Nathaniel Gadsden’s Writers Wordshop attendance is small this night. It’s the first Friday after the holidays. Three people have come out in the cold to join Nate Gadsden at Midtown Scholar Bookstore.
When it’s time to share thoughts and readings, Wordshop veteran Diana Carel-Diaz produces a creased, browned sheet that may have once been legal paper. “We love dogs, but we have cats,” she says in introduction. “I just pulled this out after I don’t know how many years.”
She begins to read amid book-lined shelves of contemporary fiction, the works of Terry McMillan and Walter Mosley behind her. Her voice twinkles with mischief. Her words sparkle, capturing centuries of feline mystery. “Slippery, skittish, fawnish thing, incarnate king with wit and sting/slender, impertinent little slip, impervious, quicksilver wit,” she reads.
“Obstinate, obstreperous and loud/cruel, treacherous and proud, the disappearance causing grief was, like yourself, beyond belief,” she continues. “What mercurial unjust thief could turn your substance into air, transfer you to an unseen lair? Your presence still is everywhere.”
Since 1977, Writers Wordshop has hosted words expressed in poetry, prose, song and stories about family, friends and whatever may have happened that day. Gadsden is the founder and driving force who has turned the power of the written and spoken word into a means for change and self-fulfillment.
Power and Impact
Gadsden is a Harrisburg native—a William Penn High School Tiger, he notes proudly. He discovered poetry in 1968, when his basketball coach ordered the players to stay away from racial unrest roiling the city. The coach brought in the Rev. Belgium Baxter, who talked of peace and broke out in poetry.
“I was so impressed with the power and the impact that I started writing myself,” says Gadsden.
Though he believed in the “quote-unquote revolution,” he chose the peaceful path of Martin Luther King Jr. and “was never a person that would get out there and throw Molotov cocktails.”
“I wanted to be a person who spoke about the issues,” says Gadsden.
At what was then West Chester State College, Gadsden delved into the poetry scene. Coming home to Harrisburg after graduation, he got involved with Mim Warden and The People Place, now the arts facilitator Jump Street. They got a national grant to bring giant names in poetry to little, ole Harrisburg—Amiri Baraka, E. Ethelbert Miller, Gwendolyn Brooks.
They also embarked on something homegrown to encourage the aspirations of writers. A typo by Warden turned “workshop” into “wordshop.” They added Nate’s name to distinguish it from other “wordshops” in the United States, and Nathaniel Gadsden’s Writers Wordshop was born.
The wordshop has been in different spaces citywide over the years. Its current home, every Friday of the month except 3rd in the Burg day, is Midtown Scholar. Five special programs are held at the Pennsylvania State Museum yearly.
Gadsden also takes wordshop variations to other venues—a Harrisburg School District after-school program, county departments, state prisons. He shares poetry as therapy, because, in his life, amid the disappointment and rage of “discriminations, segregation, shootings, marches,” he has found solace in poetry.
“The poets allowed me to say it and feel it and at the same time not go to jail over it or kill anybody,” he says. “It gave release. It’s not just about bees and trees and the birds. It’s about real people.”
It’s Their Words
Gadsden is the kind of person likely, at any moment, to run into someone whose life he has touched.
During this interview, sitting in The Little Scholar section of Midtown Scholar, urban planner Tashya Dalen was at the next table with her children. She remembered Gadsden from a workshop for Harrisburg fifth-graders, when he took them walking along the river and encouraged them to share their stories.
“He has a presence with the children that they instantly wanted to hear him speak,” says Dalen. “There’s a profoundness in his words that they are eager to listen to more than, perhaps, other voices in their life.”
She turned to Gadsden. “I think they know you, know who you are,” she said. “You’re such a presence in the community.” Gadsden protests that he’s “the old guy now.” But Dalen insists that he’s respected.
“Because it’s poetry, you’re not lecturing them,” she says. “You’re not teaching in a linear way but engaging them through an art form.”
Gadsden concedes to that. “When you get them involved and engaged, it’s their words.”
Former York Poet Laureate Carla Christopher would agree. “Nate makes eye contact with everyone. Nate will reach out and touch everyone,” she says. “I don’t know how he’s still alive. The places he goes, he has put himself at risk so many times.”
At wordshop meetings, Gadsden “likes to welcome everybody,” says Christopher. “He takes the time to personally call each person out by name.” Under Gadsden’s guidance, Christopher transformed her own writing from issue-based to personal, sharing even the difficult experiences.
“Those are the ones I read with people with tears in my eyes,” she says. “I have had perfect strangers come up and hug me, and put their heads on my shoulder.”
A former poet laureate of Harrisburg, Gadsden has written poems for the opening of Whitaker Center and two Steve Reed mayoral inaugurations. He remembers driving while hearing Maya Angelou read her “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s first inaugural and having to pull the car over. Poems commemorate occasions because “they capture our emotions, our fears, our moments of joy.”
“They are able to take us into our humanity as well as our imagination, just by crafting our conversation in a different way,” says Gadsden. “Poetry is nothing more than a thought, a conversation, a story, but said in a way that brings magic and wonderment to it.”
At the post-holidays Writers Wordshop, a newcomer named Billy asks if the wordshop is only for poets. Absolutely not, says Gadsden. Because, adds Billy, he writes about “what’s happening now.” Excellent, says Gadsden. “Stay in your lane, man, if you need to, and just do your thing.”
Gadsden is also pastor of Imani African Christian Church, co-host with his wife of the CBS21 public affairs show “Life Esteem,” and community impact manager at United Way of the Capital Region (yes, through all this, he has a day job).
Patricia Gadsden, Nate’s wife, is the founder of Life Esteem, a life skills consulting firm that employs Gadsden as a coach. The two, married for 21 years, complement each other with “the same kind of energy,” says Gadsden. “Pat’s a creator and a builder.”
Gadsden likes to look at issues from different perspectives, and he is contemplating a book that anthologizes his life’s poems, but rewritten and updated.
“You mature and grow,” he says. “I could leave those poems alone, but I think I’ll go back and rework them and see if I have the energy to make them better or make them different or more insightful.”
As the conversation ends, Gadsden mentions that he serves on the World Affairs Council of Harrisburg board, and you realize that, for a man who’s juggling so many positions, he exudes an aura of peace. People have marveled that he has kept the Writers Wordshop thriving for 38 years. He responds, “Yeah, but it didn’t feel like labor.”
“It’s felt like love,” he says. “It’s been a labor of love.”
To learn more about Nathaniel Gadsden, visit www.nathanielgadsden.com.