This story discusses domestic and sexual violence and trauma recovery.
The poetry anthology Leaves opens with a poem on the inside cover. The writer’s name is given as Astra; it has no title. The poem begins:
Read these poems
The words land with a flinch of guilt. The writer guessed right—readers open Leaves expecting a tragedy. Leaves is the third poetry collection from the Rise Up! poetry group, and Rise Up! is hosted and facilitated by Sussex County’s Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault Intervention Services (DASI). Like its 20 counterparts in NJ’s other counties, DASI provides support services to survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Every one of the original pieces in this book was created by a survivor. A Jack Black comedy, this is not.
Yet, listen to the members of Rise Up! and you’ll hear in-jokes and teasing. Read their work, and you’ll find plenty of darkness, but also beauty and, as Astra concludes in that opening poem, “[t]he very definition of Strength, / For we are warriors. / We always have been.”
It’s a realization that Jim Elsaesser made eight years ago, when he became the group’s first facilitator. Elsaesser is a calm, lofty presence of 68 years and something north of six feet. He drops f-bombs and Rumi quotes in the same sentence.
“In college, I was fucking obsessed with, you know, reading T.S. Eliot and understanding, winnowing out the meaning of it,” he says. It was the start of what he calls “a slight poetry obsession for 50 years or so.”
That led him to a teaching career and about 30 years of writing groups, workshops and conferences. In 2015, he led a service at his Unitarian fellowship in Stroudsburg, PA. A 92-year-old man named Dave got up and read a poem he’d written about his memories of D-Day at Normandy. Elsaesser still remembers some lines. He shared the experience with a woman in a poetry workshop, who mentioned that she worked for DASI. They were looking for someone to run a poetry group for survivors, she said—would he do it?
Sounds great, Elsaesser said at the time. “Then I’m driving home and I’m thinking, ‘What the hell did I just get myself into?’”
Elsaesser had never explicitly worked with trauma survivors or people in crisis. But a friend who was a retired psychologist gave him some useful advice: “Present your material, let people tell their story, and get out of the way.”
Elsaesser figured he’d try. The group began in September 2015. They’ve met just about every week for the past eight years.
“It’s been wonderful,” he says. “It’s been extraordinary. It’s led me to an entirely different outlook on poetry. That there is such a connective element of healing poetry that is non-judgmental, non-critical, non-academic… It’s creativity, it’s an innate sensibility that every person has. We’ve bastardized this art form with our education system, and hyper-competitiveness… we all have the capacity to write something extraordinary, to say something extraordinary out of our life experience.”
Anyone who’s ever trudged through The Waste Land knows how far this falls from T. S. Eliot and his overanalyzed ilk. Elsaesser’s poetic approach shifted in part from a very different poetic education. In 2015, the same year that the group began, he also began taking classes with the Institute for Poetic Medicine. Founded in 2005 by the poet John Fox, the 501(c)(3) organization hosts classes and facilitator trainings in “poetry-as-healer.” Elsaesser received his own three-year facilitator certification from the institute last year.
Fox’s influence shows in Rise Up!’s approach. At the start of every meeting, Elsaesser presents the group with some affirmations that Fox wrote. They include: “I am creative and value the healing power of language. I write from the gut and heart. I trust humor and sensitivity. I give voice to the wild and joyous parts of myself. I give voice to the stormy and grieving parts of myself. I am safe writing on the page.”
A breathing exercise follows, and then Elsaesser supplies 10 non-negotiable rules for writing poetry. Number one: no apologies for anything you write. Number two: have fun! (Emphasis on the exclamation point.)
“And I have to tell you, I really struggled when I started at DASI with that one,” says Elsaesser, “because, like, who am I, a white guy, to walk into a room and tell survivors of domestic, sexual violence, trafficking, hey, let’s have fun? But what I found is there’s a sense of relief, and people chuckle or laugh sometimes.”
As for the other eight rules? Who knows, can’t remember, he always says. So let’s just go with those two.
It’s a big middle finger to what Elsaesser calls the “bullshit top-down” type of poetry in school, which is what most of us get. It’s definitely what Kristi Lee got. Ask her what she thought of poetry a few years ago, and she has one word for you: boring.
But then she came to Rise Up! “When I attended the first poetry meeting, I think it was just like, ‘Wow, look at what I’ve been missing,’” she says. “It was really just like a light going off.”
People don’t need to share their stories at Rise Up! Everyone knows that the other people in the group have experienced some kind of domestic or sexual violence. Sometimes, details of that trauma will show up in their poetry, with the group members who choose to share. But most often, trauma will manifest in the poetry as an underlying tone, or an image with no single concrete interpretation.
