Inside the literary magazine helping homeless writers be heard
Storytellers draw from their experiences on Boston’s streets in the Black Seed Writers Group.
Down in the basement of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul on Tremont Street in Boston, a towering man with a graying blond ponytail approaches me. “You need to know something,” he begins. “If James Parker were a woman, he’d be having my baby.”
The man, whose name is Phil, writes for The Pilgrim, a five-year-old literary magazine created by members of Boston’s homeless community. It was founded by James Parker, a contributing editor and culture columnist for The Atlantic, who is beloved by the writers he coaches, counsels, and edits. “James gives voice to the voiceless,” Phil says.
On this April morning, those voiceless have an issue to produce. In The Pilgrim’s early days, four or five homeless writers met at the nearby Black Seed Cafe. Today, the Black Seed Writers Group, as they’ve dubbed themselves, is a rotating cast of 20 or so regulars — poets, polemicists, essayists, memoirists — resting on a wider network of transient or long-range members. They fill the basement’s rectangular folding tables every Tuesday morning from 9:30 to 10:45. (Boston’s homeless population has also grown over time, to 7,663 in 2015, a nearly 6 percent increase from the previous year.) They publish between eight and 10 20-page issues a year, distributing them to prospective writers on the street, Brookline Booksmith, and about 150 subscribers, whose $25 annual subscription fees go toward printing, mailing, and other expenses.
Today, Parker, in a red Arsenal soccer club warm-up jacket, bearhugs the writers as they trickle in and hands each a yellow legal pad, a black Bic pen, and a printout of the previous week’s writing. Helping him are volunteers Kate Glavin, an MFA student at UMass Boston, graphic artist James Kraus, and Libby Gatti, a ministry fellow with the church. Parker first volunteered among the homeless about 25 years ago, at a shelter in Washington, D.C., he’d found via an informational pamphlet inside a hard-core punk album. The idea for The Pilgrim came to him in late 2011, while on a 60-mile pilgrimage with members of MANNA, a ministry of the city’s homeless. The sinewy 48-year-old native of England says he’s “addicted to the good feelings” that come from The Pilgrim writers and to their prose’s raw power. “It’s not the homeless,” he says. “It’s a group of writers.”
Parker has only two rules: Writers must fall somewhere under the rubric of “homeless, transitional, or recently housed,’’ and every writer who shows up gets published.
Each writer receives a sheet with five open-ended writing prompts — suggestions, Parker says, based on “things that people have been talking about or struggling with.” For this meeting, writers choose among “The First Mistake,” “How I Pray,” “Life’s an Ocean,” “Not Being Heard,” and “Relaxation.” Or, as a few will write about, the absence of relaxation in their lives.
Karen Slattery, 64 years old and homeless for the last three, recounts the end of a recent busy day, waiting in line to be assigned a bed at a shelter. She hoped for one “near the window. It’s peaceful there,” she writes. But the staff sent her to another, “which means no serenity.” Slattery is the Black Seed’s most resplendent presence of the day: white knitted cap, pearl earrings, a glimmering nose stud, deep red sweater, and a golden brooch. The Pilgrim, she says, is her “spiritual lifeline.” She writes in part to “make some noise” about the “injustices and abuse” of homeless women, but mostly she hopes the process of shaping her thoughts will help restructure her life, so she will see her children and grandchildren more often. “I just want to be a good nana.”
Others write for their own reasons. “The Pilgrim is my anti-drug,” explains Sean Croft. Tall and wiry, he has slick black hair atop a weathered face, a beige plaid shirt, and a Batman folder (“my favorite character, he’s driven, I want to be driven,” he writes) stuffed with drafts he tinkers with throughout the week in his temporary housing in Quincy. “The group keeps me focused, builds my confidence,” he says. “I have quit many jobs and burned many bridges,” he writes early in today’s piece. But by the fourth paragraph, his tone shifts. “I can recover from addiction. I can take on new challenges. . . . I will not succumb to that great nothing.” He finishes with a declaration: “I am nearly broken but nowhere near broken.”
Other than the muffled sounds of trains pulling into and out of Park Street, the basement is bunkered from the city bustle. The group benefits from the silence. “You don’t get that at the shelter, or even on a park bench,” says Parker. At 9:45, a smiling middle-aged writer named Robert rolls in the coffee cart. (He sits and writes on the floor beside the cart, guardian of the creamers. Fellow writers often compose odes to Robert when stumped.) Beyond that there are no distractions, just a black-and-white photo-mosaic poster of Jesus with outstretched arms above the words “Behold the Peace of God.” Writers thumb quietly through dictionaries and thesauruses, consulting with Parker in whispers. A gentle soundtrack that Parker curated (the same every week) plays from the boombox in the back of the room — Debussy, American primitive guitar, and Catholic choirs.
