Life Lines

With the Writer's Group, people like poet Walter Taylor III find their way back from the mean streets of Baltimore

September 30, 1999|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

If bad stuff can happen to Walter Taylor III, it can happen to anyone.

On a balmy September morning, he's on stage at the Bryn Mawr School, before a crowd of privileged high school girls. Engaging his audience with introductory patter, Taylor, spokesman for the Writer's Group, a Baltimore collective of homeless and previously homeless poets, is charismatic, funny, articulate. "Believe it or not, even I used to live on the streets of Baltimore," he says to the rapt students. "Life has lessons it's going to teach you, whether you get it now or get it later."

The question is obvious: How could this charming man, with the clean-shaven head and wire-rimmed glasses, have strayed into drug addiction and homelessness?

Merely by standing here, Taylor is testament to the grim truth: Stuff happens. But Taylor, 32, is testament to something even more amazing: Good stuff can happen, too, thanks to serendipity, friends, hard work. Thanks largely, in Taylor's case, to poetry.

In an essay written for a Writer's Group pamphlet, Taylor explains poetry's transformative power: "As I wrote, it seemed that a part of me grew larger, saw differently, thought more openly and felt safer. Whatever this was, I held on to it because all that I was used to feeling was very alone and scared."

Writing allowed Taylor to "understand that I could also create a future if I want it as bad as I said I did in my poetry." And yet, his poetry doesn't back-pedal on past hardship. Hardship, as Taylor suggests in a poem called "Life," is part of the deal:

I'm living in a world captured by

my own ideas, hopes and dreams

mistakes and sins but life is what I have

Taylor has come to Bryn Mawr with two of the Writer's Group's dozen members. There is Gordon Robertson, a compact, bespectacled man who barely speaks above a whisper as he summarizes his struggle with drug addiction. He's been clean for a while. "Life is good now. Life is good now," Robertson says before reciting his poem "When Does the Killing Stop?," a lament about violence in the black community.

And there's Donna May Bradley, author of more than 6,000 poems. Heavy set, with a broad Bostonian accent, she at first appears unwieldy, like someone you might cross the street to avoid. But she puts you in your place with a self-deprecating sense of humor and devastating aim at life's casual cruelties.

Taylor, Robertson and Bradley, and other Writer's Group members have traveled a long way through their poetry. They first met three years ago at a Health Care for the Homeless workshop started by Dr. John Song, a physician completing a fellowship at Johns Hopkins. Writers came to the group with a history of incarceration, poor education, drug abuse and mental illness, unable to simply talk out their problems and pain. Writing became a way to tell their stories, and to move toward a more stable life.

For Song, who has since left Baltimore to teach at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota, the process of writing and sharing that writing was valuable on a number of levels. "Not only did it help people individually in terms of working through their own problems and emotions, it creates a sense of community," says Song, who last summer was feted at a farewell party by teary Writer's Group members. "A lot of people who are homeless are extremely lonely and mistrustful of other people. The core group that has been here since the beginning, off and on, really seem to be a community. They care about each other; they're always in each other's thoughts."

Song's experience with the Writer's Group was a revelation: "Here was a group of people facing incredible adversity and struggling every day to not only stay afloat, but create beautiful art and share it with the community."

The poetry is not easy. It can be "very brutal," Song says. "There's a lot of frustration and anger and hurt in their poetry. But I think it also has a hopeful side to it, based on their belief in God or something else. They all seem to want to hope, to really believe that something good had come out of the struggle they faced and that things will get better."

The Writer's Group is now affiliated with Students Sharing Coalition, on St. Paul Street, founded by Linda Kohler to provide opportunities for high school students to become involved with social justice issues. When she first heard Writer's Group members read their poetry at a Baltimore high school, Kohler says, "I was blown away. I had goosebumps. I was crying."

By their presence alone, the poets, themselves, raise awareness about the issues surrounding homelessness. As representatives of Students Sharing, they've expanded the non-profit organization's recruitment efforts in public and private schools and Police Athletic League centers around Baltimore. They comprise, Taylor says, the "inspiration component."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.