Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno, Musehouse Workshops & The Literary Community

How Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno & Musehouse Surprised a Teacher


An Introduction by Amy Small-McKinney

Is it presumptuous to imagine that Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno was my sister-in-cancer and in-poetry?  I am willing to imagine—no, to be sure—because after hours of sitting together, talking, crying, and laughing about my Stage II and her Stage IV Breast Cancer and, of course, our poems, I felt our friendship to be real and solid. Driving home from our shared radiologist office, we talked about facilitating poetry workshops together for breast cancer patients and survivors, something that would never happen as Kath grew sicker. Then Kathleen asked me to teach at her Musehouse, A Center for Literary Arts, before I ever imagined I could.  Yes, I had taught Psychology at local colleges and facilitated poetry workshops for children and adolescents but was uncertain about teaching adults.  Kathleen was convinced. Thank you, Kath, thank you.  Teaching felt like diving into a perfectly blue-green calm body of water that held me up in its arms.  I loved it and continue to love it.  Leading workshops means leading each writer, at whatever level, back to themselves, their own distinct voice waiting to be heard and helping them to hear, really hear, what the poem is asking—what needs to be written. Shaping raw material into the form of a poem is like placing chaos snugly inside a container.  The mission of a teacher is not to force students to write like the teacher, but to help them to discover the surprise of his or her own language and imagery. Each time I meet with students, Kathleen is in the room with me.  That I am sure of.

About Amy: Amy Small-McKinney won The Kithara Book Prize 2016 (Glass Lyre Press) for her second full-length collection of poems, Walking Toward Cranes. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, for example, American Poetry Review and The Cortland Review and was recently translated into Korean. She facilitates poetry workshops in Philadelphia and will be teaching at the 2018 Philadelphia Writer’s Conference.


Reimagining Chickie’s Diner with Kathleen

by Amy Small-McKinney

I would be beautiful.
The boy beside me in the red Chevy would be kind.
Inside and outside, without division,

a cool blue stream
instead of a parking lot where girls and boys could cross over
like ducklings.


So young then, Kath, I didn’t know how to celebrate
or to hum an old cracked tune.
I could do the twist though, and did last night with you, in Heaven,
far from those teenage boys, those slick hubcaps
who dared girls to strip and poker, when you weren’t with me,

and if you had been,
you might not be dead now, though I know, I know, your dying
had nothing to do with cars or youth.
I know you’re a stream curving toward its daughter.
If you come back, we can sit in a booth far from a door.


The boy was a liar.
The boy with black hair, pants unzipped, lurched and shoved and lied
but you must’ve been there, I must have heard you,

even then, before we met, tell me we deserve better
because I swung open the car door, because
I swear I walked toward language,

its steady blue SOS,
its pants pressed and buttoned.
That song we love, its suggestion of a blue moon.

Author’s Notes: celebrate, Lucille Clifton, won’t you celebrate with me
an old cracked tune, Stanley Kunitz, An Old Cracked Tune


A Remembrance by Musehouse Workshop Instructor Grant Clauser   

I met Kathy Bonanno at the Springfield Township Library before Musehouse existed, but she was talking about it even then. We were doing a reading together (arranged by Joanne Leva) for National Poetry Month. After the reading we talked, and in her typical energized way, she told me about her plan to start a community writing center, and if she figured out funding, she wanted me to teach there. A year or so later, I heard from her again. Musehouse was live.

I started teaching a couple workshops at the little former storefront that was the Musehouse headquarters, but it became clear that Musehouse wasn't the building, it was Kathy. If a muse is that thing that motivates you to create, Kathy was the motivation for every action around that place. I became a regular at all things Musehouse in part just to witness her in action. She was an entire beehive of activity: buzzing around the place during events, giving enthusiastic introductions at readings, handling door prizes and raffles, making sure everyone had a drink or a snack, telling Dave (her husband) what to do, and making sure everyone left with a Musehouse brochure. The energy emanating from Kathy and the idea of Musehouse in general acted like a sort of gravity, pulling people in and giving them a stable footing.

