Interview with Ann Bracken

Recently, Little Patuxent Review interviewed our deputy editor, Ann Bracken, about her new book of poetry, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom. Ann has worked with LPR starting with our inception in 2006. For the past 20 years she has taught children and adults, and those experiences serve as the inspiration for this new book.

ann-bracken

Ann Bracken

Little Patuxent Review: How have your experiences as a teacher influenced your writing? What aspect of education inspired you to write No Barking in the Hallways?

Ann Bracken: I began writing my student poems when I taught high school in a psychiatric hospital. Many of the students were there because no other school had a place for them due to their emotional distress that resulted in a lot of difficult behaviors.  What I learned in that job is that there are no “bad kids,” but rather awful circumstances that cause pain and trauma. Writing poems about my students helped me to understand them better and to treat them with the compassion they deserved.

I wanted to write No Barking in the Hallways because I believe in the power of personal stories to help people understand complex issues, such as high-stakes testing. The emphasis on test scores negatively affects both teachers and students, especially those with special needs. For example, many of the young men I taught struggled with reading, but rather than accept help and move forward, they developed avoidance behaviors so they could look cool and tough as opposed to being labeled as dumb.  Many of those boys were mechanically or artistically gifted, yet they were stuck in classes that drilled them on multiple-choice items so they could pass the high-stakes graduation tests.  Because their grades were poor, they were not eligible for the technical classes where they could have blossomed.  So for them, school was a place of frustration rather than a gateway to hope.

As for my colleagues, many of them doubled-down on rigid, practice-driven activities just to cover material that would be on tests. I also had an administrator who bribed kids with prom tickets to take the test over again, even when they had passed, just so the school’s numbers would look better for the central office.

LPR: How did this project differ from others you have done in the past?

AB: My previous book, The Altar of Innocence, is a memoir in verse that deals with addiction, depression, and the struggle to claim one’s voice.  That book has a chronological framework and each poem is based on a scene from my past.  My new book features the stories of students and teachers I have known since I first began teaching. The poems are in a looser framework so that the reader experiences stories of individual children and teachers who struggle to find relevance in today’s increasingly standardized, rigid world of public education.

LPR: Your poems feature the voices and stories of real teachers and students. Could you provide an example of a story that inspired one your poems?

AB: “The Voices in My Ear” is based on an article I read by Amy Berand, a young teacher in a charter school who was being trained in a very robotic, harsh method of discipline called No Nonsense Nurturing.  Amy worked in a middle school, and while she was being trained, she had to wear an earpiece so that she could hear the prompting from three coaches who stood in the back of her classroom and told her how to respond to students.  I was struck by Berand’s description of the method, especially because she was equipped with an earpiece to hear the coaches but had no mouthpiece to answer them. The trio of coaches gave her short phrases to say and told her to stop expressing her emotions, to stop praising the students. I found the article very disturbing on a number of levels, chiefly because most teachers know the best way to help students learn self-management is to treat them kindly and to get to know them and their interests. A teacher should form a real relationship and show respect for the students as people. No Nonsense Nurturing trains teachers to act like robots who speak with pre-programmed responses rather than to engage with students as individuals.

LPR: What changes do you feel need to be made in education to better reflect the experiences of students?

515cgypb10l-_sx331_bo1204203200_

No Barking in the Hallways

AB: First, I’d eliminate most uses of the computer for students in the classroom—see this article on the push for competency-based education for my reasoning.  Teachers would guide student learning using hands-on experiences to explore a curriculum based on research and age-appropriate objectives. The curriculum would be decided on a state level, with each school system free to adapt parts of it according to local needs.  Art, music, and physical education would be as important to the school experience as reading, writing, math, social studies, and science skills. The Common Core curriculum, PARCC, SBAC, and all standardized testing would be eliminated. No more Teach for America. No more charter schools and vouchers. Higher pay for teachers. Local control in the hands of elected school boards would be the norm. Most of all, we would be guiding our students to become thoughtful, kind, informed citizens and treat them with dignity and respect.

LPR: How can we better meld the arts with education?

AB: If we value creativity, and our business folks are always searching for that quality, then we need to improve the opportunities for children to be creative. You can’t foster creativity with standardization, rigid curriculums, and corporate-designed lessons.  We need to keep the arts—music, poetry, dance, visual art, and theater—in the forefront of our children’s education. Not only do the arts offer a variety of ways to express oneself personally, they also offer a chance to speak to issues in new and challenging ways.  Most important, the arts offer all of us a way to imagine the future, to move beyond what constrains us and to create a new vision for society. Instead of cutting the arts, we should be expanding them.

