Kay Mullen’s workshops are path to healing power of poetry

“. . .and as far as my life is concerned, poetry has saved me again and again.”

Muriel Rukeyser, American poet, Dec. 1913–Feb. 1980

All of us experience loss of one kind or another.  Sometimes we experience loss and are not particularly aware of it, perhaps because it is so commonplace, like the loss of hair on our heads.  If we do notice it, we probably give it no more than a second or two of our time, sigh an “oh well,” and continue our day.  As we age and experience more, we strategize in order to keep loss at bay.  We take supplements, faithfully exercise to keep fit and healthy, watch what we eat, and still look both ways before crossing the street.  We get educated, work hard at our jobs, buy insurance, and plan for our golden years. One day, something in our world knocks us sideways.  A job is lost, a beloved pet dies, or a spouse leaves. It is during those times, says Kay Mullen, that we can turn to poetry, an art form which “confronts everything in daily life in clear, metaphorical language. . .that takes us to the edge of what life is about.”

Kay leads workshops on using poetry to help heal and cope during times of loss and grief.  In the workshop, each participant  has time to read, discuss and write, based on a thoughtfully selected set of poems.  Although the workshops are not therapeutic counseling sessions, participants bring their own stories of loss and grief to the work that is done there.  In part, that work is to identify how poetry “works.”  As an example, Kay talked about Joseph Stroud’s “Stitching the Woe Shirt,” a carefully crafted poem about the death of his wife.  On reading that poem, one can sense the power that is wielded by the placement of only one introductory word, “inconsolable,” on one line.  Each word, each line is so powerful that “sometimes grief just oozes” out of the poem.

Mullen was initiated  into the world of loss and grief by the death of her dear husband of thirty-five years. Until that time, nothing had prepared her for all that was to come.  She had been a classroom teacher, the mother of two, who eventually became a mental health counselor and school counselor. She had, with encouragement from both her husband (an accomplished writer in his own right) and a colleague, published two, full-length poetry collections:  Let Morning Begin (Caritas Communications, 2001) and A Long Remembering: Return to Vietnam (Foothills Publishing, 2006). Her work also appeared in various journals such as Valparaiso Poetry Review, Appalachia, Avocet, Crab Creek Review, as well as anthologies: Tatoos on Cedar, Mute Note Earthward, Pontoon, Northwind. She entered  PLU’s Rainier Writing Workshop MFA program with her husband at her side for the first summer residency. And then he was gone.

Following her husband’s death, Kay devoted her time to his memory.  She spent countless hours collecting his writings, putting some together into an autobiography, others in a full-length book, and gathered together his letters, short stories and poems.  During the seven years following that, she turned her attention to her own work, her “poems of grief, memories of our first year of marriage in Alaska, poems about his illness, memories of our life together and events after his death.”  The result was her third book of poems, Even the Stones (Caritas Communications, 2012) She also managed to complete her MFA, win a Stafford award and be nominated for a Pushcart prize.

Those years were a crucible in which the strong forces of intellect, professionalism, spirit, faith and love tempered the sense of the “inconsolable” in trying to “make sense of the world after this major loss in my life.”  From her experience she is able to help others begin or continue the process of healing with poetry being the vehicle.  Her most recent workshop was in January, 2013, at Catherine’s place (a center for women in Tacoma).  Other workshops have been held at Kings Books, at the Olympia library, at Urban Grace church and even at the correctional center in Shelton.

What if a person is relatively unacquainted with poetry—who would be “good” poets to begin reading?  Mullen’s reply was, in addition to the two poets already mentioned (Rukeyser and Stroud), that a person might want to begin reading poetry by Tess Gallagher, Jack Gilbert, Lola Haskins, Mary Oliver and Billy Collins as a way of beginning to experience the “soul work” that is poetry.  A date has not yet been set for Mullen’s next workshop.