Category Archives: Writing

Start the day with poetry

Last August I was fortunate to be in Scotland around the time of the Edinburgh Festival and all that’s associated with it, including the International Book Festival.

I was excited to see that there was a session that put together Kirsty Logan and Jón Kalmann Stefánsson. Shortly before going to Scotland I picked up The Gracekeepers at the Adelaide Airport bookshop. I was, and still am mostly, only reading books by female, non-white, non-English dominant authors. Starting on this trail showed up how much space books by white men take up in bookshops. I was pleased to find Kirsty’s book in Adelaide and it was probably the best fictional find of the summer. The Gracekeepers weaves magical realism, an almost drowned world, and circus boats, plus a huge bear.

Jón Kalman Stefánsson was a discovery from a few years ago when I came across his book Heaven and Hell in a Breton bookshop (yep, my book purchases sure do highlight my globetrotter status). It is the first in a trilogy I have since finished but at the time I only knew the first one.

The authors were paired together along a northern theme. Books set in Iceland tend to be bleak, whether a mystery, a crime story or a version of romance. I don’t know how I’d feel about them if I hadn’t visited Iceland and had it crawl under my skin. In any case, this isn’t so much about the merits of works set in Iceland, and more to do with Stefánsson’s morning ritual.

Stefánsson starts each day with a poem, coffee, and with gratefulness to the translators!

I took on his call to start each day with poetry and there have been only three or four times I’ve missed this routine in the last year. I read from works by a single author along with anthologies. Three books of poetry have particularly marked me this year. Below are the Goodreads reviews I did for each one. *I’ve been working on my book reviews so the reviews can be viewed as works in progress, the goal is to share my joy.

How Fire is a Story, Waiting by Melinda Palacio

I’ve thought long and hard about how to write about this book, along with two other books of poetry I read at the same time: Codeswitch: Fires from Mi Corazón by Iris de Anda, and When My Brother Was An Aztec by Natalie Díaz. The three authors are based in and around Southern CA with some travels outside. Melinda Palacio frames her work through the elements: fire, air, water, and earth. She tells the story of her family, including the meeting of her parents, her father’s “sin verguenza swagger” (one of my favourite poems in the book), and her father’s time in prison. I love reading these poems over and over, in conjunction with the other two books I mentioned above. I’m going to link to a much more complete and worthy review…

Iris de Anda: Codeswitch: Fires from Mi Corazón

I’ve thought long and hard about how to write about this book, along with two other books of poetry I read at the same time: How Fire is a Story, Waiting by Melinda Palacio, and When My Brother Was An Aztec by Natalie Díaz. The three authors are based in and around Southern CA with some travels outside. Iris de Anda frames her work through the chambers of the heart: rage/coraje, love/amor, revolution/revolución, evolution/evolución. The power of De Anda’s work lies in its ritualistic nature and short phrasings that build one on the other. This is poetry to be read aloud, with a strong and passionate voice. There are no negotiations between languages, they merge, are not translated (except in the chapter titles). There is a call to action, a call to push through the pain and the hurt, and to keep fighting for our common humanity and true empathy.

When My Brother Was An Aztec by Natalie Díaz

I read this book in conjunction with Iris de Anda’s Codeswitch: Fires from Mi Corazón and Melinda Palacio’s How Fire is a Story, Waiting. All three authors are based in and around Southern California. The power of the words these three authors put to the page cannot be understated. They stand alone and together, each with a unique voice and unique stories to share. Natalie Diaz skillfully blends poetic style and form to tell tales that have personal resonance, and tales that speak to the larger world around. There is the story of her brother, her family, tales of childhood, strung along with the tale of Mojave Barbie, a lion devouring a man and boxes of raisins, and many more besides. Words, poems and stories that will leave you wishing for more.


Everyone listens to everyone: my visit to Still Waters in a Storm

This time last week I visited Still Waters in a Storm, a community writing center in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I first heard about Still Waters a few years ago when comments regarding the center came across my Facebook feed. I hadn’t visited the center at that time but it was a strong influence on my decision to open a writing center here in San Francisco. I still haven’t opened a center and I’m still listening to know how to best go about it in order to best serve the community, but it will happen.

Last week was my first visit to Still Waters in a Storm and I hope it won’t be my last. It was everything I hoped it would be, and more. The motto of Still Waters is “everyone listens to everyone”. Stephen Haff, the director, set up the program nine years ago. He has a background in theater and was a high school English teacher for close on a decade. The center is everything schooling and education needs to be to truly speak to the hearts and minds of the community it serves.

The Saturday sessions run from 12-5pm and follow a similar structure each week. The children arrive and have time to play and eat lunch before sitting down to start work.

