Poetry in health libraries virtual workshops,08/06/21 & 22/06/21 Manchester Metropolitan University

Like (I suspect) many people, the word poetry fills me with anxiety and takes me back to excruciating English lessons at school when people would be asked to read lines of poetry aloud to an unreceptive and giggling bunch of teenagers. I enjoy reading novels but I rarely read poetry for pleasure and I feel that my school experiences did put me off.

Despite my unpromising beginnings with poetry, I was intrigued when I saw that staff from Manchester Metropolitan University were conducting an action research project on poetry in health libraries. The group stated that they were looking to explore the concept of poetry anxiety and to ask if it was a real thing (in my case, it was!) and to consider whether poetry can add to the existing NHS Health Library offer?

We began the workshops by doing some free writing in prose which (as the name suggests) involves people being asked to write about whatever they wish. The facilitators (Betty and Andrew), however, suggested that participants should use some text which was near them (whether this was a book, a newspaper article or another written format) and to pick a sentence from that as a first sentence in the free writing. This was a useful technique as it provided an ‘anchor’. If the facilitators had just asked me to do some free writing completely off the top of my head, this would have been liberating in a way but having too much choice can be overwhelming and can lead to me “clamming up”. We used other techniques in the workshops as a way to “ground people” when writing by using prompts and “comforters” such as the golden shovel. We later turned our prose free writing into a poem.

Andrew and Betty effectively dispelled mine (and I think others’) anxiety about poetry. They showed how poetry can be about any subject and doesn’t necessarily have to be overly “high-brow”. It also struck a chord when they said that it’s helpful to think about poetry as forming part of a continuing conversation with previous poetry and prose. All this helped to effectively dispel the myth that poetry is inaccessible and obtuse and not for the average person. Anyone can write poetry (and it doesn’t have to rhyme!). I’m very grateful that I arrived at this conclusion (with the facilitators’ help) and I would encourage others to engage with poetry in their work and personal lives.

Rachel Steel, Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust