Thursday, August 22, 2013

Sheree Pollock: A Psychiatric Nurse Who Brings Creative Flair To Her Work

Sheree Pollock

Interview with Doug Holder

In my 30 plus years working at a major psychiatric hospital just outside of Boston, I have worked with countless patients and staff on both locked and unlocked settings. One of the most creative of these people is Sheree Pollock, a veteran psychiatric nurse. Pollock is a dramatic personality, and uses her knowledge of theater, literature, gardening and other creative passions to engage the patients on a more human level. The minute she walks through the door her presence is known, and she is not too shy to quote Bette Davis, or Joan Crawford--or belt out a few lyrics from a Judy Garland song to make her point. She is a natural storyteller and thespian--and makes what can often be a purely clinical experience into a richer milieu.  I had the pleasure of interviewing Pollock on my Somerville Community Access TV show Poet to Poet Writer to Writer.

Doug Holder: You told me your ultimate goal is to engage clients in an authentic way. What exactly do you mean by “authentic”?

Sheree Pollock: When a person comes into a psychiatric hospital they are usually very demoralized. And they feel very much less than a person. They have the stereotypical image of what people must think of them. My goal is to connect with them as a person. A person to person approach.  We both have dignity and respect and we are going forward. We all have pain in our lives that we have to work through and heal. And I try to get that message across to the clients.

DH: I noticed that you bring your creative flair even to the physical environment. Explain your philosophy and how you go about it?

SP:  I am very sensitive to design and decoration. What I like to do is talk to the clients and get their input. I might ask: “Don’t you think this chair looks odd here?” and “ Where else does it belong?” And when clients get involved and improve their environment they feel great. I walk through the unit and try to change things (with of course, the consent of my supervisor) that are not aesthetically pleasing to me. For instance if there is a plant on the unit that is too large for its dish—if flowers have gone bad—I make a point of addressing that. I like to put out healthy food for people so they can snack and be with each other. I have suggested a lot of things for the physical environment. I suggest color themes, photographs to replace less aesthetically pleasing works. I want to make the environment more upscale and friendly. I want to make it some place you want to be and have family and friends come to visit. A client mentioned this the other day to me. She said that the food and atmosphere that we present here to the clients and guests makes her proud of where she is staying.

DH:  You like movies. And you a firm believer in movie groups for clients. You have an ongoing conversation with them about the characters—their dilemmas, etc.. Often clients seem to be experiencing many of the same things they see in the films.

SP: Some of the reasons movie groups are successful is that people can look at a character in the film and they may be able to identify with that character. And maybe that character has something in common with them. And so in talking about the character they may be talking about themselves. And they can do this without disclosing too much about themselves. A good film will show you different aspects of a person –it will engage anyone about their own life.

DH:  Do you have any specific movies that have stuck out for you, that you have viewed lately?

SP: We just saw this wonderful movie  The Ballad of Jack and Rose that dealt with a loving yet profoundly disturbing relationship between a father and daughter. It dealt with death, the environment, gardening, etc… And it just so happens that someone who was watching the movie was into the environment, etc. .and this gave her an opening to talk about it.

 This is It is a movie about Michael Jackson that made the clients speechless. It made people feel and feel deeply. It made people believe  they had been together on a journey as a group. That they had witnessed this spectacular talent and also the loss of that talent. It was heavy. People couldn't stop talking about it through the whole week.

DH: Why do you think Michael Jackson was such an iconic figure for the clients?

SP: I think Michael Jackson overcame a lot of pain in his life, and wanted to give back so much. Like Judy Garland, Jackson went through  a lot of trials and travails, but still gave back to his fans and others. Both were really able to touch individual people. The way he died and his loss touched home with clients. When people are in a state of depression they think about death.

DH: You are a natural storyteller. You have the natural cadences and the gift for dramatization to keep the clients engaged.  How does this play out in the psychiatric setting?  Were you always into storytelling?

