Making Poem Houses as a Drama Therapy Method of Self-Care

By Mimi Savage, RDT, PhD

I discovered poem houses, an art form created by Brigid Collins (2012) during a doctoral studies seminar on leadership. I was researching the topic of supervision when I came across a paper that described how poem houses were useful for understanding the challenges of leadership in business (Grisoni & Collins, 2012). The method of mixing or assembling found objects and poetry into a box – a collage process of layering and juxtaposing images, objects, and text – was intriguing because it suggested that an “uncovering” (p. 35) of personal information could take place, and it encouraged personal reflection via construction of an object. Grisoni and Collins (2012), who are not creative art therapists, noted that “intermediality” (p. 35) exists in this assemblage art form – a co-existence and arrangement of mixed media in one object or artifact that evolves into a new art form. The intermediality borne out of the construction of poem houses resonates with my personal aesthetics, and my academic and therapeutic orientation as a drama therapist.

As a longtime student of arts and humanities, I have often appreciated the way ordinary found objects are constructed into new forms by artists creating assemblage, such as Picasso (Guitar, 1914; Bull’s Head, 1943). Rauschenberg’s composite three-dimensional  “combines” (Leoni-Figini, 2006) such as Canyon (1959), featured seemingly disparate found objects on canvas inviting broad viewer interpretation. Combines were provocative and most likely influenced by the works of Duchamp, who presented “readymades” (Howarth, 2000), such as Fountain (1917), and Box in a Valise (1966). These pieces were meant to question the making and maker of art and elicit additional layers of meaning from  the viewer.

Artists such as these open up spaces to question meaning making and truth in creative practices, and have influenced my interest in art forms that are useful to drama therapy research and drama therapy methods. Hoffman (2005) defines postmodern psychology as an approach that questions the ability to know ultimate truth and that seeks multiple methodologies in the attempt to understand experience and meaning. This is what I think the aforementioned artists attempted with their art and is what can be accomplished by using interventions like poem houses in both therapy and clinician self-care.

Poem houses also intersect with my interest in narrative research methods of generating data and deconstructing them in order to represent new forms of story for understanding meaning. The subjectively arranged three-dimensional assembly of objects and words held and perceived in a small box – a diorama of sorts, or a miniature black box theatre – complete with a storied set reminds me of the three-dimensional narrative inquiry (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000) of exploring place, time, and relationship. All of those uniquely perceived elements exist inside and outside the box. Yes, narrative inquiry, not necessarily linked to narrative therapy, is a subjectively informed process with no absolute truths.

Like Duchamp’s Box in a Valise, visual stories compacted into the framed space of a box such as the poem house invite the viewer to think narratively. It also permits an interdisciplinary way to seek truth as it echoes or represents personal and social lenses. Thus, the poem house invites us to ask, “What is the story I perceive in this container?” “What is the meaning I gather from the inside and outside of the container as it pertains to the many dimensions of the maker, the environment, the time, and my own history?”

The storied box invites me to understand personal experience (mine and another’s), which is at the crux of narrative research. The contextualized story can be experienced and viewed in the landscape of a poem house and through the use of metaphor and symbolic imagery – a pivotal tool of narrative therapeutic approaches and narradrama (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; Dewey, 1934).

Narradrama and Poem Houses

Narradrama combines the concepts of narrative therapy with drama therapy and the creative arts (Dunne, 2006). It borrows from psychology, sociology, anthropology, experimental theatre, and many forms of expressive arts in order to help a person become aware of internalized narratives.

Narradrama uses the following therapeutic steps:

  1. Warming up to new descriptions of self-identity and/or environment by making restorative body drawings, self-portraits, puppets, poem houses, body sculptures etc.
  2. Externalizing the problem by using projective techniques to separate from the problem via artwork, body sculpting, sand play, etc.
  3. Making possibility extensions that open up the option to try something new via creative art, movement, or scenes.
  4. Externalizing new choices and pathways via expressive art forms.
  5. Exploring personal agency through journaling, masks, and expressive art to decipher problem-solving parts of one’s self.
  6. Using alternative stories and unique outcomes through scenes and role play.
  7. Re-storying problem saturated narratives by exploring scenes with optional outcomes.
  8. Creating closure through witnessed rituals and the use of reflective teams (Dunne, 2006, p. 42).

