Patti Ross: St Paul Street Provocations

Pattie Ross is a force to be reckoned with in the poetry world. She speaks her mind with a gentle humor and then serves up her message with gut punch of humor mixed with outrage. Patti hosts Author Talks at the Baltimore County Arts Guild in Catonsville and serves as an ambassador for poetry everywhere she goes. Here’s an interview about her first poetry chapbook, St. Paul Street Provocations. I hope you’ll enjoy meeting Patti and buy a copy of her lovely book.

Patti Ross

Ann Bracken (AB): Congratulations on your new book St. Paul Street Provocations. Such an intriguing title. Tell me the story behind the collection.

Patti Ross (PR): The backstory is that I was living at the intersection of St. Paul Street and Lafayette Streets in Baltimore from 2010 to about 2012. I then moved to Park Avenue, an area in the Bolton Hill district.  These two areas are very distinct. Most of the poems began on St. Paul Street with my observations from living on the corner slightly above the sidewalk. The cover has a mural of muralist Jessie and Katey (http://www.jessieandkatey.com/) that they painted on the ground of the little dilapidated park across the street from my building. I watched them work from my main room window. The mural is titled “Walk the Line” and that is what was necessary in the neighborhood if you were going to remain there in peace.

AB: In the poem “Home/Less” you describe your encounter with a homeless man you call “D”. Give me a bit of his story and describe what it was about him that made you decide to stop and talk with him.

PR: On my morning commute down MLK Blvd, I would run in to “D” asking for money/help during the stop light transitions. At times I might have to wait through two lights, and so we began a friendship. I sometimes offered up a dollar or two, sometimes just a hello, and sometimes a brief conversation. At some point “D” disappeared for several weeks. When he returned, I could see that he had been physically assaulted, and he no longer had his backpack of belongs. He was worse than before. I stopped this time, and we talked for a bit. He told me he had been beaten up one night over the rights to the corner and his belongings taken. He said to me “Patti, I gotta deal with the demons in my head, and the demon’s at night.” When he said that it stuck with me. No one chooses to be homeless – there is so much more to their plight.

AB: Letters are so powerful, even when they’re imaginary. Tell me about your decision to write an imaginary letter to “George Perry Floyd in Heaven.” 

PR: The murder of George Floyd was incredible. He lost his life over the suspicion of something, not the proof of something. I want people to see him as more than the poster child for a “modern day lynching.” I want people to remember that he was a good son and a good high school athlete. I want people to remember that “but for the grace of God – there goes I.” Often times it is letters that set the record straight years after something happens.  We find a letter that tells the true story.

AB: You describe yourself as a spoken word poet and use the name “little pi” when you preform. What were some of the challenges in moving between spoken word and written poetry in your book?

PR: Great question. There is a challenge to take what is performed (staged) to what is written (page). I often remind my audience that what they hear me say may not be what they read fully. I tend to read my poems in a narrative way or as if in conversation, such as in the poem “Indemnity”. I don’t change all the words but for emphasis in performance, I may change a word or omit one or add an expletive because I originally wrote the poem in response to something that “pissed me off” as they say. ‘little pi’ is the voice that allows me to perform the words without apology. It is the voice of my great-great-grandmother, who from what I am told, was an independent woman who said what she felt, lived on an island away from town, and fished standing on river rocks amid rapids and men.

Cover art for St Paul Street Provocation

AB: You’re very active in the Maryland writing community with running Maryland Writer’s Association First Friday Reading Series and now starting an open mic night and an author talk-back series at the Baltimore County Arts Guild in Catonsville. Describe those programs and your hopes for the literary scene in Baltimore.

PR: The First Fridays program came out of my desire to continue the EC Poetry & Prose Sunday Salon Series once the Pandemic took over. It was also a way to highlight the poets who were members of MWA but perhaps also wrote other genres. The series was a way to keep the writing and more specifically the poetry community engaged during a time that sucked up so much of our emotion. As writers, we spend much time alone and the First Fridays series allowed us to reunite and share our works-in-progress in a safe, non-judgmental environment. This month culminated my time as host of First Fridays. I am happy that the program I created will continue with the organization. It’s a nice legacy. 

The literary scene in the city of Baltimore is good. I am not sure there is much I can do there. However, I did see a void in the spoken word community in the suburbs of the city and I wanted to bring what I was enjoying within the city of Baltimore to the counties. Poetry has been with me from a very early age. I attended The Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts, so taking my words from the page to the stage seemed natural to me. The history of spoken poetry comes from the Chinese well before 500BC and was picked up in subsequent Dynasties as both a historical and social accounting of the times and recited for various social occasions. This practice has continued and we can look at some of our modernist like T.S. Elliott and see the tradition or recitation being cultivated among the new generation of poets to give deeper meaning to the text. The visual combined with the audible is wonderous in the brain.

AB: What’s next on your agenda?  Are you working on a new collection?

PR: Thank you for asking. Yes. I am currently working on a collection of poems about women. I am so doing other things. I have a couple of collaborations going on. Someone suggested I do a podcast. I have a friend, and we have literary debates from time to time about issues that writers often face when putting their thoughts on paper. There is a quote from Oscar Wilde that I keep on my desktop that reads: “Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.” I believe that, and I am thankful that others do also. It makes for great community when we share openly and honestly with each other. My thoughts are always around the EC Poetry & Prose credo “Peace Poetry Truth”. (EC Poetry & Prose is the online presence that I created a while back when I started hosting the open mics at Syriana’s. ECP&P continues today under the direction of myself and Terri Simon. We are working hard to continue to bring poetry to those that embrace it and live it aloud.)

