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

I work as a Library Assistant in the Leeds Teaching Hospital Trust, one of the biggest acute NHS trusts in the country.

In June I volunteered to participate in a series of poetry workshops. Staff from Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) were conducting an action research project on poetry in health libraries, and they needed a diverse group of Northern NHS Library staff to explore an intriguing question: ‘Can poetry add to the existing NHS Health Library offer?’.

Although my Trust library stocks a couple of poetry titles, we make no further use of poetry within our Library. Being interested in poetry I decided to take part.

The workshop was led by published poet Betty Doyle, who is currently pursuing a PhD in infertility poetry at MMU. She shared practical ideas on how to use poetry in a library context as a tool to encourage staff, public and patient involvement.

Together with some help from other staff from MMU, Betty and our team explored different techniques to help open new and interesting creative possibilities for our own writing. As a group we worked through varied exercises from ‘free writing’ exercises to ‘list poems’, through to the intriguing and my favourite ‘erasure poetry’.

As the workshops began, I was hesitant. I’ve always struggled with spelling; I confuse words and letters which often appeared jumbled. What seemed to come easily to others appeared impossible to me. Remedial reading and writing lessons as a child and my refusal to concede defeat made me an avid reader. I still lack confidence with words, especially when I entered the world of health libraries where terminology posed a further challenge to my word blindness.

For me, the workshops became a liberating and cathartic experience, helping me to question my own preconceptions of what poetry can offer.

Poetry can be many things, it can be deeply personal, emotive and help in times of great distress. It can also be communal, encourage creative thinking and enable you to make connections from everyday objects and experiences; linking ideas to personal narrative and memory; a song to engage all our senses.

The workshops reminded me how liberating poetry can be; free from my immediate cares and worries to open a world of the now; a fleeting moment of intense creative thought, attempting to capture an idea, a feeling, or a memory through words.

Some of the techniques that can be used included word games or using words by association. Poetry is not just about sentences, syntax, and structure. It can be anything you want it to be. Fluid and malleable, it can be direct or wonderfully abstract, it can encourage flights of fancy that can take you down a rabbit hole to your own Wonderland.

It doesn’t even need to be written down, oral story telling in poetry form existed long before the written word.

Liberated from the constraints of spelling, punctuation, or grammar, you can experiment with poetry as play, or poetry as song. Our team recounts their experiences using images in poetry workshops to create montages or shape poems.

Librarians are often described as curators of culture in all its myriad forms, with libraries credited as a safe space, a place of neutrality in which our readers can explore, contemplate, and expand your knowledge and learning.

These workshops have indeed inspired me, poetry can indeed add to the existing NHS Health Library offer. It may enable staff and readers to find their voices too, what ever form that may take.

These workshops will help you sow the seed for your own poetry offering. Why not embark on an adventure into the beauty of poetry?

Sally Hall, Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust