Today’s guest post is written by Karin B. Miller, editor of The Cancer Poetry Project
I was four months pregnant with our first child when my husband was diagnosed with cancer. How would I cope? I wrote poetry.
Back in college I was known for writing poetry and my friends teased me about not having to interview with potential employers. “You don’t need a job: You’re going to be a poet.”
Practical considerations had to be taken into account, however, and my career evolved from corporate communications to magazine writer and editor — with nary a poem in sight.
But my husband’s diagnosis compelled me to write poetry. No other type of writing even occurred to me. After all, as author J. Arroyo says, “Medicines and surgery may cure, but only reading and writing poetry can heal.” Read a poem you relate to and you no longer feel alone. Write a poem from your experience and you feel the healing begin.
Mostly, my poems reflected my fears: Why Thom? Would he survive? Would I raise our child alone?
Fortunately, we learned that Thom had a “good” cancer — testicular, although for him it meant less about his testicles (hey, I was pregnant, right?) and more about the football-sized tumor sitting in his belly. And chemo, harsh as it can be, was a godsend, completely smiting that tumor over four-plus months — just in time for our baby’s arrival. The bald daddy holding the bald daughter: In my mind’s eye, that’s a cherished image.
Yet I kept writing poetry — not fearful, angry poems, but poems of life and babies and celebration. My favorite? A short ditty about Thom climbing out of a canoe, a bouquet of fish hanging from his hand, the pink returned to his cheeks.
And then one morning, I awoke with a big idea: a book of poetry written, not only by patients and cancer survivors, but by spouses and partners, family members, friends, doctors and nurses — absolutely anyone affected by cancer.
Over the next year and a half, I founded, announced and marketed The Cancer Poetry Project. And the poetry poured in — approximately 1,200 poems from which my editorial team selected 140 for the book. The resulting national anthology won critical acclaim, a Minnesota Book Award, and today, is bought by and for cancer patients, their loved ones and their caregivers.
Looking back, when I made that first call for submissions, I didn’t fully appreciate the power of poetry: Cancer doesn’t just move published poets (or even former poets like me) to write poetry. Cancer can move anyone to write poetry. In fact, about one-third of our poets had not been previously published. And a handful had never even written a poem before.
One breast cancer patient heard about the call for poetry, wrote a poem, and sent it off. Her amazing poem, “Farewell to Hair,” inspired the book’s cover image of a nest with three robin’s eggs. Another woman, a social worker, had written a poem about the death of one of her hospice patients, then tucked it away. Ten years had passed when she heard about our call for poetry. Her poem, too, was published in the first volume.
Today, more and more people are discovering the power of poetry to help and to heal: Hospitals, clinics and cancer organizations like Gilda’s Club offer writing groups for people touched by cancer. The National Association of Poetry Therapy is a resource for individuals and groups interested in poetry therapy. Books like When Words Heal: Writing through Cancer by Sharon Bray and Writing as a Way of Healing by Louise Desalvo offer guidance. And physician and poet Dr. Rafael Campo is a major proponent of the power of poetry.
Getting started writing is easy: Read a few poems, maybe a couple by Billy Collins — his plainspoken approach to the everyday will give you permission to get writing. And don’t feel you need to rhyme. Rhyming isn’t required — that’s just what your third-grade teacher told you; I never rhyme. Just let your words flow. Write a poem or two; then later, return to your poem to read it aloud. Does it sound right? Is every word the best word you can use? Does the poem communicate what you’re trying to say? Most important, does it make you feel better for having written it? If the answer is yes, that’s what’s called good medicine.
Karin B. Miller is editor of the award-winning anthology, The Cancer Poetry Project. To learn more, order the book or preorder The Cancer Poetry Project 2, expected out in April, please visit www.cancerpoetryproject.com.