The Feast of Losses: Writing into Transience

Here’s a workshop I’ll be teaching at SFZC City Center on Sunday, June 10 from 10 – 5.

The Feast of Losses: Writing into Transience

“Death is the mother of beauty.” – Wallace Stevens

In “The Layers,” Stanley Kunitz asks, “How shall the heart be reconciled / to its feast of losses?” Grief and loss can feel like a solitary, unprecedented process. Encountering a poem that speaks to our experience can help us find connection and perspective, and provide a way for us turn toward what is difficult to bear. How can a poem about death instruct us in the full catastrophic miracle of being alive? We will read work that explores the possibility that there is no monolithic proposition that can be simply called loss.

What is the relationship of creativity and grief? Is there a place no poem can reach? Or can reading, or writing, a poem actually help us reach depths of feeling previously inaccessible to us? What do we find here and how is it different from what we fear?

We will write short poems and prose pieces exploring grief and loss with an eye toward shaping the pieces into a longer poem or lyric essay.

Please bring:

  • plenty of fresh paper and a juicy pen
  • a piece of your own writing (for discussion, not required)
  • a short poem or prose piece that has provided a sense of company in a difficult time
  • a photograph and/or an object that has resonance for you

A reader including Mark Doty, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Olena Kalytiak Davis, Marilynne Robinson, Marie Howe, Richard McCann, Dorothea Lasky, Naomi Shihab Nye, Stanley Kunitz, Elizabeth McCracken, Mark Doty, Jillian Weise, Joan Didion, Jane Hirshfield, Rainer Maria Rilke, Matthew Dickman, and others will be provided.

For an additional $25 fee, students can arrange to meet with the instructor for an individual one-hour conference (to be scheduled by instructor and student).

Questions? Feel free to email Genine.

Retreat fee: $90; $81 current SFZC members; $72 limited income.

Registration: please visit, or call 888.743.9362  or 415.475.9362.,119&pageid=3164



Studio Updates

On March 4, I will be teaching a daylong workshop at ZC in the conference center, And Then a Plank in Reason Broke:  Poetry, Uncertainty, and the Creative Process.  There are still spaces available in that if you’d like to register.  Feel free to email me for more information.   

A note about Individual Conferences:  As the workshop description indicates, there’s an option there for a 1-hour individual writing conference as well.  If that’s something you’re interested in, but won’t be taking the workshop, I would be happy to schedule a time to meet w/you through that option.   It’s at a slightly lower rate than my usual hourly fee for individual conferences, but I’m happy to make that available for that session for Sunday Studio participants.  If it’s something you’d like to explore, it’s a good chance to do that!  If you’re interested in exploring that on a more ongoing basis, feel free to write for more info.  I’m also open to work exchange for these conferences.  We can discuss details if you’re interested.  
Then, for March 11 & 18, the studio will meet at Montalvo Arts Center, where I will be in residence for March.  Montalvo is on 175 acres  of open space with hiking trails and gardens, so if you’d like to come down early, we can go for a hike/have a picnic~
It’s about an hour south of SF, so we will have to arrange for carpooling.  If you are interested in coming down, please email me and I will start to gather resources for how people can get down there.  If you think you can provide a ride, please let me know! Whether or not you know how you’d get there, just let me know if you’re interested.  I trust the details will work out! 
Then, we return to our regular schedule for April, back at SFZC, in the Art Lounge.
Dates for April:  1, 15, 22, & 29 (no studio on Easter).  If you’d like to workshop a piece on any of those dates, you can sign up by emailing me.  

