“The giving season is over”

Flipping around the car radio,
these five words caught my ear.
I’d like to think there was more to it,
we’re not always privy to context.
Benefit of the doubt says
sometimes we’re moving too fast
to hear the rest, missing the crucial
thing that was said just after,
not seeing how it turned out,
that sad phrase, that tense moment,
that terse exchange you glimpsed
in passing.

But benefit of the doubt is tired.
It’s so tired. It’s tired and it’s pissed
that we’re living in a time and place
where context is too smart
for the powers that be, where
to listen deeply is laughable,
something only elitists do,
where our so-called president
calls Haiti and the entire African continent
“shithole countries,” suggesting we open
our doors to more Norwegians instead.
American, Aryan — splitting blonde hairs
of wholesome, pure specimens of superiority.

The giving season is over.
There is only taking now.
Taking land, taking language, taking health
care, taking names, taking neighborhoods,
taking schools, taking deep breaths
to keep ourselves sane while they take
and take take take, taking turns
with shallow apologies, taking families,
taking compassion, taking humanity,
taking intelligence, taking diplomacy,
taking kindness, taking depth, taking
whatever they want, like they always have,
and spitting in the faces
of anyone who doesn’t look like them
or come when they call.

Angry? Yes. I’m angry.
Am I frightened? Beneath everything, yes.
The giving season is over —
I heard it myself today on the radio.
My own dark curls and speckled eyes
don’t fit the profile, though I can hide
behind my rosy cheeks and pale skin.
Mind goes to trains, ships, all the methods
of death transport by the millions.
Bodies that don’t conform, minds that don’t
conform, families that don’t conform,
art that doesn’t conform, leaders
who come in so many forms confronting
daily a thousand small atrocities adding
up to something like genocide,
something like ethnic cleansing,
something like eugenics, something like
the most sinister tactics of decimation
history has seen.

Here we are again, in this place where
the giving season buckles under the weight
of so much taking.
I want to say: Rest, let me carry something
of yours here, let me take your weight
for a moment, don’t let them break you.
Instead, I wonder how long I can hold on
before the ugliness starts to ruin me.
I say I won’t let that happen.
And I wonder if it’s true.

The Poet’s Role in a Crumbling Democracy

Clearly, a little permission is a dangerous thing.
Tess Gallagher

The key was to go through with it, without needing to consider any deeper meaning. To act, trusting that if I wanted to extrapolate later, that option would be available to me. I’m referring here to reading a poem in public, not at an open mic or organized event of some kind, but spontaneously, without an announcement.

“Go through with it” is a phrase I discussed that day in October with Luping, the grad student from China I met one year ago and sit with on a weekly basis for English-language conversation. Over slices of pizza, I told her I was considering reading a poem at a coffeeshop, but that I was nervous and hadn’t decided yet. She egged me on, saying, “It is crazy but will be very interesting!”

When we finished eating, we walked over to Amherst Coffee. Jazz piped in from the speakers and I knew I wouldn’t be able to read loudly enough over the music, so I decided to run my idea by the barista. He promptly said, “There’s no one here with the authority to sign off on that,” and returned to pulling espresso shots.

At this point, we’d bumped into a friend, who happened to be in that month’s Dive Into Poetry group — the nexus of this crazy idea in the first place, as the week’s assignment was to play with “guerrilla poetry,” i.e. spreading poetry in unconventional ways in the public sphere. Lisa was with her son, who happens to speak fluent Chinese; he and Luping struck up some conversation while I looked on agape. I took this as a sign to persevere, and we the four of us decided to give it one more try, this time at Starbucks.

I recognized one of the baristas right away, a young woman with whom I’ve discussed tattoos and have a friendly rapport. “Oh, cool!” was her immediate reaction, and we waited nervously while she went to ask her supervisor. I felt mildly disappointed in myself for asking permission at all, convinced that the great guerrilla poets would do no such thing (not to mention polling Facebook friends about the odds of getting arrested, though admittedly I wanted to make sure I’d be home for dinner). She emerged from the back office with a thumbs up and a big smile: “Green light!”

