Arts, Education & Enrichment

Local Writer Brings Poetry Workshops to Unexpected Places

Poet seeks donations to fund writing workshops

The student participates in an Octo workshop on haiku writing.
The student participates in an Octo workshop on haiku writing.
Submitted by ATW

Katherine Gotthardt is on a mission “to bring poetry, writing and literary arts to unexpected places.” The poet is leading free poetry writing workshops for high school students and other groups in Prince William County and around Northern Virginia.

Katherine is a published author, poet, professional writer, and entrepreneur who has a master’s degree in education. She was a founding member of Write by the Rails and founded a company called ‘ATW.”

Upon taking a corporate job, she was concerned she would have less of an opportunity to engage in writing creatively or to stay active in her community. Fortunately, her new employer Octo, a Federal Government contractor which specializes in IT, encourages volunteerism via its Corporate Social Responsibility Committee. Often their employees provide STEAM opportunities to young people, but they were equally excited when Katherine wanted to hold poetry workshops. “They recognize the value of it. Octo is very supportive.”

Katherine began by reaching out to language arts teachers in Prince William County, Manassas City, and the surrounding areas. While poetry is part of the language arts curriculum, the curriculum leaves little time for creative writing except in creative writing electives.

Today’s students are often being told what to think, Katherine explained, but poetry can help them find their own voices.

“It was just a way for them to have a creative release,” said Katherine. “[Writing creatively] gets them to think in a different way. It helps them discover what it is that they are thinking, and what they want to say.”

Katherine uses her anthology ‘Thirty Years of Cardinals Calling to teach the students in her workshops. In it she chronicled thirty years of her previously published and award-winning poetry. She likes to leave them with the poetry books to encourage their continued writing.

She began by purchasing copies of the books to give to her students, funding the endeavor herself. Then the nonprofit Give Back Prince William agreed to help her raise money to provide the books. People can donate funds to the poetry project via Give Back Prince William, which will allow Katherine to hold more workshops.  

Katherine said she uses her poetry as a jumping-off point for teaching writing, by modeling her creative process and exploring the ideas and choices that led to the poems in the book.

“I’m not a literature teacher. I use my own work because I know my own work, and I know my process of writing,” she said.

In doing so, she acts as a visiting author as well as a writing instructor. “If a student has questions about any of that, you can give them answers,” she said. “You can’t ask Walt Wittman what he meant by that.”

Donate a copy of 'Thirty Years of Cardinals Calling' via Give Back Prince William here.

And she is fascinated to hear how young people receive her poems and what resonates with them. It is often unexpected.

“I find it very interesting what the kids come back with, and what they think the poems mean, and it teaches me as a poet,” she said.  And she especially enjoys hearing the poetry the students create based on their lived experiences.

The most important part of the workshop is having the students write their own poems. Katherine leads students in directed free writing. She provides a loose topic, and then students write, “quick and dirty” to get their thoughts on paper.

From their prewriting, she asks that they find repetitive words from which ideas emerge. That becomes their theme or focus. Next, she encourages them to insert imagery into the work. “I get them to identify what they are trying to say,” she said, and tells them to associate it with an image.

Last is revising. Katherine asks her writers to choose their words wisely, considering each word’s definition and connotation. “Poetry is succinct. It is word economy,” she explained.

After everyone has written something, they share their writing with the class, accepting questions and comments. She tries to create a safe space, telling them, “No one is judging you here.”

“They come up with some really good stuff,” she said, and their comments spark excellent discussions.

At the end of the workshop, she offers them the opportunity to further revise their work, and then they can publish it online via her website.

Katherine has found teens feel empowered seeing their thoughts on paper and reading them aloud. It is validating to them.

“We talked about voice and discovering their voice. What it is that you really want to say and how do you want to say it? Some of these students have spent their whole A.P. career studying other people’s voices. The ability to practice your own voice - I think it can be liberating, but I think it can also be daunting.”

She finds value in themes teenagers write about such as their excitement and anxiety about the future, their nostalgia for their childhood, and the stress of social expectations and those adults place upon them.

She respects their resiliency. “There is so much pressure on them, especially now,” she said.

Katherine intends to branch out over the summer, bringing poetry to many unexpected places. She intends to hold poetry workshops at senior centers, summer camps and art schools. She has started to work with those with intellectual disabilities or special needs and would like to continue to do so.

She believes everyone could benefit from writing creatively and artistic expression. Adults need a creative release as much as teenagers, especially during the times we are living in she said. It can be a form of self-care.

She would also like to foster a poetic dialogue to between young students starting out and older adults.

“There’s a generational divide that we’ve never seen before,” said Katherine, but she has noticed similarities too. “So many kids are isolated. Older people are isolated.” She would like the two generations to engage in a poetry exchange.

Katherine believes the poems in her anthology ‘Thirty Years of Cardinals Calling,’ speak to all ages since they reflect her past thirty years. There are poems about growing up and then aging, about motherhood, nature, and the writing process.

She feels very fortunate to be able to give back to the community and asks readers to sponsor a book or set of books she can bring to her workshop students.

She likes to leave them with something tangible and something intangible. She hopes they learn that poetry is not a dead art. There are contemporary poets all around them. It can be a hobby, a fun exercise, or a way to find one’s voice or center themselves. And they too can write poetry. It’s an inclusive activity. It’s a chosen activity. No one need to assign them to write poetry. They can do it for themselves.

Donate a copy of 'Thirty Years of Cardinals Calling' via Give Back Prince William here.

Katherine Gotthardt is a Bristow Beat contributor and has a column called 'Get Happier, Dammit!'Contact Katherine via

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