Radical Efforts to End Homelessness: Street Scribes

The story of the literary magazine whose authors are all homeless.
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Something is trying to get itself written. You can feel it: There’s a bulge in the ether, a protuberance in the brainpan. Something is trying to get itself written, and it has elected you—by what process, God only knows—as its writer. Can you do the job, complete the commission? It’s going to take some ninja skills. The energy accumulates, shapelessly, buzzingly, around no clear point. Les Murray has called it a “painless headache,” this pre-writing electrical build that must be “tapped” or siphoned into words on the page — into a poem, in his case. What does it mean? Might it mean, as your pen twitches over the blank space, that you, the writer, are preparing to participate, at an essential level, in the continually and explosively renewed creative act that is reality itself?

Maybe. Or maybe you’ve just had a drop too much of Robert’s magic coffee. Robert has been making his patented super-strong coffee for us at the Black Seed Writers Group since 2013: three silver two-liter pots (one decaf) per session, standing there on the trolley like robot owls with black plastic beaks. “Robert is consistent in his undertaking as a coffee maker,” wrote Al, one of our regulars, in “Read All About It: Robert Is My Favorite Coffee Person/Maker,” a recent poem. “I am well pleased with his coffee making skills.”

Writers Group, as it’s known in the community, is a space for the homeless writers of downtown Boston (“homeless, transitional, or recently housed” is the rubric), and we meet every Tuesday morning at 9:30, in the basement of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul on Tremont Street. Out of Writers Group comes The Pilgrim, a literary magazine that I’ve been editing for the last five years. Large chunks of The Pilgrim are summoned into being, conjured from the chaos-state of potentiality, by Robert’s magic coffee. Robert himself contributes to the magazine, either in short paragraphs that describe the act of sitting and watching (“Sitting here at Dunkin’ Donuts, drinking and eating, and the people come and buy their stuff and sit and talk and it’s funny that no one sees me. I feel like I’m a ghost.”) or the sequences of high-speed, destabilizing aperçus that he calls “flashes.” “What’s going though my head? Not a fucking thing.” That’s a typical flash. Here’s another one: “Today’s coffee at Writers Group does not just help you think — it helps you shit.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself, gentle reader. Let’s start at the beginning.

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In January 2011 I presented myself as a volunteer at the Monday Lunch, the weekly free meal for the homeless hosted by the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Boston. I was on a spiritual quest — which sounds ridiculous, but there it is. I’d been lurking nervously in churches (“Hang in there!” one priest said to me as I sloped past him toward the exit), reading Catholic mystics, waiting for something to click. And I wasn’t getting anywhere. I was fractious at home, miserable with my work. But as I stepped into that grumbling, ruminant, school-food-smelling basement and registered the various enormous and off-kilter personalities ranged around me, I had a profound sensation of arrival. All right, I thought: You’re here.

I’d been a volunteer among homeless people before — in London shelters, and at the Community for Creative Non-Violence in Washington, D.C. — but always in an essentially passive, youthful, hanging-out-and-occasionally-mopping-something-up capacity. Now I was in my 40s, with a bit of experiential weight on me. It was time to instigate. But how? With what? That October, the Reverend Cristina Rathbone — pastor and focal presence of the Monday Lunch community — led a dozen of us on a pilgrimage, walking 60 miles out of Boston, sleeping on church floors, to a retreat center in West Newbury. On the road we looked motley, medieval, straggling along with fluttering flags and unconventional headgear: We were met with wild shouts of encouragement from passing cars, and very occasionally by some abuse hanging in the slipstream. “We’re on a spiritual pilgrimage!” one of our company, Steve, would cheerfully volunteer to starers or curious passersby. We made it anyway. And it was in one of the cottages at the retreat center, at 3 a.m., that the idea came to me. I woke up suddenly with a gift, a brainstorm in the dark: I would start a magazine for homeless writers, and it would be called The Pilgrim.

At this point in the story, for some reason, I always think of a line from John Berryman: “Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.” With regard to The Pilgrim, the exact opposite is the case. Thereafter — with many blips, slips, freakouts, and chastenings — everything fell out as it might or ought. We came home (by bus) from our pilgrimage, and a few days after that I was sitting at the Black Seed Cafe N’ Grill on Tremont Street with Paul Estes, writing. It was the first session of the Black Seed Writers Group. Paul — a man with a face so fit for merriment, a face that creases so readily into mirth and twinkling, bobbing upper-level gaiety, that his occasional bad moods seem like biological errors — had come up to Boston, indirectly, from Texas. At the time we inaugurated his writing career he was sleeping in the doorway of a Staples store, an irony not lost on him. Three years later, on our own imprint, No Fixed Address Press, we would publish his space-operatic multi-species sci-fi novel Razza Freakin’ Aliens, written on a bench on the Esplanade. (That title still gives me great joy: When Paul told me that he had been writing a Star Wars/Star Trek/Doctor Who-style epic, I feared it would be called something like Mission to Andromeda 3.)

