Make some room for yourself, human animal.

This fall, I worked on a Personal Canon project with my Poetry Immersion students, in which we gathered the texts, inspirations, and influences that have shaped our progress, and informed our aesthetic and point of view, over the years. Connecting to one’s artistic lineage has a way of empowering future work.  And also informs future research and offerings. In the process, I’ve revisited many poems that I’ve loved over the years, including this one, by a 20th-century Polish writer in translation:


Demand it Courageously

by Julia Hartwig


Make some room for yourself, human animal.

   Even a dog jostles about on his master’s lap to

improve his position. And when he needs space he

runs forward, without paying attention to commands

or calls.

   If you didn’t manage to receive freedom as a gift,

demand it as courageously as bread and meat.

   Make some room for yourself, human pride and


   The Czech writer Hrabal said:

   I have as much freedom as I take.


I wish I could remember where I first came across this poem because I would provide the source for you.


The 2018 session of A Secret Life begins in just three weeks, on the Winter Solstice. I have only a few spots left if you’d’ like to participate. We’ll use this time to cultivate a private space, out of view of others, in which to dream up a project that we’d like to manifest during the coming year. This offering provides contemplative writing prompts and other creative exercises, a chance to meet up with other creative folks (not just writers!) via webinar, and a 1×1 coaching session with me. We’ll bring a close to this year, and give our attention to what we might create in 2019.

Personally, I’ll use this time and structure to go through my 2018 notebooks, transcribing anything that I haven’t already worked up into a poem, essay, writing assignment, or public offering of whatever kind. Then my annual manuscript incubator, A Body of Work, begins at the end of January, so I can look forward to revising the poems that have the most potential, into a short collection. As I write this I’m getting excited to see what emerges during the next two months! Want to join me?

More info about A Secret Life 

More about A Body of Work


Both of these courses will help you to make space and direct your attention toward creative projects and processes that matter to you, regardless of whether they involve a public dimension. Get in touch if you want to discuss whether this is the right thing, at the right time, for you.


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A Starting Point, A Pathway

We’re just a few days away from the December 2018 session of the 21 Day Poetry Challenge, an end of year ritual that results in many poems, passages and poetic fragments being written.

I create new writing prompts for each round of this generative course, and have been doing so quarterly for the last five years, so I’ve learned a thing or two about what sparks the creative responses in the Challenge participants.

As a starting point, we read a poem that I’ve selected based on a few criteria, including my sense that it belongs to the season we’re entering. In the last two years I’ve also begun to work with a loose theme, and this time we’re thinking about the INTERIOR. Interiority. Inner worlds. Inner life. Inside. Into. Within. The heart of the country. You get the idea.

I also choose poems based on my sense that they offer a starting point or pathway. A template, even. And then I show you what I see and suggest a way (or several) to begin.

As we read, we allow the words of other poets to rearrange our inner atmosphere a little bit. Here are some of the poets we’ll encounter in December:


Sejal Shah

Wislawa Szymborska

Diane Seuss

Rachel Zucker

Linda Gregg

Suzanne Buffam

Lorine Niedecker

Yona Harvey

Cynthia Huntington

Kathy Engel

Robyn Sarah

Nicole Sealey

Ursula K. Le Guin

Julia Hartwig

Matthew Olzmann

Oliver Bendorf

Raymond Carver

Abdul Ali

Ed Bok Lee

Chen Chen

John Freeman

Ilya Kaminsky

Stephan Burt


If you’d like to join us, registration is open until November 30. You can participate from anywhere in the world, as long as you have daily access to email.



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In Praise

I love this poem by Franz Wright. A good one for the first snow of the season.




There are a few things I will miss,

a girl with no shirt on

lighting a cigarette


and brushing her hair in the mirror;

the sound of a mailbox

opening, somewhere,


and closing at two in the morning

of the first snow,

and the words for them.


from The Beforelife. Knopf, 2002.


As I prepare to close down my computer for a couple of days, and make Concord Grape Pie, then join family outside Boston for a holiday feast, I’m thinking about which poem I will bring to share around the table when we take time to reflect on what we are grateful for, surrounded as we are with so much abundance.

A poem opens the space for contemplation and thoughtful expression in much the same way that prayer does, though it’s more inclusive. We can all listen to a poem, while some will resist a religious offering in this setting.

