News outlets ranging from the AP to the Lakewood Scoop have covered the ongoing saga of Lakewood’s Tent City, an encampment of about 80 homeless people, which the town has been trying to shut down for years. This spring a deal was struck: Tent City residents will leave within a year if a homeless shelter is opened in Ocean County. But the story of the tent community has proved more indelible than a series of fleeting headlines. The makeshift village in the woods, complete with its own upright piano, is now the subject of a book-length poem, a documentary and a series of black-and-white photo portraits.
Hank Kalet, an economic needs reporter for NJ Spotlight, was a regional editor for Patch in early 2012 when photographer Sherry Rubel sent over a press release about her Kickstarter campaign to fund a photo project on Tent City. Although the campaign didn’t reach its funding goal, it set an idea in motion for Kalet, who was also working on his MFA in poetry at Fairleigh Dickinson, and in search of a project.
“I was looking for something to sink my teeth into,” Kalet recalls. “Looking for a project to use both parts of my writing self.”
Kalet reached out to Rubel about the possibility of a collaboration. Then Jack Ballo, a filmmaker, joined the alliance. Ballo’s documentary, “Destiny’s Bridge,” will have its premiere on Aug. 7 at the Two River Theater in Red Bank. Kalet is currently looking for a publisher for his book-length poem, “As an Alien in Land of Promise.”
And Rubel, in addition to taking hundreds of photographs, has become an activist. “Our goal is to go out and educate,” she says. “To showcase ourselves individually as artists, and to assist in educating the country, the state.”
All last year, the three made regular trips to Lakewood, collecting material for their various efforts. “We went into this together, understanding that we were working together and working independently,” Kalet says. “We ended up talking to many of the same people.” Kalet’s idea for a reported poem has a significant Garden State precedent. William Carlos Williams published “Paterson,” an epic poem about the city and its people, as five separate books between 1946 and 1958.
How does a reported poem differ from a piece of journalism? For one thing, Kalet says, it’s “based on a couple of basic metaphors writ large.” One of those metaphors is weeds.
A weed by definition
is a plant that grows
where it’s not wanted
Then there are fragments of speech, rendered in stanzas rather than quotation marks — some pulled from reports in Patch or court depositions — and interwoven with descriptions. And unlike his work in the strictly journalistic sphere, Kalet took the poetic license to create composite characters. The result can sometimes read like a reporter’s notebook, only more lyrical.
on a rusted-legged table,
old blankets and cotton
dress shirts, a pair of shorts,
dresses, sweaters, the unwanted,
refuse, waste, leavings, scraps
from closets emptied
before a move
used to live with my mother
until she died and I fell
into depression. I waitressed,
worked as a home health aide,
a cashier, cleaned houses
sometimes the owners
would give me clothes,
a dress she didn’t wear
something for my son.
at the bent-legged table,
donations picked through,
one person’s trash
is another’s treasure, she says
Rubel, who works as portrait photographer and freelances for Patch, was also looking for a big project when she discovered Tent City. At first, she was turned off. “It was a lot of tents and it was in the woods and it was dirty,” she says.
But she found the people intriguing and the spirit of the place palpable. “There was a tremendous sense of community and openness and love every time I went down there,” she reports.
Ballo, the filmmaker, is the closest to connecting with an audience, with his premiere scheduled for Aug. 7.
“I am not an advocate for Tent City staying open, nor do I believe that people should be allowed to take over property that they do not own,” Ballo writes in a filmmaker’s statement. “What I do believe is that there is a lot that we can learn from Tent City and the concept of low cost housing for people who want to be close to nature and live without the luxuries common to most people.”
Debbie Galant is director of the NJ News Commons, a project of the School of the Communication and Media at Montclair State University. It resides within the Center for Cooperative Media and is funded, in part, by contributions of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.