Yes, And . . . God: Humanity’s Muse

Tomorrow, Tuesday, November 14th, scholar of religions Reza Aslan will give an original, multi-media presentation on his new book, God: A Human History, an interfaith exploration of how different ideas of God have both united and divided us for millennia, as part of our 2017/18 SAL Presents Series. Tickets are still available here!

In anticipation of Reza’s talk, WITS Writer-in-Residence Cody Pherigo presents us with his reflections after reading God: A Human History, a book he found to deeply resonate with the human impulse to be creative. (Plus, a Reza Aslan-inspired writing prompt!)

By: Cody Pherigo, WITS Writer-in-Residence

God: A Human History by Reza Aslan traces a paradoxical tight-rope path from our prehistoric ancestors to the present, and the many ways we’ve conceived of and related to god(s). He opens with an introduction titled “In Our Image,” and immediately I knew this would be, for me at least, a path that also echoes the creative writing process.

While much of the text is classically academic and thus devoted to (as any research worth its salt and sugar) dozens of pages of endnotes, I detect, too, the shadow of a poet. One of my favorites lines comes early on, as he renders a new story of Adam and Eve. Aslan says that while Adam may take up to a week to hunt and bring home a lump of meat, Eve and their children gather daily a prorated equivalent amount of food—plants, fish (netted), small prey (trapped and clubbed), and nuts, which have the same amount of protein per pound as meat—plus, “nuts do not fight back” (save for those with allergies).

We begin with Part 1: The Embodied Soul, where the idea of a “soul” emerges as an innate feeling and deep knowing, the source of our “religious impulse.” Here, Aslan suggests what may be humanity’s first belief: a kind of animism, or, I’d offer imagination. What I noticed for the duration of reading God: A Human History is a continuity of pillars within the creative process, from symbols and metaphors to the development of language, writing, and the problem/blessing/turn of translation. To me, these creative “bones” parallel and mirror the religious impulse, what Aslan shows is an impulse that is at the root of what it is to be human.

One of the first gathering places for spiritual experiences were caves—all over the world, they have been been adorned with drawings placed so intentionally onto the cave walls that, Aslan suggests, “The cave becomes a mythogram; it is meant to be read, the way one reads scripture.” Here, too, was found evidence of animal bones burned, as a sort of incense or “mediating element.” What’s interesting here is the metaphor and resilience of bones, how they act as a stand-in for bodies past, bodies passed down the way words and stories are passed down, and both for posterity. Or, the repetition of a story—the idea of a soul making its way from body to body, retelling itself.

Later, he cites a key turning point in humanity’s lifestyle: the switch from hunter-gather to farmer, which, he posits, may revolve around the building of our first major temple, the Göbekli Tepe, as the center of “the birth of organized religion.” This transition in human lifestyle was a “revolution of symbols” (Aslan credits Jacques Cauvin here). I wonder, too, how this changed our relationship with metaphors, as humans have put themselves in the “center of the spiritual plane,” where humanity’s story about god seems to switch from fiction to memoir. Read more…

WITS Voices: An Exercise in Identity

By Danny Sherrard, WITS Writer-in-Residence

The subject of the exercise is identity, and I’ve heard scary stories. The idea: to bring up themes like race and gender using you (the teaching artist) as the lab rat on the first day of class. What happens is you ask, Who am I? or, What do you know about me already? and the students respond based on what they’ve derived about you from your appearance. You write down what they say on the board and use the themes that surface as jumping-off points for various discussions about identity. And I’d heard that what the students say can sometimes be, well, shattering.

One story that was reiterated by a fellow teaching-artist was about how a student told her she was, Just a privileged white lady going through a mid-life crisis and teaching out of guilt.

Another story involved a colleague being told that he was, Probably not cool enough when he was in high school, so he had to try and be cool in high school now.

The idea, too, is to be completely honest and open about your experience. So, if a student says something like, You act like you’re from Seattle, but I think you grew up in Bellevue, and you grew up in Bellevue, you might respond with, I did grow up there. I’m 425, not 206, it’s true. How could you tell that? and so on to keep creating honest dialogue. The rules are clear: No Sugarcoating. Thus, if the response is in the affirmative to any of the above statements, you’ve gotta say, Yes, you’re right, or, Yes, you’re right and . . . despite how devastating it might be for you.

I think that after the exercise had been introduced to me, I was also told, Get ready: things can get pretty rough with this one.

Nonetheless, I determined I would try it . . . Read more…

“You Do Not Have To Be The Moon,” by Emrys Foster

You Do Not Have To Be The Moon

You do not have to be the moon.
You do not have to follow the sun
always in its footsteps
you do not have to take fleeting breaths of cold clear nothing
through deep craters like gills
you do not have to shed a light on those below
you do not have to illuminate the sleeping world
and silent, never close your eyes.

You do not have to be the ocean.
You do not have to follow helplessly
the pull of the moon
you do not have to let the tides control you
you do not have to rage, nor destroy
nor nurture
you do not have to bear the weight of a thousand ships
and watch them as they sink. Read more…

2016-17 WITS Anthology Launch: Closing Remarks

Ronica Hairston, the mother of 2016-17 Youth Poet Laureate Ambassador Joseph Hairston–whose poetry you can find here and here–generously made these warm remarks in support of Writers in the Schools at our 2016-17 WITS Anthology Launch. At this celebration, over 60 K-12 students shared the poetry, stories, comics, and memoir from the brand new WITS anthology, Pulling the Secret Out of the Flames, in a powerful evening of youth voice; the whole crowd was moved by Ronica’s words.

Read on to find out how Ronica and her son have found their lives touched by the WITS Program, and to hear her important reminders to writers–and the parents of writers–everywhere. . .

By Ronica Hairston, WITS Parent & Friend of SAL

“We grab pens hoping to write the next big piece. Countless hours with our handshaking, brain is racing, never knowing what’s to come before the period. I never erase, I never erase because my hands have more truth then the brain that overthinks the insecurities, that tries to take control of the pen and paper.”

That is a short selection from a poem written by my son, Joseph Hairston.

My name is Ronica Hairston, and I am the parent of a former WITS participant. Just two years ago, his poem was selected for the 2015 WITS Anthology, No One Except the Hundred-Handed Trees. I remember watching him read his poem and thinking what a great accomplishment it was. I had no idea that this was just the beginning of a growing list of great achievements with the WITS program. Through various workshops, he has not only gained skill and confidence, but a remarkable love for poetry.

A co-worker once asked me if I though it was realistic to encourage my son to work in the field of arts. Would there really be any opportunities for him to be heard? I informed her that my son was not only a published poet, but was also given the title of Seattle Youth Poet Ambassador for the 2016-2017 school year as part of the Youth Poet Laureate Program of Seattle. He participated in the Capitol Hill Lit Crawl and was a featured reader at the Elliot Bay Book Store and Governor’s Arts & Heritage Awards. That he was the opening reader for Mr. Ta-Nehisi Coates, and for the Seattle Arts & Lectures event Rest In Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin with Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, to which he received his first standing ovation. Great opportunities that all started with his participation in the WITS Program.

But WITS also prepared him for events outside of Seattle Arts & Lectures: working with United Way, The Hip-Hop Residency Program at the Museum of Pop Culture and being asked to read his poetry at Paul Allen’s Founders Day Awards in front of an audience of musical greats, including Joe Walsh and Ringo Starr. So, to go back to the original question as to if I thought it was realistic to encourage my son to work in the field of arts, the answer, quite simply, is yes. Read more…

WITS Voices: Getting Around the Real

By Kelly Froh, WITS Writer-in-Residence

I had an idea to engage my middle-schoolers with a series of curated exercises that would magically entwine, crossover, and accelerate their understanding of the comics form, and that these students would turn out incredible comic pages for a final printed project.

