POETRY, STORIES AND PSYCHODRAMA: Discovering an Oasis in the Desert

ASGPP Annual conference

Psychodrama and Group Work: Desert Oasis – Healing the Spirit Within

April 1, 2016 

Stephen Kopp, MS, TEP, St. Luke Institute, Dreamer2Doer;

Estelle Fineberg, LCSW, LMFT, TEP, Private Practice 

The poem is a little myth of man’s capacity of making his life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see—it is, rather, a light by which we may see—and what we see is life.    Robert Penn Warren 

This workshop is primarily experiential and will hopefully provide this light as we use poetry creativity and psychodrama to create an oasis of safety and creativity. 

Using poetry, stories and movement, we will step into the imagery of the desert and take a journey deep within ourselves to uncover an inner oasis. This experiential workshop will demonstrate how weaving in other creative expressions deepens both the group and the protagonist, particularly in exploring spiritual themes. This session includes a psychodrama.

Learning Objectives:

After attending this workshop, participants will be able to:

1. Demonstrate three techniques for blending poetry, stories and psychodrama;

2. Identify two indicators for directing transpersonal dramas.


Poetry Therapy/bibliotherapy is one of the creative arts therapies, and describes the conscious use of the written and spoken word as a means of healing or personal growth. It utilizes literature, poetry, creative writing and discussion as a vehicle for deepening our experiences of self and fostering community within our groups.  Because one task of poetry is to say much in a few words, it can be a powerful tool for helping a group find a focus, deepen their experience, and create sufficient containment and cohesion for members to move into their psychodramas. 

 Poetry therapy is both a very new and a very old member of the creative arts therapies. It has modern roots in psychology and library science.  The historical roots of using written words as a guide for living go at least as far as the Analects of Confucius.  Aristotle wrote “Poetry can choose and organize as life cannot.”

 “Poetry ennobles the heart and the eyes, and unveils the meaning of all things upon which the heart and the eyes dwell. It discovers the secret rays of the universe, and restores to us forgotten paradises.  Edith Sitwell

 This presentation will explore the use of poetry and stories as a warm-up to psychodrama. There are a number of points to maintain when merging poetry and psychodrama. Clearly, the first consideration is to choose a poem that reflects goals for the group.  A poem may be chosen for a specific group’s task- such as an addictions/recovery group or survivors group. Alternatively, a poem might be selected to reflect back the here-and-now energy that members shared during their initial warm-up.  The process in selecting a poem is directed towards meeting these needs or wants.

For those who are able, it can be useful to have access to a variety of poems applicable for your group. Have sufficient copies for each participant. These can be kept in a file cabinet or accordion folder.  You want to have easy access to your ‘poetry tool box’ for those situations when a particular poem would reinforce the goals and agenda of the group.

Poems can be a wonderful way to bring a structured warm-up into a session, whether it is a new group working towards cohesion, or a group that has reached a block or impasse. Often, the words of the poet will help people focus their warm-up.  Poetry can also be a doorway into a group sociodrama, by offering common language or images to all the members.

 Goals in using poetry therapeutically include:

  • Increasing the individual’s capacity to respond to affect, by helping focus, identify and experience feelings.
  • Expand the individual’s relationships, identify and strengthen one’s social connection, promoting cohesion in group and in one’s life.
  • Contribute to an individual’s self-awareness, & support his or her values, beliefs and experiences.
  • Help to organize and make sense of situations. This is why poetry can be a powerful warm-up to working psychodramatically with trauma or difficult experiences.

“A poem begins with a lump in the throat; a homesickness or a love-sickness. It is a reaching out toward expression, an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the word." Robert Frost


Hearing the poem:

Distribute copies of the poem or writings to all the participants. Poetry is meant to be heard, not read. In using poems as a warm-up, after group members have a chance to read the poem to themselves, they need the opportunity to listen to it.  This can be done by having the poem read by the therapist, by going around in a circle, or by simply inviting anyone who is ready to start, and to encourage people to enter in or stop as they feel so moved. This last option promotes involvement, yet can also lower anxiety, since going around in a circle doesn’t take into account social phobias, levels of literacy, etc.

 "A poet's work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep."   Salman Rushdie

Opening up the poem:

Depending on the mood, the level of warm-up, and the intensity of the poem, it can be read one or more times. There are several ways a poem can be explored within the group.  Obviously, you can ask members to verbally reflect on their experience or interpretation of the words they just heard.  Another way to explore the poem is to have members call out any words or phrases that impacted them in some particular way. Invite them to change or alter words or phrases to personalize the poem. Playing with the poem in this way often leads to hearing words or phrases repeated over and over, showing where the group’s warm-up is heading. At that point, the group members might choose to return to the poem itself, and notice how they hear it differently after having played together with the words.

One fairly common experience in using poetry as a warm-up is having a poem move participants into a more introverted experience. While some poems create strong interactions, frequently a poem deepens the reflective process of those involved.  Allow group members sufficient time to shift from this reflective place and to bring their awareness or insights back into the group dynamic.

