The Poet Is In
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The Poet Is In

At Mount Sinai Hospital, resident poet Ronna Bloom brings reflective writing to the stressed out workforce.

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Photo by Tanya Haas.

At Mount Sinai Hospital, poet-in-residence Ronna Bloom brings the art of poetry to hospital staff. Yesterday, in the basement lunchroom, she held a “spontaneous poetry booth,” where, for the bargain price of $1, people could have her scribe a poem for them on the spot. It was the second time she has held the booth in her residency, which takes place from September 2012 to March 2014. Bloom, who is also the poet-in-community at the University of Toronto and a psychotherapist, is the hospital’s first resident poet.

The process of writing a spontaneous poem is fairly straightforward. People sit down with her at the booth, and Bloom asks what they need a poem about. The answers people give are often too broad or general, so she’ll converse with the person to get deeper into what they’re thinking and feeling. Once she has a good vision for what to write, she asks for silence and puts pen to paper. Having to write on the spot puts the pressure on, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be an arduous task.

“It’s only hard if I’m trying hard to make it good. Then it’s impossible,” says Bloom. “It doesn’t mean it won’t be good. I just don’t know what’s going to come. My rules are, write whatever is coming. Don’t think. Don’t censor. Whether it’s good or bad, you tear it off and give it to them. I just try to let myself be surprised and tell the truth.”

The spontaneous poetry booth, a brief event that only lasts for the lunch hour, was well received in its first run in October. Many people weren’t able to have their poems written since there was a lineup and the hour expired before everyone could get their turn. Yesterday’s booth stayed open for an extra 30 minutes in the hopes of attending to everyone. At October’s booth, emotions ran high as the power of Bloom’s poems astounded many who sat down with her. Yesterday’s booth was in many ways a repeat performance.

“What happens often is they start to cry, or I start to cry because it hits something true,” Bloom relates. “There’s often an emotion right in the moment. If I’m there, and the truth is there, that’s all we really want.”

The booth is just one aspect of Bloom’s duties at the hospital. She also holds writing workshops and one-on-one writing coaching sessions. A hospital might seem like the last place you’d expect to see a poet at work, but the program is proving beneficial to the mental and emotional wellness of beleaguered hospital workers and patients.

“We have an understanding that how you feel physically and emotionally can reflect onto the patients that you work with, and the colleagues that you work with,” says Lindsay Drysdale, healthy workplace program coordinator at Mount Sinai. “Your personal well-being can play a major role in how well you’re working.”

“It helps them understand reflective writing as a tool for emotional well-being,” Drysdale explains. “It’s really a way to cope with how you’re feeling either at work or at home. That helps the organization, because if we have healthy employees, we have more productive employees.”

Hospital workers of all stripes have made use of Bloom’s services and some have even discovered their inner writers. Many types of stress can bear down on hospital staff from vicarious trauma to compassion fatigue, and learning how to write expressively provides catharsis for the weary workers.

“There have been a lot of people from the workshops who have then signed up for the third leg of her quarterly offerings,” says Melissa Barton, director of occupational health, wellness, and safety at Mount Sinai Hospital.

“We’re finding that there is a group of people who do find this is helpful in their clinical practise. Our goal is to take this out and reach other people who may not understand that poetry is something that can be accessible to everyone.”