When people ask me what I do for a living, I start by telling them that I am a licensed clinical social worker in community mental health. I’ve also been a private-practice therapist. I’ve worked with youth in therapeutic classrooms and adults in a Veterans Affairs medical center, among other community settings. I usually finish by adding that I am also a poet—a former poet laureate even. I follow that by sharing a bit more about my artistic practice, which is embedded in community work. I am a teaching artist who, over the years, has taught thousands in schools, shelters, correctional institutions, and universities. I also share that, sometimes in my work, I connect the two—poetry and social work—and use therapeutic interventions in workshops to guide someone faced with mental health challenges.
For years I thought that I had to choose between being an artist or a practicing clinician. I thought that I had to keep the two separate to allow space for my writing process. When I was a younger poet, I was adamant about getting myself to a place where I could just write poems or teach poetry writing. I dreamed up ways to make it possible to separate the two parts of me, these parts that seemed different but provided direction and purpose for my life. It wasn’t until I decided to lean on my background as a social worker and clinician and apply that knowledge, especially elements of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), to my artistic practice that it started to make sense. The two can inform each other; they are connected in more ways than I’d imagined. I set about the business of relying on these tools, coupled with the magic of words and poems, to foster creative expression.
One poetry exercise I use is centered on Sonia Sanchez’s poem “This Is Not a Small Voice.” I recite the poem and ask participants to reflect and talk about how it connects to them and their experiences. Self-reflection is a key therapeutic intervention. This inward look at oneself within this context, through a poem that is celebratory, unapologetic, and inclusive, challenges core beliefs and assumptions about oneself. It may also reveal the source of one’s distorted thinking about oneself or highlight and affirm personal growth and steadfastness.
Most people talk about the poem’s first line, “This is not a small voice you hear coming out of these cities / this is a large voice.” They share childhood experiences of being told to hush when they tried to express themselves. Some share how they recognized the power of their voice early on and vowed not to let anyone take this power away from them.
In these workshops, we are a community. We make space for one another, honor one another’s voices, or simply sit silently with the poem. The poem by itself is compelling; but when used in this context, when read in the participants’ own voices and used to spark discussion about
themselves and their experiences, it becomes alive and vital. I have witnessed how this exercise helps reframe distorted thinking and replaces it with a renewed sense of self or understanding.
I also created a poetry template inspired by Sanchez’s poem to accompany this exercise. Some of the lines in the template are:
About this voice, it’s _____
What I need them all to know about this voice is_____
in the morning it ____
and in the sun going down it ____
Be a bullhorn I tell it, speak to _____
Tell them ____
About this voice, I will tell them____
I encourage participants to write their own poem using the template as a guide. They are free to write with or without it and can even add or remove words. What emerges are moving lines like, “About this voice, I now know its power,” “What I need them to know about this voice is that it’s no longer a mouse, it’s a lion and it roars,” and “in the sun going down, it says thank you, it says I love myself.”
Reading and writing poetry can help us reframe a story or see it from a different perspective. It involves a different way of thinking about how we interpret our experiences. Poetry also helps us manage stress—fostering relaxation and reflection. Joy Harjo’s “Remember” is one poem that I use to guide participants in quiet meditation.
The lines “Remember you are this universe and this universe is you / Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you / Remember language comes from this / Remember the dance language is, that life is / Remember” can be read like affirmations. First I ask participants to circle parts of the poem that resonate with them. They then close their eyes and I lead them in a breathing exercise. Then we say all of our selected lines, one after another. Some participants are tickled and surprised that several people often choose the same lines. This poem, and this technique of reading and reframing the poem by collectively reading selected lines, is well received by participants. It brings a stillness and peace into the space. This exercise can be used over and over again and can even substitute another poem.
Poetry can guide us to discover our voices and honor our experiences. CBT also helps us reframe our thinking around experiences that may contribute to depression, anxiety, and other emotional or mental health concerns. In most cases we are supported by a professional who helps us gain and identify tools to relieve symptoms. As both a poet and mental health care professional, I see the benefits of accessing poetry as one of many interventions to support mental wellness and well-being, along with professional mental health services as needed. I use my writing, teaching-artist and community-organizing skills, as well as my training as a clinical social worker, to partner with a wide range of community members to create art and help amplify individual and collective voices. It is a partnership, and while it is embedded in poetry and creative writing, it is very much about harnessing the power of one’s voice.
This is healing work, and it looks different for everyone. A poet who is interested in incorporating healing work into their artistic practice should assess their ability to manage other people’s stories and experiences. Some stories will be joy-filled and others will be painful. It is essential that poets get some initial training. Most cities offer a basic mental health first-aid class. Some offer certification or a short, often free series of classes for the general public. These courses give individuals a basic and well-rounded understanding of mental health diagnoses and resources; and touch on crisis management and the importance of looking through a trauma-informed lens when engaging with people.
An introductory exercise I use in some of my workshops asks the participants to reflect on Lucille Clifton’s poem “won’t you celebrate with me.” I start by reading the poem to the group, and I follow by asking a participant to read the poem. After that I ask each person, or a few people (if it’s a larger group), to shout out or write out what we, as the community of witnesses and supporters, should “celebrate” with them or about them. This short, simple exercise is well received by participants, no matter what age they are or where I’ve introduced the exercise. It immediately grounds the person and affirms their story, and they seem to blossom, just because someone cared enough to see them and their experiences as something to celebrate. This is a poetry exercise, facilitated in a workshop. It is not a therapy session, but there are healing elements present: reading a powerful and affirming poem, hearing one’s own voice reciting it back, reflecting on one’s “story,” sharing that story in a safe space, and receiving validation that this story has value. This is healing arts. This is what clinicians strive to do with individuals during each session. This is what poetry has the power to do each time.
This essay originally appeared in the Fall-Winter 2022 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2022 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poets, become a member.