Archive for 2011

On Tour in Germany: What Cost the World?

In April, I spent two weeks on poetry tour in Southern Germany in towns including: Erlangen, Reutlingen, Rosenfeld, Marburg, Giessen, Mainz, Heilbronn and Stuttgart. The trip was organized by German Poetry Slam phenomenon Lars Ruppel, in connection with the US Embassy. I performed at seven poetry slam venues and one school.

German Poetry Mastermind, Lars Ruppel

I had heard from many sources that Poetry Slam was a thriving art form in Germany, but I was still amazed by what I found there. A few things to know about German poetry slam:

German Poetry Slam Anthology

  • Poets are constantly touring to cities to participate in slams, which are booked in advance rather than being open for sign-ups they way they are in the US. I was regularly traveling with other poets and at any given slam, only a couple of poets in the slam were living in that town.

Poets at Poetry Slam Erlangen

Poets at Jokus including US poet Melissa Rose

  • Since poets are booked to perform in the slams, they are given money for travel, provided with hotel rooms and awarded prizes like: books, booze and potatoes. (The potatoes were prizes at the Poesie und Pommes reading where all audience members also get free French fries during the intermission!)

Poets at the Poesie & Pommes Reading

  • In Germany, poets are given 5-7 minutes to perform each piece, which the performers refer to as “texts,” since readings include short stories, humorous essays and raps. When I would slip and generically refer to every piece as a “poem,” I was often corrected and told it was a “text.”

Poetry Slam Marburg

  • Although there is a high level of performance, Germany has less emphasis on political poems and identity poems than you find in the US. The vibe toggles between a McSweeny’s Reading and a hip hop show. Although I do not speak German, I believe that there is a high level of craft in these performances.
  • It’s true about Germans and beer.

There was a stocked cooler for performers at every show

There was always a great spread back stage!

Host Nektarious before show in Heilbronn

German poets Theresa Hahl and Ken Yamamoto

I’m excited to see how Poetry Slam is evolving in yet another nation. Perhaps because there is more emphasis on developing certain voices and less stress on the open sign-up, egalitarian climate we have in the US, shows are increasingly well attended in Germany. Every slam was crowded, sometimes with more than 300 people, and some were packed to the gills with audience members standing for up to three hours in hot performance spaces.

Green room of the rock club in Stuttgart

Personally, the trip provided intense joys and challenges. The joys were in meeting talented, generous, warm poets who truly offered me every courtesy their country could provide. So many people said, “Do you have everything you need?” that I felt like my mother might have been calling them to check on me. It often felt like there was food on every table and beer in every fridge. We went to the park, played in the river, took paddle boats, stayed up late talking about poetry, rode trains, slept on cots, played drinking games and practiced each other’s languages. There was no shortage of good times.

Playing in the Lahn River in Marburg with slam poets

with German poet Josefine Berkholz

Lars Ruppel’s house in Marburg served as my home base. Located at the foot of a cathedral which is at the foot of a castle, the Brother’s Grimm lived in Lars’ house. He kindly offered me his own room on the top floor with a marvelous view of Marbug. The time I spent in this town was easily my favorite part of the trip.

Home away from home, Marburg

View from my window

Just above Lars Ruppel's house in Marburg

On the challenging side, I found it difficult to connect with the German audiences.  Many people speak English in Germany, and most told me, “We have to speak English. It is the language of the global economy.” Many people were highly skilled English speakers, but poetry adds a level of challenge and complexity to communications. Poetry often uses words in unexpected ways to surprise the reader and confuse the experience of language. One night, I was called on to explain a line in a poem about the season changing that goes, “Go ahead Spring, pee on my grass.” I found my attempt to explain the line almost made it more obtuse.

There are few more humbling experiences for a poet than performing for 200 middle school students who don’t speak your language on the day before spring break! Or having a judge at a poetry slam explain to you why your piece wasn’t as good as the others, including, “Well, the other poets were really very good and German is a better language for oratory.” Like a lot of artists, I struggle with self-doubt and too much luke warm applause gives me insomnia.

In light of events in Japan, there is a strong anti-nuclear movement in Germany. I saw these signs everywhere.

But, I had a good opportunity to remind myself of the motto for Arts Corps, “Make Art Anyway.” It’s probably a good thing to take train rides with your artistic insecurity every year, so that you can easily recognize the voice that whispers doubt into your ears back home.

