The Bellevue Literary Review editor-in-chief Danielle Ofri, MD, discusses why poetry and literature are important to medicine: “The creativity that comes from literature is critical to medical education… The main reason literature resonates so well with medicine is the use of metaphor. To be skilled clinicians and to get the right diagnosis, we must be able to interpret our patients’ metaphors.” Read Rafael Campo’s poem Morbidity and Mortality Rounds.
I also believe poetry can help to heal. So I want you to think of someone other than yourself, someone who is suffering. Maybe it’s someone who has cancer, or has lost a pet or a parent. Can you write a poem prescription for them? What might you say to them to help them heal? Make sure to engage the senses of your readers.
Read Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith, the current U.S. Poet Laureate. She references a traditional song, but she also creates some music of her own in the poem by using rhyme and rhythm. Can you reference a popular or traditional song that means something to you and create some new musicality out of it?
“We can train ourselves to respect our feelings, and to discipline (transpose) them into a language that matches those feelings so they can be shared. And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it.”
This week I encourage you all to read the essay Poetry is not a Luxury by Audre Lorde. Even if you are not a woman of color, I would like you to consider how her arguments might apply to your life, your poetry. Is there a hidden power in your core, in feelings you have yet to explore? I’d also like you to read two poems of hers, Hanging Fire, and Coal. Pick whichever poem resonates the most feeling in you, and then isolate that feeling, and study how it feels. Use her poetry as a leaping off point to explore your own feelings. What situation in your own life does the feeling conjure? Or perhaps you imagine a character’s situation, or a metaphor comes to mind… write as if your life depended on it.
Picture attribution: Elsad at the English language Wikipedia
If you could ask for a special power, what would it be? Why would you ask for that one? How does your current life (or your speaker’s life) differ from what it would be like if you could, say, fly? Read this beautiful poem by Nickole Brown, A Prayer to Talk to Animals, and observe the way she envisions this transformation. Write a poem of your own where the speaker either wishes for or actually gains a special power.
In Marie Howe’s new poetry book Magdalene, she envisions Mary Magdalene living in contemporary times. In her poem “Magdalene on Surrender”, how does the child resist change? How does the speaker of the poem resist change? When does each figure (the mother and the daughter) surrender in the poem? Who surrenders first? Write a poem that depicts an interaction between two individuals who initially conflict with each other, but as the poem progresses, allow at least one of them to surrender, either to the situation, or to the other person. If you don’t have access to the full text of the poem, you can alternatively read these three lines from another part of the same book:
“How many times did he say it
Change doesn’t hurt he’d say,
as much as the resistance to change”
Study how Kathleen Kilcup ends her poem on an open note, with an incomplete thought at the end of her poem. How does this affect your experience of the poem? What do you expect the tomb to say? Can you write a poem of your own ending with an incomplete thought (without frustrating the reader)?
This week I want you to retell a classic tale with a twist. Think of a fairy tale or myth that is close to your heart. Can you tell the story in a new way? Maybe it’s not Cinderella but the prince who leaves his shoe behind. Maybe Hansel and Gretel are so hungry and greedy they try to eat the old woman in addition to her gingerbread house. When working on your poem, try using visceral language to describe a moment that is central to the story. If it helps, you may think of what fairy tale might describe your life, or instead, write a persona poem about a character you’ve encountered who reminds you of an archetype.
For an example of this, read Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet Bluebeard. How does she twist this classic tale?
Start off your poem with the statement “there are two kinds of people in the world.” Dog people and cat people? People who can cook and people who can bake? Can you find an acceptable binary to work with in the poem? Remember that the speaker of the poem does not have to have the same worldview as yourself. Check out Maya Jewell Zeller’s poem from Radar for an example.
Write a poem about love without using the word love (or any derivations of it, like loving, lovely…). Instead, use as many words as you can that have “love” hidden inside of them: slovenly, glove, clover, cloven, foxglove, etc. If you choose, you could even include words like evolve and revolution, which contain the word love in them backwards.
This week I learned of a tradition of self love through poetry, after the likes of Frank O’Hara and Ocean Vuong. For this week’s prompt, I must give credit to my wonderful mentor, Elaine Sexton, who granted me permission to share this idea with you. Title your poem “Someday I will love __your name here__.” This is a great exercise to do in the wake of Valentine’s Day in particular. How would you write a Valentine to yourself? For ideas, see Ocean Vuong’s poem Someday I’ll love Ocean Vuong, and also Frank O’Hara’s poem Katy. This poetic exercise, I think you’ll find, has the potential to change your life. If you enjoy this prompt and live in the NYC area, also consider signing up for Elaine Sexton’s Poets House workshop, Finding the Art in the Line, which starts on Tuesday, Feb 21, 2017.