FROM THE FOLIO: AN INTERVIEW WITH JULIE BATTEN

Julie Batten is the founder and director of the Glass House Shelter Project, an organization that brings college-level accredited English courses into homeless shelters.

For Drunken Boat 23, Julie Batten curated our Glass House Shelter Project folio in which we featured the work of fifteen writers who have experienced homelessness, many of whom are Batten’s students. Drunken Boat’s Series and Features Editor Peter Mishler spoke with Julie Batten about the inception of the Project, its importance, and her plans for future work in this necessary field.

Peter Mishler: How did the Glass House Shelter Project begin?

Julie Batten: While I’ve always been interested in the social circumstance of homelessness, in part due to my own tumultuous childhood, I taught my first college level reading and writing class in a shelter just five years ago. At the time, Salem State University, under the direction of President Patricia Meservey, whose ambitious strategic plan includes growing a strong civic engagement presence on the North Shore of Boston, had invited me to teach a pilot college level reading and writing course to residents at Lifebridge/Seeds of Hope, a combination shelter and transitional living space in downtown Salem, Massachusetts.

The first class was a success with one of the students completing a 400 page memoir by the end of the class, and another entering into a degree granting program of study at the local community college. This earned us a little ink in the Boston Globe, which caught the attention of a professor of mine from grad school, who then put me in touch with Dr. Rajini Srikanth who then suggested I apply for a President’s Creative Economies Grant at the University.

So you see how it goes. We have a children’s book at home that tells the story of a boy who builds a sand castle on the beach that is so magnificent it inspires others all up and down the beach, to build their own. That’s how it goes with the Glass House Shelter Project; college programs have been in place in prisons for a long time, but to my knowledge, there’s nowhere else in the country where universities are actually setting up shop in the local shelter cafeteria. And the crazy thing is that almost 100% of the students I’ve had come through the Glass House Shelter Project programs are now either working full time, in degree granting college programs and/or at the very least, living independently.

PM: Why were you originally tapped to teach the pilot course at LifeBridge/Seeds of Hope? What were the circumstances leading to this opportunity?

JB: I had met some folks in the administration at Salem State University when working as the interim director of development for MassPoetry in 2011, the year their annual festival moved to Salem. Friendships developed, and somewhere along the way, the circumstances of my emigrating to the United States with my parents when I was four, became known. My dad, a working class Brit, had come over to America on the Queen Elizabeth II with a hammer in his back pocket and started banging nails in Hartford, Connecticut. Six months later, he’d sent for my mom, my sister and I, and that first Christmas we were so poor that my sister and I, sleeping on camp cots at the time (the kind you roll into each night and climb out of each morning as if you’d been cocooned overnight, so slack was the canvas) received one present each, a doll that was perched just above our heads on the pillow. We felt like we’d won the lottery! Something besides the spoons we’d been using to play in the dirt! Later that day, having accepted an invitation from the neighbors to share Christmas dessert, I stood in the doorway of their living room wondering at the ocean of wrapping paper their living room had become. The three boys that lived there, having been well spoiled (one of whom had given me a black eye the week before with his pop gun), were obviously more deserving. I stood, unable to move, bursting with shame. How bad Santa must think me, having brought only the doll, only the one offering, which here in the face of all of this seemed suddenly like a punishment. Poverty shames us, sometimes so deeply that it is hard to reach for the next breath. It was this story that would one day earn me an invitation from Salem State University to teach the first for-credit university course at Lifebridge/Seeds of Hope shelter in Salem, Massachusetts. It was that course that would give way to my founding the Glass House Shelter Project and become the impetus for teaching at other shelters in the Greater Boston area.

“The truth is that all writing is therapeutic — nonfiction, fiction, poetry. Stories are stories; the human condition, whether imagined or lived, is what binds us in our art.”

PM: Just to learn more specifics about the project — do students receive college credit for the course through a participating institution?

JB: Yes. The two institutions I have worked with so far are the University of Massachusetts Boston and Salem State University. The participating shelters pay for the noncredit courses and the universities pay for the college courses (and issue academic credits to the homeless student). It’s critical that I move the Glass House Shelter Project from a grassroots organization into a 501(c)3 so that I might grow a funding base that is supplemented by individual/corporate donors and grants to take a portion of the weight of this program off of the universities and shelters. A few volunteers have recently stepped up to help with this process, including Curtis Nikitas, project manager for MassDOT, who has a long history of dealing with charities. I am also working with a few graduate students from UMB’s sociology department.

