What is an Exquisite Corpse Poem? The root of the exquisite corpse poem comes from the Parisian Surrealist Movement, and is a method by which a collection of words or phrases is assembled. Each collaborator adds to the composition. In our case; Professor Robin Greene, our writing instructor and coach, constructed this poem from lines that each of us contributed, taken from pieces we wrote during our five day Women’s Creative Writing Retreat.
Day of the Dead — Nine Women Writing
We are all made from mole
and the daily tortillas that hold us
to life. Hold us, that is until
mescal creates thunder
and all our clichés work.
But how much is a songbird worth?
And are birth and death only
an entrance and an exit,
or are they the constant cadence
of beginning, becoming, ending —
much like the stories we write?
We watch the shadowed Zapotec
mountains from the cemetery
tonight — Dia de los Muertos —
and want to understand
how the dead know where
their families live now? And what
will happen if everybody moves
to El Paso or Cincinnati? Will thunder
still roll across a purple sky,
or perhaps we’d have to take it
undercover until no one laughs
again, or we find ourselves
drinking Créme de Menthe
frappes, sickly green minty stuff,
poured over crushed ice
and diluted with vodka.
After Robin read this poem to open our last evening together, we each took turns reading a piece we had written which we chose to share. After the reading, we celebrated with dinner and a mescal toast!
Our next Women’s Creative Writing Retreat will be held December 15-21, 2021, again in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca. During this winter holiday season, so magical here, we will delve into writing about holiday traditions, meaning, family gatherings, and anything else that celebrations conjure up. It’s a time to reflect and write about what was meaningful, disappointments, yearnings and relationships. Send me an email if you are interested in participating: email@example.com
Not only do I organize the Day of the Dead Women’s Creative Writing Retreat, I am a participant. This means I take Natalie Goldberg’s advice for Writing Down the Bones seriously. I sit with my thoughts and emotions, dig in, write. We are based in Teotitlan del Valle, where I live many months each year and most of my creative writing energy is spent with this blog. Day of the Dead and the retreat give me the freedom to look back in a more personal way.
The retreat/workshop focuses me, helps me dig deeper and remember stories, especially about my dad, who was the supporting role in our 1960’s San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles, California, family movie. I loved this experience. Day of the Dead in Teotitlan del Valle transported me back to my youth and it was an important way to bring my dad to life again.
Dia de los Muertos in Teotitlan del Valle is low key compared to many extravagant city celebrations, which is why I love it here. From three in the afternoon on November 1 to three in the afternoon on November 2, people go visiting extended family, godmothers and godfathers, to pay their respects to the dead.
They come bearing gifts of bread, flowers, a candle, chocolate, a bottle of mezcal or beer to add to the altar. They sit a while, usually an hour or more, in the altar room to talk about memories and catch up. Relationships take time.
Here, the difuntos make their own way back home, following the aroma trail of copal incense, marigold flowers, and their favorite foods placed on the altar to entice them back. On November 2, they join the family for tamales (traditionally, yellow mole amarillo with chicken) for lunch before making their way back to their tombs.
We follow them, making sure they are safe and secure going back to the underworld. We want their spirits to be at rest. By dusk, usually the Teotitlan del Valle cemetery is filled with locals who settle in at grave sites with a picnic, beer, mezcal, fruit and nuts, both for themselves and their loved ones.
There is the village band playing joyful music under the outdoor shelter. There are village volunteers inside the small chapel praying and chanting in ancient, tonal Zapotec. It is a contradiction to the band. I imagine they are asking for guidance and support from a higher power to help them fulfill their charge. This is their cargo; they are responsible for cemetery care. With them are volunteer constables who carry a baton for just-in-case.
It is different this year, I see. There are newly paved cement cemetery paths. We are no longer stumbling between graves to get to the distant side of the cemetery. There is strobe light that illuminates some areas as if it were daylight and fewer candles. The periphery is still obscure. And, there appear to be more tourists now. Five years ago, I was among one or two foreigners.
Most of the families I know come to the cemetery early now, decorate the graves and go home, or they don’t go at all. By seven in the evening, the cemetery is alive with visitors and by eight there are only a few locals hanging on to tradition. Sitting with the difuntos all night was the practice then.
The grandmothers still wear their faldas, their plaid, wool woven wrap around skirts held in place at the waist with a red-dyed wool sash. Their long braids, woven with ribbons, are wrapped like a crown on their heads. They are the last generation in traditional traje and they will be here next.
I see village friends and sit with them. Debbie joins me. So does Poppy and Claudia. We are offered beer, a cup of potato chips. We sit on a concrete skirt serves us as a bench. It contains the dirt of an adjacent grave. Children play, running across the mounds of the ancestors. No one seems to care. It is natural.
A boy of about five comes over and hands each of us peanuts. He is grinning. We are grateful. We had lunch a long time ago. His father explains that we are sitting at the grave of his grandmother and great grandfather. We can use the same tomb if people are buried fifteen years apart, he says.
As a land conservation plan, I think this makes sense. In the ancient world, Zapotec tombs where at the center of each dwelling. People practiced ancestor worship. I call that respectful and it is how to keep memory alive.
What I noticed was the serenity of being in the obscurity. Away from the sharp light and the gaggle of visitors, I could feel the meditation of sitting in a cemetery celebrating life.
We will hold the next Women’s Creative Writing Retreat from December 15-21, 2020, to explore the winter holiday/Christmas season, what it evokes for memory, traditions, expectations and disappointments, giving and receiving. Ask your family to join you in Oaxaca after the retreat. It’s a magical time here.
We gathered in Teotitlan del Valle on October 30 for the Women’s Creative Writing Retreat to find meaning, reflect on life and death through the written word. Some of us were mourning recent losses: husbands, mothers, fathers, and yes, even self. There are those other kinds of losses as we age, lose memory, become infirm, face our own mortality.
Being here during Day of the Dead offers perspective on the Zapotec and Mexican way, gives us a point of comparison to our own culture. Mexican poet Octavio Paz says, A culture that celebrates death knows how to celebrate life. We find spiritual meaning here in the notion that life is a continuum. Our references are the deeply incised stone images at the Mitla archeological site, stones embedded in the walls of the Teotitlan church built by the conquerors with remains from the Zapotec temple, depicting infinity, regeneration.
On October 31, we go to the market to buy bread, candles, chocolate, fruit, tamales, beverages and flowers. We build an altar with these and place photos of our loved ones there. In the doing is the remembering. One of us buys sugar cane branches that will serve as the door from which the ancestors will enter and exit earth from the spirit world, a Zapotec tradition. They will visit us, too, for the 24-hour period called Dia de los Muertos.
Our journey into remembering continues with a visit to the cemetery in San Pablo Villa de Mitla with Arturo Hernandez. He takes us to his mother’s tomb. Day of the Dead is practiced in this village differently than the one I live in where our workshop is held.
On November 1 in the morning, Mitla villagers lovingly tidy up the grave sites, removing spent flowers and adding new. They entice the dead to return to earth by burning aromatic copal incense, scattering fresh marigold flowers, placing sliced oranges and apples or an open bottle of Coke on the tomb. Aromas awaken the dead. At eleven in the morning, the cemetery is packed with people.
At twelve o’clock noon, the church bells toll and the cohetes (firecrackers) explode. This gives the dead an extra jolt to get up from their slumber to visit. One of us reports seeing a youngster leaning over a tomb and speaking softly. I explain that the tradition here in Oaxaca is to ask the dead for their advice, to commune with them, to respect their wisdom. There is a spiritual loveliness to this that evokes generational connection, I think.
In our science-based western culture, we often eschew that which we know is impossible. The literal practice of talking to dead parents or grandparents is seen as abnormal, primitive, uneducated. But there is much to learn from other traditions, and that is why we are here. The experience opens us up to write about memory, family, loss.
By noon, the people of Mitla are exiting the cemetery, carrying bundles of marigold flowers so large that you can hardly see their bodies. Girls carry baskets filled with marigold petals, dropping them in a path of petals from the grave along the streets to their home altar. Men and women scurry, carrying ceramic incense burners, leaving a smoky aromatic trail. The idea is for the aroma to guide the difuntos home for this annual re-visit. Families walk together, grandparents, mothers, fathers, children. Some have returned to the village from far away places to honor and participate in this sacred tradition.
We move to the home of Epifanio Perez whose elaborate altar draws visitors to enjoy the atmosphere and his daughter Reyna’s house made hot chocolate, bread and chicken barbecue. We sit and marvel at the piles of bread on the altar, the candle — an eternal flame, the fragrant wild flowers of the campo, the spectacle of yellow marigold blossoms, the memories it conjures up for us.
We return to Teotitlan to our base, to write, to read what we have written to each other, to understand our own feelings around celebration and honoring those we have lost. We experience grief, yet we can share this approach to death with equanimity as the Zapotecs do, with acceptance that without death there is no life.
Ultimately, this leads me to looking at and accepting my own mortality without fear. I’m working on it.
We will hold the 2020 Women’s Creative Writing Retreat from December 15 to December 21 in Teotitlan del Valle. Holding the retreat close to over the winter holidays, just before Christmas, will give us an opportunity to reflect on celebrations here and our own family holiday observances — what they evoke, how they are remembered, the stories of holiday expectations and disappointments, the pressures for a perfect home and table, gift giving and symbolism. We will participate in the village Posadas, too. You might want to invite your family to join you after the retreat and stay on for Christmas in Oaxaca. It is magical.
This is a book review, of sorts. Perhaps it’s my own journal of movement and re-discovery both internal and external. The Time Machine of air travel took me from Oaxaca to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Huntington Beach, California, now to land in Durham, North Carolina. I also call North Carolina home though I spend most of the year in Oaxaca. After three weeks on the road to visit friends and family, I am now taking time to chill and to read.
True Confession: I never read Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks, who fell in love with Oaxaca in 2001 when he went with the New York City fern society to venture into the desert and cloud forests in search of rare species. The book was published in 2002.
Ferns per se aren’t my thing. But Oaxaca is. So, my friend Jenny, who read it three times, brought her copy to me in Santa Fe and here I am, telling you about it.
This is a quick read. Entertaining and informative. After living in Oaxaca for almost 14 years, I am taken with a sense of new discovery of place and a reminder about how important it is to pay attention to the familiar — it’s so easy to take in the sweeping view instead of noticing the fine details. When we move too fast, we miss so much.
It’s like taking a close-up photo — you have to crouch down, bend your knees, get your eye focused on the particular, the micro, to appreciate its beauty. Oliver Sacks reminds me to slow down. Throughout the book, he talks about how he and his fellow travelers use a microscope to examine the underside of fern fronds to understand the biology of life. I take this as an instructive metaphor. In the process of looking for one particular thing it is possible to see others heretofore unknown.
Critics delight in this book, which they call the work of travel writing. Sacks died in 2015 at age 82, but he lives with us through his insights. He is a role model for inquisitiveness and curiosity, experimenting with the joys of life.
As I follow Oliver Sacks around Oaxaca to familiar places, I am struck by how it was in 2001 and how it is now in 2019, years later, and how things change and don’t. Read 1970’s accounts of rutted, dirt roads in Teotitlan del Valle, and you don’t recognize the place today.
Then and Now. Do’s and Don’ts.
Take the road to the Sierra Juarez where biodiversity yields cloud forest, mushrooms, ferns, bromeliads and steep hiking trails at 10,000+ feet
Compare the simplicity then and sophistication now of mezcal making and big business, bringing great wealth to the Oaxaca valley
Assume a naive perspective of culture, people and place with one or two visits, and the propensity to romanticize lifestyle so different from our own
See the grandeur and importance of Zapotec civilization in Mesoamerica by visiting Monte Alban, Yagul and Mitla to gain respect for indigenous people
Project your own desires, wishes and beliefs as you yearn for a simpler life
Sacks visits Teotitlan del Valle with his group to see the rug weaving and natural dyeing process. See page 115 in the book. In 2001, there were few families working in natural dyes and it is understandable that a guide would take them to visit the most famous weaver of the time, Isaac Vasquez Garcia, The Bug in the Rug. The New York Times mentions him in a 1988 print story, Wall Hangings From Oaxaca, now digitized. You will see how demand and time has changed the pricing.
When I arrived in Teotitlan in 2005, I was determined to find a weaver working in natural dyes who had not yet been discovered. Fame, I think, has a way of changing people, pricing, production and products. I didn’t go with a guide, so I set out to explore the village on my own by foot, to compare weaving quality and ascertain the visual difference between natural and commercial dyes. That is how I met the Chavez Santiago Family to start my Teotitlan del Valle adventure. They now run Galeria Fe y Lola.
It is easy, when one doesn’t speak Spanish, to misunderstand, misinterpret, what is said. Sacks reports that Isaac Vasquez and his family produced all the cochineal from their nopal cactus to dye the rugs. This is impossible. It takes thousands of bugs to make a dye vat. Dried cochineal is purchased, then and now. Peru and the Canary Islands are the largest producers. There is a Oaxaca cochineal farm now to supply local demand but there is not enough produced for export.
Sacks reports that weavers in the village had a deep knowledge of dyeing. At the time only a handful of weavers used natural dyes. Everyone knew how to use the one-step, easy process of making a chemical dye.
Now, perhaps a dozen families use natural dyes. I like to promote all of them. It’s a worthy endeavor. It is an expensive and chemically complex process. Yet, everyone knows how to give a cochineal dye demonstration that includes squeezing the bug on the palm of a hand, changing the color with lime juice or baking soda. Ask to see the dye pots before jumping to conclusions!
Sacks is expansive in his Oaxaca Journal. He talks about astronomy of the ancients, the cuisine of bugs and mole, cultural competency, the traditional and modern, hanging out on the Zocalo, Hierve el Agua and calcified waterfalls, the magic of tianguis street markets and more.
I don’t know why it took me so long to get to this. It’s been on my reading list for a decade. If you are returning to Oaxaca or making a first trip, I highly recommend this read. The page-turner took me two days! The impact reinforced the messages of living.
Arrive Wednesday, October 30 and leave Monday, November 4, 2019. The retreat can accommodate up to 10 women.
We gather for Day of the Dead 2019 in the traditional Zapotec village of Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico to write with intention for five nights and four days. Day of the Dead inspires us to revisit our memories of people and places, to dig in and go deep, and to write in whatever genre speaks to us: memoir, journaling, fiction, personal essay, creative nonfiction, and poetry.
New and seasoned writers are welcome. Come to kindle and rekindle the writer’s life.
Cost is $1,095 per person for a shared room, and $1,395 for a private room. A 50% deposit will reserve your space.
All single rooms sold out. Shared rooms only.
During this time, Oaxaca honors her ancestors: parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, young ones lost to tragedy. Loss surrounds us: loss of time, loss of relationships, loss of self and identity, loss of a loved one or someone with whom closure was incomplete.
Day of the Dead Altar
It is also a celebration of life, the continuum, the link between the generations before and the world we inhabit. During the workshop we discuss Day of the Dead symbols, meaning and concepts, comparing Mexican beliefs with those from our own cultures to spark memory and creativity. Perhaps we explore this in writing or use it as a device to trigger imagination.
Day of the Dead offers each of us an opportunity to explore the tenor of life, and the meaning of life and death, transition, passage, and relationships. Memory is powerful. Recall gives us permission to exhume and revisit, to sit with what is at the surface or buried deep within, to see beyond the mask. Writing gives outlet to self-expression whether your goal is to publish or not.
Day of the Dead, handmade tin, folds to 10-1/4×6-1/2″. For Sale, $95 + $8 mailing
Teotitlan del Valle is our base. It is an ancient weaving village about thirty minutes beyond the hubbub of the city where Day of the Dead rituals are practiced much as they were hundreds of years ago.
During our time together, we will integrate our writing practice with visits to San Pablo Villa de Mitla cemetery and a home altar on the morning of November 1 with a local weaver friend. Then, on the evening of November 2 we will go with a local family to the Teotitlan del Valle cemetery to guide the difuntos back to their resting places.
Calavera Artist, hand-painted, 8-1/2″ high x 3″ wide. For Sale, $85 + $8 mailing
There will be optional daily activities in our schedule: gentle yoga, afternoon walks, and mini-seminars on writing topics such as writing effective description and dialogue, grammar, or submitting creative work for publication. Each person will have a private coaching session, too.
Roses on the writing table with journal notes
Planned Itinerary: 2019
Wednesday, October 30: Arrive and check-in to our retreat space. Group dinner. Introductions.
Thursday, October 31: Morning yoga (optional), breakfast, writing workshop, lunch, afternoon independent writing, optional activities, group dinner, coaching session
Friday, November 1: Morning yoga (optional), breakfast, visit to Mitla cemetery and home altar, independent writing, lunch, afternoon workshop, group dinner, coaching session
Saturday, November 2: Morning yoga (optional), breakfast, writing workshop, lunch, afternoon independent writing, visit to Teotitlan del Valle cemetery, dinner on your own
Sunday, November 3: Morning yoga (optional) breakfast, writing workshop, lunch, afternoon independent writing, optional activities, group reading and celebration dinner
Monday, November 4: Breakfast and depart
We reserve the right to make itinerary changes and substitutions as necessary.
You can add-on days in Teotitlan del Valle or Oaxaca before or after the retreat at your own expense. We can arrange transportation for you to/from the airport and to/from the city at your own expense.
What is included?
Complete instruction with four workshop sessions
5 nights lodging
transportation to Mitla cemetery and altar
daily gentle yoga (optional)
mini-seminars on writing topics
one coaching session
Please bring a photo of a loved one. We will build a group altar, too.
We are pleased that Robin Greene is returning to lead this intensive writer’s retreat. This will be her eighth year teaching with us to rave reviews.
Novelist and Poet Robin Greene in Oaxaca, Mexico
Robin Greene is Professor of English and Writing and Director of the Writing Center at Methodist University in Fayetteville, NC, where she held the McLean Endowed Chair in English from 2013-2016. Robin has published two collections of poetry (Memories of Light and Lateral Drift), two editions of a nonfiction book (Real Birth: Women Share Their Stories), and a novel (Augustus: Narrative of a Slave Woman). Robin’s second novel, The Shelf Life of Fire, is forthcoming from Light Messages Publishing in spring 2019, and Robin is currently working on a sequel.
Robin is a past recipient of a North Carolina-National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Writing, and has published over ninety pieces of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in literary journals. She has received two teaching awards, the latest of which, the Cleveland Award, received in 2017, is the most prestigious award offered by her university. Robin has given over a hundred academic presentations, literary readings, and writing workshops in a variety of venues throughout the US.
Additionally, Robin is a registered yoga teacher (RYT200), cofounder and editor of Longleaf Press, and cofounder of Sandhills Dharma Group, a Buddhist meditation group. She holds a M.A. in English from Binghamton University and a M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Art at Norwich University.
Day of the Dead, Some Links to Culture and Traditions
What is a Workshop Session? The group meets daily for three hours to actively listen to each other’s writing, giving supportive and constructive feedback about what resonates or not. We offer guidelines for the process. Everyone takes a turn to read and everyone participates. Writers may accept or reject suggestions. Workshops offer an important learning tool for writers to gain feedback about how their words are communicated and understood.
How to Register: Cost is $1,095 per person for a shared room, and $1,395 for a private room. A 50% deposit will reserve your space. Send us an email to say you want to attend and if you want a shared or private room. We will send you a PayPal invoice to secure your space.
Required–Travel Health/Accident Insurance: We require that you carry international accident/health/emergency evacuation insurance with a minimum of $50,000 of medical evacuation coverage. Proof of insurance must be sent at least 45 days before departure. In addition, we will send you by email a PDF of a witnessed waiver of responsibility, holding harmless Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC. We ask that you return this to us by email 45 days before departure. Unforeseen circumstances happen! Be certain your passport has at least six months on it before it expires from the date you enter Mexico!
Plane Tickets, Arrivals/Departures: Please send us your plane schedule at least 45 days before the trip. This includes name of carrier, flight numbers, arrival and departure time to/from our program destination.
Reservations and Cancellations. We accept payment with PayPal only. We will send you an itemized invoice when you tell us you are ready to register. After September 1, 2019, refunds are not possible. If there is a cancelation on or before September 1, 50% of your deposit will be refunded. After that, there are no refunds.
All documentation for plane reservations, required travel insurance, and personal health issues must be received 45 days before the program start or we reserve the right to cancel your registration without reimbursement.
Terrain, Walking and Group Courtesy: The altitude is almost 6,000 feet. Streets and sidewalks are cobblestones, mostly narrow and have uneven paths. The stones can be a bit slippery, especially when walking across driveways that slant across the sidewalk to the street. We will do some walking. If you have mobility issues or health/breathing impediments, please let me know before you register. This may not be the workshop/study tour for you. Traveling with a small group has its advantages and also means that independent travelers will need to make accommodations to group needs and schedule. We include plenty of free time to go off on your own if you wish.
How to Get To Oaxaca: United Airlines operates direct flights from Houston. American Airlines operates direct flights from DFW. Delta Airlines has a codeshare with AeroMexico with a connection to Oaxaca from Mexico City. All other major airlines fly to Mexico City where you can made independent connections on Interjet, and VivaAerobus. Check Skyscanner for schedules and fares before you book. Note: I always book directly with the carrier for better customer service.
Workshop Details and Travel Tips: Before the workshop begins, we will email you study tour details and documents that includes travel tips and information.
To get your questions answered and to register, contact Norma Schafer. This retreat is produced by Norma Schafer, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC.
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
Norma Contributes Two Chapters!
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Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC has offered programs in Mexico since 2006. We have over 30 years of university program development experience. See my resume.
Study Tours + Study Abroad are personally curated and introduce you to Mexico's greatest artisans. They are off-the-beaten path, internationally recognized. We give you access to where people live and work. Yes, it is safe and secure to travel. Groups are limited in size for the most personal experience.
Programs can be scheduled to meet your travel plans. Send us your available dates.
Designers, retailers, wholesalers, universities and other organizations come to us to develop customized itineraries, study abroad programs, meetings and conferences. It's our pleasure to make arrangements.
Our Clients Include
*Penland School of Crafts
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We send printable map via email PDF usually within 48-hours after order received. Where to see natural dyed rugs in Teotitlan del Valle and layout of the Sunday Tlacolula Market, with favorite eating, shopping, ATMs. Click Here to Buy Map