on silence

Silence. What a double-edged concept. Every year I hold a workshop around the topic,  framed as “Refusing Silence.” Yet even so, every year writing comes out on both sides of silence: the heavy hand that imposes an unwanted internal reality vs the spacious opening for reflective growth and nurture.

Like anything, it is not so simple, Nor are the realities of silence either/or, one extreme or the other. I am reminded of this again and again as I hear stories about silences we carry, silences we suffer, silences we impose, silences we seek. Last week at this time, I had the privilege of speaking to an assembled group at Three Cathedral Square, a Burlington assisted living/retirement community. They wanted to learn more about writinginsideVT and to hear from the incarcerated women who so eloquently write inside prison walls week after week.

I opened with a poem called “Silence” from our 2013 book, HEAR ME, SEE ME: Incarcerated Women Write. Following a chance to check in with what resonated for each of the dozen participants seated in a circle with me, I invited them to think about a silence in their own lives — whether self- or other-imposed — and to consider its lifelong impact on them. And the stories poured out, going back as they will to early experiences of shaming, belittling, being made to feel less-than, invisible, devalued … from men and women alike.

These stories were also interspersed with heartening follow-ups: the shy one who started to speak up against unequal pay at her workplace; the one who would now take positive action in the face of political repression; the one who found her voice after being told silence equalled ‘being good’ … the bullied and marginalized who discovered through writing how to create an identity that would serve them as adults … the misunderstood who just wanted loving acceptance …

Sadly, these very personal stories of otherness and loneliness and despair are all too universal. Certainly they are often the stuff of which the incarcerated write. And yet here I was in the middle of a cross-section of the never-incarcerated. After we shared our own stories, I read more from the book, perhaps another ten or so pieces covering a number of topics. These wonderful elders were spellbound, grateful, engaged and encouraged by the wisdom and perseverance of ‘our’ inside writers. As are all of us who walk into the echoing corridors week after week to witness the power of the written word to promote awareness, growth and change.

As is my usual custom, I followed up the session by creating a ‘found poem’ from the few lines I jotted down while listening to others read. I know you’ll find yourself in here, too.



Silence can be scary,
a feeling of endangerment
that imprisons because of what has happened in life.
A repressed childhood, a lot of secrets —
imposed silence feels like being unseen.
Like Sunday School – ‘you need to be quiet to hear’ –
or feeling an outsider in a new school.
It hurts to keep so much inside over the years,
not expressing yourself;
waiting to vote, getting out of line without saying anything
because I didn’t own property;
the shaming and belittling of
who do you think you are?!?

Lying in bed, I just wanted Mom to hold me.
I’ve never been much of a talker;
I’m very shy, just listen.
I still don’t like to speak.
And yet – inside silence is an opportunity
if I can really listen.

As a 12-year-old, I found my voice through writing,
forced to find myself.
As an employee, I started writing letters,
speaking up at meetings
for equal pay;
today I would call the Board of Elections.
I’m vocal, I’m not retreating.

Silence can be scary, either way.

[poem ‘found’ from lines shared at our 2/1/18 conversation about writinginsideVT]

indigo to infinity

This was read-around week inside. In place of our weekly  group, six of our core writers shared pieces they have written over the past several months. Their listeners included a handful of sister inmates plus over two dozen community guests. Funders, friends, potential new writing inside VT team members, advocates and other interested parties came to witness powerful words telling of life, dreams and hard work.

It is the magic of this work that each reading is utterly unique; each listener deeply moved; each evening seamless in its blending of depth and presence. Dialogue between readers and audience revealed the value of the writing program to the well-being of participants; and clearly, the witnessing evoked as strong a response from the outside guests as from the readers themselves.

What it comes down to is the words, powerful emotions captured in short bursts of writing that came back to our ears in new combinations. To honor that sense of weaving, I share the poem constructed from lines spoken at the reading. See for yourself what stories unfold line by line, imagining the individual threads that have come together to create this new whole.

INDIGO TO INFINITY – found poem from 10.26. read-around

My name is nobody.
They’ve taken my true meaning –
decommissioned as a mother,
the light that lives in me
eclipsed by ugly rhetoric –
and no one there to see the hurt.
That pain needs to be fed, locked away all those years –
those bitter twisted lies
the tangled untruths
such strange poison of my own
growing like a fruit, too ripe.

My brain is too heavy to hold.
I sit, I burn, I crumble;
my shadow’s gone and I want to go home
from these soulless halls,
unwinder of edges
drunk on the dismissal of my words.

I think it’s time to tell you you were wrong.
I am lover of all forsaken souls,
the demon inside.
I wanted to run but it’s never helped before,
the dance fierce and exhausting.
Tell your babies to survive –
you gave them your last breath –
and keep your politics out of my coffee.
It wasn’t as fun as it looked.
I’m not the only one who ties myself in knots;
maybe I’ll get it right next time.

Still, like dust, I rise.
I rise to be a better me,
live for the little something inside.
I will continue to rise ‘til the day I die.


Found Poem from Outside Group

Sometimes . . . I don’t care what I’m told

Clearing out:
where memories rest in heaps
soft carpets under toe
Sweet tarts

conversations part of herstory
keeping the house from sinking into the ground
A little monkey jumping on the bed
Its own trail of scent

carting boxes back and forth on creaky knees
Prior night’s twisted dreams
I am so grateful to them

Sometimes I don’t care what I’m told
my knees need my love
my heart questions why
others see me fly unsealed by age

The road leads to reality feeling and time.
Take off your shoes.
Hang up your coat.

(from read-back lines from pieces by Outside Group
AA, JB, RF, SB, TD, 9/7/14)

where i am from

'come to where I'm from'

credit – painesplough

We have returned to our regular writing inside VT program with women inmates at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, VT.

Last week, we wrote from George Ella Lyon’s wonderful poem titled “Where I’m From.” This simple phrase is rich with possibility.

The eight women who returned to the circle after a summer hiatus seemed hungry to put pen to paper once more, most of them writing a full page in the 15 minutes provided.

The sense of place – both the physical and emotional places of childhood – stay with us at deep sensory levels throughout our lives. Words from our windowless room confirmed these roots of ‘memory and moments,’ as one woman wrote. Diversity and depth describe the variety of experiences that formed each of us around the table.

With just a few words captured from each reader, the following poem shares a microcosm of where these women, collectively, are from. Each stanza condenses the words from a single woman’s writing. Continue reading

what is real

abstract visual of reality

by pamela

There is no place like prison for hearing what is real. Stark, painful, funny, poignant, harsh. All of it. What was real one recent night was extreme heat, no fans, and a wild array of writing. Writing that ranged from explicitly sexual to harrowingly life-threatening. Writing that included tributes to a mentor and to a young charge at daycare.

What is real has no singular definition or identity. It just is. Likewise, this poem ‘found’ from the lines spoken that stuffy evening, when I was challenged to ‘see what THAT poem will look like‘ from such disparate writings. And here it is – as real and visceral and true as each and every woman writing around the table.

Here is What is Real

My closet full of fuck-its.
Five badass kids in the back of the car.
This hell known to the outside world as CRCF –
I was counting on that money.
Teaching my little sister how to swim.
Being in the presence of a charmer.
A cherry of wisdom from whoever may be speaking.
The choice to go over the cliff or up the tree. Continue reading