It did not occur to me that some students didn’t constantly doodle like I did when I was their age, or that they didn’t naturally find joy or release in drawing. Hearing “I can’t draw” from a kid seemed like an oxymoron; how can this be?

Then, I remembered reading that a lot of kids stop drawing around age 9. I figured it was when video games and iPads entered their worlds, but with more research, I learned the many stages of drawing development: from scribbling, to symbols, to figures, to attempts at perspective. But after these stages, when kids develop a “visual awareness” in the world around them, they expect more from their drawings. They expect a level of “realness,” and the pressure to “get it right” rears its ugly head.

panel - Vincent.jpeg

As a comics teacher, I needed to counter “I can’t draw.” I saw this pressure to get it right in my students, and the relief when they rejected the white piece of paper in front of them. I couldn’t just say, “try,” or “use your imagination”: that white piece of paper was an ocean, a cliff, a freeway. Read more…

WITS Voices: Reflections from Nathan Hale High School

By Alex Gallo-Brown, WITS Writer-in-Residence

When I walked into Ms. Simmons-Rice’s class at Nathan Hale High School last month, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had taught writing at the community college level, but never to high school students, and certainly not to high school freshman, a time I remember with regret and a fair amount of shame, when I remember it at all. For the first day I intended to teach them a poem by the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda called, “The Poet’s Obligation,” which begins, “To whoever is not listening to the sea / this Friday morning…I come, and without speaking or looking / I arrive and open the door of his prison.” The poet’s destiny, Neruda writes—the poet’s obligation—is to liberate “the shrouded heart.”

Perhaps because it was Monday, and not Friday, as in Neruda’s poem, or because they did not yet know me, or because an old-fashioned concept like “destiny” can land with a thud when not properly introduced, the kids were bored, they were repelled, a few of them even sneered. I left the class feeling that I had failed.

At home, I regrouped and licked my wounds. Freshman year of high school is often, as my mother, a long-time high school art teacher, reminded me, a painfully awkward time, a time when kids are transitioning from being the oldest at their schools to the youngest, when all of the confidence and experience accrued over three years of middle school is effaced by the realization that they are now the youngest, the least experienced, and the most vulnerable. I would have to be gentler, I decided, and less abstract. There would be less talk about freedom and the sea and the shrouded heart and more about the everyday experiences of contemporary life. Read more…

WITS Voices: Writing is Climate. Writing is Real. Writing is Change.

By Cody Pherigo, WITS Writer-in-Residence 

I’ve become semi-obsessed with checking the weather channel website several times a week for the last 3 months. It’s like Facebook without friends. I want it to tell me spring is here to stay, the sun exists, and temperatures will rise steadily to a glowing, saturated peak. But do I? We live in a world “stranger than fiction.” April 22nd was Earth Day. How does this relate to teaching? At their deepest root, writing and climate change are stripped down and unapologetic. They show and they tell.

The tentacles of everything are tied to my writing, and thus my teaching. That is the practice anyhow, the gesture. That is what I see in writers like Ross Gay, Alice Notley, and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. For instance, it’s my default to make jokes, talk about cats in class, and accidentally trip over a lamp cord during the final reading.

Read more…

“A Poem in the Voice of the Wind,” by WITS Student Stella Anderson

A Poem in the Voice of the Wind

Like you, I can make the warmest of weather
into a sick, shivering mess.
Like you, I am angry, and whip at people’s hair
and clothes, though you only do it in your imagination.
Like you, I love to stir up the sand with my
fingertips, but when I do it, I am rash and
violent, like a small child.
Like you, I sleep during the summer.
I believe in the gulls.
Like you, I love the snow, to spiral the flakes
into tornadoes and tsunamis in the leaves
of an evergreen.

This wonderful poem for your weekend was written by Stella Anderson, a 7th grader at Blue Heron School, with Language Arts teacher Brett Navin and WITS Writer Laura Gamache.