Guest post by Donna Pecore, NWA writer

NWA writers and Calvin Forbes.

NWA writers and Calvin Forbes.

I am addicted. Oh, don’t sweat, I am not referring to drugs, alcohol, or even chocolate, that last one being a big problem of mine still. I am talking about workshops, specifically Neighborhood Writing Alliance workshops. These workshops are held at several locations, weekly almost year-round. Occasionally I get an extra rush attending the special workshops NWA offers with famous poets and artists, and assorted organizations, groups, or individuals whose visions are aligned with one of our current themes. At these workshops I am infused with brain fodder and inspiration that enhance my writing as well as my life, encouraging me to make a difference.

On March 7, I attended one of these special workshops given by Professor Calvin Forbes, an award-winning poet who currently teaches at the School of the Art Institute. The theme of the workshop was clearly stated in our weekly workshop newsletter: “Writer and jazz scholar Calvin Forbes will lead a poetry workshop focused on the role of music in opening doors to personal and social histories… Forbes will discuss the importance and value of inter-generational dialogue, cultural exchanges, and deepening our understanding of our own relationships to music.”

I was hooked as soon as I read the word jazz, remembering a class at Columbia College given by Art Lange on poetry and jazz. I wasn’t worried that it would cover the same material, knowing that each professor applies their own personal vision. Considering our over-arching theme for the spring is music, I felt we might discuss syntax, phrases, and perhaps we might do some on-demand writing while some scintillating sounds from Herbie Hancock, Ornette Coleman, or Louie Armstrong played. Once upon a time, I cringed when contemplating having to write in workshops, but now I value every opportunity to put pen to paper. Even if it is not ready for publication, I often find these first drafts to be incredibly rich, and even though I still automatically cringe, I am now happy to participate.

Jeanette Moton and Calvin Forbes, 3:7:13 workshop

Forbes and NWA writer Jeanette Moton demonstrate waltz etiquette.

Introduced to us by Susan Eleuterio, our new interim Executive Director and a woman of many hats, Professor Forbes spoke to us as equals, encouraging us to critique our own work, with an eye on the present, the here and now. “Consider the passions within your own family,” he said. Forbes found it difficult to picture his mother as young and shared an excerpt from an essay for which he interviewed her, taping their conversation so as not to miss a word. He showed us that his mother’s passions could be related to the present. To do this, Professor Forbes focused on dance interspersed with snippets of jazz history. He showed us examples of dances his mother might have done via YouTube. The Charleston, for one, was risqué, with skimpy outfits and crossing arms and legs, but it could be said that this state of risqué-ness is true of each generation’s form of dance. One writer, Jeanette Moton, volunteered to demonstrate this by dancing the waltz with the professor. She is all of about 5 feet tall and Calvin is 6-feet-3-inches. He pointed out that to dance with her, he, a veritable stranger, had to put his hands on her. We all giggled. He made his point.

Professor Forbes shared a few more pieces of his work, and a few more YouTube clips. I loved Forbes’ piece “Radio Memories (for Wolfman Jack),” and “The Day Lady Died,” a poem by Frank O’Hara (O’Hara is a fav; meaning: read him!). I cannot repeat his whole workshop here (although I did take copious notes), but the one other thing that I really enjoyed was his discussion of idioms, phrases passed to us by our parents that often make use of metaphors. Ah, he touched on those phrases that I sort of expected, those things that connect us, like phrases heard in a song. We circled the table and shared our own idioms, some I had never heard but made great sense, and others that jogged memories long lost. I thought I wouldn’t be able to remember one of my own: having had a traumatic head injury, my memory is not all that it could be. It’s sporadic with occasional short-circuits, offering me tidbits; hence my copious notes. Here are a few of the idioms my colleagues shared:

  • “Think of all those starving children in China”; and the “clean plate club.” We talked about how these sayings came out of parents and other relatives growing up during the Depression, and not wanting us to waste food.
  • ”This too shall pass.” Idioms often develop out of faith.
  • “Chew the meat but spit out the bones.” What do you think about this one? It’s maybe about being practical?
  • “If people show you who they are, believe them.” How many bad relationships and broken hearts could be avoided if we used this one?
  • “Don’t let Mr. No or Mr. Can’t come in.” Ooh…I want to share that one with my grandkids.
NWA writers Donna Pecore (left) and Radmila Lunić.

NWA writers Donna Pecore (left) and Radmila Lunić.

And so many more. They remind me of slogans in twelve-step programs: “One day at a time,” and “Easy does it but do it.”

Professor Forbes suggested this was only a place to start. Make them fresh, he said, remembering what “Mama Said.” This is where our modern day folklore is found. The world might be changing but our emotions are static. The joy found in the dance, the placement of hands of waltzing couple showed us joy and passion, where to find our inspiration.

I remembered a saying to share by the end of the class: I quoted the Rolling Stones, “You don’t always get what you want, but if you try some time, you just might find, you get what you need!” I don’t know if I got what I thought I would from this workshop, but I received a lot more! Thank you, Professor Forbes!

You know, sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees. But I think I have seen past the leaves, past my preconceptions. And there is one more thing: yes, my addiction has grown. The next workshop is when?

Photos by Sue Eleuterio. See more photos from this and other events on our Flickr page.

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  • supie dunbar

    Thanks for the blog, Donna. I enjoyed it.

  • Carrie

    Thanks so much, Donna, for sharing a peek inside of the workshop with Professor Forbes. I always found the special workshops to be mysterious moments of warmth and discovery. Writers from various workshops coming together to catch up with old friends and connect new faces with pieces read in JOT. New facilitators quickly become familiar and challenge each participant to explore new territory. It’s fun to hear the quick pieces that are jotted down and even more rewarding when a piece was revisited and submitted for publication in JOT. I can’t wait to read about the impact of the workshop on your writing over time.