What It Means To Be Human

Can viewing and creating art help us become more fully human?

Lisa Beech Hartz directs Seven Cities Writers Project, a non-profit that brings cost-free creative writing workshops to underserved communities. She guides workshops in the Norfolk City Jail and at the LGBT Life Center in Norfolk. In April, as part of National Poetry Month, she will be giving a reading with Renee Olander at Prince Books and be the featured poet for a presentation at ODU/VB. In May she'll present at Christopher Newport University's Annual Writers Conference guiding participants through writing in response to visual art.

TW: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? What was your first published piece? Your reaction to seeing your work in print?

LBH: I've been writing since I could write—age 7 or 8. It took me forever to figure out that this was something I could actually do, like a vocation. It was something I did to feel listened to, even though I wasn't showing it to anybody. Finally, in college, I submitted a poem to my university's literary magazine and got accepted. Might have had something to do with the fact that the editor was my boyfriend at the time. Now he's my husband. Seeing your work in print is terrifying—still true for me today. Other people are going to see it! Yikes!

TW: Visual art is a theme in your own writing. What commonalities do art and the written word share? How do paintings inspire you?

LBH: All forms of creative expression share the same reason for being. A professor of mine said it beautifully: You are engaging in the endless conversation about what it means to be human. When I visit a gallery or museum I stare and stare. I like to wonder about the choices the artist made. Why this subject, this medium. What was happening in his life at the time. I'm fascinated by the creative process.

TW: How can writing be a tool for self-exploration? Why is writing conducive to self-awareness?

LBH: To re-read what you've written is like having a conversation with your subconscious—if you've let yourself be honest on the page. You can see right there your bad habits of mind—self-pity or self-aggrandizement. What once obsessed you will no longer have that power. I tell my writers to keep all their drafts. Otherwise, they'll miss their evolution.

TW: What are the rewards of being director of Seven Cities Writing Project?

LBH: I've learned the boundaries between us are completely artificial. I directed a workshop for survivors of the Jim Crow Era at the Colored Community Library Museum, and I'm about as privileged a white girl as you'll ever meet. Not one of my writers ever asked me what the heck I was doing there. Why wouldn't I want to be there? Their stories were fascinating. The same goes for YourStory, a memoir workshop at the LGBT Life Center in Norfolk. Differences fall away when an honest question is asked and people are willing to listen to the answer.

TW: Can you tell about a favorite student or an inspiring development that resulted from 7CWP?

LBH: Two stories. Susan and Chuck. Susan just bloomed before my eyes in our jail workshop. I saw an actual physical change in her as she gained confidence in her writing—so encouraged by her fellow writers. Susan wrote me almost weekly thank you notes. I was helping her change her life, she said. Susan got out, got an apartment, a job, a car, and began a new life. Total success. Chuck was one of my first writers in jail, back in 2015. Just before his release, Chuck wrote on his participant survey that I was "a ray of light in a very dark place." I cried when I read it. Later, when I heard Chuck had died of an overdose, I cried then too. So I don't speculate too much about the lasting effects of the work I do. I try to stay in the moment.

TW: What do you most enjoy about writing poetry? Least?

LBH: I love the almost physical sensation that comes when I get the abstractions out of my head and onto the page. The thing I like least is when I have no idea what I want to write about. Waiting for inspiration is the absolute worst.

TW: What do you think the future of writing is, especially in the context of our rapidly changing world?

LBH: I think it's wide open. The establishment is opening up to more diverse voices. And there are so many ways to get your work out there without the establishment.

TW: Why are the arts important?
LBH: We have to continue that conversation—the one about being human—so that those artificial boundaries fall away.

Lisa's award-winning poetry collection, The Goldfish Window, was published in 2018 by Grayson Books. A Pushcart Prize nominee, Lisa has published her work in many literary journals. She lives in Portsmouth with her husband and sons.

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