To say that her skills are of the find-and-remove variety—rather like a hunter seeking buried treasure, or a surgeon in search of a tumor—is to not quite understand Deborah Mouton’s particular genius. As an instructor in the city’s Writers in the Schools program, her gift is for teaching the land to find its own treasure, the surgeon to remove his own cancer.
“I love being able to go into a room and not have an expectation for my students,” says Mouton. “I like being able to say: ‘Look, we’re just going to create together and we’re going to figure out what we’re going to make as we make it. And it may be awesome and it may be horrible, but that’s okay.’”
A surprising amount of the time, it’s awesome. Take the work of Robyn Adams, for instance, who met Mouton in conjunction with WITS, a program that has sent hundreds of poets, fiction writers, and playwrights into Houston classrooms since the U of H creative writing department founded it in 1983. Mouton (whose poetic nickname is DEEP, incidentally, as in Destined to Excel in Everything Promised) was trying to coax work out of youth poetry group Meta-Four a few years back. Meanwhile, Adams, then a junior, was trying to coax herself into coming out.
Having known for years that she was gay, Adams—now 19 and a student at St. John’s University—decided it was time for everyone else to know too. “The question stopped being what do I tell people, but how do I tell people?” she remembers.
Mouton suggested that Adams write a letter to her mother, who had long been in denial about her daughter’s sexuality, so much so that she stopped appearing with her in public because she was ashamed of her child’s baggy clothes. “I told her she didn’t have to present any of it,” remembers Mouton, “that the process of understanding her feelings was the important part. And then over the next four months we turned it into a poem.”
Finding oneself through poetry: it’s an excavation project Mouton is deeply familiar with and sometimes unable to escape. At one point ranked the No. 2 female performance poet in the world—and for the record, we didn’t know there was a ranking system either—Mouton is modest and soft-spoken in person. Onstage, however, the 28-year-old is something else altogether: a woman whose voice crackles with rage and desperation.
“I’m a lot more honest with myself when I process my emotions through writing,” she says. “Every writer has that moment when you get lost in your thoughts and you arrive to yourself on the page, and it’s revelatory, and different from what you expected. “
Mouton spent two years as an HISD teacher before joining WITS in 2008. Working with kids of all ages during both the school year and summer programs, she hears stories of heartbreak and violence, love and fear, every week. Her students, she says, display an acute awareness of the shifting world around them. “It’s not, as adults often think, that children don’t have complicated thoughts and emotions,” Mouton explains. “That stuff is there, they just don’t always have the vocabulary to express those things.”
This past spring Mouton worked with a group of third, fourth, and fifth graders at Kashmere Gardens Elementary. In honor of National Poetry Month, they wanted to write and perform a poem about December’s school shooting in Connecticut.
The students, some already familiar with gun violence, were deeply affected by the shooting, Mouton says. Under her guidance, their feelings begat words which begat a poem. By the time the fifth-graders performed their work at a nearby public library—Mouton off to the side constantly whispering encouragement—all the Kashmere kids had adopted names of Newtown victims in an imagined confrontation with their killer. The final result may have been shocking to some. “Why would you try to hurt children?” they yelled in unison. “I was your future. We were your future.”
Robyn Adams’s own confrontation took place two years ago, when she first read her coming-out poem to an audience of 100 people. The work opens with a recounting of her mother’s reaction to Adams’s hospitalization: “You said the next time I try to kill myself I need to make sure I go through with it.”
The next 500 words lay bare a parent’s shame and a daughter’s excruciating invisibility, Adams comparing herself to a moth that is, in her mother’s eyes, supposed to be a butterfly. After the poem’s first performance—there have since been many more—a young man approached Adams in tears, saying he had considered taking his own life due to similar feelings of inadequacy.
“Looking back, I realize most people in that situation don’t have somebody like Deborah to help them,” says Adams. “I knew what I wanted to say, but I didn’t know how to say it. Deborah helped me access my words, and she came back over and over with a simple question: how can you better express what you feel?”