Despite my self-doubt, there seemed to be a remedy around every cobble stoned corner. It’s been years since I studied in Europe in college and I’ve never had the opportunity to stay with Europeans in their homes and live like they do for a while. This was a blessing and opportunity I hope I can repay sometime. It was truly a chance beyond measure, an experience you could never buy. The poet Josefine Berkholz taught me about a popular German saying. When you are feeling elated, able to do anything, you could say, “What Cost the World?” So, Germany, thank you for teaching me another way to invite the world to offer itself to me.

Writing Retreat on Shaw Island

A relatively recent development in my life as a writer has been the inclusion of Writing Retreats into my practice. Writing Retreats take many forms, but I find that a retreat in seclusion with light outside contact and a minimum stay of one week is most useful to my work.

During late February, I was blessed with the opportunity to have a writing retreat at a house on the residential San Juan island called Shaw Island. I stayed in the house of a generous, author-loving couple, complete with wood pile, critters, no internet access and no cell phone reception! For ten days, I worked on my novel in an almost eerie amount of quiet.

View from the ferry

Shaw Island is one of the San Juan Islands off the coast of Cascadia, just below Canada. I listened to lots of CBC radio. A short walk from the house was an amazing view of the sound where I watched otters play during writing breaks.

Street signs on Shaw Island

The library

The library on Shaw is open three days a week for about four hours each day and volunteer staffed! There are no businesses on the island except for one general store at the ferry dock. Whoever is behind the counter greets every person by name. To me: “So, where you visiting the island from?” Visiting the island was like visiting another time. It only took a few days for the deep magic of the place to begin to show itself to me.

Shaw Island Historical Society

Inside my 'writing studio'

I learned a lot about myself during this retreat. I work best on fiction during times of total isolation. For this trip, I was editing my 300 page book of YA fiction called Celia, the Dark and Weird, due on The Viking Press in 2012. I think this time spent on the book has produced the best writing I’ve done on it to date. Based on my editor’s suggestions, I was fleshing out minor characters, building up select scenes and concentrating on the pacing of the story. I expect a few more small rounds of edits before the copy editing process begins, so I hope for more remote islands in the coming year!

Seattle’s GRAND SLAM is coming!

It’s almost time for one of my favorite events of the poetry season…Seattle Poetry Slam’s GRAND SLAM!! I couldn’t be more excited about our feature this year. KEN ARKIND is a poet with a huge voice and vision to match.


Seattle Poetry Slam Presents


The Seattle Poetry Slam will hold its annual Grand Slam competition (an all ages event) at Town Hall on Friday, May 6th at 7:30 pm.

The Grand Slam will feature National Poetry Slam Champion Ken Arkind.

WHAT: The sheer power of the art form of Spoken Word cannot be denied. Seen and heard in commercials, movies, on Broadway and even at the White House…

The WORD is coming. It will be loud.  It will be moving and it will be told Live on-stage before a cheering crowd of 500 people head-over-heels in love with poetry.

The Seattle Poetry Slam’s 2011 Grand Slam is the culmination of a year of weekly competitions at Re-bar in Downtown Seattle. The night’s winners will be awarded spots on the 2011 Seattle National Poetry Slam Team:  the four poets that will represent Seattle at the National Poetry Slam in Boston, MA against over 80 other teams from across the nation and Canada. Seattle has a history of being one of the most well-respected teams having regularly ranked in the top sixteen in previous years taking the 2nd place trophy in 2009 in the Group Perfomance competition.

Featured Poet Ken Arkind is a National Poetry Slam Champion, Nuyorican Poets Cafe Grand Slam Champion and full time touring artist who has performed his work in almost all of the Lower 48, Hawaii and Canada. With Panama Soweto he is one half of The Dynamic Duo, the nation’s most highly booked Spoken Word act.
He has been featured in the documentaries SPIT!, Slamplanet, as well as on HBO, CBS, NBC and’s Open Door Poetry series alongside U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins.

He was a member of the highly influential Spilljoy Ensemble tour, a collection of the country’s premiere young spoken word artists including Danny Sherrard, Jon Sands and Shira Erlichman and is currently the Executive Director and head Brave New Voices coach for The Denver Minor Disturbance Poetry Project, an independent literary arts program dedicated to helping Colorado youth between the ages of 13-19 find their voices through the mediums of poetry and performance.
A regular fixture in the Denver music scene he has opened for acts like The Flobots, Gil Scott Heron, Devotchka, Sage Francis, Ani Difranco, Cloud Cult, P.O.S., and NPR’s Amy Goodman and he is the only poet signed to Hot Congress Records. His work has been published in numerous literary anthologies and Journals across the country, including Write Bloody’s “The Good Things About America” and the University of Washington’s 2010 Common Book alongside Pulitzer Prize Winners Yusef Komunyaka and Philip Levine.

