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Words Without Walls: Writing from Alternative Spaces

by Eliza Perez on

Writing done in alternative spaces — be it a prison, a rehab center, or a shelter— can help people recover or work through whatever is happening in their lives. Writing gives people the opportunity to be vulnerable and open themselves up to new ways of thinking. Words Without Walls is a creative writing partnership between graduate students in Chatham University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program and Allegheny County Jail, the State Correctional Institution of Pittsburgh, and Sojourner House (a drug and alcohol treatment facility for mothers and their children). From two of the programs founders comes the book, Words without Walls: Writers on Addiction, Violence, and Incarceration, a collection of more than seventy-five poems, essays, stories, and scripts by contemporary writers – serving as inspiration for other writers and mentors in these alternative spaces.

By sharing these stories, co-editors Sheryl St. Germain and Sarah Shotland are contributing to some greater truth that makes writers a part of something bigger than themselves. 

The following is an excerpt of the poem, “Kindness" by Naomi Shihab Nye, a Trinity University graduate who has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a Lannan Fellow, as well as the reciepient of numerous awards for her writing which include the Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award, the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, four Pushcart Prizes, and many more. 

 

Kindness
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. 
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
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