Until three months ago, Shepherd's House resident Rick Engle, a gray-bearded 55-year-old man of Irish and Mexican descent, was spending "every dime" on alcohol and each night hopping from one friend's couch to the next.
Finding work in the construction industry was getting harder and harder, and he knew he was getting closer to living on the cold streets of wintertime Bend. Then, one night, he chose Shepherd's House instead of alcohol and is now on the road to winning a war with his addiction.
It's the stuff of poetry. And under the tutelage of Jamie Houghton, The Nature of Words program director, Engle and about eight other men from Shepherd's House are transforming their life experiences into prose as members of a poetry class she teaches each Thursday. Engle and several of his classmates will read their poetry this Friday at The Nature of Words literary arts center in downtown Bend.
"I've been kind of drinking for three years straight - that has stifled my creativity," said Engle, who lives at Shepherd's House in northeast Bend with about 30 other male residents who have found shelter and support as they break cycles of homelessness and addiction. "So it's nice - being creative."
Houghton launched the class last October. It is just one of dozens that she teaches all over Central Oregon, but most of those are for children. The program at Shepherd's House and one at Deer Ridge Correctional Institution near Madras are the only two for adults, she said. She finds these classes rewarding because her students can resolve complicated issues as they write.
"I think it helps to build self trust when you create something that's tangible, and you start to believe you have something worthy to say," she said.
Her classes, which are held in "the library" at Shepherd's House where the men sit at a table surrounded by bookcases, usually begin with a prompt. She'll ask the men, for instance, to write a letter to someone they used to know, but don't know anymore. Then she instructs them to pick out the lines that are most meaningful and write a poem using them as inspiration. The men often write about their childhoods, their addictions, their recoveries or what they envision for their futures.
Engle, whose nickname at Shepherd's House is Ricardo because of his Mexican heritage and Southern Californian upbringing, will read a poem at Friday's reading about a man who wants a woman at the same time she is sought by God. He weaves canyons and stars and trees into the poem, which is centered around a theme of creation.
He said that analyzing his poetry and thinking more deeply about the meanings of other poems has not come naturally for him, but he's enjoyed Houghton's classes and has high expectations for them as more men from the shelter become involved.
"Poets use oblique and coded language almost," said Engle, who has experience writing songs. "For me, it's just such a different language, but [Jamie] said, 'Well, it's a feeling, it all goes by feeling.'"
Cash Lowe, director of operations for Shepherd's House, said Houghton has unlocked wells of introspective thinking for several of the men involved that have been powerful resources in their recovery processes.
"[So many] come to us with life-controlling issues like alcohol and drug addictions, sexual addictions... that drive or inform those self-destructive behaviors," said Lowe. "For them to be able to process the emotional turmoil... it has been really profound."
Friday's reading will feature four of five of the Shepherd's House poets, who will take turns reading their poems in a round-robin style format. Artwork created by some of the men in the class will also be displayed.
Shepherd's House and Nature of Words Poetry Reading
Free. 7:30pm, Friday Feb. 24
Nature of Words Literary Arts Center
224 NW Oregon Ave., Bend