Seema Reza is a poet who coordinates recreational arts activities at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, where she works with veterans and active duty service members in the Washington, DC, area. I met Seema last fall at a conference of the Transformative Language Arts Network, a gathering of writers, musicians, health care professionals, and others using language for personal and social change. Seema, who is of Bangladeshi heritage, will turn 33 next week. She has two sons, ages 13 and seven, and holds a bachelor’s in fine arts from Goddard College, where she is set to begin the master’s program in Transformative Language Arts. I talked with her by phone this week about her work. What follows is a lightly edited transcript. And please make sure to scroll to the bottom of the page for a poem by a combat veteran participating in the arts program, Joe Merritt.
You’re about to enter Goddard’s master’s program in Transformative Language Arts (TLA). Why as a poet did you decide to pursue that degree?
When I got my BFA, they were really kind to me at Goddard. They let me play with different forms of creative writing, essays and telling the stories of what I was experiencing. And then my father passed away, and I couldn’t bring myself to write complete sentences. He drowned while on vacation. It was very sudden, very far away. Our relationship was rocky. I was going through a divorce at the time, and hadn’t talked to my father in a while. It was a devastating loss. When you lose a parent, suddenly you feel a generation older, a little closer to that generation holding up the sky. It was a big identity shift. I decided at Goddard to learn the rules of poetry so I could reject them. I found in working with fixed-form poetry that the poems are not necessarily where I want to end, but I am able to discover things using fixed forms. I have to force myself to find the syllables and words and phrases, and I will go back to it often to try to figure out what I am trying to say.
So you were discovering as you wrote what you needed to say.
At Goddard I was exploring the relationship between form and content and how that connects with the primal brain. And to connect with an audience, to hit an emotional place, you have to go deep. With fixed form it’s harder to hide from the difficult stuff.
Could you give an example?
I had written this villanelle. I believe the refrain was, “Now we separate, divide, remove the groom, reclaim the bride.” I thought it would be a poem about the fierceness of reclaiming myself. But you’re reusing these lines, and the meaning is changing. You have to keep addressing it to find words that rhyme. And then you say “Oh, shit, that is not the poem I thought I was going to write.” The final poem was not something I loved, but I had to confront my mixed feelings, take some responsibility for my part.
Do you see a division between creating a work of art and the “transformative” aspects of writing? Why get a master’s degree in TLA?
I have mixed feelings about how expensive higher education is and how it changes the playing field. It changes the bar to things other than accomplishment, skill, and grit. This program in particular is based on the idea of building community and using the arts to do that. It’s a simple concept but it’s overlooked. Art therapy is a field that has its own beauty and importance in the continuum of care. But ultimately, the benefit of finding your voice and having your words validated by your peers or by a larger community is something you can’t do alone. You might want to say it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of you, but that is not how humans are built. You have to have this opportunity to put yourself out there and see that no one runs away, to gather people together who say, Yes, I hear your story, I appreciate your truth, and I am still here.
When I attended the TLA conference last year I came away thinking about “radical acceptance” and how life changing that can be.
Radical acceptance is such a beautiful phrase. It is life changing. It causes me to have less patience for some of the more surface interactions that we tend to fill our lives with. It’s hard to come back from one of those experiences and say let’s go to happy hour.
Is the TLA study important to your career?
It is, in the sense that I hope to find the methods and language to answer: How do we survive in this work? I spend my day listening to some really rough stories. That’s my job. The goal is to create more people who are doing this work, especially veterans. There are stories that veterans tell other veterans that in some cases they wouldn’t tell me. So how do we maintain our own creative practice? That is an important part of the TLA program. When I’m working with veterans there’s mutual growth. We are together, both of us growing. How do we support the facilitators of this work, particularly when they have traumas of their own? It’s the kind of thing we need people all over the world doing, and they have to have safe outlets for processing it. Artists and veterans are leading these community-building workshops, and I’m interested in seeing that people are staying sane.
How is writing central to that?
Writing is what I believe in most of all. I paint as well. But I am able to hide more with painting than writing. At least two of the people who are a part of the research project I hope to do at Goddard are primarily visual artists and they bring some narrative to it as well. When I was burying my father, it took a long time to bring his body from India to Bangladesh. I was there before he arrived. It was traumatic, to say the least, the most difficult time in my life. I kept trying to write it and only could when I went to a writing retreat in Utah. I thought, if I break here I’ll be safe. I wrote the story in a workshop with Steve Almond. I use those words I wrote to speak about what I felt and saw. I tell it to people not because I want to tell this traumatic story but because it is who I am. I have to tell people who I am and why I am the way I am. The barrier created by the experience crumbles.
Why aren’t there more people taking about using writing in this way?
I am in a field where I feel a lot of people are talking about it—narration from a therapeutic perspective. But I think also it’s scary to do this work on yourself and with others. It’s super scary to take all the pieces of you and put them on the table and say I’m going to confront this. It’s hard work. People don’t know how to start. People don’t know how to enter into their story. I come across it a lot in people who don’t identify as writers and their experience in high school English does not prepare them.
What do you do as an arts coordinator at Walter Reed and Fort Belvoir?
The program has three major components. First, we have the in-treatment groups, which are part of two intensive, partial-hospitalization programs. They’re in treatment for psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, and it’s required that they participate in their recreational afternoon time. They have to be there whether they like it or not—and they do not at first, but eventually they do. There are between eight and 16 people in the room. We read a piece of writing and respond to it. I give them really specific directives, almost like Mad Libs. I give them the phrases they’re going to use. Free writing can be terrifying, especially to people used to being given orders. We do some visual arts groups within these populations.