This method does not rely on rigid sequential approaches. Instead, the steps are used in accordance to client need.

As a narradrama intervention, the poem house exercise introduces the construction of a storied landscape that provides therapist and client with the opportunity to delve into preferred narratives, which offer possibilities for change via enactment. I explain the step-by-step process later in this article.

Artist-researchers Grisoni and Collins (2012) saw “narrative potential” (p. 46)  in using poem houses to facilitate an arts-based workshop on leadership. Narrative potential parallels the “restorying” (Dunne, 2006, p. 297) aspect of narradrama and its projective, psychodramatic, and externalizing aims. In addition, the researchers posited that their participants separated from their personal or leadership problems via the construction of the boxes (Grisoni & Collins, 2012). Thus, similar to mask or sand tray interventions for instance, the poem house offers clients new perspectives, allowing them to project feeling onto an object that can be witnessed and expanded upon with the added drama therapy step of embodied exploration.

Similar to other narradrama interventions, poem houses exemplify “the inter-relationships among the arts and the ability of one art form to expand and enhance another” (Dunne, 2006, p. 26) through the mixing of media and the potential for embodiment. Therefore, working first with written word or with an image created from found objects can feed into a larger or extended, activated narrative for the client. In order to help the client to experience the big picture of insight through narradrama, this interdisciplinary, experiential, and intermedial method of “opening space” (Dunne, 2006, p. 27) for action is essential. Ironically, the small world of the box can offer entrance to a bigger narrative for the client and therapist.

Assemblage as Knowing

Poem house exploration embraces both art, written word, and even movement in this case, functioning as another tool toward experiencing several levels of the eight-step narradrama process, such as externalizing the problem, possibility extensions, personal agency, alternative stories, re-storying life scenes, and reflection. As mentioned previously, Grisoni and Collins (2012) examined these experiential and presentational ways of knowing (common in drama therapy) by exploring leadership development with public sector managers via a poem house workshop. They did this by applying Heron and Reason’s (2001) definitions of four different ways of knowing or acquiring information in human understanding as guidelines to workshop processes. The definitions on acquiring knowledge covered:

  1. Propositional knowing of theories, involving objectivity, or precision,
  2. Practical knowing of how to do something such as a skill,
  3. Experiential knowing or accessing information through relationships with another person, place, or thing leading to personal understanding, empathy, emotion, and resonance,
  4. Presentational knowing evolving from the direct experiential moment offering expression, thereby furthering insight through imagery in arts, such as writing, visual arts, dance, and drama.

Not surprisingly, the authors concluded the workshop participants did not garner sufficient personal insight by honing in on the first two ways of knowing. Instead, leadership skills and personal awareness were enhanced due to experiential and presentational ways of knowing via making poem houses, which involved bringing a published poem, embellishing its meaning visually as a poem house, and then discussing group and personal revelations in a supported workshop. These two ways of knowing or learning are also foundational aspects of drama therapy. This information prompted me to develop the poem house exercise as a conduit to self-care using drama therapy.

Game Girls Workshop

At the time I learned about poem houses, I was also hired to work for a documentary filmmaker, Alina Skrzeszewska. Her film Game Girls takes place in Los Angeles, California, on Skid Row, which consists of 50 city blocks in a 0.4 square mile area. The predominantly concrete area of downtown, flanked by historic buildings, high-rise financial institutions, luxury lofts, and the industrial district, has the largest population of homeless people in the nation, and an ever-growing number of homeless women over age 50 live there. There are 41,174 homeless men, women, and children in the inner city with a third of the population enduring chronic homelessness accompanied by multiple health issues and mental illnesses. (Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority: LA Police Dept., 2015).

