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On Finding Healing Through Poetry: an Interview with Lauren Brazeal Garza

by Writing Workshops Staff

5 months ago

On Finding Healing Through Poetry: an Interview with Lauren Brazeal Garza

by Writing Workshops Staff

5 months ago

Meet Lauren Brazeal Garza, a Ph.D. candidate in literature at the University of Texas at Dallas and a celebrated poet with an MFA in writing from Bennington College.

Lauren's work, including her memoir-in-verse Gutter (YesYes Books, 2018), has touched on personal experiences like teenage homelessness. Now, she's on a mission to help others discover the healing power of poetry. Her upcoming Finding Healing Through Poetry: A Four-Week Generative Zoom Workshop will dive deep into how poetry can be a source of solace and recovery.

This interview with Lauren sheds light on her own journey a poet and her innovative new workshop.

In this four-week workshop, Lauren guides participants through the world of healing through poetry. Drawing inspiration from renowned poets like Louise Glück, Jamaal May, Paisley Rekdal, and Maggie Smith, Lauren explores various techniques for using poetry as a means of healing. Each week, participants will delve into a different approach to writing, craft their own poems, and engage in discussions. The sessions also provide an opportunity for peer feedback, helping students refine their poetic skills and effectively express their thoughts and emotions. At the end of the course, each student will proudly showcase one of their poems in a final celebratory reading, a testament to the transformative journey under the guidance of Lauren Brazeal Garza.

WW: Your memoir-in-verse, Gutter, chronicles your experience with homelessness as a teenager. How have these personal experiences influenced the creation and curriculum of this workshop?

LBG: My experience living alone on the streets of LA at such a young age had seismic effects on my life and perception of the world. Trauma, grief, loss—all have the capacity to shatter a person. But as we survive and the days tick, one by one, off the calendar, we seek out ways to mend and smooth these fractures. For me, the answer was always in poetry. As I recovered from my experience, I sought out and returned to the poems of Maya Angelou, Sylvia Plath, Louise Glück, Robert Frost—so many of the greats who were acquainted with loss and pain. They formed a chorus of comforting voices in those dark times. It’s been decades since my first, tremulous years moving beyond that trauma. Now as a teacher and author, when I sat down to design this course, I asked myself what is the one class I wish I could have taken when I was searching for a way forward? What are the poems I would have wanted to read? What conversations about literature would I have wanted to have? The answers to these formed the foundation of “Finding Healing Through Poetry.” The workshop isn’t just about tending to wounds through the writing and reading of poems, it’s about rediscovering hope and joy through literature.

WW: In your perspective, what is it about poetry that makes it such a potent medium for healing and expression, especially when dealing with profound emotions like grief, trauma, and joy?

LBG: I define poetry to my students at UT Dallas as “an idea or emotion translated into the ultimate compression of language.” A well-written sonnet of fourteen short lines can be more effective than an essay of 5,000 words on the same topic. I love the idea that poetry articulates what is often considered unsayable, and with such immaculate efficiency—the language is compressed, like a steel girder, able to bear extreme weight. Powerful emotions like grief, loss, joy—or feelings of confusion, terror, disorientation, and even guilt that come in the wake of trauma—require a medium for expression that can bear their mass. Poetry can support the weight of the profound more so than any other form of expression because its very nature is to carry the most meaning in the smallest space.

WW: From your personal journey to your academic pursuits, how has your understanding of 'healing through poetry' evolved over the years?   

LBG: When I was younger and still working toward my recovery, I sought refuge in literature that mirrored my own experiences of trauma, loss, and grief. I was drawn to what’s known as “testimonial literature” —writing that bears witness to a survived experience. My own work reflected this too: my first full-length collection, Gutter, was a memoir-in-verse about my homelessness. It was so important for me to own and express my narrative, to insist “Listen! Listen! This happened! I was there!” This frantic, necessary message is the foundation of all testimonial literature. However, as I healed and grew as a literary scholar and author, I began to see a world beyond the act of bearing witness. Of course, one half of healing is being able to speak one’s truth and be heard, but the second, vital half is to rediscover the abundance of joy and beauty all around us. At first, I read poetry that mirrored nature and the universe’s yearning for balance. Then my creative and critical writing started to reflect this change in perspective, and over time I began to produce work of restoration. I feel that both these impulses are vital and necessary to “healing through poetry.” We need to speak our truth, and know we are not alone by reading the poems of those who have also suffered; but we also need to reclaim the ever-present beauty in our lives as part of our journey out of darkness.

WW: Your chapbook, Santa Muerte Santa Muerte: I was Here Release Me, intriguingly features fictional interviews with ghosts. How does the interplay of fiction and reality in poetry contribute to the therapeutic and healing aspects of the art form?   

LBG: The poems in Santa Muerte, Santa Muerte: I was Here, Release Me are all persona poems—meaning they are written from the perspective of someone who is not the poet (a persona). At times, what we need to say is too overwhelming to own directly, so it must be said through a fictional medium. We see this with children when they are asked to engage in puppet-play cognitive therapy—where a child projects their thoughts or feelings into a puppet, who then does the speaking for them (even though it is always the child speaking). I loved the idea of using personas in this capacity: to indirectly express thoughts or feelings that I was either unable or unwilling to say myself. It’s much easier to speak about the futile aspects of life and hope through the voice of Lady Death; or to confess how it feels to commit an objectively evil act through the voice of an atomic bomb. Sometimes we must wear a mask to say how we truly feel. This can be liberating, and ultimately, healing. 

WW: Given the sensitive nature of the topics discussed, how do you foster a safe and supportive environment in your workshops, ensuring that every participant feels heard and valued?

