Poetry for Patients and Their Families

Beth Cranwell Aplin
From the March/April 2013 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

CavanKerry Press, a nonprofit literary publisher based in Fort Lee, New Jersey, conducted an unusual experiment a few years ago. In partnership with the Arnold P. Gold Foundation for Humanism in Medicine, the press set out to discover whether a carefully edited anthology of creative writing could have a positive effect on the stress levels of patients and families awaiting medical care. 

The result was The Waiting Room Reader: Stories to Keep You Company, published in 2009 by CavanKerry’s Laurel Books imprint and distributed by the Gold Foundation, which placed an initial five thousand free copies in hospitals in New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and California. For the first volume, Joan Cusack Handler, publisher and senior editor of CavanKerry, chose poetry and prose that would give readers a break from the cramped surroundings and accelerated anxiety that waiting rooms so often present. 

“Basically, the aim is to soothe people and help reduce stress,” says Handler. “That’s one of the things literature and poetry does. It captures real life in vivid terms, transports us to another place and distracts us from the painful reality that we are in right now.”

Were stress levels actually reduced as a result of The Waiting Room Reader? CavanKerry and the Gold Foundation didn’t track outcomes with blood-pressure tests or heart monitors, but there was one sign that those free copies had achieved their intended purpose. “They disappeared,” says Handler. Administrative personnel at the hospitals frequently requested more books, and the press received many positive comments from patients, family members, and staff. “What I got to read taught me to be patient,” wrote one reader. “I would love to have a copy of the book [because] I only get to read it at the doctor’s office. It would be comforting to read in bed, to [help me] relax, as I have a very sick husband.”  

Due to the positive response, five thousand more copies were printed and distributed in 2010, and the book eventually made its way to more than three hundred waiting rooms in sixty-three hospitals. Now the project has grown even larger, with the February release of The Waiting Room Reader II: Words to Keep You Company, guest edited by poet, essayist, and translator Rachel Hadas, a professor of English at Rutgers University and a teacher in the narrative medicine program at Columbia Medical School. 

Asked why poems have been targeted for this particular audience, Hadas says, “First of all, [poems are] short. People have a fragmented attention span, and that’s across our culture, not just in waiting rooms. Losing yourself in a novel can be difficult to do.” The deeply personal nature of poetry can also create a rare intimacy with the reader, she adds. “One soul speaking to another is well suited for this situation.”

Hadas, whose memoir, Strange Relation: A Memoir of Marriage, Dementia, and Poetry, was published by Paul Dry Books in 2011, would know. She writes in the anthology’s introduction that she did most of the work for the book in the summer and fall of 2011 while sitting in various waiting rooms, supporting her ailing husband, the composer and critic George Edwards. The book is dedicated to the memory of Edwards, who died later that year. “It was a time when my life was very difficult, to put it mildly,” Hadas says, “but it was a pleasure to put the book together nonetheless.” 

The Waiting Room Reader II features work by established poets and authors such as Maxine Kumin, Reeve Lindbergh, Molly Peacock, Elizabeth Spires, and Rosanna Warren, as well as a number of emerging writers whose work was either solicited by Hadas or selected through an open-submissions call. Its sixty-three poems and fourteen prose pieces, like those in the first volume, rarely feature illness or disease. “Instead, the Reader seems poised in the opposite direction,” writes Dr. Rita Charon, who directs Columbia’s narrative medicine program. “Not ‘What am I waiting for?’ but ‘What is waiting for me?’”

Distribution of the new volume has begun in New Jersey and the New York metropolitan area, with a focus on underserved urban hospitals, and will be followed by distribution to the rest of New York, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. “Our dream is to find corporate and foundation sponsorships that will enable us to bring the book to hospitals nationwide,” says Handler, who hopes to release a new guest-edited volume every three years. Both volumes of the book are currently available for purchase through the CavanKerry website, and health-care professionals can request copies for free.

As to the ultimate question of whether poetry and creative prose can make a difference in the lives of medical patients and their families, perhaps, like the nature of some of the illnesses that bring people to waiting rooms, much of it comes down to chance.

“It’s a sifting process,” Hadas says. “A small number of people will pick up the book and an even smaller number will engage with a particular poem. You could say the odds are against it.” 

But, she adds, “I’m a big fan of serendipity.” 

Beth Cranwell Aplin is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in the Missouri Review and the Morning News.



I think something like this could benefit people who have to wait.