I was visiting Child Study and Treatment Center (CSTC), which is Washington's only state-run psychiatric hospital for children and teens. Mick Storck, one of the staff psychiatrists, had invited me to lead a poetry workshop with the older kids, 10 to 17 years of age. Mick was familiar with my work in juvenile detention and in homeless shelters, helping teens to write about their lives. (My program is the Pongo Publishing Teen Writing Project, and this is Pongo's seventh book.)
When I walked into the school library at CSTC, the young writers and their staff were sitting on rows of couches and chairs, arranged in a semi-circle in front of me. I talked a little about myself and read some of the teen poetry I'd published. I also talked about the work that we could do together and about poetry as a vehicle for expressing complicated emotions. The first concerns the writers raised were profound. "You must think we're a bunch of crazy kids." "I'm too angry at the staff to write."
These young people wanted to write and be understood, but first they wanted to know whether or not I could take them seriously and also tolerate their powerful feelings.
When they realized I was ready to listen, the kids and teens quickly moved beyond the workshop's warm-up activities. Instead they sat with paper and pens, leaning on books, to create their personal poems. They worked quietly and with determination. Some kids dictated poems to their teachers at the back of the room. As they finished, the young writers sometimes came up and stood beside me to read their work, but more often they gave me their poems to read to the group. Each time, the other writers paused to listen respectfully and applaud.
Seeing the writing of these young people was a stunning experience for me. They wrote poems about teddy bears and love. But they also wrote about conflicted feelings toward an abusive parent and about profound emptiness after being neglected or having someone close to them die. They wrote about the inexplicable pleasure that comes from cutting themselves and about their helplessness in dealing with their own rage and suicidal feelings. Throughout, the kids and teens expressed themselves tenderly and bravely. The poems from that morning and similar workshops are in this book.
Today, before starting to write this Preface, I asked some of the staff at CSTC what they would like me to communicate here. They asked if I could communicate the normality and humanity of the CSTC residents, which is something I'd very much like to do.
Like teens I've encountered in other difficult settings, many of the writers at CSTC have had terrible experiences when they were young. But like anyone, their chief desires are to understand their place in the world, enjoy life, and feel loved. Through the poetry in "No More Me," the kids and teens at CSTC explain these challenges and hopes.
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