When former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot at her local supermarket, poet Geraldine Connolly’s first response was to turn to writing.
She and a friend, poet Rita Magdaleno, taught a course at the University of Arizona Poetry Center titled Poetry of Healing, which she will use as a model for the workshop she will teach this week at Chautauqua Institution.
Connolly, a regular poet- in-residence at the Institution, first started teaching at the Chautauqua Writers’ Center in the 1990s. Laura Kasischke, this week’s prose writer in residence, is also a veteran workshop leader at Chautauqua, having first visited 15 years ago. Connolly will lead a workshop called “The Poetry of Healing” and Kasischke will lead a workshop called “Tapping the Well for Short-Short Stories.”
Connolly, the author of three books of poetry, has received the W.B. Yeats Poetry Award and two creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. Kasischke has written eight novels and eight books of poetry, and she received the National Book Critics Circle Award for her latest poetry collection, Space, In Chains. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Michigan.
“All human beings suffer,” Connolly said. “It’s part of the human condition. We need to stay awake to our feelings and bear witness to them. Poetry can offer us a way to do that.”
Connolly finds it extremely gratifying to teach a workshop in which she helps others to heal, and in the process often finds that it can help her manage her own suffering and vulnerability. Organizing her feelings on a page and polishing them into a work of art, she said, can be incredibly relieving.
“I always advise putting away first drafts for three or four weeks, forgetting we have written them and then coming back with a set of fresh eyes,” she said. “So … when we first experience a sadness, we need to put it away for awhile then come back and try to understand it gradually.”
Kasischke plans to help her students overcome anxiety about writing through short and intense writing exercises. She encourages “freewriting,” in which students must keep their pens moving for five, 10, sometimes 15 minutes without stopping — no chewing on pens or looking out the window allowed.
“They think they’re going to write garbage,” Kasischke said, “but then what they often end up doing is writing stuff that is the best they’ve ever written, that just completely surprises them — and they didn’t know they had it in them because they hadn’t had the chance to get all analytical and perfectionist and censor themselves.”
Although students will be permitted to bring in outside work, Kasischke will focus on generating new material to write stories in the future. She will proctor exercises each day and give homework each night, forcing her students to tap into their subconscious, sift through memory and sensory details and surprise themselves with what they might discover.
Kasischke is keenly aware of how lonely a venture writing can be, and so she values the workshop at Chautauqua as a space to “recharge the writing battery.”
“When I hit a wall with my own writing, or when I start to despair of what is the point of this, it’s good for me to be with a group of people who are struggling to write as well,” she said, “and to remember what a fun activity it can be.”