Words – John Fox, Part II

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 2 of a two-part interview, he shares some thoughts about his work.

You’ve written about how individuals can learn to catalyze conscience and creativity to make effective social change agents. How would students learn to view our world through the eyes of a poet?

The creative process, when it is really welcomed, draws upon and is impacted by so many things?the unconscious, lived experience, the senses, the moment, word play. I’ve always liked something Robert Bly said about writing poetry: ?I think writing poetry is a matter of agreeing that you have these two people inside: every day you set aside time to be with the subtle person, who has funny little ideas, who is probably in touch with retarded children, and who can say surprising things.?

Perhaps a story will help students understand what Robert Bly means. My sister, Holly, was born with Down syndrome. She will say to me, ?No, John, It’s Up syndrome.? So we know she has sense of humour! One day I asked her how she went about watercolour painting, which she does quite beautifully. Her first response was to say, ?I just do it.? Sounds pretty good!

I pressed her about that, ?Tell me more.? She replied, ?I get into the flow.? Then, she looked down to her right, for only a moment, lifted her head, looked straight into my eyes, and said, ?Wait a minute. I am the flow!?

How can students use impulse writing to enhance their learning journey?

I think learning ought to be, at least in part, fun. I think this would enhance the ?learning journey.?

Watching children can help someone who wishes to cultivate the poet within in the midst of a learning environment. A child’s fresh way of meeting experience is such a reminder of what we lose as adults. My book Finding What You didn’t Lose was written to help us recover that kind of spontaneity and to treasure our creative self.

How did we play as children? We followed an impulse towards fun. We imagined that the toolbox our father had was not just a toolbox, it was the toolbox that serviced cars during the Indianapolis 500 and we were the head mechanics. Or we imagined that the open field and creek near our home was the playground where a legion of imaginary creatures, a place where we could become whatever we wanted to be: space aliens, good guys, cave dwellers, bad guys, wild horses, Amelia Earhart and Mickey Mantle.

Poetic language offers us the opportunity to suspend a certain consensus level of reality in order to invoke and experience a reality that is more deeply in tune with our feelings and our sense of who we are. In this way, we help imaginative poems to arise. All too often we are given the message in school to quit playing around and ?get with the program.?

Sometimes, we wise up and transform ?playing around? into creativity. This can have a lasting impact on the rest of our lives and should be part of lifelong learning.

Apparently Kahlil Gibran once said, ?Poetry is a deal of joy and pain and wonder, with a dash of the dictionary.? The same could be said for the academic journey. How do you think the pursuit of poem-making would best help the undergraduate, graduate, and/or doctoral student?

I think poetry helps us be more whole. That’s useful in any endeavour, to raise awareness of that wholeness. Sometimes, also, what matters most to us can’t be quantified or fully explained. There are parts of life that don’t ?write all the way across the page.?

In my work with students in graduate programs (I teach regularly in about four of them) they find that poetry is a way to communicate with themselves, and at times, with others who can listen, in a way that both builds a sense of community and helps them to distil their experience.

This can be especially helpful when we feel overwhelmed. The poem is one place you can go where there is nothing to prove for certain and where you do not have to have the answer. Yet, it may actually be a way to get a glimpse into some insight that had been hidden beneath the surface.

What advice do you have for university students who are, perhaps, afraid to let loose their inner poet?

Give it a try!

What makes one a poet?

If you realize that one of the toughest things there is to do in this world is be nobody-but-yourself, and you also see the value in taking on that challenge, it will help you see things in the way a poet does. I urge people to regain or to maintain a pleasure in words, in language. In living a life with words, take time to savour them.

Perhaps one other thing that can help is to trust the fact that you are already creative. When I was in eighth grade, my mother told other guests at a gathering, ?When John grows up, he’s going to be a poet.? Yes, It’s very encouraging that a mother would affirm such a thing! However, and I don’t think I intended any disrespect at the time, she tells me I turned to her and said, ?I am a poet.?

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