Poetic transport: From madness to expression
The men compose a circle in the meeting room of the Mental Health Association on Greene Street in downtown Greensboro, positioning themselves evenly with one or two chairs spaced between them, as poet Clement Mallory assaults their sense of decorum and propriety.
Clement, a 35-year-old native of Brooklyn, NY, stands in the center of the circle dressed in a floppy beach hat, a suit jacket, a T-shirt bearing the visage of Walt Whitman, cargo shorts and white tennis shoes with no socks. He hunches his lanky frame and clutches the air with eyes that appear wild with fear. He looks paranoid and, quite frankly, mad as a hatter.
Some of the workshop participants suffer from mental illness; others are volunteers. The distinction between the two seems to be purposely blurred.
The poetry instructor imitates the sound of a creaking door for a ‘“trick-or-treat poem’” that asks, ‘“Is it just me or does Halloween seem scarier this year?’” He imitates the fluttering of bats with his hands and goes through the motions of changing through a series of fright masks.
‘“But the best part of Halloween,’” he declares, ‘“is the candy.’” And with that, he makes the gesture of flinging hard goodies out the sides of his pockets with both hands.
By now the older men are gently exploding with good-natured laughter.
‘“I performed that for three and four year olds today,’” Clement says. ‘“They loved it.’”
His plan is for the five participants of the poetry workshop to take lines from poetry and write a play that they’ll perform in this room two weeks from tonight, on Nov. 21. They’ll invite the public to attend because, as he says, ‘“I like to have an audience.’” He says he’s also recruiting dancers from outside the workshop, along with an artist to make props.
‘“This is a big thing,’” Clement says. ‘“We’re gonna hook it up.’”
In the meantime he encourages the participants to share their poems, urging: ‘“Everyone who wants to; pop up, do it.’”
Michael, a soft-spoken man with a solid build who wears a yellow do-rag, takes the first turn.
‘“I’m wishing life wasn’t so dark black,’” he reads. ‘“These feelings are real; I’m just telling you how I feel.’”
The men turn to Michael with compassionate eyes. Clement asks him what he’s trying to say. To which Michael responds that he’s carrying this pain inside that he needs to express in order to feel better.
‘“So it’s a big deal that we’re hearing it,’” Clement says.
Frank, a heavyset man with intelligent eyes, adds: ‘“It looks like you’re coming out of your shell. That’s good.’”
He reads a poem about desire and actualization with a diamond-like line: ‘“The wish is in essence the father to the thought.’”
Charles, a 76-year-old Cherokee who comes from Oklahoma by way of Chapel Hill, gets up from his chair to perform a poem about the pow-wow that, like Clement’s piece, incorporates movement. He places a hat with two eagle feathers on his head and presses the ‘play’ button on a miniature cassette player as a tinny representation of ceremonial whooping fills the room.
‘“Indian women ‘— they walk very stately, with their heads uncovered to God,’” he recites. ‘“They think of themselves as gods.’” Then he gamely demonstrates the young men hopping before clutching his side and giving up. He demonstrates the old men shuffling ‘“with their eyes down ‘— the women made them like that.
‘“Watch out for those women,’” he continues. ‘“When I say women, I mean Cher-o-kee women.’”
He explains: ‘“It’s a matriarchal society. They own everything, and if they don’t want you they put all your belongings out in front of the house.’”
Don, a man with twinkling eyes and a gleaming crown, reads a poem that conveys an introspective meditation on nature with the provocative line, ‘“the stillness of change is your true mother.’”
In the meantime a young man named Greg has appeared.
‘“I liked your poem,’” he says. ‘“Do you want to hear mine now?’” Everyone in the room laughs and Greg looks confused, but they urge him to read his piece.
Among other concepts, the poem mentions ‘“infinite loving mathematics.’”
‘“What do you think?’” he asks.
Don replies: ‘“I think you’re talking about fractal geometry. That’s good stuff.’”
By now it’s time to start planning for the play, which so far has seemed like something of a phantom. No one has remembered to bring poetry collections by other authors as Clement requested, so he announces Plan B. Everyone will write a poem based around the theme of ‘“where I come from’” and lines will be extracted and reassembled as dialogue.
Greg looks a little dubious.
‘“It’s a great idea and it might work for a lot of people, but I wondered if I could write about my mental illness,’” he says.
Suddenly, it’s as if he’s unstopped the creative blockage.
‘“It doesn’t have to be about where you’re from ‘— on the block,’” Frank says.
Charles latches onto the abstract conceptualization of the theme.
‘“It occurs to me that when I walk into an antique shop and see a butter churn my spine tingles,’” he says. ‘“I see a piece of farm equipment and I feel the blisters. That’s where I’m from ‘— I’m an antique. That’s it: hard-scrabble work, scraping a living out of the soil. That was my life and I wanted to get out of there as soon as I could.
Frank essays: ‘“With it me it would be, I’m from madness to where I’m at now’… the madness of my mother’s womb.’”
‘“That could be the title,’” Greg says. ‘“What about the concept of being trapped in your own imagination?’”
All the pistons are firing in the group now, and even Clement looks like he’s struggling to keep up. Only Michael, who glumly rests his chin on his fist, looks preoccupied.
Greg turns out to be the improbable master facilitator, suggesting that the play can take place in a bus station and Clement can narrate the play as some kind of transit official speaking over the intercom.
That, in turn, prompts Frank to make a suggestion to Clement: ‘“You could be God. We could be in the steam room. Where are we going? Heaven or hell?’”
The five others strain to get their minds around the narrative possibilities of Frank’s thematic device.
‘“Whew!’” Clement exclaims.
Don shakes his head.
‘“No, let’s stick with the bus station,’” he says.
Charles, who has already rejected another of Frank’s ideas, notes a sign some engineers he once knew kept in their workplace ‘— KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.
Clement wears a cheery look on his face, as if enthralled by the intellectual interplay of personalities.
‘“That’s all right,’” he says. ‘“There’s some people that’s like, ‘Sorry guys, the only way I can be is deep.””
Then Clement breaks up the workshop and instructs everybody to bring their ‘“where I come from’” poems to the next session in a week.
‘“Many of these people are in the genius class,’” says Charles, who is a volunteer. ‘“So they feel isolated. They get impatient. They don’t know how they should act around other people. Frank, for example, is a wonderful photographer, artist and writer.’”
Charles says he shows friendship to people who suffer from mental illness by taking them out to lunch or going on a hike with them, as part of a group called Compassionate Equals. When he relocated from Chapel Hill to Greensboro one of the first things he did was stop by the Mental Health Association to find out how he could help.
‘“A number of people attending this have mental illnesses,’” he says. ‘“They’re very paranoid. They feel that they have friends here. They come and have freedom here. It’s a comfortable, relaxing atmosphere here where people can be themselves.’”
Charles adds: ‘“I’ve seen remarkable changes in the past few weeks. Some of the people who came last time were afraid of speaking.’”
And yet Clement’s greatest accomplishment ‘— as gifted a conductor as he is ‘— might only be tapping into an overlooked energy source. The workshop is an alchemical process, the inexplicable and mysterious transmuting.
‘“People who are bipolar utilize both sides of the brain simultaneously,’” Charles says. ‘“That gives them a creativity that leads to brilliance.’”
Participants in the poetry workshop will present their play at the Scene on South Elm, at 604 S. Elm St. on Dec. 3. For more information, call 336.510.7509.
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org