My Afternoon With Path With Art

“The things that a poem can teach them to see and to hear and to listen for are necessary.”-TKS

How does poetry relate to housing? What power and presence can we glean from the arts to energize our affordable housing movement? These are the questions I’ve been grappling with since I heard that U.S Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith would be our keynote speaker at HDC’s Annual Celebration on April 23..

I began sifting through her poetry and the pieces started clicking together as the undertones of her poems evoked the same currents of passion, drive, and values that I see every day in the work of HDC’s members and the King County affordable housing community. Her art parallels the mission of the social services and policy change happening all around us here at HDC, and with that, the importance of the intersection of the creative, restorative presence of the arts, and the direct action of social services and advocacy became a centerpiece to this year’s celebration.

HDC member Path With Art works in this intersection every day. They hold quarter-long art classes, ranging from music to painting, poetry to sculpture, for people currently or formerly experiencing homelessness. This past quarter, the poetry class of over a dozen students focused on analyzing and deriving inspiration from the works of Tracy K. Smith. The hours they have put in on their poetry has resulted in truly amazing pieces that will be showcased at this year’s Annual Celebration, where the students will also have the opportunity to meet with Ms. Smith and explain what her work has meant to them.

Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to sit in on one of the classes. I walked in nervous, both daunted by the poetry and by the fact I was a guest in their space, but the minute I walked in I was greeted warmly. I was welcomed with open arms and immediately was introduced to the people in the room. The woman on my right immediately turned to me and began asking me questions about Fort Lawton, explaining she had submitted public comment for the need for affordable housing, even though she wouldn’t qualify to live there. The before-class conversations ranged from housing topics to one women’s struggle with all the cords her son had installed for her, and everything in between.

When I announced to the class that they might have the opportunity to meet with Ms. Smith, the room buzzed with excitement and grins. Everyone gushed about how big of fans they had become after spending weeks grappling with her poetry.

The class began with an exercise to write about events for feelings from the past week using the format of news headlines. We went around the circle and shared. They ranged from long and meaningful to pithy and fun. Mine elicited a few laughs and I felt like I’d been initiated as part of the group. We then dove head first into one of Ms. Smith’s poems, “Watershed,” which weaves together the story of a company who put chemicals in the water even after knowing their harmful effects, and reflections from people online telling their near-death experiences. It was lengthy, dense, and graphic but left me again in awe of Ms. Smith’s abilities. As a class we analyzed the work before setting off on our own to find news headlines and other writing sources to weave together in our own patchwork poetry.

During that time, I was able to talk more with my classmates and they told me how much Path With Art means to them and the tremendous impact it has had on their lives. Before I could believe it, class was over and I was off to the bus stop. On my way out, a few classmates stopped me to continue chatting. Everyone there was eager to express their interest in getting involved in housing and homelessness advocacy as well as expressing appreciation and excitement for the opportunity to meet with Ms. Smith.

On my bus ride back, I reflected on what a special experience it had been. This year’s Annual Celebration will be all the more uplifting thanks to our partnership with Path With Art and Tracy K. Smith’s presence. Sometimes, in this work, you can get lost in the seemingly Sisyphean trek for change, but what poetry and all the arts can help remind us of is the emotional core that centers our work. Yesterday was a great reminder of that for me, and I know our celebration will be that for many as well.

-Leah Haberman, Outreach and Communications Manager