And that's what made Musehouse different from simply a place to take a workshop or attend a reading. For the years that it existed, and I was lucky enough to be part of it, Musehouse made people feel special, like they were part and not just participant.

About Grant: Grant Clauser's most recent poetry books are Reckless Constellations and The Magician's Handbook. He likes IPAs and has not cleaned his gas grill in two years. He teaches in the Rosemont College Writer's Studio. Find him at @uniambic on Twitter.  


A Remembrance by Musehouse Student Faith Paulsen  

In creating Musehouse, Kathy established a haven for readings, workshops, and literary events for writers of all levels. I was fortunate to attend Musehouse classes led by Leonard Gontarek and Grant Clauser as well as Kathy. Kathy also started an informal writing retreat group that continues today. It was at that retreat that I saw early drafts of Kathy’s Suburbia and Heaven poems.

When Kathy led a workshop, she set a tone of honesty and generosity. She often wrote on her copy of the poem. Sometimes she circled what she thought was “the heart of the poem.” When Kathy handed it back, she had marked all her favorite parts, doodled on it, perhaps a daisy or musical notes, and wrote her name at the bottom next to a heart. As a result of our workshops a number of my poems were published.

Kathy taught me that a poem could be about “What isn’t said – What can’t be said.” That the best poems include “a sense of rising.” (And in light of her own tragedies, this was not sentimental, but fierce.) I learned from her that, in the best poems, “There is no word for this except the poem itself.”

We also laughed -- a lot.

About Faith: Over the years Faith has held day jobs as a technical writer, travel writer, freelance writer and in the insurance industry to support her family and her expensive and selfish writing habit. Her work has appeared in a variety of venues ranging in alphabetical order from Apiary to Wild River Review. One poem was nominated for a Pushcart. Her first chapbook “A Color Called Harvest” (Finishing Line Press) was published in 2016.


You can put

by Faith Paulsen

your hand inside this
absence.  The half-set table, knife, cup,
saucer.   Lunch is suspended,
undone.  The chair, moved, for
some purpose, has not been returned
to its place.  From the nine-paned window,
the cold sun slants in.  Outside,
on the frozen grass,
beyond the sentinel fencepost,
a splintered log.  Here,
the plain white plate,
cold to the touch,
lifts up its porcelain hope.   


~ “You can put” previously appeared in Front Porch Review ~

Author’s Note: This poem came out of workshops with Kathy and exemplifies much of what I learned from her.


A Remembrance by Musehouse Student Susan Holck

The first thing I learned at Musehouse was that I knew nothing about writing anything beyond dry scientific tomes. Kathy’s memoir class was magical. Yes, we learned about the craft of memoir writing. But more important was Kathy. She was honest with each of us about our strengths and what needed more work and why. She cultivated an atmosphere of trust, allowing us to share deeply personal stories.

After 96,000 words of memoir, I shifted to poetry because it requires those aspects of writing I find most difficult: brevity, metaphors, and sensory detail, and reaching beyond my usual literal narrative style. Through “workshopping” in both classes, I learned to give honest feedback and truly listen to others’ comments on my work. I know my writing has improved greatly with my gentle, honest teachers and my trusting and trustworthy classmates.   

About Susan Holck: Susan Holck is a retired physician who lived in Switzerland for 30 years before relocating to Philadelphia. After decades of scientific writing, she took her first class in creative writing at Musehouse, in a memoir class taught by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno, and learned how little she knew. Through the two years of writing her memoir (now put away in a closet), she discovered the magic of “workshopping,” how to learn not only from a teacher, but also from fellow classmates, each struggling with the challenges faced by every writer. She is currently in poetry classes with Amy Small-McKinney and still marveling at the power of workshopping. Her poetry has been published in The American Journal of Poetry, By&By Poetry, Bluestem Magazine, The Ocotillo Review, and Cecile’s Writers Magazine.


