A cold and bitter rain taps persistently at the window of the small conference room adjacent to the cancer center cafe. Inside, however, a group of women joins forces to intertwine in rhythmic verse frosty themes of winter and the daunting journey from cancer to health and wholeness.
“I’ve always loved poetry; writing helps me express my feelings,” says Sheila Thompson, 52, a six-year breast cancer survivor. “This workshop enables me to sharpen my writing skills while working with others who understand what it means to live with cancer.”
In October the Duke Cancer Patient Support Program (DCPSP) teamed up with Wrap Your Head Around It to offer a 10-week poetry workshop for Duke Cancer Center patients and their loved ones. Wrap Your Head Around It, a project organized by textile artist Peg Gignoux and poet Grey Brown, facilitates a group approach to writing poetry and then unites the poems with textile, in this case silk scarves.
“This is a community arts project dedicated to engaging cancer patients, survivors, caregivers and clinicians,” says Gignoux, who lives in Carrboro. “We take shards of poetry created here and join them to hundreds of multi-colored silk scarves handmade by volunteer artisans. When finished we will route the scarves back to the Duke Cancer Center where they will find forever homes with individuals whose lives have been touched by cancer.”
Grey Brown, facilitator for the workshop, formerly served as director of literary arts, a program she cofounded in 1986 for the Health Arts Network at Duke. Brown is an award-winning poet. She has authored three books including “Staying In,” “When They Tell Me” and “What It Takes.” Many of her poems have been featured in magazines and other publications. She asks her participants to think about familiar words associated with winter. She also encourages them to remember the sounds and colors that permeate the cancer experience.
“Clicking and clanging,” Thompson shares. “The MRI, it makes a clicking sound.”
Peg Meerkatz, 52, relocated in November from Long Island, New York, to Raleigh. She now lives in Raleigh assisting a loved one receiving treatment at the Duke Cancer Center. Meerkatz heard about the writing workshop through the cancer center’s palliative care program. Battling both progressive multiple sclerosis and diabetes, Meerkatz attends the workshop with her diabetic alert service dog, Esperanza, a bichon and poodle mix.
“Chronic illness can cause us to bottle things up,” Meerkatz explains. “These writing exercises force me to take my inner feeling and bring them out into the open where they can be shared without fear of judgment or criticism. Everyone here understands.”
Meerkatz begins her cooperative poem by writing two lines on a sheet of paper. She folds the top of the sheet down to conceal the first verse, exposing only the second line. She passes the document clockwise so the person seated beside her can add a line to the bourgeoning composition. The technique of folding down the paper to reveal only the last line is replicated until every participant has had an opportunity to add his or her voice. Others in the group start their own cooperative poems in the same manner.
Complete, one by one each poem is read aloud by its originator. The final composition is always a surprise and celebrated by everyone involved. Brown then leads the group in selecting fragments of the poems which will eventually be married to silk fabric, hand-picked to complement the featured shard of poetry.
Gignoux, who has led more than 60 community-based projects over her 20-year career, directs multiple dye and print sessions with partnering organizations and universities. She will also oversee the five stitching sessions of more than 20 experienced textile artists who will carefully piece together the scarves.
Kristy Everette, LRT/ CTRS, the coordinator for Duke’s Oncology Recreation Therapy, works with Wrap Your Head Around It to help publicize the writing workshops and recruit participants. She will also collaborate with Duke counselors and social workers to help identify recipients for the 200 scarves now embellished with creative verse.
“I’m a nine-year cancer survivor,” Everette says. “Writing to heal is an activity for which I am passionate.”
The rain begins to let up and the workshop is coming to a close. Laurel “Lolly” Casey, 58, prepares to leave. She is a caregiver for two loved ones, both diagnosed with cancer. She knows well the physical and emotional challenges associated with the illness and its treatment. Still seated, Casey glances up at Brown who’s standing to her right.
“I like words,” she says. “I like their meaning. I like how they change. You know, this workshop was surprisingly deep.”
Obviously amused by what she has just said, Casey chuckles out loud.
“I like that. I do belong here.”
Gignoux replies with a smile of affirmation and a chuckle of her own, “Yes, Lolly, you surely do.”
For more information related to Oncology Recreation Therapy, contact Kristy Everette. For more information on the online Kickstarter program and the Wrap Your head Around It fundraising efforts to organize another 10-week workshop, visit kickstarter.comand search projects.