January 6, 2017

The Poet is IN: Ronna Bloom and the Rx for Poetry



For several years now the poet Ronna Bloom has worked as Poet in Residence at Mount Sinai Hospital, dispensing poetry to patients and staff in need of what poems offer. I chatted with Ronna about her work in this program: how it came to be and how it unfolds in her own and others' lives. 

SUSAN GILLIS: Often I come across references to you being busy with "the hospital gig." Could you explain what "the hospital gig" is? How did it begin -- was it an existing position, or did you (or someone else) propose it and convince somebody that it would fly?

RONNA BLOOM: I created a job at University of Toronto called “poet in community” nine years ago, after leaving my job as a therapist in counseling services because poetry was calling more loudly. 

Before I left I would go into staff meetings — you know how staff meetings can be sometimes intense — and because I had to say something that was making me nervous, I brought in a poem to start. They all knew I was a poet “over there in the other part of my life” but here I was, bringing it in. Mainly to calm myself down, but also maybe to make a different space in the room. 

When I went on leave from that job to work on a book, a colleague said “will you be coming in to give us a poem?” I was baffled and realized that it did something for her

This raised the question for me, which I followed: what was that, that poetry did for my former colleague? What did poetry do in places where it wasn’t expected? 

And so Poet in Community came to be. 

SG: Tell me about that program. 

RB: It's a program about connecting the parts of ourselves that are in silos and letting them all be in the same room to write. Like the student who is a mother who is having an affair who is devoutly religious who likes chocolate who studies chemistry etc. And how we don’t tell people these parts but they’re always all there. 

The Whitman quote has been my signature since the start: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, I am large. I contain multitudes." So with a bit of funding cobbled together by various Student Life services like the Multi-Faith Centre, Hart House, Academic Success, the Sexual Assault Counsellor of Health and Wellness…. we started in 2008, this program where people could write and explore the meeting place of all the parts of themselves — the intellectual, emotional, spiritual, physical — because it’s always all happening anyway, right? And then if they want, share it with the others there, the freedom not to share being key. 

SG: Was this a full-time job at this point? How does it connect to your work at the hospital? 

RB: No, never full time. It was where I began this practice of poetry and it started to move. 

Around then I'd begun teaching the course “Personal Narrative: Inventing Your Truth,” at U of T's School of Continuing Studies, a course I inherited from the storyteller Helen Porter when she got ill. The phrase ‘personal narrative’ got the attention of Dr. Allan Peterkin at Mount Sinai Hospital. Allan is the founder and director of the Health, Arts & Humanities program at U of T (http://health-humanities.com/) and an incredible force for the work of the arts and humanities in health care and education. This was not all in place in 2008, but the field of Narrative Medicine has been exploding nationally and internationally, and Allan is a key figure. 

So back then we had coffee and a big chat and he invited me to try out a few of the workshops I had been doing for the Poet in Community program — workshops which aim to offer a space, without grades or bosses, where a person could write on a particular theme exploring something that mattered to them. In 2011 we did a pilot program where I went in and did a bunch of open workshops, which any staff member at the hospital could come to. Some of the names of my workshops are “Writing Your way Out of a Paper Bag” (for stuckness of all kinds), “Awake at Work” (about presence and the senses in the workplace), “What if you didn’t? And other questions to ask when you’re exhausted”, and “Be Good to Yourself, Whoever You Are.” We did five or so of these open workshops for staff in 2011. 

SG: These sound great. Many people would stop there and say, this is working out well. But you had a different vision. 

RB: In 2012, three of us -- Allan Peterkin, Melissa Barton, head of Occupational Health and Wellness, and I -- applied to the Ontario Arts Council for an Artists in the Workplace/Community grant. With this type of grant, the workplace needs to match the funds, and Melissa was willing and able to do that. Our idea was to create the Poet in Residence program. Workshops for staff, which we'd already demonstrated were successful, formed the mainstay of our proposal, but we also proposed a talk for Grand Rounds, a Spontaneous Poetry Booth (which I had started at U of T), and coaching sessions. 

Essentially my working method is that all I need is a lead who gets what I do — and wants it — a little bit of funding, and we can do anything. We make it up together. 

SG: What are Grand Rounds? 

RB: Wikipedia tells me that “Grand Rounds are an important teaching tool and ritual of medical education and inpatient care, consisting of presenting the medical problems and treatment of a particular patient to an audience consisting of doctors, residents and medical students." 

It's where doctors and residents present cases to a group of assembled other health care professionals and guests. For me it was a very scary prospect. I was asked to present at Grand Rounds for the Psychiatry Department after I'd been there for a year. My talk was called "The Reflecting Poem: What Can Poetry Do in Health Care". (The talk is included in Keeping Reflection Fresh: A Practical Guide for Clinical Educators, published last year by Kent State University Press.) 

