by S.H. Aeschliman
The idea for VoiceCatcher came to Diane English in a dream. “Literally came in a dream,” she says. She’s sitting in her new electric wheelchair in her studio apartment, the colorful silk scarves hanging on the back of the bathroom door providing a multi-colored halo effect around her head. (Note: I might be idolizing her just a wee bit.)
Okay, maybe it wasn’t the idea for an anthology or an organization, per se, that came to her in a dream. But the phrase voice catcher came to her. It haunted her; she couldn’t imagine what it meant or what to do with it. She wrote a poem called “Voice Catcher,” but even that did not satisfy.
Around the same time, the women in her writing group – a group led by Emily Trinkaus, whom Diane credits with making her “feel brave” – were talking about self-publishing their work and distributing it beyond the members of their own group. “Why wouldn’t we want to get our work out?” Diane asked.
But they wanted to by-pass the formalized process of waiting for their work to be “blessed by the gods-that-be.” When Diane suggested distributing Xeroxed packets of their best poems to a wider audience, much in the same way that neighborhood newspapers were distributed, one by one the women volunteered talents – graphics, making flyers, marketing – that would lead, nine months later, to the first issue of the VoiceCatcher anthology.
“Just enough time to have a baby!” I say. One of my catch phrases.
“That’s exactly what I thought,” replies Diane.
A Story about Community
Before I met Diane, I decided, based on the fact that she is one of the founders of VoiceCatcher and has recently self-published a book of her poetry, that this would be an article about self-empowerment. And at one point, Diane describes the way VoiceCatcher came into being as “a testament to how much we can do on our own.”
But before I leave her apartment, she lances me with a stern gaze and says, “This is very important to me. This is not a story about me. It’s not about my writing or honors or achievements. This is about a community of people supporting one another.” She adds, “I believe this came through me. I take no credit.”
This reminds me of the way writers – or creative types in general – sometimes talk about their creative process as being more passive than active. They don’t create; they are a vehicle for the creation. The work comes through them, not from them.
Diane has thrown a wrench in my plan. This becomes less a narrative about self-empowerment and more about service to a higher cause: to whatever planted the words “voice catcher” into Diane’s consciousness or to the women in her writing group—Jenn Lalime, Sara Guest, Marti Brooks, Elizabeth Jones and Stephanie Shea—or to the greater community of women writers and artists in the Portland-Vancouver area.
But as much as my inner feminist rebels against the idea that a woman wouldn’t own up to her own awesomeness, I have to admit that I see a benefit to thinking about it in this way. Because Diane doesn’t take credit for the idea, there’s no sense of ownership over it. This has allowed VoiceCatcher to evolve over the years without anyone’s ego getting stepped on.
Actually, I don’t know that for a fact, but my experience of the organization so far would seem to support that hypothesis. When I volunteered to start writing interviews, I knew I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want to merely transcribe a conversation, and I didn’t want to pretend objectivity in my articles. I wanted to be transparent about my perceptions of interviewees and how I interacted with them and their ideas. When I asked Carolyn Martin, President of the Board of Directors, whether she was open to my putting my own spin on the convention of interviews, she said she’d be thrilled.
This is a totally different form of collaboration than what I’ve experienced in the past. It’s a version of collaboration that, until now, has only existed in my fantasies. Instead of having a stable structure that plugs round pegs into round holes and square pegs into square ones, VoiceCatcher flexes to accommodate new volunteers, who bring different strengths, needs and visions to the organization.
What started with one woman’s dream quickly became a communal endeavor that has evolved in response to new community members’ passions and abilities as well as to a changing socio-economic environment. This culture of collaboration must have emerged precisely because Diane and the other women who founded VoiceCatcher didn’t “own” it. And today it provides more women than ever with opportunities to share their talents in ways the original founders never dreamed.
A California transplant, Diane English retired early from her education/administration career and relocated to Portland hoping to find a refuge to focus on her writing. She experimented by writing memoir, then a screenplay. All the while, a private poet was practicing. One of her workshop teachers said it takes at least ten years as an apprentice to become a poet. That was fifteen years ago. She still calls herself an “Apprentice Poet,” but has compiled a small chapbook of her poems, Sunbreaks & Magic Acts. Her poem “Late Bloomer” won an Honorable Mention in 2005 from the Portland branch of the National League of American Pen Women.
S. H. Aeschliman is a native Oregonian living in Portland with her dog, Milton. By day she’s a freelance writer, editor, educator and learning assessment consultant. By night she’s a writer, reader, learner and dreamer. She blogs about culture, travel, food and lifestyle and writes poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction and cross-genre work. Her prose piece “On Voice” appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of VoiceCatcher, and she’s thrilled to be volunteering for the organization. You can learn more about her work on her website.