Poetry in the Community: The Police Poetry Project
One of my more unusual poetry-related projects this winter was a gig as one of five Portland poets who were paired up with police officers and told to produce poetry together. This daring effort was part of Art at Work, an ambitious project brainstormed by playwright Marty Pottenger to improve government through art. The project was a wonderful success--and it also made me confront some hard thoughts about my role as a poet in the community.
Marty's overall goal is to "improve municipal government by involving artists and municipal workers and politicians in making art." She thinks big, for example when she created an Obie-winning play from conversations with workers digging New York City’s new water tunnel, a 60 year long public works project. This project was no exception.
Marty started us out with a complete tour of the police station. After we handed our ID cards through the bulletproof glass and clipped on our temporary badges, we were treated to an insider’s view of the patrol cars, locker rooms, roll call area, forensics department, detective offices, dispatch center, gymnasium, and a sobering orientation film for new officers that tries to prepare them for the stress and abuse on themselves and their families that comes with the job. The tour was an eye-opener on both sides. Everywhere we went, wending our way through all the intense new sights and sounds, we were photographed and stared at and greeted with curiosity: “the poets.”
We returned to the station and we were finally matched up with our better halves, the “warrior-poets,” those brave men and one woman in uniform who had agreed to write poems with us for the fundraising calendar. Writing poetry was definitely not in their comfort zone, a fact that Marty had thoroughly prepared us for: police culture traditionally has viewed poetry as a sissy activity, "a bulls-eye for gay oppression," as Marty put it, and cause for derision and even ostracism. But a strange coincidence had paved the way for this project; a popular young officer had accidentally killed himself cleaning his gun, and at his funeral his wife revealed he had been writing poetry for years. The calendar became a fundraiser in his memory, and these five came forward, agreeing to write a poem for his sake in their own names, although we had been forewarned some of them might insist on anonymity.
We had our work cut out for us. That first day, one officer came right out and said, “Marty, I’d rather wrestle four men to the ground right now than write a poem.” There was silence. What could we say? Then I realized I pretty much felt the same way. That broke the ice a bit. Camaraderie established, we did “ride-alongs” in the patrol cars, met for lunch, and worked on our poetry together. "My" officer and I wrote a series of haiku in collaboration, and I found him to be as sharp as any new poet I’ve ever worked with, with sure instincts on such matters on imagery, diction, and pacing. Over coffee as he bounced his eight month old baby, we moved stanzas around in a spirit of genuine give and take. Who knew? All of the poets had different approaches, but we were without exception proud of the results.
When the calendar was finished, illustrated with photographs taken by another team of professional photographers and warriors, we had a celebratory reading in the public library. The mayor and police chief spoke and we read our poems. There is something very moving about seeing a police officer sharing poetry. That the officers were reading poetry about their work brought them out of their stereotyped roles and made them more human to us, and presumably to themselves as well. After the reading, the public met with poet–warrior teams in small groups to read the poems closely and discuss what they reveal about police officers' lives and work. It was a moving experience for everyone there; it was as if we were breaking some kind of taboo involving the recognition of the vulnerability of the warriors among us. There was something breathtaking about it.
The program turned out to be a big success on the local level and a pilot for the national level too. Over 600 calendars were sold and the project was covered by MSNBC.COM, Forbes, the New York Times, Turkish Weekly, The Guardian, and of course in police magazines and blogs ( Cop Couplets, anyone?). Rumor has it that the LAPD is considering a partnership with Art At Work for Los Angeles. In the context of what we had learned about the traditional police culture—the pressure not to expose feelings and the high family stress levels and addiction and suicide rates among officers—the implications for transforming the interpersonal culture of police departments, and hence indirectly, to some extent, that of our entire society, are thrilling. I feel all this and I am glad to have been a part of something so important.
And yet--I hesitated to write this last part, but I will say it: I also felt sadly empty at the end of it all. Poetry had been used so much as a tool towards other ends, in this project, that the experience made me absorb a painful contradiction. Much of my life as a poet is organized around a quasi-worship of the art of poetry, in all its internal and external manifestations, and at the same time, I know how little poetry matters to the rest of the community I interact with in my daily life, or indeed in any community outside artificial gatherings of poets. And yet, of course, the very same power that makes poetry central in my own life also makes it work so well as a tool for communication with ourselves and others, for adding meaning to others' lives. So, to serve poetry is a paradoxical privilege: it makes me feel more deeply separate from the others in my community, even as it heightens my awareness of potential connection.
Someday, I hope I can reconcile the centrality of poetry to my own life with a recognition of both the necessity and the marginality of it to the lives of others in my community. When I can achieve that attitude towards poetry, perhaps I will have also achieved a recognition of both the necessity and the marginality of my own life as well.
Annie Finch is the author or editor of more than twenty books of poetry, plays, translation, literary essays, textbooks, and anthologies, including the poetry collections Eve (1997), Calendars (2003), and Spells: New and Selected Poems (2012), and the long poems The Encyclopedia of Scotland (1982) and Among the Goddesses: An Epic...