If you’d like to know more about Ann and her work, please visit her website at www.annbrackenauthor.com.  Ann’s launch reading for No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom is on February 24th at Zu Coffee in Annapolis, MD, from 6:30-8:30 pm. Diane Wilbon Parks will also be featured at the event, part of the reading series The Poet Experience.

The darkness most feared

Ann BrackenLittle Patuxent Review contributing editor Ann Bracken participated in New Day Campaign’s Book Club on December 1, 2015. Peter Bruun purchased in advance several copies of Ann’s memoir-in-verse, The Altar of Innocence, and provided them to women in recovery. These women attended Ann’s reading and participated in a lively post-reading discussion.

Little Patuxent Review: The New Day Campaign’s mission is to challenge stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness and addiction, making the world a more healing place. Share with us why participating in this campaign was important to you.

"The Altar of Innocence," By Ann Bracken

“The Altar of Innocence,” By Ann Bracken

Ann Bracken: As someone who has dealt with depression in the past, I think it is critical to normalize the experience.  Many times feeling sad, overwhelmed, or stuck is a normal response to extremely challenging experiences. Many times when someone has experienced some abuse or trauma, the psyche needs a break and going into what I call a “down-mode” offers you a chance to reflect and restore.

As for addiction, I think of addiction as experiencing a hole that can’t be filled — sometimes due to some trauma or abuse, again. One seeks to fill the hole with something that will temporarily take away the pain. The “something” could be food, gambling, sex, shopping—it doesn’t have to be drugs in the traditional sense. Almost anything in excess can give you a temporary rush of serotonin and dopamine(the feel-good chemicals).

The New Day Campaign aspires to create safe spaces where people can talk about depression and addiction. I think the more we can all share our experiences in safe places and talk about what has helped us, the more we can move towards both personal and societal healing.

LPR: Peter Bruun said of New Day, “we create a space of safety and acceptance out in the public realm, where more often than not shame, blame, fear, and judgment prevent those who hurt from speaking of their hurt and vulnerabilities.” How important was this safe space for you at this point in your journey?

AB: I’m not currently suffering from any depression, yet I know it well and can remember how the darkness can isolate you. When I read from my memoir in verse, The Altar of Innocence, and share my experiences of depression and recovery, people often find hope for themselves in the story of my struggle to overcome depression. Writing the book and sharing my poems has helped me to let go of shame and find healing for memories and past hurts. I hope that the New Day Campaign’s efforts can offer that same healing to others.

LPR: What did you find helpful as you worked through your depression or melancholy?

AB: Part of feeling depressed involves feelings of low self-esteem and worthlessness. One way that I worked to overcome those feelings was by pampering myself. I chose a sensory treat that I could appreciate throughout the day. For example, I used to buy the least expensive body lotion in the grocery store—usually with very little fragrance. But after reading about the importance of being kind to yourself, I decided to buy my favorite rich, vanilla-scented body cream. I realized that every time I put that cream on my hands, I had an instant sensory treat. The lush fragrance and the rich cream served as reminders that I was worthy of a treat. Treating myself well in a small way helped me to begin to establish a much healthier regard for myself.

LPR: What words of encouragement would you like to offer others who are currently experiencing depression?

AB: Hold on. You will make it to the other side. It’s so important to let people know that there is an end to the feelings of sadness. In addition, I think the most important lesson for me in the midst of my depression was the notion that depression is more than a dark hole, that there is often a gift in the darkness if you can ride the rough waves of sad feelings. David Whyte expresses this idea beautifully in his poem “The Well of Grief” when he says:

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief

turning downward through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe

will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear

nor find in the darkness glimmering
the small round coins
thrown by those who wished for something else.

LPR: You became an expressive coach. Tell us more about that.

AB: Because poetry, journaling, and the arts played such vitally important roles in my recovery, I decided to pursue training in using poetry and journaling for healing and personal growth. As a result of that training, I established my practice, The Possibility Project. The poetry and journaling workshops I offer are suitable for both adults and teens. One of my original programs, The Three Pillars of Hope, is designed for women in transition and features a combination of sessions composed of poetry, journaling, and arts-based reflections.

LPR: When the inaugural New Day Campaign has ended, what would you like to be different?

AB: Actually, I’d love to see an end to the term “mental illness.” How about melancholy instead?  Or normal sadness? Why is anxiety seen as illness in the face of the pressures of modern life or the presence of huge challenges? Why is the most common way to deal with depression to offer a pharmaceutical remedy when what so many need is someone to talk to that can guide them through the darkness?

