Conversation 70: THE DAILY HAIKU Interviews: Phil Isherwood

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From the age of 9 or 10, I remember avidly studying the English Dictionary. My school reports commented on the extent of my vocabulary. What the teachers, and I, were not fully aware of, was that this was driven by my debilitating stammer. I needed as many alternative words as possible to whatever problem word that refused to leave my trembling lips at any particular moment.   I hated speaking in public.

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Now, I can see how that ‘problem’ was quite significant in becoming a poet – even 40 years later! In my  youth I enjoyed new words, wordplay and metaphors. I avoided answering phones. I learnt tricks and disguises for my silent stammer, but other departments in my early employments (Ergonomics research and an NHS Area HQ) easily recognised the sound of shuffling papers, to say ‘Is that you Phil?’ when their call was through to my desk.  I learnt more coping techniques, but still I hated speaking in public!

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Then, in 1988, I started writing prayers.  I had become a Christian but at first could not speak aloud to God!  My prayers were thought  ‘poetic’ and seemed to help others when I shared them. What I discovered about prayer-poetry was that silent pauses were valuable, even powerful in the art of words. I learned to enjoy speaking aloud and was especially drawn to the way that words could heal, celebrate wonder, see things in the world that amazed us. I became a worship leader, trained in ministry and (thanks to very early retirement) did an MA in Creative Writing – during which I  began running writing groups. Firstly, in a brain injuries centre, then a mental hospital secure unit and also in a community arts centre for the recovering mentally ill. Then, just as I was considering ideas for a PhD, the local  hospice contacted the University of Bolton to ask for a writer to work with patients. I went for a visit in late summer 2010. I have been the hospice poet at Bolton Hospice ever since. I was awarded my PhD for ‘Numinous Connections – Poetry in the Hospice’ in 2015. It is the best (though voluntary) job I have ever had!

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I am stretching out my journey into poetry so that you may naturally see my focus on Poetry and Wellbeing. Poetry has helped me to celebrate who I am, been a support in depressive illness and is the way that I can help patients and families at the end of life. It is a tremendous privilege to listen to stories, memories of favourite travels, events, wars and wonders. People inspire poems. I use the ‘beachcomber analogy’ to undertake a metaphorical walk through parts of someone’s life, collecting phrases, ideas, insights, details – then ‘what art can I make’. A poem.  A hospice patient’s life is not a final Curriculum Vitae! – it is the smallest details of wonder remembered, points of amazement in life. That is what poetry is good at – AND – the Haiku is just wonderful for capturing moments of amazement in stories.

 

How do you approach writing haiku? (chance to offer some insights into your writing process, whether you include visual and other material?

I primarily use ‘ekphrasis’- the Greek idea of responding to one work of art with another. I treat those I talk with as ‘works of art’ themselves.  Haiku is often the starting point to put a series together as a longer poem. The three-line form is great at a sense of wonder. Say less, show more.

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Stories are the essence of identity. Celebrating a life with poetry is so valuable to patients and families. Poems are, for example, shared with family and friends, given as poems for specific grandchildren; and used at funerals. Creative Therapy at the hospice often involves, memory boxes, painting, craft work etc – and the conversations and process in such activity is also inspiring to respond in poetry.    I use photography a great deal, having been into it since my teens. Again, it is the fine details, composition, colours contrasts – all are inspiration.

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During lockdown I have been revisiting both my own photographic and hospice art library and my many 100s of poems in hospice work, to distil new points of focus in haiku. I may begin with either a photograph or a written phrase as a starting point.  I am also into digital art as a way of celebrating details we see in life.

 

What do you enjoy about being a member of The Daily Haiku group?

I was never short of inspiration for poetry from the hospice each week. In Covid-19 lockdown, no volunteers could attend the day centre or wards, but I have worked on notes from the Hospice Creative Therapist as needed . So, The Daily Haiku group was a great discovery to keep the challenges coming. It has been very encouraging, especially connecting to writers all over the world. I appreciate the idea and hard work from Amanda in setting the group up. Wonderful!

 

Do you have any comments on the wellbeing aspect of being part of a creative writing group?

See above, and my ‘cure’. For stammering! – Nowadays I love reading poetry out loud, large or small gatherings, church, conferences, radio, website recordings. Wellbeing can be fragile – so a supportive creative group is great for avoiding relapse.