Beside the boombox, hunched over in long-sleeve camo fatigues, a Navy veteran’s hat, and rectangular glasses, is Bryant Draycott, the Pilgrim’s longest-serving writer (almost four years). He’s the only writer with a table to himself. Lately, he’s been writing about the housing he moved into last year:
“Every night, when I get home from wherever my wanderings have taken me, I wonder: Am I going through the right door here, or will there be some Alice in Wonderland [expletive] on the other side? Then I think: The hell with that, this is my wonderland.”
Walt Whitman declared it the poet’s responsibility to “make every word he speaks draw blood.” Black Seed writers draw stories from their blood. Recent submissions include poems about defecating without a toilet, learning to speak English, and losing a child; there’s a story of a monster (which the writer says is an allegory about his pedophile father), a one-act play about a rabbit that runs a veterinary clinic, and prayers and professions of faith.
From a writer named Carlos: “I walk alone sometimes, but I’m not really alone because He has the answers to all my questions and obstacles that get in my way and lead me to bad things. I pray, sometimes scared, sometimes not. But I get on my knees and close my eyes.”
A common phenomenon at the Black Seed, says Parker, goes like this: “Come in steaming, write, and leave relaxed.” But the opposite is common, too — writers arrive calm, then the pen mines something they didn’t expect, and they’re overwhelmed with anger or grief. Sometimes they lay out uninhibited confessions. “I am sick and do not have any energy to do much of anything,” reads a recent submission from Steve Murray. “The doctors cannot find out why I am losing all this weight.” He suspects it may be a parasite from one of the 10 dead rats he found in his housing.
New writers often shock themselves with what they reveal and pull Parker into the basement’s anteroom to gauge whether they can trust him or whether they should hold back. Some have spent decades in prison or don’t want family to track them down; some invent noms de plume such as Cody “The Jester” Martinez, Chris “The Drifter” Haubrich, Al Action, and Baby Jesus. “They need all of their defenses because they’re in it,” Parker says.
Throughout the session, writers lift their hands and whisper “Psst, James!” or “Yo, Kate!” for grammatical guidance or spiritual or psychological counseling. Parker and Glavin often kneel before or sit beside a writer with an arm draped around a shoulder as they read along. “That’s dynamite,” Glavin says after reading Carlos’s draft. “Can we hear more about this?” she asks, discreetly pointing to his final paragraph. “Kate is the first person who’s ever called me an artist,” Carlos says. (A recent poetry workshop Glavin ran was so productive for the writers that she and Parker plan to start a separate workshop one Friday a month beginning in June.)
In addition to his roles as editor and confidant, Parker takes a more hands-on approach when needed. He says his role is “slightly pastoral, though I’m not a priest.”
In April, midway through a meeting, an older, veteran writer chastised a thirtysomething newcomer for coughing with his mouth open. “I’m already sick as it is,” he complained. The newcomer lunged at him, but Parker ran in between. Parker walked the new writer to a back corner and said some quiet words that calmed him down. That day, the newcomer wrote: “Why do I sometimes feel like hurting the ones I love? I don’t know. I always end up hurting myself.”
As the latest session nears its end, there are more bearhugs with Parker as writers finish pieces and leave. One sleeps, hood covering his face, sprawled in a corner. Writers cry as they read one another’s first drafts. At 10:45 a.m., Parker calls time. The remaining writers drop their submissions in a Postal Service bin and hug Parker once more. Some head upstairs to the Rev. Tina Rathbone’s Christian meditation hour, some to AA or NA meetings. Some don’t know where they’ll go next.
Parker, Kraus, Glavin, and Gatti will then divvy up the submissions to type and copy edit before next week’s meeting. When selecting the 40 or so pieces for the issue, Parker says he tries to capture the “chorus effect” of the group’s voices and to create contrast on every page. In the 38th issue, a poem about the lures of heroin sits above a diary entry about the complications of injecting hormones, a lament on “feeling undead” abuts an ode to a guinea pig.
For the group’s most prolific and electric writers, Parker has also started an in-house imprint, No Fixed Address Press. Its two books so far are Paul Estes’s sci-fi novel, Razza Freakin’ Aliens, released in 2014, and Margaret Miranda’s poetry collection, Dressing Wounds on Tremont Street, which comes out June 1 with a release party open to the public at the cathedral at 7 p.m.
The day The Pilgrim is printed always feels like an event. Around 11:30 a.m. on May 23, Parker will run off the first 150 of 400 copies in St. Paul’s basement. Per Black Seed tradition, he’ll then bound to the church’s Monday lunch for the homeless and distribute 50 or so copies to attendees, most of the contributors among them.
The 39th issue will be launched into the world, and the Black Seed Writers Group will set to work on number 40 the next morning.