People need to know that there are many effective alternatives to medication, particularly for people who suffer from mild to moderate depression or low-grade anxiety.  According to the latest research, non-medical alternative interventions for depression—including placebos—are just as effective as the so-called chemical cures. In my case, poetry and cognitive-behavioral therapy did more to help me heal than any medical intervention. I’d like to see these non-medical interventions become just as well known to greater numbers of people.

LPR: Thank you, Ann, for your courage and example. 

Online Editor’s Note: Please visit New Day Campaign (http://www.newdaycampaign.org/) to see a full list of exhibits and events, which run through December 31, 2015. 

Resources of interest:

Interview With Ann Bracken

Generous LPR contributor Ann Bracken has out a memoir in verse called, “The Altar of Innocence.” New Academia Publishing/Scarith published the book on January 30, 2015, and it’s available on their site as well as Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

Bracken most recently appeared in LPR’s Food Issue with an interview of Grace Cavalieri. She interviewed Nancy Naomi Carlson in our Music issue and contributed an essay “Crafting a Bridge to Healing” to our Social Justice issue. Her poems “Adultery” and “Wine and Water” appeared in our Make Believe and Water issues, respectively.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Ann just as she began another semester at University of Maryland.

Ann Bracken knows about healing. As a writer, teacher and expressive arts consultant, she is skilled at harnessing the power of creativity to bring light into the darker areas of our lives. So it is no surprise that her new book, The Alter of Innocence: Poems, emphasizes spiritual empowerment and recovery. Despite the dark subject matter—her mother’s mental illness and suicide attempt, her own struggle with depression and an unhappy, sometimes verbally abusive marriage—it is a tone of compassion, not resignation or resentment that runs through the beautiful poems in the collection. “The book was an instrument of forgiveness,” she tells me as we chat on the phone on a chilly January day.  She says she had long ago come to understand the role her mother’s illness played in her behavior. But through writing, she gained greater insight into her husband’s actions, which she believes were partly the result of his fear and an inability to influence the course of her depression. Most importantly, in coming to see her depression as a spiritual illness she has learned to forgive and heal herself. It’s a message she can now share with the rest of us.

ER: Congratulations on your new book, The Alter of Innocence! The writing is lovely and poignant. The poems in this collection all relate to one another and tell a definite story, like a memoir in verse. How did you decide on this structure?

 Ann Bracken: Thank you, Emily, for reading The Altar of Innocence and for this chance to talk about my process. I’m glad you found my story moving.

Originally I started to write a chapbook that would cover my growing-up years and lay the foundation for another book that would deal with my own depression and the eventual decision to leave my marriage.  As I looked for contests to enter and reviewed the guidelines, I realized my collection was too long for most of the chapbook contests.  I decided to keep going and put the two sections together.  One goal that I had was to use the poems about my childhood to foreshadow similar events in my  adult life.

ER: I admire the way you apply adult understanding and compassion to the nightmarish and heartbreaking events of your childhood. I wonder if your attitude toward your mother evolved as you were working on these poems or did you start out from a place of forgiveness?

AB: I think I always had compassion for my mother. Over the years, I realized that she made choices in her life, and even though they seemed to lock her in an endless prison, I really tried to understand her.  When I was growing up, one question that haunted me was discovering the cause of my mother’s depression. Somehow the idea of a lifelong depression that began in her postpartum experiences did not add up.  In the late 90s I discovered a series of original watercolor dress designs that were more or less buried in my parents’ basement storage room. I was so taken with my mother’s designs that I had them professionally framed and then took them to her in the nursing home. When Mom saw the paintings she told me—for the first time in my life—that she had always wanted to be a fashion designer.  One of the saddest memories I have is when, as a child,  I would ask my mother to teach me how to draw, and she answered by hanging her head and saying, “I can’t.”

ER: Your mother was a talented young woman who sacrificed a lot of herself to her family. Would a creative outlet have helped her?

AB: Mom’s paintings have hung in my living room for the past fifteen years, reminding me of her unrealized dreams. And I can see myself as a teen observing her very physical manifestations of anxiety—hand-wringing, hunched posture, and hyperventilation.  I remember thinking, “I’ll never be like my mother.”  In my mind, I think I meant I would never fall apart the way she did. Or at least I wouldn’t look like I was falling apart!  Years later, when I thought about my own writing and how I only wrote when school was out for the summer, I realized I would be like my mother if I didn’t do more to make my dreams come true. My own dreams about being a writer. Ultimately, Mom inspired me.

I have thought a lot about whether any kind of creative expression would have helped my mother, and of course, I’ll never really know.  Even though she did not ever create any more fashion designs or do figure drawing,  I think my mother’s artistic sensibilities infused her work as a homemaker.  But was that enough to feed her soul?  I do think every woman, every person, deserves some time to express themselves in deeply personal and satisfying ways.

