Meredith Heller is the author of Write a Poem, Save Your Life: A Guide for Teens, Teachers, and Writers of All Ages. It's an instructional book for anybody who wants to write or teach writing poetry. If you want to learn more about writing poetry, it's a title I recommend.
In this episode, Meredith told me how she combines her career as a working poet with that of a massage therapist and teacher.
Meredith explains how having a job can inform your craft and can give you source material for your art.
She is also a prolific journaler and had over 80 different journals that she used for material.
In this episode, we discuss.
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Meredith: I do speak my poetry out loud, yes, very much so, and I invite all my students to do that too. I think that it becomes a living thing when we speak it out loud and there are often times that we don’t even really hear what’s in a piece until we say it out loud and then we begin to hear how the sounds echolate off of each other and the phrasing works.
Introduction: Welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: Do you want to learn more about writing poetry?
Hi there, my name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast. A few months ago, I finished writing my parenting memoir and I’ve decided I wanted to do something a bit different with it because it was more of a personal book so I started writing haiku poetry to put at the top of each one of the chapters.
One of the other reasons why I did this is when I was writing business books in the past, I normally put a quote from a business expert at the top of the book so I wanted to put something that was a little bit more personal to begin these chapters. I found writing these haiku altogether different to writing essays and certainly different to blog posts and it wasn’t something I was able to do at a computer either.
So, I got a pen and a notebook or a Moleskine notebook and I sat up late at night and I read through old Japanese books of haiku poetry and then I decided to try and write my own. I didn’t really, you know, have any expectations when I was doing this but I just thought it’d be a nice way to explore a different type of writing without any huge expectations. It’s certainly difficult for a poet to make a living and I couldn’t imagine myself writing an entire book of haiku poetry but I did enjoy the process and it also introduced me to poetry by other haiku Japanese authors.
Now, I recently had the chance to catch up with Meredith Heller. She’s the author of the book, Write a Poem, Save Your Life: A Guide for Teens, Teachers, and Writers of All Ages. The book is an instructional book for anybody who wants to write poetry or teach writing poetry and it also combines some of Meredith’s approaches on the craft with poetry from her students. If you want to learn more about writing poetry, it’s definitely a title I recommend you check out.
I recently had the chance to catch up with Meredith and we had a great conversation about her approach to poetry, but one of my key takeaways from this interview was how she’s combined career as a working poet with also her other career as a massage therapist and as a teacher and an instructor.
If you’re somebody who is interested mostly in creative writing rather than getting paid to write books, you know, you find it difficult to balance writing with a day job, then Meredith’s advice halfway through this interview should help because she explains how having a job can inform your craft and it can also give you more source material for your art. Meredith is also a prolific journaler and, at one point, she had over 80 different journals which she read through and used as source materials so we weaved a little bit on journal writing as well.
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Now, let’s go over to this week’s interview with Meredith Heller.
Bryan: So we were talking for a few minutes just before we hit Record about your new book and I suppose it’s you distilling, you know, a lifetime of teaching poetry to your students into a book and you were telling me about your process for how you did it. Perhaps we could start there.
Meredith: Sure. Well, it’s a pretty crazy tale of how the book came into being. I actually had a broken heart and I wrote a pretty fierce article for a magazine called Common Ground which circulates here in California and, a few months after I wrote that, an agent read that article and contacted me and said, “Do you have a book to write?” and I said yes and my next word was, “Yikes,” and then it was around Thanksgiving and so all my students went to Thanksgiving break and I basically sat down and wrote the whole first draft in about 10 days and then spent the next six months to a year refining it.
And my agent found us a publisher and COVID actually even helps with that because there were a few publishers who really liked the book but, because I didn’t have a huge online presence yet, they didn’t wanna publish it and when COVID hit, all my classes — I put all my classes on Zoom and all the classes started building and I had students really from all over the world Zooming in for poetry classes and then we went back to the publishers and the one who had really liked the book said, “Oh, my gosh, she has an online presence now. We’re so excited to publish this book.” So, it was really quite an amazing journey.
