Beth Calverley, founder of The Poetry Machine, has seen the positive effects of poetry through her work within health and wellbeing contexts, both before and during the pandemic. Yet she has found her own inspiration levels rising and falling unpredictably during the past five months. In this blog, Beth explores why poetry can be helpful at times of uncertainty, why we might feel more or less creative as a result of the health-risk, and how we can boost our creativity levels by freeing our minds to daydream.
Exploring beyond the surface
In creating a poem that draws on real life, we can choose to surface or externalise an experience. We no longer need to carry the feelings or memories in our brains or bodies for safekeeping, as we can return to the poem whenever we want to remind ourselves of this experience.
As the Poet in Residence for an NHS Trust, I work with patients, health workers, carers and families, often experiencing uncertainty and stress. For many patients, the repetition and mundanity of the everyday routine contrasts with their vulnerability in the face of life-changing experiences. Patients have told me that taking part in poetry helped them to unearth the meaning in their experiences and catch what is important to them. For their carers, loved ones and health-workers, creative activities such as poetry provide a chance to pause and reflect on the complex emotions that are associated with caring responsibilities.
poetry helps us to take notice of small, everyday moments of connection to people and places
Now that everyone is more aware of the threat to their health, whether this is a conscious stress or a subsurface unease, the need to connect surface-level ordinariness with extraordinary uncertainty is helpful to many of us. Importantly, poetry helps us to take notice of small, everyday moments of connection to people and places, as well as to commemorate and process life-changing events in our lives. The ability to take notice is one of the ‘five ways to wellbeing’ developed by the New Economics Foundation.
When connecting with others, poetry helps to get beyond surface-level interactions. In some ways, we have become less able to connect physically with others, with our expressions muffled behind masks and hugs forbidden. Yet despite this, many of us have noticed that we are more willing to cut through small talk and express how we are really feeling, now that there is a shared reference point. Poetry enables us to join the dots between our shared experiences from afar, including through individual co-creation sessions, group writing workshops, digital or physical prompt packs and online spoken word performances.
Pandemic as a catalyst for creativity?
The benefits of creative participation for people in times of isolation and uncertainty are well-recorded. For instance, creative activities in hospitals have been found to reduce stress and anxiety levels, which are often heightened during health-related challenges (see for reference these reports by the World Health Organisation and the APPG for Arts, Health and Wellbeing).
there are many practical factors linked to the pandemic that can distract us from our creative intentions
Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that we should expect ourselves to be in the right space to create. Creativity requires time to explore, and there are many practical factors linked to the pandemic that can distract us from our creative intentions, from changed work patterns and family situations to the multitude of other stressors. Even those of us with more time on our hands to create can find ourselves feeling creatively depleted. Fear can affect creativity as it inhibits the part of our brains that enables imagination to flourish. The pandemic has had an adverse effect on many people’s mental wellbeing, and it affects some people more than others. The irony is that the more anxious we feel, the less we may feel able to write, which in turn can cut us off from the wellbeing benefits of creativity.
So how can we help ourselves to feel more creative?
Personally, I try to stay true to myself; to follow my own creative impulses and not worry about what I ‘should’ be writing. In this sense, writing is like smiling. We can smile – or write – all day long, but it may not be genuine. Better to wait until we feel an authentic desire to write and there is no stopping it; it shines out of us like a genuine beam of truth. Equally, there is evidence that the very act of smiling can cheer us up – when we smile, we can trick our brains into feeling happier. Sometimes, I find the same with writing. When I want to write, but don’t feel overflowing with creativity, I set myself a 10-minute timer and experiment with a free-write. Sometimes, I feel better just for warming up the part of my brain that plays with words. Other times, it doesn’t flow and I have to remind myself that it’s absolutely fine.
many of my poetic breakthroughs come when I’m doing the washing up
In an episode of Radio 4 Desert Island Discs, poet Wendy Cope says that as a writer, it’s important to have time alone, “dream-time” – which she describes as ‘“time just for thinking, when you don’t appear to be doing anything”’ (3.50). What a delicious thought. This article, published in Psychological Science, analysed reports by writers and physicists about how their ideas came about. One fifth of participants’ most significant ideas of the day were formed during ‘mind wandering’, i.e. when they weren’t specifically ‘on-task’. Ideas that occurred during mind wandering were more likely to be associated with overcoming an impasse on a problem. Similarly, this study suggests that boring activities can act as a catalyst for creativity. I find this deeply relatable as many of my poetic breakthroughs come when I’m doing the washing up.
Creative problems, such as the notorious ‘writer’s block’, can be solved when we are thinking about or doing something completely unrelated to what we are trying to write. Of course, having extensive time to daydream is a privilege – but most of us spend at least some part of our day in the shower, walking somewhere, or just sitting quietly for a few minutes. These can all be perfect opportunities to work on our poetry subconsciously.
being creatively super-charged does not make us poets. […] We are poets when we haven’t written a new poem for ages.
To close, I’d just like to remind anyone who needs it that being creatively super-charged does not make us poets. We are poets when we’re eating breakfast. We are poets when we’re worrying about the rent. We are poets when we haven’t written a new poem for ages. And those of us who facilitate poetry in community settings know that even people who have never written a poem are poets… they just don’t know it yet.
Banner photo: Paul Blakemore