Quest for common ground goal of Poetry GSO

by Amy Kingsley

One man on the far side of the circle was there when it all went down. Seated in a chair, unassuming in a black T-shirt with hair buzzed uniformly close to the scalp, he recites lines from the first exercise.

‘“Was I there?’” he asks. ‘“Yes I was and no I wasn’t. I was there as a boy who didn’t know what was going to happen.’”

What happened on that day was this: Klansmen and neo-Nazis opened fire on a Communist Workers Party rally, killing five people. One of them was this man’s stepfather, Dr. Jim Waller. The man in the chair, Alex Goldstein, has struggled with the events of Nov. 3, 1979 ever since. This isn’t the first time he’s tried to work out his feelings through prose or poetry, he admits. The themes ‘– of who he is now, and how that day shaped him ‘– have emerged before.

Goldstein is one of about 14 participants in today’s exercise, a poetry workshop aimed at inspiring community healing around the events of that fateful day. Some poets have no personal connection to the massacre. Others are closely tied to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but have not composed a line of verse since high school.

But in this room, for the first assignment, all participants are asked to take a cognitive leap and compose a poem as if they were there.

Joya Wesley, the communications director for the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, writes a piece in the voice of Sandy, one of the protesters killed that day. UNCG professor Spoma Jovanovich executes a hard turn, striving to frame the events in a police officer’s perspective. Beside me, assistant librarian Steve Sumerford rises to deliver his poem, a true-to-life rendition of his refusal that day to stand with a dear friend.

‘“She said come with me, ride with me, stand with me against the Klan,’” he says, ‘“and I said no.’”

That refusal cost him a friendship, and the poem has uncovered dormant disappointment. After the recital, he drops into his chair, his hand smoothing a trembling chin.

Sumerford organized Poetry Greensboro, a month-long slate of events that coincides with National Poetry Month. Today’s workshop is part of that and is affiliated with the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is preparing to release the comprehensive report on Nov. 3, 1979 in little over a month.

Jacinta White of the Word Project, a company that specializes in these types of workshops, is leading today’s group. Survivor Willena Cannon opened the workshop with a recap of the events leading to and following from the violence. She provided first-hand knowledge to those in the group with little personal connection to the events that have scarred our community to this day.

The event was born in part from Wesley’s prolific freelance career, one that had her both consulting for the library and working for the commission earlier this year. White, already scheduled to do a workshop about poetry informed by faith, mentioned her company’s program to facilitate community healing.

‘“When she mentioned community healing it just seemed like a natural fit,’” Wesley says.

The rain delayed some for the workshop participants, but a good-sized crowd filled the meeting room within 30 minutes of the official start.

After the first exercise and a short break, White passes out a fill-in-the-blank worksheet as a platform for the next project. Heads bend quietly over pages as people struggle to answer open-ended questions about truth, reconciliation and Nov. 3, 1979.

Then White breaks the large group into three smaller ones, each of which will write a group poem based on their responses to one of the questions. I end up in group three, assigned to wax creative on the topic, ‘“What does reconciliation look like?’”

Our group is comprised of one Truth and Reconciliation staff member, a retired salesman, a pastor and a reporter.

‘“This was actually the only question I couldn’t answer,’” says Jennifer McHugh, a recent New York City transplant and staff member of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

At first we kick around some ideas about what reconciliation is, whether it’s personal or communal. Then the conversation shifts to places, images and qualities in areas where people might feel welcome to share their side of the story.

As the clock winds down we consider the railroad tracks, the street corner where the killing happened and playgrounds. We’re still talking when Mike Peake, the retired salesman and longtime poet, starts writing.

‘“Where can we come together?’” he writes, ‘“maybe at the railroad tacks that come from nowhere and lead to ‘… where?’”

As we hash out ideas he shapes them to verse. He closes the piece with the line ‘“we are all here.’”

It is a sentiment pervasive among those involved with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the town will unite during the process. It hasn’t happened yet. But the people in this room have found common ground despite their diverse backgrounds, and used each other’s experiences to reach an accord.

To comment on this article, e-mail Amy Kingsley at