The Circle of Light Becomes a Chain
By Robert L. Austin
I wrote this poem — if you want to call it that — using five small clipart images as inspiration: a whale, a TV, a compass, a pizza and a kokopelli doll. The assignment was to look at these images and write a poem in just three minutes. I’m here to tell you it’s hard…really hard. That isn’t an excuse for my poem, just a fact. Here’s what I came up with:
I dreamed I was dancing with whales,
And I was dressed like one of those kokopleli dolls
You buy at souvenir stands in New Mexico —
Though I think they’re made in China.
The whales only looked at their compass,
As if my dancing was keeping them off course.
But whales only dance alone — I saw that on TV —
And I don’t have kokopelli clothes.
Maybe it wasn’t even me.
I don’t know, man, I ate a lot of pizza that night.
Pizza does that to me.
I’m quite proud of this little poem, mostly because of the people I sat and wrote it with last night at The Spot, a drop-in center for homeless and at-risk youth in downtown Denver. Each Tuesday night, facilitators from the nonprofit organization, Art from Ashes, lead a group of young people in a poetry workshop called Phoenix Rising. Its name is apt because many of the kids in this program are disenfranchised. Most have struggled with abuse, neglect and/or poverty. The workshop aims to help them connect with themselves, express themselves and transform themselves through poetry.
Last night, that deeper purpose melded with the Circle of Light Photo Project, a collection of photographs taken by people whose blindness ended because of cornea transplants. That Circle of Light became a chain: one person’s decision to be an eye donor allowed another to see. That person used their restored sight to photograph something meaningful. That photograph then served as inspiration for poems created by these amazing young people. No one expects being an eye organ and tissue donor to impact a community in this way. Yet, here it was: something new.
After warming up their “right brains” in the exercise I described above for my little poem, they were each given a pair of special glasses provided by the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank. These glasses simulate legal blindness. The kids gave the usual “oohs and aahs” as the realization hit that blindness doesn’t mean total darkness. They waved their hands in front of their faces, discerning the differences in shadow and colors. Each was then given a photograph from the Circle of Light Photo Project. Keeping their glasses on, they studied the photos intently before turning them over. They were given just three minutes to write a poem about what they saw.
I sat there in total amazement as pens scribbled non-stop across their notebooks. There were no “left brains” at work here. They wrote without stopping to edit themselves. I could feel something at work even if I couldn’t name it just yet.
After three minutes of writing, the kids were asked to turn their photographs over. They roared with guffaws and laughter as the realization hit them that they didn’t see what they thought they saw. One young man was a bit annoyed, “Pine cones?” he exclaimed, “Pine cones? Really?” We all joined him in his laughter. Next, they were asked to continue the poems for another three minutes, this time writing about seeing the photo clearly for the first time.
At the end of the three minutes each got up, stood in front of the group and announced his or her name to the thunderous applause and whoops from the others. Then, quietly but confidently, each read their newly created poems. I sat still, stunned and without words to describe the raw beauty entering my ears. As one great poet, Percy Shelley, might have put it, the words flowed out of these kids “like light amid the shadows of the sea cast from one cloudless star.”
They wrote more poems: what would you miss seeing the most if you lost your sight? Analogies were drawn between how these glasses cloud our vision and how our perceptions can cloud our judgment and they wrote about that. They wrote more on what they would not miss in life if they were to remove those glasses of judgment. Each time they stood without hesitation to share and each time I sat in dumbfounded awe of their honesty. I repeatedly wiped my eye to stop a tear or two from running down my cheek.
Cameron, the facilitator, asked them at the end of the night what they thought of the new exercises. They all agreed it was fun. One young man, a regular to the group, said with no small amount of enthusiasm, “I learned something and I laughed. I liked that we laughed.”
As for me, I kind of liked that they made me cry.
Poems inspired by the Circle of Light Photo Project from the young poets at Art From Ashes will be part of the 2012 exhibit, which opens on November 16 at the Artwork Network Gallery, 878 Santa Fe Drive in Denver. Selected youth poets will also perform live. Please don’t miss this free event. For more information visit www.CircleOfLightPhotoProject.org and www.ArtFromAshes.org.