Victoria Field is a writer, teacher and facilitator, and passionate about the use of poetry in particular, as a tool for self-discovery. This interview explores the power of therapeutic writing and writing for wellbeing.
Hi Victoria. Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed for Wellbeing Lifelines.
I’d like to start by asking you when and how did your journey with poetry therapy begin?
My academic background is in psychology although I’ve always loved literature. I read voraciously as a child and wrote letters and diaries, but it wasn’t until I did my first ever writing workshop on the island of Skyros at the age of 32 that I realised the power of using the material of my own life as a basis for poems and fiction.
After working abroad for many years, I came back to the UK and took a job as Director of Survivors Poetry – an organisation that’s still thriving. That led me to Lapidus – ditto – and through contacts there, I found myself on a weekend workshop led by John Fox, an eminent practitioner of poetry therapy from the US, where the discipline is well-established.
I felt I’d come home. I’d never heard of Poetry Therapy as a profession but from that point on, knew it was for me. It brings together my interests in psychology and literature and also my own personal experience of the transformatory power of writing.
You work therapeutically, predominantly with poetry. What would you say is the therapeutic potential of a poem?
Many people have a favourite poem tucked into their handbag or wallet, or snipped out of a newspaper. Poems are commonplace now at weddings, funerals and baby namings. At times of great joy or sorrow, many people are moved to write a poem. When we read a poem that captures our experience accurately, we feel we aren’t alone.
I think the therapeutic potential of a poem is that it is a contained space. It’s manageable, in contrast to the chaos of the world around us and the things life might throw at us.
Good poems are richly ambiguous – they don’t tell us what to think, but open an imaginative space where we can find ourselves. Poems are provisional – they are like a snapshot – and offer the potential for change.
How does poetry therapy work?
Many people discover the benefits of reading and writing poetry for themselves. The role of the Poetry Therapist is to harness these natural impulses with the express intention of promoting health and wellbeing.
Poetry – like fire or any other powerful medium should also be handled with care. It is possible for individuals to write themselves into a dark place, and working with someone trained can help to keep the process safe – but not too safe. The Poetry Therapist can offer appropriate challenges and to facilitate change, or to enable an individual to have a more nuanced take on life. A lot of human suffering is due to seeing the world or the self as all-good or all-bad – poems have the ability to transform and re-imagine difficult life situations.
What do you see as a benefit of poetry therapy?
Poetry therapy can be well adapted to be used in many circumstances – for example, where people may not be able to write themselves, the poetry therapist can ‘scribe’ for them.
I am convinced that, like a programme of exercise or meditation or other spiritual practice, reading and writing in a group offers enormous potential for people to gain a sense of mastery over their condition, whatever it is. I would love there to be more research in this area, especially as low-level unhappiness is endemic in our society.
You are a poet, a writer, a playwright. Have you found writing therapeutic for you?
Yes, I am a published creative writer and whilst I keep that separate from my practice as a Poetry Therapist in my professional life, my inspiration for both comes from the same well.
My writing is definitely therapeutic for me – I can’t imagine not doing it.
I think it is really important that anyone working with others understands her own processes. Sometimes though, these are only apparent later. For example, in my third play, Benson, the central character is a Victorian Bishop I’ve had two plays previously produced by Hall for Cornwall – one about a butcher and his family and the other a riff on Grimms fairy tales and the collapse of communism. It’s only now that I see that all three plays – ostensibly very different – have a concern with the role of fathers. So, I’m working through something even if it’s unconscious at the time.
We share a passion for nature connection as part of our work. How do you feel nature can influence and impact therapeutic writing?
This is potentially the theme of a book! Shall we write one? Here are a couple of initial thoughts:
Writing brings us into a conscious relationship with our surroundings. This can both take us out of ourselves and, paradoxically, deeper into ourselves. On one level, everything is a projection. For example, working with fallen autumn leaves, one person may see sadness and decay, another fruition and the natural cycles of life. Exploring these ideas in writing and being open to other perceptions can give us a greater sense of how we experience ourselves in the world.
On another level, nature, however defined, is infinitely bigger than us in every way. Looking at a starry sky, for example, where the light has travelled for millennia can make us feel insignificant – but in a good way – as it puts trivial concerns into perspective. In our post-religious culture, we have to make our own accommodations with ideas of mortality and eternity and nature can help us do that in a non-dogmatic way.
Do you have a favourite place or type of landscape in nature that inspires your writing?
I have just had the wonderful good fortune of a short writing residency in the Blean, the area of ancient woodland that stretches across East Kent. I worked with the RSPB leading writing walks through the woods and it was a chance to celebrate this unique historic landscape. My own poems are in progress and will follow soon. If you are interested, there’s a website at www.aspeechofbirds.wordpress.com
And a favourite piece of nature writing?
Very difficult to choose. In poetry, Robert Frost is a perennial favourite (pun intended!) and I love Mary Oliver’s diffident and personal take on the natural world. Robert Macfarlane and Kathleen Jamie are great sources of creative non-fiction. I’ve recently been introduced to Wendell Berry as a novelist of place. Richard Mabey’s Flora Brittanica, although a factual book, fills me with wonder. Jay Griffiths’ Wild both inspired me and left me deeply sad at how collectively we are losing touch with the wonders nature’s given us.
Do you have a poetry therapy exercise/challenge to that we can try?
Find a book of poems and read aloud one that appeals to you. Read it several times and observe your reactions – do you respond to any particular line or image? How does the poem make you feel? Then take a line from the poem and use that to write your own (a poem doesn’t have to be formal, rhyming or even ‘poetic’) – just write without judgement. Then read what you’ve written. What does it tell you?
Thank you so much Victoria. I hope this inspires others to look at poetry with fresh eyes.
If you want to learn more about Victoria’s work, do check her website and grab a copy of her books. You’ll find a taster of her work below:
Full Moon at Little White Alice
In spite of hats, coats and candles, we’re cold and fear
is in the frosty air: for our own health, that of others,
for the planet, our families, businesses and love affairs,
paintings or projects. We’re afraid of moving and changing,
the process by which butterflies leave the chrysalis,
a new-born baby first cries, tearing open her lungs.
Stagnating’s not an option. Time taunts us: the ticking clock
mocking our bodies, no longer young, a slow decoupling
from our sister moon. We walk in silent meditation round
the high, granite-strewn pool, seeing, as we step with care,
a frill of thin ice form in the reeds along the edge, watch,
amazed, as Rosie suddenly sheds all of her clothes. She dives,
spine curved in a crescent, breaks the black water, sending
courage, like a scatter of stars, up into the still January air.
from The Lost Boys published by Waterloo Press
You can find out more about Victoria on her website: http://poetrytherapynews.com/
Or if you’d like to explore writing as part of a process of counselling, why not get in touch for a first appointment?