"In 1976, while in graduate school in creative writing, I was volunteering in a school for special-needs kids in San Francisco, meeting with the young teens individually and helping them to write. The process went well from the very beginning, in the way it goes well today. I first talked to the kids and then suggested personal topics that drew on their fantasies ("Todd's Drive Across Country," "Rodney's Trip to Mars") or personal experience ("A Letter to My Mom," "A Boy I Like"). I took dictation and involved myself collaboratively as much as necessary to keep the process flowing and free, asking questions such as "What do the Martians look like?" or "Why do you think your mom was angry?" I was participating in a creative process, but drawing out the teens' own ideas and feelings, to create a finished poem or story. As soon as the teens and I were done, there was often a special moment, when the teens felt proud and open, and we felt very connected to one another too, in a way that sometimes gave me chills.
"I didn't know it at the time, but almost half of the teens in the school were patients at an adolescent psychiatric clinic, part of Children's Hospital in San Francisco. And at the school's Christmas party, the teens' therapists sought me out to say that the kids had been able to deal with personal issues through the poetry that they'd had difficulty dealing with in years of therapy.
"I volunteered at the clinic and originated a writing activity called 'Expressive Therapy.' Later I was hired on staff and became part of a multi-disciplinary team that offered the teens intensive treatment in the form of individual, group, family, and activities therapy. My learning was enhanced by staff meetings, case reviews, and hospital seminars on such topics as adolescence and family dynamics. I dedicated myself to the clinic job for four years.
"At the same time, I wrote a collection of poems whose animal subjects struggled with profound feelings of rage, neediness, and depression. This collection became my graduate thesis. And in my poetry today, though much of it is not specifically about the teens, the themes reflect a sensitivity to personal and social issues - issues that begin early in life, are difficult to master, and affect a person's emotional life, self-image, and progress in the world.
"When I left the clinic, I went on to have a career in book publishing in Seattle. I began by editing books for a small, special-education publisher and eventually became managing editor of a very large technical publishing company, responsible for books on computer programming. When I could, I taught, and volunteered with street kids, helping them to write. Eventually I retired from my job in book publishing, and I volunteered again with teens, as I had planned, to help them express themselves. I began Pongo Publishing to produce books of the teens' written work."