Words – John Fox, Part I

A certified poetry therapist, John Fox is a poet and author of Finding What You Didn’t Lose: Expressing Your Truth and Creativity through Poem-Making and Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making.

John conducts ongoing poetry groups in the San Francisco Bay Area and is an international leader in the movement of poetry therapy as an expressive art and medicine. In part 1 of a two-part interview, he shares some thoughts about his work.

How long have you been writing poetry?

I wrote my first poem when I was 12 or 13; I can’t remember exactly. I was watching a girl skate alone on the ice at Thorton Park, in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and I was standing up as I wrote the poem. Although I wouldn’t have said this at the time, there was a sense of wanting the words to skate across the page.

What drew you to the art of poem-making as a healing modality?

I love writing, and have since I first started to write. I remember the feeling of joy when, in second grade, I made up my own stories. That joy was not only in the writing but some larger sense of making something. I created homemade books with poems and photographs and gave them to people who made a difference if my life.

Another reason, certainly, was that I was born with a severe medical problem with my right leg that developed during my childhood and teenage years. So I would write about that, especially as a teenager. Writing poetry gave me a voice that helped me not only to cope with this difficulty that included considerable pain but opened up a way to gather insight that helped me find meaning and grow.

My father, who greatly appreciated poetry, mostly classical poets from the 19th century, shared this with me, and my siblings. His goal was to communicate messages about noble attitudes. I saw that poetry could speak to issues about life not only in a literary way but in a personal way, also.

These elements, aspects of poetry that lent themselves to healing, to seeing oneself and others in a way that included body, mind and soul, began to come together in the early ?80s when I met Stephen Levine and soon after that my mentor in poetry therapy, Joy Shieman, who worked at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, California.

It seems that the academic community finally recognizes poem-making as a valuable tool for student development. What are your thoughts on this?

There has been a tremendous amount of work in this area through medical humanities programs that occur in many medical schools. Physician poets like Jack Coulehan and Audrey Shafer along with a nurse practitioner poet like Cortney Davis, and Arts-in-Medicine writer like Gail Ellison, to name a handful of people, have been so important in advancing this field.

In addition to the PBS documentary [Healing Words: Poetry and Medicine], I’ve written about the value of poem-making by people in medicine in a book, The Healing Environment, published by The Royal College of Physicians in England, and also, Whole Person Healthcare, published by Praeger/Greenwood.

Poetry contributes to a deeper sense of listening and a greater capacity to notice details about someone. We see the intimate and sometimes unspoken clues in a person’s story that can help make authentic the phrase ?medical care.? My poet friend Kim Nelson (who works with incarcerated youth) writes that poetry helps us to recognize that ?It is the details of existence / That reveal our code of connection.?

Most AU students balance work, family, community commitments and school. How can students first find time to write for pleasure and second use poem-making to enhance their everyday lives?

The fortunate thing about poems is that they can be brief. A favourite poet of mine, William Stafford, when asked ?What is a poem?? answered by saying ?It’s where you don’t have to write all the way across the page.?

What he means, partly, I think is that in a poem you can imply and suggest. You don’t have to explain everything. The writer Erica Jong said, ?The image is a kind of emotional shorthand.?

For some people it is helpful to actually set aside some time dedicated to writing?even 20 minutes a day or every couple of days. For others it may be helpful to carry a notebook and have it available to jot something down. But value your words enough to catch those thoughts that catch your attention. Even a fine poet like Robert Frost said he had no idea what a poem would be when he started to write it. This may sound glib but you can start anywhere.

These are strategies to get started, to make it more accessible. But I would say that one has to get a real feeling for its value. I’ve written some books that have ideas for writing, sample poems, and actual space to write in the book! One should wade into the water a bit and get wet. The water is fine!

You’ve spoken about the importance of telling our own life story. Since you are speaking to an audience of university students, where precise language is vital, can you share how this alchemical bond could unite the poet to academia, in both a real and metaphorical sense?

I think I would rather try to connect academia to the poet. That seems, to me, to be a better way to go! The poet can learn from academic rigor, as you suggest, from the important of precise language. A poet can learn a great deal from poetic forms and by becoming familiar with all the elements that can make up a poem. The question a poet in academia might ask is, what does it mean to learn? How can I open to the process of poem-making?

About 22 years ago I wrote to the Greek poet Odysseus Elytis. Eltyis won the Nobel prize in 1979. His poems, of great lyric beauty, have had a great impact upon me. I sent him some of my poems and asked him to comment. What he wrote back, so briefly, was to say, ?A window to the world of the unknown but also the true has been opened to you and it will help you.?

So my image, both real and metaphoric, for the poet to connect is for academia to open the windows! I think the key is to have the window open.