A Poet Acts Out

Last week I wrote about a poet and activist I met while attending the 100 Thousand Poets for Change in Salerno, Italy. I asked my readers to think about what kinds of change poets can stir up, and I introduced my readers to Richard Paa Kofi Botchwey who established a foundation to help orphans in Ghana. This week I’d like you to meet my new friend Siobhan McMahon, an Irish performance poet who lives in Yorkshire, England.

Siobhan and I began talking before we arrived in Salerno and bonded over our mutual love of Ireland, drama, and Trinity College. Once we began talking, I discovered Siobhan does a lot of poetry workshops with women experiencing mental health issues.

Ann Bracken, Debby Kevin, Siobhan McMahon, and Karla

While working in a closed psychiatric ward with women in England, Siobhan offered poetry workshops giving the  women some way to have a voice, some way to tell their stories of pain and darkness. She told me how the women opened up once they could tell their stories and share the common struggles that kept them locked away. Poetry became almost a natural vehicle for them to explore the dark secrets hidden inside. Siobhan was passionate about the power of poetry for both bonding the women to each other in mutual support and for its quiet power to reveal new truths to women who are largely forgotten and ignored.

Helping women, especially women suffering from mental illness (though I prefer to call it deep sadness) is a big part of what I am committed to. Because my book, The Altar of Innocence, is dedicated to helping women find a voice, I gave Siobhan a copy to use in her work. I look forward to hearing how she is using it.

Here is a link to read and listen to Siobhan read her poem “Saving the World.” Enjoy and go out and save some part of your world today!

What Can Poets Change?

I just returned from a wonderful conference called 100 Thousand Poets for Change in Salerno, Italy. The event organizers and driving forces behind the international gathering of poets for social change are Michael Rothenberg and Terri Carrion of Guernville, California. Their idea? Invite poets and organizers from all over the world to gather in Salerno–to  meet, socialize, and network to discuss ideas for how we can all facilitate social change. And they made it all work in a beautiful place called the Santa Sofia Complex, the site of a former monastery now used as an exhibit center and a gathering space.

Unlikely, you say. What can poets change? I used to think that as well, back when I was an activist marching in the streets and demonstrating at politicians’ offices. Show up, resist, use civil disobedience—that’s how you change things. And, yes, that’s still a vibrant and important model for social change. But we’re not all called to engage in the same way, especially as we move through different seasons in our lives. The poets that I hung out with in Salerno are an eclectic, international group of activists who are using the power of words to change hearts. And often a change of heart is more powerful than a change of mind. This week and next week, I’ll be sharing stories of two amazing poets I met in Salerno. I hope the following story makes you smile.

Michael Rothenberg, Richard Botchwey, and Terri Carrion
Michael Rothenberg, Richard Botchwey, and Terri Carrion

Richard Paa Kofi Botchwey is a bright, friendly, and kind young man from Ghana who has a warm smile and lots of wisdom to share. He impressed me with his story about being an orphan at the age of 7 and how he used his faith and determination to overcome all the hardships a child alone is faced with. Richard is one of those people about whom you might say, “He didn’t just survive, he thrived.” And Richard is passionate about taking his message of hope for orphans on a grand tour. In 2013 he published his memoir called The Tale of an Orphan: A Lesson To Learn and received much praise and critical acclaim for his personal story of triumph. Richard now works to help other orphans, especially in Ghana, and has established a trust called Orphan Trust Movement, which has helped over 10,000 young people in Ghana. Richard calls all of us to action with his quiet courage when he says, “You are the one who can stand up and do something to bring everlasting difference. …if you are not an orphan, you can still use this book to learn how to stop reflecting on the past and improve your life today.” Richard is changing the lives of orphans and many others with his book, his poetry, and his quiet determination.

Dear Readers, whose writing has inspired you? Whose work has touched your heart in some profound way? I love to hear your stories, so please share in the comments.





Papermaking for the Soul: Healing the Wounds of War

Author’s note: I interviewed Drew Matott a few years ago for a longer interview and his contributions never got published. I offer this interview now because his words and ideas are still relevant. Matott gives us lots to think about when he details how he has used papermaking to engage people in civil dialog and healing work.

