Poetry Heals—Literature & Medicine Celebrates National Poetry Month

An Interview with Joan Cusack Handler, Teresa Carson, and Mary Rizzo

Aired March 25, 2012

With its evocative imagery and artistic language, poetry can be a visceral way to understand another person’s experiences, to emotionally connect with them, and see through their eyes. Healthcare workers are increasingly turning to literature, including poetry, in their practice, to improve their patient care and alleviate the stress of their jobs.

In this episode, Joan Cusack Handler, editor, founder and publisher of CavanKerry Press, a New Jersey publisher specializing in poetry; Teresa Carson, a poet and development director for CavanKerry; and, Mary Rizzo, NJCH Associate Director and adminstrator of the Literature & Medicine: Humanities at the Heart of Health Care program, discuss the power of poetry, especially as a tool for healing. Carson reads three poems, written to help her deal with her mentally ill brother’s suicide. These poems, and more than two dozen others, are available at Poetry Heals—Literature & Medicine Celebrates National Poetry Month.

What does poetry have to do with medicine? What transforms a poem about a personal experience from catharsis to art? In this clip, Joan Cusack Handler and Teresa Carson talk about the artistic process and poetry. Mary Rizzo connects literature with medicine, explaining NJCH’s program Literature & Medicine: Humanities at the Heart of Health Care, which gives healthcare workers the opportunity to participate in facilitated reading discussions.

In 1986, Teresa Carson’s brother, who had suffered with mental illness for much of his life, committed suicide by drowning. To deal with her pain, she wrote a series of poems about her brother’s illness and death, including “The Barking Boy,” which confronts the reader with the marginalization of the mental ill and her own shame.

In this clip, Carson and Handler collaboratively read a poem based on the autopsy report for Carson’s brother. The parallel lines of the poem, contrast the clinical language of the medical examiner with the poetic words of the sister, who is remembering her brother’s life. The juxtaposition demonstrates the power of language in shaping how we understand an experience.

The mission of CavanKerry Press is “lives brought to life.” As Handler explains in this clip, this means that CavanKerry publishes authors who reveal the difficult aspects of life with skill and honesty, as demonstrated in Carson’s poem “Weights and Measures,” which she reads. Carson discusses how her poetry has affected readers, especially healthcare workers.

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