Words from the street
Jesus Center writing group publishes book of poems and prose
At Chico’s Jesus Center, those in need can find a shower, a meal, safe haven from the elements and, if they’re looking, perhaps the place’s namesake. But for the last several months, a different sort of salvation and succor has kept a group of men and women returning each Wednesday morning.
“When I came to Chico I had nothing but the shirt on my back,” said Scott Clark, a 33-year-old man who wandered around the country after his 2006 discharge from the Navy. “I found this place and these people gave me a notebook and a pen. It was incredible.”
The people Clark refers to are founders and members of the Derelict Voices writing group, started last Spring by four women—Eddi Deromedi, Emily Gallo, Erica McLane and Elizabeth Stewart. The four met while working at Obama’s election headquarters and started the project with no stated objective other than to share their love of reading and writing and help others better develop these skills.
It soon developed into much more, as evidenced by the recent publication of The Derelict Voice, a literary journal featuring poetry and prose originated and developed by the group’s participants and edited by the four founders.
“What we shared around the table each week far surpassed, in both skill and content, what we thought we would find,” the editors state in the book’s opening notes.
The book features 52 pages of writing from eight contributors and spans the breadth of the human experience—humor, romance, heartbreak and hardship delivered with more aplomb and veracity than could be mustered by an army of Bukowski wannabes. They are true stories of homelessness, mental illness, addiction, abandonment and other issues told by those who have faced adversity and survived to tell the tales.
“It’s about giving a voice to the voiceless,” Gallo says, a sentiment summed up in the title, which was decided on by a group vote.
On a recent Wednesday, the group—about a dozen strong that day—sat in rapt attention as Michael Dean Long, a bespectacled man in a weathered black hoodie, read one of his pieces aloud: “And so I sit, my life is a bore, bitterness and misery torture me sore, I follow death’s path without any resistance, eking out a lonely, miserable existence.”
He finished, holding a sufficient dramatic pause before his face turned into a smile. The group clapped and hollered their encouragement and Gallo called out the time, “Two-and-a-half minutes for both, that’s perfect,” she said.
“I have a little problem with the word ‘bitterness,’” McLane added. “You use it correctly, but you need to enunciate it better.”
The writers in the group are no strangers to criticism, and many agree it’s an essential part of the group’s value.
“Writing is such a solitary activity, you can’t really write with a group of people,” Clark said. “To meet a group of people that are trying to do the same thing, to constructively criticize what you’re doing and challenge you to do better, is amazing.”
The focus this day wasn’t on the writing, but the reading, as the group prepared for a pair of gigs, their literary coming-out parties. The first was a recording at KCHO, Chico’s National Public Radio affiliate, for an installment of Nancy’s Bookshelf to be aired Friday, Oct. 15, from 10:30 to 11 a.m.
The second is a launch event for the publication to be held Monday, Oct. 18, at Rowland-Taylor Recital Hall at Chico State. Everyone in the group is invited to participate and read published or unpublished works.
Members hope this is only the beginning; their goal is not to do a one-off book, but to establish a significant, ongoing literary journal. By happenstance and not design, the first installment features only men. Gallo said that since the book went to print, the group has gained more female regulars.
Now that a precedent has been established, the group hopes to keep providing a platform to neglected, abandoned voices.
“This Wednesday morning group is not just for writing, but for who these people are. It’s very, very important,” Gallo said. “I feel very privileged to be a part of it.”