Day one: London Metropolitan
Police. We huddle in a circle, clutching pens and tablets as
rain streams down the windows of this room above the Dogstar
Pub. The cops are suspicious of me, an American, and of the
absurd idea that poetry can do one iota of good for this
neighborhood. They work a tough beat: Brixton, the borough with
the highest rate of violent crime in London. Sergeant Dawn Hull,
a petite, no-nonsense woman with short, black, moussed hair
tells me that she's participating in my poetry workshop because,
"I wouldn't make my officers do anything I wouldn't
The group of eight policemen
and women wear jeans and sweatshirts. A couple of the male cops
with shaved pates look more like skinhead thugs than bobbies.
They shake their heads as they glance at the peeling walls and
sticky floors in this unheated room, which smells of stale beer
and cigarettes. Officer Lee tells me they are summoned
frequently to this very pub-to break up fights. I ask the
bleary-eyed bartender downstairs if we could score a heater. He
says he'll try as he unloads a box of last night's dirty beer
glasses into the sink. It doesn't look promising.
When I first agreed to do this
week-long gig with police and young offenders using-yes-poetry
to help break down the walls between them, I was teaching in a
more sedate section of London. One of the participants happened
to be Simon Keyes, the director of Brixton's Lambeth Crime
Prevention Trust, an independent non-profit organization set up
by the Lambeth Council and the Metropolitan Police, to develop
At the end of the workshop,
Simon asked if I could "come and do some poetry magic"
with his troubled neighborhood. "Sure," I said,
having no clue what I was getting into. The thought of
working with two such disparate groups appealed to me; after
all, poetry itself is the embodiment of contradiction. I'd lived
in England in the eighties, but had never ventured into Brixton,
where a history of smoldering racial tension was rekindled in
1993 after the gang murder of a black teenager named Stephen
Lawrence. The Metropolitan Police had bungled the investigation,
and police-community relations had remained volatile at best.
Inspired by Simon's unusual
request, I began asking myself what I could offer eight police
officers and eight troubled teens. Poet Stanley Kunitz calls
poetry a "gift to the world," and I decided that no
matter how many worlds apart my life was from the British cops'
and robbers', perhaps we could explore the heft of language
together-and build some bridges while we were at it. I
designed a workshop and named it Connecting Cord after a poem
I'd recently launched on a NASA mission sent to monitor the
prenatal activity of stars. Simon misspelled it and Connecting
Chord eventually found metaphoric power I could not have
anticipated. He raised the funds, including a chunk from the
English Poetry Society, and called to tell me to book a flight.
Now here I'd landed at the grimy Dogstar on a raw week in
February to use poetry as an instrument for crime prevention.
Blunt instruments are left at the door.
In this mostly black section
of London, all the cops in my program are white. Officers from
rural counties, like Garry, a large-necked recruit with a buzz
cut, had never even seen a black person until joining the force
several months earlier. In a thick Cheshire accent, he says he
has no sympathy for any of the black youth in the borough. He's
been spat upon too many times. "We do talk to these
kids," Sgt. Dawn confides, "but normally we call it
I read the cops a poem by Jack
Gilbert called "Guilty," written in the voice of a man
accused of raping and killing a woman. As the poem unfolds we
learn that the narrator is a homeless man who has stumbled upon
the dead body. He combs her hair so she won't be disheveled for
the raw police photographs. The last line of the poem reads:
"I wanted/to give her spirit enough time to get
ready." Reading aloud, my trembling voice betrays how moved
I am by this poem and its shocking beauty. They soften a little
and start to tell more about their daily beat. Then we write.
The officers are more daunted
by the prospect of putting pen to paper than facing the street.
Writing reminds them of school, they say, so to dispel this
fear, we just write for twelve minutes without stopping-about
their jobs, their families, childbirth. No expectation. When we
all read aloud, a new warmth and trust enters the room. Sgt.
Dawn writes about the corruption in the force and admits that
Brixton Road is less of a challenge than the lack of leadership
in her department. The young women tell of older male officers
bullying them to tears at the station. The writing begins to
engender a new camaraderie among these recruits, and they shape
these stories into art.
Day two: the kids.
teenagers with boom boxes fill the room with hormones and
impudence. They arrive with a youth mentor, Tania, who has
marginal control but is clearly my ally, my Sergeant Dawn today.
For a moment I wonder how I will be able to engage this group.
Sixteen-year-old Keith admits he was on drugs and paranoid when
he was walking late at night and met an old man and "gave 'im
a tup." In other words, he slugged him. Keith laughs,
punches the kid next to him, and we sit down to begin.
I abandon any thought of reading the
poems I'd brought. Fifteen-year-old Genine, a stocking-capped
girl with baggy trousers, gets up every five minutes to wander
around the room snapping her fingers, nodding her head to music
only she hears. Marvin, who I've been told has committed robbery
with bodily harm, wears a beeper on his left leg, a requirement
by his parole officer. Marvin hardly says a word and looks as if
he'll bolt at any minute. I wonder if I'll be responsible if he
I find out that Marvin likes
to draw, though, and I put him in charge of taping up the huge
rolls butcher paper I've brought. The kids go wild plastering
brown paper all over the Dogstar walls. I want to see what kind
of graffiti they can make. Marvin is our scribe. When we come up
with words like "power" he draws an arm with muscle.
