Hi Rachel, thank you for letting COMPAS pick your brain. Can you tell us a little about your writing background?
I write poetry and creative nonfiction. I’ve written seriously since my early twenties, though I was definitely a bookish kid who spent most of her time reading and writing. My family moved around a lot when I was young, which probably led to a heightened sense of introspection. Writing helped me make sense of the world—it still does today.
Do you remember when you first became interested in literary arts? How did it happen? Did you have any big influences?
As a budding high school poet, I attended a summer arts camp where I met other young writers serious about their craft. This was my first experience of arts immersion—hurray for early, state-funded exposure! My dad took seriously his role as provider of writing technology, and I’ll reveal my age to say this was first a typewriter—on which I typed all caps, no punctuation, as I couldn’t be bothered to slow down. Since then, I’ve had some great writing teachers, including local gems G.E. Patterson and Deborah Keenan, but books remain my biggest influences. Reading is a love affair, and for me, where writing begins. A few of my current loves: Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies, a really gorgeous collection of short essays, and Maurice Berger’s White Lies, a fantastic memoir exploring the complexities of racism in America.
Can you tell us a little about your work with older adults through our Artful Aging™ program? What’s your favorite thing about working with them?
Through Artful Aging™, I teach poetry to older adults, including those with memory loss. We read poems out loud, and I bring props, music and other sensory prompts to spark conversation. Our creation is a group poem—a catalog of stories, images and words. I also teach memoir writing, which draws on the legacy creation so critical for older adults. My favorite thing about this work: the stories I hear. For example, in a COMPAS workshop at Episcopal Homes last fall, we devoted a class to memories of childhoods during WWII. Participants talked about nylon and sugar rationing, about hearing the news of Pearl Harbor on the radio. I love listening to these snippets of memories, and discovering how to fold them into poems.
What are the main differences between working with older adults and K-12 students? What are some similarities?
With K-12 students, life is just beginning. Kids have direct access to sensory ways of knowing and to natural word play. With adults, a lot of that right-brained creativity has been drilled out of us through the demands of navigating adulthood. As a teacher, I’m there to support life-long learning, which we need as much when we’re ‘old’ as when we’re young. I’m also there to bear witness to the stories participants need to tell, or if language is disappearing, to their continued humanity.
Some similarities? With younger kids—say K-3rd grade—the mechanics of spelling and the effort of handwriting can get in the way of pleasure. For older adults with dementia or physical limitations, writing by hand is not always possible. In both cases, focusing on the orality of poetry makes its original delight accessible to all. Respect and love matter in both settings, also imagination and reverie--I try to model these qualities as a teaching artist and bring poems that do the same.
What does teaching provide you with that writing alone does not?
Teaching is where I’m called to be fully human and show up for strangers. Writing is solitary and can be very self-critical. Teaching is about connection and love.
Have you been working on any new projects lately?
I’m working on a collection of lyric essays exploring identity, history and place. Writing nonfiction is new for me, and I’m learning a great deal about the essay form. I’m grateful to have received an artist fellowship from the Minnesota State Arts Board for this project—let’s just say I hope to know more in another year!
What is it like to be a COMPAS artist?
The COMPAS roster is so talented; I consider myself lucky to be in such company. I also value the chances we have for professional development, workshops and continued learning. And when you're self-employed, community makes a difference. I love getting to work with Marian, Julie, and the other COMPAS staff.
How do you practice creativity in your everyday life?
I try to begin my day with creative visualization, pull a tarot card or sit for a moment. When my schedule allows, I write after my son goes to school and before paid work begins. I also practice creativity as a way of approaching reality—dreaming, showing up and following what arrives. I recently listened to an interview with the poet Kristin Prevallet where she compares living creatively to watching a formation of birds flying—you just hope they’re all headed in the same direction! You never know where things lead or what’s coming your way. A creative life is about moving in the flow and accepting that you’re not in control.
By COMPAS staff member, Emma Seeley