Write After Breakfast
Every Tuesday morning, I enter the basement auditorium of Saint Andrews Church in Ann Arbor, Mich., where up to 200 people gather daily for the free breakfast served each morning to any and all.
At first the smell of unwashed bodies is all I notice. Under fluorescent lights, piles of coats and duffel bags grow as more and more trays of food appear, served in real china bowls. There is oatmeal, sometimes eggs, and always a lot of coffee. I can’t hide my Starbucks cup. I wander around the auditorium with a nervous smile on my face, saying hello to people I know and also to the people beside them I don’t know. Everyone helps clean up breakfast, wiping down tables and sweeping the floor, carefully washing the china bowls. Most walk out the door for a cigarette before meeting the long day. The rest head upstairs with me to write.
The people who come to the writing workshop are a select crowd simply because they know how to write at all, though it isn’t necessarily a requirement (I sometimes transcribe words for people as they speak their stories to me). Usually the same crowd comes up the elevator to our designated writing room, where I pass out pens and paper, a typed copy of what they wrote the week before, and a prompt for this week’s writing.
Our workshop is inspired by Ian Frazier’s writing workshop at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen in New York City, and it follows a similar format with a similar cast of characters. Sometimes people attend the writing workshop for months at a time and then vanish, itinerant or suddenly imprisoned or hospitalized, and they sometimes return. I have copies of their poems in my folder, printed out and ready for them, always, just in case they come back.
I usually have an assistant with me because people occasionally come drugged up, but mostly I feel no danger. If someone is able to write and can make it to breakfast, they are usually homeless not because of a drug addiction but because of a mental issue, like schizophrenia or depression, or because they are in a sudden uprooted moment in their lives that is an anomaly, often because of a backlog of medical bills. Privileged as I am, I too have been a paycheck away from the streets, but I have a family who would take me in, and I would let them take me in. Otherwise, I am no different from these people.
Many of them are not technically homeless at the moment—Social Security has paid for a place for them, or they are living on someone’s couch, or they have scraped together enough money for an apartment, at least for now, by raking leaves or shoveling snow. Some do live on the streets and under bridges or in tent communities. Some live for a time at the local homeless shelter, especially during the cold Michigan winters. Most who live in the homeless shelter are not granted a bed because there aren’t enough beds, but instead they sleep upright on a hard chair—they have told me this—with the television blasting aggressively through the night.
My job as their writing teacher is not to critique writing but to help build a community, to help the students recognize that they have a voice, and to help them see their own intrinsic value. We talk for too long before we write because they seem to need to be heard. Their days seem timeless, but I have two babies waiting at home: I often interrupt their conversations so that we can get to work. I read a prompt, usually a poem but sometimes prose and sometimes just a question. Some prompts: a poem about illness; a quote about remembering; a poem about happiness. We instructors are all MFA-bred; these prompts are usually rigorous and contemporary and don’t shy away from the complications of language and thought. Then we write for just 20 minutes—not long enough to feel scared.
The homeless population I’ve met seems to bring up God a lot. Maybe because they’ve been stripped down to nothing they’ve become vulnerable enough to consciously need God.
People don’t have to share their writing. I always reassure them of this, but almost everyone wants to share. They want to be heard. The homeless population is voiceless in nearly every way in society. When do they get to be known as a human being, someone with a heart and a thoughtful perspective? This is their chance.
Their writing is good. The students rise to the challenge, responding to the acceptance in the room and to the beauty of the prompt. Sometimes we write to forget about our pain and sometimes to address it.
Here is the ever-crass and humorous Matt, writing from a prompt about being broken. He lets the reader into his heart, and then he makes you laugh, because joking is his brilliant defense mechanism:
Whatever about the stars in heaven, I am none of the above.
Dead to the world.
And taking a crap on the holidays.
What you didn’t want, you wished for.
What you didn’t know, was given to you.
Sveiks!!! I’m a mouse.
Or, sveiks, I don’t know what I am.
What you don’t know is what’s best for you.
What you want is what you need.
I’m the morning star, I’m the Lord of the heavens.
No wait, I’m Lord, God, and King!!!
I am everything to everyone, and nothing to myself.
I’m a chirping bird that turns into a lion, when you want me to be.
Pay your taxes, eat a bowl of dirt.
Kill yourself to live forever.
Know yourself, but not today.
Placemats are reserved for only those going to heaven.
Death is the stuff we’re wanting for.
Beat the cabbage, and don’t complain.
Life is tough, and you’re going to be part of it.
Waste away, and dream of nothing.
Life is only for the dead rabbits, and infected bats.
Satisfy yourself with nothing.
Call me now, but don’t call me late for dinner.
Reservations are for only when it snows.
Find yourself beyond the river.
Take yourself out for a job. Inertia is what you’re looking for.
The same prompt inspired this poem by Lit, who writes about losing her home:
all my money in an
unnamed parking lot
where I was not thinking
when I left my wallet in an
my motivation to sing although
singing helps me stay alive
the dependable job that I
thought would sustain me forever
my home with its peculiar flower
pots and long hot soaks in the tub
the familiar rhythm of life
to unpredictable patterns that
come and go at will
Though the group meets in a church space, we aren’t a religious group. But the homeless population I’ve met seems to bring up God a lot. Maybe because they’ve been stripped down to nothing they’ve become vulnerable enough to consciously need God. Nearly all of the students, if they aren’t homeless now, have said that they were, in a way, happiest when they were homeless. Free of material things, not struggling to keep the little patch of apartment they worked for, they were most raw and open. Those who are currently homeless wouldn’t say they are happy about it. But there is an open wildness to all of them. I am humbled when I talk to them. We talk for a long time as we share our writing. One person’s story mirrors another until we have made a web of connections. Often we are challenged by a story that is not like one we have heard before; here we have the space and warmth to contemplate a new point of view.
One morning each spring we give a reading, performing our work for the breakfast crowd, family, friends, and the church clergy. For weeks we prepare, shuffling through pages of printouts, reading work aloud to see how it sounds, helping one another choose our best three pieces. We try to track down people who have disappeared from our group. We bathe; we dress up. Here is an “exquisite corpse” poem—where each member of the workshop wrote one line and then folded the paper over and handed it to the next person—that I got to read one spring. Blindly we read one another’s minds, homeless and housed, bathed and unbathed, and we created this:
Whatever you want to do. Today is the day
when I do what I want to do, as opposed to somebody else.
To be like a bird, unworried and in flight.
I wondered if I’d ever reach that illusive place.
But I went anyway, knowing the way was true.
Seeking the path that the facts led me to.
I wanted the truth.
I was given the truth. But only when I gave the truth to others.
There is a balance here. A Midwestern field laid bare.
Find more poems and learn more at WriteAfterBreakfast.tumblr.com.
Courtney Mandryk earned a masters in poetry from the University of Michigan. She led the Write After Breakfast workshop in Ann Arbor for five years until moving to Philadelphia, Pa., where she now lives with her husband and two young sons.