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When Poetry Becomes a Tool for Conquering Addiction

By Harriet Staff

Gil Fagiani 2

The New York Times profiles Gil Fagiani, who writes poetry as a way to ruminate and move forward from his past as a a drug-addiction survivor, political activist, and community organizer.

Gil Fagiani pulled out a copy of “White Lightning,” a tabloid from 1972, whose yellowed, brittle pages declared revolution. Inside, he pointed to a polemic he wrote headlined “Racism and Dope.” It described how he — a heroin addict with white, middle-class roots — was let off by the police with a warning inside an East Harlem tenement while his would-be connection, a Puerto Rican ex-con, was stripped, arrested and clubbed.

He recounted the tale in his living room in Long Island City, Queens, almost within sight of those East Harlem streets where he had been a junkie in the late 1960s. He had been many things back then: a military college graduate, a community organizer, a political radical and a junkie. Now, at 68, he is a survivor.

The rough past is gone, but lingers in memory. He has mined it in poetry, rendering in free verse the rhythms of struggle and street life that he hopes will connect with people in a way that his political writings could not. That newspaper story from 1972, he said proudly, has become “Just Out of Jail,” a poem that was recently accepted for publication in a journal.

“In prose it was didactic, but as a poem it is powerful,” he said. “I feel poetry can affect people in a way that is more powerful than an essay because it stirs up the emotions. I trust myself and try to be honest. You don’t change people with political rhetoric.”

He has noticed the outpouring of emotion and opinion in recent weeks since the high-profile overdose death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Like many, he sees it as a cautionary tale, as well as a lesson that might jar other addicts out of denial because of the victim’s celebrity.

At the same time, he understands the thrill and allure that precedes the fall, because he saw it in his own life. Some of his poems reflect that seduction, where hyped-up young men feel invincible, or at least numb. What others saw as surreal, or just criminal, was the everyday to him.

For a good part of his adult life — after he kicked heroin — he worked in a psychiatric hospital in the Bronx and later ran a drug rehabilitation center in Brooklyn. Poetry came later, when he was in his 40s, though it did not come easily, given his day job.

Read more at New York Times.

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Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, February 19th, 2014 by Harriet Staff.