I’ve pulled together a few favorites, in case you’d find it meaningful to read something at your own Thanksgiving/Indigenous People’s Day table. I’ve also included a rain poem, for friends in California who are facing wildfires and smokey air.

Just click the title of the poem to be taken to reading:

Thanks, by W.S. Merwin
Rain, Kazim Ali
Perhaps the World Ends Here, by Joy Harjo
Thank You, Ross Gay


And this one, from one of my favorite poets, Lorine Niedecker:


As praiseworthy

The power of breathing (Epictetus)
while we sleep. Add:
to move the parts of the body
without sound

and to float
on a smooth green stream
in a silent boat




I’ve often been the one to suggest that we take a little time to name what we cherish and this poem creates an easy framework for such a conversation. What would you name as praiseworthy? I just made a list and I’m struck by how the most basic things, can feel so necessary and important to well-being; things like:

indoor heat; wool base layers; spiked snow tires; my beloved, Matt; my parents and siblings; candles; meaningful work; my teachers; rugs on cold floors; Kate, with whom I practice every day; political satire; real books; local produce; fresh flowers (even out of season!); hot showers; Edward Steed; flannel sheets; circles of supportive colleagues and friends with whom I’m learning how to live well and make work, despite everything; reading in bed before the day begins; my 9-going-on-10-year-old’s health; Castelvetrano olives; fresh air; letters and postcards; my secondhand winter coat; my upstairs neighbor, Christian, who is just as monastic as we are at this time of year; memories of Stephen, who died three months ago, and way too young; big, open views of undeveloped spaces; Lake Michigan; Elizabeth Warren; the moon; dancing; movies that move me to laughter or tears; Queen; salt; skin; eyesight; the tools that make it possible for me to connect across miles and time-zones; clean drinking water; sun; this moment; and the next. ..

Your turn now. What are you feeling grateful for right now? I know we live in a cynical time when it’s uncool to speak sincerely about what matters to us, but we tend to feel better when we do. Why is that? I think it has to do with reconnecting with substance and value. And maybe speaking truth rather than performing indifference?

I don’t know. I guess I see so much that needs our love and reverence right now, lest it be lost or no longer valued.


To notice and to praise is a form of protection and preservation.





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A Practice in Being Your Whole Self and Listening

I’ve learned so much in the last five years of hosting the 21 Day Day Poetry Challenge about how to coax and provoke and draw-out those who want to write more poems, and I’ve been paying attention to what you struggle with and need and secretly hope for so I can help you make the space, find your words, and experience sweet satisfaction in the process.

Here’s what I’m planning for the upcoming round of the 21 Day Poetry Challenge.  We begin December 1 (just two weeks from now):

You will still get a cozy email from me early each morning, with thoughts on creative process, a sample poem, and clear pathways to help you begin a fresh fragment, passage, or draft of a new poem. Also:

Live Video Workshops so that we can write together and commune in a warm and convenient place (ie. from the comfort of our homes).

Great poems. I take great care in selecting our readings and will include you in my ongoing effort to get to know more POC and queer voices. I love to find poems that provide clear paths to our own creative writing.

Live Q & A: a chance to ask questions and connect in an informal setting, via video.

Options: whether you want to “make space for a little poetry every day,” or “write a passage or fragment most days, but not always” or go all in, and “write something every single day until Winter arrives,” I am prepared to accommodate you. You will grow as a poet NO MATTER WHAT and also learn to resist those feelings of guilt or disappointment when you need to find your own pace with the material.

Peeks at my personal practice: it turns out that some of the September participants enjoyed knowing more about this side of things. I’ll continue to be candid and let you in on me being me.

Self-care for writers. We all need it. We really do. I’m not keeping these ideas to myself anymore because I can’t stand to watch you suffer as you do! To that end, expect me to bring in some thoughts on how to take care of your body and love yourself, while you do challenging things.

Coaching. I will still remind you that it’s not about getting famous or making money. We are making lives that include art, reverence, quiet, spaciousness, and inward attention. And I will still share my best suggestions for overcoming stuckness and creative inaction.

Feedback. You can still send up to three poems (or arrange to send more with me directly), and learn what I or my teaching assistant see, feel, and notice when we read your work.

