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.

Restoring a Sense of Humanity

The Numbers Behind
our Readings/Workshops
July 1, 2011,
to June 30, 2012
Dollars P&W paid to
writers who gave readings
and led workshops:
Number of writers
Number of literary
organizations that hosted
these events:
Number of events that
took place:
Approximate number
of people who
attended these events:

Poet John Maney Jr. is one of the writers who have received funding through Poets & Writers’ Readings/Workshops program. We asked him to reflect on his experience teaching creative writing to men and women at the Fortune Society, a nonprofit social-service and advocacy organization in New York City that works to support successful reentry from prison and to promote alternatives to incarceration.

Humanity Rediscovered
Gang Bangers
Bank Robbers
Drug Dealers
In Drug Treatment
Anger Management
Overcoming abuse
Overcoming poverty
Overcoming neglected schools
Overcoming racism
Overcoming sexism
Hoping for a second chance
Or maybe just looking for a first one.

The men and women in my workshops at the Fortune Society wanted change in their lives. Recently released from prison, they were trying to live differently, to avoid the ways that led them to be locked up, and it wasn’t easy. Having a criminal record—on top of the fact that many participants had dropped out of high school—made jobs hard to come by. Surviving outside prison on the legit side of the law was hard, but they were trying. Most were working on their GEDs while learning about computers. They took classes in math and English, which is where my workshop fell, or so they thought when they signed up. Little did they know that writing is learning about oneself more than it is about punctuation. Through the use of provocative prompts and positive reinforcement, we started together down the often very rough path of self-discovery and self-expression.

For most participants, hiding their pain and showing no weakness was a matter of survival on the streets of New York City’s toughest neighborhoods, and especially in prison. Pain, however, is a common denominator among humans, and having to constantly hide it can make people feel almost as if they’re not human. They become numb to their own feelings, and once that happens it isn’t long until they become numb to the feelings of others. My job as workshop leader was to create a safe place where they could tell their stories, and express through writing their full range of emotions. Slowly, workshop by workshop, their shells cracked and they began to breathe deeply again. One day a young man came to me and said my workshop was the hardest class he had, and the one he loved most, because it allowed him to be himself. Another young man broke down in tears after sharing a story about how he’d been severely beaten and robbed. He then confessed that he wasn’t crying because of what had happened to him, but rather because writing the piece made him think for the first time about someone he’d robbed, and how that person must’ve felt. One young woman wrote about being brutally raped. Once she finished reading her piece, she had to step out of the room. I went to follow, but the toughest gangbanger in our group stepped out before me. At first they didn’t touch; he just asked if she was all right. She whispered no. Then, with tears in her eyes, she reached out for him, and he embraced her. They stood for a while, not speaking, and then returned to their chairs to hear the stories others had to share.

I’m honored and humbled to have witnessed the courage it took my workshop participants to open themselves and expose their souls before our group. I’m also grateful for the rejuvenating support Poets & Writers gave me when most other wells had gone dry. Creativity, self-expression, and restoring a sense of humanity in those who’ve been dehumanized—this is what Poets & Writers supported in my workshops. It’s important work.