On Sunday, March 11, visitors and staff at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital looked on as Artist-in-Residence Meighan Sharp and Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist (and arts advocate) Angela Charlton installed 27 large-format framed poems in the gallery in the hospital lobby.
Celebrating the 14th issue of Poems in the Waiting Room, Sharp and Charlton have curated a retrospective of the project to date, using works by poets with ties to the region. The Poems in the Waiting Room project combines the work of poets in the region with classic poetry in free brochures available in the waiting rooms of all Carilion facilities. We talked with Sharp about this effort, the healing arts, and the power of writing in a healthcare setting.
BOOK CITY ★ ROANOKE: How did Poems in the Waiting Room get started?
Meighan Sharp: The program actually started in 1998 as a small nonprofit in the UK. The project has since spread worldwide, with initiatives launched in Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, and Colombia. In 2013, with Angela’s energy behind the project, the Dr. Robert L.A. Keeley Healing Arts Program at Carilion Clinic adopted the model. It remains the only U.S. site.
BCR: What do you hope the Poems accomplish?
MS: We hope to give patients, families, visitors, and staff a brief respite from the occurrences of the day. When I’m visiting with patients, I’m surprised by how many have picked up the brochures and will comment on a particular piece they liked. New editions of Poems in the Waiting Room are distributed quarterly to all Carilion waiting rooms.
BCR: How long will the framed broadsides of the poems be on display?
Meighan Sharp: We’re hoping to have them up through Monday, April 9, since April is National Poetry Month. After April, the exhibit will move to Carilion’s Institute of Orthopaedics and Neurosciences on Franklin Road. Even before we finished installing the poems Sunday, visitors stopped to read pieces and talk with us. A kid, who looked to be about ten, read a piece out loud. Staff, patients, and visitors are used to seeing the patient and employee visual art shows, but 27 2’ x 3’ pieces of poetry hanging in the long front corridor of the hospital is new for this community.
BCR: Poems in the Waiting Room is a project of the Dr. Robert L.A. Keeley Healing Arts Program. What exactly are the healing arts?
MS: In our setting, the healing arts are creative practices that address the emotional needs of patients and families by integrating literary, performing, and visual art experiences into the healing process.
The Keeley Healing Arts Program includes the Artists-in-Residence and Poems in the Waiting Room, as well as various galleries in CRMH, the patient and employee art shows, the Healing Garden on the Roanoke River Greenway (next to the hospital), relaxation videos available to patients in their rooms, the Burden Boat sculpture, and more.
BCR: How are works selected for Poems in the Waiting Room?
The Healing Arts Program has terrific editorial partners in the Jackson Center for Creative Writing at Hollins University, the English Departments at Roanoke College and Virginia Western Community College, and Artemis journal. Guest editors collect and submit poetry that meets the PitWR criteria. Essentially, we’d like the poetry to come from a place of wellbeing as the pieces are meant to support, rather than challenge, patients and families.
BCR: How many local poets have had work in the brochures?
MS: More than 30, at least. We have such a wealth of local poets, and we’re fortunate they’re willing to share their work with us.
BCR: What are your goals as the artist-in-residence?
MS: I always begin by telling patients and staff that I am not a therapist! I’m serving my second residency with the program, and my primary goal is to provide free art activities, including journaling, to patients and families. I carry around my Mary Poppins bag (as I like to call it) filled with journals, paint, colored pencils, tissue paper, crayons, modeling clay—you name it! Research shows that such activities may reduce stress, help lessen pain levels, and provide needed distraction for people in challenging situations.
In addition, Turn the Page recently gifted a book cart with children’s books to the Healing Art Program, so I now have another tool to use with families and children.
BCR: That’s terrific. The boy with the poems was one great example of a very positive interaction. What else inspires you in this setting?
MS: I meet wonderful people. And their stories! In the waiting rooms, I’m often surprised by who wants to participate—kids who are glued to phones before I walk in drop everything to play with art supplies. Teens seem to love journals. Some patients I’ll see only once, but others I’ll visit every week and offer a different activity each time. This year I worked with a woman in Palliative Care who wanted to make valentines for each of her ten grandchildren. I try to be open to what’s needed in a particular moment.
BCR:Do you have any tips or exercises that we can share for someone who wants to explore writing as healing at home?
MS: Remember that the healing arts are more about process than product. So many people are afraid of writing and art; they’ll say, “Oh, I’m not an artist.” Well, I’m a writer, not a visual artist, but I’ll pick up a paintbrush and dabble. When I work with people who haven’t written before, I’ll try to get them to recall a time when they felt peaceful and write about that time using sensory details. Anyone can write for five minutes.
I once worked with a young woman in an ICU who, due to an accident, was unable to speak or use her hands. We made a poetry collage of words I clipped from magazines—I’d hold up various words and she’d nod or shake her head. In the end we had a poetry collage for her room and the staff knew a little bit more about her because of the words she chose.
BCR: That’s a powerful story. Thanks, Meighan, for taking on this role. And thanks to the team at Carilion Clinic for including programs like the healing arts in their approach to wellness and healing.
Learn more about the Dr. Robert L. A. Healing Arts Program at Carilion Clinic, and consider applying to participate in one of the arts and literary projects. The poems will be displayed through April 9. Take advantage of a chance to mingle around with the poems, poets, poetry lovers, and members of the Carilion community on Thursday, March 29, from 5-6:30 PM.★