Attunement to the Shift. I will still be there to guide you over the threshold into winter. It usually feels quietly momentous and special, as the Solstice should.

One of my teachers, Jennifer Armbrust, proposes that we give up “wrenching, forcing, pushing, efforting” because “we are finding our center, not our edge.” Consider that for a minute.

Now, how would you feel if your writing happened in a more humane atmosphere? One that bucks the traditional models of education where producing to institutional expectations and cramming is the norm?

What if our writing became a practice in being your whole self, and listening deeply, and being awake to the world, and feeling all the feels, but not getting overwhelmed with indecision and discouragement!?

These are some of the thoughts that shape my approach to this course.

Registration closes on November 30. Join me here.





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Words Toward a Manifesto of the Moment

What If

What if doing one thing at a time was fast enough.

What if we trusted that taking care of ourselves would have an equally positive effect on others.

What if we began with curiosity rather than opinions or certainties.

What if we re-found our kid-like sense of awe.

What if we lived by the credo that there’s room enough for all of us—and made room for those who need it. For everyone.

What if we trusted that generosity multiplies. That kindness begets kindness.

What if we forgot what we already know in order to be a beginner from time to time.

What if we tuned-in to our own hum. What would that sound like? How would we live? What kind of future would result?

What if we remembered what’s still wild—and defended it in ourselves, each other, the world.

*I wrote these questions in a notebook a few years ago and just came across them this morning. They seem apt on this Sunday before the mid-term election. And probably always.



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Using Process as a Portal + Works in Progress

I need different strategies at different times, but when I’m scattered or anxious (anyone else holding their breath in advance of mid-terms?) I’ve learned that I feel best when I dig down into creative work and let the process serve as a portal. I walk through the door of “doing” and enter a different imaginal realm. My gaze focuses. My nervous system settles. My body knows the moves. It feels good to work on a poem. To make small decisions and see how they improve my work.

Soon enough, I’m glowing with that lovely sensation that only comes from making something; that sweet rush of having written my way out of a rut.

I love revision because this is the part of the process where we take the uncertain, claylike material of our early efforts, including messy/embarrassing/bad ones, and transform them into something shapely and true. Something necessary and beautiful. To do this, I become the alchemist who understands how to transform base metals into gold.

Revision allows me to complete a gesture that begins when I make those first few marks on the page, probably without even knowing what they will become (if anything). Even so, I am interested in their potential. I treat this possibility as I would any other thing that matters to me.

Working through all of the stages of a poem or other piece of writing is a way of being present to whatever wants to come through my body and mind. These signs and signals require some translation and the act of revision is as much about word choice, form, and music, as it is about uncovering hidden messages and surprises. What did I mean? What could this be? It’s genuinely interesting and fun to see what emerges, and it feels POWERFUL to use my imagination in this way.

Even if you don’t already enjoy or feel confident in this aspect of CREATION, and maybe especially if you feel this way, I’m excited to share my process so that you can feel powerful and gratified, too.

I have assembled an archive of exercises and resources that will INSPIRE you to turn your raw *writing* into words that can matter and move other readers.

Works in Progress begins on Friday, November 2, with one clear step. After that, participants will receive a lesson every other day for ten days. At the end of the session, we’ll all meet in a webinar to talk about our progress and share what we’ve done. You can join me from anywhere in the world, as long as you have access to email and the internet. If you can give 30 minutes a day to your work, you will conclude the course with much stronger poems.


I know how frustrating it is to be surrounded by unfinished drafts, incomplete thoughts, and good intentions, and that’s why I want to empower writers to finish more poems.

First, this work means becoming present. It means not giving up, or disassociating, or manufacturing reasons it’s not actually important to you to treat your writing as something real. It means believing that your words are worth the effort and attention required to see them through to a final form.

Next, it requires some time.

Works in Progress
November 2-11, 2018


Lesson One: Bring in the Harvest
Lesson Two: Principles to Guide the Process
Lesson Three: Expand and Contract
Lesson Four: Resee and Rehear
Lesson Five: Prepare, Submit, Publish


*Live Q&A: Wednesday, November 7, 12:00 Noon (EST)
*Live web workshop: Saturday, November 10, 11:00 am-12:30 pm (EST)
(A recordings the sessions will be provided to those who are absent)


Enroll here:

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Poetry as Integrative Medicine at Interlochen In October

I wanted to let you know about a new workshop that I’ll be teaching in northern Michigan next month: Poetry as Integrative Medicine

The right words, in the right order, can be medicine.

