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

The opportunity to take part in a research project about poetry and wellbeing, by participating in online workshops, appealed to me because I have not previously associated poetry with health libraries and I was interested in discussing the potential benefits. I hadn’t anticipated writing much of my own poetry during the workshops, but that revealed itself to be the focus.

I received confirmation of my place on the second of two workshops after a few weeks on the waiting list. Not having participated in the first workshop, I felt as though I was thrown in at the deep end with the first exercise which was free writing i.e. writing whatever comes to mind. Before the session I had quickly looked at one of the few poetry books on my shelf – ‘Five Sugars Please’ by John Hegley. I used the title as the inspiration for completing the first exercise and wrote an exchange between a customer and a member of staff in a coffee shop.

Five sugars please said the man and I was shocked. Five. Sugars. Too sweet surely. A nice day with a blue sky, what could be the cause of this demand? Five sugars. Teaspoons? Cubes? Sachets. It didn't matter how they were served, he wanted five sugars. I watched the clock tick slowly as I decided upon my response. Should I ask why? Why five sugars? Had something gone wrong? I yielded to the demand. Later I spoke to a colleague. She told me he always asks for five sugars. Every day. What had gone wrong?

After ten minutes of writing we were encouraged to read out what we had written or share it in the chat. Our facilitator, Betty Doyle, read out ones that were shared in the chat. I decided to listen to what other people had written for the first exercise, slightly nervous about sharing my own writing. I was impressed with what people had written. There were some elegantly written pieces and it became clear that people were writing and sharing personal thoughts and feelings, things that I’m sure we wouldn’t normally share in casual conversation.

After the second exercise, a list poem, I decided to share what I had written. Having only a limited time to write the poem, I took inspiration yet again, from the title of Hegley’s book and started writing about sugar and built the list from there.

Warm comforting feeling
For a while
Clear acrylic
Cake calling
Red velvet
High hopes
Can’t wait for cake!
Cake gone.

The result was something entertaining rather than personal, although halfway through when I wrote the line ‘warm comforting feeling’ I realised that the poem could be about something more than the simple pleasure of a cup of tea. I thought about the appeal of a ‘quick fix’ which doesn’t last. The second half of the poem is very similar to the first, but the focus has changed from tea to cake. The anticipation builds and then vanishes.

The third exercise was to write an erasure poem. The concept, which was new to me, involved taking an existing piece of writing and turning it into a poem by deleting words from it. Betty gave us a selection of written material to choose from. I chose a Wikipedia entry for the cultural significance of eggs. Having written about cake in my list poem, it seemed only right to choose one of the ingredients to write about. Eggs of course aren’t just ingredients; they are the source of new life and as such are a fascinating subject for a poem.

As a man who isn’t a vegan, I probably have a less interesting insight into eggs than some. I used to have an egg allergy, but I couldn’t necessarily draw upon that experience in this exercise; I had to work with what was already on the page. I won’t include the full poem here, just my favourite lines which transfer characteristics of eggs onto people:

Hard-boiled adults often hide
Very messy when broken

I found this exercise the most engaging of the three. Even though I wasn’t writing my own words, I was making my own choices and forming sentences of my own construction. After the exercise the group commented on how we felt this was an accessible exercise that could be used with people who might be reluctant to write poetry. There is a rebellious aspect to it as well; erasure poems could completely alter the meaning of the original piece. It is something I think would work well as an activity in any workshop that aims to spark creativity.

The workshop renewed my interest in poetry and I would encourage everyone to read more poetry and have a go at writing some. I found myself more cheerful after the workshop and I’m sure this was due to the satisfaction of having undertaken the writing exercises and feeling creative. I don’t think poetry is a ‘quick fix’ I think it is something much more nutritious.

Martyn Greenwood, Airedale NHS Foundation Trust