ST. CATHERINE UNIVERSITY
When asked what drew her to the field of poetry therapy, St. Kate’s Professor of English Geri Chavis relates an experience she had more than 30 years ago as an associate professor at Upstate Medical Center in New York. It came while sitting on a park bench, when she overheard a psychiatrist reading his session transcripts into a tape recorder.
“I remember thinking that they read like a poem,” Chavis said. She was struck by the stories of people dealing with various struggles; the cadence of them describing their challenges in their own words. “It reminded me that we’re the best poets of our own lives,” she said.
The experience was a transformative one for Chavis, who, as a literature teacher, already had a respect for the profound power of words. She became interested in the writings of psychiatrist Jack Leedy, whose pioneering work in poetry therapy inspired Chavis to find him in New York.
“I had never sought out an author before, but I was so inspired by his ideas,” Chavis said. “I brought that passion and interest with me to St. Kate’s 32 years ago.”
The Power of words
Chavis has a verse by the poet Mary Oliver posted on her office door. It reads: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” The verse is especially significant, because Chavis says it had a powerful effect on one of her colleagues.
“She just happened to notice it on my door one day,” Chavis recalled. “Later, she told me those words inspired her to change her life. It’s things like that that make this work is so rewarding.”
In a nutshell, Chavis describes poetry therapy as the use of poems, stories and creative expression for growth and healing. Reading these works, she said, is an excellent means of increasing self awareness, dealing with loss, moving through transitional times and understanding one’s own patterns. Ultimately, Chavis maintains, reading and discussing poetry builds self esteem.
“Poems have a power,” Chavis said. “They’re emotional and original, with striking metaphors and word composition. There’s also a musical lyricism that, combined with silences, resonates with readers on an almost primal level.”
Chavis says the breakthrough moment comes when a reader comes across a poet’s words and said: “That’s what I’ve been thinking for years but have never been able to say.”
“Those are the poems that have healing power,” Chavis said. “Those poems become like old friends. They’re with you when you’re feeling troubled. You can read them over and over again and find comfort.”
As a board member of the National Association for Poetry Therapy, Chavis is at the forefront of emerging approaches in the field. And as one of eight master mentor supervisors — one who trains other poetry therapists — she stresses the importance of not just reading, but also of discussion.
“As facilitators, we help people find their own metaphors they never thought they could express,” Chavis said. “That process of discovery comes with discussion and identification.”
Chavis recognized the importance of open discussion very early in her career, when she began teaching literature. “I noticed that students personalized stories, and that changed the way they looked at things,” she said. “That became a bright point for me. The personal reactions I saw in my students and the discussions they had about the things they read helped draw me into the field of poetry therapy.”
The work Chavis does encouraging people to find their own metaphors through poetry therapy is often mirrored in her teaching at St. Kate’s.
“One of the goals of the St. Kate’s English department is to help sensitize readers to themselves and others around them. That’s the social justice part of this work,” she said. “What better way to do this than through poems or stories?”
An Interdisciplinary Approach
Increasingly, Chavis said, poetry therapy has taken on an interdisciplinary approach. In recent years, she has used not only literature, but also biology; theology; psychology; and exercise and sport science in helping people work through their difficulties.
She was recently recognized for her innovations in education when she received the Myser Award for Teaching Excellence at St. Kate’s first young alumnae reunion in June.
This fall Chavis will teach “Literature for Growth and Healing,” a course that is cross listed as a holistic health studies class at the graduate level and an English course at the undergraduate level. She says the class will offer the opportunities for students to imagine using literature and creative writing in their future work settings.
“The timing is right,” said Chavis, who currently is writing a book, entitled “Poetry, Story and Film Therapy: Harnessing the Power of Creative Expression.” “This course allows me to work with a wide range of students and incorporate many of the techniques I’ve developed over the years, and that dovetails well into my writing.”
As the title of her book suggests, in addition to tapping into the healing power of poetry and prose, Chavis has also begun using movies in her work. Using carefully chosen clips, she encourages identification with difficult situations and, ultimately, resolution.