Thursday, June 25, 1987

Napa State Hospital Poetry Journal, June 25

Napa State Hospital Poetry Journal, Day 6

6/25, Thursday. 9:15 AM. Today I worked with the kids, five boys from Jocelyn's class. I was told the students wouldn't be able to read the poems, my expectations were too high, but I've found that they can read kid poems just fine. 

We made two oral poems together. The teachers, or the therapists assessment of their students' skills seems to be off. I suspect it's mostly due to student motivation, or a lack thereof. We made one visual poem and another poem on shadows. It all went very well. 

They do get antsy, and then it's harder for them to focus. But we worked 45 minutes straight, which was great, and exceeded expectations. I was told that they couldn't work that long stretch. Original assessment was 15 minute increments. 

Earl E came by today, he's really sweet. I was just so bugged by his psychiatrist. She is so pushy. When she was present, it was all about her. There was no room for Earl, nor was there room for me to work with him. Sometimes I wonder about the staff here—some seem to be way odder than the inmates. The have issues. I learn that it's a fine line of distinction. 

We chatted a bit, I'm learning to steer (wrestle) conversations away from the therapy process, and into poetry. Earl actually crosses his legs, folds his hands in his lap, and says, "Well, Doctor." And glazes over. I cut him off at the pass. His body language changes, and he becomes engaged. But it's a struggle.

I read Earl last week's work, and we wrote another poem together. He is so tickled with his new "P" card, but he is nervous about getting lost. So we wrote poems about being lost. I guess my running interference with the psychiatrist resulted in the issuance of his new privilege card. Something of extreme value. The ante just went up. 

Things of extreme value in a lock down mental institution: a hall pass, a privilege card, coins for the payphone, keys... Yes, key represent freedom. What separates staff from clients are those keys. Some folk carry discarded keys—because of what they represent. I give my clients new keys to unlock the creativity of their minds.

Earl tells me that he'll be back again to write this afternoon on Ward T – 12.
Not everybody came to class today. it's all volunteer. I had one new student, Jack, who didn't want to be there. Jack, the classical musician, whose fingers were burned by fire. So, he can no longer play the oboe, or the flute. When he told me his story, I wanted to cry. Such pathos—to lose your hands to fire is bad enough. But, a musician. I cannot imagine any worse fate. No wonder he's here. I would be too.

Robert, Carl and Craig have new poems already, no need to prime them. Raymond and Sam can't seem to get it together. I work with Raymond one on one and he dictated some good imagery to me. I tell him to give me an early memory, and a dream sequence…

I show Raymond how I would edit the poem to tighten it up. His attitude changes from lipping bibble-babble, spouting stupid singsong nonsense, to uttering something intelligible. Breakthrough. It dawns on me, and I wonder, how much of this is put on, a floor show for the hospital and staff.

I refuse to buy Raymond's well practiced crazy song and dance routine, though I was able to use some of that material as an example of what a poem is, or what you have to do to make a poem work—versus song lyrics. What you can get away with. 

In this way I realize that writing poetry with them is bending the rules, it's subversive, and that it's OK if it's not true.That's a huge taboo lifted. In this hospital, where everybody's sole mission is to get to the truth of the matter, and here I come along telling them it's OK to make things up. Heady stuff. There seems to be a collective sigh of relief when I tell them that. In that not telling of the truth, truth becomes real. 

I tell Raymond that I knew him in high school, he was a year ahead of me. He says he doesn't remember me. But he did remember going to Drake so I was on the right track. I think LSD was his downfall. As it was with many of my classmates. I am toying with the idea of inconsistent memory as a writing process. Owning that you don't remember. I do feel I broke through a barrier. I think it'll be that way with him, working one-on-one to break down the barriers, but that's what psychiatrists do isn't it? I don't want that role. I want poetry, not a confession. I am left with the question of how to utilize the group as a whole, it is a challenge.

Karl wants to continue writing. He was one of the No! I don't want to write poems students. Interesting change of heart. I didn't type up all his poem from last time. And he wrote more on it. I told Robert to write more on the idea of when I'm not there… Both figuratively and metaphorically.

Like little kids afraid of missing out on something, they jealously keep track of everything. They often tell me I didn't type up that poem, or I didn't type up what they wrote. Luckily, I can pull out their original writing (or my transcription). I decide to use it as a teaching moment. 

I tell my students that's the way poetry is. You can always add stuff later, even after it's typed—revision is an ongoing process. In other words, I have learned to turn each challenge into a poetic teaching dance.

Recap. Earl E came back. We reread his work. He added a ditty and we talked about the writing process. There is a marked change in his behavior. He now wants to write, versus my coaxing images from him.

I asked Earl where he was born and we looked it up in The Place Names of California. Dunsmuir. I have been there, I tell him. We talk about the railroad, the trees, the river. I tell him to begin with an image from early childhood. We build the poem using old images. He carefully constructs and tells each line, and I type it into the Canon Typestar 6, and read it back to him. He makes a few changes.

In the process, something else comes to mind. We don't know what he's writing about. He gets it. We don't know the subject, but we go from image to idea. And trust the process. Then suddenly we are talking about Nagasaki and Hiroshima.The images are embedded in the poem. 

We build a shape for it, an arc, and finish it. In this way I learn his backstory, he is a survivor of WWII. The stuff of epic poetry. He confides, that's the darkness inside of me. And I am not touched by the flame. This poem is very hot. It burns on the page, I say.

He has named his fear, and has been touched by the very thing he said he could not name or touch. In this poem, we talk about war and tragedy. I feel elated that he wrote such a fine poem. He's elated as well. Breakthrough. Many poets will read this poem, I tell him. I tell him this is how the real writing begins.

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