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.