illuminating. Each book that I read, essay that I examined, poem that I dissected, and every discourse session with peers, instructors, my mentor, and associates in the field came through my learning channel, woke me up, inspired, challenged, and fulfilled me. Everything that I studied and observed, as an active participant in the transference of knowledge, contributed to the coalescence of thoughts and visions that influenced the idea for this project, in more ways than there is time to express. But it wasn’t until my individualized courses, “Poetry of Witness” and “The Writer’s Workshop,” that my unique position became visible to me.

The coursework experiences provoked me to view myself as a writer and an activist, naturally imbued with the ability and passion for provoking change through writing and the instruction of writing. Each witness poem and essay, like dense river water, flowed slowly through my mind, depositing evidence and inspiration into the soft spot of my identity. From the “poetry of the political imagination” of Martin Espada’s anthology, Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination, to the humbling and enlightening prison poetry of Texas Death Row: Reflections of a Different World, I learned that close examination of adverse human experiences, portrayed through language art techniques and devices, is both a liberating artistic endeavor and a practice in social symbiosis: “Any oppressive social condition, before it can be changed, must be named and condemned in words that persuade by stirring the emotions, awakening the senses” (Espada, 17).

Witness writers often process and reflect social events or conditions with the intention of facilitating both knowledge and art, while the audience, already affected by the subject matter in some relative way, consumes the artistic translations of shared history or significant subject matter, therefore witness writing is a form of communication for a collective social consciousness.

Prime examples of witness writing that possess the power to affect and correspond with social consciousness, include: Siamanto’s “The Dance” draws the audience within close proximity to a striking image of a woman in the midst of expressing her witness stories, detailing the genocide that she survived – the moving pictorial scene of women burning alive, while being further humiliated by their killers’ devious laughter and taunting remarks, is alarmingly hypnotic and beautifully haunting (Forche, 57 – 59); Claribel Alegria’s “From the Bridge” moves readers through vivid witness scenes in intimate sensory detail, causing a sense of immediacy of the author’s memories – the skillful poetic translation of traumatic memories creates a resonating effect, magnetizing the mind on the meaningfulness of her unforgettable stanzas: “all those innumerable deaths / that assail you / pursue you / define you” (Espada, 37).

Through vigorous poetry of witness studies, I discovered that it is possible to heal one’s own swollen sores of memory by participating in literary acts, which are capable of shedding light upon the infected, making it possible for others to bear witness to the infection’s aliveness, its truth oozing alongside, or submerging inside, readers’ minds. This elemental discovery fueled my desire to pursue and publish my own witness writing, and inspired me to position my mind astride the writer’s life and the functional role of a writing instructor.

The study of writer’s workshops, through direct observation, discussions with instructors in the field, and examinations of analytical text, detailing the complex methods for understanding the creative writing learning process incited by writing workshops, exposed me to the functions of creative writing instruction techniques, and their impact on both writers and readers. I achieved a keen insight into the practice and design of poetry writing workshops, fiction writing workshops, and workshops designed to stimulate and enhance the generation of writing for a diverse group of mix-level writers. These studies and explorations provided me with a rich and expansive landscape for my imagination and thoughts, but I needed a few maps to guide me toward the full experience of designing and conducting my own writer’s workshops.

Zealously, I investigated masterful texts, each written to exemplify and encourage the effective methods and profoundly gratifying results of writing workshops. Some texts concentrated on academic writing workshops, such as Wendy Bishop’s Released Into Language: Options for Teaching Creative Writing, while others focused on community writing workshops; though each source of enrichment connects to the vein of Hope on a Tightrope, especially Cornel West’s provocative statement: “When we dare to love and serve, we will be willing to speak, act, dialogue, write, fuse, share, laugh, and love with others whom we can inspire and who can inspire us” (West, 158).

While the fluid that courses through the underground piping of this artistic community service project is wise well water from many assorted erudite aquifers, the following texts were most influential, because they are community workshop writing manuals and anthologies: Undoing the Silence: Six Tools for Social Change Writing, by Louise Dunlap, June Jordan’s Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint, edited by Lauren Muller, and Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, by Maxine Hong Kingston. All three of these texts clarified the vision of my future as a writer-activist-instructor, which became tangible throughout this project.

