The Balm of Poetry:
Poet and Dominican Professor Dr. Joan Baranow on “Healing Words”

Poet Joan Baranow has always believed in the power of language. Words can touch the heart, alter the mind, and soothe the soul. For Baranow, Assistant Professor of English Literature and Language at Dominican University and author of the collection “Living Apart” (Plain View Press, 1999), as well as the chapbook, “Morning” (Radiolarian Press, 1997), poetry has helped her get through difficult times in her life.

“I’ve been writing since I was eight,” Baranow recounts. “When you’re suffering, it helps you to put it into words and get it out. Poetry demands that you confront whatever it is you’re trying to deny. It allows you to speak what’s true, what’s real.”

Baranow now knows that a good dose of poetry can do quite a bit more than comfort. It can also heal the body.

Baranow’s belief in poetry’s healing effects stems in part from her work as co-producer of “Healing Words: Poetry & the Art of Medicine,” a documentary that will be aired on most public television stations this July. The hourlong film, shot over three days at the Arts in Medicine program at the University of Florida’s Shands Hospital in 2004, movingly follows patients as they participate in writing workshops and express themselves poetically, many for the first time. The physicians interviewed for the program explain the chemical effects in the brains of patients who become immersed in the power of their words.

“What I take from their message,” Baranow elaborates, “is that poetry is healing, whether you get better or not. You can still heal and succumb to your illness.”

“Healing Words” is Baranow’s first finished film, which she conceived with her husband David Watts, a physician, poet, essayist, and National Public Radio commentator. But it is not her first foray into documenting the medicine of poetry with a camera. About a dozen years ago, she and Watts began filming poets who had been touched by life-threatening illnesses. Among those interviewed was Alicia Ostriker, Baranow’s mentor, who served as her doctoral advisor at Rutgers and survived a bout with breast cancer. Baranow and Watts have yet to edit the footage from those tapes, but they are already well into another movie project: a documentary about a 19-year-old cancer patient who wrote poetry over the last year of her life. 

“I never thought that I would be working in film,” acknowledges Baranow, whose work has been published The Antioch Review, The Spoon River Poetry Review, and many other publications. “I do find that it’s similar to poetry in that it moves from scene to scene, image to image. It has given me another way to work with poetry.”

Not that Baranow ever strays far her from her initial engagement with poetry: writing it. She is putting the finishing touches on a new collection, and she offers a course in the craft of poetry at Dominican, where she has been a full-time faculty member for three years. With students, she uses “the power of praise, asking them to think about what’s right in their work,” she says.

“Praise can be instructive,” she concludes. Clearly, it can also be very healing.

(published in the spring/summer 2008 issue of Dominican University’s Torch magazine)