For oh-so-crucial info about me, read on right here; for info about my poetry in the schools project, skip down to where it says About WORDPLAY.  If, like many people, you met Luke the WonderDog out and about and you just want/need more of him – and, really, who could blame you? – check out this video chock-full of Luke the Service Dog.

I am an educator & advocate, poet & performer, speaker & storyteller who believes in the power of narrative to transform & transport, create & connect. I was the shy, awkward girl who didn’t fit in, was often bullied, happiest with my nose in books, whose best friend was my dog. After being cast in a play in my teens I discovered a way to be comfortable in my own skin, bringing to life the words of a character. Costumed in make-believe, I dared to be more of myself than I ever allowed off-stage. I claimed my voice.

I’ve spent most of my adult life teaching others to raise their own voices, through acting, creative writing, even slam poetry (here and there I consult with nonprofits, businesses and individuals). When the diagnosis of MS intervened in my 30s I had to let go of acting in the theatre, which is why most of my storytelling is now expressed through page and less “formal” interactions with stages. I devote much of my time to kids, teaching them to use words & imagination, developing authentic, resilient, remarkable voices. I endeavor to grow in my students the belief, the truth, that we are all artists & the change-makers in our own stories.

My best friend still has fur & four legs. My mobility assistance dog is my constant companion, teaching assistant & muse to many. Luke is also chief partner in crime; I’m getting a reputation for stealing things. As inventor of a poetic form called klepto-collaborative, I pickpocket words & phrases from others, reshuffling & reshaping the puzzle-pieces into a colorful, storied mosaic of diverse voices. Taking something from every speaker at a conference in real-time, I craft a collective poem that highlights the messages of the day, repurposing ideas & refashioning stories, weaving them together in a manner that never loses the originality & spirit of the speakers’ themes. So while I may be a word thief, I figure being eco-conscious makes up for it.

I’m available to facilitate wordy goodness in your community, school, workplace or play space. I like to think I have way of transforming average meetings into something interactive, cooperative & memorable. Through my klepto-collaborative poems I aim to delight, to ignite conversation, and maybe even incite a little innovation. I earned an MFA from Florida International University, where I edited Gulf Stream Literary Magazine.  I’m the founder of WordPlay, a poetry-in-the-schools project inspired by Dave Eggers.

My poetry has appeared in Bloomsbury ReviewCake, LunaBest American Poetry blog (a collaborative poem with the phenomenal Denise Duhamel), Wicked Good Life, and various anthologies. My non-fiction has appeared in the Miami Herald and my fiction has been nominated for Best New American Voices.  Just for fun, here’s a multi-media klepto-collaborative poem comprised of quotes from others about the way they imagine a better world.

I have another blog about Life with MS, a Service Dog, and a recumbent trike: Wonky Woman on a Bent Trike.

Fun fact:  I had the privilege of riding part of the 2012 Bike MS Coastal Challenge with one of my heroes, Phil Keoghan.  He does so much awareness-raising & fundraising for those of us with MS!  Here’s the video.  How lucky am I?

I can be reached via email:  moonspeak(AT)comcast(DOT)net

I also have a Facebook community page: Spread The Word About Service Dogs

On Twitter I’m known as TXmoonspeak


I’d been following a blog called Juice Up The True Say, about an arts enrichment program that brings poetry into a school in Hastings, FL through a Communities in Schools Project. That teacher is a friend of a friend. The poems her students produce are breathtaking, illuminating. Within the first full minute of reading that blog I knew I wanted to do something similar. So when I listened to Dave Eggers’ TED Prize Wish, the aching desire to share poetry with kids suddenly found a heart-tugging invitation, a flung-open door—the PUSH I needed—to act.

Kim Bradley deserves praise. She crafted the path I’m following. The only real difference is that I have a service dog. I had this idea that Luke would build a bridge of trust, open the children up—like books, if you will. I wanted to gift the children with what Dave Eggers calls “the primacy of the written word.” I asked parent-friends to speak to their children’s teachers, I spoke with my god daughter’s teacher, I emailed the school closest to me—asking if I could bring my service dog and teach poetry to students. I dug out my copy of  Kenneth Koch’s Wishes, Lies, and Dreams, the hallmark text for teaching kids poetry. He speaks of being encouraged by his high school teacher to be “free, deep, and extravagant” in what he wrote.

This was my mission, to encourage children to speak from their most authentic selves, to give them time and a safe environment in which to create and collaboroate, and, lastly, a furry, friendly companion (Luke, not me!) for all their storied imaginings. I promised each child would create a chapbook of their poems and that we would also make a class collective chapbook that included each child’s favorite poem. Local independent bookstore owner and co-founder of the Miami Book Fair, Mitchell Kaplan, jumped at the opportunity to sponsor a reading for the kids.

I have 7 classes of 3rd—7th graders (3 schools) each week. We write about wishes, dreams, lies, being an animal, someone else, more of ourselves, or even a thing. We talk about & explore senses, comparisons, metaphors, rhythm & rhyme. I encourage them to draw pictures to go with their poems and stories; sometimes the visual art makes the words tell a better story, or simply tell more of the story; sometimes the pictures tell a completely different story.

We play with the concepts of “I used to be/But now I am,” “I seem to be/But I really am,” “What I love most is/What I fear most is.” We do collaborative poems, as well. In every session each child writes and reads his/her own work. We talk about honoring each other with the sharing of our words, by listening with respect and compassion. I encourage them to take themselves and each other seriously as poets, as artists, as individuals with a unique boundless imagination, as well as to acknowledge and appreciate the part they play in the larger community of artists, wordsmiths, creators, and most of all, storytellers. We know that what we write, what we speak and imagine, is a gift to ourselves, to others, to the future and to history.

I largely underestimated Luke’s affect. If a child is shy to read, or if perhaps the content is hard to say out loud, one arm draped around Luke or a hand fisted in his long fur seems to make the words flow. Sometimes a child asks to have Luke next to them, at their feet, when it’s her turn to read.

I think Luke just might be a muse–sure, furrier & wigglier than your average muse, but a muse nonetheless. I have witnessed it over and over and over, though I feel like every time is the first. That each time is a tiny kind of miracle between child and dog.

Teachers say their students cannot wait for Luke & me to arrive each week. Even though everyone gets to read–we go in order around the room–the children still wave their hands with excitement and eagerness to share their work, unable to wait their turns. As time goes by, their hesitancy in regard to tackling challenging ideas and feelings has washed away with energetic, joyous discoveries of language, the open space of play, shared laughter, a marvelous wordy chaos.

The kids’ poems speak of body image, family discord, academic and athletic pressures, wanting to fit in; they dream up inventions, alternative universes, future versions of themselves. Sometimes their honesty & trust elates me beyond measure, other times I feel the floor suddenly drops a few feet and I can barely catch my breath or keep my balance. You wouldn’t believe what they write about! But we need to. We all need to listen to and believe their stories. We need to reflect back to them the trust they extend to us in the sharing of their minds and hearts, their experiences, their wants.

Individual children are transforming into a supportive, cheering, generous community. Challenged readers, reluctant to read to adults or even other children, seek Luke out. He sits, a willingly-captive audience, his tail a fuzzy, lilting metronome that matches the voice of the child sounding out the words, parsing through the sentences, making his way through the story with his fur-bound, attentive fellow-traveler. We’ve added another 15 minutes to each class for these children to read stories to Luke, one on one; these kids grow in confidence and then join small reading circles (also with Luke). When reading time is done, Luke gets tons of love for his hard work of listening.

A girl named Joanna–one of Luke’s biggest fans, one of the most prolific writers in any of my classes–slipped me this note last week: “I love poems, I think they are cool, thanks so much, now poems rule the school!”  And there were other word and picture gifts as well–too may to count, but every one precious to me, each one unforgettable.

Thank you Kim, Dave, TED, Luke, and of course, all of the genius kid poets I’m privileged to teach, to learn from and with. Thanks to Michael J Fox, whose example taught me that a life altered by illness does not, in *any* way, ever have to be less of a life!  And last but not least, thanks to all of the phenomenal teachers I’ve had–you know who you are.

OK, OK, I have to name one in particular. Tops on my list is Patricia Lonchar, who was the first teacher to encourage my creative writing, my literary critical thinking. She even entered me into a national essay contest (that I didn’t have the confidence to enter on my own); I won 1st prize. She taught me that what I had to say was worthy. She mentored me, in the truest sense of that word. She showed me how the messy tangles in my heart and head would unknot, unravel, in the process of moving them out and onto the page. How once on the page, I could rearrange, revisit, reframe those thoughts and feelings until they made some kind of sense. She received each piece of wrinkled, handwritten notebook paper rife with cross-outs and heavy with White Out as if it were a box of fancy gourmet chocolates, satin red ribbon tied in a bow. She always looked grateful, eager to open my word offerings. Now that I’m the teacher, I know she was not feigning that anticipation. Because of her, I get to be the one receiving the word-presents!

Pat, if you’re reading this, please know you’re one of my heroes. I do what I do with kids and creative writing to pay forward what you did for me. I know how to do it because you showed me the way. I was, and continue to be, so blessed to have you as my teacher. Your mentoring went beyond literature and writing. You pushed me to live life as an original thinker, to be a claimer of dreams and destiny, a muster-er of courage for journeys of imagination and adventures of self-exploration.

What divine luck that these role models and inspirations all came together like a perfect storm–or a kismet-kissed series of linked storms–to enable me to envision something like Word Play. Pat Lonchar told me that I had a voice, one worth listening to, worth sharing; she helped me own my voice, gave me the courage to raise it “loud and clear.” When I was diagnosed with MS and thought my contributions to the world thereafter would be minimal, limited, anemic–Michael J Fox demonstrated that a life suddenly intersected with illness and/or disability can be an opportunity, an open door. Then Dave Eggers–by virtue of his TED Prize wish talk–said, Come play with me!  Which gave me an example, provided a framework, a mission-plan, a way to put it all together and into action. My heart is full-to-bursting with gratitude ~

I love my life!

To see/hear Dave Eggers TED Prize wish go HERE.  To read MORE about 826 Valencia go HERE.  To learn more about 826National go HERE.

I highly recommend Sir Ken Robinson’s views on schools and creativity, which you can hear all about via his fabulous TED Talk.

For info on the life-changing, life-saving Michael J Fox Foundation–which I believe will find a cure for many neurological conditions, including MS, long before any other research–click HERE.

15 responses »

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  9. Denise,
    Your gift with words remains as powerful as it was the first time I witnessed it. What a blessing! Pat Lonchar


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