Bryan: The book is — I just love the way you’ve approached writing advice. You’ve combined the work of your students with your take on the writing process and also on poetry.
Bryan: Could you give an example, maybe from one of the sections in the book, about how you did that?
Meredith: Yeah, absolutely. So, one of my favorite things to do in poetry, especially working with kids, is to invite them to keep their imaginations alive. I think that, as we get older, that’s one of the things that we lose as adults is our capacity to imagine and stretch ourselves to become anything and so kids know how to do this instinctively and so one of my favorite exercises in the book is shape-shifting where we can become something in nature, a tree, the ocean, a river, the sky, and what is it like to be this element or this part of nature. We do personification.
What would it be like if the ocean were a person on a moody day? And this gives the kids a vehicle through which to express their feelings and emotions that they might not ordinarily have a place to express, what it feels like on a moody day or what it feels like when the ocean in them is raging, so I give them all kinds of questions to explore if we’re personifying, say, the ocean, what does it wear? What does it like to do? How does it move? Who were its friends? What’s its favorite food? What makes it happy? What makes it sad?
And then, we always read — in class, when I’m teaching, I always have the kids read their pieces out loud. One of the really fun things to do is to get a whole class of students who have just written a piece and then to do a group performance piece where they all weave in different lines of their poems by listening deeply to each other, knowing their own piece, and seeing, “Oh, what part of my piece could be part of this other person’s story that we’re all weaving together?” and then they have this incredible capacity for realizing that each of their stories matters and it’s part of this whole, larger story of humanity that we’re building and growing together.
Bryan: Are your students, are they receptive to writing poetry when you meet them for the first time?
Meredith: For the most part, I would say yes. I work with kids from first grade to twelfth grade and I also teach women’s poetry workshops online now and I just find everybody wants to write, especially in the schools where they don’t really get a chance to express what’s happening inside of them as much as, you know, learning about theories or math or grammar or history and all of this is important, but to have a place where they can really explore and express their own perceptions and their own experiences, I find that they want this. They crave it. They want their voices out there, yeah.
Bryan: You have an interesting technique that helps your students open up about difficult topics. Would you be able to explain how the technique works?
Meredith: Are you talking about “Just Write” or “No trespassing”?
Bryan: It was more that your approach that you speak about your own experiences and that helps the students open up once you’ve described something from your own experiences and then they can use that in their work.
Meredith: Yeah, absolutely. I find that kids learn the most when adults are very real with them about our experiences. There’s so many adults that aren’t completely truthful with kids. They don’t tell them the whole situation. They don’t even share their own feelings. But I’ll often walk into a class and share something in my own life that’s happened and a good experience, a bad experience, and ask the kids, “Have you ever experienced something like this?” and they say yes and then I’ll bring in a poem and say, “This is what I did with that experience in my life.
This is what I did with the sadness. This is what I did with the anger. This is what I did with the joy. And here’s how I made insight and made meaning so let’s try this, pick something,” and I’ll give them a choice like, “Pick the worst thing that’s ever happened to you so far,” or, “Pick an experience where you felt like you were flying or you felt like you had one of those moments where you know why you’re alive.
Pick that one and write about it,” and this gives them permission to use their own life experience because, a lot of times, kids are actually afraid to really share what’s really happening with them and I think that this is one of the things that’s unique to what I do is that I ask them to use exactly what’s happening with them, you know? That poetry isn’t something out there somewhere else or some lofty language up in the clouds. It’s exactly what’s happening in our lives right now. How do you feel in this moment? Let’s take that feeling and harness it and harvest it and work with it to create something that’s meaningful, that expresses how you feel, that helps you to work with what’s going on for you right now.
Bryan: Yeah, and I suppose it’s something completely different to watching a Youtuber or following somebody on Instagram. It’s a completely different type of creative work. On the “Just Write” section of your book, you described your journaling process and I’ll just read out the section here, you said you lugged around a box of 80 journals, so I’ve been journaling for about 20 years, well, I don’t think I have 80 so you must journal quite a lot.