I first encountered Drew Matott’s work with the Peace Paper Project when I interviewed Drew Cameron about his work with Warrior Writers and The Combat Paper Project. I learned about the importance of providing a space for returning warriors to reintegrate into society when I read Jonathan Shay’s book Achilles in Vietnam, where he explores the ceremonies that the Greeks offered for their returning warriors. The warriors could share their experiences and then cleanse themselves of their grief and pain in public rituals meant to reintegrate the men back into society. Such rituals are largely missing today, but I feel the work of The Combat Paper Project offers a place where returning warriors can share their stories and process some of their pain in a transformative space. But why papermaking?

Drew Cameron and friends at Combat Paper Workshop
Drew Cameron and friends at Combat Paper Workshop

When Matott was in art school in Chicago, he grew frustrated with listening to all the different media outlets-CNN, FOX, MSNBC, and NPR among them-and felt confused and overwhelmed by the similarity in the viewpoints they expressed. He decided to take his papermaking to the street as a way to engage people in meaningful conversations about issues as wide-ranging as their opinions of President Bush, the war on terror, and religion. “Papermaking is a non-obtrusive vehicle to engage with people on a wide range of social and political issues. I was using techniques that had been in continuous use for thousands of years.”

Collection of poems and essays from Warrior Writers Workshops.
Collection of poems and essays from Warrior Writers Workshops.

Matott’s initial projects with papermaking on the street ranged from printing pictures of George Bush and asking people to rate his job approval with one to five stars, to asking if Jesus would be happy with George Bush’s handling of the wars, again with one to five stars. He got a variety of reactions from smiles of approval to frowns of rage over the idea of how Jesus might rate Bush. Matott found that people on the street wanted to talk to him, wanted to discuss issues of the day, and reflected a wide range of opinions on topical issues. They seemed to feel empowered when they could rate the president or talk about important issues happening around them. Art-making allowed Matott to feel more like a citizen engaging in a true democratic discussion, instead of a bystander passively listening to the views espoused in the corporate media system.

Matott’s papermaking and social engagement drew the attention of libraries and literacy councils who asked him to do workshops to promote literacy. His most innovative workshop was “Deep Fry Your Book.” People brought books that held a negative association for them and could have them deep-fried and shrink-wrapped in an effort to transform their associations with their old reading material. What started as an absurd idea became a joyous celebration on the streets of Chicago, as people lined up and waited for hours to heave their books deep-fried. “We had all kinds of batters to choose from: Oreos, sprinkles, and chocolate chip for the sweet tooth crowd; and tempura, fish fry, or cornmeal for the savory crowd. Each person who came to us got to tell the story of why the book was painful for them. “My dad corrected every problem that I ever did in this math book. I never got anything right, so now I hate math.” “I flunked eleventh grade English because I couldn’t understand Moby Dick. Now that it’s deep fried and shrink-wrapped, I think maybe I could go back and try it again.”

All of the folks in the line that day were treated to personal attention, told their story to a willing and respectful listener, and walked away smiling as they clutched their reclaimed, vacuum-sealed books. “We took something negative in people’s lives and through attentive listening coupled with an artistic process, we helped people transform deeply negative associations into positive possibilities. We sugar-coated the bad, if you will,” Matott says.

Inspired by his artmaking work on the streets of Chicago, Matott felt empowered to take on darker subjects in search of transformation, such a veterans’ memories of war and the trauma they carry invisibly once they arrive back in the States. What he discovered about his papermaking is that it became a catalyst for forming community based on shared experience and shared stories. It is as if the stories became woven invisibly into the paper as a tangible product of the papermaking workshops.