Homeless women living in this area are the protagonists documented by the filmmaker. While filming the sometimes volatile lives of the women, Alina wanted to use drama therapy methods to help create community among the participants, who are a transient population. The intent was to avoid exoticizing the women living on Skid Row by creating a safe place for personal narratives to be borne via expressive arts and collaborative practices. The goal was also to develop ongoing relationships and trust on and off the workshop site between filmmaker and protagonists for an endeavor that would last a few years.

Skid Row streets are strewn with cardboard boxes inhabited by homeless people. The cardboard poem boxes I began to use to process my experiences with the violence, extreme poverty, and mental illness embedded in the physical environment of the site functioned as a safe and precise space for me to place my thoughts and feelings – a home base for my personal, healing narrative.

During a private meeting, the film director, Alina, recounted an interview she had outside of the group. She had filmed a woman on Skid Row who disclosed that she was a victim of severe abuse in foster care. While Alina was telling me what she witnessed through her camera lens, she was suddenly and uncharacteristically overwhelmed with tears and sadness, which I believe meant she vicariously experienced the victim’s storied trauma. Until then, I had not considered the self-care needs of documentary filmmakers. I have since learned that “compassion stress” (Figley, 1995) such as this, or even secondary trauma, are common among photojournalists and documentarians inundated with victims’ narratives (DartCentre for Journalism and Trauma, 2015).

The film crew quietly witnessed the victims’ shared stories in the Game Girls workshop. Hesitant but curious, a few weeks into the film project, they agreed to make poem houses in a session outdoors – a tranquil place away from Skid Row. The workshop direction for the film crew, as provided by me, was: “Create a poem house that pertains to your experiences thus far. What does self-care mean to you as a documentarian?”

I joined the all female crew and created my own box as part of deciphering feelings about my experiences as a facilitator during these initial meetings. The finished art objects created by these visual artists were rich and varied. Poem houses were documented, shared, and discussed. Included are excerpts of their poem house experiences which they consented to share, with titles such as: It was Silent; Negative Space/Rupture; Freedom/Control; Don’t Cross the Line; Finding Flight.

Resistant about creating a whole structure, a crew participant made several tableaux out of the 6×6 cardboard cube by cutting into side walls, pasting magazine images on them, drizzling glue for texture, and re-constructing it all into varied panoramic stories. She revealed: “While I’m sure there can be benefits of building a poem house as a solitary endeavor, for me its power truly revealed itself in the group context… The open box corresponded to my approach of letting things pass through me (as a documentary filmmaker), and to fly through landscapes, stories, lives without a pre-determined structure” (Participant personal conversation, January 2014). Another participant shared: “I have a hard time fixing boundaries. And this time I felt I needed to protect myself from the overwhelming emotions floating during the workshops. So yes, my house would be about protection. As I was silently sitting on the floor, cutting and gluing under the sun, I started to feel peace and joy invaded me” (Participant, personal conversation, January, 2014). One person realized: “It was not so empty after all… Only that I am seeing, picturing and rehearsing a staged play that I let happen inside the box” (Participant, personal conversation, January, 2014). Lastly, my box, Finding Flight, helped me acknowledge I needed freedom to facilitate and play in a new environment as well as make time for myself. All in all, creating the boxes opened space for discussion and insight about the Game Girls workshops.

I wanted to bring this method to other drama therapists because of these discoveries, and I wondered how working this way could be adapted to involve more embodiment, such as with the imaginal dialogue method I learned from Shaun McNiff (2008). I was also inspired by Whitaker’s (2010) practice of outdoor art therapy practices, knowing that the NADTA’s 2014 conference location, in a natural setting, would offer the opportunity to share and learn about this next, more detailed step of intervention with experienced colleagues who also understood levels of trauma.

