Frances Richey was a hospice volunteer when she first wrote a poem as a tribute to a patient who died.
Reading it aloud to people who knew him made her feel better, and that feeling has kept her writing ever since.
"It gave me such relief," she said. "We were all crying."
A decade has gone by and now the New York City yoga teacher has a Buffalo-published book and poetry prize. Starting this afternoon with a seminar for families with loved ones in Iraq, Richey will spend the next few days here leading workshops on a number of ways writing can help people. Topics include poetry's power to ease emotional pain, to reduce stress, and even to boost the immune system, she said.
Poetry works for her.
"It helped me to release what I was carrying in my body," said Richey, who is the author of "The Burning Point," published by Buffalo's White Pine Press. She is its ninth annual poetry prizewinner. "I really do feel not everybody is meant to be a poet. But everyone can write.
"There's a wonderful feeling when people are opening up and telling you about their lives." ~
Started with yoga
After a 20-year career in business and corporate marketing, Richey got into yoga, meditation and, eventually, poetry.
When her son left home for West Point, the West Virginia native took the lesson she learned from hospice patients: Don't wait until a convenient time to do what you want -- you could miss out. So Richey put her things in storage and rented a studio apartment in New York City. Now, at 54, she is a certified Kripalu Yoga teacher and a graduate of writers' workshops.
Her talk in Buffalo today is designed to help people respond to military deployments. Her other topics include yoga insights, how health professionals can fight burnout and writing for people whose lives have been affected by cancer.
"A lot of people are afraid of poetry," she said. "It would be really nice to spend the second part of my life just telling people, 'Don't be afraid of poetry.'"
When her workshops are long enough to allow attendees to read and develop their work, Richey can see people change.
"You can feel everybody around the table relaxing. It lifts them," Richey said. "They're just blown away by their own music and that they can write."
Richey has worked with women being treated for cancer. One, who had also lost a son to a drug overdose, opened up after she started writing and reading her work to a group lead by Richey. By writing, the woman began to conjure up old joys she'd forgotten, such as playing the piano with her father when she was a girl.
"It was hard for her to even get up out of bed and now she looks forward to writing," said Richey. "Writing is just another way to connect with yourself. You lose touch with yourself and the writing brings you back."
Writing works even if stress in need of relief of the mundane, such as a bad day at work, she said. "I worked in business for 20 years -- that was stress like no other. That is the kind of stress that kills you in inches."
Share the joy
Richey advocates writing poetry about observations that come from looking at a museum painting or even opening a 200-year-old book, as she did once finding a perfectly preserved four-leaf clover.
Poetry should be used to acknowledge those finds -- "Just the sheer joy of all these little things that happen in your life," said Richey. "They're like waking dreams, poems."
For Richey, poetry has been a solace in the weeks since her son, a Green Beret, went to Iraq. "That's where my writing is right now," she said. Her son wanted to go. At 30, he sees his service as a way to give something to his country before he leaves the Army.
"If he didn't want to go, I'd be out there on the street," she said. "I'm a liberal and I'm not ashamed to say that."
Her son's desire to serve has made his departure easier to take. But still: "It's really hard being the parent of a soldier," she said.
"He's alive. We're hearing from him. This is the hardest thing that I've ever met up with in my life. Anything I can do right now to praise him makes me feel better."