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.

Originally Published: May 7th, 2009

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...

  1. May 7, 2009
     Mary Meriam

    Thanks for that lovely story, Annie! I didn't know the police consider poetry "a bulls-eye for gay oppression." Just this morning, I had a conversation about poetry at the farmer's market here in the boonies with a good ol' boy organic farmer. "Are you glued to the ground?" he asked me when I'd been standing for some time in one spot near a vase of his gigantic local lilies. This wasn't the first time he had an interesting observation. So I suggested he write a poem about the ground and show it to me next week. He said he remembers poems from grade school, and I told him maybe that's a sign he'd like to write one. He said limericks are dirty (Nantucket) and sonnets are about looooove. He was worried about how poems don't rhyme anymore, but I reassured him that plenty of poems rhyme nowadays. I gave him the IP beat, and told him writing in meter would be good for his heart.

  2. May 7, 2009
     Annie Finch

    Mary, thanks for sharing that wonderful story! I also found that form helped me to connect with my warrior-poet. He was at a loss at first ("I've never written a poem before, don't know how to start," etc.) when I realized he was talking in haiku lines. So I started writing down what he said, and that's how we actually got started.\r

    I think it is dactylic hexameters that are proven to be the best for the heart, in the recent German studies: \r

  3. May 9, 2009

    What a tremendous story, Annie Finch. Really tremendous. This is something poetic that actually matters in a sense of making a (civic?) difference. I am sitting here thinking what an amazing thing it would be for such a project to play out in New Orleans. Even before Katrina the city's police force was hard pressed, working in no win circumstances, distrusted, often demoralized. The storm damn near did the police dept. in, along with the rest of the town.\r

    Here is a thought your story stirs up. On a certain level your project wouldn't have just been about bridging gaps. (But how to say it?) It would have been about closing rifts, healing splits in an almost alchemical way. American civ has become so polarized it can only operate in dichotomies, at least officially. Masculine/Feminine. Apollonian/Dionysian. Or whatever are the labels anyone wishes to give to the dialectic of either/or choices, positions, or postures constantly forced on us. Your police officers are mighty impressive men (and women?). Your poets equally so. I mean talk about stepping out of comfort zones!\r

    I am glad you had the courage to write your penultimate paragraph. It kind of goes to a poet's existential gut.\r


  4. May 14, 2009
     Mary Meriam

    Annie, surprise! I went to the farmer's market today, and my farmer friend gave me this - "the first poem I wrote since 5th grade," he said, "and I'm already working on another one." (his 5th grade was probably around 40 years ago.) It was handwritten, and the only change I made was to add stanza breaks. I told him your story about the police writing poems, and he said he never thought poetry was a sissy thing. \r

    Bright Sunny Day\r

    A poet I know, her name I will not say,\r
    Came out to Market on a bright sunny day.\r
    Surveyed the field, which veggies to slay.\r
    I watched her do this on a bright sunny day.\r

    Her bright eyes and smile was all that I could see.\r
    The crowd at the Market was nothing at all to me.\r
    Walked up, said “Hi,” wondering what she’d say.\r
    This I did on a bright sunny day.\r

    We talked of this, and maybe some of that.\r
    I shuffled my feet, and adjusted my hat.\r
    I asked if she was married and this she had to say.\r
    “Do you want to marry me on this bright sunny day?”\r
    No answer did she give, changed the subject right away.\r
    This I did on a bright sunny day.\r

    We talked a bit of poetry, Ogden Nash came up, I’m sure.\r
    He’s the only Poet I knew, before finally meeting her.\r
    A surprise came from her mouth, this she had to say,\r
    “Please write a poem by the next bright sunny day.”\r

    So taking pen to paper, this is what I wrote,\r
    A lot more than it should’ve been, it should’ve been a note.\r
    So our talk was over, I watched her walk away.\r
    So goes the Poet, on a bright sunny market day.\r

    Bob Hagood