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


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."

The Writer's Group members get their point across in ways others cannot, Kohler says. Even at tough public high schools where members have seen students led away in handcuffs, "The kids connect so well. It's not an authority figure telling them what to do. It's a heart-and-soul discussion of what drugs have done to them. The kids are listening and they're not turning away."

Anyone wrestling with the stereotypes of homelessness would be astonished by the diverse portrait presented by the Writer's Group at one of its readings. There is James Hagen, a kind of swashbuckling genius, for whom writing is breathing. Hagen, a photographer and one-time organic farmer now riddled with health problems, carries a bulging looseleaf notebook filled with poems about his childhood, Vietnam, prison, homelessness and drugs.

At one gathering, Hagen reads a poem inspired by his late brother about an American soldier in Vietnam who dies from a heroin overdose, and is then shot by a buddy, so his family will think he was killed in action, not by a needle.

Bradley reads "I Am Not Ashamed," a poem dedicated to her daughter Mahogany, taken from her by Social Services.

Robertson, sighing heavily before starting, reads "Daddy's Little Girl," a nightmarish tale of incest.

There is Nestor DeVenecia, a gifted painter who grew up in affluence, and travels everywhere with a dog named Oxter. On this day, DeVenecia opts against reading a poem about discovering a body in an abandoned building where he once slept, to recite a series of brief, light-hearted poems about animals that seem more grounded in folklore.

Herolene Johnson, a recovering addict, reads "Hey Girl," a sassy poem with a redemptive conclusion:

Hey girl to your own self be true,

Step walking around feeling lonely and blue.

Hey girl strong black and proud

Decided to turn her life around.

Not present is J.K. Tibbs, known for reciting his long poems by heart, garbed in cap and gown as a graduate of the "school of life." At the time, Tibbs was back on the street, but has recently returned to the Writer's Group fold, according to Taylor.

Taylor, himself, knows what it's like to teeter and fall on the dark side.

He grew up in a large Arkansas family that his father worked three jobs to support. He wrote as a kid, but at the time, it seemed like "nothing special. I thought everybody could do it."

Taylor joined the Marines at 18 and things gradually went bad. He balked, he says, at structure, the very quality that held his family together -- and the very quality that would eventually lure him to poetry and recovery.

Floating from shelter to shelter, Taylor found a textbook, "Structure and Meaning," a survey of early English literature. Through Shakespeare's sonnets, and other carefully crafted masterpieces, Taylor learned to appreciate the need for structure. From there, he found something more. "For a long time I thought life was this little kind of trick and that's it," he says. "Come to find out my life did have a meaning. [In the process of finding poetic structure] I found that meaning."

Taylor is now a paid VISTA worker based at Students Sharing who assesses community needs while serving as the Writer's Group spokesman.

The Writer's Group itself has been the catalyst for all kinds of unforeseen partnerships and outreach opportunities. There are plans, for example, for a collaboration with drama students at the School for the Arts.

Students Sharing and Health Care for the Homeless have applied for a grant from the Maryland State Department of Education that would expand the Writer's Group's work in the schools on behalf of both service organizations.

And Taylor harbors a dream of opening a shelter for homeless writers, men and women who could stay long enough to pick up the pieces of their life, while completing community service and continuing to focus on their writing.

It's not that things are all lightness and joy for Taylor. He says he feels old. He often peers into the spiritual void. Recovery can be a scary thing. But there is a feeling within him, one that even in his bleakest days, he just couldn't kick: "No matter how difficult times got, the spirit of hope within me just didn't die."

That hope grants Taylor new appreciation for a gift that he once took very lightly:

As I take a deep breath that is there

to breathe I know I'll never

understand it all,

but life is what I have or

better yet,

Life is what I've been given

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