His first collection of poetry “I know why Georgia Turner waited by the train tracks” will be available summer of 2011 from Penmanship Books.

WHEN: Friday, May 6th, doors open at 6:30pm, show at 7:30 pm.

WHERE: Town Hall

1119 8th Ave

Seattle, WA  98101


COST: $10-$15 Tix available at

Note: This is an all ages event.

MORE (206) 419-5867

Creativity as a Bold and (Sometimes) Scary Act in the Classroom

This school year, each of the Teaching Artists in Seattle’s Writers-in-the-Schools Program was asked to write a blog post about some aspect of teaching creative writing in schools. My post can also be found at the WITS blog.


“Trusting our Creatvity is a new behavior for many of us. It may feel quite threatening initially.” –Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

“We are not to fear the strangeness we feel. The future enters into us long before it happens.” –Rainer Maria Rilke


Years ago, as a beginning Teaching Artist in the WITS program, I had the opportunity to work with two teachers teaching the same age group in the same school with classrooms right next to one another. I’ll call them Teacher #1 and Teacher #2. I brought identical lesson plans to each class and was surprised by the dramatic differences in the writing produced by the two groups. After years of reflection, I have come to believe that the product created by the students was a reflection of each teacher’s relationship with her own creativity.

Let me start by saying that I have immense respect for the work teachers do and can barely imagine what it takes to instruct a diverse classroom with divergent learning needs. I do not have a Masters in Education and I’m no expert on teaching methods.  This post is based on my own observations around teaching creativity.

As a poet, I am constantly reading works by other poets and growing my tools around writing and teaching poetry. Concurrently, I read books about the creative process by authors like Julia Cameron, Jan Phillips, Lynda Barry, SARK, and Natalie Goldberg. My work on accessing my creativity has been as important to my writing as my study of poetic craft.

How often as writing teachers do we receive work like this:

Prompt: Write about an object that you loved in your childhood. Why was it so important to you? What does your relationship with this object reveal about you as a child?

Student Work: As a child, my favorite object was a blanket. It was important to me because it kept me warm. What it reveals about me is that I liked being warm.


From the first day of any residency, I begin my constant reminders: “A writing prompt is not an assignment, but a jumping off point intended to inspire you and delight your creative brain. You don’t have to answer the question as you would in an assignment.” Still, these regurgitated responses can persist, especially in middle school classes.

As a response to this problem and in an attempt to foster creative thinking, I purposely present a wildly open-ended writing prompt. I wait until at least the fourth class when students have grown accustomed to me and are beginning to trust the process. I preface by saying that we are going to be making brave, creative leaps that might feel scary. I encourage them to take risks and be bold in trying something new. I ALWAYS say, “There is no way to do this wrong.” I warn students that I will not be giving any additional information about what to write outside of the prompt. I invite them to write whatever comes into their minds, to use the prompt as their first line and to keep writing until the time is up.

Then, I introduce a one line writing prompt, usually stolen from a book. An example would be this quote from Sharon Olds,

“And then I become a fly on the wall of that room…”


At this point in the lesson, I expect a few dumfounded looks. Some students will shift nervously. Some will look at the teacher for more instruction. This is the part of the story where my two teachers, each teaching the same grade at the same school become critical.

The first time I introduced this lesson, Teacher #1 piped up to tell students, “You heard Karen, this is your writing prompt. Write whatever comes into your mind. You can do this.” With nothing to reiterate, students were forced to think creatively, a shocking process for some. But, every student took part and the results were stunning. Their work far surpassed the poems they were writing when given straight-forward question prompts.  Each student’s voice began to reveal itself in her writing, and the ease with which they all approached writing prompts after this class was impressive. Students were no longer just writing, they were writing creatively.

In the other class, I introduced the same prompt. Teacher #2 interjected with, “Maybe you could write about a time that you overheard a conversation by accident. Or maybe you were eavesdropping. Maybe you could include some dialog from that conversation, possibly from your parents or someone at school. Think about times you’ve felt like a fly on the wall.” After we began our silent writing, Teacher #2 continued to talk with individual students who felt “stuck” and make suggestions for what they could write about. As you might imagine, the work from this class came back more predictable and less inventive than the first class. Many pieces started with, “A time I felt like a fly on the wall was when I heard my parents talking about…” As a class, writing prompts didn’t get easier, and students more often professed experiencing “writer’s block.”

As  you might also guess, Teacher #1 found the lesson useful and compelling, a turning point for the class, while Teacher #2 felt that I needed to “give more instruction” around the lesson. I was left to grapple with the choice of changing or not changing my lesson, given contradictory feedback from the two teachers.

