"Connecting Chords": Lambeth Crime Prevention Trust
Christina Hemp was a 1995 Santa Fe Recursos "Discovery" award winner. She was the first Poet-in-Residence at Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota in 1996, a poet-in residence at Capulin Volcano National Park in New Mexico last year, and in 1997 she was the visiting writer at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, her alma mater. She has recently moved to Port Townsend, Washington -- just across Puget Sound from where she grew up. In December of last year, one of Christine Hemp's poems was launched in a NASA rocket sent to record the birth of stars. Space is not the only venue for her poetry. She's been named Poet of the Year for the New England Association of the Teachers of English, she's been given a Conway Award for Teaching Writing at Harvard University Extension School, a Barbara Deming grant for her manuscript Outgrowing My Body, and a University of Alaska poetry award.
When we though of inviting American poet Christine Hemp to cross the Atlantic to Atlantic Road in Brixton, to write poetry with a mixed group of police officers and young people we had no idea whether anyone would take us seriously. This was the first time anyone had tried to use poetry for preventing crime.
What follows illustrates just what a powerful exercise this has been.
Sitting in a cold and dingy room above the Dogstar pub, eight police officers and eight young people have spent the week exploring whether creative writing can build bridges between police and local youth in Lambeth.
The result is "Connecting Chord" and you can judge for yourself whether any bridges have been built...
Jonathon Keyes, Director,
Lambeth Crime Prevention Trust
BEFORE: Community Impressions of the Brixton Police Force
- "F*** Dem. They don't help us blacks."
- "They suck."
- "Some are decent, but the bad ones have a massive difference in my perceptions of the force. If I think of them, I think corrupt, racist.. .even if they're not all like that, the bad ones bring the whole force down."
- "A half and half mass of variety with some that greet the police and others that hold a distaste and conditioned hatred."
- "Quiet soldiers, misplaced ideas and sadness. Together in their world, protection gone from creative notions of the universe."
- "Most of them just judge me because of the way that I dress and walk."
- "Police for me is we need them. All time, for protection..."
- "The police force has too many crooked cops."
- "What the police think is they try to help but sometimes they f*** up black people..."
BEFORE: Brixton Police Impressions of the Community
- "Racists: not willing to accept we are new police, not the old police that gave us this reputation."
- "General unwillingness to listen, change, or accept making the first move."
- "Very bitter. Takers not Givers. Small minority seem to influence the majority causing unrest and unwillingness to change."
- "The majority are decent, hard-working and respectful. A minority are lazy, disrespectful and think the world owes them. It's easy to blame others rather than turn the light on yourself."
- "Unwilling to change."
- "Disinterested and fractured. Everyone with their own agenda."
AFTER: Community Response
- "The good thing about today is that I was talking to and about police and to tell you the truth it was interesting to know how the police think."
- "Talking and honesty. Expressing to each other without fear. Opening our minds up. Laughing. Seeing the police without uniforms."
- "Today was good talking to the police face to face. I had fun. Thank you."
- "Feeling safe to open up. Sharing. Laughing. Seeing others' points of view clearly. Seeing the young people attempt to listen. Safety of input. The ability to speak and not feel judged. To hear, to listen, to acknowledge. To recognize that we are all learning. The responsibility of communication."
- "Getting to know the police better. Understand their feelings."
- "Good to be together, police and community. Help understand problems between people. Talk about racism, drugs, black people's ideas about police. Nice every one has been honest."
AFTER: Police Response
- "Talking as people - not as 'police' and 'the community'. Interacting with each other, being positive about negative issues. Asking questions and listening to the replies - not assuming the answers."
- "With the community and colleagues sharing views, opinions and experiences. I feel happier in my self. The poetry therapy helped."
- "No belittling of others. No hatred but a collective of laughter. Understanding through discussion of problems on both sides. Realization that everyone is just human regardless of what job or what clothing is worn."
- "I think it's been a good opportunity for people to air their views if they want - but also just to sit and listen. It's good if we take away something from this and convince at least one person in this room that we are more than just 'police officers.' I can see why there is so much animosity amongst the community but it's 'Good to talk'."
- "It was good that everyone could speak openly, not allowing preconceived barriers to get in the way...
- "No insults. No abuse. No blind accusations. An open and friendly forum. No dancing."
A Window in the Wall
For all the participants in "Connecting Chord"
We look out at Brixton rooftops, slick with rain.
We shiver in the draughty room. Our legs are cold.
We scratch our pens across blank paper.
What is courage if not forming words for feelings,
For things we think will meet us on the street,
In the pub, in the darkened doorway? Words give
Shape to the unknown figures through the smoky haze.
Crisps and Smarties crunch, but the hands keep moving,
The words spill and we make a pathway to the wall,
Step by step.
And what we finally greet
Is not a lurking shadow, not the sound of spitting
Nor a door slashed with blood
But a window in that wall.
(Why hadn't we seen it before?)
Yes, it's small and the sill is peeling paint.
But there it is. Letting in the air, letting in the light,
The songs from either side.