Art in Paradise: Poetry in the Precinct

Think of a policeman at his desk. He rolls up the sleeves of his dress blues and puts a pen to the corner of his mouth as he gazes into the distance. Soon he’s ready to begin his poem.

That may seem like a scene from a quaint British novel, but it’s soon to be a reality in the city of Holyoke. The city’s police force may not currently be known for its prowess at rhyming couplets, but come March, that stands to change, for police, municipal workers, elected officials and union officials.

In addition to waxing poetic, the planned activities include things like choral singing and printmaking. The plan, says Art at Work Holyoke Director Javiera Benavente, has a lofty goal. The larger organization behind the local effort is called Art at Work, and Benavente explains that Art at Work’s Marty Pottenger, who piloted a similar undertaking in Portland, Maine, “saw the transformative power of artmaking to engage people in thinking differently about problems, enhance their ability to connect with others who are different from them, and take inspired risk.”

That might sound a bit abstract, even nebulous, but when Pottenger translated those big ideas into practical projects in Portland, the results were surprising.

“Marty spent a lot of time listening to people,” says Benavente. “The first project was a police department project to address low morale. It was a poetry and photography project—she paired them with published poets and photographers who did one-on-one pairings. They would go on ride-alongs together, talk about what was going on in their lives and then write poetry or take photos.”

Although, she later adds, “It took Marty about a year to get a policeman to write a word of poetry. It can take a while, but it’s worth the wait.”

The tangible result was a calendar featuring those poems and photos, but then the police department, says Benavente, found that a study revealed “morale was up 80 percent.”

The work continued. “When they had a crisis in which someone was shot,” says Benavente, “they actually called on Marty to help them.”

Last year, Benavente helped set up a talk with Pottenger in Western Mass., and plans began in earnest to bring Art at Work here. “We started thinking about where in Western Mass. that could happen,” he said. “We talked to people in Greenfield, talked to people about it in Northampton, but that didn’t take.”

In Holyoke, the reception was warm, and a $7,500 grant from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts followed. “The mayor got excited and was interested in trying something,” says Benavente. “We got some funding to do an initial project called Holyoke at Work. There will be a series of workshops for elected officials, city workers and community leaders and union leaders who represent city workers to build enduring, collegial relationships with one another and think cooperatively about the problems facing the city, both through artmaking and other kinds of creative engagement, things like theater, drumming or collage-making.”

The effort seems unusually likely to succeed, not only because of a successful model for reference in Portland, but also because the Holyoke at Work project is supported by ongoing groundwork.

“We’ve spent about a year now building relationships with people in Holyoke,” explains Benavente. “[Holyoke at Work director] Megan Barber has taken the lead. We have a nice sort of advisory committee of people who work in the city and who are in the community.”

In March, workshops with participants begin in Holyoke, and happen once a month. Local artists and writers will join Benavente and Pottenger in facilitating the workshops, and on Feb. 9, Pottenger offers a workshop for artists who want to learn about working with people in this unusual context. (For more info, visit and click on “Holyoke.”)

After the workshops, in May, Benavente explains, the participants will show their works in a public celebration. That is unlikely to be the end of the project, however—Holyoke at Work’s organizers are already considering what might happen next: “I think that we will use this project in part to hone in on what the next project might be,” Benavente says.

For Benavente, the power of the Art at Work phenomenon is clear: “What can be fascinating and powerful is when you get people actually making art—people come alive when they’re engaged in creative activities. I think it taps into something that we all have. It gives us access to our creativity and our ability to think about things differently, to make new connections. When people get a taste of it, they want more.”

Pottenger’s experience in Portland backs that up. “I think the first year, she got a handful of participants, and every year more officers participated,” says Benavente. “At the end of three years, police officers were organizing their own poetry readings. They got the bug. I think powerful things can happen.”•

Author: James Heflin

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