Poetry at Work: Sue Spencer

Poetry is in work, it is work, and it has been there all along.” –Glynn Young

My journey into poetry at work found me in 2004 when I met Julia Darling at a writing workshop for “tired academics.” I was struggling to write my doctorate and a friend and colleague suggested Julia might prove an ally in my quest to close the gap between the professional world and patient world in health care. My friend was right, but I am sure neither of us anticipated how the next 10 years would turn out.

I didn’t get my PhD, but instead pursued and earned a Creative Writing MA and launched a regular poetry workshop at a local hospice. I even secured a Twitter handle that reflects a deep and enduring belief in the power of poetry to change the way we work in health care.

Then I came across Glynn Young’s Poetry at Work. Reading his book has been liberating as I have realised that I had thought I needed to keep my poetry and professional life separate. Over the last few months I have begun to see that being a poet in my workplace is a more authentic way of being professional.

In Poetry at Work, Young says he writes poems to help make sense of differences in values and resolve the dissonance he experiences. I do the same and invite others to, as well. Poetry provides comfort and insight during the toughest times and helps make sense of a professional life dedicated to caring for others.

Young’s book includes poetic exercises at the end of each chapter—something that many professionals often find awkward and odd. The looks on people’s faces when I announce that we are going to write a poem are priceless—expressions of horror and fear are frequent. However, some of the most satisfying experiences have come from enabling others to write a poem that means something to them and communicates effectively to others. That shared understanding helps increase compassion—an essential bridge in effective health care.

I recently made the decision to focus my professional life: the poet in me wanted to make more of a difference, and the nurse in me realised that would only happen in health care practice.

“[P]oetry can be found in any and all work,” Young writes, “not only poetry added on or brought from the outside, but intrinsically present, waiting for us to realize it, see it, hear it, read it, and write it.” I have begun to see the poetry intrinsically present in many of the things I do as a nurse and leader. I know this will sustain me over the next few months of transition.

I am now proud to say that I am a nurse who writes poetry, reads poetry, facilitates others and promotes poetry whenever and wherever I can. I have ceased to be apologetic about it, and I seek opportunities to discuss the issues as much as I can. I’m living out what Young describes in Poetry at Work: “They (poets) just need to be given the freedom to do what they do best: help navigate uncharted territory and speak with poetic precision to lead the way.”

Poetry gave me the courage to take the steps needed to move into the workplace and integrate the two—and Poetry at Work affirmed my decision. Only time will tell if this has been the right choice, but one thing I know: poetry will influence many of the decisions I will now make in my new role.

Featured photo by Dan Foy, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Sue Spencer, a university lecturer who will transition to a position at a hospice in the U.K in August 2014.

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  1. says

    It would be interesting sometime to know the source of the shock and horror at writing poetry :) And, also, how you get around it.

    Enjoyed reading this, Sue!

    • Sue Spencer says

      When I have explored the shock and horror it always has its origins in English classes at school (ages 10 – 14). Fear of humiliation and being stupid. Those teachers have a lot to answer for in my humble opinion. I had an art teacher like that – the legacy can last many years

      • says

        Interesting. So that’s about fifth to ninth grades, which is when children are just entering and solidifying the Logic Stage.

        Now I’m thinking about this. What are the big implications for teachers, in terms of teaching techniques? Is it a problem with techniques? Or attitudes towards the age group?

        Also, what are the implications for how to reach back and heal this, change things in the present?

  2. Marcy Terwilliger says

    Wrote this poem about two years ago, thought of it after reading what Sue said.
    “Room With a View.”

    Room with a view,
    Nurses peer through glass
    Windows right at you.
    Clean floors with a shine,
    Smell of bleach nearby.
    Two rolls of recliners,
    Which side do you take?
    Windows behind me,
    Sky black as the Ace of Spades.
    Sit, lean back, rest your feet,
    Your going to be here for a while.
    Some are quiet,
    Others bring a friend.
    Talking is allowed,
    Not everyone joins in.
    Peepers go off,
    Nurses race in.
    Then the place is soundless,
    IV placed in arms,
    Some go in hands.
    You watch and wait,
    As your bag empties out.
    Cancer doesn’t care,
    Who it attacks.
    Your filled with fluid,
    It’s your only saving gave.
    Be back next week,
    Same time, same place.


  1. […] Take Your Poet to Work Day? On the surface I suppose it might look like a big organization driving a music box on wheels, peddling poets on a stick all around the world for people to take to work. But at its heart, it’s about access. To the past, to yet-unimagined futures, to connections with famous poets or to each other (over the topic of poetry and poems and poets). We know this. On Take Your Poet to Work Day, we saw conversations between friends and colleagues; we saw a post of a heart broken through a Gaza wall that someone labeled with the hashtag #poettowork; we saw people posting links to poems at Poetry Foundation, The Writer’s Almanac, Poem Hunter, Poets.org; we saw imagination at work. And it’s imagination, ultimately, that allows a person like Maya Angelou to reinvent herself, that allows Mary Ruefle to write like Mary Ruefle, that turns a skyline into a “patient etherized upon a table,” and that brings a patient back to health. […]

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