Bio:

Patti Ross graduated from Washington, DC’s Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts and The American University. After graduation several of her journalistic pieces were published in the Washington Times and the Rural America newspapers. Retiring from a career in technology, Patti has rediscovered her love of writing and shares her voice as the spoken word artist “little pi.” Her poems are published in the Pen In Hand Journal, PoetryXHunger website and Oyster River Pages: Composite Dreams Issue. Her debut chapbook, St. Paul Street Provocations, was released in July 2021 by Yellow Arrow Publishing.

Follow her blog at: https://littlepisuniverse.com

It Takes a Village

People often say that it takes a village to raise a child…and the same is true of putting out a book of poetry. I’d like to thank just a few of the people in my “village” who helped me to write, complete, and publish Once You’re Inside: Poems Exploring Incarceration.

Patricia Van Amburg~I’m so grateful for her unfailing keen eye when critiquing my work. She helped me to shape many of my poems.

Grace Cavalieri~Grace was there every step of the way with her support and thoughtful comments on my work. She offered to host my launch reading with her inimitable style.

Brian Potts~My son, who did the headshot for the cover.

Christella Potts~My daughter, who designed the logo for my imprint.

Betty May~An author, playwright, and all around force of nature who inspired me to work in the prisons.

Linda Moghadam~My partner for three years and the person most responsible for my work in the prisons.

Thank you, everyone, for your kindness and support. Blessings to all of you!

A Book Can be a Pressure Point

In a few days, I’ll begin readings from my third poetry collection Once You’re Inside: Poems Exploring Incarceration. I’ve been thinking a lot about the trajectory of my three books and how they each reveal an aspect of something I care deeply about.

Use this link to preregister, and you’ll be sent a Zoom link the day of the reading. https://sites.google.com/view/annbrackenbooklaunch/home

The Altar of Innocence, my first collection, deals with my experiences growing up in a home where my mother struggled with depression and alcohol abuse and then my own journey through depression and chronic pain which opened the portal to leaving my abusive husband. My second collection, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom, takes a deep-dive into the lives of teachers and children who are navigating the pitfalls and whirlpools of the current education system. Shorthand for themes: abuse, emotional distress, and education challenges.

Those themes of abuse, emotional distress, and education challenges coalesce in my third book Once You’re Inside: Poems Exploring Incarceration. Here’s what one of the counselors told me about the general state of the current prison population:

“Most incarcerated people have a number of factors in common—abuse, for one. Sexual, verbal, physical, emotional— add in hearty helpings of neglect, abandonment, illiteracy, and dropping out of school.”  Suffering inflicted at the hands of caregivers. Pain and rage stored deep inside, erupting in every direction. “A lot of folks struggle mightily over how to live in the world without earning money illegally. Some report anxiety attacks thinking about how they can be in the world without pimping and selling drugs.” 

So there’s the connection. I guess you could say I recognized the pain that the incarcerated people carry because I’ve been around that kind of pain since I was a child. All three books are my attempt to tell the stories that need to be told. The depressed mother who can’t cope. The child who’s frightened because she doesn’t know how to help her mother. The student who’s very bright, but struggles to learn to read. The teen who’s despondent because of all the pain he lives with. The incarcerated person who feels abandoned.

There are many ways to bring about change in society–many pressure points, as I like to call them–legislation, demonstrations, articles, plays, novels, and poems. Most especially poems because they carry to weight of powerful emotions and stories in concentrated form.

Here’s the title poem. I hope you’ll find the poems in the collection both moving and informative. Maybe you’ll even be moved to find a pressure point where you can take some action.

Hope on Hold 

Once you’re inside

ignore the wreckage
of time, 

the lined faces
of men gray with age,


the once-cagey 16-year-old, 

the disorganized shuffle
of papers, of rules, of feet.


The torpor of boredom


thick as dreams
of honey on toast.


Once you’re inside
every smile is suspect,


every glance a risk.


Even hope tucks into a corner 

when these doors groan closed. 

Join me for my launch reading on October 6th at 7pm.

It’s my hope that by sharing stories about the men and women I met in prison, I can help to create a dialog among my readers to reimagine how we treat people who break the law. After working in the prisons for awhile, I could see that what the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson says is well worth all of us remembering: 

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Use this link to preregister, and you’ll be sent a Zoom link the day of the reading. https://sites.google.com/view/annbrackenbooklaunch/home

Interview with Kristin Kowalski Ferragut

I met Kristin several years ago at a Miller Cabin reading when she was just getting her feet wet with poetry. In this interview, Kristin gives us the lowdown on her work as a poet. Enjoy!

Kristin Kowalski Ferragut (KKF): Thanks, Ann! I’m grateful to Loving Healing Press and Kelsay for publishing the books and am glad they’re out. I guess I expected to be more ecstatic but it’s a quiet brand of satisfaction I feel. And while it makes perfect sense that publicizing poetry is a very different skill than writing, I’m surprised by how big that job is or would be if I did it better. Although, look at me now! I appreciate your help in letting people know of my work.

