Childhood disability led to poetry therapy career
“When we dance/ The air softens/ And I feel like I am floating on/ A cloud/ And the hospital disappears”/
John Fox knows all about the therapeutic nature of the written word.
Fox, who will teach a pair of workshops on what is known as poetry therapy Friday and Saturday in Spokane, was born with a nagging physical disability.
“When I was growing up, I had a deformity in my leg that required a number of surgeries to sort of keep it together,” Fox said in a recent phone interview from his office in the San Francisco Bay Area. “But it kept getting worse. And when I was 18, it was really clear that my leg just wasn’t gonna make it.”
So doctors opted for amputation.
At the time, Fox had just finished his freshman year of college. And since he had gone to school to study creative writing, he poured out his feelings on paper.
“It was during that time where writing, and being able to write about what I was feeling, made a real difference to me,” Fox said.
That’s how easy some careers are born. These days, Fox – author of the books “Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making” and “Finding What You Didn’t Lose” – travels the country, teaching those who will listen about the power that poetry has to heal. Some of his students are facing illness; others are just curious about the process.
Most all wonder how that process works. For all of them, Fox – former president of the National Poetry Therapy Association – has a simple answer: “There’s something about the momentum and the rhythm and images of poetic language that is particularly versatile in looking at issues of healing,” he said.
The poem that opens this story was written by someone who can attest to the art’s effectiveness – one of Fox’s students. Titled “When We Dance,” it was written by Bertis Mackey, a 16-year-old girl with sickle cell anemia. The poem is a literal description of what she says occurs when, as portrayed in the nonfiction film “Healing Words: Poetry & Medicine,” Mackey dances with her instructor, Jill Sonke-Henderson.
In the film, Sonke-Henderson and Fox work with Mackey to help the girl find a way to express her emotions through art – in this case both poetry and dance – and thereby find emotional solace and, even better, relief from pain.
But the film doesn’t feature just touchy-feely artsy types. Doctors such as John Graham-Pole, a pediatric oncologist, and Michael Okun, a neurologist – both of whom work at the University of Florida’s Shands Hospital – offer scientific reasons for why poetry, in particular, can promote healing.
“How does it work?” Graham-Pole says in the movie. “Probably through the release of those wonderful things called endorphins … feel-good proteins released by the brain.”
Those “neuropeptides,” Graham-Pole says, are “our body’s valium, out body’s morphine.”
“They help us relax, they help us feel less pain, they help us feel happier,” he says. “We have this inside us.”
The trick, then, is to connect with that inner source of peace. In fact, said Lisa Conger – a Spokane writing instructor who has trained as a poetry therapist – connection is key.
“You know, as a person you feel isolated and like you’re the only one in the world who has felt this way,” Conger said. “And that’s the power of poetry, the connection between the poet and the reader. Or the listener.”
Fox agrees, adding that the act of writing poetry works even when the listener/reader is only an implied presence rather than a particular person.
“My sense is that the poetry allows people to find common ground that is sometimes difficult to find in regular conversation,” he said. “And even if it’s not a specific person, you may feel heard. … and there’s a spirituality in that as well.”
As Mackey wrote in her poem,
“When we dance all my thoughts/
Go away – and our/
Bodies are thinking together, and/
It makes me really happy”