The studio is now scheduled, mostly weekly, through August.  
here are the dates:
May 6, 13, 20 
June 3 and 24 
July 1, 8, 15, 29 
August 5, 12, 19, 26
And finally, for now, registration is now open for Tassajara summer workshops in poetry.  As you probably already know, Mark Doty, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Jane Hirshfield will each be teaching workshops.    here are the links: 

Mark Doty:  Deepening the Poem

Naomi Shihab Nye:  Words under the Words

“I knew all along you were mine”

Love Poems [a podcast from the Poetry Foundation]

[love is more thicker than forget]

By E. E. Cummings1894–1962

love is more thicker than forget
more thinner than recall
more seldom than a wave is wet
more frequent than to fail
it is more mad and moonly
and less it shall unbe
than all the sea which only
is deeper than the sea
love is less always than to win
less never than alive
less bigger than the least begin
less littler than forgive
it is most sane and sunly
and more it cannot die
than all the sky which only
is higher than the sky

E.E. Cummings, “[love is more thicker than forget]” from Complete Poems 1904-1962, edited by George J. Firmage. Copyright 1926, 1954, 1991 by the Trustees for the E.E. Cummings Trust. Copyright © 1985 by George James Firmage. Reprinted with the permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Source: Poetry (January 1939).

And Then a Plank in Reason Broke: Poetry, Uncertainty, and the Creative Process

In place of the Studio on Sunday, March  4, we’ll have the following workshop.
And Then a Plank in Reason Broke: Poetry, Uncertainty, and the Creative Process:  A writing workshop cultivating curiosity, receptivity, and flexibility.
10 – 5, SFZC City Center, Conference Center
Uncertainty can feel like a problematic state, something we have to endure until we’ve managed to figure everything out and write it all down. Maybe we think we alone are beset by the sometimes persuasive doubt and fear that can attend any stage of the writing process.

But what if we reconsider uncertainty as an exhilarating ground of possibility and generativity? What if feeling lost is a signpost that can encourage us we’re where we need to be? What is the role of accident, and chance?

The hallmark trait of the poet, for John Keats, is the capacity for “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” The uncertainty Keats speaks of is not a blandly passive “what-ev-er,” but rather an actively curious posture of being, an empathic flexibility, opening up space for receptivity, discovery, and innovation.

How do we stay in this uncomfortable position of not knowing long enough to allow new work to take shape? What the painter Robert Motherwell said of painting is perhaps true of tolerating uncertainty as well: it cannot be taught, but it can be learned. And it can be practiced.

We will write poems and explore process issues, paying attention to generative strategies. And we’ll cultivate a practice of keeping a process journal and assembling a commonplace book, a resource for ideas, sparks, and provocations.

Prose writers are also very welcome.

Over the course of the day, we’ll read short passages on the creative process, including excerpts from the journals and letters of John Keats, Edward Munch, Agnes Martin, John Cage, Theodore Roethke, Rainer Maria Rilke, Emily Dickinson, Theodore Roethke, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and others.

Please bring:

  • plenty of fresh paper and a juicy pen or two
  • a piece of your own writing (for discussion, not required)
  • 2-3 examples of anything you have found inspiring/encouraging in your own process (e.g. quotations, objects, images)
Participants are invited to read any or all of the following texts before the workshop, though this is not required:
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates
Mark Epstein, Going to Pieces without Falling Apart
Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
Miranda July, It Chooses You

For an additional $25 fee, students can arrange to meet with the instructor for an individual one-hour conference (to be scheduled by instructor and student).Retreat fee:$80; $72 current SFZC members; $64 limited income.Registration: Please call 888.743.9362 or 415.475.9362 to register.

  Remembering Stanley Kunitz  by Jane Hirshfield (includes audio of SK reading Jane’s poem, “Against Certainty”)


Here’s a wonderful opportunity to work with cellist/composer/vocalist/all-around wonder, Theresa Wong and deepen your relationship with language through exploring the voice, that instrument that orders the sandwiches and lets us hear the poems.