PM: Could you tell us about the kind of writing instruction and discussion that are prevalent in GHSP courses? For one, I am curious about whether the course is centered around creative nonfiction.

JB: The class focuses on fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. Students are most receptive to ‘real’ stories rather than those that are made-up (no sense in reading stories written by ‘liars,’ eh!?)…I’d strongly suggest that anyone teaching such a course at either a shelter or a prison, invest in a copy of Words Without Walls: Writers on Addiction, Violence and Incarceration, edited by Sheryl St. Germain and Sarah Shotland. These two, co-directors of the prison program at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, have put together an anthology of poetry and short stories that tap into the shame of poverty, domestic abuse and illness that is sure to provoke heartfelt discussion and personal revelation in all who partake. Additionally, graphic memoirs are also a hit. In particular, Stitches by renowned children’s book author David Small, which chronicles his upbringing in an abusive household, has consistently rated as a favorite among students. Overall, the conversation is often about suffering and surviving (seems like it’s what most of the really great writers in the world spend their time pondering).

PM: I can see how creative nonfiction and poetry are both natural genres for bibliotherapy. Could you specifically discuss fiction / imaginative writing as therapeutic genres?

JB: But on occasion and with certain students (typically those who have not had the privilege of a higher education), fiction is perceived as being less worthy because it is fabricated. Lying doesn’t cut it with my homeless students; their BS radar is highly tuned to sniff out the inauthentic, the con job, the egocentric, writerly pyrotechnics of anyone bludgeoning the truth into a self-serving piece of artistic tripe. The Artist is on occasion suspect, the lot of the privileged, the unlived. Why would we need to make up stories when the truth is so damn scarring? Of course, when my classes are full of the self-educated and/or college graduates, those with degrees from Yale or Middlebury, UMass or Suffolk (all of which fine institutions have been at the table at the shelter on occasion), there is a higher tolerance, and even a yearning, for the literary arts; in each case, I am working the crowd, Peter, playing to an audience that taps their toes, moves their hips to the rhythms I’m peddling as they will. It’s sometimes hard to have Eminem and Pavarotti in the same room at the same time, but being open to improvisation is the first rule of creating a successful classroom experience.

“When I begin a class, I am making a commitment to my students to be there, week after week, in the conference room on Tuesday mornings at 9:30 am, with pads and pens and stories.”

PM: What is your educational philosophy as it relates to teaching adults, and in particular, if you wish, to teaching homeless students?

JB: With regard to my teaching philosophy, it doesn’t change according to the politics of any group classroom demographic (and yet, it is changing all the time). The point is that it is reflective, but not reactionary. Age really has nothing to do with it. What matters most to me is that my students know that we are agreeing to enter into a conversation for the next few months; there are no leaders and no followers — we are learning something from one another as we bring our stories to the table (because that’s how we all come to understand one another — through our narratives). As Adrienne Rich made us understand the personal is political, and so I make it clear to my students that every time they open their mouths, they are speaking from their own political position— race, class, religion and gender (and age?). That combination of factors defines us as acutely as do our fingerprints. These factors figure into our very own personal constellation, the place from which we throw light out onto the page.

PM: Can you share some of the specific success stories that you’ve witnessed during your involvement with project. Does a particular student come to mind?

JB: All of them have been successful — here are just a few:

~Scottie*, an unemployed fisherman, arrived in his SSU ENL 110 class at the shelter with a full beard and long hair, his eyes barely visible beneath the brim of a baseball cap pulled low onto his face. His clothes were dirty and he was reluctant to speak. Weeks and many stories later (some of which were written by Scottie), the beard was gone, the hair trimmed, the t-shirt exchanged for a cleaner version of that which he wore on the first day — and Scottie had a girlfriend!

~When Juan* read his work aloud during the second week of class, he tried hard to conceal his anxiety, pausing frequently to breathe, steady his voice. The paper he held shook as he read and there was no way to stop the perspiration once it had started to form on his temples and upper lip. Two months after he graduated from the UMB class, he appeared on a panel at Mass General Hospital to speak to an audience of over 100 people about surviving cancer.

~ Mark Norek, contributor in this folio, is perfectly capable of telling his own success story; it landed him, a few months back, on the cover of the MHSA (Massachusetts Housing & Shelter Alliance) newsletter. He’s a veritable poster child for this program with a brand new degree from the University of Massachusetts Boston.

