Poetry as Healing Art: An Interview with Nurse Poet Veneta Masson

In the fray of the everyday as a clinician it’s easy to lose sight of yourself as a healer—and a human being with the capacity to reflect on your experiences, and learn from them.

Veneta Masson

Editor’s Note: this interview conducted via email has been lightly edited for formatting and clarity, and does not necessarily reflect the views of this website.

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1) Tell me about your interest with poetry, medicine, and healing. What first drew you to that connection?

You could say that nursing turned me into a poet. I’d done my share of professional writing beginning in my late 20s and early 30s, but aside from a couple of short stories (later burned) and personal poems, that was it. It was when I became involved in a church that encouraged journal keeping, and a mom and pop clinic in a chaotic but vibrant D.C. neighborhood, that I began to reflect on my spiritual journey in light of the work God in His mercy had given me to do. For our nonprofit clinic’s required annual reports, I began to rework some journal entries written in exhaustion, frustration, satisfaction or celebration into poems that we included along with the creative work of my colleagues on our small staff. As the required information and statistics began to take up less and less space in the annual report, our report morphed into a sort of corporate journal.

When I began to realize how important poems were to my own growth as a person and as a professional, I began to participate in workshops on craft, first at Georgetown University, then at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. By the time our clinic reached its 15th anniversary, I decided to publish a chapbook containing some of my narrative poems that illuminated our work and our patients’ lives alongside evocative black and white portraits that our physician and gifted photographer Jim Hall had made.  Just Who—a collection of poems and photographs from Community Medical Care was meant as a gift to our supporters, but it also marked the beginning of my vocation as poet. 

2) What impact do reading and writing poetry have in the medical community (in other words, why does poetry matter in conversations around healing, medicine, and trauma)?

It’s called by various names—medical humanities, the parallel chart, narrative medicine, healing art. I prefer the latter term. In the fray of the everyday as a clinician it’s easy to lose sight of yourself as a healer—and a human being with the capacity to reflect on your experiences and learn from them. I want to be knowledgeable and skilled, yes, but I also want to be a wise healer. I think many in the medical community feel that the arts are one way to achieve this and to become a true caregiver, not just a purveyor of pills and procedures.

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3) Do you primarily write from the perspective of a nurse, a patient, or both? How has that influenced your poetry, as well as your relationship to medicine?

I often say I write as a nurse, family caregiver and observer of life. Some of my poems are written in first person, but I usually intend the I to feel inclusive. It’s my hope that the poems will shed light on thorny issues like medical uncertainty, the limitations of medical science, health, illness, and healing at the end of life. I’d like to think that, after over 50 years in health care, I’ve become both a wise counselor and an accomplished poet. 

4) What trends, patterns, and changes have you seen in recent years regarding poetry, medicine, and healing?

There’s been an explosion (I think I can call it that) in writing by physicians, nurses, other health professionals, non-professional caregivers and patients during the last couple of decades. There are now countless journals, websites and online blogs devoted to health care, medical science and accounts of clinical experiences as well as personal chronicles of illness. I think this serves as a kind of counterbalance to the weight we give to science which, however important, is only one way of knowing. I’m especially pleased that a number of medical and nursing journals now publish poetry in each issue.

5) What challenges do you face when writing poetry through a medical and healing lens? How have you learned to respond to those challenges?

One of the biggest challenges when writing about my clinical experiences and the patients whose lives have changed mine is the protection of their privacy. In the beginning, I wasn’t as attuned to this as I am now, and no doubt violated some confidences. But even as I disguise identities, I do occasionally write in the voice of people I have cared for, voices that I believe deserve to be heard but would not be otherwise. 

I have also tackled standard practice when I believe it deserves critical appraisal. A poem is not a scientific paper, but it can still convey important information. You can find my take on the questionable importance we assign to lab values in my animated poem “Reference Range” (“reference range” is the range of what’s considered a normal result for a lab test). 

6) What advice would you give to someone struggling with a health concern and/or trauma about how they can engage poetry? What resources and/or poets would you recommend?

Many people living with chronic conditions, the aftermath of traumatic experiences, professional and family caregiving, and other struggles join writing groups or contribute to online support groups which offer comfort, community and advice from peers. This can be a wonderfully healing practice. 

At my website, I keep an online notebook with short pieces I call proselets. One of them, titled “Prescribing the Ations,” contains links to poems that I might prescribe for common human conditions. 

There are also many anthologies that speak to these challenges. I’ll list a few I’ve contributed to that are still available and of interest both to professionals and lay people:

Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write Their Bodies

The Cancer Poetry Project—Poems by Cancer Patients and Those Who Love Them (Minneapolis: Fairview Press, 2001)                

The Cancer Poetry Project 2 (Minneapolis: Tasora Books, 2013)

Unbearable Uncertainty—The Fear of Breast Cancer Recurrence  (Leeds, MA: Pioneer Valley Breast Cancer Network, 2000)

Echoes of War:  A Literature and Medicine Anthology  (Maine Humanities Council, 2009)

Thank you for your time, Veneta!

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Veneta Masson is a registered nurse and writer now living in Silver Spring, Maryland after over 40 good years in Washington, DC. Most recently she taught a graduate level health care ethics course for Georgetown University. Her career also includes two decades in primary health care as family nurse practitioner and clinic director and nine years in international health. Though she is currently working with the theme of heresy in health care, science and life, her previous publications reflect on health and illness from her perspective as clinician, family caregiver and engaged citizen. Clinician’s Guide to the Soul, published in 2008, is her third collection of poetry. For excerpts from this and other work, she invites you to visit www.sagefemmepress.com

Photo Credit: Veneta Masson. Click here to buy this postcard poem.

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