Nilsa Curet thought it was a joke when she was asked if she wanted to join a poetry workshop. The single mother of seven children was homeless, living in a welfare hotel after being burned out of her home. Most of her energy was directed to such concerns as keeping her family together and finding a new apartment. ``It was just something to do,'' says Ms. Curet. ``I didn't know what to write.'' Today Curet is a published poet, along with more than 20 other homeless women, thanks to the workshop and the Child Development Center of the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services here. ``The Women of the Regent Hotel'' is a thin volume of poetry with portraits of the authors taken by photographer Elliot Schneider.
The workshops, led by poets from the New York State Poets in the Schools program, were intended as a kind of therapy for women who find their lives disrupted because of fire or abandonment of housing.
The poems that flowed out of the workshops are touching, angry, stark, wistful, and intelligent. They speak of rape, loneliness, the death of a child, and frustration at living without a home, as in a poem by Laura Lee Nash titled ``Looking'' (see box).
There is also humor and hope and trembling pride. Curet writes about discovering her freedom after a childhood of abuse. Audrey Sands communicates in verse the joy that her children bring: You dress in grown people clothes, in my clothes. You put on hats and coats and pretend to go shopping in the bathroom. You go into the closet pretending to eat dinner.
You make me smile. Your silly little clothes have holes and your hair is never still, your feet are big for your age, yet so small. Your arms spread wide as a river.
O boy, O girl, it doesn't matter. You make me smile no matter what you are.
``When I read the poetry, I was very moved,'' says Bonnie Bach, a board member of the Child Development Center and project director for the book. Despite media coverage of the homeless, there is a feeling the homeless population is a faceless mass, she says. The poetry and photos stare out at the reader, says Ms. Bach. It says, ``I am an individual.''
Curet says the workshop taught her she could express herself with words. ``I had held in a lot of things,'' she says, noting that the poetry enabled her to come to grips with some of those nightmares.
Today Curet and her children have a permanent home in the Bronx in public housing. It did not come without a lot of bureaucratic hassles, and the advocacy of the Jewish Board helped quite a bit.
``I made it,'' says the last verse of her poem, ``The Only Way Out.'' ``I found the key and got out. Got out for good.''
Curet's children are proud of their mother and the publicity surrounding the book. ``They've been telling everyone,'' she says. ``Frankie heard me on the radio and said, `Mom, we're going to be rich.'''
Curet laughs. She has no illusions about becoming a rich published poet. But she tells her children that if she did have money, she would buy a house in the country ``and get them out of this rat race. There are so many drugs, so many things that pull kids.''
Lisa Foster, who lived in the Regent with her two children as well as her mother, continues to write. The family moved into the Regent a year ago when water and gas were turned off in their former building after a fire. In February, the family moved into an apartment with four big rooms near Yankee Stadium.
When Ms. Foster first heard about the workshop, she admits she didn't really know much about poetry, except for the verses classmates write to each other in graduation books. ``How would it sound? I started thinking about history,'' says Lisa. She came up with a poem titled ``What is Black and White.'' It talks about the history of race relations, but also sees hope, because ``people will always be people.''
Alaine Krim, associate director of the Child Development Center, says the poetry workshop became a powerful way for mothers to express themselves. The Jewish Board has ``adopted'' the Regent Hotel, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, for the last 10 years, providing the women and children there with crisis intervention, day care, and other services.
Looking I've been here. I've been there. Only to be told ``SORRY, TOO LATE. Take this address and go there. I wish you luck.''
Luck. Ha! If that's what it takes, then I am doomed to live a lifeless life, My children and I in homeless homes, never knowing for how long.
- Laura Lee Nash