Meredith: Either that or I write larger than you.
Bryan: Yeah, maybe it’s that, yeah.
Meredith: But that was a lot of journals, you know, and that was through — that included a lot of my later teen years when I really began to develop my relationship with writing and it really became the closest companion in my life where I really could be honest with myself.
And that’s what really started my whole quest and my whole mission is that I was on my own, very young, and it was very challenging and I lost a lot of friends during that time to drug overdose and suicide and I really had no way to process all those feelings. And I didn’t have a support group and so my journaling was the place where I began to unravel those feelings and look at them and, as I was trying to figure out my direction and my purpose in my own life, it came to me that there must be other kids who are like me. Creative and bright but slipping through the cracks of school and society. And if I could get to those kids before they gave up on themselves and society, then everything that I’ve been through would be worth something and so that’s what led me into going back to school and studying and finding ways to weave together all of the different aspects of my life in order to have something to share and invite other kids into to help them to believe in themselves through poetry writing.
So, I did have a lot of journals and I never ever read back through them. Do you read back through your journals?
Bryan: I do sometimes but it can be — it’s not always a good experience because sometimes you look back at something and you can’t believe how negative the entry was but then I remind myself that, sometimes, journaling is a type of therapy so what you’re saying on the journal isn’t necessarily reflective of what happened back then and then, these days, I just try and use journals as source materials for stories so I’ll try and write something up that — like I’m writing a memoir about having three kids so I was able to use some stories about life with the kids that I’ve written into journals but, yeah, reading back through journals can be a hard experience.
Meredith: Yeah, that’s wonderful that you’re using it as source material. I love that. Yeah, so also, me either, I never read back through any of the journals because it was such a painful period and I just — I didn’t wanna revisit it. It was like, oh, my God, if I hadn’t written it down, I probably would have exploded or imploded or something and so, you know, I was lugging around this literal and metaphorical bag of my past and the sorrow and the grieving and the loss and I woke up one day, it’s probably now maybe five years ago, and I said, “Oh, my god, this is the day,” and I dragged the box out and I sat in the middle of my floor and, one after another, I pulled the journals out and — I mean, they were wild.
They were like covered in drawing and, you know, different pens and different handwritings and, you know, I mean, from the time I was probably 17 through my 30s and I sat and I read through each one and just cried my heart out but realized how much I had grown and realized how much the journaling and the writing and the poetry had really helped me to understand myself and, like I said, to have a place to be completely honest, you know?
Things that you can’t say to anybody, things that are even hard to say to yourself, but when we start writing and journaling in a way in which we don’t know what we’re gonna say yet and we’re willing to enter the unknown and we learn something new, I think that’s when our writing really becomes a refuge and a haven and a place we seek out to be in conversation with the deep self, the deep psyche, because things and especially metaphor will come out in our writing from our deep psyche that we couldn’t access in another way and then you read it back and it’s like, oh, my God, you know, how did I come up with that image or that metaphor and this is all like — it’s like we’re speaking — it’s like we’re in dialogue with our subconscious through the writing.
Bryan: Yeah, journaling, I mean, ultimately, a journal entry is for you alone so it doesn’t matter what you say in the journal because nobody’s gonna read it unless you show it to them so you don’t need to worry about self-editing or darker entries. What about your writing process for your poetry, what does that look like? Would you be able to describe how you approach it?
Meredith: Yeah, absolutely. So, I tend to write with pen and paper, which I suggest to all of my students to write with pen and paper rather than to write into a device. I really believe that there’s something ancient and visceral that happens when we pull pen across the texture of paper and it engages a physiological response, a neurological response, and it uses our hands in a more artistic, fluid way that’s connected to our bodies and our brains and our memories more so than just tapping keys so I always ask my students to write with pen and paper. I think it engages us on a deeper level.
So I write my poetry with pen and paper and I’m a pretty intense editor of myself so like I always say I edit my poems probably 200 to 500 times before I ever send them out to get submitted.
Bryan: That’s a lot of editing.