Ann Bracken (AB): Congratulations on your two new books that came out this year—Escape Velocity and Becoming the Enchantress. It’s very exciting to premiere one book, so two must be amazing.  What’s been the most surprising about putting out new books?

AB: Becoming the Enchantress is a beautifully illustrated and gentle introduction to the idea of a transgender person transitioning. What have you heard from your readers?  OR Who are your primary readers and what’s been their response?

KKF: Thank you, Ann. I love the illustrations too. I think most readers are in agreement that it’s a necessary and thus important book. It was written in that spirit, a needed tool to explain a transgender parent to a child. I’m trying to publicize it but that doesn’t come so naturally to me and I think at this point most readers have been friends who have reviewed it well. Although with that said, when I was seeking blurbs for the cover, I had a couple of friends that did not want to comment on it, so it doesn’t seem a story embraced across the board. Sweet and worthwhile though it may be, it was crafted to be a vehicle to provide context and understanding on a theme, less than emerging from artistic inspiration. That may be reflected in the writing. Also transgender is obviously still a controversial issue. The discrimination against transgender individuals in this country is shocking and heart breaking! I anticipate if The Enchantress does come to enjoy some wider appeal, it’ll be subject to some hate and I rather dread that. I’ve only felt a little of that so far.

My “getting it out there” felt more like a public service announcement than an artistic labor of love. Of course that changed when my daughter, Coley, added the illustrations. I absolutely love her drawings and believe they add significant artistic value to the story.

AB: Do you have a follow-up book in mind, or perhaps a series about the Enchantress to explore other issues related to transgender parents? 

KKF: I suspect when it comes to children’s stories, I may be a one-hit wonder. Who knows? As long as I can continue to carve out time, I plan to keep writing and remembering what it’s like to be a child is one of my wowpows. So maybe one day I’ll take on more tales exploring children’s perspectives. I don’t imagine I’ll write more children’s stories on the transgender theme though. I’m happy that the book served its purpose and I have a natural bent to uplift especially those struggling in what I often consider an oppressive society, the “tyranny of the majority” and all that. But it’s more peripheral to themes I want to devote study to than central at this point. 

AB: Your poetry book, Escape Velocity, also addresses the issue of a transgender parent/spouse and what’s it’s like for the spouse who remains. Tell me about “Transgender Ex at Son’s Birthday Party.”

KKF: It’s all fiction, right? But that was one of my more autobiographical pieces, I mean, with things moved around. It was at a different party that my Ex lifted her foot to a chair to rest a guitar on her knee, in a short dress and electric blue underwear. That left an impression, incited many thoughts and conflicting feelings that I felt compelled to explore it in poetry. 

Girls learn so many subtle lessons in behavior to become socially acceptable women, lessons an adult new to womanhood may have missed. That’s all sorts of interesting, sad, and endearing.  And having two Gen Z kids in a pretty liberal area, gender fluidity is a common topic around our dinner table. It’s a steep learning curve for me. I see most things in shades of grey and find comfort in the few things I think I can take for granted. For years one of those things was a man being a man and a woman being a woman. I mean, I’m kind of old and was raised with all sorts of wrong notions. It’s taking me time to adjust my view but I admire this generation for getting it more right.

You know how sometimes you start a poem not knowing where it’s going to lead? Well, that was the case with this one and I was grateful that that poem turned into a love poem, a song of a parent’s love for a child but more, of a parent loving anyone who shows love to her child. Because, well, that’s something I still take for granted, that in all of this, Love.

AB: Your poems contain so many wonderful images and phrases. I was particularly struck by the line “There ought to be a word for psychosomatic hope…” Can you talk about what that concept might look like?

KKF: Oh, that’s a great question, Ann! A good line to pick out. The idea of psychosomatic ailments is deep in my understanding of how people often perceive and treat themselves, having witnessed family members suffer them from a young age. And I have a complicated relationship with the concept of hope. On one level, there’s always hope, so always possibility and potential. That’s all good. On another level, I think dashed hope has broken my heart more than any other single element. So in my life I think hope can be very dangerous, as much as it can spur one to better things. Given that awareness, I think I mute my hopes — hope with an eye roll, somewhat guarded, which is barely hope at all. But perhaps it’s psychosomatic hope. I believe but also believe it’s probably not real. That line tries to capture that sentiment, although having laid it down, it could mean something entirely different, indeed many other things, to a reader.

AB: Loss seems to be a recurring theme in your poetry, and I love the idea of “favorite lost things.” Say more about that poem. 

KKF: Oh, that is a wistful one! It’s funny and often unpredictable who and what we fall in love with, at least for me. I’ve found that I often find one’s faults as endearing as one’s strengths. And sometimes it’s hard to take stock of all the things I love about someone until at some late hour, weeks later, I become aware of missing something like how one exhales a certain way, or uses a particular phrase, stammers, scratches his chin, or turns to leave a room. So many little details to love in a person! 

-a name of staccato syllables rich in consonants that blend 

sexy in print, all the lines and curves dancing side-by-side

-a wink from across a room -landscapes of profiles

-a rich voice that sounds of music, whether in speech or song.

I don’t know if a handful of those little traits is enough to build a relationship on but when I wrote that I was thinking, Why not?

AB: People are always interested in a writer’s process. How do you come to poetry and where do you think your poems come from? 