Poetry for the People is a compilation: it is a manual for both academic and community writing workshops that includes instructional models, step-by-step guides, and methodical lists; and it is a mesmerizing anthology of testimonial essays and poetry. For poetry workshopping, the book fulfills its promise to “spare you most of the trial and many of the errors of my (Jordan’s) own gradual discoveries” (Muller, 4). Closely examining the contents of her book, I gained pragmatic knowledge from her proven techniques: “how to make sure that every single wannabe poet becomes a distinctive voice that people will listen to; how to assure the creation of a community of trust despite serious and sometimes conflictual baseline components of diversity: race, language, sexuality, class, age and gender;” and “how to develop a syllabus that reflects and respects the cultural heterogeneity of in-your-face America” (Muller, 2).

Unlike Poetry for the People and Undoing the Silence, Kingston’s Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace does not map out the routes for a functional creative writing workshop, but it is a comprehensive anthology written by workshop participants, military veterans and writing teachers (also veterans), “good hearted artists (who) affirmed that the written word gives life” (Kingston, 2). Kingston’s workshop inspired the generation of breathtaking and immensely edifying witness text, “a harvest of conversations among multitudes” (Kingston, 3). The visionary stories and poetry of trauma, scabbing, healing, brokenness and wholeness, written by witnesses of war, and by close observers of war’s byproducts, proves the worthiness of community writer’s workshops: “Their stories and poems are immense in scope, and in heart, and – amazingly – full of life and laughter” (Kingston, 3). Using language to connect and release voices within a greater community, writer’s workshops, like Kingston’s, set stories in motion, and formulate creative visions that unveil the shadowy mysteries of our collective history.

Dunlap’s text, Undoing the Silence, specifically “links our writing to our beliefs, our activism, our voice” (Dunlap, ix). Her six practical writing tools map out the process for successfully operating within a comfortable relationship with language. Dunlap teaches methods for productively using our voices through written word. For many, using language to demonstrate their thoughts and perspectives is gravely complicated by oppression. This is especially true for racially or sexually alienated people, those who have most often been treated with prejudice and subjugation, like Indio-Mexican writer, Jimmy Santiago Baca, who displayed profound wisdom and bravery when he recognized and liberated himself from a culture of silence by writing, reading, and self-elected education, or like one of my closest white American female friends, who is now learning through personal experience that the word women is not a fair label for silent, for people who are less valuable, or weaker than, the male population.

Undoing the culture of silence is about using written composition to break through the force of quiet compliance with subjection or autocracy. The more I embraced Dunlap’s concepts, as a creative writer, the more I observed the need for “teaching but also healing – both individual voices and our ailing collective voice” (Dunlap, 7). As I adjusted my artistic lenses to refocus on the “knots of silence,” I began to witness symbols and examples of the silence within my personal situations.

For example, my friend told me that she did not know how to tell a man how she felt about having sex with him. She intimated to me that she had no desire to be with him physically, and experienced boredom while engaging with him socially. By the time we spoke, my friend had already Googled “how to break up with a man.” She said that she didn’t know how to tell him the truth, and clarified her position by stating that she was afraid of hurting his feelings, therefore I deduced that it was fear that kept her from the words, not ignorance. A knot of silence that was her own, yet created by many different social, political, familial, and religious influences, became recognizable within my cognitive structure.

Since my friend is well-educated, intelligent enough to run two businesses, and is spiritually wise, I theorized: If she had not been taught “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” or that premarital sex was sinful, or that a woman’s role is to please and care for a man, even if his only priority is to please himself, then maybe she would have immediately said what she needed to say to him, or simply disconnected without explanation, like some men in her life have done. It’s the lack of power, power cheated out of her by authority figures and pulled like threads into an intricate knot of silence, that keeps her from just saying, “I do not want to have sex with you anymore.” It’s not that the words are missing from her vocabulary; my friend simply doesn’t know that she has the freedom to guiltlessly use them.

Another, more extreme, example: While reading Dunlap’s book in the waiting room of a hospital, I was distracted by a segment on the Katie Couric show. The expose focused on “the knockout game”: essentially, a new practice in violence for the social world of youth and young adults, by which an individual unexpectedly, suddenly, takes a violent beating from a perpetrator, intending to effectively knock-out a perfect stranger. I was fascinated by this new social trend. In the midst of learning various ways that I can motivate people to express their truths and stories through language and writing, thereby unleashing their frustrated voices from oppression, I discovered repercussions related to the “knots of silence” elaborately displayed on the television screen.

