Artists’ and the neighborhoods where their careers took flight can become inextricably linked – Allen Ginsberg and the East Village, Patti Smith and Chelsea, Romare Bearden and Harlem. Here on Roosevelt Island we are witnessing the creative (r)evolution of The Reality Poets, the core members of OPEN DOORS, an organization at Coler Hospital that supports the leadership and creativity of residents who have been harmed by gun violence. Islanders may have heard The Reality Poets perform spoken word, or seen their artwork in The WIRE and on the walls of RIVAA Gallery. They are writers, filmmakers, musicians, visual artists, designers – skills and passions they discovered while in their wheelchairs.
The Reality Poets hold copies of their book left to right: Peter Yearwood, Ramon Cruz, LeVar Lawrence, Alhassan Abdulfattaah, Vincent Pierce, Roy Watson, Andres Molina
Their most recent project is a self-published book, Wheeling and Healing, funded by the Coler Auxillary. The anthology is a collection of their own poems and poetry selected through a submission process. Last fall The Reality Poets invited Coler residents, Roosevelt Island neighbors, mentors, and friends to contribute poems. Over a six-week period they met weekly as a group to review each submission with managing editor and visiting artist Jenessa Abrams. One by one they read the poems aloud, discussing their impressions and whether or not each submission fit the book’s theme of realness, resilience and healing.
“The care and thoughtfulness that the poets brought to every submission was a beautiful reminder that there is meaning and value in everything,” says Abrams, a Norman Mailer fiction fellow and Columbia University graduate student. “A thought I keep returning to is how The Reality Poets spoke freely without artificiality or malice to express their emotional responses to each piece of work. The lack of ego was staggering and humbling. The Reality Poets wanted to curate the most meaningful, expressive collection they could, and I believe that intention can be felt in the completed book.”
“I think The Reality Poets are kind of like real life heroes in a way,” says Rivercross resident Rob Battles who has two poems in Wheeling and Healing. “They are transcending tremendous barriers to do this kind of work. Their courage is very infectious.”
Book cover art by LeVar Lawrence
The Reality Poets make themselves vulnerable and tell their stories with complete honesty because they have learned that this is the path that ultimately heals. They also realize that there is power in their stories – the kind of power that can inspire people to think deeply about their own lives and contemplate the impact of gun violence and racial injustice.
Andres “Jay” Molina who has been in a wheelchair for five years says that through his writing and filmmaking, he wants to show people that they too are capable of doing more than they thought was possible. “Before OPEN DOORS I didn’t think I had the ability to write a poem or make a film…experiencing trauma opens your mind to possibilities that you didn’t know existed before. This type of transformation has to come from within you and transformation shouldn’t have to come from an event or illness but often it does.”
LeVar “Var” Lawrence, OPEN DOORS visual artist and designer, says he writes first and foremost for himself. “I am just expressing myself…Expressing things I have inside that I don’t want to talk to people about.” He recalls telling family and friends about his suicidal thoughts after being shot in the neck and becoming paralyzed. They’d dismiss him, or scrambled to find the words to make him feel better. It was frustrating and hurtful. When he joined OPEN DOORS and started to write poetry he realized that writing was what he needed. “Sometimes I just want to vent…and I don’t want to be judged.”
Fellow Reality Poet and OPEN DOORS designer Alhassan "El" Abdulfattaah agrees. “[Writing] is smoother and more therapeutic than speaking to someone about what you are thinking.”
“I am interested in poetry because it describes something that can’t adequately be described in prose,” says Battles. “It indicates something that is subtler…something difficult to capture.”
The anthology is for sale online and the funds raised from purchased books and donations will enable OPEN DOORS to distribute Wheeling and Healing to schools with at-risk student populations. They are also planning to give every middle school student at PS/IS 217 a copy of the book. Knowing that the book and their writing could help young people make positive life choices fuels the Poets’ creative work.
“Through the creation of music, poetry, video, art I see the guys coming alive and stepping into their lives more fully,” says Jennilie Brewster, OPEN DOORS director and founder. Being a Roosevelt Island resident herself, Brewster is witnessing how their work and eagerness to share it is benefiting island culture. Their ongoing collaborations with groups and organizations on Roosevelt Island such as Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance, the Roosevelt Island Visual Arts Association, the senior center, Island Kids, WordtoRI and Cornell Tech is helping to bridge gaps and knit residents together through art. “The integration and cross pollination makes Roosevelt Island a healthier community.”
Their next community event will take place February 27, 7pm at the New York Public Library on Roosevelt Island. The Reality Poets will host a poetry share to promote Wheeling and Healing. They will read their poems and are inviting attendees to bring original poems or a favorite to read aloud. Drop in or sign up here.
The official Wheeling and Healing book launch event will be held on March 11, 7pm at the Housing Works Bookstore and Café in SoHo. Writer and podcaster Ashley C. Ford will host.