Ann Teplick is a poet, playwright, and prose writer, with an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College. For eighteen years she has been a Teaching Artist, writing with youth in schools; literary art centers; hospice centers; and Pongo Teen Publishing, in King County juvenile detention, and currently, the Washington state psychiatric hospital.
This essay was originally published by Hunger Mountain’s online literary journal.
Each time my meditation teacher suggested that we “hold” our pain, rather than cling to it or push it away, I wanted to do something un-Buddha like. Like scream, or crack a few obscene jokes, or belt out the lyrics of a Jim Morrison song, where torment seeps like a bruised and mucked-up fruit. Shake up the hushed room.
It took me years to wrap my head around this concept of being gentle with myself, less obsessive. To trust that in hard times, I would not suffocate. And though I’m far from 100%, I’ve come a long way. The effort is constant. I slack, and I’m back in the wilds of anxiety—heart palpitations, wet like I have just walked out of the sea, breathing that is cockeyed, visions of train wrecks and crimson.
And then, one day, the epiphany—
It’s 6:45 a.m. on a beach in Seattle, foggy and damp, my hair wet and strung into curls. A boat horn blares, a heron strolls through the foam of a wave, driftwood and seaweed scatter across the sand. I am perched on a wet-salted rock, crying, cursing, trying to “hold” the unholdable— an indelible personal pain—one hell of a fire, like I have been blowtorched.
When out of nowhere, a barrage of butterflies light upon me—one on my thumb, one on my knee, one on my shoulder, the zipper of my fleece jacket. Who knows how many are on my hood. They are the size of my fist, with wings, veined and coppery, that close and open in slow motion. And they do not fly away, but cocoon me in stillness. The quieter I become, the more I am able to hear.
On Mondays, from October to March, four colleagues and I write poetry with teens at Firwood secondary school, in Lakewood, Washington. Forty-five miles south of Seattle, the school is one of many buildings on the campus of Western State Hospital, a 265-acre psychiatric facility. Western is wooded with trees, wildflowers, owls, eagles, and deer. Yes, butterflies, too. The teens live a stone’s throw away in cottages at the Child Study and Treatment Center (CSTC), the only state run and state operated psychiatric hospital for children in Washington. CSTC serves youth ages 6-17 in two primary programs—Inpatient Services, for youth who cannot be served in a less-restrictive environment, and Forensic Services, a program that conducts mental health evaluations for the Juvenile Court System of Washington State.
We walk into Firwood school at lunchtime, to the aroma of Mac and cheese, sloppy Joes, chips and salsa. The environment is brightly lit and cheerful, with polished floors, art on the walls, and friendly faces of adults and teens, which is not to say there is never a scuffle. We sign in at the reception desk and head to the computer room, high-five a few students we pass in the hall. “Can I write poetry, today?” “How about me? I didn’t get to write last week!” “I’ve got a cool poem back in my room, can I go fetch it?”
My colleagues and I work with The Pongo Teen Writing Project, a volunteer non-profit founded (in 1992) and run by writer Richard Gold. Gold is a compassionate man with a huge heart. He is dedicated to writing with youth who lead difficult lives. In the mid 1970’s, while a graduate student of creative writing in San Francisco, Gold volunteered with teens at a special-needs school, many of whom were patients at an adolescent psychiatric clinic. He is anchored in the belief that when we write about life’s challenges—from hardship to distress to trauma and grief—we can better understand ourselves and take better control of our lives.
I met Richard Gold ten years ago at a summer art festival in Seattle. While manning the Pongo booth, he introduced me to poems from the teen collections on display. They were very difficult to read. Many, excruciating. Stories of alcohol and drug addiction, rage, despair, depression, suicide, physical and sexual abuse, abandonment, life on the streets, crime, violent deaths of family, friends and pets. The ravages of guilt.
As a writer, raised with an abundance of love, I cannot create these scenarios. But writing is my life, and I well know its power to pull me through the smack of tough times.
I have been working with Richard Gold and the Pongo Teen Writing Project for eight years—five, in King County juvenile detention (Seattle), three of which I served as project lead; and for the last three years, as project lead at CSTC. The experience has altered me—not only the honor of working with young people who live with challenges many of us cannot fathom, but the fact that I am learning how to listen—really listen—with no interruptions, judgments, pity, or verbal attempts to alleviate suffering. My belief in story, and the importance of telling our stories, has been reinforced a thousand fold. Our words matter, and the world desperately needs them.
Since 2000, Pongo has reached out to over 4,000 teen writers in juvenile detention, psychiatric hospitals, juvenile rehab facilities, LGBTQ centers, and homeless shelters. King County juvenile detention and CSTC are Pongo’s pillar sites. Pongo has published 12 anthologies of teen poetry, most of which are given away to the authors.
The teens we write with at CSTC have severe emotional, behavioral, and thought disorders. Their lives are delicate, layered and complex. We cannot fix this, but we can share our love for poetry and the tools for writing, so that they can find ways to express emotions and experiences that are often a 10+ on the Richter scale. When they do, their sense of relief, satisfaction, and greater self-respect is palpable. The process is stunning and humbling.
*Read the rest of Ann’s essay, along with more samples of teen writing, at Pongo Teen Writing.org