That’s the power of it, Lee says. “I think that the poetry just allows you to really go deep inside of yourself to places that you normally would not be exploring in your day-to-day life or even in counseling. It allows you to just pull things out of yourself that have been suppressed, squashed down, and you can take them and write about things and put them onto a piece of paper and share it with others.”
There’s always a trained counselor in the room during the group’s meetings. The counselor can provide the clinical perspective on trauma’s manifestations in the body and brain, at a level so deep that words fail to describe what’s there. That’s why poetry might be uniquely suited to expressing the unspeakable: it relies on images. In fact, one counselor at DASI told Elsaesser that poetry can go deeper than narrative writing or even talk therapy– it can access the more primal parts of the brain, where trauma lives.
In explaining this, Elsaesser draws, per his habit, on another poet. This time it’s Robert Bly, who talked about the deep image—a symbol or picture that arises from the subconscious, at a level too primitive for words. “And we find something in that dark place, or whatever it is, that place that we can’t explain,” Elsaesser says. “It’s beyond words. That we have to try to give words to.”
It can be a terrifying place—or a powerful one. The act of choosing images and words not only opens the portal to that primal emotional space, but also gives the ability to control and shape it, too.
That’s what appeals to another poet in the group, a woman known as Ms. Snow. She’s a former closet poet, in her words, and a prolific painter. Poetry’s her special treat, though, because of how it makes her feel. “I can be a magician,” she says. “I’m a wizard. I’m a sorceress. I’m anything I want to be… To me, it’s like a little trip into a movie or the magical.”
Sometimes, Ms. Snow’s inspiration comes out in poetry, sometimes in art. Sometimes, both come together.
“That’s symbiosis there,” Elsaesser says. “The flow experience and just accessing those different parts of the brain, different parts of the soul. Our bodies know the story they want to tell. Sometimes they just come out in words or colors.”
Both were on display on Friday, April 28 in the Stillwater Volunteer Fire Company Station in Newton. In its eight years of existence, Rise Up! has published three collections of the members’ poetry and artwork. The April event marked DASI’s first art gallery event. Banners with original art and excerpts of poetry hung from the walls, while canvases and sketchbook pages lined the tables. Most of the artwork was for sale, with all proceeds going to the survivors themselves.
And the artwork exploded with color. One painting by Ms. Snow showed a profusion of flowers in a vase. The title: “Sex in the Park.” Phoenixes rose off the canvas in sprays of warm-hued rainbow. Daisies grew from canvases three feet tall—and dandelions. Bly’s deep image comes to mind as the image of the dandelion, bright and unkillable, pops up in paintings and poems by different creators.
One woman, Kelly Brown, had painted several canvases with organs: a heart, a brain, a set of lungs. Half of each organ was in black and white, while the other half sprouted daisies, roses, stargazer lilies in vivid pink. She calls the series “Colorblind in the Trauma Days.”
It’s her story in images. Once a graphic designer, Brown joined the military to work as an engineer. She was attacked by her recruiter. Afterward, she dreamt in black and white. In an effort to recover from that trauma, she reached out to the Veterans Administration for psychological services. But a breach of confidentiality betrayed her trust. It was only after contacting DASI and receiving services there that she began to heal.
“And the colors came back,” she says, “one color at a time.”
Now, Brown has used the leadership training she received in the military to become an advocate for others who have survived Military Sexual Trauma (MST). She’s formed a group called Rising Ranks Recovery, which connects MST survivors to supportive peers and their local advocacy center.
Brown remembers singing cadence in the military, the call-and-response chants performed by a unit while running or marching. “Now,” she says, “I can sing my cadence in tune with the community, and they can’t take that away from me.”
The community is key, all of the survivors agree. “It’s a wonderful healing thing,” Lee says, “to have a group of people who, in many, many ways, understand you and understand where you’re coming from. And poetry does that.”
Color, beauty, poetry: it survives. Then it becomes a means of survival.
According to Elsaesser, DASI hopes to open a holistic healing center that will offer expressive arts programs to the wider community. The arts have become an increasingly accepted healing modality, he notes, and the agency has built more from scratch before. “DASI started 35 years ago, in, like, half a house,” he says. “And if you saw what the agency does now in the community, in terms of services, it’s pretty amazing.”
It is amazing. That art gallery would never have happened except for the ugly and unspeakable. But walking between those rows of bright colors, hearing the poetry read aloud, all you would see is the place where beauty came back.
To learn more about DASI, visit dasi.org. To find your county’s support service in NJ, go to njcasa.org/find-help.