A Welcome Letter from Our President
All journeys through both literature and therapy have their own idiosyncratic routes, but I have noticed a great similarity when people from many different disciplines discover the world of poetry therapy and expressive writing in the service of helping others: they express a sense of kinship, belonging, and joy. That was certainly my experience, though my road began when I was a young child. If you are discovering us for the first time, I say “welcome! Come in!”
I was an early and enthusiastic reader, loving both poetry and fiction. My childhood copy of The Big Golden Book of Poetry: 100 Childhood Favorites was well-worn but intact when I began reading it to my children, and still sits on my poetry shelf. Mine was a rather lonely childhood and books were my dearest companions. When I got caught and sent to the principal for reading Little Women behind my primer my mother, the school librarian, arranged for me to go to the library during reading time where I could read anything I wanted! To this day I thank her for my love of language and literature. I wrote poetry on and off through my childhood and teen years but never took my writing very seriously.
I majored in English at UC Berkeley during the 60's, a very turbulent and exciting time and place, and by the time I graduated I had grown impatient with the very dry, academic, critical approaches to literature and I remember saying “I don't care what everyone else says, I just want to write about me and the poem!” Looking back now, I see that was a foreshadowing of the fulfillment I would get from poetry therapy. I do however feel very grateful for a magnificent education, and certain teachers and courses influenced me far more than I realized at the time. In particular I remember the thrill and amazement I experienced when a professor gave a Freudian psychoanalytic interpretation of Isabel Archer in Henry James' Portrait of a Lady. I felt as though a set of huge doors had suddenly been flung open upon a whole new landscape and way of seeing. This was language and symbol and story with unimagined new layers and dimensions. Again, looking back, I see that I was gazing toward a direction I would later fully embrace.
My connection to poetry in the next 6 years after graduation came from reading to my children, a favorite activity that always brought joy. Christopher Robin, Belinda and the dragon, Winken, Blinken, and Nod: again! When the children were 3 and 6, I went back to school to get my Master's in Social Work. I was thrilled when my first paper assignment was to discuss a character from a novel in terms of a particular theory of psychological development. Just like the old English major days! Through graduate school and fieldwork I was increasingly aware that my long-standing fascination with characters and stories was merging with a new, deeper satisfaction, that of having impact, influencing the outcome, maybe even helping change a sad ending. As my friend and colleague Nick Mazza, Poetry Therapy Journal editor, has said: “I was an English major first to learn about the human condition, and a social worker next to do something about it.”
The following years were very busy with working in psychiatric hospitals and raising a family, and though I remained an avid fiction reader, poetry had receded to a shadowy background. Then I started therapy and was journaling like crazy, constantly, voluminously. One day on a 4-hour train trip to visit a friend, I realized that sections of my journal were really demanding to stand alone, to be touched up and polished and paid attention to on their own. That started my poetry-writing again and though sometimes the muse is very elusive it has really never stopped. It took me a very long time to actually call myself a poet as well as a therapist, but now I can.
For a while my professional therapy work and my personal poetry therapy work ran along parallel but separate lines. Then a colleague who had started an intensive psychiatric care day program for very fragile mentally ill patients asked me to develop a modality which would be therapeutic in the moment but also hopefully teach some useful psychological skills such as focusing, calming, and self-soothing. So I brought poems and short stories and thought I had invented something wonderful. It was an amazing discovery: that poetry and story could be effectively used in a therapeutic setting to help even very troubled people grow and heal. When I found NAPT and attended my first conference, my two lifelong interests, literature and helping people, finally came together.
Since then I have received my PTR and brought poetry therapy to psychiatric settings, both inpatient and outpatient, a chemical dependence program for post-partum addicted mothers, domestic violence survivors, cancer survivors, psychology students, family members of the 9-11 victims. I have given numerous workshops and classes, and helped liberate the closeted poets in many of my individual clients. Since becoming a mentor/supervisor I've also had the privilege of helping to train new poetry therapists and facilitators and observing how the beautiful work spreads out into the world. It is a most marvelous thing.
What I had not imagined was becoming president of this organization that has been a warm and cherished professional home for me for over 30 years. We are an affiliation of people who believe in the beauty and the magic of words, who strive to bring art and spirit and healing together in a few lines that can touch a heart and change a life. I welcome this opportunity, and I invite you to join us, contact us, ask questions, explore with us the many forms of expressive writing for growth and healing. Membership brings important benefits, including the “Museletter,” Journal of Poetry Therapy, networking groups, and a wonderful annual conference. Consider joining us in in April in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I hope you will find us both familiar and exciting.
Alma Maria Rolfs, LICSW, PTR