NYWC’s Alex Samets talks about her work at SAGE

This June, we at NYWC are honoring the LGBT community’s contribution to literature as part of Pride Month. In addition to a reading, a chapbook, and a special installment of our online literary journal Dig Deep, we are excited to share this essay by NYWC workshop leader Alex Samets, where she explores the power of finding voice in her workshop at SAGE.

It was in my second or third workshop at SAGE that I wrote something gay. If I remember correctly, it was a short piece about my lover’s body. Nothing ever came of the piece—I didn’t even type it up—but what came of my sharing it with the members of my workshop, all of them gay, lesbian, or bisexual identified elders, was remarkable. As the weeks went by, they, too, started writing about their lovers’ bodies, about affairs they had had in their youths, about the relationships they had with their current partners. I had no idea that this was unusual. As far as I could tell, what was happening for them was what would happen in any workshop: as the weeks went by, as we came to know each other better and trust each other more deeply, we were all taking more risks in our work and writing about things we held close.

Then one afternoon, M., a 78-year-old, soft-spoken man, raised his hand to share what he’d written. “I have to say,” he began, his notebook still closed in his lap, “that I never knew…” He paused. “I never knew I could write about being gay. I never knew I could write about sex. I never knew I could write about who I have loved.” And then he read.

It was in that moment that I understood—really understood—our mission. That voicelessness is a part of oppression, and that there is revolution in creating space in which we can say who we are, what we are–where we can say what we love and need and desire. And it goes deeper still: when we oppressed stand clearly inside ourselves and inside our communities and from that stance make art—that is transformation, that is revolution, that is ground breaking. When I sit with the elders in my workshop and we write stories and poems and essays and plays, when we share our writing with each other, when we support each other’s work, we are not ghettoized as queers who write about our oppression as some kind of therapy, some kind of personal work. We are humans, we are artists, and we are writing about everything—our families, our lovers, our adventures, our gods, the worlds of our imaginations. Maybe it’s therapeutic. Maybe it’s work we are doing on ourselves. But it is also art; it is never not art.

As M. and his peers discovered their capacities to write about their gayness, they—and we—also discovered our capacities to write about other things in ourselves and our worlds that we had found forbidden or impenetrable. B., who is blind, wrote about darkness. And then she wrote about light. J. wrote about falling in love on the assembly line in a Michigan factory during World War II. And then she wrote about a mother. T., an Irish Catholic, wrote about family at Christmas, wrote stories full of songs. B. wrote poems and essays and plays about the unseen and the almost unknowable. And in M.’s stories we saw again and again the character of Death.

The participants in my workshop are aging. It is a gift, I imagine, to find one’s voice at the end of life. A different gift, obviously, than finding one’s voice early on. But certainly one that is preferable to living one’s days to the end without ever getting to stand firm in who one is and from that place, speak.

–Alex Samets
NYWC Workshop Leader at SAGE