What an honor it is to serve as your president in order to help sustain and expand our organization and its tremendously worthwhile endeavors. Mary Oliver’s profoundly simple question, “What will you do with your one wild, and precious life,” encapsulates my sense of satisfaction and gratitude when I think of all the people I’ve met and the experiences I have had in relation to this flourishing mode of creative arts therapy that NAPT embodies and celebrates.
Poetry/Bibliotherapy has been a part of my life for such a long time, even before NAPT had its present name. Ever since the mid 1970’s, I have found such a congenial home in this world of talented and devoted interdisciplinary learners, creators, and helpers. I recognized early on that as a member of the NAPT community, I would continually be energized by listening to the stories of how various individuals found their way into our world of poem, story and expressive writing. I recognize so well the gleam in the eye as newcomers delight in discovering an established professional organization that reflects both their passion and career path.
My entry into the world of poetry therapy began when I had two memorable experiences while teaching humanities at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, New York. These experiences motivated me to find one of the fathers of our field, Jack Leedy, in a lower Manhattan office so many years ago.
The first incident occurred when I was teaching Leo Tolstoy’s story, “Family Happiness” in a literature course where most of my students were eighteen or nineteen year olds pursuing a two-year degree in nursing. After an intense discussion of the courtship and marriage struggles faced by Tolstoy’s young heroine and middle-aged hero, four female students, who were all engaged to be married, asked to talk with me after class. Expecting to simply fulfill a course assignment, they were surprised that their literary study was proving to be profoundly illuminating on a personal level. All four students animatedly expressed their appreciation for the insights that the reading and particularly the interchange of ideas had brought them. They were struck by how much they had learned about the expectations and disappointments that couples experience. They gained hope from seeing how conflict can result in growth and reconciliation and gained confidence in their ability to negotiate with their partners when differences arise.
The second incident involved a guest speaker, at a psychiatry department symposium, who shared transcripts of his patients’ exact words voiced at particularly intense moments during the course of their treatment. To my surprise, the authors of these words, none of whom identified themselves as poets, were inadvertently creating rhythmical and metaphorical pieces to powerfully capture what they were going through. What I heard this day set the stage for a core belief that underlies my continued engagement in the poetry therapy field—a belief that we are all fundamentally poets of our heartfelt experiences and the most authentic storytellers of our own lives.
When I followed up on these two experiences and met with Jack Leedy, my life was changed forever. I went to my first poetry therapy conference at the New School for Social Research and have never missed an annual conference since that time! Thanks to Jack and my rewarding conference experiences, I also went on to cultivate awareness of this field in Minnesota when I moved there in 1976. Looking back over these decades, I deeply appreciate how my life’s journey brought me to a place where I could meld my love of literature and creative expression with my desire to help others heal and work toward self-discovery and relational wellbeing. On a regular basis, I continue to witness how literary works foster self-awareness and soothe us with the recognition that we are not alone. I have also experienced the positive impact of creative expression, whether in poetic or story form. I have seen and personally felt the transformation that occurs when we are invited to give voice to our sensory realities, emotions, memories, and dreams.
Besides its focus on enhancing personal lives, the field represented by NAPT also involves cultural healing, and this is an area well worth fostering as we move into the future. Through exploring literary works and sharing our responses, we can step right into the interior space and social setting of individuals so very different from ourselves and thus grow our capacity to empathize with others who have been hurt and limited by prejudice and unjust practices. Through expressive writing, we can explore our own viewpoints with honesty and imagine ourselves into others’ everyday experience. Our passion for creating positive social change can be ignited by the expanded perspective that powerful language encourages.
I look forward to the wonderfully diverse ways in which we will all add our own special spark to this organization, as we relish the growth and healing possibilities of language, symbol and story.
Geri Chavis June 9, 2016