In December, a neon billboard appeared in the Kensington area of Philadelphia, flashing poetic positivity around the corner of York City and Front Street and illuminating the rails of the SEPTA York-Dauphin Station.
“It’s always light here,” the sign glows when it gets dark.
“We … shine,” it is written.
Then flashes through the rotation of other words:
The poem was written collectively by Kensington residents, projecting their own vision of their neighborhood, which had more than its share of problems.
The mural is the product of the Kensington Healing Verse, a continuous series of writing workshops led by former Philadelphia poetess-laureate Trapeze Mason. Kensington Healing Verse is a branch of the Mason Healing Verse hotline, a daily hotline for a set of poems that she developed during her time as a poet laureate. It continues under the auspices of the Philadelphia Contemporary Art Organization.
The neon sign, created as part of the Philadelphia Mural Arts, is one result of the Kensington Healing Verse, but not the end result. Even after Mural Arts completed the creation of the neon sign, Mason continues to visit places in Kensington to guide people to express themselves, many of whom have never before tried to write poetry.
“There are some people who have literacy problems. I’m very aware of this in a variety of settings, and I know I can’t just put in front of you this great poem, pen and paper and say, “Write a poem,” Mason said. “I appreciate the room. I do open exercises. I say, “Hey, if you don’t want to record this, you can just tell us.”
At the Open Door Clubhouse, an organization of professional and technical services in Kensington for people with mental health problems, some of the participants were uncomfortable writing. Mason begins the conversation.
“What have people been dealing with for the last two years?” She asked about a dozen people who had gathered for the workshop.
Mason walks around the room when people enter: “COVID,” “drugs on the corner,” “violence and bloodshed,” “constant change.”
“We just talked about some really difficult things,” she told them. “This project is about: how do we cure?”
One of the participants is Alan Nanes, who has been coming to the club for 10 years. All this time watching the ups and downs of the neighborhood on the street.
In the studio, he wrote a poem that opens with the words “Kensington is a difficult area.”
“I had family members, I had uncles, aunts and cousins who used to live and work here,” he recited. “I’ve seen a lot of people come and go, but I’m still here.”
Nains decided to write about the neighborhood, but Mason’s poetic hints are more open than just Kensington. Participants were invited to consider words and phrases that confirm their own experiences and feelings as a means of celebration. One participant, who called himself a “storm chaser”, loved to write about the weather.
“All of us – many of us go with undiagnosed or diagnosed mental illness, and no one asks us to write about it,” Mason said. “We just want them to write about this experience, no matter how the person feels. They could write about food, or love, or whatever. This is your story that needs to be told. “
Mason is working with curator Ryan Strand Greenberg, who played an important role in creating the neon billboard. He says there are no plans to create another public work of art from the Healing Poem workshops. That’s not the point.
“The disadvantage of many public arts is that once a work is finished, it is usually a celebration and completion. But this tool was very useful for the society, ”he said. “There is such a demand for people who want to share their experiences and share with their community what they are going through, we felt it was necessary to continue this.”
The Kensington Healing Verse project has a website where anyone can submit a poem on any topic that can be shared with the project’s online community.
One of the most enthusiastic writers at the Open Door Clubhouse was Amaryllis Ruiz. When Mason asked the group to spend five minutes writing a poem, Ruiz wrote two.
“When you suffer from intellectual disability, sometimes you have too much in your head. This is, for example, the biggest enemy, ”she said. “So for change to happen, you have to be positive and optimistic, you know, not be negative Nancy.”
Ruiz lives in North Philadelphia and works at a local Wawa store. She scheduled time off specifically to be at the club to write poetry with Mason.
She writes that people in her neighborhood “feel angry”.
We would like everything to be better in the future.
We want to share the positive, the progress.
We are soldiers in this world.
After the session, Ruiz had the opportunity to talk one-on-one with Mason to ask about her poetry and how Ruiz could develop her own.
“When you come back from work – whether it’s stressful or enjoyable – write poems,” Mason advised. “Once you fill out your diary, go back and start editing. Did I say everything I wanted to say? Did I say too much? We are not in this place yet. Just keep writing first. ”
Ruiz kept making notes. Mason said she would like to see Ruiz’s three new poems at the next seminar in a week. Ruiz’s notebook was quickly filled with words.