Meredith: I’m an intense editor, yeah, and I’m never done —
Bryan: Yeah, that sounds intense.
Meredith: I’m a little bit crazy in that, even after things are published, after poems are published, I sometimes continue to edit them because we shift and we change.
Bryan: Wow, even after they’re published. What about a lot of writers who work on like a novel or essays would say that they can write for two or three hours a day and then they move on to something else because, you know, they’re tapped out for the day, they have nothing left and that’s on a good day. Can a poet write that long? Can a poet write all day or is it different?
Meredith: Well, I think it’s different for everybody and we have different cycles that we go through. I, personally, can spend an entire day working on one poem. I like full immersion so if I’m really deep and working on something like when I was writing this book, I would sit sometimes for 10 or 12 hours writing. I mean, sometimes, it takes me an hour to write one sentence. People think, “Oh, you know, this writing flows well,” but, for some reason, people don’t realize how hard it is to make writing flow and sound the way that we talk and there’s this art and this craft to doing that and it takes time.
It takes deep listening and finding your own rhythm and your own voice and then translating that onto the page in a way that, when someone else reads it, they’re gonna hear your rhythm and your cadence and that the words open them into feeling what you’re experiencing in this moment. So, I spend my summers camping and writing and, a lot of times, I’ll just have a whole day where I’m working on one poem and then the next day I go back in and I start doing deep editing and my whole day, I’m allowing the lines of the poem to sing through my being and I’m walking with it and I’m attaching it to my breathing rhythm and the rhythm of my walking strides so that it really becomes part of me. It’s almost like music.
Bryan: Do you spend much time reciting poetry out loud or recording it to yourself?
Meredith: That’s a great question. I do speak my poetry out loud, yes, very much so, and I invite all my students to do that too. I think that it becomes a living thing when we speak it out loud and there are often times that we don’t even really hear what’s in a piece until we say it out loud and then we begin to hear how the sounds echolate off of each other and the phrasing works.
So, yes, I’m a huge fan of speaking our pieces out loud. And, if we share them with other people, there’s this whole other element, an entity that becomes alive in the sharing so then we speak the poem and it’s received by somebody else and then it continues living. It’s almost like a medicine, you know? Somebody takes the medicine and takes it into their being and it begins doing its work, its good work.
Bryan: I like that. So, with Amanda Gorman at the inauguration a few months ago and also with Instagram poets is becoming a kind of a social media trend in itself, do you think poetry is enjoying a type of renaissance?
Meredith: I would love to think so, yes. I think that’s a wonderful idea and Amanda, she’s thrilling. Yeah, and I think especially, you know, during the pandemic, people had a lot more time with themselves, you know? We spend so much time keeping ourselves busy to avoid having to feel what’s uncomfortable and, with so many people at home more with themselves for long periods in quarantine, I think that poetry is offering us, again, a medium through which to explore and express what isn’t always easy, you know?
Like, even with music, people always say, “Hey, do you ever write happy songs? Do you ever write happy poetry?” And, you know, it’s kind of this double-edged sword in a way. I mean, when we’re happy, we’re usually just doing our life. It’s when something hits us hard and brings us into grieving or sorrow or depression or loss that we’re, you know, faced with journeying through the deeper parts of ourselves and, you know, for many of us, the deeper journey builds to a place where we have to then spill over into some kind of creative outlet or medium to better understand and better work with and even just to begin to express and even hopefully find the beauty in what hurts.
Bryan: That reminds me of some advice I came across a few years ago that art is a support system for life, not the other way around.
Meredith: That’s beautiful.
Bryan: Yeah, I can’t remember who said it but I remember writing it down in a journal entry, funnily enough.
Meredith: Yeah, absolutely. I would agree with that, yeah.
Bryan: So, in your book, I was gonna ask you about the types of poets that have influenced your work but then I discovered in your book that you’ve actually taken classes with Allen Ginsberg.
Bryan: What was that like or what was Allen like?