And so I began, without so much as an “Excuse me, everyone” or “Hi, my name’s Jena…”

No, I just read the first line of the poem, then the next. A hush fell over the space as I kept reading, and I made a point of looking in both directions, noticing how some people were watching, others looking down at their papers or phones, but aware that there was no way not to be sharing this experience.

I wasn’t doing this for 15 minutes of anything, more as a personal challenge to recognize that what we think is scary is often eminently do-able, that we won’t die by pushing ourselves out of comfort and complacency, and yes, perhaps on a broader level to explore questions of safety more broadly, and complicity. What began as something purely creative and fun, a way to shake myself up a bit and perhaps insert some poetry into public spaces, became a window into consciousness on a more urgent level.

To read a poem in a Starbucks in a college town, even a politically leaning one, did not require much consideration. But lines like these, from my poem, All Hands on Deck

we can’t sit down
while the laws are quietly made
and trains roll steadily in

in a different context, could result in arrest and imprisonment.

We could look back 100 years to dissident poets such as Osip Mandelstam in Stalin’s Russia, but sadly, there’s no need to time travel when it comes to poetry being criminalized when it’s perceived as a political threat.

Take Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour, who is currently under house arrest by the Israeli government, accused of inciting violence and “igniting terrorism” after posting her poem “Resist, my people, resist” on YouTube. Or Yemeni journalist Afrah Nasser, who was initially denied a Visa to the U.S. to accept an a Committee to Protect Journalists award.

I’m thinking here of KKK members marching with tiki torches and calls for “blood and soil,” a Nazi slogan. I’m thinking of political protest, performance art, and hate speech.

Who decides what’s what? What is a poet’s role in a crumbling democracy? What does it mean to wake up, to rise up, to shake each other out of stupor, to incite not violence but communication, and to stand up to elected officials who are actively eroding human rights at every turn?

My little experiment yesterday carried little to no risk. In fact, some people even clapped when I finished reading my poem, and one man approached me afterwards to say thank you. “People like you are really making a difference,” he said.

But here’s the thing: If I am to move my writing more into a political sphere — a periphery I’ve circled and danced inside of for as long as I’ve been writing — I have an obligation to do so in a way that calls attention not to myself but to those who really have something at stake.

People like Lucio Perez, a 35-year-old Guatemalan man who has been in the U.S. for nearly 20 years and is facing deportation, while he and his family take sanctuary in a church right here in Amherst, Massachusetts, and DeAndre Harris, who was badly beaten by white supremacists in Charlottesville this past August, and is now facing felony charges of “malicious wounding” of his attackers.

As poets and writers, it’s our responsible to call attention in any way possible to these assaults on human rights.

I do not have the legal knowledge to parse out the complexity of the first amendment, but I do know that those of us with less at risk need to step up and make noise — in whatever platforms are available to us — about the egregious erosion of what we claim to hold as universal rights to personal safety and freedom of expression.

6X6: Just Write… Coming in January 2018!


A couple of months ago, I announced a new group called Shitty First Drafts.

Soon thereafter, I realized I didn’t have a clear enough vision yet for how it would be different from my other groups, so I decided to give it some time to gestate. I pulled it from my website, not knowing whether I’d resurrect, transform, or scrap it.

Soon, it became clear what the problem was. The problem was what the problem so often is: I was trying too hard.

Something similar happened two years ago, when an idea that began as exciting grew increasingly unwieldy the more I worked on it. I reached out to a trusted writer and teacher for some perspective. Our conversation circled around one of my favorite questions: Where is there ease? 

A 12-week group called “Creative Ease” emerged from that shift, which eventually morphed into Jewels on the Path, one of my cornerstone groups.