For millennia, humans have sung, chanted and told stories in verse to heal, make meaning, grow stronger and prevail.

Next month I will welcome readers and writers, as well as healers, caregivers, teachers, spiritual leaders and anyone else wanting to integrate poetry into their personal or professional practice, for this three day intensive beside Green Lake.

Together, we’ll read and discuss a selection of poems that illuminate the healing powers and properties of poetry. We will look at how poetry can help to “order the chaos,” enact transformation and show us the way toward a more integrated existence.

We’ll also use a range of improvisational writing exercises to generate some of our own language, which may lead you toward a poem, letter, prayer, elegy, sermon, essay or spell. In a much more basic sense, it will feel good. It will connect you to yourself and remind you of the role of the imagination, in personal and collective healing. No previous experience is required.

Poetry as Integrative Medicine
October 9-11, 2018
Interlochen College of Creative Arts

Register Now

This is the last live workshop I’ll offer in Michigan this year. As you may know, I love most of all to gather in real life, especially beside a lake in the Michigan woods during peak color season. I hope you’ll consider joining me. Maybe you even have a friend or colleague who would want to accompany you?


*K-12 Educators: Earn 14 State of Michigan SCECH clock hours by attending this workshop. More details here.
*Professors: Many institutions offer professional development funds. Use yours to take a writing workshop with me.


“I don’t believe that poetry can save the world. I do believe that the forces in us wish to share something of our experience by turning into something and giving it to somebody: that is poetry. That is some kind of saving thing, and as far as my life is concerned, poetry has saved me time and again.” Muriel Rukeyser

An outtake from filming an online course, The Practice of Poetry, at Interlochen last October.

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Busyness, careerism, capitalism, and materialism: What do they have to do with poetry? (Notes to self)

Busyness, careerism, capitalism, and materialism: What do these things have to do with poetry?

Short answer: Nothing. These things are at cross purposes with poetry.

The other true answer is that poets have to eventually deal with all of these things in the course of doing life. This is a battle most of us will wage on a daily basis (whether we are poets or not), especially when poetry is a synonym for what really matters in a life.

I’ve navigated all of these encroachments, and when I sat down to write some notes in response to this conundrum, soon realized that what I have to say won’t fit into a newsletter format. However, for now I wanted to share a few thoughts related to how we keep our imaginations intact amidst these challenges.

For one thing, as I’ve often told my students, we are not just talking about how to write poems over here. We are exploring something far more urgent and necessary which has to do with the wholeness of who we are; where we live; how this particular moment in history feels to us; and how to glean from, and interpret life and experience through our art, maybe even do something transformative in the process. Right?

(I loved teaching Morning Manifestos at the 2018 Beargrass Writers Retreat.)

In my teaching, I invite us to not forsake our wider world; slow down enough to notice whatever wants to be heard, seen, felt and voiced. Encourage us to be more attentive to our actual lives, and interpret the messages about what serves our greater purpose as poets in the world.

We read and write and observe and reflect and work with language as we become more human; train our sensitivity and tune-in to what’s really happening inside and all around us; we listen to the questions. We let them change us. We change.

We root out faulty ideas (like the myth of the solitary genious) and undermining habits (like screen addiction), as well as public masks (like a CV focused on outward accomplishments), status symbols, dishonest speech, other *things* that get in the way of who we most want to be the world. What we most want to make.

We write as a way of discovering new truths and actual facts. As a way of finding a better place to dwell. We make spaces outside of the mainstream and well away from the values that global capitalism would have us hitch our body/minds to. We trust our authority and become more free as we embody this in art and life.

For me, at least, the practice of poetry also offers an ongoing engagement with matters of ethics and morality, and what it means, in practice, to be a citizen, a person of conscience, a decent human in a time when this seems most urgent of all. Poetry is where I work out all of the things that finally matter to me, and it’s where and how I find folks to do that with. Folks like you?

Lately I’m excited about exploring what feeds the imagination—what books, practices, habits, experiences, attitudes, and so on—as well as what threatens the imagination.

