Anitra Freeman, the annual WHEEL homeless women's forum, and poetry chapbooks all sort of run together on my mind. Each year around this time, I expect to see Anitra camped out at a Real Change computer, getting crumbs all over the keyboard, freaking out because the women's lunch is in three days and the chapbook was due at the printer four hours ago.
This year, she's been looking unusually relaxed and happy. The book's been done for weeks. Whit Press, a non-profit Seattle publishing company, has lovingly produced an anthology of WHEEL chapbooks entitled Beloved Community: The Sisterhood of Homeless Women in Poetry. Proceeds support the work of WHEEL, and it's good.
And it's gorgeous. So buy one. Read it.
Then send another check to WHEEL, because they do great work and they suck at fund raising. They've been doing their annual lunch for thirteen years, and it's free. Wednesday, Nov. 14, noon - 1:30 p.m., at First United Methodist Church, 5th and Columbia, Seattle.
The material here spans more than a dozen years, and, the world of grassroots homeless activism being small to the point of claustrophobia, these are women whose names and faces trigger a flood of memory and, in some cases, sadness.
Catherine Condeff's "Did You Hear That," for instance — first published in Real Change a dozen years ago — gave me chills then and it still does. And Catherine's still around, sometimes doing sort of OK, and sometimes not. Lately not.
A dozen years later, things are worse. Lots worse.
We talk a hell of a lot more about ending homelessness though. If words and reports and data were housing we'd have luxury skyscrapers for the homeless all up and down the waterfront, and the desperation of Catherine's poem would just be a literary artifact to remind us of a more unfortunate time.
But she's still here. And so are we all.
Cynthia Ozimek, on the other hand, isn't. She died a few years ago at 45 of pneumonia just after getting into housing. It's surprising how often that happens. Do a Real Change site search and you'll find her ouvre. She was a felon. A drug user who tried and sometimes failed to get clean. And, she was a beautiful, loving, amazing, working-class intellectual and one of the most natural writers I've ever encountered.
It still feels like I should be able to look over to the Real Change open computers and see her sitting there some day. But I won't. She died because she was poor. The middle-class seldom die alone in their rooms of curable diseases.
The usual suspects of Seattle's homeless literary circles — Marion Sue Fischer, Elizabeth Romero, Anitra Freeman, Liz Smith, Reneene Robertson — are all well represented. Half of these have books of their own, and the others should. Marion Sue's Recourse for Women deserves to be much more widely anthologized. As does Anitra's Words, or Romero's Ordinary Day.
Truth be told, not all of this is great poetry, although some of it certainly is. Chrysta Casey's work, which opens the anthology, could have published in one of those little magazines that only academics other writers read. But it's all real. You get some heartfelt doggerel, the sort of stuff that the words "homeless poetry" might typically bring to mind. But most, if not all, offers a window on a reality that, in a better world, wouldn't exist.
But because it does, we owe these women a hearing. All of them. These are words that matter.
There's something very bittersweet about celebrating a "community of homeless women." Some of these women are no longer homeless. There's a small sprinkling of unknowns, but for the most part, the women in this anthology are the activists and writers who've been around for a decade or more. A few have dropped away, some for better, some for worse.
The Beloved Community is, for me, a reminder of how far we have left to go, and of the people I've met along the way who've deserved far more in their lives.