Q&A with Jessica Greenbaum, MSW '14

Jessica Greenbaum, MSW '14, recently published her third volume of poetry, Spilled and Gone (Pitt Poetry Series, 2019), about which fellow poet Grace Schulman wrote “Greenbaum envisions a Brooklyn that is real and a Brooklyn that is everywhere." Greenbaum is the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Prize from the Poetry Society of America. She was also a winner of the University of Iowa School of Social Work's national poetry contest for social workers. NYU Silver recently reached out to Greenbaum to learn more about her work and its relationship to her social work education.

On your website, poemsincommunity.org, you describe yourself as a “poet, social worker, and workshop director.” Is that an up-to-date description of your work?

Yes, this triad describes the different configurations of my sensibilities. I began writing poems in grade school, and early on I could feel their role in offering both profound delight and the tools for emotional survival. Because of some of the teachers I had and the writers I gravitated towards, I knew that writing poems was available to everyone 24 / 7 / 365, for free, and I have been teaching for almost 40 years.

When I began studying social work (in my 50's) the obvious connections between the human condition (as it shows itself in art) and social work issues made clear companions. The poets are doing a close reading of the daily life within the context of a whole life. How do we understand the world's offerings of both beauty and suffering, and in such unbalanced proportions for so many? What revelation is spring-loaded into what stories?

Whether I am teaching a class of older adults, Barnard students, or a community that has experienced trauma, workshops include the concerns of humanism and social work--what is our experience in life, how can we use it to find sustenance, to praise, to attempt reconciliation with life's challenges, to outright complain, to feel connections where we hadn't know them, to bring to light to revelations?

How do you like to describe your new volume of poems?

I write narrative, lyrical, autobiographical poems that find metaphor--and therefore connection--in a close reading of experience.

How has your poetry writing and teaching been influenced by your social work education?

Well, teaching first. My internship at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House allowed me to begin a poetry workshop with seniors. The participants showed me how much of life experience each person brings to the table and wants to speak about, know more about, take pleasure in relating, take pains to remember. And the mutual aid almost immediately spiked in the group, and so the personality of the group quickly came to mirror the innate openness, inclusivity, questioning, kindnesses and concerns art can offer. One faithful participant who was homeless was able to tell and write about his childhood in Eritrea, and he was thrilled to find that he could write about the streets he grew up on, the house of his childhood, the stories of walking to the waterfall and being saved by sparrows from wolf attacks. People take heart from the fact that the details of their own lives matter, every day.

The great lesson of listening imparted by social work--this has much to tell a workshop instructor. The great lesson of strengths-based perspective, of starting where each person is and with what s/he brings to the room, the deep belief in the integrity of each life and each life's story, and the training to recognize how drawing on certain stories might draw a person to revelations about his/her life--all these social work practices have informed the workshop leader I try and be.

In my own work, well . . . To study social work is to have a terrible kind of x-ray vision around suffering and inequity within life around us, and between that training and the brutally dark time of our country, I can honestly say that for friends and myself, what we allow ourselves to write about has changed. We are challenged to make work that can possibly matter when so much is at stake, seemingly every day, either for the earth, or for women, or for voting rights, and for the health of democracy, to name a few drops in what you know is a very, very deep bucket.

How do you view your work as influencing social policy and/or the social work profession?

I appreciate that writing poems in community offers a powerful form of group work. For 9/11 First Responders, for instance, learning how to pay close attention to the world in the present, and find delight and meaning in poems that lift revelation off of the present, and being able to generate a new vision of life and share it with each other--this is the healing work of the imagination as the trauma scholar Bessel van der Kolk describes it.

Also, I have great hopes of leading a workshop for parents of adult children with chronic mental health issues--and this would change the profession because it has yet to exist. My hybrid workshop would pair standard support work in the first half of the meeting, with a second half that was a poetry reading and writing workshop not focused on the children, only on the imagination of the parents, and of that part of their intellect and spirit so often quashed by the full-time work of trying to provide the best clinicians and programs and schools and meds and home life for your child. Ya gotta stay whole for your kid and yourself, and poems in community is one way, I truly believe that.