"People" Artist: James McNelis
by Anitra Freeman
While horror stories abound of those who become addicted to the mic, dependent on applause from the audience, this does not mean that the experience cannot also be healthy and growth-enhancing. It is possible to poison yourself if you manage to eat too many carrots, but a moderate amount of carrots is still considered healthy. It is a fundamental human need to be seen, and to be heard. In my experience in writing workshops, and in open mics, I see someone start to fill out from the first night that they read their own poem in front of a room of people who are paying attention to them.
I want to share what I have gained from some of those experiences.
An "open mic" is a public venue where all comers are allowed to sign up and perform. The quality of performance ranges from the first public rendition of "Home on the Range" by a new guitar student, to try-outs of the latest song by local pro singer-songwriters. A "Poetry Slam" is a further evolution in open mics, in which performances are judged and rated by members of the audience, performers going head-to-head in elimination rounds until one is declared the "winner".
In 1985, at an open mic in Tacoma, I tried to sing an original parody of "Ghost Riders in the Sky". The host of the open mic came up to me afterward and said, "I never want you on my stage again!"
The summer of 1996, I won first prize in the Seattle Poetry Slams.
In 1985, when my first completed story was savaged by a panel of professional authors in a science fiction convention workshop, I gave up writing prose for years.
In 1996, although I won my first Poetry Slam, I lost many of them. I have had a judge give me as low as 5.3 (on a scale of 1-10) for what I knew was a good poem. Yet I keep going back, week after week, and I keep writing new poems.
There's an obvious growth in both skill and self-esteem in those comparisons. But it wasn't a straightforward progress. It was complicated, as most things in my life were, by a condition that would eventually be diagnosed as bipolar disorder, or manic-depression. I would have spurts of extremely high energy when I was so enthusiastic and giddy that I worried people; longer stretches when I was just a bit more active, enthusiastic and cheerful than the average; long stretches when I was quite lazy; and short stretches when I did almost nothing but sleep. Often I would be in full gallop on an exciting project when the steam would go out of me. I would not feel like working one day, and decide to catch upon my sleep; still felt like sleeping the next day; and on and on until by the time I pulled out of the fog whatever I had been working on had fallen apart.
I hated being called "a ditzy broad", but by the time I was forty-five I had begun to use the term myself. It was part of my identity. In both my energetic and my lethargic times, I was often unaware of social cues, or the rest of my environment. I was either caught up in my own racing thoughts, or I was dulled to everything. And when I was alert and chipper, I could be impulsive and impractical in my eagerness.
My marriage ended in divorce, partly because of my problems and partly for other reasons. I worked a lot on my writing after the divorce, partly as a way of working through my feelings.
Talking to people through my poetry also began to open up an intimacy that I had never had with anyone. It was a way to begin to relate feelings, not just intellectual abstractions.
When I began to recite poetry on stage at open mics, at first I was almost unaware of my audience. Even after I grew confident enough to look past my paper, I misread my audience often. For instance, I thought everyone had been greatly amused by the parody-song that got me banned from the Tacoma stage.
But lessons like that one, and others, slowly tuned me in to body language and other emotional cues. My stage experience began providing me with a social education my childhood experience never had.
My progress was interrupted by another, prolonged, depression. For over five years I experienced briefer and briefer bouts of energy and creativity, and longer and longer periods of depression. In 1995, when I was 46, my long downhill struggle ended with me walking the streets of Capitol Hill, out of work, broke, and homeless.
I had been diagnosed a year before, but I was afraid of the side effects of Lithium, the most common medication prescribed for bipolar mood disorder. Now I went to a free clinic and said, "I'm ready to try Lithium."
Three days after my first dose of Lithium, I awoke on my bare mat in my homeless shelter and realized that I felt spiritual fire inside - that hunger for growth and creation that had been missing in my life for the last five years.
Among the resources I discovered when I started reaching out of my fog was the Church of Mary Magdalene, a ministry for homeless and battered women, and, as the mission statement describes it, "women in multiple difficulties." One of the sermons was on 'Self Esteem'. Pastor Jean Kim asked us all, "Where does our self-esteem come from?" She got the variety of answers I expected-- from achievement, from a clean conscience, from self-knowledge, from having something to call your own, from relationships. Then she asked, "So where does a six-month old baby's self-esteem come from?" That rocked us all back.
One very assertive young black woman told us all in the voice of Gospel, "You don't get self-esteem from possessions, or looks, or education, or doing great things. You just HAVE it."
And Pastor Kim said, "The baby gets self-esteem from being loved, from being unconditionally accepted."
