In this inaugural Connections conversation, I sat down with Bronx poet, John Maney, Jr. John conducts creative writing and poetry workshops with those who often lack opportunities to develop their creative voice and to share and contribute their perspectives and experiences with others. Read on to learn how creative writing has helped John’s students connect with themselves as well as their wider communities, enriching their lives as well as his own.
You conduct writing workshops. What kind of writing do you teach and why?
John Maney, Jr.: I teach creative writing, because I love it, and want to nurture this in others.
What types of communities do you work with?
Maney: Well, I work with all kinds of communities. I’ve worked with the formally incarcerated. I’ve also done work with recovering heroin addicts. And of course, I’ve conducted workshops for the general public.
How did you come to work with these communities?
Maney: I’d been studying writing, attending workshops, and sending things in for publication, while at the same time volunteering to work with the less privileged. It was in one my favorite writing workshops put on by Cave Canem that I met Angeli Rasbury. She worked as a Creative Writing Workshop Leader for an organization called the New York Writers Coalition. This organization had a social justice bent, and offered workshops for people who normally wouldn’t have access to them. Angeli suggested I apply. I did, and was accepted. Some of my previous work was with the formally incarcerated. I requested the Coalition help me start a workshop with this community. My first workshop was at the Fortune Society, an organization dedicated to giving formally incarcerated people a chance to turn their lives around. I wanted to be part of this by helping validate their stories, and thereby them as human beings.
Wow! It sounds like taking a creative writing might not be at the top of the list for members of some of the groups you’ve worked with! How have they responded to taking your workshop?
Maney: Of course the effect of my workshops varies depending on each individual. It’s true many participants never thought of themselves as writers, until workshop prompts awakened something in them that required a written response. Crafting that response in a non-judgmental, nurturing workshop environment, helped many participants realize they had important things to say. This in turn made them realize, maybe for the first time in a long time, that they were important. And so, writing took on a new significance for them. I still stay in contact with several previous participants, and often find they continue to write. It appears once people discover they have a voice, it’s very hard to shut them up. If my workshops have done nothing else, I’m pleased to know they’ve done this for at least some in the ignored, under-served communities I’ve often worked in.
Why do you feel it is important for members of the communities you’ve worked with to learn to write creatively?
Maney: It’s my belief that everyone has a story to tell, and in having people listen they’re validated as human beings. The communities I’ve often worked with whether ex-cons, or recovering junkies as society likes to refer to them, are comprised of people whose stories are often minimized if heard at all. I feel the work I do helps people tap into their stories, and tell them in a more effective way.
We’ve talked about why you’ve chosen to work with certain communities, but do you feel you get something in return from teaching creative writing in those communities?
Maney: This is a good question. To tell the truth sometimes I think I get more out of my workshops than other participants. I of course write along with them. The play of thought and emotion that comes from writing with others can be very inspiring. Designing the workshop also gets my creative flames burning, as I think about who may be attending, then design prompts to capture their imaginations. So in addition to writing, I must listen to the words and hearts of those who to write with me, and respond creatively. This causes me to be creative on several levels. It’s truly an enriching experience.
How do you feel this creative exchange might enhance or alter how we all experience the world?
Maney: Hearing other people’s stories, (their pain and struggles, their dreams) helps us see better how we’re all connected. Once we see that then the next step is learning to care. Once we care, then maybe we’ll start to change things for the better.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us here at With Intent! Do you have any workshops or projects coming up that you’d like to share with our readers?
Maney: Yes. I'll be conducting a new Saturday creative writing workshop series entitled "Finding Your Poetic Voice" starting February 22nd, through April 5th, 2014. We’ll be meeting from 3:30 pm – 4:30 pm at the Kingsbridge Library in the Bronx, NY (291 West 231st Street).
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