I talked about the workshops and The Spontaneous Poetry Booth -- where I write people poems on the spot for a dollar on the subject of their choosing. In that my aim is to listen to the request, the content and the feelings, to wait for the first line, and then write. It's a crapshoot. I try to hear and write what's coming, and then, good or bad, I give it to them. So during rounds I talked about writing poems for people in the hospital cafeteria and then of course I read poems as part of the talk. I do love giving talks -- but I can't bear to leave without offering even the most hesitant (doctors, nurses, students…) a chance to write. I wait till I've talked for a while and shared enough poems that they're ripe. I asked them what they needed a poem for in one line. Then I asked them to write the poem. I think at Grand Rounds it was a very unexpected thing. 

SG: This is such a great and simple formulation: identify a need, attempt to fill it. What about the idea of dispensing poems? How did that come about, and who can get a poem prescribed for them? 

RB: The Rx for Poetry came later. I was asked to do something in the waiting room of Family Medicine. We felt The Spontaneous Poetry Booth might be a bit too intense. It's strange but when the poem hits the mark it can be very undoing. A nicer way to say it is that it sometimes articulates what hasn't been said. So something else was needed in the waiting room where people might be even more raw than in the cafeteria. We came up with the idea of poems already printed on prescription pads, like a medicine chest of poetry I could rifle through to see what fits. (Read more about how Rx for Poetry works here.) 

SG: What do you have inside that medicine chest right now? I imagine there must be some William Carlos Williams, given his habit of composing poems on prescription pads. Does his work in any way inform what you are doing? What are some of the poems you've prescribed, and for what conditions?

RB: Ack, I have no poems by Williams. I use them in workshops, though -- that red wheelbarrow sometime wakes people up. I have a very idiosyncratic way of choosing poems. Basically I'm trying to plug into the feeling, starting with my own experience, and then I go looking in books, online, in memory. Sometimes, bizarrely, just when I'm pulling my hair out because I can't find one that meets the need -- I’m thinking right now of a workshop I did last fall for 40 OB/GYNS in London Ontario, and this Lucille Clifton poem arrives in my inbox, "Won't You Celebrate with Me." Amazing! And I had to play her reading it because I wanted them to get a hit of her power and presence. 

I will now go looking for some Williams. 

The key is always that the poem is the active ingredient between the need and person. As in a prescription. It is an alchemy. One by Hafiz I use a lot:


          I wish I could show you,
          When you are lonely or in darkness,
          The astonishing light
          Of your own Being! 

I use poems by Emily Dickinson (Bees), Langston Hughes (Still Here), Hafiz and others, as well as some of my own. Someday I'd like to get my friends and local or far-flung contemporary poets to send me poems. They have to be short! Perhaps that will come next. 

I joke that I'm allowed to double dose, etc. This too can be powerful. It always surprises me how acrobatic the poems are -- how one poem that seems to respond to a need speaks to something completely different in the next minute. 

A little note about prescribing: I like to be with the person, or at least on the phone. To hear someone's voice, feel what's happening -- these are important in a relationship of care and attention. Which I think this is, even though it lasts only ten minutes or so. Also, I read the poem out loud so I can see immediately whether it has impact. Like a prescription, you know pretty fast if it works. Then I sign it and hand it to them. There's something potent, too, about this little slip of paper. 

SG: Are there poems you could prescribe for someone suffering from the anxiety malaise many of us are experiencing as we move into a year of major change in the North American political landscape? I think I need a strong dose of whatever it is poetry offers. 

RB: What I’d offer would depend on the day, the weather, the news and how I am feeling too. The "doctor," or whoever is in that position, their feelings are also there, whether acknowledged or not. It's useful for me to know if I'm bringing my own hopelessness or agency. The day after the American election I posted my poem "No Poem" on Facebook. I can imagine now many others I might have posted, but it was a moment of grief for me, and for many of us, and this one fit.



The Hebrew phrase tikkun olam refers to healing the world, that is, picking up the shards that are broken, feeling the pain and shock of that, and being with the pain. Maybe poems are a portal to that way of being. The word 'healing,' though, makes me nervous. It feels like it expects too much. Likewise, the word ‘prescription.’ The poems I offer are not prescriptive. I think of them as little flags of possibility. 

Doing this by email, with spans of days between questions and responses, it’s hard to know the exact tone of the anxiety malaise. Is it dread? Hopelessness? Panic? And what does it need? Comfort? Courage? The poem that comes is Cavafy's "Growing in Spirit." 

Ronna Bloom is a writer, teacher, psychotherapist, and author of five books of poetry. She is Poet in Community to the University of Toronto and Poet in Residence at Mount Sinai Hospital. Pedlar Press will publish her sixth book of poems in October 2017. 

Do you have a poem you'd like to offer the Rx program? For more details, contact Ronna at her webpage, www.ronnabloom.com



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