Whatever issues that the “knock-out game” perpetrators carry with them, whatever their motivations, biological, neurological, emotional, educational, moral, religious, social, etc., it is clear by their vicious actions that they are grappling with misery caused by the knot. Without the sense of freedom to express their thoughts and feelings, their personal traumas build up inside them like gun-powder. Violence, like Jimmy Santiago Baca explicated during an interview with Bill Moyers, doesn’t simply manifest without a cause: “The sapling of violence first sprouts out of ultimate despair” (Moyers, 41).

It is clear that by surprising a man or woman on the street with a punch to the face, the “knock-out game” participants are expressing their personal frustrations with the knot, with their constipated voices, with their inabilities to express themselves in a less physically or psychologically harmful way, in a way that causes long-term relief and healing. Instead, the “knots of silence” have tightened around their vocal chords, their hearts, and their minds so greatly that the only way they can find relief is by improvising through impulse and instinct. Feeling like unsubstantiated human beings, powerless others, they began viewing people as objects, a behavior that “is often the first step toward justifying violence against a person,” as stated by Jean Kilbourne, Ed. D. during Couric’s interview segment of the “Knock-out Game.”

I believe that most of us are aware of the “knots of silence.” We are, at least, subtly conscious of them. Without the restrictions of the status quo, why would we harm each other so frequently and in increasingly inventive ways? Are violent outbursts merely surges of misguided creative energy, unique voices, strained and encapsulated by bullet casings and skin of fists? We are mindful of the social and political constraints, because we have been taught that blind conformity will help us survive, as if minding our oppressors will somehow, someday, prove to be a vehicle for a sublime opportunity to covet a superior position amongst the masses, as if silence is laudable, and the reward is controlling power and a seat of authority over our own voices.

All people want or deserve the right to exercise their thoughts and voices without intent to harm themselves or others, and without fear of retribution. All children are affected by the system of social conditioning, which teaches that the only way to achieve the right to use individual power and voice is by complying with conformity and suffering silence. All people are subject to silence and oppression. This pseudo-syllogism is adaptable and malleable, because no matter how we speak of the culture of silence, the act of submitting to subordination is behavior that is aggressively administered to us by life-long authority figures.

As Dunlap explains, we are taught to be silent. “The pressure to remain silent in the face of injustice is not just a personal issue but has deep roots in our social and political culture” (Dunlap, 13). Teachers, parents, guardians, religious leaders, bosses, and political figures can make it difficult for us to feel entitled to express ourselves, to the extent that not only do our voices become sacked by fear, we take on the subtle values of the organizations and people we work for or are affiliated with, and most of them include not voicing original critique, not rocking the boat (Dunlap, 20 -21).

We are shown that disobedience, disruptive behavior that causes disorder amidst active conventions, will only cause us trouble, challenge our comfort, impede our abilities to satisfy our immediate human needs, and keep us from success. No one wants to feel insecure or rejected. No one wants to feel like the outsider; therefore, many of us have found ourselves, at some point or another, minding the oppression so much so that we suppress our innate abilities to seek joy, justice, love, and peace. However, we each have a way of expressing our frustrations.

Whether we join a group that promotes personal principles, speak up at an office meeting against policy, write an op-ed letter in support of an issue, process our thoughts with a therapist, write poems about our experiences, sing a song, play an instrument, or create a painting that represents our feelings, lash out in a sudden burst of anger at our spouses, friends or family members, punch some stranger in the face, shoot an enemy, or kick a helpless animal, we all find a way to create an experience for the primary purpose of self-expression.

Whether one is inclined to verbalize their thoughts, has a predilection for written discourse, or prefers to articulate themselves through gesturing, communication is an inter-personal mode of evolution. None of us can contain the insurmountable personal energy we’re supposed to collect and save from society. We find a way of disobeying some super knot-tying official, regulator for the powerfully perverse and privileged classes, if only to alleviate the pressure of the knot. Speaking truth to powerful entities defies the patterns of the authoritative social machines. Those who defy the machines represent the darns in the quilt of power that separates the moderating entities from the moderated. Using personalized dissociative measures to combat the social contracts, the commonly accepted seams in the patterns, does not necessarily mean that one is ever completely free from the fray.

Disobedience, or dissent from the ruling order, is called by many names. There is even a psychological condition called oppositional defiant disorder, which identifies any individual who repeatedly disobeys authority, manifests conflict, defends or offends those who are charged with some form of elected power. Though a close friend, who is a therapist and licensed social worker, explained the seriousness of what I am about to imply, I find it difficult to believe that I would not be misdiagnosed with this disorder, for all the truth seeking and justice defending I have engaged in.