KKF: I think I have a lot of areas to grow as a poet. Recently I wrote a poem about the news story of the baby handed over the barbed wire to the Marines in Afghanistan. It seemed to work and I’d like to do that more — reflect global circumstance in my poetry. I’d also like to write more short stories. I’ve written several, but haven’t yet edited one to my satisfaction. I’m also writing songs these days. For the last one I composed both the music and the lyrics, which was incredibly challenging, since I’m a barely capable guitarist yet, but rewarding. 

Usually my poems come from something I want to explore, to work out, maybe a form of therapy or meditation, often starting with an image. I love to write first thing in the morning when barely awake, still close to my subconscious where less expected connections seem easier to draw. I also love to write in nature. That works anytime — everything’s so magical and dreamlike in the woods. 

I go back and forth on whether devoting time to my art is selfish or generous. I mean, time in my Nook or Writing Fort is time I’m not caring for my children, the house, doing work… It requires a peculiar brand of faith to be a writer. I just need to trust that what I’m compelled to say is worth saying. Sometimes it comes so easy, as though through divine intervention, and sometimes it’s painstaking and laborious. I’m getting better at knowing when to give up the ghost when it’s the latter or keep struggling through. I still have much to learn!

Kristin Kowalski Ferragut

AB: If you could go back and talk to your younger self, what would you like her to know?

KKF: Oh, little Kristin, life will be weirder and harder and more wonderful than you can imagine! I’d let my single-digit-aged self know that. I’d tell my 20’s self to stick with the process and edit. I wrote a lot but rarely finished anything in those days, partially because… Well, I’d also tell me to be careful who you let critique your work. I’m better at knowing who to listen to now and knowing when to care less about feedback. The artistic process can be fragile and can be stymied before a work is even permitted to fully form. I think there are probably millions of could-have-been-brilliant artists who were shut down early. Heck, that’s probably everything! So many individuals could be so much (scientists, musicians, historians…) if given the freedom and support to Be Them! Talk about the theme of loss. I think we lose so much to poverty and oppression every day. Anyway, I’m glad I have the circumstance, support of my children, and welcoming poetry community to enjoy space to create now. So I guess I wouldn’t suggest I change much.

Ann, thank you so much for your questions and space to think some of this through! Your reading at the Joaquin Miller series back in 2015 and your words of encouragement were significant catalysts for my re-commitment to poetry. I love your work. And your support. Thank you! 

Cover artist: Coley Dolmance Ferragut’s Link Tree to Social Media Art: https://linktr.ee/Dolmance.works

Kristin’s bio: Kristin Kowalski Ferragut teaches, plays guitar, hikes, supports her children in becoming who they are meant to be, and enjoys the vibrant writing community in the DMV. She is author of the full-length poetry collection Escape Velocity (Kelsay Books, 2021) and the children’s book Becoming the Enchantress: A Magical Transgender Tale (Loving Healing Press, 2021). Her poetry has appeared in Beltway Quarterly, Nightingale and Sparrow, Bourgeon, Mojave He[Art] Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, Fledgling Rag, and Little Patuxent Review among others. For more information see her website:  https://www.kristinskiferragut.com/

Take a Poetry Break with Jane Satterfield and Ned Balbo

One of the many hats I wear is as a co-facilitator for Wilde Readings Poetry Series in Columbia, Maryland. This week, I acted as host for a husband and wife poetry duo who are also well-known authors and literature professors–Ned Balbo and Jane Satterfield. Their work compliments each other in that they both write about nature, but Ned prefers formal poetry and Jane is more comfortable in free-verse. I’ve chosen two poems to showcase their work, both with a nature theme-but of course, there’s more hidden in the lines. If you’re inclined to settle in for a longer visit, take a look at the video of their reading. You’ll be glad you stayed!

Portuguese Man o’ War by Jane Satterfield

Full sail, a feat

of stylized rigging,

armed frigate, eating machine

whose armadas blow ashore

through warming currents,

to cooler coasts off Amagansett,

up the Atlantic as far north as the Bay of Fundy,

The Isle of Man—and I

who envisioned your technicolor

rays only in Our Amazing World’s

slick pages, centerpiece of

danger and display—how you swim

up unbidden, struck chord

like the wail of sirens, the warning

and the all-clear, the stark list

of grocery stash guaranteeing

post-atomic household survival. So you drop

that fine-spun glass pane

at the first sign of surface threat

to submerge or travel dark, lucent pools—

O blue bottle, spilled ink—

Even dead you deliver a sting.

The bees: A fable

by Ned Balbo

January 22, 2021

“Tiny bees found in woman’s eye, feeding off tears” (CNN, April 10,
2019): “She thinks the insects blew into her eye at a relative’s grave
site when she visited it with her family.” Known as sweat bees, they
are attracted to the salt in human sweat.

Stranger than it appears,
four bees living off her tears
sought brief shelter in her eye
where they stayed, impossibly.

Before whose grave did she kneel?
What discomfort did she feel?
Specks of dirt she’d brushed away
seemed to linger stubbornly.

In the dark beneath the lid
four bees fed on tears and hid,
stinging her with constant pain—
flecks of ash or burning rain.

Still, she knelt and cleared the weeds,
swept the grave site, planted seeds
in remembrance of the dead—
tears withheld and tears shed.

It’s said the eye swelled up—
Through the slit lamp’s microscope,
a doctor, shocked, could see
small legs wriggling to be free:

bees behind the eye, half trapped . . .
One by one, the doctor slipped
each one out; the four bees hovered,
caged in labs. Their host recovered.

