Sunday, July 17, 2005

Reflections on Poetry Therapy

A number of people have asked me how I feel about Poetry Therapy and use of the word therapist, especially when employed by teachers and writers who are unlicensed as therapists. In this regard, I share with you an article I sent to the National Association of Poetry Therapy upon my return from its Spring conference:


Reflections on Poetry Therapy: After the St. Louis Conference
May 4 – 8, 2005

by

Esther Altshul Helfgott, Ph.D., History
University of Washington

My experience at the poetry conference was mixed; on the one hand, I made friends and attended workshops that I could not have encountered elsewhere. Perie Longo and Phyllis Klein’s Poetic Conversation was stunning for its creation of intimacy in a large setting. Sherry Reiter’s and Barbara’s Bethea’s expertise in building community and hope through poetic conscience was stellar; and, for the second year in a row, Geri Chavis’ experiential peer group led me to insights I would be hard-pressed to find outside the Poetry Therapy community. As a teacher, writer and healing arts facilitator, however, I am, after this conference, in even stronger disagreement with NAPT’s training philosophy than I was before I attended.

From the beginning of my two-year association with NAPT (National Association of Poetry Therapy), I have been troubled by its use of the word therapist in the context of the CPT (certified poetry therapist). The only differentiation between the two tracks is defined by hours, 975 for the RPT (registered poetry therapist), a licensed clinician, and 440 for the CPT, one who enters into the program via the Humanities—as an educator or writer, without a clinician’s background or degree. One wonders, then, why NAPT is using the word therapist to define its healing arts trainees.

Therapy is not just a word, as a CPT mentioned to me during the conference. It holds weights and measures. As our keynote poet, Greg Orr, wrote in his memoir Blessing, “Words have the power to reveal what is hidden.” (p.4) We all know this, whether clinician or non-clinician. So I ask: What is hidden in NAPT that prevents the development of a training track that would allow educators, poets or writing group facilitators, who have no intention of becoming licensed therapists, access to training without the weight of the word therapist around their necks?

A personal development group is not a therapy group, whether modified by Kleinian, poetry or dance. Just because healing occurs in a group or individual does not mean the healing is defined by therapy, though it may indeed be therapeutic.

It is my feeling that NAPT is a young organization and has not yet found itself. It is not in touch with its theoretical or philosophical underpinnings, its inherent belief systems, to the extent that it should be inviting writers and educators to train without really knowing what to do with them.

The word therapy is not being used carefully, not with full respect for its inherent meanings, its context and aliveness. As such, I am suspending my training towards certification. If NAPT were to develop a program for developmental group facilitators, I would participate with a sense of honor. At this point, when I feel strongly that it is unethical for an organization to certify trainees to become unlicensed therapists, I can not.

I would have liked to have had the opportunity to discuss some of these issues formally during the conference, instead of tuning into conversations in hallways, coffee shops and airports. Unfortunately, the conference setting did not provide space for trainee concerns. I would hope that next year more processing and discussion space will be made for all activities. Namaste.


Esther Altshul Helfgott writes on psychoanalysis, is a writing coach, and facilitates writing groups for women at Cancer Lifeline, Seattle, WA.

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