Welcome to our Q & A feature article,
Poet Chat. In each issue of the KotaPress Poetry Journal, we talk
with one of the poets whose work is currently being featured. Submit your
poems for the next issuwe, and we could be chatting with you next time.
Q. What does poetry mean to you?
A. Poetryshows life rather than tells about it. Through this directness, poetic language gives access to meaning by allowing us to ask and respond to significant questions: what does it mean to be human, to be a part of life? What does it mean to experience loss and suffer, to celebrate and find renewal?
Poetry is about honesty, intuition, imagination and surprise. It pushes us to discover what matters to us.
Elements of poetry such as sound, sense awareness, rhythm and image weave together to make meaning accessible not only intellectually, but much more importantly, so meaning is deeply felt. It is this capacity of poetry to reach with such depth into our real feeling that gives it the ring of truth. Poetry is a voice within me that speaks of this meaning, of this ring of truth.
Q. When and why did you start writing poetry?
A. I remember was about twelve or thirteen. I was watching a girl skate at a rink in my hometown. I was enthralled with her and the motion of skating. I wanted, more than anything, for my words to skate on the page. I wanted to show my experience of her.
There was something about her grace, something about my attraction to her that insisted on a voice. I'm not sure I can articulate exactly "why" I wrote poetry at that point. However, I know that it had to do with, not just my adolesecent hormones, but the compelling nature of being alive. Joy was part of the process and a chance to play with language.
Why did cave painters draw images of bulls, fire and deer? It was what mattered to them. The attraction I had then and still have to beauty. It matters to me and I am compelled to write of it.
It was sometime later that writing poetry became imperative for my well-being, for finding my way through grief and loss, and for discovering meaning in the process.
Q. How has the poetic process influenced your grieving and healing process?
A. While growing up, I had considerable trouble with my right leg. There were many operations — about eleven, I think. In my late teens, I wrote poems about being in the hospital. Things did not get better and at eighteen I was forced to make a decision that was quite difficult — I chose to have my leg amputated below the knee. For that raw and painful experience, only poetry was adequate. It gave a voice to my pain and despair, to my self-pity and eventually, my desire to come through.
During this time I really had to adjust my understanding of the creative process. What was the creative process about? Was it powered by a critical approach or by being genuine, willing to be vulnerable?
Looking back, even though I was studying creative writing in college, I was forced to loosen my critically-oriented approach to writing and open more compassionately to my experience. Writing becamse a medium to strengthen this compassion. I think this is very important understanding that led to where I eventually went with poetry and healing. It may be the best thing you can do for yourself: to write what you feel.
Now poetry is a best kind of companion and the purest remedy in my life.
Q. How did you come to be a Certified Poetry Therapist?
A. I was living in northern California in the early 80's. I met a wonderful couple named Stephen and Ondrea Levine. Stephen and Ondrea led workshops on issues around death and dying. Obviously, I had personal interest in that. Eventually, they invited me to help them in various ways and that included reading some of my poems at their longer retreats. I would talk about the healing effects of poetry in my life. At one of these retreats, a physician named Ken Zubrick introduced himself and encouraged me to contact a woman who worked on the mental health wing in the hospital where he worked. This woman worked with poetry as a healer. I met Joy Shieman and discovered there was a field called poetry therapy. This field had requirements, standards and a body of work to study. Fortunately, Joy invited me to train with her as a poetry therapist. If anyone is interested to explore this field, they can check out the web site of the National Association for Poetry Therapy at www.poetrytherapy.org
Q. What does Poetry Therapy mean to you?
A. In practical and therapeutic sense, poetry therapy is the intentional use of writing of and reading of poems for healing and the development of self-awareness. It uses poetry to access, express and deal with some of the most difficult things we feel and experience. But I think poetry therapy is rooted in something much more ancient and sacred than this more clinical definition.
What are these deeper roots? There is the lasting importance poetry holds in old cultures as a container of meaning. I also had to consider this: I hear story after story of people who find themselves writing poems at 2 a.m. — even though they had previously never written poems. Still, they write about their deep loss or something vitally important to them.
To use poetry in a healing way isn't just about writing, but reading and speaking aloud those poems that go straight to the heart. We have the such profound and beautiful poems to drawn from — whether it is a centuries old Chinese haiku or a poem by an eleven year old — reading and speaking poetry can change our outlook, provide solace and encourage growth.
If I consider this ancient and often spiritual part poetry has had in human life forever, if I consider the way poetry is what comes to us in moments of extremity, regardless of previous experience — I am aware that poetry as healer is a very old and important gift. The beauty of this gift is that it actually comes from within us. What we can learn is how to recognize and access it.
Q. Does being a Poetry Therapist help in your personally healing as well as it being a professional choice for you?
A. I love the work that I do. I am able to reach people coming from many different perspectives and professions. This includes elderly people and children, those who need care and those who offer it — to name just a few that I can reach. I feel grateful and lucky to be doing what I love. There are a lot of things in life that can be discouraging but listening to people speak from their hearts is not one of them. I feel that poetry therapy has made me aware of the common ground we share and the precious uniqueness of each human being. My work as a poetry therapist has taught me a lot about listening and that is healing.
Q. Can you say a few words about what you are offering to readers who read your books "Finding What You Didn't Lose" or "Poetic Medicine"?
A. My books make poetry and poem-making accessible to those who are interested in exploring and bringing their creativity to life. I feel they offer inspiration and practical guidance. I'm published by Jeremy P. Tarcher whose other books include The Artist's Way and Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Like those books, my books are dedicated to that spirit of creativity living within each person. The books are different but both include personal stories, exercises, poems and a guiding text — along with great resource sections. Finding What You Didn't Lose helps people to make poetry part of their every day life and Poetic Medicine focuses on how to use writing in a healing way.
Q. Where are you today in your poetry career?
A. My career continues to grow and expand. This past year I've consulted with the Mind/Body Medical Institute at the Harvard Medical School — they are very interested in the way that poem-making can support people working through depression — largely because poetry offers a place to express authentic feelings of love and loss. Getting back to my original comments, poetry has this gift of bringing greater meaning to our lives. I don't want to leave out the fact that poetry also is a place to express genuine joy — I believe strongly that our creativity connects us with Spirit.
There is a saying in an eastern spiritual tradition that if you take one step towards Spirit, Spirit will take ten steps towards you. This may be especially clear in the creative process. If we just begin with a single line of a poem, if we allow our feelings to flow onto the page, Spirit may indeed help us, making it possible for this creative art form to speak our truth, to share love, to realize what matters to us.
I want to close with careful encouragment. Sharing your poetry with a trusted friend or a couneslor can help. It's important to not try to do too much. The grief and difficulties we face in life may seem quite overwhelming. Poetry won't change them overnight. But as a woman who had lost a chlid once told me about reading poems, 'poetry is the only thing pure enough for me right now.'
If we take one step and then another (as an amputee, believe me, I know about this) we can keep going. Similarly, I believe that reading poems out loud and writing them can support us to take those steps, and may even carry us at times.