ER: As a society we’ve gained a lot of understanding about depression and especially post-partum depression. And yet I think a lot of mothers today probably feel a sense of isolation and sacrifice. What would your advice be to young mothers based on the experiences you’ve had?

AB: Oh, I would like to hug them and just say, “Ask for help. You’re OK to feel overwhelmed and kind of sad.”  No one said that to me, and most likely, no one said that to my mother. Even when I had my own children in the 80s, there was not that much support for women with postpartum depression. When I think about the tremendous physical and hormonal changes, coupled with the massive responsibility of a new baby combined with sleep deprivation, I have the utmost compassion for any woman who sinks into postpartum blues or depression. I think framing the situation by taking a look at the very real physical and psychological demands is the place to start.  Then we need to look at creative ways of offering women a strong support network, either with family and friends or with professional help.

ER: One of the poems that really affected me was “Time Travel,” in which you write this about your mom:

Maybe I could even
lead her up to the roof
where we would sit together
touching the green of trees
and Mom could see that anything is possible

Could you expand on the imagery here? I felt your desire to get your mother back in touch with the sensual world. She had retreated so far into herself.

AB: The roof image came to me as a way to speak about showing her more of the world, a way of getting her out of the house.  In some ways, the house and her flower garden became her whole world, especially as she got older.   And maybe I saw the idea of touching the green of trees as offering a connection to her love of nature, and a way to reignite my mother’s long-standing love of color. She had a fabulous color-sense, which I now realize was probably developed even more in a color theory class in art school.

ER: We watch you mature throughout the book. Your voice changes. Your understanding changes. Your desires change from wanting your mother to play with you at the pool to wanting her to go to AA. I think you capture the voice of each age so well. Was this difficult to do?

AB: I did not think about voice too much when I was writing the poems. I focused on the experiences and I think the voices just came through me. It was really a mysterious process. One thing that I did was to make a list of incidents that had stuck in my memory and then use them to brainstorm images and ideas that could reveal some character or desire. I adapted a few exercises from Visual Journaling by Barbara Ganim and Susan Fox.  My favorite involved  doodling with colored pencils or oil pastels to capture the mood I was aiming for—curvy pink and teal lines for soft feelings,  jagged orange or black lines for pain or anger.

ER: I was really struck by much of the imagery in your poems. You write about trying to

…ignore the thought about slipping the pointed end of the seam ripper
under the white flesh of my forearm
and ripping out the veins

As a writer, how do you arrive at these sorts of images?

AB: It seems like I am talking about a different person when I say this, but those were my actual thoughts when I was deeply depressed and plagued by what the psychiatrists call “suicidal ideation”.  I had a dressmaking business at the time, so I spent many of my days making clothes for other people.  When I was in my darkest moods, I could not stop thinking about suicide—the only way it seemed possible for me to escape my pain.

ER: Tell me about your ex-husband and the role he plays in these poems.

AB: We met in college and were married for 25 years. For much of that time I was dealing with bouts of depression. It took me a long time to recognize how unhealthy our relationship was. In the first place, in those days verbal abuse was not recognized as true abuse. But also, I realize we were fundamentally a bad match. My ex-husband is a builder. He sees things in black and white and he likes to have control over his environment. My physical illness and journey into the darkness were things he couldn’t control and I think it really frightened him.

I’m actually grateful for my depression because it served to exacerbate his verbal abuse to the point where I could finally see it.

ER: How long have you been writing poetry? What made you want to become a poet?

AB: I have been writing poetry since I was an adolescent, but only sporadically until about 1993.  I wrote the first poem that seemed pretty good when I was on a retreat. I didn’t realize until years later that my spirit knew I was depressed long before my mind identified it, or even my doctors. But the  poem speaks clearly about my inner state.  I think what made me want to write poetry was a desire to have a voice. I felt silenced in so many ways and writing offered me a way to speak.

ER: Who are your influences?

AB: My paternal grandfather wrote a poem for each of his grandchildren up until he died in 1955. His poem for me hung in my bedroom and I memorized it at a very early age.  I have so many poets I admire—Grace Cavalieri for her unflinching honesty and heart, Sharon Olds for her magnificent use of imagery, Lucille Clifton for taking on the underside of life with simplicity and plain language, and  Mary Oliver for two poems-“The Journey” and “The Wild Geese”-that helped me to find a deeper meaning in my experience of depression.

ER: You’ve channeled what you’ve learned from your difficult past into a dedication to help others. Tell us a little about the work you do through the Possibility Project. What do you find most rewarding and what is most challenging?

