Performance Poetry by Eva Whitney

Between the two introductory weeks of Creative Writing where we swam, visited museums, attended readings and got to know each other better, and our Fall show, there is an empty period of time. During my past two years in the department, we have filled these weeks with Spoken Word and Experimental Fiction lessons in which we were introduced to niche genres of writing. Both lessons were fulfilling and gave me a new perspective to incorporate into my writing for the following months. This year, we had a Performance Poetry unit taught by Taylor Duckett, a local spoken word artist and MFA student. With our daily practice of writing to music and analyzing lyrics, she introduced the idea that popular music can have literary qualities and that words on a page can have musicality.

The class compiled a playlist with each of our favorite songs. From “Wigwam” by Bob Dylan to “Feel it All Around” by Washed Out, there was great variation in the choices. For the length of the song, we would all write in response to the music. In the beginning, I found it challenging to write in conversation with the song, especially songs I had never heard before. I soon realized that the only way to learn how to mimic rhythm in a piece of writing is through practice. By the last prompt, it felt more natural to write to music than to write in silence. I found it interesting to watch what came to while writing based off of what I was listening to. This is an example of a prompt I wrote in response to “In the Kingdom” by Mazzy Star, a song complete with an organ introduction, a swinging guitar melody, drums, electric guitar solos, and a mellow female vocalist:

In Hawaii, the whole island grows dark at night. People sleep with the sun, the animals too. Streets, unlittered with lampposts, are wide and welcoming for the late-night bikers. On the beaches, small crabs glow and the moon, like a stadium light, illuminates the sand. If you want to stay awake, you have to go to the beach. The water turns gelatinous, and the fish hold their position until dawn. Once, I tried to swim in the water at night, but it would not accept me. I wish I was one of those Hawaiian sea creatures, cradled nightly by the sea.

In addition to writing to music, Taylor taught us about our writing as music. We had various assignments in which we would write poetry to a beat. I noticed how, with the knowledge that the piece would be set to music, my content changed. I no longer tried to create a narrative but chose words that sounded nice together, typically ending lines in a rhyme. My group and I created a ridiculous rap that would have read awfully on the page, but, set to a beat, had a good flow. I realized how difficult it is to write music that both sounds good and reads well on the page, and now understand why most musicians prioritize rhythm over meaning.

The performance poetry unit introduced me to the importance of rhythm in writing. Even if the meter is subtle, the innate pleasure one finds in a beat will improve their experience as a listener and add a foundation the piece. As we prepare for the upcoming Fall show, I find myself returning to the lessons Taylor taught us about reading to an imaginary beat, and how to attract the audience by doing so.

Eva Whitney, class of 2020

Lucia Berlin: A Word for Word Production at Z Space by Eva Whitney

Recently, The Creative Writing Department gathered at Z Space on the edge of the Mission to watch a Word for Word Performance of Lucia Berlin’s best short stories. We crammed ourselves in the small theater, eagerly watching the stories be presented as plays. It was a new experience for most of us to watch a story be performed theatrically, and to be performed word-for-word. This is the reading reflection I wrote in response to the performance:

On Thursday, the eighth of March, the Creative Writing Department attended a Word for Word production at Z Space. Word for Word is a performing arts company whose mission is to tell stories theatrically. The event consisted of five stories from Lucia Berlin’s A Manual For Cleaning Women, a collection of her best works. Nestled in the outer edge of San Francisco, Z Space theater proved to be an excellent location for a theatre production as its small size allowed for an intimate relationship between the audience and the performers. The performance was unlike any other reading I have ever attended as it was both a new take on theatre and in reading stories.

A Manual For Cleaning Women, published in 2015, eleven years after Berlin’s death, compiles the best of her work. The collection has gained massive popularity in the years after its publishing, something unfamiliar to Berlin during her lifetime. The stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women are all connected by the person who tells them and who has experienced them. Nearly all the stories are told in the first person, but, when third-person protagonists appear, they are a version of the first-­person narrator. What each story shares is their theme of extreme suffering. In “Here it is Saturday,” Lucia’s character visits her student in his prison cell, describing the cell with its “‘window broken, rain coming through. [It] stinks. The cells are so small and dark.’” In each story, the characters individually suffered, be it from imprisonment in a cell, imprisonment in alcoholism, or imprisonment in their life.

