Judith Adams is an English-born poet who has lived in the United States since 1976. Adams has published four books of poetry and recorded several albums of her work, and her poems have been published in numerous magazines and anthologies. Adams has taken poetry to patients at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and held readings at the Frye Art Museum and Third Place Books in Seattle. She has conducted poetry workshops for youth and adults and worked as a teacher for children with disabilities in Waldorf schools.
Judith’s latest book, A Place Inside, is out now through Grayson Books:
Interview by David Kopacz (2021)
Judith Adams & the Poetic Apothecary
Interviewed by David Kopacz Dec. 04, 2020 – this interview was conducted via email and
then followed up with a recorded discussion. We will publish the full transcript at a later date.
David Kopacz: One of the first times I remember meeting you, Judith, was at the Women’s March in Seattle in 2017. What role does the poet have in politics, in protest, as an activist?
Judith Adams: A poem often sets us straight and even inspires us to live differently. Machado’s “What have you done with the garden entrusted to you?” or Mary Oliver’s “What are you going to do with you one wild and precious life?” There is a wealth of poetry that addresses racism and marginalization in fact all the cultural challenges we have. Anna Akhmatova wrote poetry to protest against the oppression of her government and suffered greatly the consequences. There are activist poets for sure. Poetry could be extremely powerful to heal the deep rift in our American Culture. We just have to rally poets to work on this and we should.
DK: I listened to your presentation you have been doing as part of Humanities Washington, A Poetic Apothecary: https://www.whidbeytel.com/tv/judith-adams-the-poetic-apothecary/
As you describe picking up William Sieghart’s book, The Poetry Remedy: Prescriptions for the Heart, Mind, and Soul – so too I was drawn to that book, even as I was repulsed by the bright, garish fluorescent green color of the cover. I felt that book was both a public service, and yet, I was also a bit disappointed by it. It seemed the pathological categories were too narrow, or that the poem was so much more than the “pathology” the poem was supposed to treat. Also, as one who prescribes pills, I am often aware that sometimes people want prescriptions to take away painful parts of themselves. So, when I heard you were doing the Poetic Apothecary project, was excited to see how it might be done another way. I noticed in your readings you organized the poems alphabetically, by the author, beginning with the healing poems of A and then proceeding on down the alphabet. How did you decide on this approach rather than Sieghart’s ailment/treatment approach?
JA: When I picked up William Siegwart’s book, I loved the title, the idea of a Poetry Pharmacy the cover did not worry me as the edition I picked up was the saffron color of a Buddhist’s monk!! However, I felt that one poem for each pathology was not enough and sometimes the poem Sieghart chose was not the poem I would have selected for that particular emotional challenge. So, I decided to stock up with poems as remedies in my apothecary in alphabetical order for easy reference. I start my talk by taking poets in alphabetical order before moving to themes. I did this simply because that is the way I have my apothecary set up! Going to themes later in the talk illustrated a different way of approaching the apothecary. Sometimes we don’t even know what our pathology is, we don’t know what ails us and we may not have even asked the question but sometimes a poem finds us anyway. Take any anthology down and you will find a poem that speaks to you where you are in that moment. Just like medicine some poems work for some and not for others. One must spend time to get it right. It may take a few poetic remedies and could even be a combination of poems that help.
DK: What is the healing property of poetry and what is the mechanism? Do poems take away – or do they deepen or resonate or transform something? What is a poetic therapeutics?
JA: On a neurological level, a poem softens our body, the sympathetic and parasympathetic pathways that are always on overdrive in our modern lives become more balanced. The flight or fight tendencies we have to go into neutral. I think poetry is spiritual. Even nursery rhymes make a child into a mystic. It is interesting to look at nursery rhymes, their music meets a child exactly where they are developmentally. A child who has just learned to stand up loves to sing and act out “Ring a Ring a Roses,” while doing the motions of this rhyme, getting up and falling down, they celebrate the enormous achievement of being fully human. Not only that, philosophically they are learning to get up when they fall down, a good metaphor for their lives. “Who Killed Cock Robin” introduces children to death and how death can involve the whole community and so on. “Sally go Around the sun; Sally go around the moon” could be experienced as the reincarnation process.
DK: Is there any poem that is not medicine?
JA: When you give a drug to someone say suffering from headaches you know what that drug does biologically. Poetry is more majestic because it is working with the spirit as well as the body. The spirit becomes elevated, the body quietens down. Today mindfulness has become a popular antidote to our modern life of distractions. Poetry has become more popular as well because it is needed in our hectic lives. “A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.” —Dylan Thomas
I know this is a bit of a detour from your questions David, but I would like to tell it. Once went to an acupuncturist I could not get him to tell me what he thought of the state of my heath. I asked him why he would not discuss it, he said “I don’t want to give you images that will stick to you.” In the same way I feel that children in school should not be taught to analyze poetry but rather let the words fall on them as if they were having a shower of words and experience of language aside from the language of ordinary life. I would have kids learn Gerald Manley Hopkins because you can’t get into his poetry going word by word you have to let the words just sound. Sometimes I read a poem and am not sure I understand what the poet is saying but there is something hidden that might reach me. The longer I stick with the poem the more it reveals and the more it touches.
DK: A few questions from my perspective as a psychiatrist. The ancient Greek word for medicine was pharmakon. The ancient Greek word for poison was also pharmakon. The Greeks knew that what can be healing can also be toxic. Are there any side effects of the Poetic Apothecary? Can you “take” too much poetry? What would a poetic overdose look like? Is part of poetry’s therapeutic effect the potential to wound as much as the potential to heal?
JA: I really appreciate your questions. I did not know that the Greek word pharmakon also means “toxic.” Interesting to consider that you could overdose or be poisoned by poems, a provocative thought! Maybe you are thinking of a constant parasympathetic condition that is like a trance that someone might not wake up from! For many, reading and hearing poetry is a moment of shimmering joy much like listening to music or meditating or even looking at a vase full of roses.
“Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.” —Leonardo Da Vinci
DK: I’d like to ask you a question about poetry and spirituality – and perhaps this is similar to the questions of poetry and healing. What answer would you most like to give to an undefined question on poetry and spirituality?
JA: In terms of Poetry and Spirituality, I can only say that in my experience a well-crafted poem is pure spirituality, because the effect of listening to a poem or reading a poem can lift you out of gravity beyond your small self. Even if the poem is lighthearted our spirit might need exactly that. Our neurological pathways need to laugh out loud and we all know how wonderfully relaxed we become. In Homeopathy you look at the person’s constitution, everyone has a unique constitution that is how the remedy is decided. It is the same in poetry, but you are dealing with an even more subtle level of wellbeing.
I think it undeniable that during this pandemic people are turning to poetry for solace whether it be fear, loneliness, isolation or dread or the feeling of losing one’s compass in life, there is a poem, it just has to be found. To some extent we are all our own spiritual
pharmacists but sometimes we might need a larger apothecary with a much greater stock and some help.
David, you are coming from a cerebral understanding of therapeutic approaches as a psychiatrist. My attitude to poetry is more from my gut from reading poetry my whole life and seeing how with each decade the landscape of poetry grows. It is interesting to me that
when I have brought poetry to prisons in Washington State, they are my best audience, for those inmates are already stripped of distraction and are already where the poem is, I don’t have to bring them there, and I am humbled by what they say and the depth of their understanding. I think in this context it may be helpful to tell how poetry first impacted me. I was not a good student. We were given a poem to learn in 4th grade and asked to recite it. Something took hold of me as I started to speak the poem. I felt for the first time I belonged to the world. It was, I can only say, almost orgasmic. From then on, I recited poems often to nobody but the trees!