The Creative Side: A Psychiatrist’s Tale

A psychiatrist shares his love of poetry and how it has helped him personally and professionally.

CONVERSATIONS WITH CLINICIANS

Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.

—Robert Frost

It is no wonder that psychiatrists are drawn to the world of poetry, as it gracefully brings alive the emotions and thoughts of our world. Likewise, music has played a powerful role in psychiatry and mental health, including the use of music therapy in clinical practice. When poetry and music meet, true magic—and potential healing—can take place.

With this in mind, the poetry of Frank A. Clark, MD, Diversity and Inclusion Section Editor for Psychiatric TimesTM, will be featured in an upcoming concert at the South Carolina Philharmonic. The “American Memories” program will include works by Florence Price, William Grant Still, and George Gershwin, as well as the orchestral world premiere of Foggy Brown Sugar by Dick Goodwin based on Clark’s poetry. Psychiatric TimesTM spoke with Clark about his love of affair with poetry and what this program means to him.

Psychiatric TimesTM: When did you start writing poetry?

Frank A Clark, MD: I began writing poetry in medical school as a way to cope with my academic struggles and depression. I was in a dark place filled with doubt and embarrassment. Writing poetry along with my supportive network (church, family, friends, psychiatrist ) was the cathartic antidote that allowed to me process my feelings and thrive during my season in the wilderness of reflection and discovery.

PT: How does your poetry complement your work in psychiatry?

Clark: It creates a safe space for me to be vulnerable and process the narratives of my patients and topics that affect the communities I serve. The pen is the therapeutic tool that provides rejuvenation for my soul.

PT: Do you encourage your patients to write poetry? If so, do you discuss their poems with them?

Clark: I encourage my patients to journal as way to help process their feelings. I have come to learn that a lot of my patients have artistic talents, which include writing poetry. Some of them have shared their journal entries with me, and I have found it to be therapeutic. I view their writing as part of their wellness puzzle that consist of many pieces. I think they appreciate being seen as a human being beyond their diagnosis.

PT: There have been discussions on shared experiences and, if done correctly, how this can benefit patients. With that in mind, do you share your poems with patients? And how might you go about doing so in a productive way?

Clark: I have shared with my patients that I enjoy writing poetry but have never shared any of my writings with them. Maybe that is something I will consider this year. One of my colleagues and I have discussed creating a psychiatry and arts clinic. This would likely create a space/opportunity for me to share my poetry.

PT: Your poems are going to be featured in a concert at the South Carolina Philharmonic. How did that come about?

Clark: It was definitely providential. I had the blessing and privilege toserve on the board of the directors of the South Carolina Philharmonic during my residency, and I currently serve as an advisory board member. During my tenure, I helped create the Healing Harmonies Program, which was designed to create a beautiful collaboration between the music and health care communities by offering music therapy in health care facilities in South Carolina.

Last year I had the opportunity to meet Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the School of Music Gordon (Dick) Goodwin, DMA, and Winifred (Winkie) Goodwin during their virtual Christmas performance for our department and patients. During that performance I learned that Dr Goodwin composed music. I emailed him afterwards and asked he would be willing to pair my poems with music. He agreed, and from there a collaboration and friendship has developed.

Dr Goodwin has been instrumental in introducing me to other musicians/composers, including John Moody, DMA, and Jon Grier, DMA, with whom I have also collaborated. They are both former students of Dr Goodwin.

PT: How did you choose the poems to be included in this program?

Clark: I was very intentional on what poems I wanted to be featured. Foggy Brown Sugar is about my mother, who has a neurocognitive disorder. Infant Moments is dedicated to my daughter Claire and highlights the joy of fatherhood. Partial Absence-Full Forgiveness is about my deceased father, who was partially absent in my life. I wrote the poem as a way to reflect on my childhood and to bring closure to our relationship.

PT: What was the process in matching music to the poetry?

Clark: Dr Goodwin kept me very involved in the process. He wanted to make sure that the compositions conveyed the messages/themes I was aiming for in each poem. There was a lot of shared decision making.

PT: What response have you received from colleagues about this venture?

Clark: It’s been overwhelmingly positive. They are excited about the concert.

PT: What advice would you give to your colleagues who are interested in pursuing creative ventures?

Clark: Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and let your light shine. In the words of Brene Brown, PhD: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity.”

PT: Anything else you would like to share?

Clark: First, I want to thank God for the opportunity to share my gifts and the ability to foster collaborations with kindred spirits. Second, I want to thank my wife, Jennifer Clark, PMHNP,for her unwavering support and her encouragement to pursue what brings me joy and meaning in my life. Lastly, I want to thank Dr Dick Goodwin; my friend and vocalist Johnnie Felder; conductor Morihiko Nakahara; executive director Rhonda Husinger; and development and deputy directorRobin Hallyburton of the South Carolina Philharmonic for helping to make my dream a reality.This concert will be my Oscar.

Dr Clark is an outpatient psychiatrist at Prisma Health-Upstate and clinical associate professor at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, Greenville. He served on the American Psychiatric Association’s Task Force to Address Structural Racism Throughout Psychiatry, and he currently serves as the Diversity and Inclusion section editor and advisory board member for Psychiatric TimesTM.

Let us hear from you! Do you have a hobby or interest you would like to share with your colleagues? Email us at PTEditor@mmhgroup.com and you may be featured in an upcoming Conversations With Clinicians article or video.