The healing power of poetry

CMU English Alumna Ashley Schaaf taps into poetry as a tool for therapy

| Author: Robert Fanning

Department of English, Language and Literature faculty member Robert Fanning caught up with Central Michigan University English alumna Ashley Schaaf, '18, to discuss her work as an Expressive Arts Therapist.

The San Francisco resident recently spoke to current CMU students about her love for poetry, particularly as a tool of social change and healing, as a guest speaker (virtually) in Fanning’s course, English 616: The Teaching of Creative Writing.

Closeup image of Ashley Schaaf wearing a black jacket and standing in front of green plants.
CMU English alumna Ashley Schaaf discusses her work as an Expressive Arts Therapist. 


Q. As a CMU student I remember you were drawn to combine your love of Creative Writing with your passion for working with the incarcerated community. Tell us about that journey and what it taught you about the power of writing?

Early on during my time at CMU, I learned about mass incarceration and its long history of injustice, especially with regard to marginalized communities. This drew me to serve as a Teaching Assistant for a Service Learning Behind Bars communication class with Drs. Shelly and Ed Hinck. This course brought undergrads into a local prison to learn alongside men who were incarcerated. I was touched by the relationships that were forged during this experience, and I knew that I wanted to integrate my love of creative writing into this kind of work.

I then audited a class at UofM with the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP). This opportunity allowed me to team up with two other undergrads and offer a creative writing workshop in a correctional facility in Jackson. For my CMU Honors Program capstone project, I designed and led a 12-week poetry workshop for a group of incarcerated veterans in Saginaw. It was an honor to witness the power of creative expression to act as a catalyst to increased senses of empowerment and belonging.

A meaningful moment that I often reference occurred when a 27-year-old former gang member convicted of murder and serving life in prison, stood in his blue and orange jumpsuit to read a poem. I had invited each participant to write a poem of address; this man wrote to his child. His lines expressed the loss and shame he felt about his son growing up without him. As he spoke, his face expressed vulnerability which turned to pride and comfort when he saw his fellow writers nodding. As class was ending, he shook my hand and said, "Thank you. I've never talked about that stuff before." 

Q. When you visited my class, you spoke powerfully about being open to so many experiences that come along after graduation, and I wonder if you might share what have you been doing since you left CMU?

After I graduated from CMU in 2018, I wasn't exactly sure what my next steps should be. I happened to meet the love of my life around this time, so I decided to stay in the area. I worked as a paralegal at a small estate planning firm and applied to various MFA programs in poetry around the country. I didn't get accepted to one, and I'm grateful for that. I remember a conversation with other activists and scholars who were discussing the scope of what they could offer to currently and formerly incarcerated folks. Part of the conversation was specifically about not being able to address the effects of trauma. I realized that I wanted the training required to understand and work with trauma.

Soon after, I learned about Expressive Arts Therapy for the first time. It felt like a beautiful merging of my passions. I attended the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco and graduated with my Master's in Counseling Psychology, concentration in Expressive Arts Therapy. My final project for this degree was entitled “The Relationship Between Space/Place and Psychotherapy in San Francisco's Tenderloin District: An Arts-Based Autoethnography.”

I am continuing to work with the poems I wrote for this project with an eventual goal of putting them together in a chapbook. I am now working as a Clinical Social Worker and Therapist with the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Citywide Case Management on the forensics team. I provide case management and psychotherapy to individuals with severe mental illnesses who frequently interact with the criminal legal system. I am also currently an adjunct instructor at CIIS.

Q. You know the age-old question ‘What are you going to do with a degree in English?’—to which I like to reply, “What are you NOT going to do with a degree in English!” On that note, I’d like to ask—what skills do you feel you gained studying English and Creative Writing at CMU, and how have you been applying those skills in your professional life?

I carry the growth and learning I gained during my time at CMU into all areas of my life. In my first creative writing course, I was unsure of myself and terrified to speak up. The process of reading and writing poetry (and the kind mentorship of Professor Bean) helped me to become more confident and better able to authentically move through the world. I now feel able to use my voice and creativity to meet my clients where they are and to advocate on their behalf. My English courses also supported my ability to effectively communicate verbally and in writing as well as helping to develop my critical thinking skills. In particular, studying Literary Theory with Dr. Freed pushed my intellectual and cognitive edges in the most helpful ways. All these skills are deeply valuable to my work as a clinician, professor, and human.

Q. I’m curious about the exciting field of Expressive Arts Therapy (EXA)—would you mind discussing EXA and why you are now on a path toward certification in Poetry Therapy?

The International Expressive Arts Therapy Association (IEATA) describes expressive arts (EXA) therapy as the combination of "visual arts, movement, drama, music, writing, and other creative processes to foster deep personal growth and community development." I believe that creative exploration allows individuals to learn about themselves and others as well as to make meaning out of their experiences. It supports personal agency by valuing the perspective and curiosity of the creator. EXA therapy emphasizes the process of creative expression over the product that results in the end. My love of creative writing was the impetus for seeking training in EXA therapy. I wanted to situate my engagement in poetry in the relational realm. I wanted my love of poetry to be on the ground, in the streets, in community. I contrast this with the idea of the introspective poet that only contemplates in seclusion.

The National Association of Poetry Therapy (NAPT) describes poetry therapy as "the use of language, symbol, and story in therapeutic, educational, growth, and community-building capacities." I am currently pursuing training to become a Certified Poetry Therapist (CPT) through NAPT and the International Federation for Biblio and Poetry Therapy (IFBPT). I am seeking this certification because I want to delve deep into the therapeutic uses of poetry and to gain additional skills and aptitude in this area. I am currently preparing to co-present at the NAPT 2024 conference in April. Our workshop is entitled "That's Ridiculous! The Value of Integrating Joy, Play, and Silliness into Therapeutic Uses of Poetry."

Q. I love how you have worked hard to combine your interests and passions in your career path, and I wonder: what advice do you have for CMU undergraduate students in English and other programs?

I will share a piece of advice I received a while back that has been helpful for me: Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly. I first encountered this concept with regard to depression. For example, washing your face is worthwhile when taking a shower seems impossible. Or standing outside for a few minutes is better than not going out at all when a walk around the block sounds exhausting. I believe this piece of advice applies to a wide variety of contexts, especially creative endeavors. Writing a bad poem is better than not writing at all. Painting poorly is better than never experimenting with acrylics or oils. Asking to do an independent study that’s never been done before is better than not permitting yourself to dream it up at all.

Thank you, Ashley, for working to make your dreams, and those of others, come true, and for the Fired-Up work you are doing in using poetry as a healing agent in the world.

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