Becoming too busy; concerning oneself primarily with reputation and recognition; losing track of life itself while pursuing a career; consuming out of the impulse to fulfill wants and desires that actually require a more sensitive response; and participating in our economy without having a cogent critique, all put the human imagination and its creations at risk, because each of these familiar and ubiquitous forces tend to menace that secret, inner, magical, amazing part of each of us, where imagination dwells. This fact threatens not only those who make art, and not just our literature and our culture, but it risks our future.

What do you do to resist the ways that everyday forces put you (and all of us) at risk? [You might make a list of the ways you are living your values in a daily way. When I stay in touch with the embodiment of my convictions, it seems to protect me from despair. Usually.)

This month I’ve been reading Walt Whitman, Alice Oswald and Elena Ferrante, and between those three, I’ve had some really good company for some of these conversations, but as the summer wanes, I’m looking forward to teaching and talking with you again, too.

During that workshop a couple of weeks back, one of the participants asked about how to foster imagination. I had been talking about imagination as an essential and endangered birthright. How else to explain some of the challenges we face, collectively? I got to talking about what not to do if you want to take care of your imagination, which might be a subject for another time, although I’ll be picking up this theme in the upcoming session of the 21 Day Poetry Challenge. What do you not do, because you want to preserve the quality of your mind?


Jim Harrison. One of my earliest Tutelary Spirits. This poem is from ‘Dead Man’s Float’


Anyway, last year at this time I gave a talk entitled “Resisting the War Against the Imagination,” inspired by a poem by Diane di Prima called “Rant”, in which I argued that as a society and as a human culture, we are currently in a battle of imaginations:

The Benevolent Imagination v. The Malevolent Imagination.

Who will win this battle?
Will the solar arrays and healers and garlic farmers win?
Will the gun lobby and fracking and plastic bags win?
Will education win? Will consumerism win?
Will overwork and speed and distraction and swiping-left win?
What about the water, datura blossoms, potlucks and holding hands and stories about the land and how it’s all connected? What about stories and tenderness and the seasons?

Di Prima writes:

I have just realized that the stakes are myself

I have no other

ransom money, nothing to break or barter but my life


We need all strong, thoughtful, humane, capacious, justice-seeking, resilient and creative minds on deck if the better imaginations are going to prevail, and if the right use of imagination will succeed against the cynical, profiteering, self-serving imaginations. Our survival depends on it.

I’ve chosen the path of the teacher as my means to contribute what I can to a better possible world. I’ve chosen many things, but my teaching is the most public way I exist in the world. Within this context, I’m wondering to myself, and talking to other writers about poetry as a practice in both self and collective liberation. We can do this alone, and we do it together, and I’m creating space for both, which is a way of summoning and multiplying power at a very local scale. Does this matter? I believe it does. The poet knows that everything matters. What we consume, where we spend our time, who we associate with, and what we give our attention to.

In my workshops and online classes we make room to talk about what feeds the imagination—what books, practices, habits, experiences, attitudes, and so on—and we talk about what undermines the imagination, as well. Of course we also do the other things you might expect in a class called Poetry Immersion or 21 Day Poetry Challenge, including reading great poems, writing a lot, experimenting, and exploring our craft.

Becoming too busy; concerning oneself primarily with reputation and recognition; losing track of life itself while pursuing a career; consuming out of the impulse to fulfill wants and desires that actually need a deeper response; and participating in our economy without having a cogent critique, all put the human imagination and its creations at risk, because each of these familiar and ubiquitous forces undermine that secret, inner, magical, amazing part of us, where imagination lives, and therefore undermines the poets among us, as well as our poetry. I will even say that all of this undermines our future. I believe that too. Do you?

Let’s think about this together, and let’s do something clear and meaningful to resist the ways that everyday forces and threats put all of us at risk.

Through my work with Poetry Forge, I am making more space to pursue poetry as an art form that can also bring about profound internal change that will reverberate into the other parts of our lives, and beyond. What do you think? Do any of these thoughts connect with your present concerns or personal goals? It’s a work in progress, and always will be. I appreciate that you have stuck with me and read this far.

Thanks for being out there, wherever you are.

Click the image to join the Challenge in September.