My conclusion is this: the work of creating involves risk taking that will be uncomfortable and new for as many adults as it will be for students. At times, some teachers will not feel safe demanding creativity from students, and will not feel safe having it demanded from themselves. My work as a Teaching Artist is to be as clear as possible about why I am asking the class to make creative leaps and to be transparent with the teacher about what I hope the lesson will accomplish. I strongly believe that the students and teachers who go bravely into the unknown in creative writing can craft a new relationship with creative thinking that will change classrooms and lives for the better.

To read more blog posts from Seattle’s WITS Teachers, visit the WITS blog here:

Karen Gets Reviewed in BUST Magazine!

April/May edition of Bust

In the April/May edition of Bust, poet Amber Tamblyn reviewed my recent book of poems, Ceremony for the Choking Ghost. This is my first review in a national magazine and I feel incredibly lucky. I was once a young girl reading Bust and dreaming about publishing a book.

The review is complimentary and careful, a sincere appreciation of the work and I’m terribly flattered. I’m especially grateful to hear that the emotion feels “processed.” I was concerned about writing on such a personal topic (losing my sister), and felt that I risked emotionally spewing on my reader in a way that wasn’t a valuable emotional experience for reader and writer.

One clarification: my sister didn’t have cancer. This isn’t the first time this interpretation has appeared and I think it has to do with my sister passing away so young. People tend to assume that cancer is the culprit. My sister died from unexplained heart failure.

I’m so thankful to Amber Tamblyn and the funky ladies at Bust for this national exposure.

Whirwind Company

It was an amazing show in at Fremont Abbey in Seattle when the Whirwind Company blew through. I have to say that it was one of my favorite nights of poetry in a long time.

Jon Sands rehearsing a duet with invisible Brian Ellis


Write Bloody Family Portrait

Mike McGee pre-show 

Pretty pretty merch

Brian Ellis' half of the new duet

Mindy dreaming up a show list

Here is an awesome blog entry by the Seattle-based poet Dane Kuttler (also my Seattle slam correspondent). Dane gives us a peep into how poets work their way into getting local shows. Enjoy!


Seattle 151, or Freude

Once upon a time, I moved to Seattle to become a better poet. And shortly after I moved, I went to the Seattle Poetry Slam Slammaster, a man named D, and asked him if I could do a feature. I wanted to use the feature to introduce myself to the slam community.

“Nope,” he said cheerfully, as he tallied the night’s scores. “You’re not ready.”
So I went and I worked. I took classes, found mentors, and began to really work on my poetry. I competed in every slam, and went to national events. And after six months, I went back and asked again.
“Nope,” he said again. “Not quite yet. You’re getting better, though.”
So I went and I worked. I began the 365/365 project, placed in the finals of a national written poetry competition, wrote a book, attended more national slams and coached a team. And when I went back to ask again, D said:
“Maybe next year.”
So I went and I worked. I found a publisher for my book and began editing it. I finished the 365/365 project, and made a rough draft of a novel-in-verse. I continued to slam every week, and wrote reviews of the performances. And when I came back from visiting my family over new years, I asked D one more time if I might do a feature sometime, maybe the end of the year.
“Sure,” he said, with a casual tilt of his head. “You’re ready. When do you want to do it?”
Doing a local feature is a little like having a birthday party. It’s a special celebration of a very regular occurrence. I perform poems at the slam every week, but somehow, everyone went out of their way to tell me how much they enjoyed my work, or how much I’d grown.
I even got dressed up in a bona fide party dress. See?
Also, see those tights? If you look at them up close, they have pictures and quotes from Spenser’s The Fairie Queene – making them perhaps the geekiest literary stockings that ever were.
The performance itself was fantastic. Not only was the audience full of people I loved (Joel, Martina, Secret Agent Lover Man and Duncan – my current inner circle of houesmates and loves – made up the entire front row, and beamed at me whenever I looked down), but at least half a dozen people came up to buy books and tell me they’d never been to a slam before. That’s my favorite compliment: “I’ve never seen anything like this, and I love it!”
I performed seven poems – Freude, Names (which is on my website), Shifra The Midwife Speaks to the Protesters Outside Planned Parenthood, Love Me Like A Man (a piece by my friend Lindsay Miller that I was honored to cover), a Raizl/Rachel poem, Man (a new piece), and Bilingual. Four of those pieces were accompanied by my friend and collaborator Mai Li Pittard on guitar and vocals. The music and poetry worked well together, and having Mai Li up on stage was really fun.
I sold a dozen books, and got lots of hugs. It was a great show.
At the end of the night, I felt like this:
Freude. Joy.
*Thanks to Rachel McNary and Jan Pylar for the photos!