~ Alan Asselin (a poet also featured in this folio) texted the following 6 months after he graduated from the UMB class held at the New England Center for Homeless Veterans: “Today I read my first published poem on the lawn of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow House in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Imagine that.” He is now fully employed and an active member of the Warrior Writers group in Boston and frequently teaches the monthly workshops for veterans.

*names have been changed

“Bibliotherapy helps us re-envision ourselves by breaking the recurring cycle of shame, the built-in circuitry of our self-recriminations and insecurities … “

PM: Could you explain some early challenges or difficult learning experiences with the project that have helped shaped how you approach GHSP now?

JB: I teach in the Honors College at the University of Massachusetts Boston and in the English department at Salem State University, my progress with the Glass House Shelter Project proceeds in fits and starts. I’m a bit like the one man band standing on the street corner with a harmonica strapped to my chin, trying to procure a symphony — some days there just isn’t enough of me to hit all the notes, with all of the instruments. A lack of funding and too few hours in the day to court those who have it, has always been the biggest challenge. Although the program is an integral part in getting homeless folks to re-envision their lives, their path forward(100% of graduates are now fully employed, matriculated in degree granting programs and/or at the very least living successfully in independent housing), that success is nothing if it’s not publicized).

Incidentally, I am grateful for the opportunity of this interview with DB and hope that the work folks read here might compel them to visit our GoFundMe account: https://www.gofundme.com/t6m658

There is also the constant challenge of a transient population. I am in Vietnam this week on a research project, and I know that when I return to my class at the Pine Street Women’s Inn next week, I am going to have to go early and round up my students, remind them of where we left off, invite them to re-engage — with as much zeal and enthusiasm as furniture salesman working the floor for his 5%. I will walk out among the women, sitting with some for a while, inquiring about their backs or their teeth or their children, asking what’s gone down since the last time I saw them, how they are today, would they like to read a little Lucille (Clifton)? Some will no longer be there, the system hustling them through to the next stop or the call of what got them here in the first place having won out, consumed them anew, until the next time when the pain sends them careening back in for the 3 squares and a cot that the shelter affords. Our lives are all in a state of flux, and it’s so easy not to show up, to become complacent, to give up. When I begin a class, I am making a commitment to my students to be there, week after week, in the conference room on Tuesday mornings at 9:30 am, with pads and pens and stories. If I don’t show, that can so easily be perceived as a betrayal, just another one of so many disappointments, con jobs, come-ons and lies, contributing to the despair.

PM: You mention the outcomes of enrollment in GHSP (employment, education, living independently). I want to focus on the third. In what ways do you think the project might contribute to that independence?

JB: Bibliotherapy helps us re-envision ourselves by breaking the recurring cycle of shame, the built-in circuitry of our self-recriminations and insecurities — some of which ‘wiring’ is passed down through generations inside a family, a culture, some of which is jimmy-rigged in response to our individual life circumstances. Stories help us to connect with others, help us to see ourselves — and function — as part of the larger collective; stories change our politics when they short circuit the internal rhetoric of shame, the language of the ‘other.’ This is not to say that bibliotherapy can end homelessness — of course not. It takes a village. The thousands of people involved in getting good healthcare and adequate housing to the homeless are an integral part of helping the homeless move toward independence. But …without addressing the secret shame of being homeless, the secret homelessness that is shame — without addressing what’s going on between our ears on a daily basis — all the empty apartments and free doctor visits in the world are not going to emancipate the unhoused. Bibliotherapy is the light switch in a very, very dark place.

PM: Is there anything you’d like to highlight or point out about William Keller and Mark Norek’s work [whose work is featured in the folio, and who are interviewed here]?

JB: When I read what Mark and William have written, their politics illuminate me, give me something to make meaning with, to discover beyond myself and inside of myself simultaneously. This dilation of the world, if you will, the prismatic aesthetic of another knowing, is the stuff of epiphanies, of all great learning, but you have to be open to it, to that kind of seeing.

The breathlessness of William’s prose poetry, its pacing and heat and insistence is musical and alive in a manner that is unique to him, can only belong to him — which is quite beautiful when you think about it — as rare as the moment just recently when scientists heard the chirp of gravity, a sound wave that had traveled for a billion years from a black hole to get here. All I can do in the face of so much living on the page, of surviving and resilience, so much poetic invention and cascading, so much solitude, is to put my fingers up to the glass and acknowledge the collage of it, the difficult edges and cold mornings through which the voices of children in Pawtucket echo past that Ford Econoline van — and weep.