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Sabbaticals, Lessons, and New Sessions

I’ve recently completed my mini-sabbatical experiment and I wanted to share a bit of what I learned in the process.

Before I took the time and made the space, before I told anyone, my wish to write all last month was a thought experiment. I lived with this idea secretly before I committed. I noticed how it made me feel to imagine time set aside to work on the two manuscripts I have in progress. And I noticed how I was hesitating to take on clients and teach anything online, despite plans to do so. I listened to those messages and then I made it official.

In July I claimed 20 straight days for myself (and a few more while teaching The Practice of Poetry on Star Island last week), and while I didn’t accomplish everything I’d hoped to, I was happy every single day. I wrestled with high expectations, and the usual challenge of simply writing well, but I had the space to wrestle. The space to see what happened if I stuck with it. The space to recuperate when I felt especially worn out from the work. And I had the space to think and problem solve, which I needed to be able to do in a sustained way.

Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of the knowledge I gathered from my time away:

It feels not only good, but necessary to disappear.

Email auto-reply is my ally.

Find a boundary between creative work and life. I chose sitting in a river at the end of each day.

Do something with your hands instead of your brain for a bit. Blueberry picking!

Help friends and family give you space by sharing intentions with them. (I’m blessed with a partner who is also a writer, so we both went deep last month. It’s a monkish life and we love it as only two people whose favorite things are to read and write, do.)

Whenever possible, try to use real world tools instead of electronics: the tactile, the analog, the groundedness of things I can touch instead of the virtual.

To finish a new poem is the best feeling, no matter what happens to it next. I don’t submit my work very often, but the new “Discovery” tool on Submishmash is a convenient way to find out about publication opportunities. I also recommend subscribing to their newsletter for timely reminders.

I’m putting the finishing touches on my 2018-2018 teaching calendar and will release that later this month, along with new prices for all Poetry Forge offerings. If you like to plan ahead, and save money, I encourage you to register now for the 21 Day Poetry Challenge, Poetry Immersion, A Secret Life, and even my once per year, manuscript incubator: A Body of Work. As always you can find out about all of these things on my website, or by reaching out to me directly with your questions and interest.


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Bringing Forth What Is Within You

There is a passage from the Gnostic Gospels that has been on my mind all summer:

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” (Gospel of Thomas)

The 21 Day Poetry Challenge is designed connect you with what is within you, and help you BRING IT FORTH. After the summer heat and shifty schedules, I invite you to commit to a writing practice that will restore rhythm and prompt more poems.

Our theme for this session is RETURN.

Infuse your morning routine with more creative energy by challenging yourself to write a little bit every day until autumn arrives. Notice how some thoughtful structure and gentle guidance can coax your poems, enrich your days, and improve your mood and outlook.

Challenge: Commit to 21 days of practice.
Process: Each morning receive a writing provocation, brief reading, and guidance for 30 minutes or so of free-writing and embodied poetics.
New this session: More videos, poetry resources, and a guided meditation.
Feedback: Submit up to three new poems for private, hand-written feedback at the end.
Write together: Gather twice during the session to write together and talk about the process in a live webinar with me.

September 1-21, 2018

All Levels.

Join the Challenge.


“Holly is as masterful a teacher as she is a poet. I have found so much richness in the rhythm, content, and support she provides in her course, 21. I have done this powerful 21-day poetry challenge three times and plan to continue taking it as part of nourishing my creative practice and reverent living. Holly’s selection of poems and related provocations are brilliant and facilitate sweet and generative intimacy with the model poets and their subject matter. If you are looking to deepen your poetry practice or simply wish to enjoy support around a daily mindfulness and writing ritual, I highly recommend 21.”—Lillie W., Summer 2018

In case you’re wondering what we’ll read this session: Arecelis Girmay, Gwendolyn Brooks, Louise Gluck, Joy Harjo, Danez Smith, Tarfia Faizullah, Ellen Bass and many others!

This writing challenge is delivered via email and includes two webinars via Zoom and taught by award winning poet and acclaimed teaching artist, Holly Wren Spaulding.


This is my archive of writing provocations. Since 2014, I have written new ones for each challenge, based on all new reading selections. I am in the process of making them into a book!



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poetry matters. join the conversation.

join my community


poetry matters. join the conversation.

join my community