Richard Gold: going to the difficult places in human experience

In an age of hyperbole, calling Richard Gold a saint would probably provoke a healthy dose of knee-jerk skepticism.

No doubt the self-deprecating Gold, who wouldn't stand out in a crowd, would be first among skeptics.

Gold, semi-retired from the software industry, teaches poetry workshops to incarcerated kids: abused, cast-out kids, kids exposed to trauma and violence, kids dealing with crazy parents and immigrant kids shattered by their transition experience - the vulnerable, human detritus of our culture's underside.

Gold doesn't know if he's ever worked with any Queen Anne kids. If not, it's a fact to be thankful for. Affliction knows no boundaries, but it's fair to say there's a stability to Queen Anne that isn't found in some of Seattle's other, more challenged neighborhoods.

Gold reminds us what we should never forget: 16-year-olds, no matter where they're from or how tough-seeming or cynical, are children.

And yet, "these kids are forerunners," Gold said. "They see more deeply into the human experience."

I've written about Gold before. He's been a fixture at Bumbershoot. The news of his continuing good works deserves to be heard.

The West Seattle resident has spent much of the past 12 years taking his poetry workshops to the King County Juvenile Detention Center, the Child Study and Treatment Cen-ter at the State Psychiatric Hospital in Tacoma, the Echo Glen Chil- dren's Center in Snoqualmie and other venues where kids in dire straits are held.

After Gold completes his sessions, he publishes the results in booklet form. Numerous copies of the booklets, containing harrowing, heartbreaking insights into the human condition, find their ways to workers in the criminal justice system.

Here's one poem, by "Lee," age 13, from the Child Study and Treatment Center in Tacoma:

Abusive Dad

My mom told me about

This one day when I

was about 5.

My dad used to throw my

sister against the wall.

But I was unborn, how

could I get out and help her.

I couldn't help her

at all. There wasn't any

way I could help her at all.

The Pongo Publishing Teen Writing Project is Gold's nonprofit organization. Recognition was slow to build since Pongo's launch 1992, but in recent years Gold's efforts have been honored by The Windermere Foundation, Northwest Bookfest, Starbucks Foundation and others. At the Bumbershoot 2000 Bookfair, Gold and Pongo Publishing were handed the award for "Most Significant Contribution by a Press or Individual."

Gold, married with an 18-year-old daughter, could be doing other things with his time

Instead, in a culture where human value is often judged by earning potential and production capacity, Richard Gold is reaching out to lost, marginalized youth, trying to help them find a voice in which to address and understand their terrible plight.

"I feel that there's precious little control in life in what you get, but there is in what you give," Gold said.

Taking responsibility for what happens

Born in Newton, Mass., in 1948, Gold earned his English degree at Yale in 1970, a time of political and cultural upheaval. Gold experienced his share of uncertainty.

"I was a very confused person at that time," Gold recalled.

After moving to San Francisco, Gold went to work in a psychiatric hospital until the age of 30. The experience delivered a strong dose of reality for one not long out of college.

"Suddenly I was in the university of the self," Gold said. "I was directly exposed to what makes people tick." He found that poetry workshops "contributed to a profound process of helping kids get in touch with themselves and their situations."

After moving to Seattle in 1983, Gold went to work in the hi-tech world. He'd been conducting his teen writing project for four years before he withdrew from his full-time work schedule in 1996.

In the land of free speech, careful listening is often undervalued.

"It begins with finding a voice," Gold said of his workshops. "It begins with listening. It's amazing what can be accomplished just by listening."

Poetry is unique, Gold said: It creates a place to stand back from one's si-tuation, to evaluate it and to externalize experience. Publishing the results also helps build self-esteem, he added.

"I used poetry to see a part of themselves they've been unable to share and examine," Gold said. "They go to the difficult places in human experience."

Just after working with one group of young patients, Gold noted, he was told that three kids had broken through in their therapy because of his workshops.

Sometimes Gold has to hop quickly erected barricades.

"One kid said, 'I'm too angry at the staff to write,'" Gold recalled. "I said, 'Why don't you write about that?'"

He also remembers a 14-year-old girl who challenged him with: "You probably think we're just a bunch of crying kids."

Gold suggested otherwise. "There's a big secret you don't know," Gold said. "Adults are dealing with the same issues you are: How am I loved? Adults are looking to be validated, too."

In fact, Gold said the one universal question his students ask, even with their lives hanging out over the edge, is no different from the abiding adult question: "What is the meaning of life?"

Richard Gold, in his life and work, offers a plausible answer.

Richard Gold will read his own poetry this Friday, Jan. 23, 7 p.m. at Lottie Motts Coffee Shop, 4900 Rainier Ave. S.

Publisher Mike Dillon can be reached at

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