There are others who insist
she got used to them at last;
that the bees live in her eye,
sheltered, to this very day,

nourished by her tears, their sting
milder than the pain we bring
to each loss we hold inside—
tears we cannot shed or hide.

Poetry in the Classroom

In honor of April, which is National Poetry Month, I’m exploring a variety of ways that people can use poetry to enrich their lives. This week I’m looking at poetry and it’s close cousin, music, as ways to add depth and texture to teaching history and exploring social justice.

This line from poet William Carols Williams about where to find news has always intrigued me:

“It is difficult to get the news from poems test men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

I think the same could be said for getting our history from poems and songs, or at least using those arts to give us an alternate lens of past events that are often rendered in a  sterile listing of facts.  I’m not saying that you could actually teach history by using only poetry and songs, but you can add depth to events that are often given just a few paragraphs of explanation, if they are mentioned at all

Poems offer us personal glimpses into the people who lived through events, such as wars, labor movements,  and fights for justice. By reading and reciting an author’s poems, we may begin to realize the felt-sense of that person’s experiences and begin to see more clearly how our lives and struggles are related to the author’s.

I think the other benefit of using poetry is that the abstract is made concrete by telling the story of a personal experience. When history teachers want to talk about segregation and the impact that the Jim Crow system had on ordinary Black Americans, perhaps they could turn to Langston Hughes’s poem “Merry-Go-Round” for a compelling entry point that will engage students in a visceral experience.

Merry-Go-Round

Colored child at carnival

Where is the Jim Crow section

On this merry-go-round,

Mister, cause I want to ride?

Down South where I come from

White and colored

Can’t sit side by side.

Down South on the train

There’s a Jim Crow car.

On the bus, we’re put in the back–

But there ain’t no back

To a merry-go-round!

Where’s the horse

For a kid that’s black?

For more recent history of the senseless violence and continuing racism that Black Americans face, teachers could look to the Poets.org and select a few poems from the Black Lives Matter page, which has some profoundly moving poetry. And to look at some history from the recent past, read Lucille Clifton’s poem,  “jasper    texas   1998,” about James Byrd in Texas in 1998. You can find this poem in Blessing the Boats.

And what about the role of songs in getting students engaged with history? One song that taught me something I had never heard of is “Christmas in the Trenches” by John McCutcheon. McCutcheon recounts the story of the 1914 Christmas Truce that happened during Christmas Eve in 1914 as German and British troops huddled in frozen trenches to celebrate Christmas in the midst of carnage.

The song raises a series of questions about why we fight wars and about the power of getting to know the “enemy” as a person. So often, once people on opposite sides of a battle begin to share their personal stories, they find they have much in common. And when they begin to think that both sides have families and friends who love them, they begin to lose the will to fight.

Here’s the song and a link to Joyeux Noel, the movie that was made a few years ago that explores the Christmas Truce of 1914 in greater detail. Imagine the questions that students might raise if they heard this song and watched the film.

How Poetry Can Help You Heal from Depression

In honor of National Poetry Month, I’m posting a couple of columns that can help you see often-neglected uses for poetry. Besides its great beauty and ability to capture emotions, poetry can be a useful tool in many aspects of life–like dealing with depression.

How can poetry help depression?  Aren’t medication and therapy the best ways to treat the illness? My story may surprise you.

When I suffered from depression in the early 1990s, Prozac was the new “miracle drug.” Along with this so-called “miracle drug came a physical explanation of causation: that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. This thesis is still widely promulgated, though much research is coming to light that disputes and even negates this biomedical explanation for the darkness that is so prevalent in our modern world. More information on the research side can be found at the website Mad in America, curated by science reporter Robert Whitaker. As part of Whitaker’s work to educate the public, he invites doctors, psychologists, counselors, and patients from all over the world to share research, essays, and personal experiences on the issues of depression and its treatment.

Even in the 1990s when I struggled to climb out of depression and tried numerous medications for several years with no results, the idea that the chemicals in my brain were out of whack did not provide a solid answer. Instead, I pursued a more metaphysical explanation for the questions that haunted me:  “Why am I depressed?” and “What longings are unfulfilled?”

And that’s what led me to poetry.

 One of the most valuable resources I found to aid in making sense of the gifts of depression is poet David Whyte’s 1992 CD entitled The Poetry of Self Compassion. Whyte’s recitation of Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” confirmed my feelings of being on a perilous but necessary journey through darkness and confusion. And I was deeply confused by the all-encompassing darkness that I was experiencing. But once I heard Whyte recite “The Journey,” I knew that someone understood a piece of what I was experiencing. And that the way I was feeling had nothing to do with messed up brain chemistry. My depression had everything to do with self-discovery and taking charge of my life.

The Journey

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice–though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!” each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop. You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible. It was already late enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do–

determined to save

the only life you could save.

~Mary OliverI remember listening to the poem over and over–as if rolling around a mysterious new food in my mouth, trying to figure out what it tasted like that was familiar. What was it I was determined to do?  What else besides raise my children, serve my community, and be a good wife? I just knew there was more. And Mary Oliver’s words gave me the courage to make the journey that would save my life.

The answer was slow in coming, but I gradually began to realize that my struggles with depression and a migraine headache exacerbated my ex-husband’s verbal abuse to the point where I could finally see it. Depression and chronic pain became my crucible for change and my pathway to a new life. Poetry became my way to unlock the profound secrets that illness led me to discover. Poetry helped me to have compassion for my journey and for all the mistakes I had made along the way.

