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Albert Speaks at TEDx Santa Cruz

In the presence of a master

I have experienced a lot of amazing things as a writer, teacher, and performer. Years ago I read at Modern Times Book Store in the Mission District of San Francisco with the legendary Beat poet Michael McCluer, who from the back of the room made throat-cutting gestures as I finished my last poem. I was mortified. Was I dragging aimlessly on—cutting into his precious time? He came up to me afterward leaned in casually and said, “I liked the one about the butterflies.” I read poems in Paris with the brilliant New York School poet Alice Notley at a bookstore in the Marais called “The Red Wheelbarrow” after a poem by one of my favorite poets of all time, William Carlos Williams. I was so nervous I thought I’d pass out and have to be carried off in a red wheelbarrow, but Alice put me at ease, being so emotionally astute and radiant in her reading, the whole store was beaming.

When I was sworn in as the very first Poet Laureate of my county, I read an extraordinary  poem by one of our fourth grade CPITS students named Caroline who wrote about Turquoise laughter and whispering in a dragonfly’s ear, about a poet weaving her story on a loom of sawdust. We were floored. In the presence of a true master at age eleven. The Board of Supervisors were on the verge of tears Caroline brought so much joy and peace to an otherwise acrimonious and opinion-grinding county agenda.

And here I am in March of 2015  finding myself in Maui Hawaii teaching with one of America’s truly magnificent, clear-minded, intelligent and generous-of-spirit writers and teachers, Cheryl Strayed. It’s such a pleasure to be in the presence of someone so genuine, so authentic, so in touch with the reality of truth with a capital T. Which by the way, comes from being fully committed to your craft, from surrendering to the process again and again. Cheryl Strayed is truly fearless in the face of self doubt, criticism, shame, judgment—never reckless, always clear of heart and mind enough to keep writing. There is a necessary wisdom that shines through in her reading and teaching which emanates as a gift—encouraging, allowing, and even anticipating our own. You get the sense you are on a collaborative journey of discovery together. There’s no sense of superiority no air of her strutting around thinking “I’ve got it and you don’t.”

As I was reviewing some of the writing prompts Cheryl shared with us a couple years ago and some new ones recently in Maui, it became evident to me that writing prompts are fairly dependent on context and presence. Sure you can run with them on your own, pulled from a blog or website, but for them to really inspire, for them to thoroughly bleed into you and push you deep into the page, it helps to actually be there with the teacher. And by there I mean in the presence of a master writer and teacher. So if you’ve been thinking about going to a reading or taking a workshop from a master teacher like Michael, Alice, or Cheryl, do it. Don’t hesitate, no excuses, go for it. Take the plunge, your writing and heart will shine from the experience.