Geist blogger and Editor-In-Chief of Poetry Is Dead, Daniel Zomparelli, is organizing an ongoing series of interviews with poets, and people doing interesting things with poets. If you are a poet doing interesting things or have a tip off for Daniel, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meghan Doraty is currently completing her thesis in creative writing at the University of Calgary. She writes poetry with palliative care patients at the Foothills Hospital in Calgary. Part of her thesis examines the therapeutic effects of poetry.
Daniel Zomparelli: Can you tell me a bit about how you started on this thesis and project?
Meghan Doraty: I worked in palliative care research for a summer and met a palliative care doctor who told me about a poet who had spent some time writing poetry with the palliative care patients at the Foothills Hospital. I kept this in the back of my mind for several years until the time rolled around for me to get planning my honours thesis project at the University of Calgary. I contacted the Foothills Hospital and they had never heard of anyone doing anything like this before but they were super excited to get involved. I don't know whether I remembered the conversation with the palliative care doc wrong or whether I just made it all up in my head—but it seems to be working out pretty good, regardless!
DZ: When writing with palliative care patients, you said they tend to ask you to write a poem based on their memory, can you explain a bit about how that process works for the patients and for how you construct the poems?
MD: I give my patients three creative writing exercise options. The first is a poem, which they commission for me to write while the other two are exercises that would require them to write the poem themselves. Since most patients are actually quite frightened of poetry, and view it as something that only very special people can write, they usually opt to commission the poem. The exercise I give them is meant to be relaxing as well as creatively stimulating - I ask them to close their eyes and think of a very vivid memory from their past and then to describe this memory to me as clearly and in as much concrete detail as they can. I take notes and ask them additional questions as needed.
Then I go away and think about my notes and put together the poem. I have had poems that were incredibly difficult to write because I felt the need to write a poem that would meet their expectations as well as live up to my own aesthetic standards. Sometimes I felt as though if I could only write a poem that was good enough - that had the perfect words in the perfect order and place on the page - that that would somehow cure my patient and they would get better. The weight of that pressure made it hard to put anything on the page, let alone a perfect word.
On the other hand, some poems were easy to write because the patient had described the scene in such detail that I simply had to arrange their own words on the page.
After the poem is written, I take it back to them for their feedback. If they want to change anything, they can. Very few actually make suggestions. They seem to view me as a practitioner of poetry and they just want to take my advice and trust me like they would their own doctor.
I make the changes, if any, and put it in a picture frame and give it to them so they can brighten up their hospital room. It becomes, then, physical evidence of their memory and lasts as a legacy after they pass.
DZ: I'm wondering now about the poems and the patients during their care. How have the patients been responding to the poem during their stay in the hospital? Have they had any positive/negative reactions from the poem existing within their space of healing/rehabilitation?
MD: One of my patients has been in the hospital for over a year. A couple months ago, she received permission from the hospital authorities to decorate her room, since the hospital is essentially now her home. She decorated the walls and shelves with cards, flowers, ornaments and paintings and the framed poem she commissioned me to write took its place among all these other pieces of art. It seems to me that she has created something like gallery in her room and the poem is the latest addition. Nurses, care aides and other staff often take their break in her room instead of going down for a smoke or hanging out at the nurse’s station. They’ll sit in a chair and talk to her or just sit and be in what is probably the prettiest, most peaceful place in the entire hospital. While this is an extreme case, other patients will often have a shelf of flowers and get well cards and the framed poem serves as a physical reminder of memory in these mini galleries. It’s a way for patients to bring a little bit of home into the barrenness of the hospital.
DZ: Have you researched into the positive effects of narrative/poetry on our mental state, or seen a first-hand experience of the positive effects of these poems? I don't necessarily mean in a physical healing respect, I mean in general moods or mental states.
MD: In the medical literature, writing therapeutically (by that I mean, writing to work through trauma) has been found to improve mood and psychological wellbeing and even boost the immune system. In my experience, though, it is the creative process that improves mood, not necessarily the outpouring of emotions. For instance, I went up to the hospital to see a patient one day and noticed as I came in that she seemed to be in a bland or tired mood. She wasn’t smiling or talkative, really, so it took some prodding to begin brainstorming for our poem. When we finally landed upon the topic of snow fairies, I asked her to describe what she thought these little critters would look like, and by the time she was finished detailing them head to toe, she was fairly glowing. The simple act of fantasy had unchained her from her hospital bed and given her license to live in another world free from illness for a while. This, coupled with knowing that her imagining was productive and would result in a piece of physical artwork, altered her mood drastically. So while I agree with the research that therapeutic writing can improve mental state, I also feel that creative writing is just as beneficial for one’s wellbeing.
DZ: I'm wondering if and how this affects your own writing? And, what personal writing project(s) are you working on now?
MD: I’ll answer these two questions together. Since this and other poetry projects I’ve worked on have been quite emotionally challenging, I tend to turn to prose to lighten the mood a bit. For the past two years I’ve been writing a short story collection, supervised by Lisa Moore, that I started working on as a change of pace from my poetry. The stories tend to be quirky and humorous but the more I work on them, the more I see undercurrents of fear, death and mourning beginning to emerge. My characters are ghosts, coffin connoisseurs, winged skeletons and others obsessed with learning how to die and how to live. It seems I have naturally begun to work out the existential angst stirred up by my palliative project through my other writing.