William is not a student of mine, but Mark attended the Creative Writing class I taught at the New England Center for Homeless Veterans in Boston in the fall of 2013. “Blowback” is a cathartic offering, as barefaced and bold and courageous as anything I have ever read. That this man, whose life was shattered at such an early age, is able to face his fears on the page with such eloquence, with such unabashed honesty and forthrightness, is nothing less than heroic. That such a brilliant man still struggles to find employment is tragic; his wisdom — and continued hope — puts most of us to shame.

PM: Where does the name of the project come from, and how does it in some way define the project?

JB: The project has been named the Glass House Shelter Project because of the intrinsic value of glass houses. They are green houses for tending lives too fragile to be left outdoors; they are made of glass, a material that shatters, is of a more tentative quality than brick or wood or plaster; best of all, they are transparent, open to the life-giving forces of the sun and easily revealing the transformations occurring within. We can see inside, but we are also seen by its inhabitants, creating a reciprocal exchange so long missing in the efforts to combat homelessness.

PM: What have your students have taught you about the art of writing?

JB: It’s always about seeing.

And gratitude.

To be grateful for whatever flicker of recognition is gifted to me of an hour. Like being at a cocktail party and spying your lover across the room and not needing the out loud part. That good. Like noticing the holes in people’s clothing, where they rub through the weave first, where the weight of a life is brought to bear. Like tasting durian for the first time and seeing the gaping black hole of your unknowing. Take what sparks, stings, smarts — and put it into your writing. Wrangling it onto the page will at first feel like wrangling a boa constrictor into a basket, but with time, the thing will fold in on itself with the ease of a long, languorous woman taking to a divan. That’s the magic.

And truth.

That writing, good writing, is about making connections, tethering our stories to universal truths, knowings. That seeing the unspoken, the holes, the fruit, the wrangling, is our attempt to parse the kaleidoscopic images that come to us of a day, an evening, a waking. All the messiness of our lives, the detritus, seen as clearly as ever we can see without distortion the pebbly bottom of a clear running stream. The inherent shiftiness of our existence makes absolutes impossible, but in any given moment, there can be clarity, fleeting revelations that change the way we walk.

And generosity.

The nakedness we feel in the presence of a revelation is to be shared. As witness, we must dance at each other’s unveiling. Encircle the difficulty with open hearts. Kiss each other and weep.

“As a writer/teacher, I get to be intentionally vulgar in that I am not afraid to name the wounds. It’s kinda like inviting the bully to dinner. We hold him up by his feet, shake him out, try to figure out what makes him tick.”

PM: What have your students taught you about the art of teaching writing?

JB: That to like broccoli, you have to eat broccoli. Something like that. Meaning that when you walk into a homeless shelter and ask folks if they’d like to join a reading and discussion group, you might as well ask them if they’d like to partake of durian or pepino or carambolo, or any other exotic offering. Put yourself at their table. Partake. That other people’s stories could in any way have a place in their life in the current moment of crisis seems as absurd as a Pinter play. Cajoling those in need of housing and shelter, a warm meal, un-holely socks, into a writing class makes me question the relevance of what I do every single time I begin again. What is it that I am offering? The chance to transcend our physical and emotional pain? Do I really believe that? I am forever re-evaluating the art of teaching writing, making it earn its place, convince me of its merits, its pedigree as a healing endeavor.

Which is a good thing, because it brings a certain urgency to every class offering. Makes me view reading and writing as something necessarily fierce. Imperative. Critical. Sustaining. There is no room for the flabby, the milktoast, the mediocre in my teaching agenda — either pedagogically, the process of it, or the thing itself, the literature. With most shelter clients, I get one chance. Blow it and they evaporate. Hook them and they discover a hunger they know not existed; they come alive, come back, and back again, and a color returns to a world that has long since turned black and white.

So if there’s one thing my students have taught me, it’s to not let up. Become complacent. Teach every class as if everyone in the room is starving (yourself included) and the only thing and the only thing that’s going to save anybody is this feast of words we elaborate on in the moment.

PM: In your introduction to the folio and this interview you use the phrase ‘rhetoric of shame’ which I think you have defined as a feeling of being ‘othered,’ as well as a reticence to reveal one’s homelessness. Can you elaborate on the meaning of that phrase?