SP: As a five year old girl I was touched by Judy Garland. I like how she hung in there when times got tough and just dived right through things. The drama and the films I grew up with certainly had an impact on me. I was a storyteller and an informal performer when I was a young girl. And that is a goal with the clients--to engage them with stories--get them out of their isolation.

DH:  This, of course, is part of the oral tradition dating back to ancient times-- telling stories around the fire. And there is something comforting about the human voice. Isn't the baby at the young mother's breast, listening to a lullaby-- a very iconic image?

SP: Yes. It come to me naturally. I also like to tell funny stories. I recently was stopped by the police-and I had a comical incident with a police officer who could not decide to give me a ticket or not. I told the clients the story. They loved it. And of course they loved the fact that I didn't get the ticket!

DH: The mere fact that you are sharing something personal--it is not all clinical--helps you bond with the client. It can be healing, right?

SP: Yes it's human and it is funny. I don't hide behind a sterile facade. I talk about myself when it is appropriate. When a client is talking about his woe, pain and humiliation and the clinician or staff gives nothing back--this can make them feel bad.

DH: You have a good sense of fashion. We can hardly call your style scrub chic.

SP: I think about how I dress. I want to project a certain softness yet confidence. Again it is the idea of not being purely clinical. It is the idea of being more human, more hopeful.  It happens that clients respond by saying "I want a dress like that." or " I want it."  So we engage.  I dress fashionably--yet professional--in a way that the client will feel comfortable to approach me if there is a problem.

DH : You tell me you were influenced by Dr. Maxwell Jones--he was an advocate of the therapeutic community.

SP: In the 1950's Jones worked in England with psychopaths. He had the notion that clients and staff are all individuals and are all equal. He viewed the clinical milieu as a therapeutic environment. People's issues played out in this context. He thought clinicians could pick up issues within the social milieu. And hopefully they could get people to see themselves in an unguarded way and grow from that.

DH: Do you think there needs to be more of an emphasis on the clients' spiritual needs on the unit?

SP: Clients come and go so fast on the unit--so there is little times to address their spiritual and creative needs. When they stay longer we help them with their creative sides. There are writers, photographers, who work on staff and have helped clients with their creative capabilities.

DH: You have a rather eclectic background.  You have worked in a number of different fields.

SP: I have been in the jewelry business and a jewelry designer. I studied Gemology. I am also a licensed hairdresser, and I ran a garden design business. I helped people realize their vision for their outside environment.

DH: And in fact you use your gardening expertise at work.

SP: Way back--when the program that I work in was in its infancy--I designed a garden for it. We had Morning Glories growing of trellises--the works. It was dramatic. It was like magic for the clients. The garden is an idealized environment--so it lifts people's spirits. I remember a patient who was physically imposing, but couldn't express himself. One day I asked him if he would take a tree and plant it outside. I knew the soil was hard and it would be difficult. He was up for it--he did a great job, and felt on top of the world for doing it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Poet Deborah Finkelstein on the creation of Like One-- a poetry anthology in response to the Boston Marathon Tragedy.

“People turn to poetry in times of crisis
because it comes closer than any other art form to addressing what cannot be said.”
W.S. Merwin, U.S. Poet Laureate, 2010

Essay by Deborah Finkelstein

 In Freshmen Seminar: Literature of Disaster, a class I teach at Endicott College, students read literature about many disasters including Chernobyl, Hurricane Katrina, 9-11, and The Titanic. I’ve witnessed visceral responses from students. Tragedies do not just raise the emotions of sadness and anger but also of fear and helplessness. There are moments in my class, I have learned, where it’s important that we take a break from these topics. Sometimes I include comedy while other times I use uplifting pieces to remind students of the good in the world. I’ve used many different types of pieces—short plays, essays, cartoons, jokes, etc. Poetry was by far the most powerful, which by itself wasn’t surprising, but this wasn’t my creative writing class; these were freshmen that were taking this seminar as a requirement. When the semester began, most claimed to dislike poetry. But when I used poetry in these dark moments, the effect was profound. It led to me integrating more poems into other classes at Endicott and at North Shore Community College. There is something about poetry, it seeps into the soul and heals the spirit. This is one reason why it’s used in programs at hospitals and memorials; it is a powerful healing tool.

