Re­cov­er­ing Po­etry

Poets and Writers - - Contents - Ju­dith Prest is a poet, pho­tog­ra­pher, mixed­me­dia artist, and cre­ativ­ity coach. A re­tired school so­cial worker, she now works part-time at New Choices Re­cov­ery Cen­ter in Sch­enec­tady, New York, where she leads writ­ing and art groups. She lives in up­state Ne

From Po­ets & Writ­ers, Inc.

Any­one who has sur­vived more than a decade or two on this planet has sto­ries to tell. Of­ten, how­ever, peo­ple who strug­gle with ad­dic­tion never get the op­por­tu­nity to sit down and tell or write their sto­ries, not even for them­selves. All avail­able en­ergy is di­rected to­ward sur­viv­ing. But when a per­son lands in a halfway house or day-treat­ment pro­gram—whether by force of will or by de­fault, if it’s the place to which that per­son is sent when the prison doors open, or the easy op­tion when faced with a choice of treat­ment or in­car­cer­a­tion—then, sud­denly, there is time to tell the sto­ries that need telling.

As a writer, cre­ativ­ity coach, and so­cial worker, I be­lieve that cre­ative writ­ing, par­tic­u­larly po­etry, can be a great re­cov­ery strat­egy. I’ve been lead­ing re­cov­ery writ­ing groups at New Choices Re­cov­ery Cen­ter in Sch­enec­tady, New York, for more than a decade. Along the way I be­came one of John Fox’s “Po­etry Part­ners.” John is the di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute for Po­etic Medicine (IPM) in Palo Alto, Cal­i­for­nia, and trav­els around the world and across the United States to bring “Po­etic Medicine” to hos­pi­tals, re­treat cen­ters, and com­mu­nity pro­grams—places where po­etry is not very com­mon.

In late Au­gust, with fund­ing pro­vided by Po­ets &Writ­ers’ Read­ings & Work­shops pro­gram, we were able to bring John to New Choices to fa­cil­i­tate po­etry im­mer­sion work­shops for clients in day treat­ment. Each par­tic­i­pant in John’s work­shop gets a packet of poems—some by well­known po­ets, oth­ers by par­tic­i­pants in pre­vi­ous IPM pro­grams, both chil­dren and adults. The poems are rel­e­vant and evoca­tive and serve as prompts to in­spire par­tic­i­pants to cre­ate poems of their own.

John has a way of help­ing po­etry “sneak up” on peo­ple. He has a gen­tle but fierce com­mit­ment to fo­cus­ing on the words, whether in a poem he is read­ing to the group or one that a par­tic­i­pant is read­ing. Ev­ery­thing is read twice, slowly, with time to ab­sorb the im­pact of the work. This cre­ates an in­ten­sity of fo­cus and leads to deep re­sponses. Of­ten folks who never dreamed of writ­ing any­thing will find the courage to not only write, but also read their work aloud to the group.

On a hot, hu­mid Tues­day morn­ing in Au­gust, John vis­ited New Choices, which is housed in a his­toric build­ing that was once a grand Ma­sonic Tem­ple, to work with two groups of adults who are clients of the ad­dic­tion day-treat­ment pro­gram there. The theme of the ses­sions was taken from the ti­tle of one of John’s own poems: “When Some­one Deeply Lis­tens.”

John cre­ated a space of fo­cus and rev­er­ence in that cav­ernous room, where the sounds of traf­fic three sto­ries be­low would oc­ca­sion­ally in­trude. One woman, who tends to be very quiet and not keen to par­tic­i­pate in groups, wrote and shared a pow­er­ful poem. A young man, new to day treat­ment, read sev­eral of his poems and stated that he never had writ­ten a poem be­fore—and had never con­sid­ered that he might. The ef­fect of po­etry on these two par­tic­i­pants was ev­i­dent from their com­ments (and smiles).

Since John’s visit I have re­ceived great feed­back from clients and staff. One young man told me that af­ter work­ing with John, he got the courage to re­quest a pass to go out and read his work at a lo­cal open mic. An­other client, who has been in the pro­gram for more than a year, work­ing hard to put her life back to­gether, not just for her­self, but for her chil­dren, told me that af­ter she heard her­self read­ing her own words in John’s ses­sion, she fi­nally re­al­ized how far she has come, and that this will help her keep go­ing when she feels im­pa­tient or dis­cour­aged.

John and I are ded­i­cated to bring­ing the heal­ing power of po­etry to folks who have been strug­gling with other as­pects of life. We want peo­ple to ex­pe­ri­ence the ela­tion of cre­at­ing po­etry and shar­ing it. Thank you to Po­ets & Writ­ers for help­ing us to make this pos­si­ble.

This es­say ap­peared, in slightly dif­fer­ent form, on our Read­ings & Work­shops Blog on Au­gust 13, 2018. Learn more about Read­ings & Work­shops at

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