Albert Schweitzer Fellow: Finding a voice through poetry

Poetry is a practice in exploration. Unhindered by strict literary rules, poetry elicits the inner voice and empowers writers to express painful emotions and memories that have often been buried in self-preservation. Through the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, TU clinical psychology doctoral student Autumn Slaughter leads poetry workshops with teenage patients at Parkside Psychiatric Hospital and Clinic. Emboldened by prose, the patients open up and share their stories.

The power of poetry

As a 2019 Schweitzer Fellow, Slaughter was selected for the 12-month leadership and service program for Tulsa-area graduate students who are passionate about addressing unmet health needs in Tulsa. With recent reports of Oklahoma leading the nation in childhood trauma, Slaughter teaches poetry to help at-risk youth share their feelings in a positive and constructive manner. “I have always wanted to be a poet and writer. I’m amazed at the power in creating something,” Slaughter said. “There is research that poetry can be helpful for coping with difficult emotions.”

2019 Schweitzer Fellows
2019 Schweitzer Fellows

In her own life, Slaughter has experienced the transformative influence of poetry. She has been a featured poet at poetry readings throughout Oklahoma, and her work has been published in regional magazines and online literary journals. She has also published five books including a memoir that explores trauma and depression and two books of poetry. Bringing her poetry passion to TU, Slaughter has performed at the TEDx University of Tulsa event for two consecutive years.

“I have never been able to understand myself … without the help of poetry – the poetry of others, which helps to explain what I am experiencing, and my own poetry, which helps me marry what I know with what I experience,” she explained.

Before developing her Schweitzer project through the Tulsa nonprofit Mused, Slaughter was already teaching poetry to children at Counseling and Recovery Services of Oklahoma’s Calm Center and at the Crossroads Clubhouse for adults with mental illness. But Slaughter wanted to do a deeper dive into a more structured curriculum. “Through the Schweitzer Fellowship, I was able to partner with Poetic Justice, which is an organization that does poetry with women in prisons,” she said. “They were kind enough to train me with their curriculum.”

Finding a voice

Slaughter presenting at TU orientation

Once a week at Parkside’s adolescent acute unit, Slaughter runs Poetic Justice designed poetry workshops with teenage patients. The acute ward is for “youth who don’t need to be in the hospital but who are having behaviors that are difficult to maintain and might not necessarily be safe,” Slaughter described.

From odes to letters to younger-selves, the themes vary but are tailored to her clients. To wake up their creative side, each session starts with an icebreaker question: “What are you most proud of?” Along with mindfulness practices and deep breathing, the new poets are prepared to analyze two different poems that coincide with the theme, and with a writing prompt, their pens get busy.

“The most recent theme was writing about an unwritten rule and a time you have broken it,” she said. “For girls, those poems tend to focus on looks. ‘I am not as skinny as I am supposed to be, or I don’t have curves. But that is OK. I am awesome anyway.’”

Instead of building walls of isolation, the patients take ownership of their narrative and often share their poems with the group. “I’ve been tracking how many people do that, and the percentages have been increasing,” she added. The response from the young poets has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Autumn has been very well received by our adolescent patients. They look forward to her poetry workshops and almost all of them participate enthusiastically.  We are very happy to add poetry to our expressive therapies,” said Kathryn Bishop, director of the adolescent acute unit.

Poetry provides hope and reminds the patients that they are not alone. After a poetry session, one of the boys had a heartfelt request, “If you go to the Calm Center and you have a kid like me, show them my poem, so they know they are not by themselves,” Slaughter said.

The final stanza

Throughout the rest of the year, Slaughter will continue to teach poetry at Parkside, and her Schweitzer Fellowship will end with a presentation on the effects of poetry on at-risk youth. She is proving what she already knows to be true: “There is something beautiful about the arts and letting them tell their story in a safe way.”

McFarlin Professor of Psychology Elana Newman concluded, “The Schweitzer project is permitting Autumn to explore the critical differences in implementing therapeutic programming versus evidence-based psychotherapy.”

At the end of every poetry workshop, the patients declare their truth in unison: “I have a voice. I have hope. I have the power to change.”

 

The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship is housed at TU’s Oxley College of Health Sciences. Each year, 12 graduate and professional degree students from Tulsa-area universities are selected as Schweitzer Fellows. Each fellow designs and implements a project that fills an unmet health need in the community. The next fellowship cohort runs April 2020-April 2021. For more information, contact Director Rachel Gold at rachel-gold@utulsa.edu.