Like most people, the Boston Marathon Bombing left me with feelings of sorrow, anger, fear, and helplessness. I decided to redirect my energy into a project that would help others by creating a poetry anthology of uplifting and humorous poems. The book would not only raise money for The One Fund, but also help heal readers.

Poets loved the idea. Like me, they wanted to do something to help. I approached several poets and it didn’t take long for the idea to go viral. Novelists, non-writers, and poets not in the book also helped spread the word.  I wanted the book out quickly so that we could help with the healing process as soon as possible. I am honored to feature poems from 40 amazing writers from across the U.S. and from a variety of backgrounds, including former U.S. Poet Laureate and Boston University Professor Robert Pinsky to Endicott College student Emily Pineau, a junior and author of No Need to Speak. There are 12 state and city Poet Laureates, as well as winners of the LAMBDA award and recipients of many other poetry honors.

“We are one Boston. We are one community.
As always, we will come together to help those most in need.
And in the end, we will all be better for it.”
Mayor Thomas M. Menino

Once the book was compiled, I ran the manuscript through Wordle, a free program that creates word clouds to demonstrate which words appear most frequently in speeches, surveys, or other texts. The Wordle illustrated that the most common words used in the book were “like” and “one.” I knew this had to be the title because it captured what the book was about—the way that we all came together as a community “like one”. Poets came from all over the country: red and blue states, city and country poets, different ages. During tragedy, our differences do not matter. Disasters make us realize how alike we are and that we have the same vulnerability. Together we all make a difference.

“At moments like this, we are one state, one city, and one people.”
Governor Deval Patrick

Currently we are in the process of setting up readings and placing Like One in bookstores. We are also launching the Like One Library Initiative. In order to ensure that everyone has access to Like One, we are encouraging people to purchase a copy for the library in their town or city, or at their school, or the local hospital or nursing home. We are striving to have it in Greater Boston’s local libraries by October 15, the six-month anniversary of the bombing.

Like One features poetry by Rusty Barnes, Debbi Brody, Kevin Carey, Cally Conan-Davies, Nicolas Destino, Emily Dickinson, Deborah Finkelstein, Robert Frost, Jeannine Hall Gailey, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, David Giver, Kat Good-Schiff, Benjamin S. Grossberg, Meghan Guidry, Doug Holder, Aaron M.P. Jackson, Jennifer Jean, Julie Kane, Joy Ladin, Lance Larsen, Joan Logghe, Fred Marchant, David Mason, Jill McDonough, Donnelle McGee, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Judson Mitcham, Wesley McNair, Alfred Nicol, Paulann Petersen, Emily Pineau, Robert Pinksy, Miriam Sagan, Jan Seale, Dan Sklar, Kevin Stein, David Trinidad, William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman, Margaret Young. 

Twitter: @LikeOnePoetry
Google Plus: Like One

Monday, August 19, 2013

Inside The Splintered Wood Poems by Myles Gordon

Inside The Splintered Wood
Poems by Myles Gordon
Tebot Bach
Huntington Beach, California
ISBN 13: 978-1-893670-98-3
66 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Nothing makes sense in this unfathomable, brutish life. Nothing. Still one must bear the ultimate burden of individual responsibility. Existentialism never worked for me as prose literature. Well, perhaps there were a couple of books—Albert Camus’ The Stranger and Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Words. Other books by these same authors, not so much. Myles Gordon, however, using this same existential mindset of free will in the face of absurdity, makes poems of a consistently high quality that matter. The details of his book, Inside The Splintered Wood, are mostly confessional and not for the squeamish. That said, Gordon has a knack for odd personal memories and irrational humor that propels one through his pieces.

