Poetic Lives II: In the Homeless Shelterby Thomas Obrzut
All the kids want to write about animals. I’m not exactly sure what makes them so interesting, but I now have four poems about cats, three about lions, two about dogs, and one each about a cheetah, a pig, a hen, and a porcupine. The only exception is Matthew’s poem about his mom. He loves her.
I teach poetry to kids in a homeless shelter. I come to the shelter every other week and give the kids exercises and help the ones struggling to write the words down. Mostly, I wait to see what the kids will tell me about themselves, about their situations, what they are going through. I wait for these kids to express some of the issues they have to talk about, or discuss what is missing in their lives. I also wait for them to write about their strengths, to see their own power and capacity. I think of this as the “transformative moment”, and I am continually looking for it.
I believe that talking about what you are going through is important; it is essential for healing what hurts and shoring up what’s good. That is what poetry has been to me. It has been expression and understanding and seeing. It has been both a testament to and a creation of reality. I am an advocate of “poetry therapy”, which relies on the same principle at work in art therapy, dance therapy, and even talking therapy, as well as the therapies developed by Sigmund Freud and a host of others. What all these forms of therapy have in common is that they are ultimately creative processes. They allow people to define themselves and their situation, to live the examined life. As a poet, I know this is true, but I have also seen it work for others and know it can be taught simply by allowing people to access their creative natures.
When I come to a class, I first remind myself that people’s situations are unique. I don’t know what’s brought my newest group of kids here, I just know they are here. This is a shelter, so these kids’ parents (moms for the most part) are homeless. Many of them are in substance abuse treatment of one kind or another, some are looking for jobs. All the moms want the rental assistance voucher the homeless get for being in a city-run shelter.
I will be working with these children until the middle of the summer. They range in age from 8 or 9 to about 11. Some of them are able to write, but mostly they are below reading level, some are unable to write at all. Many of these children are Latino, from Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic. Some are African- American. At least one child in the class has no English at all.
For the past few years, I’ve been running poetry groups for “special” populations- meaning that I work with people with various problems. These kids are homeless, but some of them have moms who are addicted to alcohol or drugs, some are the products of abusive relationships, some merely poor. Six months ago, I ran a group at Casita Rosa in the Bronx with a similar group of kids. I have also taught poetry to adults who have severe disabilities at Beth Abraham Health Services and to those who are HIV positive. Besides teaching poetry, I’ve been involved in a number of other poetic pursuits. I’ve published a magazine, run poetry readings in New Jersey and Manhattan, and published my poems in an assortment of publications. I have had a long interest in poetry, performing and writing it for the last twenty years, but it was not until four years ago that I truly discovered the power poetry could have for others. I knew that poetry allowed me to express ideas and feelings that I could not reveal any other way, but I did not realize its true potential until I discovered my ability to assist others in developing their creative processes.
The funny part is that as a child, I hated poetry. In classes where teachers counted stressed syllables, I tried to make sense out of arcane rhythmic systems that held the key to great poetry. There I was told, “You can’t write poetry. Maybe you should think about prose.” And I believed it. I started writing short stories and even gained a degree in journalism from a state university. But along the way something happened- I discovered poetry was not just for those people who could figure out iambs and pentameters.
One day at college a friend and I entered a bar where a “poetry reading” was going on. This wasn’t the stuffy, academic poetry that I didn’t understand and hated. This was a group of mostly inebriated people who were getting up and reading to applause and whose work related to something I could comprehend. Some poems were funny, and some were about drinking and drugs. Some dealt with more serious issues, like being sexually abused by one’s grandfather or about Apartheid. Some of it didn’t make much sense to me, but it was alive and engaging and I came away from there thinking, “I can do this.”
When I went to work after college, I started as a newspaper reporter, which I never liked and so eventually left the field. I did continue to attend poetry readings and write my own stuff too. I went back to school with the vague notion that I might teach in a college somewhere. In order to make ends meet, I took a part-time job in a homeless men’s shelter in New Brunswick, New Jersey. This was work that I really loved. I could do something useful and at the same time meet interesting people. Part of the allure, I must confess, came in the idea of using the stories that I heard while working with these men for my own writing. Whatever the reason, I now found work that I enjoyed and so stayed with it. Eventually I went back to school again and completed a master’s in social work. Before I knew it, I found myself a social worker with fifteen years experience assisting homeless people.
In 1997, I moved to Manhattan from New Jersey and took a job with the very ill: victims of strokes, gun-shot wounds, cerebral palsy, etc. I was to make sure that these people were as healthy as they could possibly be, which included visiting them in their homes, assisting them with family problems, and generally spending a lot of time in their presence. At a certain point, while running a discussion group, I decided to liven things up by bringing in some poetry.
So the next week I decided that instead of our regular Wednesday bull session, I would run a poetry group. I asked the participants to write about their favorite color and I wrote a poem too. Getting my group to express themselves was harder than I first expected. Some of the members were illiterate; others were unable to write because of disability. So I helped them to create their poems, writing down thoughts for one person, recording a poem for another who couldn’t hold a pen. Eventually, the group’s poetry took shape.
The process turned the group from one with sporadic attendance and half-interest to one overflowing with regulars. Gerard’s case was most interesting to me because he was one of the hardest patients to work with on our day health center.
Gerard was severely disabled: he walked very precariously and was required to use his wheelchair in the center because of the number of falls he took and the danger he represented to himself and others. His speech was very difficult to decipher. He would ask for cigarettes and money and attention from anyone who came in contact with him. Gerard’s father sent him to the center primarily to get him out of the house, where his sole pursuit was listening to records for long hours. Most of the staff and many of the other patients tried to avoid Gerard, partially because of his attitude but also because he appeared so “disabled”.
No one was able to make much more than superficial contact with Gerard. But the exercise with colors was very powerful for him. He wrote a poem about liking blue because it was also his mother’s favorite color. It was the first time Gerard ever shared about his relationship with his mother and we now found out that she was the most significant person to him, one of the few who ever gave him the love he needed. The emotional floodgates were opened for Gerard, and by the time I was done helping him write down his poem, he was in tears. This was indeed a “transformative moment” for Gerard, and one I have seen repeated with dozens of other student since then.
Such experiences are what I hope for when I work with the kids on their poems about animals. They write a lot about their love for favorite pets like a cat, a dog, or a
My name is Henry
I like to eat Hen cause
Hen is good to eat.
Hen is fun to play
and good to eat/
I like hen and hens love me.
THE MOUSE THAT EATS A LOT
He’s a hungry mouse
He looks in people’s fridges
When he’s going from place to place
He puts his nose on the ground
Because he’s hungry too much
Whenever people drop cheese
He picks it up and eats it.
Mouse, but also, about what animals do, like how the cheetah hunts and looks for food. One child describes how his sister accidentally fed his mouse to her cat. After two weeks, we move on to favorite foods. I notice the small things, like how one child was cooking dinner for her family when she was only eight years old. It is not so much the details of the events, but the chance for the children to explain how they feel about them, which makes these moments so powerful. You can see it in a kid’s pride over accomplishing a task usually reserved for a grown up person, or in his or her sadness over the loss of a pet. As they express these feelings, they can start to grasp what their lives mean, value what they have done, and mourn what they have lost.
Lately I have noticed a few patterns developing. One young girl, eleven or so, is surly. She is not nice to the other kids and they do not seem to like her too much. But something about the class has inspired her. The first week it takes her all class to write a poem and the next week she does not attend class. But the following week, she sends in two booklets that she has designed using crayon, and they are filled with the poems she has written during the week. She writes about subways and pizza and cats. The poems are nicely crafted for a girl who the other kids say is not good in school. She takes pride in her accomplishment, as you can tell by the care that went into the construction of the booklets. No longer surly, now when she comes to class, she often cracks a smile.
The other kids write about different subjects. As times goes by, each of them starts to have a transformative moment of one kind or another. They get excited writing their poems, they find strength in reading them. Sylvia loves to act out her poems, Johnny makes the class laugh. It doesn’t matter what the kids are writing about; I can see the joy the writing produces. I see these kids realizing that their experience matters and means something, a lesson that these kids need badly and rarely get. I know that I grow from these exercises also, but for me the true value of this work is that people who generally have no voice, like the disabled or the homeless, are shown that they can speak, that what they say means something. It also proves something about the true place of art. Art is not a specialization to be performed solely by the privileged and the “talented”. Art is instead accessible to all, and it can enliven anyone’s life.
THOMAS OBRZUT, CSW, is a poet and social worker living in Manhattan. His work has appeared in Long Shot, Paterson Literary Review, Poetry Motel, and others. He has also emceed and co produced the Proletkult Poetry Circus for the last ten years.