“Bringing us into visceral proximity with the lives and plights of others”

The wise and magnificently talented Tracy K. Smith is the current U.S. Poet Laureate. HDC has the immense good fortune to have her as keynote speaker for our annual celebration on April 23, 2019. I recently read Ms. Smith’s poem “Ash” to a group of HDC members—partly to evoke personal reflection about the poem’s content and partly to evoke excitement about the upcoming celebration.

One of the participants asked, “But what does this poet have to do with affordable housing?”  Without giving the question much thought, I replied, “There’s no connection.” I could have responded differently, perhaps highlighting the 22 times the word “house” was used. But that particularly uninspired answer would have backfilled right over the chance for delight and discovery.

I was attempting to make the point that when we gather annually to celebrate our work, we give ourselves a gift when we do so in fresh ways. A program focused in a very literal, direct, and well-trod way on housing does not always accomplish that. A completely different take has the capacity to surprise us, challenge us, and captivate us. If it can immerse hundreds of us, at the same time and in the same room, in the poetry that pervades our work, it can help us fall in love all over again with our mission and our movement.

In a recent Washington Post feature , Tracy discussed the challenges of retaining our humanity in an age of technology. This passage grabbed my attention:

“In case I haven’t said it clearly, the language circulating upon the surface of the 21st century is in the business of pulling us away from the interior, the reflective, the singular, the impractical and the un-summarizable. In such a current, the language of poetry is a radically re-humanizing force, because it is one of the only generally accessible languages that rewards us for naming things in their realness and their complexity. And despite what social media would have us believe, it is not the language of sharing and following, or buying and wearing, but rather that of bearing deep and unabashed witness to the urgencies and upheavals of lived experience, that comes closest to bringing us into visceral proximity with the lives and plights of others. That’s not just distraction, and it’s not a luxury. It’s a means of self-preservation, a way of affirming commitment to the belief that our lives can and should matter to one another and to ourselves.”

I cannot think of a better thing to do on April 23 than to come together as a sector and affirm our commitment that every life matters. That in this movement, every role is important. Every accomplishment is valuable. And that each of us is here because we believe—and are driven every single day by— the need to bear “deep and unabashed witness to the urgencies and upheavals of lived experience” through our work in affordable housing.

Anyone who has been to even one of the open mic nights held by some of our member organizations  knows our movement is rich with residents and staff capable of vibrantly “naming things in their realness and their complexity.” Maybe in the four months leading up to the celebration, you can find a little time, create a little space, to bring a few colleagues together and wrestle with one of Ms. Smith’s poems (or one of your own?).

Let’s use this time before the celebration to reflect on the diverse journeys that brought each of us to serve, with tireless compassion, on behalf of those who are housing insecure.

-Marty Kooistra