April 12, 2016

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Poetry Friday: Autumn Leaves Project

Last week, I felt so much gratitude for our wonderful Poetry Friday community. 

Jama Rattigan is making room at the table
for all of this week's Poetry Friday posts.
You'll find them at Jama's Alphabet Soup.
I shared a poem and a story about my challenging high school years, and all of you rose up to support me with your comments and high school stories of your own. (Read the post here.) Telling some of my story turned into a healing experience because of the caring messages I received in return.

I've been thinking about the power of sharing stories, even difficult ones.

A few months ago, I was invited to participate in a community arts project called Autumn Leaves. Painter and arts organizer Peter Bruun, who was about to turn 50, dreamed up this inter-generational project. I'll do my best to describe it, but you may want to read a full explanation at the Autumn Leaves website.

Peter contacted 49 Baltimore area "elders" -- later called the project Leaves. They were split into seven groups of seven Leaves each. Each of these groups was assigned a tree name, a visual artist and a writer under the age of fifty. The task of the artist and writer was to create portraits of each Leaf in the group.

Peter assigned me to the Poplar Group, along with photographer Tiffany Jones. Part of this project was going to be a big celebration for each group, including story sharing from the leaves and performances by youth arts organizations.

Peter Bruun and Tiffany Jones at the Poplar Event.

I had a concept for my seven written portraits, which had to be 49 words each. Since Autumn Leaves focuses on elders sharing their wisdom and stories, I wanted to highlight these folks in their own words. I interviewed each of the Leaves on the phone, typing as we spoke about their lives. 

Instead of writing new poems, I wanted to "curate" seven found poems taken directly from my interview transcripts. This way, the poems would be in the the Leaves' own words.

Through this project, I had the opportunity to get to know people I probably wouldn't have crossed paths with otherwise: a man who was wrongfully incarcerated for 20 years and who is now a prison reform advocate, an woman who was recently reunited with the daughter she was forced to give up for adoption when she was just 15.

In late September, Peter invited us all to the Poplar Group event at Area 405, a gallery and event space in Baltimore. It was such a thrill to see the portraits from each of the seven groups, but I was blown away by Tiffany's beautiful photographs of our seven Leaves.

Tiffany's display incorporated her photographs, my found poems,
tree branches, and lines from a Thich Nhat Hahn poem.
I'd like to thank photographer Tiffany Jones, arts organizer Peter Bruun, and two of our Leaves -- Jeffrey Johnson and Anna Davis -- for giving me permission to share their photographs and poems.

Jeff Johnson is a recent widower and a practicing Buddhist who has studied with Thich Nhat Hahn.

Jeffrey Johnson
Photograph by Tiffany Jones

Found Poem by Laura Shovan

You’re here.
Being in the present moment,
you have come home.

Fifteen years ago
I didn’t have a physical home.
It was a painful time.

The earth was my home.
This great ground
accepts all of our suffering, all our joy.

In connecting with the earth, I feel free.

After years of battling addiction, Anna Davis entered Baltimore's Marian House community for women.

Anna Davis
Photograph by Tiffany Jones

Found Poem by Laura Shovan

Change is possible.
When I entered Marian House
I expected a miracle.
I found that the miracle was me.

For me, home is stability,
a feeling of family,
my spirituality.

It is not one place.
I have to carry it with me—
that self-worth, that integrity—

at all times.

Once again, I find myself feeling grateful for a supportive community where people's stories are valued and honored. The Autumn Leaves project has been a life changer. If you are interested in donating to Autumn Leaves, the link is here. If you're interested in supporting Marian House, please visit their website.

I think a project like Autumn Leaves would be great to try with your school, library, or community group. Pairs of student artists and writers could interview adults in the school, family members, or elders in their community. The paired portraits -- visual and written -- are a powerful way to share stories between the generations.


Linda B said...

Just got home, & saw your post, Laura. What a marvelous project to do, see, enjoy. I like the idea of your poems, so personally "theirs", and the photographs are exquisite. I will share with the teachers of older students. I've done oral history projects before, but not like this. Thank you!

Diane Mayr said...

Wow, just wow. "I found that the miracle was me." What a lucky woman to have found herself, and that you found her words to share with us.

Holly Mueller said...

This is amazing! I am thinking about doing a Leaving a Legacy unit soon with my 6th graders - I knew I wanted them to read biographies, but I didn't know what writing project we might do. They could interview, photograph, and curate Found Poems on an elder in their family or community! Thank you for sharing such an inspiring project!

Irene Latham said...

As my father would say: "Neat!" The pictures and the meaningfulness of the poems.. it says as much about you the author as it does the subject. Thank you for sharing!

Doraine said...

What a wonderful opportunity for you to be involved in this project. Beautiful photographs! And lovely words. You captured so much of these people in 49 words. Beautiful.

jama said...

What a beautiful project, Laura. Your poems are exquisite and the photographs amazing. Love the idea of found poems, how you were able to capture the voices of the Leaves by shaping their words.

Joy said...

Beautiful poems and pictures. I'll bet these help the LEAVES to see themselves in a greater light with more hope for the future. What a great way to enhance self-esteem and provide a gift to the community.

Buffy Silverman said...

How wonderful to create found poems from interviews--loved these portraits!

Anonymous said...

The photos and the poems are so powerful. What a fabulous project. I am going to check out the Leaves site.

Jeannine Atkins said...

Wowee and yikes and yay. All of this packs a punch in the best of ways. What a way to celebrate true community.

Tara said...

The power of this project blows me away. How marvelous to acknowledge transformative experiences within one own community.

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

What an amazing project-- rewarding, fulfilling, inspiring, enlightening. I'm sure your leaves were honored by both the visual and written "found" portraits.

Author Amok said...

I think Peter is planning to record and preserve the Autumn Leaves events. You're right -- it is an oral history project as well as an art project.

Author Amok said...

I'm so glad you might be able to use some elements of Autumn Leaves! Keep us posted on your students' work.

Author Amok said...

Thanks, Jama. This was one of those times when the poet has to step out of the way and let the experience speak for itself.

Tabatha said...

What an exciting project! Your found poems and the photographs work so well together. Love it.

GatheringBooks said...

What a powerful post, Laura and such a meaningful project. There is so much to be grateful for with your found poems - life seems filled with possibilities, lots to embrace and look forward to.