Few might agree with me that poetry has practical applications in life. I was very fortunate that Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry’s Men’s Shelter at 2100 Lakeside paired me up with poetry back in 2009, as that experience has helped me in my work life ever since. Let me explain.

We all know the importance of listening, yet how many of us take the opportunity to practice deep listening regularly? We mean well. We want to, but we don’t, and there are SO many distractions out there! Humans are complicated, difficult, and perplexing creatures. And this pandemic has certainly brought these characteristics to the forefront. (As well as compassion, concern and action, but that’s for a different essay!) The Finding Voice poetry group at the Men’s Shelter taught me to slow down, get out of my own head, be patient, and be open to whatever comments and outpourings were offered up. The poetry group made me aware of what a critical, judgmental creature I can be. It helped me to listen, not only with my head, but with my heart, and that has changed everything.

We all appreciate when someone really listens to us- when we feel that they “get” what we are trying to say. It can even be intimidating to be listened to deeply if we have not had that experience in our lives. Most importantly, to be listened to is also soul-restorative. I believe that is true for the listener, as well as the teller. To be recognized for who we are, warts and all, is priceless, and restores us to our humanity. Here are some firsthand examples of that from the Finding Voice Poetry group…

One afternoon there were about 20 of us sitting around the conference table on the second floor at the Men’s Shelter. I don’t remember exactly what our topic was, but we took our 10-minute break to jot down a poem. There was a man, brand new to the group, dressed head to toe in denim. He was really ruddy and weathered looking with blonde hair, and in my mind, I nicknamed him the “Marlboro Man” because that’s exactly who he resembled. He didn’t engage in conversation and gave the impression he was there to kill a couple of hours. When it was time to share what we wrote, he raised his hand and wanted to read. It was a poem that sounded like a beautiful country music song with perfect rhyme, rhythm and passion in it. After a moment of stunned silence, one young African-American man sitting directly across the table from Marlboro Man burst out, “Wow, man, I thought you were just some old cracker. I didn’t know you felt like that!” And everybody exploded in laughter and acknowledgment, and any previous uneasiness disappeared instantly. We heard him.

Another time, a young man read his poem “All Is Not Well”

All Is Not Well

All isn’t well,
All isn’t right.
Will I fall asleep tonight
With one eye open
Worrying if I will rise up
With the morning sun?
Sounds of pain fill the night.
Man, am I afraid to fall asleep tonight.
Been up for two straight days
Wandering around in this haze
What I have done in these two days
Lord do I need your praise?
Screams fill the night
As I lay here in fright,
Wondering if I’ll make it through the night.
Lord please watch over me as I sleep tonight.

And before he finished, an older man in the group laughed. It was such a surprising response to a poem about deep fear and broke the silence we all shared. I was startled and angry at this unfeeling interruption and said, “I didn’t hear anything funny in that poem. Why are you laughing?” and the man said, “We all feel that way, but we would never say it out loud.” His comment initiated a long, lively discussion about feelings of fear and vulnerability among shelter residents that was both honest and healing.

Poetry brought me to the Men’s Shelter. The Men’s Shelter brought me to deep listening and to LMM. LMM offered me opportunities to do things I’d never done before, such as teaching, working with people to find jobs and keep them, delivering poems at graduation ceremonies, and now, case management. Deep listening skills have added muscle to all of these endeavors. I feel so incredibly blessed! Here is my poem dedicated to all the men who came to poetry at the shelter over the years.

There is an energy, a life force, an exuberance
Hostilities, jokes, comments, quick observations,
Painful truths
Forcing us inward—to weigh our own souls
To contemplate each other freshly
And the world anew.

Annie Holden
Case Manager
Men’s Shelter at 2100 Lakeside