Some ideas come fast and furious, sprung like Athena whole and complete, and I often take what one of my sisters affectionately calls a “shoot, ready, aim” approach to putting things out there. I trust the idea and then dive into the details, rather than the other way around. I love the playfulness and trust this entails.

But it doesn’t always work.

Shitty First Drafts, in its original inception, didn’t quite work. The format of the group was too close to other things I already offer, and I couldn’t for the life of me articulate who it was for or what would make it special.

Until it hit me: The name of this program won’t be Shitty First Drafts, a phrase made famous by Anne Lamott. It will be something even simpler. Ready for it?

JUST WRITE.

That’s right. Just that. Six weeks of just writing. Showing up once a week to put your pen to paper, to start and keep going, to let your words show up on the page and your voice take up room in space. To connect with others in an intimate setting, where we are all in it together.

How will it work?

  1. We’ll gather via Zoom (download here) and spend 30 minutes writing. There may be a reading or prompt to start us off, but the purpose of this time is to sit down and get words on the page.
  2. Following the writing period, each participant will have 15 minutes to read their words out loud and receive comments and feedback from the group.
  3. Each participant will be assigned a week to be the Featured Writer. She’ll send out a piece in advance for the rest of us to read, and have our undivided attention for 20 minutes of workshop-style discussion about her work, including addressing any specific feedback requests.
  4. Our time will conclude with each writers stating an intention or writing goal for the coming week. Writers may choose to continue with one piece of writing or to generate new material — the choice is yours, the time is yours.
  5. Two  40-minute coaching calls . We can use these to talk about specific pieces of writing, to brainstorm and bounce around ideas, and to address any challenges your faces and ways forward.

Why so simple?

Because sometimes all we need is the loosest of containers, the gentlest accountability, the fewest bells and the quietest whistles. At the end of the day — which is when this group will occur — it’s ultimately about showing up, sitting down, and just writing. Shitty first drafts and perhaps more polished drafts will follow, or not. The words you discover might be seeds of longer pieces, fragments of dreams, freewrites you’ll discard completely, or something else altogether. One of the only things I know for sure about the writing process is this: Writing begets writing. And having a small, supportive community of listeners and witnesses creates some mighty magic.

What else is included in the cost?

In addition to 2.5 hours per week together as a group, of both silent writing time and group sharing and discussion, you’ll schedule two 40-minute calls with me. We can use this time to focus on specific pieces of writing, to tease out where you get blocked, and to play with ways to continue to go deeper into your own work. There’s no specific agenda for our calls; this is your time, and a chance to talk about whatever’s going on for you in writing + life.

Will the calls be recorded?

The calls will be recorded. We will have a secret Facebook group for the express purpose of sharing these, in case you miss one and/or simply want to go back to listen to comments on your work again. The Facebook group will also be a place to share encouragement and support throughout the week.

Who should join:

Anyone who wants to produce more pages but finds that perfectionism and procrastination interfere with progress. This group is open to all gender identities and expressions as well as to all genres, though creative nonfiction and personal essay will likely comprise most of the writing. No previous experience in writing groups necessary. This group is also totally compatible with any of Jena’s other writing groups.

Do I need a particular project?

No, though it’s also fine if you do.

Risks and possible side-effects:

Heightened self-awareness, greater curiosity and sense of inquiry, deepening sense of trust in your own quirky and wondrous creative process, and increased willingness to keep going in the face of not knowing may all arise as secondary byproducts of this group.

Can I sign up for the calls and not the coaching?

Not for this group. In order to ensure a high level of participation and commitment, everyone in the Just Write groups will be working with me privately in addition to meeting with the group. If you’re interested in a super supportive, long-term (12 week) accountability group, check out Jewels on the Path. Or drop me a line and we can discuss what would be a good fit.

Dates + Times:

Two sections will kick off the new year:

Tuesdays, 1:00-3:30PM EST: January 16, 23, 30, February 6 , 13, 27 (3 remaining spots)
OR
Thursdays: , 5:30-8:00PM EST: January 18, 25, February 8, 15, March 1 (6 spots)

please note there will be no groups on 2/20 and 2/22 

Cost:

$419

Register + Payment:

Registration deadline is Friday, January 5, 2018.