Whyte ends on a note of great compassion in the poem “The Faces at Braga” as he compares surrendering to the fire of depression and embracing your flaws in this way: “If only we could give ourselves to the blows of the carver’s hands, the lines in our faces would be the trace lines of rivers feeding the sea” and we would “gather all our flaws in celebration, to merge with them perfectly…”  What a compelling call–to celebrate one’s flaws. What a gift of healing.

Using Poetry to Explore the Prison Experience

This essay originally appeared in the Currere Exchange, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2020.

While I’m no longer able to volunteer inside of a prison, I’m continuing my advocacy work by mentoring a writer who is incarcerated in a Maryland prison. If you’re interested, check out the Justice Arts Coalition’s pARTner Project for more details.

In 2015, my editor at Little Patuxent Review gave me an assignment I wanted to refuse; she asked me to interview a professor who ran a writing group—in a prison—and then to visit the prison and interview the men. The woman who ran the group—Professor M., a sociology professor at a major research institution who’d volunteered in the prison for seven years—spoke very positively about the men who participated in her group. Near the end of our interview, she shared a program with me for a literary day of the arts where the men had performed their original poems, stories, and songs. Their faces looked young and happy, which was a complete surprise to me. Professor M. assured me that I’d like the men, and her parting words were especially compelling: “There’s no one else that I’d rather spend a few hours with in a discussion.” I was intrigued, but frightened to go into a prison. My mind buzzed with all of the common middle-class stereotypes about “those people” behind bars and how they might act. “Those people”: school drop outs, drug dealers, hustlers, maybe even murderers. At that time, I had driven by the prison only once and never had the slightest desire to volunteer there. Several of my writer colleagues worked in prisons, and while I admired them, I had kept my distance, partly out of fear and partly because my protective shell had begun to crack as I learned about the prison industrial complex and the school-to-prison pipeline.

Many of my former high school students had brushes with the juvenile justice system, but none of them were especially “bad” kids. Instead, they were kids who had tough home lives or who had made really poor, impulsive decisions or who’d been unfairly targeted by a biased system that landed them in the lap of the law. Deep down, my spirit realized that, if I were to go into a prison and meet the men, I’d probably form a bond with them. Up to that moment, I’d walled myself off from that possibility, but my interview with Professor M. had piqued my curiosity.

Once my security clearance came through, I accompanied Professor M. to meet her writing group. Along with a lone pad of paper and a single pen, I’d brought a copy of my first poetry book, The Altar of Innocence, for the men to read and share. I thought they could relate to my story about drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and divorce. Ninety minutes were allotted to interview five men, so I’d prepared questions about something that I wanted to know and understand better: Who were you when you came here? and Who are you now? I wasn’t allowed to have a recording device and couldn’t take any pictures, so I wrote notes on everything I experienced in order to capture the look and feel of the prison. My hastily scribbled sentences contained every detail that I could observe—the yellow X on the elevator floor designating the spot where no one could stand for fear of stalling the elevator, the insulation peeling off of the pipes in the hallway, the black metal peeking through chipped paint on the bars, the smell of bleach in the hallway outside the school, the song-like Baltimore and foreign dialects of the guards—and most of all, the men in the writing group.

Each one of them greeted me with a smile and shook my hand to welcome me to the group. Professor M. had told them why I was coming and then gave them a bit of my background—college lecturer, writer, and former high school teacher.

After about 15 minutes of introductions and chatting, we got started with the business of the interviews. The men sat around a large, rectangular table, each with a black and white composition book that held his writing. I didn’t think we’d have time for sharing, but it was good to see that they’d come prepared. I made notes about the physical condition of the room and copied down the quote written in neat cursive on wide yellow bulletin board paper that served as the backdrop on the stage. “Education is a passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it.”

I was impressed by the men’s good manners and calm demeanors. They laughed and joked with one another and shared stories with Professor M. and me. I felt much more relaxed than I’d imagined, and I was totally enthralled with all that the men had to share about their lives.

Here is a sample of what they told me. All of the men’s names throughout the manuscript have been changed to preserve their anonymity.

“I was misguided. I had no sense of self-worth. I grew up without any guidance. I’d say I was a lost individual. I was only reading at about the 7th grade level. I did some dumb things. I’ve been here since I was 15, and now I’m 28. Who I am now is a happy individual. I’m striving to be a better person—educated, moral, all that. I’m working on my character. I meditate, pray, work on my attitude. I want to contribute in a positive way. Part of what helps me is reading. When I read words, and I didn’t know what they meant, I went and got a dictionary. The idea that I could learn on my own was a spark.”~ Ryan, from East Baltimore

Read the rest of the story on the Currere Exchange website.

Revisiting: The Answers in the Attic: A Mother-daughter Story of Overmedication and Recovery

Author’s note: This essay forms the foundation for my memoir-in-search-of-a-publisher, Putting the Pieces Together: A Story of Overmedication and Recovery.

In 1959, my mother suffered what people commonly referred to as a nervous breakdown after my youngest sister’s birth. Mom spent six months in a local, Catholic psychiatric hospital while Dad and Grandma assumed command of the household. I was seven years old, the second-oldest of five children. Eventually, Mom visited us a few times on Sundays, and then returned home in November, presumably ready to assume her duties as a wife and mother. Sadly, Mom remained gripped by depression for the rest of her life.

