Listen: 3277_1975917chamberlain_64

MPR’s Bill Siemering interviews Marisha Chamberlain, St. Paul's Poet in Residence, about her experience teaching poetry to mentally handicapped communities.

Feature also includes Chamberlain reading a poem written by one of her students, Marion, at Red River Arts Center in Moorhead.

This recording was made available through a grant from the National Historical Publications & Records Commission.

[Please note audio has sensitive language]


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BILL SIEMERING: Whatever your association with the word "poetry," it probably doesn't include the mentally retarded. Marisha Chamberlain, a full-time poet for the city of Saint Paul, conducts a poetry workshop for the retarded and told about the project during a recent reading in Moorhead at The Red River Arts Center. The reading is part of the Poetry Out Loud project sponsored by the Minnesota Arts Council. Marisha Chamberlain.

MARISHA CHAMBERLAIN: This next poem is a poem that was written by Marian, who lives at North Haven Home for Retarded Women. And it's a place that I've been giving poetry workshops in connection with my job in Saint Paul. One of the reasons that I love to read this poem is that I feel like she's saying something about the way I write poetry, which is to write my name over and over again different ways.

This is called "Give Me A White." She means a white piece of paper. But she says "a white."

I love white to write,

to write my name.

Please give Marion a white.

I like to white

Because I write my name, I could.

I know how to spell it correct.

I want white to write my name with.

I like to write my name.

I'd like white now.

I asked in a nice way.

I love white, I do, to write,

To write my name.

Yes, I got my own money, I do.

Trying to.


It's amazing to see that the change in someone's life as a result of poetry. Just an example is Marian, the woman whose poem I read tonight. She's really been changing.

And there was a time-- she's only 32 years old. And there was a time when it seemed likely that she would have to leave the home and live in more of a nursing home situation. And now, partly as a result of poetry, she's beginning to really connect with other people more.

When I come into the building now, instead of looking spaced out and saying something to me about her glasses, she says poetry to me. She comes and sits in the group and writes, you know? And she's making more and more contact with other people.

And the reason for this is I've got-- well, one of the reasons, anyway-- is that somehow there's starting to be more of a connection between her rich inner life and what's happening around her. That would be really important for someone in a home for retarded women, but not just for them, you know? It's for me, too.

BILL SIEMERING: So in a way, that makes for a wholeness, doesn't it? That interplay of the inner with the outer. And how do you find that working with retarded people? We think of the stereotype, that perhaps they're not capable of anything. And yet you're finding some richness there in your experience.

MARISHA CHAMBERLAIN: Well, I sure am. One of the particular handicaps there is that there's a strong stress these days on appropriate behavior, and that's always been true. But the title, the word it goes under, the official word is normalization. And it's important. And it's a progressive concept because it has to do with moving people who are mentally retarded back into the community and having them have normal lives.

But when you talk about that, you're talking about conformity. Time and time again in these poems, I'll come out with something is nice. You have to be nice.

And when I ask them to write live poems, they didn't want to have anything to do with it because you tell the truth, you see. Except some, you know. But I don't think that it would be any different from a classroom situation, a cross section of people, some people are very conformist. And it's true there, too. But the pressures for that are somewhat greater there, I think.

BILL SIEMERING: This is a unique project, to work with the retarded and poetry, isn't it?

MARISHA CHAMBERLAIN: Yeah. I don't think anybody else is doing it. Maybe. But the thing is the reason that it's not been done is that so many of the retarded people are illiterate, and that means that someone has to write for them.

And if I'm running a group workshop, I have to have three or four people in there, staff people in there to serve as secretaries. But that didn't seem like such a big obstacle, you know? And the poetry project has gotten a great deal of support and enthusiasm there.

I'm interested in developing a series of sessions that have a way to both do the sort of imaginative things that Kenneth Koch's done and combine a way for adults who haven't been able to speak, practically, and who have just really basic skills of speech to talk about the important things that have happened to them. And I've hit on that a couple of times, once with birth, the experience of birth, incredible poems.

BILL SIEMERING: We've been talking with Marisha Chamberlain, a poet employed by the city of Saint Paul. She read recently with a Poetry Out Loud group when they visited Moorhead on their tour. I'm Bill Siemering.


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