The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Using Poetry as Therapy

Audiences engage in art therapy with the help of Emily Dickinson's poetry. Photo courtesy of Roswell Reads

The High Plains Writing Project in Roswell, New Mexico is one of our Big Read communities this year---their third time with us! I recently had the chance to chat with Dr. Heidi Huckabee of Roswell Reads, and Ann Anderson, the Clinical Director of Counseling Associates. They were both kind enough to take time out of their hectic schedules to talk to me about The Big Read, Emily Dickinson, and the book discussion they held this past Tuesday, on the use of writing poetry as therapy for abused and neglected children and disturbed adults.

NEA: Heidi, what made you choose Emily Dickinson as the Big Read author for Roswell Reads?

HEIDI HUCKABEE: I felt poetry might offer us some new and unique ways of reaching people who may have felt a book was just too much to read. When folks come to our events this year, they can bring their books and we all read the poems being addressed in that particular session together.

Another reason I chose poetry was to enable teachers (whose restrictions on curriculum is usually tight and dictated these days) and students to work together on something that is in everyone's curriculum: analyzing poetry, working with meter, mood, rhythm, rhyme, and all the functions of poetry. It just went with students and teachers more.

NEA: And how did this particular discussion on poetry therapy come about?

HUCKABEE: I go back East usually once a year and I chose this past summer's trip to tour literary homes in the area around Massachusetts. [Dickinson's] place was lovely and I got such a grand impression of location, home life, and her living situation. I felt I could bring that back to the people of Roswell who wanted to do Roswell Reads this year.

When I got home from my tour in Amherst, I contacted Ann Anderson about her book club doing a session for Roswellites.  Everyone knows Ann and she just happens to coordinate our mental health center. When we visited, we talked about Emily's life and poetry and found her to be dark in some respects, mournful in others, and even morbid in some. The idea just dawned on us that maybe Emily needed counseling, and Ann grabbed that idea and said she sometimes uses reading---poetry, passages, etc.---for her clients. It was a perfect meld!

NEA: Who were your panelists in your book discussion? Can you tell us a little more about using art, such as poetry, as therapy?

ANN ANDERSON: Balazs Batyka, a licensed clinical social worker, Susan Voight, a licensed art therapist, and myself. I am a licensed clinical social worker, a licensed  substance abuse counselor, and the clinical director of our local not-for-profit Mental Health Center. Balazs Batyka performed drum therapy, an ancient approach that uses rhythm to promote healing and self-expression. Susan Voigt led the art expression of the participants as they respond to Emily Dickinson?s poetry.

Art, writing, and other forms of active therapy engage individuals with the goals for developing and improving their psychological competencies, and engage individuals in learning social skills to enhance their level of functioning toward self-sufficiency.

Although I have never used Emily Dickinson with clients, I often utilize the poems of other poets, such as Mary Oliver?s ?The Journey," as a vehicle for understanding life transitions in therapy. [While] creating art and reflecting on the art products and processes, people can increase awareness of self. Others cope with symptoms, stress, and traumatic experiences; enhance cognitive abilities; and enjoy the life-affirming pleasures of self-expression and learning about one's feelings. I believe the world benefits from a group of citizens who are able to express their needs, feelings, thoughts, and ideas explicitly.

For people who are interested in learning more about poetry therapy, check out the National Association for Poetry Therapy. If you?d like to learn more about Emily Dickinson and her poetry, please visit The Big Read website.

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