I’m just “back” from my first residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts. “Back” in quotes because the entire 10 days of panels, lectures, and workshops was virtual — but still magical! Focusing on the craft of writing for was the creative food I’d been craving.
One of the first events was a panel called, “The Creative S-T-R-E-T-C-H,” with author/faculty members Louise Hawes, Liz Garton Scanlon, Corey Ann Haydu, Linda Urban. This was all about letting go of your comfort zone as a writer and stretching “beyond your own expectations.” Stretch became a theme for the entire residency.
Today, I’m sharing a poem that made me stretch into a painful, honest memory.
I have two pieces in Sarah J. Donovan’s important anthology Rhyme & Rhythm: Poems for Student Athletes. [I’m giving away a copy of Rhyme & Rhythm. Leave a comment to enter!]
One is a poem I originally wrote for my wrestling book, Takedown, and then revised for this anthology. The other, “Running Stairs,” is my stretch piece.
This poem is a stretch because it’s fully autobiographical. “Running Stairs” offers a tiny window on one of the most difficult times of my life. Sophomore year of high school: I was struggling as a student, with friends, with my first serious boyfriend. I developed school refusal, staying home for days at a time.
But somewhere in there, I decided to join the fencing team. And for a little while, it made me feel strong.
By Laura Shovan
At the start of practice we run stairs—
a pack of girls thundering
up and down the stairwell.
Doors closed. Windows foggy
with our heat. We’re laughing.
Boom, boom, boom.
I drip in my dad’s old sweatshirt
from Round Up Ranch.
The fleece is thin, perfectly broken in.
Thighs burning, stronger with each stair.
I watch our captain, legs thick with muscle—
a fencer’s true weapon. “Sprints!” she calls,
and we spill into the almost-empty senior hall.
He is there with a friend. I sprint closer,
part of the stampede, but he singles me out,
eyes on my sweatshirt. “Round Cup Ranch!”
he points. His friend doubles over, laughing.
“Jerk,” one of my teammates mumbles.
We disappear down the stairwell,
where I feel every bounce
of my too-large breasts, feel out of breath,
stop running, stop wearing
Dad’s comfortable old sweatshirt,
stop showing up for practice,
avoid stairwells, forget I was training
to be a girl with a weapon in her grasp.
Special thanks to Sarah J. Donovan for including this poem in Rhyme & Rhythm. Would you like to win a copy of the book? Leave a comment below to be entered in a random drawing. U.S. only please.
Thanks for sharing your story in a poem, Laura. That’s some powerful stretching. xo
???? The power of words – and the staying power of words that harm. Hoping this poem has helped to heal a hurt that’s lingered through the years.
Exactly — harming words do have staying power. Thanks, Kat.
So good, Laura! I love the last two lines especially!
Thank you for reading the poem, Ruth.
Congratulations on your poem! Powerful!
Thanks for stopping by to read it, Linda.
Exactly — harming words do have staying power. Thanks, Kat.
Oh wow Laura. This is such a powerful poem, and that last phrase of the last line is everything. Thank you for sharing such a personal poem.
Thank you, Elisabeth. Writing the poem gave me a chance to reframe this incident. I would like to hope that things are getting easier for young people who identify as female, but I’m not sure much has changed since I was in HS.
Thanks for sharing. I felt your uncomfortable pull of love for your dad’s sweatshirt and the “hate” of the way your body felt in at that moment. That really got to me. Wow!
Thanks, Kathleen. Isn’t it awful how a piece of clothing can be ruined by one snide or sexist comment?
Oh, that mockery enraged me.
How relieved I was to see the power at the end.
Thank you, Liz. There is power at the other side of this experience!
Here’s to being a girl with a weapon. Long may she wield it!
Amen to that, Tanita!
Laura: I’m so glad you wrote and shared this. Writing it must have been a stretch, but the power of it now is all yours. Kudos.
Thank you, Karen. Those are hard times to write about. Every once in a while I skim through one of my HS journals.
Laura, thank you for sharing a deeply personal time in your life when teens are so vulnerable. I am sorry that you suffered an insult that must have left you sad and speechless for a long time. I am sure this autobiographical story stretched you, dug deep into your childhood, and left you washed out. I thank you again for doing so. It helped me understand that we all need to stretch beyond our comfort zone. May you enjoy your winter weekend and stay warm.
Carol, definitely. Stretching beyond our comfort zone, we can reshape personal stories from the vantage point of now.
I love how you describe this anthology as important. It really is. There are so many teens reading poetry now in the form of graphic novels. More and more are testing the waters of writing. This is an outstanding mentor poem. I haven’t had as many opportunities to write with students this year (oh, what a year) but I’m so glad I have this poem and others from this to look to when I can.
There’s crossover between sports and rhythm, athletic drills and the patterns of a poem. I love hearing that reading more poetry is leading your students to writing!
Your poem pairs with Tanita’s. Here’s to Girl Power, to whatever weapons we need to go confidently into a world that waits around every corner to (sorry) booby trap our strength and brilliance.
I’m heading over to read Tanita’s PF post. (And laughing at your pun!)
The realism in your poem is taking a deep stretch. Thanks for sharing it here with the story. Makes me so angry, though. Ugh!
Thanks, Margaret. It makes me angry too, the way girls are targeted for harrassment like this. And how often they’re told to brush it off. The cuts can run deep.
I am sure your poem is relatable to many young girls in their high school years. It is a difficult time for sure and you shared your experience well in this poem. I’m glad it is in a book for atheletes. Thank you.
Thank you, Carol. I appreciate that.
So hard not to feel safe. Words can reach you in a way that it is hard to guard against.
Thanks for sharing your stretch xo
That’s it exactly — especially during the vulnerable years of being a team, it’s hard to guard against.
Thanks for sharing this poem, a reminder of middle and high school and how painfully vulnerable one can be being a girl.
Yes, Janice. I certainly felt vulnerable at the time. Thank you.
That last line is so powerful: “to be a girl with a weapon in her grasp.”
Thank you for sharing your experience and how it has now served as a fuel to your writing. My own 20 year old daughter is studying right now in Seattle on her own (we are living all the way here in the Middle East), and I know exactly how vulnerable young women are who live on their own. She does have a pepper spray and a personal alarm – but I could imagine how empowering it is to have a “weapon in your grasp” with the knowledge and the skill to wield it.
Thank you, Myra. It *has* served as fuel for my writing. I hope your daughter enjoys her time in Seattle and has found some people who help her feel safe there.
Powerful poem Laura, thanks for sharing this part of you. There are probably few of us that won’t experience an incident like this. Here’s to instilling more females everywhere with a ” weapon in her grasp.” Thanks!
Thank you, Michelle. Unfortunately, I think you are right. Those who identify as female or gender non-binary are targeted and shamed too often.
I know that stair-running feeling from running the bleachers at track practice. It’s a feeling one doesn’t easily forget.
Thanks for stopping by to read the poem, Scott.