When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Geri Chavis knew what would help soothe her soul and those of the people she loves: Poems. Chavis, professor emerita at St. Catherine University, is past president of the National Association for Poetry Therapy, which has for decades promoted poetry for healing and growth. She is the author of three books, including Poetry and Story Therapy: The Healing Power of Creative Expression, and keeper of more than 2,000 poems on friendship, marriage and family relationships, grieving and loss, courage and hope and many other subjects. Chavis shares more about this lesser-known discipline and encourages us to give poetry a try as we remain largely on the home front.
Q: I was surprised to hear how long poetry therapy has been around. I thought it was new!
A: Not new. Poetry as an agent of healing was recognized in the ancient world over 2,000 years ago. I brought the concept to St. Catherine University more than 40 years ago when I joined the faculty as a professor of English literature. It’s very exciting to meet people from all over the world who are learning from us and sharing what they do differently.
Q: How does poetry therapy work?
A: Poetry therapists select poems that seem most appropriate to specific life situations and sets of feelings. We also invite the client to write their own poetic expressions by providing prompts to them.
Q: Please share a few prompts.
A: A prompt might be, “I used to be … but now I am …” Sometimes, I suggest they come up with a paradox to be used as the starting point for a free write; calming anger, for example, or isolated togetherness. These help us think outside the box and generate discoveries about ourselves and others. There is a poem within the new collection I gathered recently called “Lost and Found” by Imelda Maguire. Stanza one is devoted to what is lost. Stanza two is devoted to what is gained. When we write our own version, we can get in touch with the two opposing sides of our experience, rather than stay focused only on what we are losing.
Q: How does this exercise help people transform?
A: Our resilience and patience is being tested in a whole new way these days, and poems, with their powerful word combinations and authentic voice, can inspire us to embrace hope and capture so well what we are feeling and thinking. We are not so alone when a poet’s voice speaks our truth. Sharing poems and creating your own poetic expressions can be comforting and community building at this time of increased isolation.
Q: I actually laughed when I read one of your favorite poems, “Snowbound,” because while it was written by Natasha Lynne Vodges in 1980, it feels centered in our COVID-19 existence: “There is time to stop traveling./To get off other people’s subways/To halt airplanes from landing in your life./A time to be snowbound/Within your own private space/Where the only number you dial/Is your own.” Are poems always this on the nose?
A: As a poetry therapist and lover of poetry, I cherish poems that speak to us vividly and clearly, poems that we can identify with, poems with original word-combinations that surprise and bring us home to our own experience.
Q: Might the lack of broader acceptance of poetry be because so many of us are afraid of it? We don’t get it or we keep channeling our disastrous attempts to write a poem in elementary school?
A: The concern you’ve raised is very familiar. I can’t tell you how many times over the years we are asked why we call ourselves poetry therapists because those are the two scariest words out there. I think it has to do with the way we were taught. Many times, teachers give inaccessible poems and you have to figure out what’s right and wrong. When I invite people to write, I rarely use the word “poem.” I say, let’s just put words together.
Q: And that works?
A: So many people don’t realize they have poets inside them. I give a writing prompt and say, put it in any kind of words you want. They write something creative and often surprise themselves with the way they put words together. As soon as you put something into a story form — even trauma — as they write it, they gain control over it. They attach meaning to it. A week later, a day later, things start to make sense. It’s very empowering. That’s where this is genuinely therapeutic.
Q: How does a poetry therapist avoid crossing the line into licensed therapist territory?
A: We talk about boundaries all the time. I am a licensed psychologist in Minnesota as well as a literature professor. I wanted to have the full credential to do this work responsibly. But we have different levels in this field. We can and do refer people out to therapists. Others are becoming poetry facilitators; they are not called therapists. We’re very conscious of the boundary between therapist and facilitator, and poetry facilitators are trained to work with people who don’t have a clinical diagnosis but are seeking support, well-being and increased self-awareness as they face life’s challenges. Because there is a need to work with people who don’t have a clinical diagnosis, especially now.
Q: Your advice to get us started?
A: Don’t worry if it sounds ridiculous. Write to your old rocking chair. Maybe it wants to say, don’t sit in me so much. Get up. Move around. You will write a poem.