Sat 1/21 and/or 1/28, 2012, 1-4pm

Berkeley Arts Festival (former storefront turned venue)

2133 University Ave.

$30-60 per class sliding scale

Theresa Wong will lead a workshop exploring the voice through raising awareness of the body. During the workshop, the following topics will be explored: using the breath, singing long tones, awareness of body tension, the location of vibration frequencies and creating sounds via focusing awareness on the body. Simple games of conducting via free movement gestures will be used to generate vocal sounds including textures, melodies, text and noises to allow the voice to take flight into its infinite expressive qualities. The emphasis will not be on ‘having a good voice’, but rather on each individual’s use of their voice in a natural and personal way. Together as a group, we will also come up with different approaches of generating sound which stem from tuning in to one’s own body; for example, ‘giving voice’ to different body parts and incorporating movement as a way to bring a sound to life, or to ‘sculpt air’. We will develop a set of basic sound generating ideas to jump off into more freely structured improvisations as well as explore the organization of these improvistions into compositions as a group. All levels/experience with the voice are welcomed.


1) Name

2) Contact phone

3) Indicate if you will attend on 1/21, 1/28 or both days.

You will receive a reply email with more details.

Poses: Writing as Gesture

from the Hedgebrook Farmhouse Table Blog

In the weekly Sunday Writing Studio I lead at the San Francisco Zen Center, we begin with a round of generative writing modeled on the quick gesture drawings that often begin a life drawing class. Invoking the immediacy of these gesture drawings, I call these quick prompts “Poses.”

I adapted this strategy from my own practice of writing from the model in life-drawing sessions, a process I’d discovered in a drawing group I went to regularly when I first moved to New York in 2000. Sitting there trying to focus on drawing the model, I was very preoccupied with the gothically difficult triple breakup I’d just been through, and in an attempt to deal with this, I decided to write, as if I could sweep my thoughts and clear the way so I could just draw. And so I started writing, using the timed poses and the physical experience of writing on drawing paper with a pencil. I wanted to come in under the habit of deliberation and deferral and respond to what was there in the room with me.  What began as a kind of maintenance actually became a very regular process and a series of poems called Poses.

So for the Writing Studio, I borrow this convention of the timed poses, but instead of there being a model, there is a verbal prompt. We usually begin with one-minute “poses” and then go on to two-, three-, and sometimes five-minute poses. As with free-writing exercises, the emphasis is on direct response, writing continuously and quickly, springing off the prompt. It can be a flash of an image, a moment in a conversation, a visceral feeling, a sensory memory, a quality of speech. They are hairpins to unlock a door.  Sometimes taking this neutral cue can grant access to something that’s pressing for attention. 

For a given class, I usually have some kind of theme in mind and the prompts cluster around this theme. Maybe they all deal with awkwardness in some way, or touch, or breakage, or interrupted perception. They can be very simple beginnings of sentences: I recognized her from her walk; I thought I saw; I was sure.
These slips of conversation situate a perception or feeling within a sample of speech, or a narrative. This provides the chance to build a context from within an utterance rather than thinking of the situation and then what someone might say in that situation. The main thing is for there to be movement through which discoveries can be made. Stumbling into something unplanned can often be a way to find a way through resistance.

After that I never
All she told me about you was
Any other time, I would have been totally discouraged
At first I thought it was broken
Before I could stop, he stopped
But after a while it started to yield
But then, I’ve never
Did you feel that?
Each one held
Even if I’d known
For weeks now
He asked if I could feel
He looked for a blanket
He put down his suitcase
He sang my name, the way he had always done
How long does it take
I couldn’t see in front of me
I couldn’t tell how close it was
I counted six, but my friend said she saw seven
I didn’t quite manage
I got back up
I knew it would happen
I leaned in
I never expected
I never had a chance to say
I never took the chance to say
I rang the bell but no one answered
I was surprised it was so easy
I’ve never had to do that
It had been so long since someone called me by that name
It hardly seems worth mentioning
It tipped over
It was so small
It was still blinking
It would have been easier if
It’s easier when
Most days I see her
No one told me it would happen so fast
Nobody told me
It isn’t enough
Now that I’m
Only later
They opened their
She said she saw her in the
She stepped carefully onto
She tried to tell her
She was right next to me
Something small floated toward them
I knew it was wrong
That scarf of yours
That was the only time I could
The boy stepped over
The ground was warm
The last time I said
The lights went out exactly when
The part of it I couldn’t see
The part of it that I could see
The pressure from underneath
The recording ends just when
They said her resting pulse was 110
This is one thing I will never
This key is for the front door, this one’s for
Those shorts you found in the desk
Today she would tell her
Underneath it I found
What made it difficult was
Whenever I tell that story I try not to
With her next to me I could