At the second session of the Black Seed Writers Group, the following Tuesday, there were six people: wary, sleep-deprived, in need of a warm place to sit. I supplied pens and paper, bought coffee, gave the writers a prompt (“The Last Time I Was Happy”), and by the end I had enough material for the first issue of The Pilgrim, which I laid out on my laptop and printed at Copy Cop. (My editing practice: Fix spelling and punctuation; occasionally and with great caution clarify word order.) At the third session there were eight people, and by the 12th session or so we were too large for the cafe and had moved into a conference room on the cathedral’s second floor. (We are now in the basement.) To compensate for the lack of ambient noise — the sounds of the cafe, I felt, had given us a cosmopolitan, literary vibe — I brought along a donated boom box and started playing a specially curated, neurologically engineered mix CD: Arvo Pärt, Michael Chapman, Hildegard of Bingen, all choirs and guitars and the odd violin. “Dentist’s chair music,” a dissenting writer called it. She wanted Led Zeppelin. “At the Black Seed Writers Group,” I reminded her piously, “we do our heavy metal on the inside.”

Who were these writers? Kevin, a 50-ish ex-Navy autodidact who liked to read the Confessions of St. Augustine while sitting on a park bench near his campsite by the Charles, wrote in revelatory detail about the best type of cardboard to sleep on and where to procure it. Dave, a man of prophetic utterance (living under a bridge at that point), wrote about the pain he felt in his heart when he saw his fellow homeless mistreated. Margaret Miranda, who had found her way to us from a nearby psychiatric facility, wrote poems of extraordinary wit, lucidity, and invention. (We have since published her first book too: Dressing Wounds on Tremont Street.) Eddie Atkins didn’t write: He talked, gnomically and musically, about the weather, and about his plans to buy a big white Cadillac. His words, I discovered, when transcribed onto the page, turned themselves quite naturally into poetry.

There were bulletins from the streets, from the small hours around Downtown Crossing, describing compulsive acts of charity from strangers or furnishing terrible details — like the sound of a zipper, which means you are about to get pissed on as you sleep. Much of the writing was highly religious; mystical, in fact, and headier than any of the visionary Catholics I’d been reading. Some of it came from a liminal zone between the psyche and the world, in which visions were presented as facts, and reality as a network of symbols, consoling or threatening; some of it was fixated, going round and round on the same theme or incident. I wondered (I still wonder) about the value of this sort of repetition: Might it constitute a slowly rising spiral, a way — over time, and much retelling — of transcending the pain? Or does it simply reinforce it? One afternoon on Boston Common I was talking about Samuel Taylor Coleridge with a homeless man named Richard. “Lot of Ancient Mariners out here, don’t you think?” I said to him — meaning men who need to tell their tale over and over again, to whomever can be persuaded to listen. “I don’t know about Ancient Mariners,” Richard said. “There are a lot of albatrosses.”

The pads and pens, the coffee, the music: The structural elements of Writers Group were in place very early and have remained the same for the five years that we’ve been in business. At the beginning of each session we distribute typed-up-and-edited copies of the writing from the week before, along with a sheet that offers new writing prompts (e.g. “Ghosts,” “How to Calm Somebody Down,” “The Greatest Test”) and a few exhortations to have fun, let rip, and so on. There’s also an important non-prompt — “Or: Whatever You Feel Like Writing About.” Then we shut up and write, and after an hour and 15 minutes, we stop. That’s it. No workshopping, woodshedding, none of that stuff. And after several weeks, when a certain subtle but clearly discernible level of pressure has been reached, in terms of content — when things are starting to feel a bit backed up — I publish an issue of The Pilgrim.

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There are certainly other ways to organize a writing group, and I should explain that the method described above was arrived at accidentally and largely negatively, as a result of my own, uh, pedagogical deficits. Reluctant to lead a discussion, address a room, or indeed occupy any kind of central, teacherly role, I thought I’d be better off handing out prompt sheets and walking around the tables saying “Ssh!” and “Gentlemen, please….” It quickly became clear, however, that with this minimal model we were onto something rather maximal. A safe space. A quiet space. A space free of judgment. A space that anyone, in any condition or state of mind, could walk into and sit down and start writing. The room took on an atmosphere — created by the regular writers, and the hush and the hum of the collective endeavor — that I’d never felt before. One visiting journalist called it “an electric sanctuary.” For The Pilgrim, since its conception, first-person reportage has been the thing. No fiction, no politics (“The politics of The Pilgrim are implicit, not explicit,” is my line to the writers), but real life, whether in the form of a poem, a prayer, an anecdote, a fragment of memoir, or a straight-up existential rant. This is the stuff, when you’re in the room, that feels like it wants to be written. Spider, a tall, deep-voiced, sweet-natured man with a shaved head and spiderwebs tattooed on his hands, would come in almost literally steaming — black-browed and shaking with indignation from something that he had just seen or heard. Or perhaps something that had happened to him years before. After writing two pages, his face would be clear again.