AB: I trained to be a poetry facilitator through the International Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy. In going through my own depression, I found poetry and literature to offer an in-depth understanding of my spiritual, psychological, and emotional journey.  I can’t say enough about the fabulous CD by David Whyte called “The Poetry of Self Compassion,” where David explores many poems and literary works that speak of  the gifts in the darkness, the necessity of entering the darkness without fear.  David was a keynote speaker for the association, which is where I learned about poetry therapy as a field.

My own work is simple—sharing my love of poetry and its rich ability to both reveal and conceal as a tool for self-discovery and healing. Over the years, I have moved away from a focus on poetry because so many people are afraid of it—they think they can’t understand it. So I have developed workshops that incorporate improv, journaling and simple art projects as a way in to the layers we are sometimes called to explore. Some typical issue I work with are negotiating life transitions, processing grief of many kinds, and deepening one’s own artistic expression. I’ve also been a poet in residence in an elementary school and offer journaling and art workshops at creativity conferences.

ER: You’ve addressed the issue of sexual violence in some of your writing. What are your thoughts on the attention being paid to sexual assaults in the military and on college campuses? Is the culture changing?

AB: I think the culture is inching toward a new place, but we have much work to do. The mainstream  media and many of the voices of authority engage in victim-blaming, especially when they talk about how women should dress less provocatively and avoid  excessive drinking. But what about the men? What responsibility do they bear?   I believe we need to talk about mutual respect in relationships. No more wink and nod that “No means yes.”  We need to educate both young men and young women about the need for mutuality of consent.

When I interviewed a former Marine about her experience with sexual assault, I was shocked to hear about the way she hid the events, even from her husband, and the way she was harassed and hounded by her commanding officers. The incident caused her to suffer from PTSD  for years, but eventually she was able to help others with her Fatigues Clothesline Project, where female vets write and illustrate their stories of trauma and assault on the inside of their uniform blouses.

Last semester, I discussed the issue of sexual assault as a topic for research and suggested that a male student might take on the issue. I stressed that sexual assault is not just a female issue, and that male have an important role to play in changing  attitudes and behavior. Thankfully, one young man stepped up and his research was excellent.

ER: I’m interested in the work you do with journaling. On your website you talk about using the power of story to harness life’s goals. Can you talk a bit more about the healing power of journaling?

AB: I started journaling many years ago, before I had ever heard of it as a practice for self-reflection and healing.  I remember choosing various materials for journaling that matched my emotional state.  Once when I was especially frustrated and angry, I spread newspapers on the kitchen floor and wrote in huge letters with thick crayons.  I felt better afterwards.  When I went through my last depression, I kept a journal which really helped me to make sense of all the craziness of  finding the right treatment and struggling with my ex-husband.  Even though I now do all my journaling by hand, at that time, I  typed all of the entries as a way to work on my writing skills and to become a better typist.  When I worked on the second part of my manuscript, I hadn’t read the journal in 20 years, and I was amazed at what a resource it was for details about significant experiences that could illustrate my journey. I even used snippets of dialog that I had recorded.

I remember being terribly depressed and despondent for many of the four years of that depression, and keeping the journal offered me a way to objectify the experience by reflecting on significant events. I also began to play with metaphors and images that helped me more than I realized at the time.  I still journal on a daily basis, but now I handwrite everything. I use journaling to get rid of frustration, to make sense of puzzling events, and to set and keep track of my goals.  I often talk to my students about the value of journaling when they are upset or overwhelmed as a way to quiet their internal chatter.

Thank you, Emily, for your thoughtful questions and your careful reading of my book. Thank you for the opportunity to talk to your readers.

ER: Now that The Alter of Innocence is complete, what are your next projects?

AB: I was a special ed teacher for years and my next book of poems will be a collection about some of the significant students I taught. I’m excited to tell their stories.

Ann Bracken is a writer, educator, and expressive arts consultant whose poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in Little Patuxent Review, Life in Me Like Grass on Fire: Love Poems, Reckless Writing Anthology: Emerging Poets of the 21stCentury, Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence, Pif Magazine, Scribble, New Verse News, and Praxilla. Ann was nominated for a 2014 Pushcart Prize. She serves as a contributing editor for Little Patuxent Review and leads workshops at creativity conferences, including The Creative Problem Solving Institute, Florida Creativity, and Mindcamp of Toronto. 

She is the founder of the Possibility Project, which offers expressive arts and creativity workshops for women of all ages, as well as poetry workshops in schools. Ann Bracken is a lecturer in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Maryland, College Park. She lives in Columbia, MD.