Here are some examples from Joanna Scandiffio, a writer in the Studio:

I kept trying  to clean my desk but stuff just piled on top of it – breakfast dishes, coffee cups, tax bill, P&G Bill, to-do lists, airline tickets, doctor’s number and numbers that I couldn’t or that didn’t have names attached to them, business cards, articles from the New York Times, a quote  from some poet and the word ­ Canard – from the French – a false duck, a half-price duck.
I couldn’t tell if she knew or didn’t know.  She is so good at not saying.  She surprised me by saying just thank them for coming. You know how to work around it.


She opened her trunk and a carved malachite elephant appeared carrying a small figure under a parasol. This is to remind me of my travels.  Now that I am confined to my bed I no longer feel the intense heat of the day or all the stratifications of green. My elephant and I journey, we recite foreign names on maps we find in magazines and I pretend we are lolling near the gardens of the last king of

This one, from Catherine Pantsios, plays with the prompt itself:

I asked her to repeat what she said.
She said what I asked her to repeat.
I repeated what she said to ask.
What I asked, she said to repeat.
She repeatedly said what I asked.
“I repeat,” she asked, “What did I say?”


Sometimes the Poses cluster around a specific person, as in the following set from a studio that took place on Father’s Day.
Driving with your father
Your father, biting his lip
Your father, singing
Your father’s door
Your father’s shirt
Something he confided in you
A disappointment
A gesture
Something he kept longer than you would have expected
Something of yours he threw away
Something others appreciated in him that you never saw
Something you didn’t understand about him
Something you made for him/he made for you
And we used a similar set on Mother’s Day.  Here are some quick responses from Jennifer Cheng, one of the writers in the Studio.



I think of these exercises as a kind of rigorous play, kindred to playing scales or to barre work in ballet. I know there’s a sense that writing exercises are perhaps artificial, that they distort one’s own process, but as someone who can become dazzled by infinite possibility, I find the specificity they offer often to be a helpful way into something I’ve been trying to write about. Some are lists as in, “Some of your names.” Or they can be situational:

Accidentally taking something that didn’t belong to you
Wearing someone else’s clothes
You, in a borrowed car
Breaking something that belongs to someone else
Seeing someone else in a piece of your own clothing
Finding something you had all along
A task that feels impossible, but you have to do it:
What will your life be like if it’s done
Who could do it for you?
Ideal conditions
What kind of person would be able to do it

In the Studio, I ask people to read some of what they’ve just written and I’m always astonished at what can happen in one minute, that these things are just kind of waiting to come forth. And it’s always instructive how different the responses are. Sometimes the reading lags as people feel that what they’ve written doesn’t merit reading aloud.  One afternoon I said, “Okay, read the one you really don’t want to read and when someone has finished, someone else can come in.  We won’t stop. We’ll just keep reading them for a couple of rounds.” It was striking how they would cue off of each other and so this became our method for reading these aloud. We just open the floor and one person reads and then another. It feels like it provides a context for people who are feeling reserved about reading to see that they can read something aloud and not only survive it but enjoy being part of the conversation.

More than anything, this process of gesture and response cultivates a readiness. It breathes into the posture of provisionality, into the habit of “waiting for a good song.” It is all a good song.  The main thing is to move.

Use these prompts as you wish!  And if you’d like to share any of your “drawings,” you can post them in the comment box.