"Our self-esteem begins here. Here we are unconditionally accepted. Here we are loved. Here we learn to accept and love ourselves, just as we are, right now."
I looked around and realized I was in the presence of a hundred women who had no competition over dress, makeup, looks, or possessions. I had been accepted every time I walked through the door, with no evaluating looks up and down, no questions of where I was last week, or at the latest committee meeting. When I began coming to church, I was living in emergency shelter-- night hours only, no bathing or laundry facilities. I usually showed up in what I came to call "three day-old clothes and three week-old hair." But I was accepted with warmth and no questions, however I showed up.
I had already dropped a major amount of self-consciousness. My reaction to my final extremity, landing on the streets, had been to drop all defensiveness. There are people on the streets, broke, homeless, and ill, who still have elaborate explanations for why none of this is due to any personal problems they may have. I didn't bother. I could almost hear every self-defense and denial system I had fall on the ground and go crash. That was a great emotional relief right there.
I had been rather puzzled when, after for the first time in my life admitting to all my flaws and weaknesses, I immediately began acting with more self-confidence and spontaneity than I had ever shown.
That sermon explained it to me. I had discovered self-esteem. I accepted myself just the way I was.
This was that "love yourself" business everyone had been trying to tell me about for years!
I had reached such an ebb that my first creative effort was crocheting one granny square, which took me at least an hour. One of the older women at the Church of Mary Magdalene patiently guided me through it. When I was done I was thrilled. I had been unable to complete even very simple projects for months, my mind had become so dull and confused. I really was coming back to life!
A day or so later, a volunteer in the shelter where I ate my evening meal was leading a group of women in making crafts, I made a very simple Halloween card-- a rectangle of orange on a black background, with a two-line poem:
Now all threatening shadows open into warmth and light.
It was the first poem I'd written in almost two years. From that night, I began writing one or more a day, collecting them in a notebook. My next one was:
I enjoyed shuffling the words around, playing with the inflections of my voice to make multiple meanings out of the same poem.
Reading my new poems, I realized that I was writing a whole level beyond anything I had written before. There was a greater emotional reality in my poems, both because I was facing the gritty realities of the street, and because I had freed my own voice by my new level of self-acceptance. There was very little I was afraid to say.
I discovered the StreetLife Gallery, a program that provided workspace and materials to homeless and low-income artists. Some of the artists were also poets. I began working at the Gallery. One day, one of the artists at the Gallery took a poem that I had written down to the Real Change, Seattle's "street paper", vended by the homeless and largely written, edited, and illustrated by the homeless too. Shortly afterward, I was asked to be on the Real Change editorial committee.
The December issue of the Real Change was to be a Women's issue. I had a poem about Mary that I had been working on for years, and the imagery combined with the issue of identity and self-esteem in homeless women. I sat down and wrote my longest poem ever. It was printed as a full page feature, and when I saw it was one of the most emotional moments in my life.
On the editorial committee I read many poems and essays submitted by vendors and others of the homeless community. Some of them had a fire that grabbed at me-- but fell just short of making it into print. I worked one-on-one with some of the writers, editing their material into more publishable form. I quickly realized I was making two mistakes. One was that although I still had the higher-than-average energy level than even a bipolar under treatment often has, I had my limits-- and I could now recognize them. Trying to be personal editor to the homeless community of Seattle was beyond my limits.
For another thing, although I certainly worked at transferring the skills I was using, the risk of my "taking over" and "doing for" someone what they needed to learn to do for themselves was high. I had learned for myself that making my own mistakes often gained me more self-esteem than benefiting from someone else's success!
So I started a workshop. It took a couple of years before I found out that my "workshop" didn't work like a lot of other "workshops" did. I had been very fortunate, it seems, in experiencing some very creative, egalitarian workshops, where everyone gave each other feedback among equals, and no-one acted as "teacher". I insisted on that atmosphere in StreetWrites, from the beginning, and saw the results from the beginning. Patricia, who came to the first workshop expecting me to teach a "class on writing", by the end of the hour had given a suggested line change for one of my own poems, as well as another member's poem, and gotten an equal amount of help from the fellow member she regarded as "uneducated" as she did from me.
The experience made a subtle and welcome difference in her attitude toward fellow artists at StreetLife Gallery, as well as fellow shelter members.
I was starting to go to open mics again, and re-open former contacts in the poetry community. This was both positive feedback for me and a constant creative challenge, as I strove to be authentic in my writing and delivery, yet also keep trying new things I saw demonstrated on the stage. I began urging others in our writing group to come along also.
Dr. Wes Browning, the Real Change poetry/satire columnist, was the first major hit on the open mic circuit. Seattle's poetry community fell in love with his stereotypical "weedy street bum" image, combined with a versatile intellect and dry wit. Their enthusiastic reception seemed to startle him a bit.
Dr. Wes is a strong personality, who had gone through a great deal of self-growth before the writing workshop and the open mics. He had repressed memories of an extremely abused childhood, only to have them blow up in his adult years in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, tearing apart his family and his career as a professor of mathematics. By the time I met him he had already been through years of therapy and self-search, recreating himself as an artist and writer and homeless activist.
I did see him branch out much more widely as a writer. He now writes non-fiction, short stories, and form poetry as well as his regular satirical column. He recently won the Seattle Haiku Slam title for 1997. He also now has subsidized housing, has given up smoking, and drinks much less than two years ago. These changes may have been a natural continuation of his personal growth, but they have been assisted by the social support network of the writing workshop and the open mic circuit.
A more dramatic example of change is Storm, a young woman who exemplifies the phrase "women in multiple difficulties." Storm still has a photo taken when she first came into StreetLife Gallery in 1994. Thin and ragged, hunched over, she stares at the world through a screen of matted hair, her eyes both hostile and afraid. She claimed that she "couldn't do anything" -- but wanted to. An artist named Boyd McLaughlin introduced her to pastels and acrylics; he also played the guitar with her, encouraging her to use her untrained but powerful soprano voice, and to write. Within a year Storm was wearing clean clothes, standing upright, and you could see her face. She was active in the gallery, not only as one of the more prolific and popular artists, but as one of the artist-staff of the increasingly self-managed administration.
She had enough strength to survive Boyd's death. That hit us all severely. Boyd had been very much the heart of the Gallery -- Storm was not the only one that he had helped to find their own creative outlet.
But Storm found continuing support in StreetWrites. She also began coming to open mics. It was like watching the entire family coax the puppy out from under the porch, at first. She only went when at least six of the rest of us were going -- three in front of her, pulling, and three behind, pushing. When she got up on stage she would "flame on", doing intense performances of crowd-pleasing word-avalanches full of rapid-fire double-entendres. By the next week she would be uncertain again, and we would once more have to coax her out.
I can almost chart the growth of Storm's self-esteem in inverse ratio to the number of companions it took to get her to the open mic. First six, then four, then two, then one -- now she will come around to drag one of us out, and if we won't go she'll go on her own. She has subsidized housing and even a computer of her own, and has begun publishing her own newsletter on public issues. She has moved from the StreetLife Gallery to a more mainstream gallery at Art Not Terminal. She has stable housing, and has begun efforts to regain custody of a child removed from her at birth by Children's Protective Services.
Storm and Wes still come to StreetWrites workshop. We have others I refer to as "graduates". Cliff came to StreetWrites in the beginning. A young man who has been on full disability since he rode his bicycle off a cliff at ten years old, Cliff still has some difficulty with speech, as well as a twisted body and a halting walk. But what the group was most impressed with was that he would write spontaneous poems right in workshop. He came to open mics and learned that he did very well when he spoke slowly and made audience contact with his fine, dark eyes. Cliff now rarely comes to workshop -- he is a grant writer and organizer for an activist group for people with disabilities.
There are people, occasionally, who criticize StreetLife Gallery and StreetWrites as "time-wasters". We should be helping the homeless to get jobs, not encouraging them to sit about writing poems and painting pictures.
But I have repeatedly seen people drag in through the door with that gray pavement look on their face, and after an hour or two of making something with their hands or putting their own thoughts on paper, walk out with their head up and life in their eyes. I believe myself that the creative spirit is central to our human spirit, that it is creativity that gives us our heart and our strength, and whatever encourages the growth of our creativity encourages growth in our lives. I see repeated evidence for that each week as StreetLife Gallery and StreetWrites continue to grow.
There are many stages of self-esteem. The performance stage can be one of them.
Anitra is currently a freelance writer and activist living in Seattle, Washington. She has been a computer programmer/analyst (20 years); her life, career and relationships were repeatedly disrupted by undiagnosed manic depression (which her mother also sufferred). In October 1995 she ended up homeless, and was finally diagnosed and treated. She made many of the closest relationships in her life in the homeless community, and although she now has a limited income and subsidized housing, that is still her community. She works with half-a-dozen grassroots empowerment groups -- programs to help the homeless that are run by the homeless and formerly homeless themselves. Some of the things she does: facilitate meetings and workshops, including a conflict resolution class, write and do public speaking, and create websites. She is also one of the editors of Real Change, Seattle's homeless street-newspaper.
[ Anitra Freeman, Poet & Activist ]
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