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Poetry project reveals the power of words

August 28, 2007

Alice normally lives on a mountain in Phoenix.

But for several weeks, “home” was a room in the Mayo Hospital while she made the first strides in recovering from a stroke.

Ironically, from her hospital room, Alice could see the mountain where her home was. And so, when Sheila Britton wrote a poem about Alice, she titled it “Alice’s Mountain.”

Alice’s poem, completed in May, is one of more than 50 that Britton, managing editor for ASU Research Publications, has written in the past two-and-a-half years as part of ASU’s Poesía del Sol, a joint project of ASU’s Creative Writing Program and Mayo Clinic’s Center for Humanities in Medicine.

Karla Elling, manager of the Creative Writing Program, coordinates Poesía del Sol, and Alberto Rios, Regents Professor of English, who holds the Katharine C. Turner Chair in English, is the faculty member facilitating the work. The project recently won a Community Governor’s Arts Award.

Every Tuesday afternoon, Britton travels to the Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix with her laptop, a portable printer and a supply of paper folders.

She spends time getting to know one patient, usually a person in palliative care. During a visit of an hour or so, Britton chats with the patient, making notes about his or her jobs, travels, children, pets and dreams. Then, with images fresh in her mind, she goes to a quiet place in the hospital and writes a poem about the person.

Finally, she returns to the patient’s room, reads the poem, and presents it as a gift, printed on handmade paper and tucked inside a folder also made of special paper.

Most Tuesdays, Britton finds a person to write about, but occasionally no one is available.

Her quest usually begins on the third floor of the hospital, where notebooks for Poesía del Sol are kept at the nurse’s station. During the week, Mayo’s physical therapists write names of patients they think would be good candidates for poems, as does Vicki McDermott, a singer who participates in the Humanities program.

Britton notes their names and room numbers, then begins chatting with the nurses about who would be appropriate.

“It’s helpful to talk to the doctors and nurses,” Britton says. “They know if someone is talkative.”

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Britton checked on three patients before finding Alice. One had checked out, one was asleep, and the third was too ill.

“If I don’t find anyone in the hospital, I go to Sherman House, which is Mayo’s hospice,” Britton says.

Generally, Britton writes poetry for patients who still are receiving treatment but nearing the end of their lives. But occasionally, there will be a person who is seriously ill but not dying. One such person was Kai, an 18-year-old patient with lupus who had contracted Valley fever.

“I asked him if this would be something he enjoyed,” Britton says. “He had a tracheotomy and he couldn’t talk, but he nodded yes. His mother answered all of my questions. When I returned to Kai’s room, his mom had gone home to take care of their daughter, and his father was in the room. He had not talked when I was there before. When I finished reading the poem and Kai spelled out, ‘Can I have a copy?’ his dad said, ‘This is amazing. We’re going to hang this on the wall.’ He seemed very moved.”

Why create poetry for very ill or elderly people?

C.J. Kennedy, coordinator for Mayo’s Center for Humanities in Medicine program in Arizona, said Poesía del Sol “gives them the opportunity to express important moments of their lives, and the poem produced is a cherished gift for loved ones of the patient.”

Poesía del Sol “takes the best writers we can find,” Kennedy adds, “because it requires writing poetry ‘on demand.’ The writer usually has less than an hour to create the poem based on the patient’s words, but formed by the poet’s use of metaphor and imagination.”

Alice’s daughter, Barbara, says that her mother “very much enjoyed the ‘discovery’ part of being interviewed. Some of her information caused some poetic misinformation, but generally the poem is right – and we both thoroughly enjoying hearing Sheilah read it.”

Another Tuesday there will be another life, and another poem.

“Every life has a poem,” Britton says.