Let Poetry Be Thy Medicine
Tanaya Winder’s extraordinarily ordinary journey
By Shawna Brown
Death, we know for sure, is inevitable—but living with the emotional debris left in its wake isn’t so straightforward. Tanaya Winder, a prominent writer and teacher who earned her MFA from the University of New Mexico, is turning the tables on grief and using the power of prose to create healing and empowerment. This fall, at the ever-popular 2013 TEDxABQ, Winder will share her personal primer on how truth-telling about overwhelming loss can create extraordinary breakthroughs in the lives of ordinary folks.
Douglas Miles (Apache Skateboards)
One sun-filled summer day when Winder was a child, her grandfather told her on the Paiute reservation, “You are going to go to Stanford and be a lawyer.”
“I was so young that I didn’t even know what that was then,” Winder quips, but she knew that she loved reading. As luck would have it, part of her grandfather’s declaration would come to fruition.
Freshman year, Winder took the standard courses at Stanford and was on track to become a lawyer. But she also found herself in a class about language and rhyme. Unbeknownst to Winder, this would be the year poetry would do more than give her credit towards her degree. It would be her first dose of poetry as medicine.
For many, the word “medicine” conjures images of pills and syrups distributed by doctors cloaked in white. But for Winder, medicine took a different form—it was created by her and distributed via ink and paper. Winder recalls, “I hadn’t really taken poetry too seriously at the time. It was just self-therapy for me while dealing with the loss of my grandfather.”
Writing poetry helped Winder cope with her grandfather’s death and provided comfort during her next major life crisis. An Oxford University study abroad program was cut short when her best friend committed suicide. “I couldn’t stay there,” she says now. “I was devastated, so I flew back and took that quarter off from classes.”
And then came a call from the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Upward Bound college prep program that changed the course of her career. She was asked to do a poetry project that would be funded by Stanford’s Haas Summer Fellowship while she spent the summer as a resident advisor in Boulder. Instead of becoming a lawyer, Winder would facilitate healing through poetry with a group of Native American students. In a way, it was like coming full circle, taking her back to her own days growing up on the Southern Ute, Duckwater Shoshone and Pyramid Lake Paiute Nations.
In fact, says Winder, “Poetry saved me once again during a time of great tribulation in my life. Working with kids, I was able to see them open up and share with one another. I finally knew that I wanted to write something not just for myself, but for someone who might need it someday. Had I not come back to the United States early due to the loss of my friend, the Upward Bound class wouldn’t have happened, and the course of my life might have been very different.”
Winder doesn’t keep her poetry-as-medicine prescription a secret—she shares the power of verse (her own and others’) whenever possible. She recently cofounded a compilation journal entitled As/Us: A Space for Women of the World. Sharing this collaboration of work created by several women “is just as important as sharing one’s own work. When you read something from somebody, you want to help spread it around like wildfire because other people probably need to read it, too,” she explains.
Tanaya Winder will continue to prescribe the written and spoken word as both preventative and reactive medicine at this year’s TEDxABQ. Find out firsthand about Winder’s extraordinary ability to heal at Popejoy Hall on September 7 and check out her blog, Letters From a Young Poet.
(Corrected July 18, 2013, to more accurately reflect Ms. Winder’s biographical details.)
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