Reserve your spot today with a non-refundable $99 deposit. You will be automatically billed for two additional installments of $160, two and four weeks after registering. Or use the “Buy Now” button below to pay in full.

Don’t forget to send me a note telling me which group you’d like to join (Tuesdays or Thursdays).

Payment Plan
Number of payments 3
No. Due* Amount
1 At checkout $99.00 USD
2 after 2 weeks $160.00 USD
3 after 4 weeks $160.00 USD
Total $419.00 USD
* We calculate payments from the date of checkout.
Sign up for

OR pay in full: 

All Hands on Deck

Photo: Stijn Stinnen

Oh tender heart for all who weep
and angry heart for those unseen
I dreamed about original wounds
and something healing came in the form of writing
Details elude me but I woke knowing something
had occurred, something in sleep needed heeding

Calling in the red hot and the true blue
calling in the close calls and the collision courses
calling in the blind eyes and the willful deniers
calling in you who would look away
and you who risk everything to offer sanctuary

The question isn’t when did discrimination become
the basis for policy making
but when was it ever not this way
and how can we claim progress when our bodies
are on the chopping block and our minds
are being held for ransom and we move from
one news cycle to the next
six seconds per person
forgetting last week’s outrage because this week’s is worse
how can that be
and how can we breathe
when there isn’t even time to pause and grieve?

Gone are the days of the 6:30 news when I was a kid
and my parents would spend 30 minutes in the TV room
listening to those soothing, familiar anchors
but whose news made the cut? What looked like unity
was not a lack of divisiveness but a lack of representation

We need to be talking, yes.
We need to be talking in person, in living rooms
in places of worship in the grocery store
in cafés and in the classroom
in the lakes and rivers diverted for dollars
in the casinos and dance halls and movie theaters
on buses and in gated communities on farms
and on city councils and in the halls of justice
where justice is in a chokehold while we look on
feeling helpless

To succumb to helpless paralysis cannot be the way
forward
though in this chaos I have little to offer
and it’s easy to feel small, frozen, flinching.
Do something do anything
Attend a meeting, make a call, talk to a neighbor,
broach the uncomfortable, pick up the phone, write a letter
read a book, challenge yourself
name the elephants in the room

As a teenager “keep your laws off my body” was
emblazoned
on the back of my closed bedroom door
bumperstickers, angsty emotional outrage
grown now into womanhood
maybe my teeth have gotten sharper
maybe my tolerance is done tolerating
settling for scraps and glass ceiling shards

Maybe I’m regressing before my very eyes
back to my roots
back to my original wound
the one I dreamed of healing by writing
the words flow like so much blood
and the stench is always somewhere else
and the hungry children are always somewhere else
and the oppression is always worse
for someone else

I must make it mine
take it all the way into my own body
knowing that these conditions render me, too
not free
me too, not at ease
me too, threatened
not too much
not going gently
or without a fight

taking all of this wholeness and all of the broken bits
and rather than flinging them haphazardly
and adding to the harm done
gathering, calling them in
calling myself home again
to really listen
for who to be
because the only thing
the ONLY thing I know for sure
is that this is all hands on deck time
and we can’t sit down
while the laws are quietly made
and trains roll steadily in

Fall 2017: What’s on the Radar for Your Writing + Life?

Picture this: You’ve been circling around for some time now, and feel ready to tune into air traffic control for the best place to land your words on a page. Maybe you’re a bit nervous and could use some reassurance that indeed, you can do this.

Below, you’ll find several landing strips of varying lengths. What they all have in common is this: Fierce encouragement and gentle guidance as you steer your aircraft to a safe landing. 

We may write by ourselves, but we get to land together and there are so many ways to do just that! Have a look at what’s on the radar this fall, and know that you belong on this sacred ground of the writing life.


