Is the Workshop Tomorrow?
POETS & WRITERS IS MORE than a magazine. We are a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving creative writers. We pay fees to writers giving readings and leading workshops, provide information and advice to authors, and help them connect with one another and with audiences. We also sponsor a number of awards and prizes.
At 2 AM my phone begins to receive texts from people I intentionally call fellow writers. They ask, “Is the poetry workshop tomorrow?” I’ve never canceled a workshop, so I’m pretty sure they need to confirm because, like me, they’ve been bitten by the writing bug and now they need to write. Like me they have gladly discovered that they are not alone in feeling the way they do. But, wait—it gets better. They’ve also discovered that sharing our poems empowers and inspires us, as well as the listener or reader, and they’ve learned that we are more than just survivors or homeless, disenfranchised, or marginalized people. Now we are also writers.
This self-discovery is bigger than I have space to fully describe here. But I will try to convey some of the experiences I’ve had at Concourse House and Bronx Crisis Respite Center, two of the places where, with support from Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program, I share my love of writing poetry and the spoken word. Bonnie Rose Marcus, director of Readings & Workshops (East), encouraged me to seek support for the poetry workshops I’d been doing with children at Concourse House, and she suggested that I include their mothers, too. I applied for funding, and the Words of Wisdom Workshop has been going strong ever since. Making a living is necessary, and I’ve always found ways to make ends meet, but being recognized and paid for my work as a writer has given me confidence to do much more.
The potential for personal and social change via poetry and spoken word continues to be both a lifeline and a life-changing experience for me. Supporting and empowering homeless mothers and others who have survived crises to write poetry has become my greatest inspiration. Ten times out of ten we learn that we are stronger than we knew, that our poems are interesting and encourage others, and that we get stronger by doing more of this work.
I am grateful for some methods I’ve found to be effective for teaching writing to people, including youth, who are particularly vulnerable. I understand this because I was vulnerable too—until I found support for my writing and the courage to share it.
I enter the workshop as an equal participant; I am there to grow as a writer too. I bring poems, prompts, coffee, cookies, and clipboards so we can write from couches, which I’ve rearranged to create a salon atmosphere. I want to disarm fears about writing from the very beginning. At the shelter workshops, moms often have babies in arms, and I sometimes hold the babies to give their mothers time to write. Recently one mother said that writing poems helped her to love her baby better. I use a wireless microphone and encourage (well, slightly demand) that we loudly applaud one another. This is always great fun and increases participants’ willingness to get up in front of the group every week as well as to practice for our final public reading. Who doesn’t want to be applauded? As shy as most are at first, there is never any going back. Amplification further empowers the voices of those we hear very little from in our communities; it allows them to hear themselves in bigger ways.
At the end of each workshop session, I create a chapbook of their poems, register and copyright it, print copies, and recognize them as fellow writers. They are always so excited to see their published work and rush to flip through the chapbook to find their pieces. I compare their beaming smiles to what I’ve seen after taping my own child’s pictures onto the refrigerator. When you feel like you’re being heard, that you’re less invisible and truly recognized as a writer, the world opens up and suddenly becomes a better place to be—a place where we can contribute something important, like a poem, like a piece of ourselves.
Read more about events supported by the Readings & Workshops program at pw.org/blogs/rw_blogger.
Sally DeJesus is a poet, performer, and mixed-media artist who earned her BA at SUNY Empire State College. She facilitates poetry workshops at Concourse House, Bronx Crisis Respite Center, Sisters Uptown Bookstore and Cultural Center, and elsewhere in Harlem, where she lives and performs her poetry. Her poems are published in River & South Review, Manhattan Linear, the Metropolitan Review, Mad Gleam Press, and A New Collection of Bowery Poetry. A video about her work at Concourse House can be seen at