It doesn’t work for everyone, of course. There are writers out there whom I have alienated, disappointed, or offended, either through something that I’ve done consciously or (much more likely) through something that I’ve failed to notice. How do I know? Because I hear about it later, or because — without a word — they stop showing up. Sometimes they give me another chance, coming back after a year or two; sometimes they don’t. “You’re not my friend anymore!” a man shouted at me one day on Boston Common, with sparks of fury in his gray beard. “I think you’re full of shit, what you do in there! How can you ask people to sit down and write these things about themselves?” Cliff came to Writers Group one morning for the first time, sat there darkly and quietly, and wrote a long, violent, occult-feeling story that included his father’s imprisonment for homicide (perfectly factual, I subsequently discovered) and a hangman’s tree with bleeding roots. It completely freaked me out. “I didn’t type this up for the group,” I told him when he came back the following week, “because” (and I wince at the idiocy of these words) “it’s too scary to read.” He considered me for a moment. “Too scary to read?” he said. “Try living it.” In early 2016 I faced a writer whose dissatisfaction with one of my editorial decisions was so vehement, so loud, so pneumatically forceful, that even as my voice and bearing remained steady I felt little sideways-moving tears popping from the corners of my eyes, as if I were in a high wind.

The Pilgrim just published its 41st issue. Since 2011 it has featured the work of over 150 writers. I like these numbers, because they are not numbers at all: They’re people. Every piece that has ever appeared in the magazine has, for me, a long and beautiful comet-tail of biography burning behind it — the story of the writer, and how he or she arrived at Writers Group, and how and with what ease or difficulty we established an editorial relationship, and what happened next. Pilgrim writers go in and out of jail, in and out of hospital, in and out of housing, in and out of wellness — and with incredible courage and devotion, they keep writing. “Homelessness,” I wrote on our website, “is a state of acute pilgrimage.” I still believe this, in the sense that people who live in doorways, and on bunk beds in dormitories, and own only what they carry, are exposed to realities — spiritual and material — from which the rest of us are insulated. But I’m progressively less able to think about homelessness in the abstract. Instead I think about Bryant, the indomitable man-about-town — and massively prolific writer — who ended one of his more triumphant poems with “The world is my home / The world is my office / I love the way I live.” I think about Holly, who calls God “Buddy.” I think about Gizzmo, who was interrupted by another writer while dictating his memoirs, and upbraided him with a hair-trigger artistic ferocity of which I was rather envious. I think about the wild and wandering poet who, when I asked him if he’d like to participate in one of the readings that we do annually in a local bookstore, emphatically declined. “Why not?” I asked. “Stage fright?”

“Dude,” he said. “I’m paranoid schizophrenic.”

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At 10:45 we wrap it all up, with a general shuffling of papers and leaning-back in chairs. Robert rolls away the coffee trolley. For a while — for years, actually — the song that played out every session of Writers Group was AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck”: Angus Young’s guitar, like a siren, presaged some kind of exultant return to the world. Then there was a phase when the poet Eddie would load the boom box with a CD of his choice — it might be Elvis, it might be the Grateful Dead — plug in his mic, and treat the room to his vocal stylings. The Eddie-syllables floated free, globular and Vegas-mellow; there were punctuating outbursts of rock ’n’ roll and, from time to time, a kind of Pentecostal scat. But Eddie has been attending less regularly recently — health problems, plus a change of residence. These days Writers Group just kind of exhales itself to a natural conclusion. Looking around the room at this point, I always see one or two writers whom I worry about: Having diligently and fearlessly unpacked themselves onto the page, having made themselves vulnerable, they are now obliged to re-enter the regular conditions of their lives, the day-to-day ennui and mercilessness, only less protected than before. These are the moments when I ask myself if I truly am full of shit. But then I look at the pages we’ve collected, the stories, the writing that simply would not have happened had we not all participated in the creation of this space and this moment. Some of the writers will be back next week; some of them won’t. They come and they go. As their editor, I sometimes wish for the authority of the monk Moling, who near the end of the medieval Irish epic Buile Suibhne (Sweeney Astray in Seamus Heaney’s version) lays this injunction upon the flying pilgrim Sweeney, the mad half-bird king: “No matter how far you range over Ireland, day by day, I bind you to return to me every evening so that I may record your story.” But there’s no binding here, and the stories — in bursts and blasts of art — record themselves.

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