|CHRISTINE HEMP Poet Writer Coach Consultant||
Connecting Chord is a week-long program that bridges gaps between cops and teens through the writing of (yes!) poetry. In five days of talking and writing, officers and young people find voice in their community and in their lives.
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 do." 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 new programs.
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 evidence."
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. Hip-hoppity 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 goes AWOL.
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 another's world.
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 you."
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 violence.