It happened to poet James Elsaesser, when he was leading a workshop in 2015. A 92-year-old man wrote this poem in response to a Mad Libs-type prompt about his service in World War II, more than seventy years earlier:
time moves on for every man
but for you it stands still
the bombs and bullets fly
and you forever die
— David Wilner
James had facilitated a lot of workshops, but he hadn’t witnessed that kind of catharsis. He shared the story with Gwen Federico-Malone, associate director of DASI, Domestic Abuse & Sexual Assault Intervention Services in Newton, New Jersey. DASI (pronounced “daisy”) is located in Sussex County and serves people who have experienced domestic abuse, sexual violence, or human trafficking. Federico-Malone invited James to lead a poetry group at DASI, where he now serves as part of the nonprofit’s Prevention Team.
Before joining DASI, James reached out to a friend who is a retired psychologist for advice. The friend said, “Present your material. Let people tell their story. Get out of the way.”
That’s basically what has happened for the last five years.
James runs the poetry group like any other one. He starts by having participants take ten good breaths. If someone is new, introductions are made. He reminds everyone to respect each other’s ideas and maintain confidentiality. No one can apologize for anything they write, and James reminds them to have fun. Then they each read a quote from something grand.
“It’s important on a couple levels. People get to hear their voice in the room and to hear their voice saying something extraordinary,” he said.
They also read a list of ten affirmations from John Fox’s Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making.
“Having done this for the fifth year, we’ve had the most extraordinary discussions about these affirmations,” James said, adding that the sentences sound different in the mouths of these poets. “There’s a different gravity. This isn’t about publication; this is about surviving and moving on from whatever horrors people have experienced into a better life.”
After the affirmations they read a poem together. James has found that this group processes poems differently than, say, students in a university setting. When they read and discussed Robert Bly’s Things to Think, one stanza stood out to two of the participants.
Think that someone may bring a bear to your door,
Maybe wounded and deranged; or think that a moose
Has risen out of the lake, and he’s carrying on his antlers
A child of your own whom you’ve never seen.
“A woman was red in the face. She said, ‘I know what this is! I don’t have words for it, but I know what it is! That wounded bear, that’s me. That’s what happened to me as a child.’ Another woman said, ‘Yeah, that child coming out of the lake, that’s me coming out of the past, into my new life,’” James recalled. “I sat back and said, ‘I’ve been reading this poem for twenty years, and I thank you for showing me what it’s all about.’”
Drawing from John Fox, James encourages the group to find a line they like from the day’s poem and use it as a launching point for writing their own. Then they read what they’ve written.
“They’re into it now. They get in gear,” James said. Although he acknowledged that tears are not unusual, “I’m happy to say that laughter is much, much more prevalent in our meetings.”
A woman named M. Renae Matthews once wrote the following poem:
Poetry puts me in the moment
which is a very difficult thing for me
All manner of intense pain comes out on the page
It’s a great effective catharsis
I think it’s beautiful
It’s not something I ever thought I would do
But I like it
I like it a lot
Despite the fact that this poetry group exists in a therapeutic environment, James doesn’t try to force the group to be therapeutic. Before joining, members have already completed an intake process, including an intensive writing program and much counseling. James meets with Prosline Saint-Armand, DASI’s director of counseling, before the group begins each week, so he can know how each person is doing. A counselor is part of the poetry group and can assist if someone gets triggered or needs extra attention. James simply presents the material and gets out of the way.
“We have our stories, our narratives that circle around us, that define who we are and who we’ve been, the world at large, but poetry penetrates that story,” he said. “I’ve never asked anyone to share their story.”
And yet, they do. Some have even shared the poems they’ve written at DASI public events for Domestic Violence Awareness Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month. DASI’s annual budget includes funding for the poetry group because it helps people come back to themselves. The group has published one collection titled RiseUp! and has a new one coming out called Phoenix Rising.
In these poetry groups James has seen women with no more than an eighth-grade education fill a page with words. He’s been a witness as people speak, are heard, and become integrated into community — both in the group and in the greater world. And although poetry is a way for people to heal, it’s not a panacea.
“It’s not like we produce a book of poetry, and we turn a page,” James said. “Prosline Saint-Armand (she’s from Haiti) she shared a Haitian maxim: ‘After the mountain, there are mountains.’”
For each mountain, there is also poetry. Always.
Browse more poetry resources
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro