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  • Writer's pictureAnabaptist World

Of wind and fire: Writing a poem together, a congregation felt the Spirit move

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For early believers who gathered in Jerusalem during the feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was like a strong wind blowing. It looked like fire in the shape of tongues.

Last year on Pentecost Sunday, I asked the congregation at First Mennonite Church of Indianapolis how they envisioned the Holy Spirit: “What is the Holy Spirit like for you?”

Each person found tucked into their bulletin an index card with the phrase, “The Holy Spirit is like . . .” I asked everyone to finish this sentence so that we would have similes for a collaborative poem celebrating the diverse ways the Spirit appears to us.

“As you make your comparison,” I said, “paint a picture with your words. Create an image that we can see, hear, touch or smell. Enjoy exploring whatever comparison catches hold of your imagination and feels true to your experience. Your sentence can be as long or short as you wish.”

I gave everyone a few minutes to write and asked them to drop their cards into a basket when the service was over.

Thirty-three people left cards in the basket, with a total of 48 similes. I was amazed by the vivid descriptions. Here are a few:

— The Holy Spirit is like the River Ganges, giving life to vegetation, wildlife, domestic animals and people, joining high mountain, fertile plain and deep ocean.

— The Holy Spirit is like static — bristling in my ears, waking me up to live another day — doing, loving, seeing!

— The Holy Spirit is like a weighted blanket surrounding me with calm.

— The Holy Spirit is like the iridescence that transforms color from flat monochrome to shimmering.

My work as editor was to combine, arrange and compress these responses into a poem that would contain at least one phrase or significant word from each participant. Compressing meant cutting. With so many wonderful offerings, that was my most difficult task.

As I cut and pieced, surprising patterns emerged. I felt the Spirit bringing together various voices into a song of invocation, a prayer.

The finished poem, “Come, Holy Spirit,” received a warm reception at the next worship service and later appeared in our congregational magazine, MennoExpressions.

As a poet and teacher, I have used collaborative ­poetry exercises for over 40 years in many settings — grade schools, high schools, university seminars, community centers, nursing homes, veteran groups, even state parks and historical sites. When my groups are relatively small, we create poems aloud, on the spot, with me asking questions and scribbling down dictated lines. When groups are large, participants write on cards and then I weave their lines together.

Both exercises give beginning poets confidence before composing their own poems. Both build community as people join their imaginations and experiences to create a work of art.

I first facilitated collaborative poetry as a student at Goshen College, when a graduating English major asked if I would take over his poetry writing group in a nursing home. As part of his senior practicum, Carl Haarer had been meeting weekly with residents of Fountainview Place in Elkhart. “Together, the group has seven or eight hundred years of cumulative experience,” Carl told me.

I felt drawn to that wealth of experience but nervous about the prospect of writing poetry aloud and as a group. In preparation, I read Kenneth Koch’s I Never Told Anybody: Teaching Poetry Writing to Old People and spoke with Carl about methods he had found successful. (Carl is now known professionally as Carl Stevens, a Boston WBZ NewsRadio reporter and poet.)

At Fountainview Place I became part of a community intent on exploring such varied subjects as starfish, snowflakes, summer mornings, lonesome Januarys, hummingbirds, hippos, violins, De­pression hardships, favorite moons, silence and departed friends. I felt the Spirit knitting us together as imaginative leaps engendered connection and diverse perspectives created a unified whole — free verse in the form of a list poem.

Free verse is poetry without constraints of regular meter and rhyme. A list poem consists of an organized inventory of things. These might be anything: people, places or ideas; ­images, adjectives or comparisons.

“Come, Holy Spirit” is a list poem, an inventory of comparisons. Through repetition and parallel structure, the list poem can embrace a multitude of perceptions. It’s an ancient form, suited for public performance and worship, for prayer, invocation, ode, elegy and song.

To facilitate a collaborative list poem in your church, the only qualification you need is an appreciation of poetry. You might start with a Sunday school class of children, maybe third- and fourth-graders. Children grasp the concept of list poems right away. They love creating imaginative comparisons. Bring something from nature for them to explore: a seashell, starfish, peacock feather, geode, milkweed pod, empty wasp nest, snakeskin.

Ask questions that help students observe the object closely and make imaginative comparisons: What does this object look like? What does it feel like? Sound like? Smell like?

This collaborative exercise works well with people of all ages. Abstract concepts such as “What is God like?” and “What is the Holy Spirit like?” can take the place of physical objects. If you’re working with a large group, using index cards, you don’t even need to edit the responses. You can just read them aloud, on the spot. Because contributions are anonymous, no one should feel self-conscious.

As the facilitator, you may feel nervous at first, but soon you’ll discover that something about the risky nature of the endeavor — its inclusive attitude toward many points of view — invites the Spirit’s blessing.

In Acts 2:11 (New International Version), we are told that listeners from various countries heard believers speak, each in their own language, of “the wonders of God.” What were these wonders? What imagery and comparisons did congregants use? Were they, perhaps, creating a collaborative list poem, inspired by the Holy Spirit? A psalm that began with wind and fire?

Shari Wagner

Author + Indiana Poet Laureate for 2016 and 2017

The Farm Wife’s Almanac (Cascadia, 2019)

The Harmonist at Nightfall: Poems of Indiana (Bottom Dog, 2013)

Evening Chore (Cascadia, 2005)

Taking Root in the Heart: Thirty-Four Poets from The Christian Century (Paraclete, 2023)

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