Be Strange, Be Real:
John Fox sees poetry in your life

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing)

John Fox, poet and author of Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making, will be in Atlanta May 21-23 to conduct a workshop with the same theme as his book title.

Fox's appearance here will follow his participation the week before in the annual conference of the National Association for Poetry Therapy in Charleston. Fox is on the board of that organization and also teaches at John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, Calif.

For more information on Fox's workshop here, contact Anne Wissler, 404-607-9598. Cost is $150.

Fox and I recently talked:

What will people be doing in your workshop?

We'll be writing of course, learning to speak with our poetic voices so that we can say what we haven't been able to say. I emphasize 'knowing less' in my workshops. By that I mean to counter the ordinary sense we all live with - that we have to look good and know how to get from point a to point b. 'Knowing' is great for opinions but not so great the rest of the time. In my workshop, nothing is required. We come to the blank page with a sense of playfulness, supported by a community, and, with more trust, we move into an appreciation of mystery.

But why poetry? Why not some other process or art?

Because it's such a durable way of expressing oneself. But it's also permeable, interesting, allows for a sense of discovery. Poetry really does give the unspeakable a voice. What we can't say, or feel we can't say in ordinary language, can find voice in poetry. I mean, why not poetry?

You say that poetry is healing. What is healing? It's a word we use constantly now but everyone assumes a shared understanding of its meaning.

Well, I don't mean 'curing.' It's not about looking for specific answers and outcomes. When I talk about healing, I mean finding a connection with yourself that feels deeply rooted. That sense of deep rootedness in turn gives you a sense of who you are and what matters to you. I think a very important part of healing is making contact with others. There's that moment in Our Town when Emily says to her mother that for a moment she felt really seen. This happens in poetry. When the façade is down, we recognize ourselves and others see us. This evokes such a sense of mystery about life. It also brings us into contact with the world at large, nature.

That really impressed me about your book, that you do talk about personal healing but you also talk about nature, our relationship to the larger world. Then I realized, that poets have always done that, always had a larger view.

Yes, and I extend that to social justice, too. This work is about developing a poetic perspective and that means living from your heart.

Well, this is at the foundation of my own critique of psychotherapy. It is reductive. It reduces everything to causes, to origins, so the client is forever brought back to this concern with biography and the past. I wrote a paper on Sophocles' cycle of Oedipus plays recently. The Oedipus myth forms the foundation of Freud's psychology. I realized, with James Hillman, that the play's importance to Freud, beside the contents, is its action -- Oedipus' insisting against all advice to the contrary to know his origins, to reduce everything to his personal wound and history. Poetics, on the other hand, asks you to imagine your life differently.

That is a very important point. You see, a poem breathes. It opens. It depends on how it's done, of course, but you're right. Psychotherapy is generally reductive. It generalizes and classifies you, gives you a diagnosis. But a poem, through metaphor, opens you. It's the difference in story, which invokes the imagination, and biography, which is fixed and reductive.

I think we do have to give Freud credit, though, for framing his foundational thought in terms of a myth, a story. It does mean that he was, at some level, trying to open doors in the psyche to a new way of imagining, but he got trapped in literalizing.

And Jung did stay with the myth, the story….I think another thing we find in poetry that we don't find so much in therapy is an appreciation of the strangeness of life…

Well, yes, although if you read the early cases of Freud and Jung, you are fired by their fascination and appreciation for the weirdness of psyche. I think that's been lost from psychology though. Now the weirdness is all pathologized, has to be fixed…Speaking of which, I noticed in your book that you are fond of Rilke, as I am.

Now, he's a poet who certainly opens us to the strangeness of life. He speaks to the uncommonness of experience with incredible compassion. Rilke teaches us to hold ourselves and others in our strangeness and mystery with absolute compassion. And I think Rilke's poems stay with us, as medicine, as our own poems can. The place where the poem opens to us - mysteriously, to strangeness -- is where its healing is.

One of my professors says that the appropriate question when a client comes in for therapy is not, 'What happened this week?" but "What unusual, what out of the ordinary happened?" In the strange we find ourselves, our meanings. This is an invitation to reverse the continual reduction to the same old story.

Yes, that's listening poetically. Where were you surprised this week? What seemed strange in your week?

Now I am presuming people don't have to be poets or writers to take your workshop. The point here is not to become a good poet, but to find one's voice, right?

Yes, that's right. My work isn't at heart about creating poets but about transformation, learning to hear, to listen, to trust, to pay attention.

Copyright 1999 by Creative Loafing

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