September 8, 2002
Poets Help a City Find its Voice in Grief

After the towers fell, we needed poetry. We hungered for answers no news broadcast could provide.

We also, each of us, had a story of that day‹the way we heard, the people we knew, the ones we held close‹that we needed to find a way to tell. For the poets, musicians, photographers, the response was instinctive. For those who felt they had no immediate way to express their sense of the experience, the Boston Artists' All Souls Project offered an entry point.

The Project grew out of a collaboration initiated by Clara and Bill Wainwright, the founders of First Night, who recognized the need for a communal response to September 11. A major piece of the Project was a series of free writing workshops held in neighborhood branches of the Boston Public Library, led by poet and writer volunteers from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the writers' groups PEN New England and the Writers' Room.

"People had an over-abundance of memories and feelings that they were anxious to share," said Steven Ratiner, literary coordinator of the All Souls Project, who understood the overwhelming difficulty of writing about the event. In one of his own poems, he wrote, numb and bewildered, of "...the old/ universe/world where we once/ blindly made a home. Ashes."

Ratiner, who is the author of Giving Their Word: Conversations with Contemporary Poets, has served as poet in residence in nearly 200 schools and is experienced in coaxing writing out of those who don't think of themselves as writers.

"The hard part of this was to reflect on the experience in a way that would lead to writing. It felt too big. I wanted to find some narrow window that would create a small starting point for someone who may not think they're carrying around an important part of the story. I asked the people in my workshop to think about sound."

For one workshop participant, Mary Agnes Mullowney, that became the starting point for a poem. She wrote, "There must have been a sound/ a whoosh/ a sigh/ a rumble/...but we never heard it/ as we watched/ over and over on TV/ silent buildings, folding down upon themselves/ as if made of/ silk."

On September 11, poet Barbara Helfgott Hyett was making an effort to lead one of her regular poetry workshops while waiting for news of her son, who was in one of the World Trade Center towers. He ultimately emerged alive and she later wrote of "...the same God my son is/ calling on now, as he/ trembles with the others/ in the shattering from/ which he will be spared." When Helfgott Hyett heard about the All Souls Project, she knew she had to volunteer.

"I believe in poetry," she said. "It's definitely my religion. I knew this would be important, a peace-making gesture."

The author of four books of poetry, Helfgott Hyett worked with a co-leader, poet and teacher Sue Roberts, to compile a packet of poems. Using those poems and brief free-write periods, the workshop participants worked to make sense of a world at once normal and permanently changed.

"I was standing on the front steps,/ contemplating my face in the storm door,/ worrying about my sparse white hair, " Allen West wrote of the innocent moment just before hearing his wife's "urgent voice/ calling from the top of the stairs" and thinking that, perhaps, he had forgotten to close the latch.

And Laura Hawes remembered, "while I have been on my knees trimming/ the yellow grasses.../ three jets have exploded/ into three splendored blossoms, though/ the season is wrong and it is impossible."

For Stephanie Bresnahan, who once taught an ESL (English as a second language) class on the 55th floor of Tower 1, the thought of people standing helpless at those windows reminded her of how she had been drawn, on her breaks, to the mesmerizing views. And she thought, too, of one particular student, and wrote, "Before I left New York,/ Amadeu took me to Windows on the World/ to thank me for teaching him/ then disappeared into an elevator/ until today."

"In the workshops," said Barbara Helfgott Hyett, "some of us were poets and some of us became poets."

A quote she often refers to, from Ernest Becker's book Denial of Death, speaks to our instinctive need for art during times of crisis: "The most that any one of us can seem to do is fashion something‹an object or ourselves‹and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force."

City Type features the city's writers exploring their world. If you have suggestions, contact Ellen Steinbaum at

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