I wrote these three poems in collaboration with a patient in the palliative care unit at the Foothills Hospital. Sarah was in her forties, a diagnosis of bone cancer with a lengthy prognosis, and had been in the hospital for almost twelve months with nothing to do but watch TV and sleep. When I first met her, she was skeptical about my proposal to write poetry with her for my undergraduate English honours thesis project. She told me in no uncertain terms that she disliked both reading and writing poetry, and had since school days. I suspect that she agreed to work with me on my project because she was bored with hospital life and willing to put up with me popping by and peppering her with talk of active verbs and concrete, specific detail.
My honours thesis project came about due to a strong interest in both creative writing and medicine, and I felt that facilitating poetry writing as a type of therapy among patients might be the perfect way to wed both my interests. I recruit potential participants through the physicians and nurses of the palliative care consulting team who recommend patients who might be interested. Then I do the rounds, visiting patients and seeing who would like to be involved. If interested, patients have the choice of one of three creative writing exercises:
(1) A memoir poem – patients commission me to write a poem based on a memory that they describe to me; such a poem would serve as a legacy-building exercise to create a monument that will exist after they pass away.
(2) An Oulipean based exercise whereby the poet omits a letter of the alphabet. This omissions helps the patient write a poem based on constraints that allows them to struggle with, and overcome the loss that illness and dying brings into one’s life.
(3) An aleatory cut up technique exercise. The poet physically cuts up and rearranges words from their own personal medical documents. This exercise is a way of resisting the medical text so as to prevent it from determining the participant’s identity as solely “patient” or “sick person.” By reforming the text into a poem, the participant regains control.
Most patients have chosen to commission a poem for me to write. I think this is because people tend to be rather frightened of poetry and view it as something that only those with a certain specialized skill can undertake successfully. I took my role as memoirist seriously and put a lot of pressure on myself to write a cure – thinking that in some way, if I could just write a good poem, it would cure my patients and make it so they wouldn’t have to die. Of course, this kind of expectation made it incredibly difficult to actually put anything down on the page, and I remember spending several agonizing hours laboring on the above poem, fearing my patient’s disappointment in my work while worrying about staying true to my own aesthetics as a poet. The struggle of the creative process, in tandem with a growing awareness of my own mortality, manifested in the form of minor physical ailments – I nursed a seriously unromantic and unremitting case of heartburn for weeks.
These symptoms began to subside when I was able to persuade my patients to write. This relieved me while empowering them to tell their own stories. Sarah began to write her own poem, one about snow fairies. She dictated to me while I typed and offered the occasional suggestion. She liked to show the progressing poem to friends, family, and medical staff. She told me that she never knew she could write before this and asked if I would stay and write with her past the end of my thesis. Unfortunately, last week, her symptoms worsened and she passed away, the poem almost complete, but untitled. I feel sad knowing that Sarah didn’t get to see the complete and final poem before she died but I’m also really happy that she was able to tap into the delight of creativity and discover her inner poet while she lived. I will leave you with the poem she wrote: