Digging Deep, Facing Self: Using Poetry For Positive Change

caits messner
Words By Molly Lukin
May 20, 2015
“I see that a lot with young women. I see it when I teach in high schools, and I certainly see it in the course – the sentiment that other women aren’t worth it,” says poet and teacher Caits Meissner. “There are roots to that: conditioning around what a woman should and could be, what's considered feminine enough, with society and pop culture pitting us against each other. We're in competition for jobs, artistic roles, whatever. There's only one slot for the woman and you're competing against all of the other women to get it, so they are always the enemy.”

“So, what does it do for women when we say ‘We’re not buying this dialogue anymore’? It expands us into operating out of a place that is not a place of lack but a place of abundance, confidence and contribution. It says: there’s room for all of us and there should be room for all of us.”

Poet and arts educator Caits Meissner is referring to the course she created: Digging Deep, Facing Self. She is talking about one of her favourite writing prompts, praising other women and eradicating envy. It is just one of the many exercises in the 30-day intensive online writing course, which is designed ‘to uplift, heal and transform women into their boldest selves’. Being the cynic that I am, I tend to take self-help taglines with a grain of salt. But by the recommendation of a friend, last September I decided to sign myself up.

I hadn’t written anything outside of my diary for years. I had begun to notice a snowballing feeling that if I didn’t start again soon, I never would, and I’d be on my deathbed, haunted by all the stories I never wrote. I also had a giant fear of showing my work to anyone, and the idea of reading out my work to even my closest friends caused an insecurity so great I just wouldn’t write anything. The first line in a letter to myself I wrote in Day 1 of the course illustrates the panic I felt: Hey Molly. Why is your instinct to cry rather than actually write this thing?

In the following four weeks I wrote more than I had in years. Using mainly poetry, Meissner has her course participants face topics about bodies, shame, judgemental thoughts, self-hate and self-love, ancestral narratives, bragging and praising yourself and other women. Then – oh my god, horror – she makes you share what you’ve written, unedited, with your group online.

I Skyped Meissner about her motivations and things she’s learned through the course, over her dinner in New York and my breakfast in Melbourne. “I really thought about what the issues were that my friends and I had conversations about,” Caits says on her method for coming up with the course content. “I thought about myself and what were the things that lingered in my psyche, what are the things I knew I had to address.”

“If you are a woman in our society, the body is such a tremendously difficult landscape when we consider media and expectations.”

“Certainly the body, I felt, had to be there,” Meissner explains, “because if you are alive in our society, the body, for women, is such a tremendously difficult landscape, when we consider media and expectations. I thought about the idea of shame; what kind of shame we hold and carry. I thought about memories that stick with us that linger and never go away.”

One of the course’s core goals is community building among women. One of the first ways the course makes you consider your role in relation to other people is in a prompt called Facing Judgmental Thoughts. “It’s a prompt that a lot of people, at first, think is going to be about when people have judged us, but it’s in fact when we’ve judged other people,” says Meissner. When I did the course, this prompt struck me as a refreshing and honest way of ‘owning our bullshit’. It’s a rare thing in feminist or activist circles for people to admit that they have internalised prejudice of the world and then work through it.

While I’m talking with her, Meissner is keen to point out that not all of the work in the course is straightforwardly negative. “There are prompts that interweave joy and pain, like stepping out of a victim role, or looking at ancestral and cultural narratives, or self-praise,” she explains. “For women especially, praising ourselves, recognising what’s wonderful in our lives and about us – those are often the prompts that are the hardest.”

I ask her why she thinks this is a common experience for women. “Well,” she answers, “I think women are in a cycle of diminishing ourselves. We know the trope of the strong woman as ‘bitch’. There’s all this shame around being somebody who has confidence and finds that they have contributions to give the world. So, even if we don’t actively buy into these ideas as feminists, I think that stuff is ingrained, still, deeply.”

The course operates mainly through a private group where participants upload their work, give feedback, and critique where it’s wanted. Everyone was coming from different life experiences and producing diverse and deeply personal content. There was writing on trauma, sexual assault, financial hardship, eating disorders, living with racism, state violence, and queer or trans experiences. My group was very supportive, and I continue to share writing with a couple of them even after the course. But I can imagine that a space of sharing such intimate experiences with women who’ve never met each other would have the potential to spark conflict.

“I think that’s the risk that you run when you open a course up to a community called ‘women’ which is a term applied to a vast majority of the world,” says Meissner when I bring this up. “That’s why we call it a brave space and not a safe space. A brave space, from the course’s perspective, is about striving to create an open space, stepping into it, being ready to have those conversations. And a safe space implies that there is such a thing in the world. Our course is a big fat trigger! That’s the point of it, is to push your buttons and to go inward. That said, we do have some tools we employ to help us get an understanding of what a safer space is going to look like for our participants.”

Women’s spaces are notoriously good at being exclusive. A lot of women approach women’s-only spaces with a great deal of suspicion, and rightly so.

digging deep, facing self

Meissner had a lot of dialogue with friends, people in her community, and with her advisory team around what it meant to have a gendered course. “What I’ve come to, and what the team has come to is: yes, we are a gendered space for self-identified women,” she says. “Trans women, of course, have always been welcome; trans women are women. We have an open trans woman on our advisory team. If you call yourself a woman, or you identify on some level as a woman, come on in. We ask people to self-determine if it’s a good fit.”

The month-long course ends with a digital anthology of the course and a slot to read in the NYC-based #GrowFierce Reading Series. For participants who aren’t in New York, they’re invited to have their work read by an established guest poet and filmed, for publication on the Digging Deep website. At the upcoming May reading, a guest will read one poem I wrote during the course – I’m nervous and intrigued to see how an American accent will mould my words.

Surely someone who runs a course on how to be bold must be bold herself, like, all the time, right? “Oh, hell no. Hell no,” Meissner exclaims over our shitty skype connection. “If I was telling you I was bold all of the time, I would be totally bullshitting, and you shouldn’t take my course. You shouldn’t take anyone’s course who makes these grand declarations.”

“I’m going to be transparent,” Meissner explains. “A majority of the time I feel insecure and wonder if I’m making the right choices. But your boldest self is you at your best — when you are putting yourself in the world at your fullest vibrancy. Everyone feels inadequate sometimes; it’s human existence. Bold is just being willing to get up each day and keep putting yourself in front of people you love and keep making the hard choices. It’s about what makes you feel most alive.”

Digging Deep, Facing Self is currently accepting registrations for its June course. Learn more here.

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