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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
Acid base using fresh lime juice turns the dye bath orange
Most people don’t know that cochineal is the natural dye that colors lipstick, Campari, yogurt, and wine. Anything labeled carminic acid comes from cochineal. When you manipulate the pH, you can change the dye color.
Cochineal dyed silk
When you over-dye with blue, the cloth becomes purple. When you start with wild marigold and over-dye with cochineal, the cloth becomes peach color. The color of the sheep wool will also determine the shades of red.
Cochineal dyed wool
The wool must be washed/cleaned or mordanted first before it is dyed. This takes out the lanolin and makes the wool more receptive to accepting the color. The cochineal mordant bath is clear water with alum, heated to dissolve the natural rock. Wool dyed with cochineal needs mordanting. Wool dyed with indigo does not.
Taking the wool out of the bath that mordants the wool
Once the wool is cleaned, we prepare the cochineal dye bath dissolving the powdered bugs into hot water and stirring.
A red pullover scarf called a quechquemitl coming out of the dye bath
For a deeper color red, the wool must stay in the dye pot for at least an hour. At home in Teotitlan del Valle, Omar and his family will keep the yard they weave rugs with in the dye bath overnight to get the most intense color.
Another view of a dyed wool scarf coming out of the dye bath
Eight women gathered around Wendy’s kitchen to prepare the mordant and dye pots after Omar gave an introduction and orientation to the cochineal and its color properties.
Cooking it up in Wendy’s kitchen
He brought hand-woven wool scarves with him from Oaxaca that each participant could work with.
Omar coaching participants as they get ready to immerse their scarves
Fresh lime juice is essential because the acid is the necessary ingredient to alter the color of the dye bath. This is exactly how the family does it at home in Oaxaca — an entirely hand-made process.
Everyone squeezed limes by hand!
You can come to Oaxaca for a natural dye workshop or a tapestry weaving workshop. Contact Norma Schafer, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC. We can fit your schedule.
It was a perfect NC day — our outdoor dye kitchen
Wool wet and waiting for the dye pot
When you bring the cloth out of the pot you want to make sure not to waste the cochineal. It cost over $100 USD per kilo, so you squeeze the liquid out over the dye pot to reuse it.
Squeezing the excess liquid
A study in color variation depending on wool type and dye bath
Hot purple and juicy lime, a great color contrast of wool in bowl
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.
Omar Chavez Santiago, a young talented weaver from Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, and Galeria Fe y Lola, will be in Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina for a set of talks, cochineal dye demonstrations and textile sales from October 17 to October 21, 2018. Events are open to the public.
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
Norma Contributes Two Chapters!
Click image to order yours!
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
*North Carolina State University
*WARP Weave a Real Peace
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