The Word for Word production was an entirely unique experience to me. The ensemble performed the stories word for word, hence their title. From reading the actual texts, it was apparent that they did not skip a single word. Characters would often refer to themselves in the third person, state the actions that they did, and, sometimes, a whole group of actors would say something simultaneously. While I appreciated how avant-garde the performance was, I found the odd way of speaking actually took away from the theatricality of the pieces. I was constantly being drawn out of the plot itself, hearing the men say “the men all laughed” as they laughed. Perhaps it is because I am used to seeing theatre productions where characters do instead of say, but the idea of performing the story word-for-word did not add anything to the actual production for me. It felt as if someone was reading the story to me as I watched a silent play, explaining every action. Though I did not particularly enjoy the formatting of the Word for Word reading, it introduced me to the many ways stories can be read and performed.

An aspect of the Word for Word performance that I enjoyed was the minimal use of props. A few boxes were used, laid out to make a bed, stacked to create a table, or set out individually to make seats. There were simple costumes and projections on the back of the stage that signaled where the setting was. I do enjoy elaborate sets, but I found it interesting to see how the group was able to create such a sense of place with so few materials. This proved to me how plays can be produced with a low budget and still be as vivid as intended to be.

As I watched the Word for Word production of five of Lucia Berlin’s stories, I felt my knowledge of readings grow. Never have I attended a theatrical reading of work before, and certainly not a play-like production that is done word-for-word. Though my immediate reaction was one of dissatisfaction, afterward, I recognized my feelings toward the production came only from a place of uncertainty from seeing something unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. While I may not use the word-for-word element in my own theatrical productions, I could appreciate the new take on readings and how it opened my eyes to genre-blending between prose and plays, a realm unexplored by me.

Eva Whitney, class of 2020

The Sophomore Poetry Lessons by Eva Whitney

For the six weeks preceding Winter Break, the Creative Writing Department focused on poetry. We split into Creative Writing One and Creative Writing Two, or, more simply, the underclassmen and upperclassmen. In Creative Writing One, we spent the majority of the six weeks reading from The Discovery of Poetry, a poetry anthology edited by Frances Mayes. All sixteen of us would sit around a big table as if we were about to have a grand feast, and, with the hum of Creative Writing Two in the adjacent room, we dove into sestinas and sonnets and villanelles from an assortment of poets, contemporary and ancient. It was truly like the poems we read fed us! I felt full of words and ideas after each class.

The poetry unit allowed me to get back into the swing of writing as we wrote a poem nearly every night. Circling around that grand table and hearing how each person interpreted the prompt the day after was always fascinating, and I found myself able to finally find the same joy in poetry that I found last year and lost over the summer.

For the first week of December, at the end of our six weeks of poetry, the sophomores of the Creative Writing Department taught poetry lessons about our cultural heritage to our fellow sophomores and the freshmen. We heard lessons about Chinese Communism, Korean Commu- nism, the Beat Generation, Russian Communism, and Immigrants. A sophomore would bring in an array of poems of their choosing and we would discuss them and pick them apart, and even write in conversation with them. It was a way to learn about each other better, as well as hear po- etry that the six of us find beautiful and fascinating.

In my lesson, I hoped to introduce Zen Buddhist poetry to my peers as an approachable section of poetry. Buddhism is often revered for its difficulty, but many do not realize how accessible the religion, or even just its core practices, can be. I brought in poetry by Gary Snyder, Ikkyu Sojun, Philip Whalen, Stonehouse, Jane Hirshfield, and Ryokan. I created pairs of poems, alternating between a contemporary Buddhist poet and an ancient one. The poems of each pair were connected somehow; I did this in hopes of showing how constant Buddhist values are and how even poets from four centuries ago could share the same experiences or have the same ideas as a living Buddhist poet.

Teaching this lesson and experiencing my peers’ lessons was entirely rewarding. Know- ing that I may have made a slight impact on one of the students fills me with a simple joy! Zen Buddhism has been such a large part of my childhood, and now young-adulthood, so to share it with my peers was a special experience. It took some strength on my part to constantly share my ideas and keep everyone engaged, which is not something that comes naturally to me, but after- ward, I was glad I persevered. Watching my classmates do the same impressed me immensely, and allowed me to see them as real, capable people with interesting backgrounds.

Eva Whitney, class of 2020

Metamorphosis by Eva Whitney

I suppose it is customary for there to be one blog post about the show each year, and this is it. Simply, the Creative Writing Department here at The School of the Arts puts on two shows a year: a cumulative performance in Autumn and a playwriting show in Spring. Although the cumulative performance is at the beginning of the year, it is a place for students to showcase their best work. In this case, the upperclassmen have the upper hand as they have endless amounts of work to choose from, whereas the freshmen have about three pieces. We workshop tirelessly for a week, memorize, and then endure a grueling rehearsal week. I have found this process rewarding both times; it was satisfying to see it all come together.

This year’s show, titled “Metamorphosis,” was quite a change for the Creative Writing Department as it was our first show in collaboration with our new pathway, Spoken Word. None of us knew what to expect, having a show with over forty performers, a new teacher, and a group of students that we had hardly interacted with beforehand.

On the first day of rehearsal week, Creative Writing as a whole crammed into the Literary Arts room like elephants in a closet. It was our first time coming together to work toward a common goal and I looked forward to see what was in store for the coming week. The days of rehearsal week blended together: we started with a warm-up each day, then split up for the next few hours while the first act of the show ran. I was one of the last people to go on, so I found myself staying until seven or later each night. In contrast to the chaos of the afternoon, the nights in the theater were relaxing. Few tech students remained, and only a handful of Creative Writers.

Colored lights danced across the stage almost hypnotically and one night, I even found myself drifting off backstage as the ocean-themed pieces were read. During those nights I stayed late in the theater I wished more than anything to leave, but, looking back, I realize this was the most meditative time of my week.

Rehearsal week truly was an important experience. Not only did it cause me to become more familiar with my own work and hear the voices of my peers, it was a time for me to grow friendlier with my classmates of both my pathway and Spoken Word. The range was remarkable. I heard everything from pieces about the Queen of Landfill to those about self-image and discrimination. There were pieces about anxiety, shape-shifting, and a skit following a girl trying to come into herself as an alien. The audience responded with wild enthusiasm and backstage we cheered silently for each other.

The experience of the show made me appreciate the beauty in having two pathways; Spoken Word gave me an entirely new perspective into how broad the term “Creative Writing” is. Both pathways have much to teach each other.  It is clear that this is the start of our metamorphosis.

Eva Whitney, class of 2020

A Dip into New Waters by Eva Whitney

The beginning of the school year was filled with outings, such as going to the Museum of
Modern Art and the San Francisco Bay. These were to bring us closer together and build friendships between the Creative Writers.

On the Friday of the second week of school, the Creative Writing Department ventured to the tip of the city take a ritualistic dip into the water. We crowded on to the bus, huddled next to our new friends, towels and bathing suits stuffed into our backpacks. At the waters edge, we scrambled out of our clothes and barreled into the frigid bay. I was tentative, dipping my toe in at first to test the temperature of the water before fully submerging myself. I could only bear the water’s bite for a minute or so and then rushed onshore to join my peers. The freshmen stayed close to each other, whispering about the weather while the seniors balanced sophomores on their shoulders and splashed at each other. I reclined on the beach and watched as my new classmates rejoiced in the water. It was then I realized how fortunate I was to be surrounded by these people, not only as writers but as allies.

We parted ways, leaving on separate buses. I got on to my respective bus with new friends, and thought of the next four years of my Creative Writing journey. The first month left me feeling optimistic about what was in store for me. I could not wait to obtain the same confidence the seniors had, both with each other and with the world. On the Friday of the second week of school, I took a dip into the new waters of the Creative Writing department.

Eva Whitney, class of 2020