Strangely the collection opens with a lovely meditation, a love song of sorts, brought on (absurdly, of course) by a wash rag that the poet’s persona uses to scrub his kitchen floor. The rag had been cut from his dead wife’s nightgown. The poem concludes this way,

The cloth is supple and
soft as I dampen and squeeze it
over the bucket,
water running
down my fingers
to my wrist,
a warm trickle to my elbow.
What part of the nightgown
was this? Where did it press
her body night after night?
Is it the same swatch I stroked
lightly so many times,
the curve of her hip, so
lightly, so lightly as she slept?

The poem Beyond Joy troubles with it litany of suicide attempts and then blooms into a full- fledged terrorist fantasy. As disturbing as it is, the emotional honesty shines through. The mention of the shrinks and the CIA lets some of the pressure out and serves up a bit of comedy winking from stage right. Here’s a section best described as homicidal paranoia,

is the CIA

scouring criminal
dossiers files
from shrinks

the summer
air separating
in my nostrils

I could buckle
into something
beyond joy

you all with me.

In the poem Passing Another Patient On The Staircase On The Way To The Psychiatrist’s Office offbeat humor takes center stage. Gordon’s persona conducts a one way conversation both making use of psychiatric jargon and at the same time mocking it darkly. Consider these laugh-out-loud lines,

want to tick off for him

the indicators
for borderline

personality disorder
and see if he and I combined

can create one really
frightening self.

I want him to know
The therapy is working—

I’m learning to
hate outwardly

as efficiently as I’ve
done inwardly.

Sometimes formality in verse allows the poet to better capture the informality of life as it careens along its incomprehensible trajectory toward death. Gordon seems to buy into this and uses structured verse quite well in Recite Every Day, his sonnet sequence and the centerpiece of the book. The sequence is made up of 32 poems chronicling his mother’s death, as well as the poet’s emotional state during this trying time. In the opening sonnet a visiting rabbi asks how both the poet and his mother are handling this situation. The mother has come to terms with her mortality. Gordon’s persona describes his state of mind thusly,

…I’m fine with it, and all
the rest of it at forty-seven is ancient history.

Skipping work to go to Costco, buying
her a high definition TV,
hooking it up, teaching her the clicker, crying
all the way to the car. Bullshit. History
is one teetering log from flooding in.
Here I am reliving it again.

Pathos, for sure; but the purchase of the high definition TV is pretty funny in a quirky way and also telling.

The seventh sonnet in the series continues with the offbeat humor. The poet’s mother needs to make her bank account a joint one because she is dying. Her poet son, handling complex feelings about home and hearth, accommodates her and then the scene turns absurd. The poet explains,

My mother tries to change her mind, afraid
the seventy five dollars the bank gave her to entice
her to open the first time would be null and void
if my name were added. The manager offers solace,
pats her hand, tells her: don’t worry.
Nothing is going to happen to your money.

Not exactly looking at the big picture! But, is this human to a fault? Absolutely.

Looking into the abyss the details of life have a way of intruding. In the twenty-eighth sonnet Gordon relates how their cat ran away and the ensuing marital strife that followed. We aren’t following the rules of rational thought here. The opening lines make that perfectly clear,

Our cat ran off a week before you died.
My wife forgot to close the kitchen screen
after handing a toy out to our son. She cried.
She knew that I would yell and make a scene.
I did…

The penultimate poem of this collection, The Running Gag, connects the dots of Gordon’s existential view of humanity. He says,

…what ripples
       Through one of us ripples through us all
but of course we deny it because we are born members
    of the Mobilization for Denial
unable to comprehend this connection and go
    about our daily lives

But we do go about our daily life—most of us. Gordon gets us through this contradiction by keying open life’s door with a poetic combination of high art and oddball humor. It’s a combination I thoroughly enjoyed.