Because my memories of that time are wrapped in thick layers of gauze, I’ve had to rely on others to fill in the gaps. My father, grandmother, and Mom’s close friends believed that Mom experienced postpartum depression, starting after my birth, and worsening with each successive child. My older brother shared this memory about a year ago when I asked what he remembered about Mom’s 1959 illness: “I came home from college and found her in the basement, banging her head against the wall, moaning, ‘I can’t take it anymore.’”

My heart ached when I heard that story, but I still puzzled over why Mom never recovered. Until I found Dad’s collection of records in a dusty box stashed in my sister’s attic. Old insurance and medication records, newspaper and magazine articles, and letters to doctors were neatly organized in an unassuming manila folder. As I leafed through the contents, intuition whispered that I’d finally have the missing puzzle pieces I’d searched for all my life.

Some of the most valuable clues were in a letter, typed on onion skin paper, that sat on top of the file. It was dated 1-17-83 and addressed to Dr. L., one of Mom’s many doctors. Dad wrote the following notes:

5th child born Feb.59. Normal birth and she carried baby in good spirits. About mid-April started having problems and had first visit with psychiatrist of May 8, 1959. Between then and June 22nd, ’59, he treated her with Amytal, Ritalin, Nardil, Trilafen, NaBu-4, Dexamyl tabs and spansules, and Tofranil. By the end of May ‘59 she was so bad, that even to my nonprofessional eye, I didn’t see how she could avoid hospitalization… She remained there to late Nov. 59. During this time, she received medicine and numerous EST [electroshock therapy] treatments.

The only drug I recognized in that long list was Ritalin, an amphetamine that had been widely prescribed for depression in the 1950s and ’60s. I quickly set to work looking up the rest, all the while screaming inside, How could anyone give a nursing mother with three small children and a newborn so many drugs in such a short period of time? A quick search on the website drugs.com helped me to understand the other drugs my mother took when she first got depressed. Amytal is a long-acting barbiturate; Nardil is an MAO-inhibitor (a type of antidepressant); Trilafon is an antipsychotic; Nembutal is a barbiturate used as a sedative; Tofranil is a tricyclic antidepressant; and Dexamyl is a combination of an amphetamine and a barbiturate.

Grab-bag of antidepressants and pain meds

It was easy enough for me to find the commonly listed effects of all of those drugs, and I wondered how Mom’s doctor could have prescribed all of them in such a short time. Dad’s records don’t indicate if she took all of them together, but even if she took a few, discontinued them, and started a few others, the chemical load must have overwhelmed her system. What struck me in looking at the effects of all the medications was that many of them could cause anxiety, sleeplessness, and agitation—three things I clearly remember my mother struggling with.

Now my brother’s story made more sense—I think Mom was banging her head on the wall because she couldn’t tolerate what the drugs did to her. Her doctor told a different story in the diagnosis that my father noted: “This psychiatrist [Dr. S.] diagnosed it [Mom’s illness] as severe depression with agitation and not due to childbirth.” The doctor’s assessment rang true in one sense—it seemed pretty clear to me that Mom’s severe depression with agitation was due to the massive amounts of drugs she was taking and was, indeed, not related to childbirth. But somehow, I don’t think that’s what the doctor meant. While I have no doubt that my mother struggled against overwhelming feelings of sadness and fatigue, which led to the initial appointment with Dr. S., I believe Mom’s breakdown was probably chemically-induced due to overprescription of drugs.

Dad had also kept some of the original prescription bills related to Mom’s 1959 hospitalization, and between August and October, she took Thorazine, Nembutal, and Tofranil on a regular basis, in addition to receiving an undisclosed number of electroshock therapy treatments. When she came home, the doctor had her on a regimen of PhenobarbitalMiltown (an antianxiety drug), and the tricyclic Tofranil. Dad supplemented that regimen with carefully measured decanters of white wine that I once caught him cutting with water. When he saw me watching, he cautioned, “Don’t ever tell your mother what you saw.” Nowhere in the thirty years of records is there any indication of Mom’s drinking, which all of us tacitly accepted as a significant part of her daily routine.

I also found homemade spreadsheets where Dad listed the dates and medication amounts for Mom’s drugs, often annotated with notes about her responses. The information in those charts prompted me to investigate possible medication effects that may have influenced Mom’s internal state which led her to attempt suicide in 1967. At the time, she was taking a combination of Aventyl (a tricyclic which can cause restlessness, agitation, and anxiety), Dexamyl (amphetamine and barbiturate combination), and Phenobarbital (a barbiturate which is linked to nightmares, nervousness, depression, and anxiety). The effects of all of these medications, combined with Mom’s continued daily drinking, probably led to the intense feelings of despair that drove her to slit her wrists in December. Dad found her in the bathroom that night. I accompanied my parents to the hospital, while my two siblings, ages twelve and thirteen, stayed home and cleaned up the bathroom. None of us ever spoke of that night again.

