Monday, January 28, 2008

My first street poems

I grew up in a family where reading and writing were considered normal human activities. I wrote my first poem when I was five. I have written poetry all my life, and even published a few, in spite of Writer's Marketing Block. My poetry has improved the most in the toughest periods of my life.

In 1995, I lived on a friend's couch for eight months, in depression. During that depression I wrote only one poem. Because I now call couch-surfing being "homeless in denial," I will include that one here -- when I find it. A lot gets lost in the Great Gray Fog.

Finally I became officially homeless. I was fortunate: Seattle has good community health clinics, and after 40 years of undiagnosed and untreated manic depression (bipolar disorder), I was finally diagnosed. I was doubly fortunate: the first time I walked into a homeless shelter was the night a mental health outreach worker was there, and she got my prescription filled. I was triply fortunate: I respond well to Lithium.

Only a week after I began taking Lithium, I was able to push myself into participating in a craft project at Noel House, the homeless women's shelter where I stayed. We were making Halloween cards. This was the first poem I had written in several months.
    Now all threatening shadows
    into warmth and light.
I continued to become increasingly active. I moved from the staffed shelter of Noel House to a self-managed SHARE shelter, and became a member of StreetLife Gallery, a self-managed co-op of homeless and formerly homeless artists.

I was still confident of my writing, but I wanted to do something more visual at the art gallery, so I decided to try something new. I checked out some books from the library on handmade paper and found art, and walking back I "found" this poem.
    Creating With Found Objects

    Out of Limbo
    I come
    to find
    across the pavement
    I search
    with found objects
    a life.
In the months to come, poetry would help me recreate a life. I started a writing workshop for homeless and low-income people (who often have a hard time finding, or fitting into, other writing workshops). Many times I saw the same, infinitely rewarding, phenomenon: someone shuffles in with that "gray pavement" face; says that they can't write; starts moving a pen across the paper because this pushy old woman tells them to; something from their heart flows out; they read it out loud; they look around the table and see other people listening; their face transforms, their eyes light up with a sense of self, their body sits up and comes back to life.

The first couple of years of the workshop, I often heard lines like, "Homeless people don't need to be writing poetry! Homeless people need to be out finding a job!" I don't get those comments any more. A number of homeless service organizations have started writing programs and art programs. People noticed that if people are going to recreate our lives, we need our creativity.

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