New therapy: spinning yarns of gold

NYU graduate students assist patients in creative writing program

— Elaine Telson taps out her poetry, one letter at a time.

She has suffered two strokes, severely limiting her physical motion. Telson sits in her wheelchair, a bright yellow laminated sheet with the letters of the alphabet in front of her. Her index finger moves over it, almost faster than an onlooker can process.

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AP Photo

Ben Peled, left, a graduate student in New York University's creative writing program, takes notes as Elaine Telson, right, taps out her poetry on an alphabet board. Telson is part of the "Golden Writers," a poetry therapy program at Coler-Goldwater Memorial Hospital.

Tap-tap-tap. M-Y-space-S-I-S-T-E-R-space. Tap-tap-tap.

Telson is one of the "Golden Writers," a dozen patients at Coler-Goldwater Memorial Hospital who write poetry with the help of graduate students in New York University's creative writing program. It's poetry therapy, a form of therapy that has grown worldwide over the last decade.

"This program is interesting," Telson spelled out during a recent session. Once a French literature teacher, she is a recent arrival at Goldwater, a public hospital for the severely disabled, and this her first year in the writing class.

"It allows you to express yourself on subjects and matters you would not think about," she said.

Developing the program

The writing class was started at the Roosevelt Island hospital in 1984 by NYU professor and poet Sharon Olds, with funding from Very Special Arts, a foundation created by Jean Kennedy Smith.

It was meant to run for only a period of weeks, but "halfway through, I was completely in love," Olds said. She became a fund-raiser, searching for ways to keep the program going.

Every school year, a handful of interested students are taken from among those in the creative writing program, and are matched to 12 to 18 patients selected by the hospital. The students work with the patients for the academic year, and the finished work is showcased at three readings, two at the hospital and one at NYU.

The graduate students spend several hours at the hospital every week, and in once-weekly class sessions, helping patients with writing exercises that can focus on a particular poetic form or a literary device.

Olds said the students bring "a whole lot of enthusiasm" to the task of teaching. They also benefit by meeting the patients because it's a chance "to be exposed to someone of great courage, great resolve, who has learned to live in unimaginable circumstances," she said.

It works out well for the patients, said Lizette Jaffri, who coordinates the program for the hospital. "It gives them an opportunity to express themselves, to be part of a group with like-minded people."

A 'liberating power'

Poetry therapy has been practiced for about 20 to 25 years, said Kathleen Adams, president of the National Association for Poetry Therapy.

"In the last 10 years, there has been a huge, huge increase," Adams said. She said it's used with many types of patients, from those in chemical dependence programs to those infected with HIV to those with dementia. It is practiced in Tokyo and New Zealand.

The patients at Goldwater "get to discover a part of themselves in many cases they didn't even know existed," said Ben Peled, 24, a second-year graduate student who is coordinating the group this year.

He said being part of the program and meeting the Golden Writers has taught him "a real appreciation for the liberating power of writing, how much freedom it can allow."

For Candice Amich, 24, another of the teachers, it's also a chance to break away from the high-brow setting of her graduate studies and see poetry at work.

"It removes poetry from the academic setting, brings it into the world," she said. And it can be inspiring, pushing her to write more.

"I see how the students struggle to do it," she said.

At a recent class, the writing exercise dealt with similes and metaphors. The patients were asked to compare emotions to physical objects.

Some patients used items from an assortment provided by the graduate student leading the class. Others, like Kwok Yi Mui, in the program for three years, needed only the memory of an old girlfriend.

"Your eyes, blue-gray like the ocean in winter and just as dangerous," he wrote.

Yi Mui, in the hospital for the past five years after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage, said the program was a way for him to get out his frustration and anger, and just vent about what he was feeling.

Hoping to be released from Goldwater soon, he has ambitions to write a novel.

Now, he said, "I've got the bug."

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