Happiness lasts if it is shared! Make a difference!

A life of meaning

Leads into true happiness

Make someone else smile

Being creative, able to see metaphorically, one thing in terms of another, is the essence of being human. All emotions are essentially understood in metaphor – go on, try to describe any emotion you can think of without using a metaphor!  So, if we are better at poetry and creative writing, must it not improve or emotional intelligence? Join a group and grow your gift. Encourage others!

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I am a self-confessed sunset junkie.

The beach at sunset

The softly advancing sea

Kiss, retreat, repeat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wisdom of water

Sunset, silence, waiting

Present with nature

 

Do also please add any other comments/images etc about contributing haiku to the group and anything else you want to highlight.

Just to say a big Thank You to Amanda and all 5000+ of The Daily Haiku members – for encouragement, for sharing your own words and comments.  AND…

 

The pandemic has brought death and fear of dying into everyone’s focus in some way. As a society we need to talk about death.  Wellbeing is to live well right up to the end – poetry and creative writing groups are so valuable to celebrate each life lived and leave a legacy of art for family and friends. During 2020, Bolton Hospice have been setting up their new Wellbeing Hub, to open as soon as it is safe in the coming months. Like many hospices, there is so much scope for writing groups and one-to-one writing activity.  I would love to encourage some of you in the TDH group, or any readers, to consider becoming Hospice Poets as well. You may think is scary or difficult… but in my experience, you will never be short of inspiration to write and your poetry will make a real difference to so many. Please ring your local hospice and talk to them now! Do contact me if you have any questions.

 

 

 

9 Comments on “Conversation 70: THE DAILY HAIKU Interviews: Phil Isherwood”

  1. He never wrote poetry but in the hospice we shared memories of love and found something that would last beyond his final smile. Poetry, the old classics and even when he was too tired to open his eyes he would smile as I read to him. Our final poem was the long, long Dylan Thomas, Under Milkwood. Whenever I feel lonely (which happens quite a lot) I will sit, eyes closed and listen to it again. I remember him, I remember also why I love poetry so much

  2. Dear Phil,
    I echo much of what you say, from my love of dictionaries as a youngster, to finding poetry as both a therapy and an art in my mid-forties to facilitating community groups. It is both a pleasure and an honour to witnesses peoples stories, to read articles like this.

  3. 2 days late, but the “Conversation” finally showed up on my feed. Yours did not disappoint. What an inspiration you are! My experience with hospice for my mom was one of deep gratitude and appreciation for how they handle death. The way they cared for mom and how they helped us to enter into the last days with peace will stay with me always. Thank you for being a hospice poet and for sharing your journey with us!

  4. Phil your interview is so deeply inspiring. Your work as a hospice poet is so meaningful and tender. I love my own arts for health work and some of the most touching work has been with those suffering from dementia and also with those who long term hospital patients. I echo your calls to anyone to get involved as it is such rewarding but humbling work. WE are indeed creative beings Phil and you are helping so many unlock their creativity through poetry. Love your haiku and images, being obsessed with sunsets seems a very lovely obsession.

  5. Thank you, to all of you, for your kind and encouraging comments to me – and for being part of a creative culture for wellbeing through The Great Margin / TDH. I hope you may spread the word amongst poet friends and writers to use their gifts to make a real difference to the wellbeing of others. Some, in society and the media, think poetry an amusing/quirky past-time! BUT poetry is wonderful for portraying the ups and down of life, sharing our human journeys and above all in celebrating difference – different ways of seeing and being in this marvellous and challenging world.
    Thank you again!
    Phil

    1. Well said Phil I completely agree, poetry is wonderful at portraying life’s ups and downs in the most touching way. It is of course something we all go to help express our feelings at important moments including marriage, death and birth.

  6. Phil,
    What an amazing person you are and what in inspiring life you are living. May I say, honestly, that I have been intimidated by your deep well of words in your vocabulary. You inspire me often to look words up in the dictionary. Thank you for telling your story about being a hospice poet. Both my mother and father enjoyed the services from hospice. But I do not recall any creative writers or poets. Thank you for sharing your story and all the good work that you do.

    Wendy Blomseth

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