LBG: From the first moments we’re together, I encourage all my students to think of our workshop as a space of equals—that everyone brings valuable expertise and experience to the class. Within this understanding is the idea that we’re not here to judge the “worth” of one another’s work and all feedback and comments should be supportive. The world is filled with enough judgement and competition, so it’s vital that my workshops be a nurturing space where we always celebrate and lift each other up. We share good news with one another, talk about our weeks and how the writing is going (or not going) during the opening of each class, which helps foster the community we create during our time together. Finally, my workshops don’t just begin and end during our weekly Zoom sessions: each class has a Wet Ink page with lively, active discussion boards; links to additional poems, books, or even publishing opportunities; and news we want to share with one another during the week. Many of my students form long term friendships after meeting for the first time in my classes, and I take this as a sign that we’re doing great things with our time together.

WW: During the workshop, you've chosen to discuss works by poets like Louise Glück and Jamaal May. How have these poets influenced your personal writing journey, and what can students expect to learn from their works? Among the poems you'll discuss and analyze during the workshop, is there one that holds special significance for you? Could you share why?  

LBG: Foals learn what plants are safe to eat by watching their mothers, who pass their knowledge through example. This is also true of learning to write: the best way to discover our own talent as writers is to read the work of others. When writing as a path to healing, it’s important that we closely examine other poets' work to see where and how they are successful. In each session of my workshops, we explore the fine grains of a single poem, holding it up to the light to discover its inner workings so that we might learn from its example. Each poet we study within the course has something unique and profound to offer with regards to the poetry of healing, so it’s difficult to choose only one, but Louise Glück’s “Wild Iris,” (the poem we will discuss in week one) holds a special significance to me. This poem is about continuing to live after life-shattering loss, and Glück’s gift for gracefully delivering profound truths really shines in this piece. Louise Glück recently passed away, and it is such a loss to American literature. It seemed natural to honor her by featuring this poem during our opening class.

WW: The workshop emphasizes literary techniques in articulating thoughts and emotions, from metaphors to line breaks. Can you share a specific instance from your work where employing a certain literary device significantly elevated the poem's emotive power?

LBG: There is a poem in my memoir-in-verse, Gutter, called “It Returns in Waves” which presents as a single, narrow column, centered on the page. It doesn’t contain any punctuation, and the clauses (or thoughts) run into and over one another, overlapping and scrambling on each other like crabs in a barrel. The poem itself is about PTSD: how the details of a traumatic event haunt the speaker, “returning in waves.” As someone who suffers from PTSD, it was important to me that the poem reflects what a triggering event feels like: the details of memories crash in at once, sometimes indistinguishable from one another. At times, there’s no way to tell one sensation from the next, and there’s no break from them, no moment to breathe. By stacking detail after detail after detail with no punctuation and no real syntax to divide each separate thought, the reader is also bombarded with waves of sensory information within the poem. They’re lost in the tide with the speaker. This is how careful use of literary techniques—from punctuation to line breaks to the literal shape of the piece—can elevate a poem. We are artists: language and the page are our medium. It’s important we use everything at our disposal to deliver maximum impact.

WW: Workshopping plays a significant role in your course, allowing students to both give and receive feedback. How do you believe this collaborative process aids in the healing journey and a poet's growth?

LBG: So many artists—whether poets, novelists, painters, sculptors or musicians—want most to be heard. My workshops provide a safe, nurturing community where each student feels listened to and validated. Loss, grief and trauma are all so insidiously isolating. It’s easy to feel completely cut off from the world when we’re surrounded by darkness, but knowing we’re seen, that we’re never alone, is one of many steps toward healing. My courses offer a place to listen and be heard by a group of peers who all carry a love of poetry. Comments on poems within each workshop often come in the form of questions, which turn into conversations between the group and the poet whose work is being discussed. For every poet who joins me— whether writing for the first time or writing their 100th poem—that sense of active collaboration and feeling of inclusion can be a part of their journey to restoration. And because many of the poets in my courses are publishing individual poems or working on books, my workshops are often filled with insightful, informed suggestions that truly help each writer’s growth—from those just beginning to explore poetry, to authors who have already published a collection.

WW: For individuals who might be hesitant or unsure about using poetry as a form of healing, what advice or encouragement would you offer to help them take the first step?

LBG: In his poem, “Motto”, the poet Bertolt Brecht wrote “In the dark times / will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing. / About the dark times.” I can’t offer the depth or breadth of services of a grief or trauma counselor, and these workshops aren’t intended to replace any necessary counseling. Instead, I offer a safe space for expression in the form of poetry: a place to sing. A place to feel heard and validated by a group of like-minded writers. The injury of grief and loss has a way of silencing us, rendering us unable to communicate what we feel, and in that loss of words, we can become detached from who we are. Poetry doesn’t come with the burden of rules and constraints in the same way speech or prose does. It doesn’t demand a narrative: a beginning, middle or end. Poetry just is. Its only requirement is that it exists in and of itself. This can be freeing to those who might struggle to get the words out—and can be a first step to finding our voices again.

You can learn more about Lauren's upcoming class, Finding Healing Through Poetry: A Four-Week Generative Zoom Workshop, and enroll if you're interested. We would be honored to write with you this year!

Instructor Lauren Brazeal Garza received her M.F.A in poetry from Bennington College, and is completing her Ph.D. in literature from UT Dallas, where she is also a creative writing instructor. She is the author of the full-length collection Gutter (Yes Yes Books, 2018), a memoir-in-verse about her homelessness as a teenager. She has also published three chapbooks of poetry, most recently, Santa Muerte, Santa Muerte: I Was Here, Release Me (Tram Editions, 2023), a series of fictional interviews with ghosts. Her poetry, lyric essays, and fiction have appeared in Poetry Northwest, Waxwing, and Verse Daily among many other journals. She can be found haunting her website.

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