The Short + Sweet Landing Pad

Two-week online writing groups are perfect for anyone who wants to begin or reboot a writing practice. With a new prompt each morning and by setting a timer for 10 minutes a day, we give ourselves carte blanche permission to write “the worst Junk in America” (Natalie Goldberg’s timeless words). Kick the inner critic out of the cockpit and remember why you love writing in the first place.

Next group: “Over Our Heads” | November 6-17 | $99 | Register
Size limit: 12

Ten-week online writing groups are similar to the above, but at a slower pace. Prompts land in your inbox on Monday mornings, and you have all week to share your words with your writing comrades.

Next group: “Over Our Heads” | November 27, 2017 – February 2, 2018 | $108 | Register
Size Limit: 12


The Long and Leisurely Landing, for Women Only

Jewels on the Path is designed for a small number of women who want to delve more deeply into a particular writing project or goal. Whether it’s resurrecting a blog or making steady progress on a manuscript, this group will provide a steady rhythm for your work to unfold and provide accountability and friendship as you deepen your own creative process. Women writers only.

WINTER 2018 : 
Preregistration is open for the Winter 2018 Session (January 8-March 30): Three options: $126/$249/$449 per month | Preregister
Size limit: 12


The Water Landing

Dive Into Poetry is a quarterly pool party where lapsed poets, experienced poets, and poetry lovers get to convene in a fabulously inclusive and playful space for an entire month of practice. Now in its seventh season, this group remains an all-time favorite gathering of old and new friends.

Next group: January 1-31, 2018 | $31 /$62 /$93 | Register
No size limit


The Room of Your Own Landing

The Unfurl Retreat returns to Amherst, MA June 22-24, 2018. Details Coming Soon!


The Real-Time Landing Strip

JUST WRITE  is a 6-week, 6-person weekly Zoom-based group where we will write together and comment on each other’s words in real time.  Two private coaching calls and an intimate setting all make this a particularly powerful chance to chip away at perfectionism and get some drafts written that might otherwise never see the page. 

DATES and  Registration page coming soon | Contact me to to be notified 

Size limit: 6


Year-Round Ways to Keep Your Writing + Life Grounded

Get Your Muse On is a year-round private community where we love the shit out of each other. In this secret Facebook group, each week includes intention setting, exclusive writing prompts, and invitations to reflect on what we’re learning as we go.

Always open | $25 monthly or $250 annually| Register
No size limit

Private Coaching | From a single session to an ongoing relationship entirely devoted to your growth as a human who writes, see what opens up when you make time to explore your fears, ideas, goals, and stumbling blocks.

Packages and a la carte options | Sign up here

Manuscript development + editing | If you have a manuscript-in-progress and want a partner who will bring fresh eyes, perspective, suggestions, and edits to help you bring it to completion, I’d love to hear from you. I have a successful track record of working with authors who’ve self-published collections of poems, creative nonfiction, and novels, and generally only work with one editing client at a time. Let’s discuss your project and see if it’s a good fit.

Cost customized to each client | Contact me to schedule a time to chat!


A Note About Money + Mutual Responsibility

Please note that if money is a barrier, I make every effort to work with you to make all of this accessible no matter your income bracket or current financial situation. Just ask me and we’ll see what we can work out together.

If you would like to contribute to the ongoing Community Writers Fund, which makes it possible for me to offer fully-funded spots to lower-income individuals for whom groups like these are unaffordable, you can do so here.

In addition, every time someone signs up for any of my groups, I donate an item to a local food bank.


“Thank you for the compassionate, caring and safe space you hold here for me, for all of us here, to tell the hard stories. I know it’s how I will grow.”~ Juli Lyons

“Never have I felt so befriended: by the page, by a group of fellow writers, by a teacher and coach. Jena provides a lovely mixture of inspiration, invitation, and validation. And then she throws in something else, something wonderful and ineffable which I can only describe as magic.” ~ Katrina Kenison