Can the act of empathy, learned from literature and poetry, become an act of appropriation when we take it to our lived lives? This is a question I haven’t been able to answer. Each of us is not a sun around which others revolve; we cannot, like black holes, pull everything into us without risking erasure, of others, of ourselves. Perhaps more than the practice of empathy, poetry offers us the opportunity to listen, and not just in the way that it appeals to the same areas of the brain music stimulates, and not just in the way that we can hear the cadence and rhythm and sounds of poetry. Perhaps poetry offers us the opportunity to hear its many speakers, to not so much as internalize each of their voices and experiences as to confirm them, to say, you are you, you are a voice, I hear you.
My fifteen students in ENGL 305: Writing Poetry gave a final reading on my front porch yesterday morning. They each read one of their own poems and then a poem that they loved from our required texts. We all stood down on the sidewalk for each reading. Additional audience members included the mailman, pizza guy, and several passersby in cars and on foot. My hope is to continue to have my students do public poetry projects. The following students gave me written permission to share their photos here.
In addition to prison poetry workshops, let’s do police poetry workshops. I believe that poetry—all art—has the ability and responsibility to guide others into new perspectives. In “Tide of Voices: Why Poetry Matters Now,” Mark Doty says:
People who read imagine the lives of others. Literature makes other people more real to us. It invites us to notice differences but, even more so, points toward commonality.
Reading makes us more attuned to the needs, wants, and experiences of others and, therefore, has the potential of making us more conscientious citizens. I am the daughter of a former police officer and I was raised as the stepdaughter to another. Of course, there are good cops out there who genuinely strive to protect citizens. That being said, with the recent events in Ferguson—both the shooting of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson and the police response to the community’s riots—and in Staten Island—the chokehold death of Eric Garner—I’m concerned about the tendency toward violence and discrimination by our nation’s law enforcement.
As mentioned in my previous post, last year I encountered a cop who told me he had a book of poetry in his car. He asked me questions about poetry and what he should read. When I shared this story via social media, poet Staci R. Schoenfield led me to the idea of police poetry workshops when she said she suggested “arming police with poetry.”
Could poetry have a meaningful impact on police officers? What if we were to offer poetry workshops for law enforcement? While prison poetry workshops have been established in many communities across the nation, it strikes me that it also assumes that convicts are the only ones in need of these exercises in creativity, empathy, and imagination. While I’m certain that these prison or probation poetry workshops are doing vital and important work, why not also address the other side? Perhaps poetry workshops won’t alter systemic problems in the justice system, but they could have a meaningful impact on individual officers or groups of officers. In response to the recent deaths of black men at the hands of police, Claudia Rankine writes: “Because white men can’t police their imaginations, black men are dying.” Can we change this through poetry?
When I posted the idea for this program on social media, a friend posted a link to Art At Work’s “Thin Blue Lines” project and poetry calendar. Art At Work is “a national initiative to give municipal governments the powerful resource that comes from direct creative engagement.” They partnered with Portland, Maine’s police department and asked their officers to write poems that were then published as calendars. This is the only initiative that I know about right now that directly engages police officers in writing poetry, but if you have any information about similar programs in your area, please contact me using the form below.
I’m looking into the possibility of starting a police poetry workshop in my own community, and I encourage others to do the same. As I find out more information, I will post it here.
I want to get a group of poets and poetry readers together to go door-to-door reading poems in the community for the holidays. The poems should be about community, but that doesn’t mean that they should be easy, “rah-rah” poems. Rather, they should engage issues that the community faces—that our nation faces—that will also provide something to the listener, be it a new perspective, an idea, or even hope.
Although I’m going to try to launch this in my own neighborhood—Oregon Hill in Richmond, Virginia. My hope is that this could eventually happen in neighborhoods all over the United States. These groups could even ask their neighbors several questions like:
When was the last time you read a poem?
What was the greatest challenge you faced in reading poems?
Do you feel like the poems you had previous experience with appealed to your own life?
Do you know that poets are still writing today?
Did this poem address a concern that you have about your community?
Additionally, poetry educators could ask their students to be a part of the program, as a service learning endeavor.
Of course, not all neighbors would be receptive to this project, but some people would at least listen. Others might be engaged or inspired.
The seed for this project comes from an encounter I had with a police officer who was looking for the previous tenant at my house. When he asked me what I teach, he told me had a book of poetry in his cruiser. We talked for over thirty minutes about poetry and how he wanted to understand it better. This whole exchange happened on my front porch.
If you are interested in this project and would like to talk about collaborating on a door-to-door poetry caroling project in your neighborhood, please contact me through the form below.