Led by Jefferson’s artists-in-residence, the program illustrates how reflection and processing emotions through writing can provide comfort, care and insight.
During Jefferson’s recent writing wellness poetry seminar, Sidney Kimmel Medical College student Jonathan Barron penned a poem about his father who passed away two years ago from cancer.
In the emotional piece, he describes the regret of not being more forceful with him to get screened, Barron shares. By the time they discovered his father’s cancer, it was too far gone for treatment to be effective.
“Wellness poetry really helped me understand that it’s OK to have trauma, and sometimes, the best way to heal that trauma is to write about it and share it with others in your own way,” says Barron, who participated in the workshop as part of his JeffMD Humanities Selective.
The future physician thinks the experience of writing wellness poetry helped him better understand people need a listening ear, and he will work to be more open with patients about their trauma.
“I’ll try to offer them an outlet for their stress and the things that ail them both physically and mentally, the same way this poetry class did for me,” Barron says. “It allowed me to express what I’ve been feeling and what was dragging on me from my past.”
Barron is one of the handful of students and staff who participated in the eight-week seminar led by Jefferson artists-in-residence Trapeta Mayson and Yolanda Wisher.
Open to all members of the Jefferson community, the program shows how reflection and processing emotions through poetry can provide a space of comfort, care and insight, says Megan Voeller, the University’s director of humanities.
“Trapeta and Yolanda have phenomenal reputations in the Philadelphia arts community as poets and creative leaders,” she says. “So much of their work has emphasized the creation of healing, supportive spaces for participants.”
Wellness poetry really helped me understand that it’s OK to have trauma, and sometimes, the best way to heal that trauma is to write about it and share it with others in your own way.
–Medical Student Jonathan Barron
Mayson and Wisher curate the Healing Verse Poetry Line, a project hosted by Philadelphia Contemporary that allows people to hear a new poem centered on mental well-being each week by calling (855) POEMRX2. The poetry line, which Mayson created in 2021, features the work of emerging and professional poets and served as the inspiration for the writing wellness poetry seminar, she says.
Over the semester, Mayson and Wisher used prompts, texts and exercises to encourage participants to write poetry, which culminated in an optional reading of their work. For many, it marked their first foray into creative writing.
“Yolanda and I want to use the power of poetry and creative expression to get students connected to their feelings, emotions and their voice,” says Mayson, Philadelphia Poet Laureate and a licensed clinical social worker. “Once you can connect with yourself, it will help engender empathy for others.”
“I’m primarily a visual artist, so poetry writing was outside my comfort zone and a great opportunity to learn new ways to engage with clients,” Patterson says.
She enjoyed how the classes paid less attention to poetry’s structure and other formal qualities and instead focused on its healing power. In one of her favorite exercises, “a persona poem,” participants wrote from the perspective of their clients or patients to help inform their practice.
Once you can connect with yourself, it will help engender empathy for others.
–Jefferson Artist-in-Residence Trapeta Mayson
“Self-care and self-reflection are essential for counselors, and this has given me another outlet to practice them,” Patterson says. “Writing poetry in response to others’ stories also is a great way to process traumatic and difficult content. This course has given me another tool to process the painful stories of others.”
To support her personal and professional growth, textile engineering and sciences student Tiffany Liao enrolled in the seminar after attending previous University programs with Wisher.
As part of the writing wellness poetry seminar, Liao received the anthology “Poems of Healing” and a notebook. She and her classmates filled those pages with writing exercises that challenged them to reflect on their past, present and future selves as individuals and how they impact society.
At the end of class, they submitted a portfolio of five poems that transformed through the course, with some sharing their work during a public poetry reading.
“It was extraordinary to hear,” Mayson says. “I felt proud of them and the growth in their writing and the themes they explored. It took a lot of courage.”
The closing event beautifully connected the entire experience with the community, says Liao, noting the workshop served as a testament to the power of writing and poetry.
“It doesn’t matter what your career plans are,” she says. “Self-reflection will always be important. It’s part of being human. This course emphasized that, and I will use what I learned to continue my own journey.”