Connecting Words and People in NYC’s community: A Reflection
By Amanda Faye Lacson
On September 18, 2011, two groups gathered together to take part in “Connecting Words and People in Community,” a writing workshop scheduled as part of the One City, One Prompt project: Sherry Reiter’s poetry therapy mentees of The Creative “Righting” Center; and SwirlNYC Writer’s Circle, a group that I facilitate monthly, writing on the topics of race and identity.
Sherry introduces herself to the group, discussing The Creative “Righting” Center, which offers poetry therapy training; traditional and creative therapy methods for individuals and groups; and consulting, lectures, and workshops for agencies and staff training. I introduce myself as a graduate from Goddard’s Transformative Language Arts concentration, discussing the TLA approach to studying language’s ability to transform oneself and communities. Finally, Jen Chau, director and founder of Swirl, introduces herself and Swirl, a multi-ethnic anti-racist organization that promotes cross-cultural, cross-racial dialogue.
Handing Sherry’s rain stick around the circle, we each say our name. We read the poem, “Each of Us Has a Name” by Marcia Falk, each participant taking one line. The participants then split off into small groups, and discuss three things important to their identity. When we call time, Sherry asks for people to call out some themes that came up for them in the groups. “Family.” “Parents.” “Rage.” “Addiction.”
Next, the Word Salad exercise. Sherry brings out a Tupperware bowl full of tiny scraps of paper, each with one word on it. She has two decorative wooden spoons, each with a deep bowl. She asks one of the participants to stir the Tupperware bowl; gently, so the words don’t come tumbling out. Each participant grabs a handful of words: about 10 on white paper, 3 on gold. The gold ones are words that have to do with community and community building. Sherry gives the prompt, “create a poem with the words. Add a few words if you want, but not to many. And try to use all the words you can.” After several minutes, we go around the circle, each participant reading his or her piece. One piece that came out of this exercise is Jack Morris’ “Authentic Sky.” The most powerful thing about this exercise, I find, is the surprising combination of words, unique descriptions of sounds and objects, a fantastic outcome of the spontaneous word jumble.
Next, I play Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” on my iPod. The strings soar, and the room is silent except for the music. A chill runs up my spine. My heart beats faster. I’ve heard this song before, but listening, really listening and giving over all my attention to it with others engaged the same way is a different experience. Sam Cooke’s voice is smooth, the melody lines aching, soaring to the top of his vocals.
Sherry comes up with an exercise on the spot, as she reads along with the lyrics, “Then I go to my brother/And I say brother help me please/But he winds up knocking me/Back down on my knees.” After the song finishes, she asks the participants to write for five minutes on the following prompt, “what knocks you to your knees?” One participant’s response stands out to me – she reads a list of sayings inspired by excuses not to change or transform: “there’s not enough time,” “we’ll get to it later,” “it’s all right for now.”
The next writing prompt (which originally followed the song) is this: “Think about a global or personal change you want to see in the world. What are the small steps that we could take toward making that change?” This prompt spurs on substantial, powerful writing: Jen Chau’s “Concrete Steps,” Jack Morris’ “An Army of One,” Sherry Stuart-Berman’s “what weather we’re having today,” and Kathryn M. Fazio’s “If the Men Come Back from War.” As the participants share their work, talking about the changes they want to see in the world, small and large, and how they want to be part of the change, I am truly mesmerized. I’ll let the writings speak for itself; suffice it to say, I’m grateful to be in a room full of such talent and heart.
The final piece we share with the participants is Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem, “Call Me By My True Names.” Instead of writing, we discuss the meaning, content and language of the poem. Some participants are moved by the powerful, sometimes political language that Hanh uses; others are put off by it; and yet others are reminded of Rumi and other poets who have a similar message. This discussion is a reminder of how language moves us in spectacular and various ways; how a person’s choice of words can draw us in or put us off.
The last ritual is one of Sherry’s “quick endings.” We stand in a circle, and then move in toward each other. We each extend one arm toward the center. Hands pile on top of each other. We stand, hold the energy together. Think of our time together. We breathe. Then we let go.
Sherry Reiter, PhD, PTR-M/S, RDT/BCT, is co-author of Writing Away the Demons: Stories of Creative Coping Through Transformative Writing. Director of The Creative Righting Center, she trains poetry therapist both regionally and long-distance. She is also the creator of Poets-Behind- Bars, a long-distance writing program for inmates of Indiana State Prison. See her websites: www.thecreativerightingcenter.com and about the book, www.writingawaythedemons.com
Amanda Faye Lacson, MA, is a graduate of Goddard College’s Individualized Master of Arts, Transformative Language Arts concentration. Her thesis, Unveiling Aphrodite: Examining the Mythology of Romantic Love spanned topics and writing styles she holds close to her heart: mythology, romantic love, intimacy, family, women’s issues, identity, psychology, poetry, and creative nonfiction. In addition to writing about these topics, Amanda embraces the opportunity to facilitate writing workshops, so others may also examine the unconscious myths that affect their lives. Learn more about her work at: www.amandafayelacson.com.