In order for a person to be appropriately diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, the condition would have to be debilitating, not an act of complete conscience, but an act of absolute impulsivity and chaos. Yet, still, hyperbolic as my assertions may be, anyone who takes action, repetitiously or not, in opposition of the ruling majority might find themselves erroneously labeled “oppositional defiant;” at the very least, they risk being referred to in terms of other: strange, annoying, crazy, aggressive, nuisance, argumentative, a difficult personality, etc.

It could be stated that the only difference between any other person who challenges authority and “the knockout game” participants is that violence is the least likely option for stress relief by those without criminal predilections or predetermined conditions related to violence. The rest of us have not succumbed to the cumbersome bulge. We still think that there is a mildly safe opportunity for us to risk our voices without being fired from our jobs, ostracized from our cliques, or ousted from statuses within our families.

Some of us even trust the whistleblower protection policies, though in my opinion, they were strategically designed out of legal obligation to protect the ruling boards and companies, not the employees or potential whistleblowers. Having been employed as a human resource coordinator, I’m well aware that several versions of such policies were written by the bureaucrats who are compensated for their efforts to maintain conformity, no matter the discrepancies in actual conduct. Enact your right to tell the truth, to seek justice, or to hold one of these oppressors accountable, and with a polite handshake, a wink, and a nod toward the door, you will lose your job and a little faith in your own voice. You will likely realize what George Orwell meant by: “ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL BUT SOME ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS” (Orwell, 134).

Theoretically, the perpetrators of “the knock-out game” simply reflect some of the negative consequences resulting from the tremendous tightening of the “knots of silence.” I do not profess to know the science of psychology or psychiatry, therefore I am incapable of estimating mental disorders. I am, however, a writer who imagines that both the perpetrators and my aforementioned, fearful friend have grown so used to the suppression and silence of their own voices that they resort to unnecessary and innovative strategies for relieving systemic pressure and anxiety, combustible energy accumulated by persistent repression of expressional freedoms, a prolonged sense of intellectual, emotional, and personality deficiencies, and perpetual alignment with self-perceived inadequacies of his or her social order. Like inert whistleblowers, they perceive that what they want to say is unacceptable, and they believe that their words and thoughts are shallow because they have allowed their oppressors, their mothers, fathers, priests, co-workers, friends, landlords, government, etc., to live inside their vocal chords. They believe that it is difficult to cut their strings from the knots, and it is.

However, challenging as it may be, revolting against constructs of crooked power without damaging personal dignity is absolutely conceivable. Speaking to a false power is even more possible. Leadership power is gained by accruing and maintaining allegiance, often times, by amassing blind faith from those served, but if you can demystify the power, you can disarm the oppressor.

It isn’t quite that easy, is it? We would have to independently act in the spirit of Cornel West’s wise call for action: “We have to expose the social breakdown that produces the conflict that separates human beings from hope and courage and discipline and risk-taking” (West, 16). We would first have to separate ourselves from the broken systems that impede our abilities to speak for ourselves, and find a way to refrain from consenting to our own oppression without subjecting ourselves to victimhood.

Could you be so courageous? So audaciously dedicated to your convictions? Could I do something completely autonomous and brave in the name of truth and justice? Could we come anywhere near the personal strength and foresight of Jimmy Santiago Baca, who transformed himself from a leader of violent conformists, to a committed fighter for knowledge and social equality?:

I came out of my cell one day, and I said, ‘I’m not working anymore.’ Now, I was a gang leader – I had about twenty guys who were ready to kill anybody that I pointed to – but when I said, ‘I’m not going to go to work today,’ they said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘I’m not working anymore. I’m going to close down. I’m going to learn how to write. I want to know why ninety-five percent of the men in this prison are Chicanos, and why ninety-five percent can’t read or write, and why ninety-five percent are killing each other for smokes and for coffee. I want to know the answer to that. I can’t live without the answer.’ And they said to me, ‘You’re a coward. You’re nothing.’

That same day they threw scalding water on me. They threw urine at me. They threw feces at me. And I was in ecstasy. I was joyous. Because it was the first time I had ever found my own thought, and the first time I had ever followed my own feeling (Moyers, 41).

Through writing, every one of us can achieve a sense of personal freedom. Maybe, we don’t put ourselves through riots, physical pain, and immense humiliation in order to reclaim our voices, but if we use writing as a way to achieve expression of our individual thoughts and feelings, then we gain the ability to locate our unique presence in the world, and to freely speak to power with the same sense of courage and dignity as Baca exhibited.

Andrea Collins, “Tough Girl”

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