Literary workshop puts poetry in motion for counseling class
Robert Frost said poetry occurs “when an emotion has found its thought, and the thought has found words.”
Frost won four Pulitzer Prizes in his field and knew well of what he spoke, so in light of his perspective, it makes sense that writing could also be useful as a tool in counseling.
About two dozen Radford University graduate students in the course “Death, Loss, Grief and Bereavement” recently got firsthand experience with poems as therapy, initially as an audience and then as composers of their own works.
“One of the things that we look at is the use of the creative arts as a way for people who are grieving to express themselves,” explained Alan Forrest, Ed.D., a professor in the Department of Counselor Education. “And the general goal of grief therapy is to help people externalize the wide array of different emotions that they're experiencing internally, through the creative arts, and in this particular case, through poetry, both listening to poetry and then talking about it.”
On Nov. 8, 2022, Forrest invited two local authors to his class – Colleen Redman and Katherine Chantal. Over the past months, the pair have given interactive readings at the Little River Poetry Festival and Floyd, Virginia’s Jesse Peterman Memorial Library, among other stops.
Chantal recently published “Poetic Memoir of a Nascent Senescent: Poems from My Sixties,” and Redman is the author of numerous books, including 2004’s “The Jim and Dan Stories,” in which she wrote about losing two brothers in the same year.
The authors read to the class – pieces largely about loss – then asked the audience to share their own similar reflections.
“The last hour of the night was spent with the students, reading their heartfelt and poetic statements that came from talking,” Redman wrote of the experience in a post on her blog. “There were goosebumps, sighs and knowing nods. It was a meaningful sharing all around.”
She recently said she believes almost any art can be applied to counseling, particularly writing.
“You’re putting into words things that can’t be put into words, so you’re doing it indirectly. Poetry can help. You can use metaphors; you can get even deeper,” she said, citing the example of her own work and her writing about the passing of her brothers.
“Not only did I feel like it made me a better writer and gave me confidence, it helped me through my grief,” Redman said. “I feel like it made me a better person to have the experience of that loss and to feel and understand that when they left, a part of me left, but a part of them lives in me.”
“And I think [the students] have to be empathetic to be able to be good counselors. To be able to witness grief and sit with it and not be uncomfortable ... and just witness people.”
The poetry was also in line with the course’s primary tracks, which are the academic as well as the practical.
“They're learning the different theory strategies and therapeutic interventions to use and working with clients, which is important because we’re a professional training program,” Forrest explained.
“Another thing that is of equal if not greater importance is for them to become aware of their own thoughts, feelings, beliefs about death and loss, grief and bereavement, so that when they are sitting in the sacred space of a therapy room, and those issues come up, they don't freeze.”
Whitney Harrison, a graduate student from Giles County who’s studying clinical mental health, participated in the exercise and wrote about the various paths her life had taken, routes that led her through both academia and motherhood.
“I found it to be incredibly powerful because poetry is not something that you're taught in a class to necessarily do with people,” Harrison said. “And yet, being in that room and watching all these people share their feelings, different things came out for different people, and it was very impactful for everyone.
“It obviously moved several people,” she added. “And I think if you're going to be vulnerable, being vulnerable in a room full of future counselors is the place to be. Incredibly safe. And the poets themselves were just so warm and accepting and inviting in that space.”