Monthly Archives: December 2011

From Icebreaker to Poem

This week’s prompt is an adaptation of a great ice-breaker activity in which many of you may have participated at some point in your lives; but  instead of getting to know your peers, you get to write a poem.

Write three statements, two of which are true and one which COULD be true, but is not. Use the premise of these statements as a basis for a poem in which the reader cannot easily discern if the speaker is reliable. This may feel like a perfect prompt for a narrative poem, but experiment and see what develops.

Most of all, have fun!

Interview with Poet and Editor, Tanaya Winder

Upon our nearly simultaneous returns to Albuquerque after adventures took us afar,  I had the opportunity to catch up with friend, fellow poet and former work-shop peer Tanaya Winder. She has been busy  in the most worthwhile of ways since our days of collaborating poetry in Joy Harjo’s poetry class, and clearly understands the challenges of an emerging writer. I am happy  to share tales of Tanaya’s experience and strength in today’s interview. Please enjoy Tanaya’s lovely poem, which is followed by our interview.


measure by measure: the body begs  
by Tanaya Winder

at the soul’s release please do not leave.
The last crescendo – breathing and
the body intertwined, two hands
offered as a gesture like grasping at butterflies,
longing to hold something precious.
The legatos of trying –
hear the search in continuous acts,
the staccatoed beats.
Dal capo al coda,
go back to the beginning
in the music of being human,
the final score and the counterpoint:
hands outstretched as if
to say I cannot stay

You have accomplished quite a lot since we attended a Joy’s  poetry workshop at UNM together. Tell me more about what you have been up to.

Since Joy’s workshop in 2008, I’ve been writing as much as I can. Entering the MFA world was quite different than I expected. I imagined entering a community of fellow writers who were all so passionate about writing that they’d discuss it continuously, and through that discussion inspire each other. This isn’t to say that I didn’t find any inspiration at UNM, I did. I met fellow writers who enjoyed writing and even some who felt it was their life’s calling; but still, I felt something was lacking. Fortunately, Joy Harjo took me under her wing and agreed to let me take an independent study with her the semester after our poetry workshop. That independent study ended up helping me get involved in my biggest and most influential project so far, “Soul Talk, Song Language: Conversations with Joy Harjo.”

Joy mentioned wanting to put together another collection of interviews. We ended up really connecting in our views. I read her work and she read mine, so it made sense for us to collaborate. I spent the next two years assisting her with her book and was credited as co-editor of the collection. During those two years, I also ended up taking time off from the MFA program. I felt inundated with the teaching load and coursework. I wanted space for clarity and time to read what I wanted to read, to write what I wanted to write. I moved to Boulder, Colorado to work as the Assistant Director for the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Upward Bound Program. It was a good move for me physically and mentally.

In Boulder I started training for my 1st half-marathon and since then have completed 4 half-marathons. I also was able to take classes in CU’s MFA program, which offered a variety of courses and subjects that weren’t available at UNM. One month in my lyric poetry class gave me the inspiration and insight I needed to view poetry in a completely different way. Inspired by the coursework, I wrote the poem “The Impermanence of Human Sculptures” in an eight-hour sitting. I went on to edit the poem twice and submitted it for the “A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Spring 2010 Orlando Prize in Poetry” and ended up winning a $1000 first prize. I took that as I sign that I was where I needed to be.

You’d be surprised how much writing/work you can get done with a steady 8 to 5, 40 hour a week job. I read what I wanted to in the evenings, jotted notes, and even started a writing schedule. I’d wake up at 6AM every morning to write for at least 30 minutes, even if it was just stream of consciousness writing. On weekends I didn’t have any “homework” that I was required to do, no grading, or prepping for classes – all I had was time and I was grateful for it. I found a writing partner who recently moved to Boulder after completing her MFA in screenwriting. We met at coffee shops on Saturdays and Sundays to write and chat about writing. It was then that I realized – I am, indeed, a writer. I didn’t need a program to write, I didn’t need a teaching assistantship and I didn’t need a “workshop.” All I needed was determination to write. A poet-mentor of mine told me that the hardest part of finishing the MFA is continuing to write; he told me he believed I’d make it if I kept up with the writing I was doing. In my time away from UNM and my MFA program, I published 12 poems, 1 interview, 1 essay, and got the book deal with Joy Harjo through Wesleyan University Press.

I did realize that while I don’t need a MFA to be a writer, I do need it if I want to teach. As someone who absolutely believes that poetry is important to the community, I want to be able to teach in both university and community settings. In my first year at UNM, I felt the intersection between community and poetry was somewhat lacking, so I decided to drive home to my reservation once a month to teach a writing workshop at our local library. I loved it. It fed my soul and people enjoyed it. They kept coming back each month.

I think it’s important for poetry and writing to have presence in the community because it reminds you why you’re doing what you’re doing. Sometimes writing can be so solitary. You write, research, write, edit, revise, and write some more. You submit, get rejected, submit again, and again until (hopefully) acceptance. Aside from the occasional reading/performance we writers rarely get to see and interact with our readers, but in community work you get to interact with readers and help others learn how to render their own experiences through story and words. I am a person who hopes my own writing and poetry reflects the times and the needs of society; without interacting with the community the poetry cannot attempt to reflect communities and so I believe poetry must intersect with community. Poetry has the potential to create community for people who are searching for it by providing a space to interact and share experiences on the page.

But finding balance between teaching, community work, and writing can be difficult. I try to think of writing like working out: you don’t find the time for it – you make it. Like exercise, I find that poetry is necessary for me to maintain my health. Now that I am back teaching at UNM and finishing up my MFA I don’t wake up at 6AM to write. Coursework and all that is involved in teaching takes up a lot of time, but I still make sure that I put in at least an hour of “writing work,” which means researching or revising if I am not creating something new. I use goals to help force me to write by looking up special calls for submissions and tell myself that I am going to apply to them. I find deadlines and use a planner to fill in dates where I tell myself that I will submit to at least 3-5 magazines/journals a month. Even if I don’t have something “ready” I send it anyway to keep myself in the habit of writing and submitting. All of these, of course, are small goals in terms of the big plans I have.

It’s important to dream big. In the back of my mind I tell myself I want to have collections of poetry published and one day even have my 1st collection win a 1st book prize. I want to be a Stegner Fellow and dream of becoming a U.S Poet Laureate. I’m well aware of the odds of some of these things actually happening but that doesn’t keep me from dreaming because the dreaming pushes me to work harder. I know I have a lot of work to do before I get to where I want to be with my writing, but that’s the fun of it. You don’t get to where you want to be without putting in the work, and that’s true of both life and writing. Sometimes you sit there and re-work a poem revising lines, individual words, and structures until it seems like a big mess and then…clarity. The funny thing is you wouldn’t have gotten to a point of clarity without diving into the wreck and coming out on the other side. And hey, that’s life, that’s writing.

“Soul Talk, Song Language” by Joy Harjo and Tanay Winder are available at Wesleyan University Press  through their website at



Tanaya Winder is from the Southern Ute and Duckwater Shoshone Nations. She graduated from Stanford University in 2008 with a BA in English. Tanaya was a finalist in the 2009 Joy Harjo Poetry Competition and a winner of the “A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Spring 2010 Orlando Prize in Poetry.” Her poems have appeared in Cutthroat magazine, Yellow Medicine Review, Adobe Walls, and Superstition Review, amongst others and are forthcoming in Drunken Boat magazine. She teaches Composition and Introduction to Creative Writing at the University of New Mexico where she is currently pursuing her MFA in poetry. She is currently the Assistant Director for the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Upward Bound Program – a college prep program for over 85 Native American high school students from different reservations all across the country. In her free time she enjoys coffee, karaoke, and teaching a monthly writer’s workshop at the local library in her hometown, Ignacio, CO.

Tanaya also writes a blog “Letters from a Young Poet” at

Help Yourself

Here is my version of an exercise that’s been floating around the writing world for some time. It’s simple, straight-forward and pretty powerful. Please complete each step before moving on to the next.


First, list the things in life that get between you and your writing and creativity – even those things that are legitimate, like taking care of the kids and washing the dishes. Include on this list any pesky internal obstructions and voices, like “I can’t write about that, it would hurt ____.” Make the list as long as you have time for – you can return to it for future writing exercises.

Second, read over your list and select one or two things that are particularly vexing for you at this very moment. It might be different the next time you approach this exercise – that’s fine. For now, go with your instinct and choose one or two items from your list that are really giving you a tough time or bogging you down in some way today.

Third, imagine yourself in a private sanctuary or someplace like Superman’s fortress of solitude. You are safe and everything you say is completely protected and will never be heard by another living soul. Spend the next 20 or so minutes writing, in first person, a detailed description of a specific time you wrestled with one of the challenges on your list. Where did it happen? When? How? It’s important that you don’t generalize here. Be as specific as you possibly can.

Fourth, reread the story you’ve just written but change the voice and perspective from first to third person (that is, change every I to a she/he or to a proper noun – like Joe). You may need to adjust verbs while you’re at it.

Fifth, do not continue until you’ve completed step three.

Sixth, read and listen to yourself as you read the new story (aloud or silently in your fortress of solitude). Put yourself in the role of sympathetic advisor and offer some useful, helpful and empathetic words of support and advice for the person (that’s you) in the new story. Notice how you feel a little lighter and more empowered?

You can use these steps as a kind of template with which you can experiment in order to overcome writing or any creativity block. It is adjustable and can be made to fit any circumstance.

Happy writing!