Meredith: Well, he’s definitely a character. The first semester that I was at Naropa in Boulder, Colorado, I was there doing a master’s in poetry, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac started the poetry program at Naropa University in Boulder called the School of Disembodied Poetics and so the first summer that I was there, I took a class with Allen Ginsberg and just an incredible character, deeply steeped in his own perceptions and take on life. I mean, at that point, he was definitely getting older.
This was 1996. And, you know, I think he was very inspiring to us students in terms of teaching us his basic writing protocol like “first thought, best thought,” and I used that all the time with my students and with myself, how to learn to develop, to me, that helped me develop a relationship with my creativity and I always tell my students the more that you can say yes to the ideas and the feelings that arise, the more the feelings and ideas give themselves to you, you know? And then that begins to have us work with the inner critic, you know? But the more that we can say, “Oh, yeah, that’s a good idea, I’ll write that down,” if you don’t need it, get rid of it later, and this builds relationship with our muse, with our creativity, and Allen Ginsberg inspired that one in me but he was a character and a half, I’ll just say that.
Bryan: I can imagine, I can imagine. So, it’s quite difficult for a poet to earn a living so what would you say to somebody who — in fact, it’s probably almost impossible, so what would you say to somebody who wants to write poetry and they also have to do something to earn a living as well? How can they find a balance between the two?
Meredith: Well, I would say have not a regular job but some kind of job that you can put your heart into, that you believe in, that earns you enough money to do what you need to do, support your family, support yourself, be willing to live simply, and make sure that you have time in your day or in your week to spend with your own writing so that whatever you’re doing for your work and your employment, in a way, is supporting the deeper creative work.
And, for many years, for 27 years, I did massage therapy and spinal cord injury rehabilitation work. That was my work for 27 years and that allowed me and it supported me while I worked on my poetry and my music. And then, little by little, I started teaching more in the schools and teaching private poetry workshops for kids and then I became a California poet in the schools and that opened more work for me and a lot of the places that I was teaching, I started working as a volunteer and then, oftentimes, once I had taught there for a while, the school would find grants to pay me, but I would say have a job that doesn’t completely drain your battery so that you have —
Bryan: That’s good advice for anyone, not just poets.
Meredith: Yeah, so that you have energy at the end of the day or the end of the week where you’re not just recovering but where you actually have the time and the energy and the interest and curiosity that allow you to then engage your creative work and if there’s any way that your job can inspire in your creative work, that’s helpful too.
I mean, I worked with bodies, you know, triathletes and spinal cord injury patients for 27 years and I find people often say, “Oh, your poetry is very visceral,” you know? Like I’m a kinesthetic learner. I learn with my body. I’m very tactile and so that comes out in my poetry so looking for the gifts in what you do in other areas of your life, in your employment, and seeing how those gifts and strengths translate into the uniqueness of your poetry and I think that I bring that kinesthetic, physical sense into so many of my poems.
Bryan: That’s good advice for all types of writing because it’s all source material, isn’t it? Whatever you can use for your stories or for essays or for whatever you’re working on.
Bryan: So, Meredith, where can people find more information about you or your new book or your poetry?
Meredith: Yes, thank you. www.meredithheller.com. Got my workshops, book information, send me a note, say hello. I have people all over the world jumping in on my women’s workshops and the kids’ workshops. Love to have you join us.
Bryan: Yeah, and just for anybody who’s interested in writing advice, the book is a fascinating read, whether you write poetry or not. Whatever you’re writing, there is some tips and just a completely different perspective on writing than you’ll find elsewhere so check it out. I’ll put the link in the show notes.
Bryan: Thank you, Meredith.
Meredith: Oh, thank you so much. It’s been lovely talking to you, Bryan.
Bryan: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode. If you did, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store or sharing the show on Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you’re listening. More reviews, more ratings, and more shares will help more people find the Become a Writer Today podcast. And did you know, for just a couple of dollars a month, you could become a Patreon for the show? Visit patreon.com/becomeawritertoday or look for the Support button in the show notes. Your support will help me record, produce, and publish more episodes each month. And if you become a Patreon, I’ll give you my writing books and discounts on writing software and on my writing courses.