leanne grabel

Robin Rasmussen, Leanne Grabel and Gina Grabel Sander in "badgirls"/Julie Keefe

When it comes down to it, we just don’t know, do we? How to help people? Sometimes we think we know, and if we ourselves were particularly pure spirits, we could put our knowledge into practice. But day-to-day, dealing with real human beings, some of them profoundly damaged, we’re neither sure of what to do nor confident of our own ability to heal even if we did. At least when we are being honest with ourselves.

So, when Leanne Grabel says she’s not sure if she has any affect on the teenage girls she teaches, as she suggest in her play “badgirls,” which opened Friday at Pacific Crest School, I believe her, even though I’m glad that someone with her spirit is making the attempt to help heal lives that are off to a terrible start. And if she said it to me in conversation, I’d reassure her.

Grabel has been one of the central agitators for poetry in Portland for many, many years. When I first encountered her in the early 1980s, her passion for words, for rhythm, for life was immediately apparent. I loved the way she applied Beat Poet techniques to the life around her, the spill of language applied to our familiar parts. Perhaps, we only claim a place when we describe it with intensity and in detail, in which case Grabel has been doing her level to claim this ground for us for decades.

For the past eight years, she has been teaching at a lock-down treatment center in Southeast Portland, instructing her charges in language arts, especially poetry, and “badgirls” is an account of that rich experience, from her point of view, mixed with poems that Grabel has collected from the students.  In the play, Grabel plays herself, and Robin Delaire Rasmussen and Gina Grabel Sander (Grabel’s daughter) play an amalgam of the students, each with a poem to read and a story to tell that breaks your heart.

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