What Matott has found in his papermaking is a reaffirmation of the power of art to heal lives through shared experience. In conjunction with art and recreational therapists, he offers programs for veterans as part of the The Veteran Paper Project. Matott leaves us with a lot to think about regarding community, healing, and veterans:

“The end product of our papermaking is actually the ability of the community to have a positive effect on each other. Ninety percent of the folks who come to our workshops don’t know each other in the beginning. It’s through the sitting around the table, sharing stories about the clothing they bring, as well as the recruiting stories, the growing-up stories, and the angry stories. This is how the community forms. We focus on providing the technical skill to make the paper and just allow the process [of forming a community] to happen. That’s actually the trick-allowing something to just happen.” Some people feel proud of their service, others do not feel proud. In the end, they all walk away with a better understanding of what their service means.”

“It’s the process that brings people together. We help the process to flow and people find their own pace. We let the people figure out the meaning.”

“I actually had no idea paper could be like that.”



Using the Arts for Social Change

When I was growing up in the 60s, one of the first calls for social action I heard was from President John F. Kennedy during his inaugural address. His words inspired us then and they still move many to action: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Kennedy’s words so inspired people that many joined the newly organized Peace Corps and served people in countries all over the world. Inspiring words, grand actions.

At the same time that many were joining the Peace Corps, another man rose up to inspire Americans to take action for the cause of civil rights. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King inspired people of all races in the United States to work for civil rights and the right to vote without undue obstacles like literacy tests. I remember marches all over this country and TV screens filled with protestors sitting at lunch counters waiting to be served, a bold act when restaurants all over the US were segregated and prohibited Black customers. I remember the March on Washington and the Selma March, with its awful violence. I remember the bravery of the non-violent protestors who took the blows of the billy clubs and the forceful torrents of water from fire hoses. And King’s words ring out for all of us when we still fight for civil rights and justice, especially for people of color: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

My early models for social justice were men who could command a stage. Men who could lead thousands and whose faces filled the television screens and magazine covers. Men who could inspire marches and action by thousands, even millions of people. In my teen years, I saw men leading marches against the war. Men taking over college campus buildings. Men burning their draftcards. Again, my models were out in the streets, marching and challenging the Vietnam War.

And yes, there were women in the social justice movements of the 60s and 70s. But they all seemed to play a secondary role and they certainly weren’t out leading the movements. Until I became aware of the Women’s Movement in the early 1970s. But much like the men, the women gave speeches and participated in marches and demonstrations.

So when I decided to take an active role in a social justice movement, I marched and demonstrated. I registered voters and wrote to my legislators. I was on the front lines of organizing the Nuclear Freeze Movement in the 1980s and was an active participant in many marches opposing the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. But despite millions of people all over the world demonstrating against those wars, they rolled on and still continue. I was utterly devastated when the US invaded Iraq in 2003 and the news media almost cheered the horrific bombing campaign called “Shock and Awe.” And I haven’t marched since then.

But I still care deeply about many social and environmental justice issues. How can I be an activist if I don’t march or demonstrate or staff phone banks? My early years would have me believe that those are the only options open for participating in social change movements. But I discovered another tool for change when I suffered a severe depression and had to pull back from all of my many activities. I discovered the power of using art for change. In my case, the power of poetry and theater as agents for social change.

Performance art in Madrid, Spain
Performance art in Madrid, Spain

Why is art so powerful? Think about the furor over Diego Rivera’s murals in the Rockefeller Center when he worked to create his masterpiece called “Man: Controller of the Universe.” The images of working men in dire circumstances caused such controversy with the Rockefellers that Rivera eventually destroyed the original mural in New York and later recreated it in Mexico. Rivera wasn’t giving speeches. He was using pictures to criticize the excesses of capitalism.

Billy Holiday sang Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit”, a song about lynching that got her banned from clubs all over the US. Lorraine Hansbury used her own experiences and the work of her father to integrate housing in Chicago when she wrote and produced her play A Raisin in the Sun. A play still relevant today and performed all across the US.

What do all these artists have in common? In my mind, I see them as the ones who can inspire and feed other activists, offering sustenance, like cooks who feed the workers when they come in from their shift at a job. In their own ways, they took stands and used their gifts to work for social change. They used their art. And that art still speaks to us and inspires us today.

What about you? Maybe you’re not an artist or someone who wants to march and protest. We’re not all called to do those things. Mother Theresa reminds us that we can all contribute when she said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Go out and do something with love.