Infusing affordable housing with creativity

This week, it is time to be creative. I am taking a small detour from my usual essays about affordable housing to craft found poems. A found poem is one in which the lines are not original to the author, but are rearranged by the author to give the words a new and disparate meaning. Basically, it is a collage for writing. Sometimes the lines come from a single piece (an essay, a book chapter, a magazine article, law brief, advertisement, etc.) and sometimes they are taken from multiple sources. More information about its different iterations can be found here, in much more eloquence than I can muster without plagiarizing and with some examples.

I began writing found poetry years ago, but my most recent foray into the form was 2013 when I wrote a found poem using transcripts of my interviews with the residents of Mercy Housing. I combined selections of their words into one long piece to show the parallels between their individual experiences. It was a great way for me to recognize, and highlight, the themes of strength, perseverance, frustration and community. Their stories often differed in plot, but collided in theme: I am a person; I have needs, wants, desires; and I am working to create a dignified life.

Although this first poem was a success, and it inspired me to teach a class on storytelling through poetry, I did not believe the form had a lasting place in my writing. I returned to narrative character-essays (using my interviews with residents as inspiration), research papers, fact-driven writing. I ignored my creativity.

A few months ago, however, the work of my good friend and working partner, Ilana, prompted me to revisit the idea of the found poem. Ilana has spent the better part of a year distorting stock images of happy Americans to reflect the discrepancy she observes between the easy happiness the images depict and the hardships of everyday life. Part of her process involves superimposing a phrase upon the figures, meant to emphasize the stark unreality they promise. All of the words in the finished pictures are original to her, but for a time she considered using lines cut from newspaper articles.

As she pored over endless reports from different publications, I was struck by the similarity between her proposed idea and found poetry. She had no intention of composing formal poems, of course, but the idea of taking words from the news and manipulating them to show the absurdity of politics was resonant.

The possibility of returning to found poetry tickled my brain for weeks.  I tried to tell myself it was a nice idea, but irrelevant. I believed it would distract me from the real work, the essays and articles and research that I love. Poetry is for poets, and, I declared to myself, I am not a poet.

Also, the voice in my head continued, I have a tendency to want to hop from project to project, following each new possibility without resolving current interests. The result is a scattered writing history and a lot of stress over lack of cohesion. In the interest of following through and asserting my voice as an affordable housing authority, my reasoning instructed, I should ignore my poetic impulse.

And I politely listened to myself, until I wrote my 2015 goals. As I went through a list of my desired pursuits, the word ‘creativity’ continuously surfaced, and refused to be shoved back into the recesses of my mind. I began to question my aversion to verse. Why was I reluctant to return to a form that has previously proven successful? Why was I unwilling to try? Why did I conclude that poetry and prose are antithetical? Why was I so resistant? What was holding me back?

When I have this many questions for myself, the answer is almost always ‘fear.’ I am frightened by the unknown, intimidated by breaking routine, threatened by change.

I had decreed, arbitrarily, that essays and articles are the only proper expressions for discussions of affordable housing. As a result, anything that veered even a smidgen from dry non-fiction was off limits. Poetry was anathema.

(In case you haven’t realized by now, the voice in my head is quite powerful, and annoying).

After battling with myself for a while, I realized: I do not have to listen to the naysayer on my shoulder. I can make my own decisions. I decided to stop walking away from my urge to assemble poems. I decided to take a risk. I decided to have fun with words.

Below is a working draft of a found poem, comprised of lines from news articles, editorials, and academic studies as well as assorted quotations found outside the realm of affordable housing discourse.

poem pic


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