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Signing our name. It is a simple act that we perform every day — on credit card slips, rent checks, invoices and countless other official documents that need authorization. Rarely do we think about what the act signifies in terms of the continual construction, reconstruction and validation of the self. It is an act we take wholly for granted, yet it may be the most self-affirming thing we do. Just ask the 14 poets of the St-James Drop-In Centre.
Poetry is not something often associated with the St-James Centre, a daytime haven for some of society's most marginalized men and women. Here, the homeless and mentally ill gather with substance abusers and the intellectually handicapped to break bread, watch a DVD, see a social worker, get clean clothes or just escape the crush of another Montreal winter and the indifferent eyes of a dispassionate population.
Hardly Wordsworth's beloved Lake District.
"At the beginning it was just three guys sharing their poetry over some coffee," said Greg Rickhaus of the humble beginnings of the weekly poetry workshop he initiated last winter. Now in his final year at the School of Social Work, Rickhaus was doing field work at St-James and, a poet himself, thought the workshop would be an interesting activity for the members of the centre. It turned out to be much more.
Every Tuesday, the small but dedicated group would meet in cafes, parks or quiet metro corridors to present and discuss their work. As is so often the case with earnest analysis of poetry, the discussions often spilled over to politics, love, philosophy, religion and life on the streets. "By the end, people who barely spoke at all were opening up in front of us," said Rickhaus. "There was a huge amount of growth."
The group also grew steadily each week, as did the body of poetry it was producing. By the summer, Alain Spitzer, the centre's fulltime director and part-time plumber, was looking to publish the collected works of the 14 St-James poets.
"I wanted this to be a real book-nothing cheap," said Spitzer. "But nice books don't come cheap. When I found out what the cost of printing a book would be, I was a little shocked-especially since the book might not sell a single copy." Luckily, gifts from donors made the cost more feasible and 14 Sightings of Something Lifelike was launched in the fall of 2006.
Aside from a minor quibble about having his named misspelled, poet Danny Cattelain is very happy with both the process and the final product. "The book is beautiful, impeccable," he said from the centre's art studio one busy Monday morning, "because it is full of our thoughts and feelings."
The collection has been the subject of numerous media reports, including in the Montreal Gazette and on CTV News — raising into the spotlight people we normally do our best to ignore. Their newly minted status as published poets is made all the more poignant by their everyday existence. Ironically, the book is being sold at local bookstores the poets have rarely set foot in.
For Spitzer, the fact that the book has sold more than 300 of the 500 copies printed is gravy. The book launch alone was well worth the time and effort put in by everyone associated with the project.
"The look of surprise on their faces when total strangers asked them to sign their copy of the book was incredible," he said. "It gives them some self-esteem and they start asking themselves things like 'If I can do this, why can't I get my own apartment?' It gives aspirations to people who had little hope."
14 Sightings of Something Lifelike can be purchased at local bookstores suchas The Word, Indigo and Chapters. Copies can also be ordered via email at email@example.com.
After so many years;
the window slides
on the camouflaged life,
in the margin
Excerpt from "The Law of the Universe" by Philip Tetrault, St-James drop-in centre poet.