Body Mapping

handsby Ann Dernier

Asked to lead a Kore Press Grrls Literary Activism Workshop, I saw myself as "activator" charged with bringing poetry to and coaxing it out of the lives of teen girls ages 14-19 while guiding them on their own path to activism in a public setting. But mainly and not so secretly, I began every workshop with poetry while on our journey to the center of our social justice issues.

We started by "waxing poetic"--a printing process using wax paper and newsprint.  The girls chose random words or phrases from the newspaper, (or even with an eye for random invention), and rubbed them onto the wax paper, and then "reprinted" by rubbing them in the same or new order onto white paper.  You couldn't rub them the wrong way! In the end, the girls had "found" poems with unexpected, activated language such as "A day ripe for Cadillac opportunity."

Exercises that did not create expectations got the girls writing without the inhibitions of critical editing.

The next stop was body mapping, a writing exercise incorporating road maps. We traced paper doll outlines onto the United States Road Atlas. Rand McNally turned out to be an inspiring muse. Place names, mountain ranges and lakes became a new language for the body. The exciting "wordplay" created poignant, breathtaking results.
Body mapping
We wrote poems about love, loss, pain, forgiveness, the usual poetic themes, but the exciting "wordplay" was the new language for the places on the body that used to be impossible to describe, places deep in our psyche or in our memory. We had language to describe where it hurts when your heart is broken. We found it possible to say the impossible, the true work of poetry. Exciting discoveries like "Boise my right nipple" or "Your fingertips screaming as you dug through Washington/Yoking together two halves of one rocky mountain"* peppered all the poems.

Now here's the daring part. I had used transparencies in the past as a device to get back into a poem, by laying one poem over another, thereby producing a third, and revealing the skeletal secrets of both. I imagined the poems laid over our own bodies rather than the paper dolls'. My friend Sarah Prall, photographer extraordinaire, confirmed that photographs could be printed on transparencies. The vision was taking shape. The last step was to place the poems and the bodies back over the maps where this new language of love and loss and pain had been discovered.

The tricky part was to create a photograph with lots of space for the poems and maps to show through. The secret is to photograph skin. Lots of skin.

Skin is clear on a transparency.

SkinWe photographed each other's necks, arms and backs and the result of the photo- transparency over the poem-transparency was birthed. These images were then displayed over the very terrain from which the poem was written. The overlaying of the poem over the body and the body over the land is illustrative and satisfying.

Here's the best part. The girls created poems, and they created a sense of community within the group, and they found language and voice to say the thing they wanted to say. Through our maps and the communal effort it took to create them, we found our way to the social justice part of the workshop and the "public action." With the help of documentary film maker, Jamie Lee, and inspired by National Public Radio's "This I Believe" series, the girls also created one-minute videos on the social justice issues gnawing at their lives. You can see their videos at

Kore Press has the map to success with the Grrls Literary Activism series. The combination of co-teaching with other talented artists like Jamie Lee, Joni Wallace, Shannon Cain, Kimi Eisele, Charlie Buck or Nhu Tien Lu, to name a few, and working with the fantastic high school girls whoMap find their way to the program, makes the workshop succeed.

*lines from "Oh Sweet Zinnia's" by Robin Soliz.

Ann Dernier is co-founder, with poet Joni Wallace, of Poets' Studio, a workshop series for writers. She is on the Arizona Commission on the Arts Teaching Artist Roster. She is a Kore Press author; a preliminary judge for the Kore Press First Book Award and facilitator for the Grrls Literary Activism workshops. She received a B.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona and an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Her work appears in local and National publications. Ann lives in Tucson with her husband Chris Smith and their children Nick and Hadley.

Created on: 
Thursday, April 29, 2010
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