Sunday Morning

by Susan Holck

Bills strewn across the table, daring to be paid
Instead, I bury my face in fresh laundry, savor its newborn smell,
fetch splintered logs for the fireplace as wood shavings scatter.
A Sunday morning like any other.

Early morning fog hovers, hugs the windows,
blurs the birch outside my window.
A cold drizzle closes in. The chill refuses the burning logs.
I shiver, wrap myself in a wool shawl, pulling warmth in close.

The phone rings.
No one phones on Sunday morning.

My daughter’s voice distant, I know the words,
know them even before they traverse the ocean,
land in the receiver I hold to my ear.
All in less than a second.

Daniel is dead, my son, my only son, Sarah’s brother.

Pastor, friends surround me in my house.
I must have phoned someone.
I serve them coffee, a plate of cookies.
That’s what you do when company comes


~ “Sunday Morning” previously published in By&By Poetry ~


Author’s Note:  I have particular difficulty cutting poems that are about an experience or feeling that is deeply important to me. Workshopping this poem helped me cut a way-too-long poem down to the essential images and message.


A Remembrance by Musehouse Student David Ryan

I met Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno when I attended my first Musehouse workshop. She was very welcoming and made me feel at home.   A friend had encouraged me to check Musehouse’s workshop offerings. At first, I was reluctant. I had no literary background and while I was an avid reader, I had rarely read poetry.  Eventually, I registered for a poetry workshop with a Musehouse teacher, Amy Small-McKinney.  I remember that Amy asked us in that first meeting about our backgrounds and what we hoped to gain.  

My background is in accounting and teaching. I was inspired by the work of friend and poet Hal Sirowitz, to write poetry after my partner, Duane’s MS worsened and his care-giving needs increased. Hal’s work is entertaining and fun to read.  I could relate to it and wondered if I too could do this. Writing poetry is very different from what I've spent my life doing.  I find it a challenge and an outlet.


About David Ryan: David Ryan is a CPA and a tenured accounting professor at Temple University. He lives in Philadelphia with his partner, Duane.  For the past several years, he has attended poetry writing workshops with poet Amy Small-McKinney.


A Remembrance by Musehouse Student Phyllis Stock  

Little did I know when I walked through the Musehouse door for a Memoir workshop, sat down with fellow students and Kathy Sheeder Bonanno, that my life would never be the same.

Kathleen called me a writer and nudged me past commas and common words onto bridges built of metaphors with vibrant adjectives. She would talk showing instead of telling and sprinkle my words with gerunds. Her generous laugh and ability to correct in the most nurturing, affirming way, kept me in the game. The only way to bring Kathleen back into my life was to continue writing, though I resisted the idea.  That urge led to a poetry class with Amy Small-McKinney and another swinging, welcoming door. Amy, my new teacher, filled me with surprises and wisdom and gentleness. Gratitude like cherry blossoms fills my tree of life. When the blossoms drop, hope springs. I’ve made new friends and learned to light up my tired and unresolved memories.  What seemed unbearable, unspeakable became story.  Inside me is a lamp lit by Musehouse.

About Phyllis: Phyllis Strock’s passions in life have been children and issues of illness and death. Her work in these areas include the use of music along with deep listening. She is currently working as a chaplain in a hospital for children. Her love of Tibetan bowls has brought her to playing them in various settings, including the bedside of the ill and dying.  In workshops she teaches the healing properties of vibration through music, using the bowls. It is her joy and privilege to accompany people on their spiritual journey. She is interested in self-expression through writing and has found poetry writing a satisfying challenge inspired by her Musehouse teachers.

To My Baby

by Phyllis Stock


I should have wet my lips with lavender oil
before I kissed your toes, your translucent face.
I should have wrapped you in the ivory satin
of my wedding dress,
swaddled in iridescent silk from India,
tied gold ribbons round and round,
sprinkled you with finest frankincense

before I lowered you into your grave.


Author’s Note: This poem was workshopped and birthed in a poetry class with Amy Small-McKinney. As with Kathleen, I found yet another facet of my lost self.

A Remembrance by Musehouse Student Susan Taichman-Robins  

I first heard of Musehouse in 2013, when my younger sister, Leslie, was dying of breast cancer. I was looking for a place where I could write about the horrendous ordeal my sister was experiencing and my fears about what was coming. I called Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno, asking if there was room for me in her class. There wasn’t, but she assured me that if I needed a safe venue to write out everything that was hurting inside, then Musehouse was the place for me. I was skeptical to take a class with another instructor, but after my first memoir writing class, I never looked back. After Memoir, I moved to poetry, studying under both Leonard Gontarek and Amy Small-McKinney, with whom I still study. To me, there is no better way to learn than to have great teachers who challenge you and to have peers who help you understand your writing strengths, as well as your weaknesses.  I have learned the art of chopping out the unnecessary, of grasping the essence of what I feel, throwing it onto the page, and then shaping it into poetry, and hopefully, into something others can taste, smell, and relate to. The use of line breaks, the importance of title, internal rhyme, imagery, space on the page, all of these are crucial elements a poet must master. The people I have met through Musehouse have become my writing family. Sharing life’s most painful stories, learning how to give voice to one’s anger, fear and sometimes surprise, all of these have been possible through the wonderful workshop classes that all began for me at Musehouse. 

About Susan: Susan Taichman-Robins is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania (18th century British Literature) and Temple University School of Law. Raised in Toronto, Canada, and having spent many years in England, Susan’s writing is strongly influenced by her life outside of the USA.  Susan began writing poetry and prose as a young child and after discovering Musehouse in Chestnut Hill, she has been published by The Moonstone Press in Poetry Ink’s 20th Anniversary Anthology. Susan now resides in Bala Cynwyd with her husband, Michael, her daughter, Ariel, and their dog, Jagger.


Very Far from Edinburgh

by Susan Taichman-Robins

Here there is no haar
blanketing hills

rolling south from the Firth
kissing me

like an old lover.
No gorse with its coconut

cologne to draw me close
press me with its thorny beard

as I become swoon and fog
like a nearly invisible lover.

Author’s Notes: Haar: A cold sea fog. It occurs most often on the east coast of England or Scotland.

Firth: The Firth of Forth (Scottish Gaelic: Linne Foirthe) is the estuary (firth) of several Scottish rivers including the River Forth. It can be seen looking northward from Edinburgh.

Gorse: A spiny evergreen shrub with dense yellow blossoms and a distinctive coconut smell. Folklore says you should only kiss your beloved when gorse is in flower.


An Afterword by Suzanne Alex Sheeder (Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno’s sister)

Musehouse was the realization of a space Kathy imagined for most of her adult life.  She so wanted to bring poetry, memoir and other classes to neighborhoods outside of center city. She envisioned a place that would nurture community and friendships, artistry and more.

It was her own mandate to honor her murdered daughter and attempt to process her grief when she couldn't not write her poetry book, Slamming Open the Door (Winner of the 2008 Beatrice Hawley Award, Alice James Books, 2009) that would prove to be the ultimate catalyst in bringing Musehouse to fruition.

Kathy always felt there was something eternal and worthy of optimism and that “light has its way.”

“Attempting to turn loss into art changed me for the better,” Kat told Terry Gross in a Fresh Air Interview in 2012.  “We’ve had some magical readings at Musehouse. Certainly, some wonderful things have happened around the table with the writers and when those beautiful moments happen I attribute it to the presence of my daughter in this place.”

Kat was honored to connect with writers both established and emerging. She was in awe of your talent and insight. She valued your friendships and your input.

That Musehouse continues to reverberate is a tribute to not only Kathy and Leidy, but to you all.  She would be humbled by your offerings.

With great love and admiration for all you do.