JB: The ‘rhetoric of shame’ is very much connected to the language of shame, which is very much born of the personal as the political (class, race, religion, gender) and to be clear, sounds something like this: I am a freak, a loser; I am the wrong color, the wrong shape; I am dirty; There is something wrong with me; I’m such an idiot; I’m pathetic, weak, ineffective; I’m invisible and deserve to be overlooked, erased, voided (The Culture of Shame, Andrew P. Morrison). The body language that accompanies the verbal suggests a turning away from others, a shutting down, a slow descent into the fetal position, a failure to thrive, to breath. People seldom say ‘I am ashamed,’ but rather couch their pain in the self-flagellation of name-calling. This language can be generations old, an inherited rhetoric if you will, or born of events that have occurred in this lifetime and are uniquely detrimental to a single individual (assaults, illness, financial misfortune, sudden poverty, natural disaster). Bibliotherapy works because the reader/listener recognizes this rhetoric as their own and feels an instant sense of community and belonging, and in the ‘un-othering’ of that moment, hope is born. There is no question that suffering unites us.

PM: How does your awareness of this rhetoric inform your teaching methodology and practice? Are there any specific approaches you’ve used in your teaching that you feel are especially informed by a sensitivity to and awareness of shame?

JB: I demonstrate non-judgment daily.

Rather than shying away from the words, the rhetoric — idiot, pathetic, weak, etc. — I embrace them, use them liberally, make their presence among us a thing we shine the light upon rather than eschew. As a writer/teacher, I get to be intentionally vulgar in that I am not afraid to name the wounds. It’s kinda like inviting the bully to dinner. We hold him up by his feet, shake him out, try to figure out what makes him tick. That’s when we realize that we’re all in this dance with victim/persecutor/rescuer and the enemy is us. It’s only our willingness to play the game, buy into the language, that is our undoing.

It’s like the first time you utter a curse word in middle school and find out it doesn’t give you super powers after all. In the end, it’s just a jam-up of consonants and vowels like any other word on the planet. But man, a good curse word and a cigarette can cast a long shadow when you’re only 12 years old. No super powers, but fear is pretty exhilarating, puts a sword in your mitts that you can either lunge forward with … or fall upon.

PM: I ask this because you mentioned to me in an email that you are at work on an anthology of essays on shame that could become a resource for teachers and others who work with marginalized populations.

JB: Yes, I want this essay collection to help us pull back the curtain and see that the wizard is a little roly-poly guy with a bald head and glasses. Without over-simplifying it, what I mean is that there is humor to be found in all of it; at least if we can jointly grab hold of the ridiculousness of our circumstance, the tragi-comedy of this life on earth, we can overcome anything. I mean we all have belly buttons, and think how ridiculous belly buttons are. Even the name of the part lacks dignity. And then there are those who choose to adorn them with jewels! Which is to say that shame is very much a (wo)manmade construct. Of course, I’m joking here, but you see my point.

PM: You also mentioned to me that you are researching the quantifiable need for bibliotherapy in homeless shelters. Would you care to briefly share any data or findings here?

JB: I am working with Dr. Russell Schutt, chair of the sociology department and a team of five graduate researchers from the University of Massachusetts Boston’s sociology department just put together a study on the efficacy of bibliotherapy in shelters. (The study was done on a small group of the women at the Pine Street Women’s Inn over spring semester; they were asked questions with regard to the class I have been teaching there.) The study showed what we already know — that stories heal, create belonging, oneness. And this work will result in a paper that I hope will give funders further impetus to support the cause.

PM: Are you working on any other related projects now, personally or otherwise?

JB: It has come to my attention that there is a woodworking shop at the Pine Street Inn which employs mostly men in making products that are sold to benefit the shelter. The women in my reading & discussion group are interested in starting a cottage industry of their own, making mittens and hats out of old sweaters donated to the shelter (and felted).

PM: Thank you so much for your time and consideration, and for your work, Julie.

Julie Batten is the founder & director of the Glass House Shelter Project, a grassroots organization that brings accredited college level English courses into homeless shelters to help clients re-envision themselves, through our stories, our collective narrative, as part of the whole, and also to encourage universities to further their civic engagement and community outreach to those who have become marginalized, invisible. Batten, formerly a research reporter at Time, Inc., is also an Associate Lecturer of English at both Salem State University and the University of Massachusetts, where she teaches writing and a course on Homelessness and the Recurring Cycle of Shame. Along with UMB’s Professor Askold Melnyczuk, she was recently the recipient of the President’s Creative Economies Grant. She holds an MFA in poetry and fiction from Bennington College. She thanks you in advance for your compassion and contribution to this outreach effort at http://www.gofundme.com/ghsp2015.