Poem Houses as Self-Care Methods for Drama Therapists

During the NADTA conference workshop, A Drama Therapist’s Self-Care on Skid Row: Facilitating the Documentary Film Game Girls, I invited participants to create their own poem houses for self-healing. Influenced by the film crew’s experiences of counter-transference or their reactions to the “survivor’s accounts rather than to the victims themselves” (p. 663), I adapted the poem house exercise into a specific six-step process. Aware that practitioners regularly contain and heal responses to trauma, I considered Danieli’s (2005) guide to principles of self-care when devising the workshop.

The useful principles of self-care I have abbreviated here as a guide are:

  1. Recognize your reactions to shared narratives and take note of somatic signals of distress. Finding words to describe inner experiences is essential to self-care.
  2. Contain your reactions and identify comfort levels in order to be open and ready to listen. Remember every emotion has a beginning, middle, and end. Attenuate an emotion’s intensity. Feel the full cycle without getting defensive and overwhelmed.
  3. Heal and grow and accept that shifts occur. Seek consultation therapy to explore areas triggered by patients’ stories and learn that interventions may interact with one’s unworked-through experiences. Establish a network of people to create a holding environment to share trauma-related work. Enjoy creative, relaxing, non-work related activities of self-expression to regenerate energy (p. 663-664).

As the workshop facilitator, I considered these self-care reminders, when I gave the following directions:

  1. Pick a partner and discuss self-care issues, challenges, dangers, transferences and counter-transferences.
  2. After discussion, make response art (Fish, 2006) by doodling or drawing on paper what was shared. How does your self-care appear visually? Discuss further, while partners scribe descriptive words that come up.
  3. Use imaginal dialogue (McNiff, 2008) to make fluid sculptures that explore what the response art looks like in the body (include the voice) and create a moving sculpture of your partner’s self-care art response. Refer to the art image, interpret it, and bring to life as many aspects as possible of the image and the narrative you witnessed.
  4. Discuss the experience. Check in with your partner about how the embodied doubling fit their experience. Switch roles and repeat.
  5. Scavenge objects and potential craft materials outside in the Yosemite landscape, and inside the workshop space, implementing the words you discovered and shared to create your poem houses. Collect elements to assemble an image of preferred self-care for yourself.
  6. Reflection of process. The group leader invites sharing and discussion of the process among the participants of the larger group.

Grisoni and Collins (2012) posited that arts-based knowing is best implemented with reflection. Although the NADTA workshop participants agreed that the allotted three hours limited desired reflection and exploration, their discussion revealed ways poem houses could be implemented in various milieus. At the end, workshop participants agreed to display the boxes for public witnessing at the conference site. Photographs of them were sent to the participants, which resulted in images that functioned as transitional objects of the time spent on self-care – reminders of what took place for the practitioner. In my opinion, the photo images of the pieces were aesthetically attractive in presentation as well – adding another layer of intermediality. Some of the resultant poem house titles were: Illuminalchemy; Ephemeral; Home; Window; Nest; Learning Ways of Knowing; Un; American Fake Dream; The Healing Light of Flow; Balanced Chaos; At the Source; Expression.

I am interested in continuing the exploration of poem houses. Discussion with colleagues at the conference was ripe with insight about furthering this work, and back in LA, the film crew has expressed interest and need for more poem house group work. I intend to use the method with other populations as well. I welcome practitioners to explore poem houses or three-dimensional assemblage art with drama therapy or other creative art therapies and I look forward to dialogue and sharing insight on its benefits.

Mimi Savage, PhD, RDT is an instructor at UCLArts and Healing for the Social Emotional Arts (SEA) program as well as an expressive arts facilitator for the film, Game Girls. She recently completed dissertation research: Making Personal Public Service Announcements with Adopted Young Women from Foster Care: A Narrative Inquiry (Proquest, UMI No. 3706869). A recipient of a 2014 Drama Therapy Fund Professional Research Grant and 2015 Lesley University New Works and Pilot Research Grant, she looks forward to doing more research inquiry on matters of social justice and self-care. Contact:


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