When I say "human" he draws a face. When I say show
something he's afraid of, he draws a gun. Then we write
and they find ways to use the words "yellow,"
"fear," and "police" in some poems.
Genine's words hit the paper like this: "Yellow fearful
blood pours from police./I am full of forgiveness."
When we break for lunch, Keith
starts singing. His voice is mesmerizing, and I take out my
penny whistle. Pretty soon he's singing "Greensleeves,"
of all things. The other kids turn on the rap station to highest
volume, and Tania says they can't leave the building. I escape
to wash my hands in the ladies room. The sink and toilet are
full of soggy cigarette butts. The
day the cops and kids finally meet at the Dogstar-wary and
sour-we discover the door to our room is padlocked, a metaphor
not lost on me. Genine steps forward and says, "Hey! No
problem!" She leans down, tips her ear to the combination
lock, turns the dial carefully back and forth-then click! Her
face lights up.
Marvin is so freaked out that
there are cops in the room that he tells the youth mentor he
wants to leave. She convinces him to stay and we all recount
scary things that have happened to us. The tension builds when,
inevitably, the talk comes round to race. The cops shift in
their seats and I can see the disgust on their faces. One kid
writes, "Fuck dem. They don't help us blacks."
Each time things get
tense, though, we turn back to the writing, our common
denominator. When the police begin to read aloud, the kids stop
joking and fussing with their green and pink cell phones.
Officer Sara, only a few years older than these kids, sits tall
and laments being labeled "racist" just for
being white. She talks about being slugged in the face by a
black female during her first weeks in Brixton. The case went to
court three months late, and it was thrown out because the store
videotape was the incorrect format. "Where's the
justice?" she asks. Then she reads her poem about
comforting an elderly black man who had been robbed and stabbed,
cradling his head. "Supporting his head in my arms,"
she writes, "Reassuring him/on Brixton Road...."
The next day Genine
swings in late carrying an infant, her best friend's child. The
officers blanch when Genine feeds the baby Minstrels -Britain's
version of M&M's- to keep her quiet. But then we write
again, shaping the anger and frustration into poetic form,
something outside reaction and diatribe. While Genine writes, I
hold the baby. Standing on that beer-sticky floor, baby perched
on my hip, helping these cops and kids find their shaky voices,
I press my nose into the child's fuzzy black hair and
wonder-what will her voice sound like in twenty years? The best
I can do is give her mother's friend a stab at words.
By the end of the week,
both cops and kids are sobered by each other's stories. Officer
Garry says he's amazed there have been no insults, abuse, or
blind accusations. Then Officer Helen recounts picking up the
body parts of a woman who'd recently flung herself from the top
of a building. She reads her poem and the room goes absolutely
still: "I care too much about people./If red does mean
danger/then I'm faced with it every day./If Blue is how we all
sometimes feel/then that means life is ticking by...." Into
this huge quiet space Andrew, a teenager whose limbs never stop
rappin' and tappin', blurts out "Christine, I think we
should shake these cops' hands." We begin to stand up
from our circle, and slowly each of us moves from cop to kid,
grasping each other's hands, forming a round window in one
On Friday night, the group performs in a former church, a space
called "The Brix." Each reads a poem, and we all sing
our rendition of "Stand By Me." Keith croons his
rap poem to an Irish reel I play on my flute. Yes, the Crime
Prevention Trust camera is stolen that night, and several teens
are smoking weed in the bathroom; local hoods come to snicker at
their friends. The glow of pride, however, in the cops and teens
who stand in front of that microphone and boldly read their
poems moves even the mayor of Lambeth, who presents us with
flowers, and the chief of police who announces to the audience
that this has been a "milestone event."
These moments cannot be
measured on a crime-rate chart, nor can they be repeated. My
hope is that when he's out on the street and he confronts a cop,
Andrew will remember officer Garry pumping his hand; that
Sergeant Dawn, when she has to arrest a kid, will remember a
damp February afternoon and see the humanity in the suspect's
eyes. I don't pretend the kids in London are now walking the
line of civic duty or that those cops are having a love-fest
with the gangs. All I have to do, though, is read what they
wrote at that moment, and I celebrate.
Since that week in
London, I have worked with officers and offenders here in the
States, too. Last fall, a teenager and the cop who had arrested
him at gunpoint sat face to face in a Connecting Chord workshop
in Washington State. At the end of that week, the young offender
wrote this poem for the officer: " I/understand/if I
wasn't/doing the things I was/that night,/you would have
probably/given me a friendly wave/or hello. I understand
now./This letter doesn't mean I/like you or hate you./I respect
What keeps me pursuing
this odd mix of law enforcement, renegade behavior, and poetry
is the surprise. I have no idea what hidden poems are waiting to
be written. I continue with Connecting Chord not as someone who
thinks she can save the world, but as one fascinated by the
possibilities and powers of the human imagination.
It takes great courage
to speak and write the truth. When that happens, I'm convinced
its resonance doesn't go away. Robert Frost called poetry
"A momentary stay against confusion." Sometimes, in
some places, it can also be a momentary stay against
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