Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Art ∩ Powerful Poetry

In light of the latest school massacre – the murder by a mentally ill man of five students at Northern Illinois University on February 14 – a poet in Wisconsin may hold at least one small answer to help us prevent more such tragedies in the future. At the heart of her philosophy is getting people to share stories about themselves so they can feel empathy for others.

“The bottom line to everything is story,” says Ellen Kort, Wisconsin’s first poet laureate in 2000 and the award-winning author of 11 books, including eight books of poetry. “If you don’t know your own story – who you are, where you come from – how can you honor someone else’s?” For many years, Ellen has held writing workshops for people who may not think of themselves as poets including doctors, female prison inmates and school children. During her workshops at medical conventions, she explores the healing aspects of poetry by prompting doctors to write poems or stories about themselves. The simple-sounding process helps some realize that if they’d asked patients to tell the story of their lives, they could have found the source for symptoms, instead of (or in addition to) running lots of tests and prescribing drugs.

“‘I won’t practice medicine in the same way again,’” Ellen says one doctor told her after realizing that if he had asked one patient for her story during her first visit, he would have learned her physical pain and anxiety were the result of her husband’s sexual and physical abuse.

The first time Ellen visited a prison – the Taycheedah Correctional Institution for women in Fond du Lac, Wis. – to teach inmates to write, she says she was not afraid. She told them about some of her own hard times to break down barriers. “I knew the poetry would carry everyone,” she says. After one exercise, she asked volunteers to read their work. “A woman waved one hand like crazy while she wrote with her other hand,” Ellen says. “She made eye contact with everyone in the room and said, ‘Ladies, I must stand to read what I just wrote.’ This woman was moved to stand for poetry.”

Ellen has been the poet-in-residence at many grade, middle and high schools across Wisconsin. She asks students to imagine their “inner poet.” One sixth-grade boy said his was a wolf, not the leader of the pack but its spiritual advisor. His poem was about his grandfather’s death and his parents’ divorce. His teacher was amazed because he normally could not write. When Ellen finds disturbing things in children’s poems she shows them to the teacher. “Some say the poems do not surprise them; that the child is going through a lot at home,” she says. “Sometimes the poem is a tip-off, and the teachers say they’ll look into it.”

The women inmates Ellen teaches were children once, too, of course. After one workshop she held at a prison in Great Barrington, Mass., a reporter from a local radio station asked the inmates, as his tape recorder ran, if there was anything they wanted the public to know. One woman wanted the world to know that she and her fellow inmates were not covered in tattoos or gang members as many people feared. Another said she was due to be released soon and that the idea of being in the real world scared her to death.

1 comment:

2KoP said...

This is beautiful, Ardis. You give testament to the transformative powers of words and storytelling. I sometimes feel the world has gotten so noisy that it is hard to listen to all the yelling going on around us. Writing is quieter, a gentler way to communicate our stories. Good luck with yours.