I first met Ronna Bloom last year when she was facilitating a workshop for students as U of T’s Poet in Community. During this workshop, she gave participants the creative liberty to understand and express themselves through poetry. I later ran into Ronna several times throughout the year, including in her role as Poet in Residence at Mt. Sinai where she brings poetry into healthcare.
Most recently, we met for coffee at a bustling café. I came prepared with a list of questions to ask, but what unfurled was a frank and honest conversation punctuated by laughs, digressions, and whole lot of “wait a second, I have to write that down!” We also talked about poetry, healthcare, and their interesting intersection, leaving me with a lot to think about.
Here is a snapshot into my conversation with Ronna:
Paige Zhang: How to begin? I feel like I have so many questions. Well, how about we start with the “get to know you” questions – how did you come to be a poet?
Ronna: As a kid, I wrote in a journal. It was a place for feelings, and I felt that by writing them, they were being heard… held, even. It was a place to vent, to feel, to find relief. Since then, I’ve been writing poetry to capture emotions and experiences – those small moments that can quietly and easily slip away.
P: Poetry is quite powerful in that way.
R: Yes, poetry is a way to capture the emotions when they hit you. In that moment, with that intensity…
P: Ronna, can you describe a typical day in your life?
R: There is no typical day. It’s a balance between doing work with people in the form of workshops or talks, and getting quiet so I can write. I appreciate both wide engagement with others and solitary time. One part feeds the other. Because of the intensity of work with others, every few months I’ll take three days, shut down the email telephone-text-pipeline, read poetry and write.
P: It does seem difficult in this day and age to really just put a pause on other things.
R: Yes, it’s non-stop, especially in healthcare. There will always be something to do. But it’s important to be, to reflect, and to take a minute to see where you are and what is happening around and within you.
P: Is this what you help to facilitate with your work?
R: I help create the space to do so. I design workshops in which people write about their personal and professional lives. A workshop offers a structure, a bit of guidance and a context in which to take time to reflect. People don’t often do this alone but once they write in a group it becomes an option for them for later.
Each workshop is hinged around a particular theme, a phrase, a common experience. I want to ask: ‘What is the meaning of this word or experience for this person having it in this moment?’ Stripping away the jargon and buzzwords, but simply exploring what it means to you now. For example, the word stress or the word compassion– how does it smell? Where do you carry it? It’s these questions we get to explore.
P: Why do you think it’s important to facilitate poetry in the practice of medicine?
R: There is a risk that we go on autopilot and that we cease to be connected to what is happening around and inside of us. We ask ourselves, “what are we supposed to do?” and then miss the experience of living. We miss information that connects to ourselves and others.
P: That is so true. I mean, it definitely happened to me earlier today… we were working on our interview skills with a patient in the wards. Sometimes it feels like a checklist – as if after you finish asking about the drug history, you ask about the smoking history and then check, check, check. Well, today we asked about the drug history, and the patient listed all the drugs he tried and then he said… that his brother recently died during a drug overdose. I feel like sometimes, it would be easy to move past something like that – to just go, “and now, do you smoke?” But in that moment when he mentioned his brother, the formula fell apart.
R: Thank you for sharing that. How did you respond?
P: To be honest, I didn’t know how. Just simply, “I’m really sorry.” I don’t know if it was enough.
R: I think it’s good you were able to pause and say something like that.. What you felt. You heard him.
P: It’s hard to do that in the moment sometimes. I wonder what the correct way to interpret how I feel is, and to determine how to respond.
R: We can often think too much of how we judge ourselves. Everyone carries so much judgment. Stakes are very high as you witness a lot of pain. It’s important to be present and genuine inasmuch as one can – being in that space with the person in front of you. With all of your warmth, empathy, knowledge, and respect.
And you know what? We sometimes miss things in interviews, and you can always ask ‘did I miss something?’ This allows the patient to reflect too, and if they know they’re being heard, might tell you more..
P: This leads into a cool project of yours I want to learn more about. How have your experiences been with the spontaneous poetry booth?
R: They’ve been very very very (can I say very 14 times?) interesting for me both as a psychotherapist and as a poet.
I begin by asking “what do you need a poem about?”. Because I don’t know the person — they have simply arrived at a table where I’m sitting –, I think they wonder ‘how interested are you? how much do you want to know?’ It requires trust in this encounter. (Same I guess as in a first encounter with a patient.) In this way, if they want a poem about trees I’ll ask more, because every person will have a different feeling and world that springs from that. So I need to get a sense of ‘what is this poem really about for you?’ If they say ‘write about trees turning colour’. This can mean different things for different people: sadness, their favourite season, or that the colour orange reminds them of their childhood….
Once I get the feel of what they are asking, I come up with the first line. I don’t think about it, and I always say “you get whatever comes – good or bad”. This can be very powerful and cuts right to the core of what’s happening there.
I try to articulate their experience, and my experience as well, as I perceive it. It’s a powerful thing to try to reflect in language what a person might be feeling even before they have put words on it themselves.
P: Wow, you really describe the power of poetry so well. Personally, I find it quite hard to describe. A lot of my friends in medical school have come up to me and said, “so Paige, I hear you like poetry. What’s the deal with that?”
R: Well, what do you tell them then?
P: Well, I normally just say that poetry isn’t this fancy pretentious thing. But it’s actually the easiest, truest way I know how to say what I want. No bells or whistles, just what comes to me. And I feel that poetry that I read resonates in the same way. It’s honest.
R: That’s good, you should write that into the interview. It demystifies poetry. (laughs) “Poetry – what’s the deal??!”
P: Yeah, that’s what I like about poetry. It’s liberating, and we get to say what we want!
R: Absolutely! And because of the speed and ephemeral nature of our encounters in health care, the poem is perfect form: poetry can distil experience quickly and potently in very few words.
I’ve been writing poetry for a long time. When I was working as a University counsellor for 12 years, I would take time between clients to close my door for 5 minutes and write what urgently had to be written. It helped me to understand what happened – to acknowledge it. I found it necessary for my mental health. And that’s true for many healthcare practitioners. When they have energy, their patients have energy too. It’s like emotional nourishment. Emotional plumping, so to speak!
P: (laughs) That phrase! “Emotionally plumping!” I can just imagine a patient coming in. “Mr. X is a 50 year old male who presents with emotional plumping.”
P: Ronna, this has been such a pleasure to chat. One final thing – Do you have any advice to give to me — and to our readers — healthcare students and healthcare practitioners?
R: Write. Feel. Work. Talk. Feel. Write. Look. Ask.
Ronna Bloom is a poet, psychotherapist, speaker, and author of 5 books. Find out more about her at her website: http://www.ronnabloom.com/