From Poets & Writers, Inc.

POETS & WRITERS IS MORE than a magazine. We are a nonprofit organization that puts money directly into the hands of writers who give readings and lead workshops in museums, prisons, homeless shelters, libraries, and senior centers. Your subscription to Poets & Writers Magazine supports the all-important work of cultivating literary activity in urban and rural communities throughout the United States.

Throwing a Literary Lifeline

Since 2003 Poets & Writers, Inc., has funded writing workshops, led by poet Nikki Williams, for women living in shelters for the homeless and victims of domestic violence. We asked Williams to reflect on how she and the women are affected by the workshops.

The Numbers Behind
Our Readings/Workshops
Program July 1, 2009,
to June 30, 2010
Dollars P&W paid
to writers who gave
readings and held
workshops: 238,035
Number of writers
funded: 882
Number of literary
organizations that
hosted literary
events: 474
Number of events
that took
place: 2,258
Number of audience
members who
events: 99,868

I had asked the women living in a women’s shelter in the South Bronx in New York City to update a nursery rhyme that would speak to them, one that would reflect their lives. One of the rhymes, by a woman named L. B., folded me, like prayer, with its truth and power, into humility.

Mary had a big, bad man,
Big, bad man
Big, bad man
Mary had a big, bad man
Who beat her all day long
He beat her from the day they met
Day they met
Day they met
He beat her from the day they met
’Til she could take no more

In the ancient African tradition of call and response, women across avenues, across workshops, across shelters, scratched pen-upon-paper rhythms in a harmonic chorus that bore sister-witness to the troubles they’ve seen—reverberating, “Yeah Girl, I know whatchu mean.”

I am a mother of two living in a loop of confusion. Living my life for others, a thought of helping myself is an illusion.

Since I was a little girl, people abused me. I’ve been on my own since I was fourteen. Since my mother died when I was nine, my life has been turned upside down.

Years later I am still humbled by the courage of these wordsmith warriors, these women who left everyone and everything they knew to travel to a place where they might once again know themselves—women who are willing to share the most personal and tragic parts of their lives without promise of restored wholeness or the return of that which is missing or taken away.

On my son’s third birthday, though he hadn’t seen me for a year, he decided to give me a welcome home “slapping up”.… I packed up my son, sent him to live at my cousin’s house and left with only the clothes on my back. I wore the same thing for a week and a half.

These “Gonna lay my burdens down by the riverside” women, backs arched, bodies curved, heads bent over plain wooden tables, ask with each word written how to forgive the unforgettable.

For seven and a half years you held me hostage, dressed me, forced yourself on me, tried to kill me, tried to hurt my children.… I don’t want to say that I hate you, I hate the things that you did to me.

These “Come as you are” women, with clean but unadorned autumn ginger, midnight plum, creamed vanilla faces, strip down once a week and bare their souls on paper. Their pens—oars cutting through turbulent and troubled waters—bring them to the shores of self-acceptance and self-understanding. And after all is said and done, that they can find kinship and a way to hold on to themselves and one another is Grace Amazing.

I tapped myself on the shoulder today. All at once I knew I was still alive, still breathing.… Today, I lift her, embrace her, raise her way up above perceived deceptions.… I am setting her free like a dove from a hand. It’s beautiful to recognize myself again.

After these soul survivors have laid pen and pain to rest, I look at their relieved faces and I am filled with gratitude for the funding that Poets & Writers has provided. It is a literary lifeline, a line that pulls our sisters in and over waters of deep despair—poem by Life Affirming poem.