At around 1pm, an invited guest reads an excerpt of their writing and takes questions and comments. The invited guest last week was Emma Brockes, a journalist with The Guardian newspaper and the author of two books, one of which she read from last week. The book she read from is a memoir of a journey to South Africa she took after her mum’s death. Emma wanted to find out what led her mum to leave South Africa to go to England, never to go back to the country of her birth. The excerpt Emma read told the story of a road trip she went on in South Africa when her best friend arrived from England for a few weeks.

The center operates on a drop-in basis and the number of children present may vary from ten to forty. Last week there were about twenty kids there. They varied in age from six to sixteen. Emma’s memoir was not written for children, and from what I could gather, most of the invited guests write for adults. The excerpt Emma read appeared to be accessible to all the people there. It is a highly engaging text with strong visual imagery. The reading was paused on a few occasions to clarify vocabulary or expressions that might be unclear.

After the reading, and after questions and comments, the children generated a topic list inspired by what they heard. Some examples that came up last week were misunderstanding, family, animals, racism, helping someone, guns, loneliness and a few more. Nothing was off the table and anything that was raised could tie in to the reading in one way or another. From there the children spent around fifteen minutes writing. They are welcome to write in any genre or format they preferred, including writing a list, writing a letter, whatever makes sense to them. The younger children worked with volunteers who put the child’s words to paper. Once time was up, it fell to the children, and some of the adults, to share their writing with the larger group. Volunteers read for the younger children while the child stood next to them.

“Everyone listens to everyone”. Stephen said that part of the inspiration for the center is for people to participate in a neighborhood ritual. The group sharing time is based on meetings such as Quaker meetings, when people speak as they are moved to do so. There is no talking over one another; there is respectful silence and active listening as the writers share their work. People are reminded to peacefully control their own bodies. Stephen commented that it is rare in today’s society to have to just listen. Thinking back on last week, my heart skips a beat when I recall the work the children shared and the how powerful it was to be part of that community.


I came away from my visit with renewed vision and purpose regarding La Pluma Poderosa. I am building ties with the Latina community in San Francisco through my work with Mujeres Unidas y Activas and I am also connecting with people at local schools through USF preservice teacher supervision. Still Waters in a Storm is housed in a dedicated ground floor space in an area with some foot traffic. Stephen taught at Bushwick High School so before opening the center he already had ties to the neighborhood. He has built up participation through word of mouth and from people walking by. It is completely free and all materials, as well as food, is provided.

Stephen has a respectful and good-humored relationship with the children. They are all of Mexican and Ecuadorian descent, reflecting the community in this part of Brooklyn. The writing is all done in English and all the children are capable of telling a story in English, even if Spanish is their maternal tongue. Stephen communicates with parents and community members in Spanish when the need arises.

Inviting guests such as Emma Brockes to share their writing with the children felt to me like a mark of respect. Respect is given when it is assumed that children can relate to a detailed text and can use that text to inspire their own writing. Stephen reminded the children that they had been working on using similes in their writing, in the weekday afterschool sessions. He encouraged the children to use at least one simile in their work. A simple thing, such as reminding the children they can write a list if they like, gives all children the tools to participate and to share in the writing and sharing process.

The multi-age format of the center clearly bears fruit when you hear the detailed stories the younger children tell. They appear to be picking up on the skilled work of the older children and their work is also testament to their listening skills. Stephen doesn’t accept money from financial sources that would demand accountability measures and other forms of standardization. He wants the center to be free from the toxic trappings of school that transform children into data points. A child is not a number on a graph, and measurement does not equal growth. Spaces such as Still Waters in a Storm provide the community with a powerful example of the learning we do together, and what our children are truly capable of.

My goals for La Pluma Poderosa are still the same: a drop-in, multilingual writing center for children 6-18. I knew that there would be a need for more structured sessions, and in fact, I can maybe start with more structured sessions in a temporary space. I am grateful to Stephen and everyone else at Still Waters in a Storm for renewing my faith in the power of holistic and compelling educational experiences for young writers. Right now I need to listen and to reflect on what the next steps for La PP will be. I carry with me the joy and heartfelt emotion of listening to the young writers in Bushwick, an experience that won’t easily leave my side.

To learn more about Still Waters in a Storm and to support their efforts please go to


From P.L. Thomas Ed D: Fostering Convention Awareness in Students: Eschewing a Rules-Based View of Language

“For our students to be aware, then, of both descriptive and prescriptive views of language, for those students to gain a recognition that language use is about purpose and choice, bound by situation and audience, is for them to become agents in how their own credibility and authority is viewed.”

Origen: Fostering Convention Awareness in Students: Eschewing a Rules-Based View of Language