Discovering Poetry Therapy
It's difficult to make a living as a Poet. Most Poets become teachers following an academic path. I was definitely on the academic path as I worked through Creative Writing/Literary Cultural Theory degrees at Carnegie Mellon University. Upon moving to Seattle, I continued thinking the academic path was the only choice. I tried graduate school. I tried competitions where you send in monetary reading/entry fees to get discovered by "legitimate" publishers/presses. Professors told me it was important to win those competitions. The reality was I usually got an old fashioned rejection letter, and my hard earned dollars had subsidized the career of the "winner."
Then an interesting thing happened. I got married. I got pregnant on my honeymoon. I wrote about my child constantly. We worked hard to get ready, taking pre-natal classes, learning hypno-birthing. We were prepared. I wrote about my child constantly.
Then, on March 11, 1999 at 4:47pm, my son Dakota died at birth. Dead. Not a crying, hungry baby, but a dead one, purple lips, bruised body, marks of strangulation from being knotted in his own umbilical cord.
To say the least, academia did not know how to deal with my intense grief, emotional writing, cries of pain and desire to die along with my child. Professors want form. They want experience, revision, dedication to The Craft. I was dying. Academia could not help me, did not want to help me, had no idea how to classify my "emotional" works.
After spending nine months writing my son into existence, I began revising alright! Revising my life, trying desperately to resurrect my son through poetry, making every effort to not jump out the nearest window.
My husband pleaded with me to stay alive, to write out my fears, anger, sadness. I refused to send my works to random editors and academics. I refused to give them the chance to kill my son all over again by suggesting I revise, rewrite, bottle my grief into this form or that one. My son was already bottled in a marble jar, his little body cremated into sticky ashes. No way would random editors tell me to stuff my son into their particular requirements.
So my husband and I started KotaPress to publish my grief writings and my husband's artworks. KotaPress became our safe haven for expressing anger, sadness, disappointment, recovery through art. Work was published at KotaPress.com, and we did print editions, too. We started providing free copies of Mrs. Duck and The Woman to bereaved families.
We quickly found this safe haven extended beyond our huddled, immediate grief. We made our way back into the world at large through outreach to artists and bereaved parents. We found others reflecting back to us, offering their photography, sending poems they wrote for their dead children. It was stunning to learn there were no other "homes" for these works. Our culture is ill equipped to deal with pain and grief.
Partly it's a generational problem. In our grandparents day, bereaved parents were encouraged to "get over it" (as if that's possible), to have another child as quickly as possible (replacement child), to use the same name for the next child they used for the dead child (talk about cursing your next child from the start!). The bereaved were certainly not encouraged to talk about the dead child.
How can I prove this? Well, I did a reading at a local museum. An 80 year old woman in tears approached me afterward. She told me her son had died 50 years prior, and she had never been permitted to experience the pain expressed in my writing. At another reading, a woman approached me crying, squeaking out, "Does it ever end, does it ever end?" People in her life told her for years that she needed to get over her son's death and forget the pain. HELLO!!!!!????
I began looking for people to help me understand why we are so awful at dealing with reality, pain, and grief. I looked to artist because the "professionals" were as bad as the "academics" when it came to cries of pain. The "professionals" had lots of pamphlets about the stages of grief and how to proceed thru grief and how people might like to react to a co-worker's loss. Folks, understand me NOW!!! You cannot map grief. It is a foreign language you never understand completely. YOU DO NOT GET OVER IT!
I looked for artists who had themes in their work addressing long term pain and healing. In my research I came across a 1999 chat script with John Fox, author of Poetic Medicine, www.poeticmedicine.com. I wrote him hoping the email address provided still worked a year later. It did.
John was kind, listened to me, heard all my questions. He told me about Poetry Therapy, about National Poetry Therapy Association Certification. And he showed me that I was already practicing Poetry Therapy by publishing poetry for other bereaved parents, providing outreach through our Mrs. Duck Project, working with SeattleMISS, our Loss Journal to offer support online.
I mentioned John's name to a friend Dr. Elizabeth Gray. She knew who he was immediately, and told me about Hospice uses of expressive therapies with families facing fatal illnesses. She introduced me to a whole world about FEELING THE GRIEF TO THE FULLEST EXTENT in order to live with it and move toward healing. Notice I say Move Toward Healing. I don't say "to get over it." Let me say again, that after my exposure to John Fox's and Dr. Gray's works, I learned once and for all that YOU DO NOT GET OVER IT!
So today I bring you this Poetry Therapy column. I will continue to bring you more information about Poetry Therapy and its application to real life pain, anger, sadness, disappointment, grief, and healing. I hope to show how Poetry Therapy is used to survive all kinds of loss, not just death. I hope to offer a good resource for healing and safe space. I hope to show you ways to live authentically even when academics or professionals would rather you fit into a particular form so they can classify you. Your reality is so much more than that.