What about therapy, I wondered, and how did Mom’s psychiatrist treat her after that tragic night? One would think the doctor should have increased Mom’s routine visits to keep a closer watch on her. But according to Dad’s records, that’s not what happened. In fact, Mom’s doctor saw her twice a month, beginning in January of 1960, only about two months after she was released from the hospital, and continuing through June of 1968. However, in the weeks immediately following her suicide attempt in 1967, he did not see her more frequently, a fact which seems to indicate a lack of support and concern. By August of 1968, Dad’s notes indicate that Dr. S. wanted to hospitalize my mother. Dad’s notes and the conversations I can remember ring with the angry charge that “Dr. S. just threw up his hands and gave up on her.”

Because Dad was adamant about keeping Mom out of the hospital, he sought out Dr. M., a well-known psychiatrist who performed electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatments in his office. Between August of 1968 and June of 1970, Dr. M. administered thirty-nine ECT treatments to my mother, sometimes giving her as many as five treatments in a month. The one time I remember accompanying my father to help him bring Mom home, I was shocked by her dazed look and unsteady walk. I remember her sleeping through the next day and experiencing memory loss from that time forward. Dad told me that Dr. M. did the procedure without anesthesia, but from some of the reading I’ve done on earlier ECT administration, it seems likely that Dr. M. probably used a short-acting barbiturate to sedate Mom. Otherwise, how could she submit to so many treatments? And how could Dad willingly put her through that pain? I think both of them must have been more desperate for relief than any of us kids could have guessed.

I wish I could say that Mom got better after all of that ECT, but she never attained such a reward for all of her efforts and suffering. In 1973, after suffering from mysterious dental pain for several months and finding no relief, a neurologist helped Mom and Dad to see that she was suffering from depression. Mom was hospitalized for at least a month and endured detox for both barbiturates and alcohol, but she was unable to maintain her sobriety once she came home. I was sickened to learn that Mom’s doctors routinely prescribed Thorazine for her from 1969 to 1983, a practice which would explain why she suffered from tardive dyskinesia and later from severe full-body trembling, possibly akathisia. Mom was hospitalized again for several weeks in 1993, and for the first time, her psychiatrist confronted the family about her alcohol dependence and informed all of us that her MRIs showed evidence of small strokes and blood in the brain. He asked all of us to pledge to refrain from serving alcohol at family gatherings, but we were split on the issue of whether Mom had a problem or not, so she continued to drink along with all of her medications until her death in 2002.

I remember my mother suffering from horrible, visceral anxiety where she would take deep, fast breaths and then wring her hands as if she were Lady Macbeth. Now that I understand more about her medications, I realize how impossible it is to determine if my mother was actuallyvery depressed and anxious or if she was one of the early victims of polypharmacy, trapped in physical and emotional pain due to overmedication and a lack of supportive therapy. It seems clear from the records that Mom’s doctors saw her condition as biochemical and treated her accordingly, tweaking the pills as they went along, and in a sense, resigning themselves to maintaining her “treatment resistant” condition with the only tools they believed in.

Despite all of her sedating and numbing medications, Mom lived a rich and meaningful life. She cared for us, made sure we had regular, nutritious meals and provided a supportive presence when we needed help. Mom hosted her bridge group, participated in a book club, and made weekly trips to talks at the local art museum with one of my aunts. She was also a gifted artist with a degree in costume design from Maryland Institute College of Art, but her talent never matured once all of us were born. Sadly, she never picked up a paint brush in all the years I knew her.

As a child, I made two vows: to help my mother get well and to never be like her.

Want to read the rest of the story? Please hop on over to the Mad in America blog where this essay was originally published in May of 2019.

Because I Want To!

It’s customary at the start of a new year to make resolutions–and then for them to fall by the wayside within a few weeks. I know–I’ve done it in the past. But I have a new strategy inspired by the book One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer, Ph.D.

I read the book several years ago and frequently return to Maurer’s advice when I encounter a goal I’m flummoxed by. The main takeaway in the book, at least for me, is two-fold: We often become overwhelmed by changes that we perceive as being too big to handle, and if you think you’re taking a small step towards your goal, go even smaller.

He gives the example of helping a client address her idea that she didn’t have time to exercise by securing her commitment to walking for one minute as she watched her favorite TV show. She gradually progressed to walking during one commercial break, then two, and pretty soon, she was walking for 30 minutes while she watched TV, meeting a suggested fitness goal.

Maurer explains that the brain fears change, and when we decide to make a change from no exercise to 30 minutes a day, the amygdala goes into freak-out mode, paralyzing us. But if our movements toward a goal are incremental to the point of insignificance, we’ll make changes more smoothly and eventually reach our goals.

One change I want to make is to read some of the great literature that I’ve missed over the years. For the most part, I’ve missed it because of my chosen major in college–speech pathology–and the need to do some much required reading for all the courses I’ve taught over the years.

But now that I’m retired, I’m looking forward to reading books that call to me to explore them in full. To start with, I’ve purchased Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, which critics say is brilliant. I’ll also finally “get my Austen on” and read Pride and Prejudice, then King Lear, some essays by James Baldwin, and Adrienne Rich’s Diving Into the Wreck. Those few titles may take me through 2021, and I plan to work out time for short segments of reading where I can savor the language and enjoy the experience.

I’ve often approached things that I’ve missed–like significant books–by reading enough to have a passing knowledge of the plot and characters. I’ve seen myself as an ice skater, skimming the surface of the ice, just ahead of the fall. But now I’m shifting my perspective to that of a wader–slowly entering the stream and savoring the beauty of the tide pools.

Set from King Lear, Ashton Shakespeare Festival, 2004