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Recovering Words With Richard Osler – Poetry, Recovery & Live Event Announcement!

Recovering Words With Richard Osler – Poetry, Recovery & Live Event Announcement!

Richard will be hosting an interactive reading session at Cedars on Saturday, October 29th from 10:30am – 11:30am. This event is open to Cedars Alumni, friends, family and Cedars affiliates. If you are interested in attending this intimate event please send your RSVP to

Poetry as healer. Poetry as words that arrive on your page as if a stranger, who knows you better than you know yourself, wrote the words. I witness time after time at Cedars in the poetry writing workshops I have facilitated for more than seven years. And I love the quote I have included below by Canadian poet Susan Musgrave which includes a question I often hear after participants read out their poems: Where do these things come from?! It is that surprise factor that lies at the heart, I believe, of poem as healer.


One of the things I love to say when I lead my weekly poetry writing workshops at Cedars is this: poets are liars. As you can imagine I get a lot of strange looks. But what I mean is how poetry, by describing something as something other, can come much closer to the truth of what it is. A few years ago in a Recovering Words poetry writing workshop at Cedars, I asked participants to describe a booze bottle without mentioning bottle or booze. Here is what happened:


The Trouble a Poet Is


At a centre for recovering addicts,

a hollowed out place with echoes inside,

I come prepared with twenty-sixers,

empty ones I want them to fill back up

with words; but with this proscription:

no mention of bottle or booze

of any description – Old Crow, Jim Beam,

Johnny Walker Red, or Maker’s 46.

At first, blind stares: the look of fish

too long in the net or, up from the depths,

cavers too long in a crawlway.

Then some words: my wife; a suicide vest.

And this: A wrecking ball made of glass,

from the boy/man with his big-sass smile

and the tattooed swagger of his arms.

I expected trouble but not this trouble:

the trouble a poet is. Their lies, the way

they upset the ordinary, the everyday;

describe a world farther away and nearer

than the one we think we know. I am

thief and liar, too, call poets, their poems,

wrecking balls made of words.


Richard Osler from Hyaena Season, Quattro Books, 2016


 (This poem is from my new collection published by Quattro Books of Toronto a few weeks ago. I will be reading from the collection at Cedars on October 29th. And for sure I will be reading this poem!)


I will be ever grateful to the Cedars’ client who called that empty bottle of booze something very different! In a literal sense he lied. A booze bottle is a booze bottle not a wrecking ball made of glass! But, of course, in a figurative sense, as a poet, he got much closer to the truth of what that bottle is in the lives of so many of Cedars’s clients – a wrecking ball made of glass. And he helped me realize that poetry too, is a wrecking ball, but made of words.


Poems we write and poems we read so often break open our hearts, help us see our lives and the lives of others in a different, truer light. I am glad that poetry has become an important part of the recovery journey for in-patients at Cedars but also, for their family members and loved ones through the Discovery program. Their poems, the poems of other participants, and the poems I read by published poets, have added to their own self-understanding in a healing way.


Many of us have never shared, in the container of a poem, deep and intimate words, most often uncensored, with ourselves, let alone with others in a room. But when this happens the shared space becomes sacred space. Men and women, some just a few days into their recovery journey begin to lean forward in their chairs. They volunteer to be the next to read; listen to the others as if their lives depend on it and somehow, when their turn comes, almost always find the courage to read their poem. And not just once but twice!


And how does this promote recovery? Promote healing? I think author, doctor and healer, Rachel Naomi Remen captures a deep sense of how this happens in this quote from her book Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal:


“Writing poetry together heals loneliness. What is true for someone on the deepest level is often true for us all. Reading a poem aloud and listening to the poems of others can heal the alienation which is so much a part of our world…..Poetry wears no mask. In taking off the masks we have worn to be safe, to protect ourselves, to win approval, we become less vulnerable. Less alone. Our pain becomes just pain. It is no longer suffering.”


“Our pain becomes just pain. It is no longer suffering.” I believe I have witnessed this many times in the poetry writing workshops at Cedars. In particular I believe I witnessed this when a participant who had been at Cedars, for just a few days, wrote this poem.


I Remember


I remember seeing my three-year-old sister

sitting in Uncle Brian’s lap


I remember thinking Uh Oh


I remember walking up to the arm chair


I remember tapping my sister on the leg

to get her to come outside to play


I remember I was four


I remember the sun was shining and Aunt Gladys

was vacuuming.


(With permission.  Also, the names in the poem have been changed to protect the author’s privacy.)


Here are some other quotes that also suggest why writing, and I would say, especially poetry, is a healing art!


“When you suffer trauma, you mostly do that passively, as a victim. But when you translate that experience into words and shape it, you become active. You are no longer a passive endurer of experience, but an active shaper of it. You’ve redeemed something from that chaos. Writing a poem can save your life, and reading a poem can show you that you are not alone. Someone else felt this. Someone else went through what you are going through and they survived, even triumphed. The poem is the proof of that survival and triumph.”

 Gregory Orr, American poet from Poetry as Survival, The University of Georgia Press, 2002


“I’m trembling with fear.  Just as well that what I’m about to write is already somehow written within me……… Just as I am writing at the very same time I am being read.”

                 Clarice Lispector from The Hour of the Star,  New Directions, 2011


“Poems always seem to know more than I do and to be wiser than I am, as far as I can see. That’s also what’s magical about writing. Where do these things come from?

Susan Musgrave from an interview with Joseph Planta, February 2014

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