One powerful way of deepening people’s resonance with the poem is through brief writing. Have members turn over the page on which the poem is printed, and give them a very short time to write whatever they choose.  If you keep this time allotted to two or three minutes, people are less focused on the ‘product’, and respond from a more creative, spontaneous source.  Participants can then be invited to share what they wrote, or simply to speak about their process or reactions during their writing. This can regain and reinforce the interpersonal dynamics of the group.

Moving from the poem into the drama:

Poems can be vehicles for dramas in a number of ways. Sometimes the initial exploration of a poem will intensify or clarify the warm-ups already in the group.  This can motivate individuals to be open to the protagonist role.  Directors may have your own cultural conserves for selecting a protagonist at this point.  A director can use the narrative story of a poem or the individual’s creative writing to develop their contract with the protagonist.

If the intended goal of the poem was to work collectively, the participants can transition into a sociodramatic exploration. Many poems offer either a narrative story or powerful metaphors; participants can be easily moved into action by having people identify the roles needed to concretize and sculpt the poem’s imagery. Subsequently allowing people to step into these roles moves the shared imagery from the poem into a sense of unity; the sociodrama can then expand in this direction.

 In using poetry in conjunction with psychodrama, the director would facilitate the drama according to his own her own style. Depending on the direction and intensity of the sharing at the group’s closure, one option is the conserve of letting the group end with sharing.  An alternative option is to close by reading the poem one last time, and bringing into this final reading any of the experiences of the enactment.


Psychodrama, by definition, is telling our stories – in action- within the container of the group. However, you can also foster the group warm-up by having members present a brief story.  If the goal is to work sociodramatically, a more detailed story can be used.  In fact, one of Moreno’s early techniques – The Living Newspaper – involved group members acting out stories from the current news.

When the goal is to facilitate movement towards a protagonist-centered psychodrama, it is important to keep the stories brief and focused. Lengthy stories often result in a number of branch warm-ups that complicate or diffuse the protagonist’s drama. Options for focusing stories can include narratives such as Aesop’s fables.  Another wonderful book that can serve as warm-up is Lobel’s Fables.

One way to invite individuals to be concise is to ask members to give a three sentence story, involving some aspect of their lives.  Don't be surprised if a few people go over - typically I let this pass, rather than calling them out and risking shaming them or inhibiting any people who have yet to introduce themselves. Three sentence stories can be particularly effective for keeping introductions contained.

I will usually model a three sentence story, to begin the process:  "Growing up, we had a loveable mutt as part of the family.  I moved to a 'No Pets' building.  I now take every opportunity to play with my friends' pets." 

In a one time or very large group setting - such as a conference workshop - you can break people into groups of 4 or 5 to share their 3 sentence stories. It will increase a group's cohesion just to have members know a few other individuals by name and by an interest. "You're the one who likes knitting."  "You were the one with the gardening story..."

Art materials can also be used with poetry or stories. Because of the kinesthetic quality of creating art, the individual increases access to his or her somatic self.  It can open a window to less conscious material, and therefore can work in tandem with poetry to deepen an individual’s introspection.

In this workshop, we have chosen the poem Eagle Poem by Joy Harjo. It is from her book Mad Love and War, © 1990. Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a member of the Mvskoke Nation.  She often incorporates her Mvskoke heritage as well as feminist and social concerns into her writing. She has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas, the Josephine Miles poetry Award, and the American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award, to name a few.  Joy Harjo is also a musician and released four albums of original music, including Red Dreams, A trail Beyond Tears (2010) Ms. Harjo is a founding board member of the native Arts and Cultures Foundation.


There are a number of resources for developing a repertoire of poems. National Public Radio carries the writer’s almanac, which includes a poem each day. They also have a good poetry archive.  These are on line at  www.writersalmanac.org.    

www.poetryfoundation.org and www.poets.org are both websites that offer rich resources for poems.

Mary Oliver has several books available, including New and Selected Poems, Volume One Beacon Press, Boston, 1992  Her poems move easily into psychodramas.  Her poem The Journey is particularly useful when working with co-dependency and boundary issues.

Linda Pastan has many books available, including PM/AM: New and Selected Poems and Queen of a Rainy Country, W.W. Norton & Company, NY, NY 2006.  She is a particularly good resource for women’s groups.

Fables, by Arnold Lobel, Harper & Row, 1980, This book has short, one page fables with wonderful illustrations. The pictures alone can be a structured warm-up for leading into a psychodrama.

The Book of Qualities, by J Ruth Gendler, 1984 Perennial Library edition 1988 While not poetry, per se, this book personifies qualities, and can lead to some wonderful warm-ups that explore assets and feelings; It can be used as a model for individuals to write out their own qualities, and can easily lead into a psychodrama.

As you experiment with using poetry or stories in groups, you will discover poems & poets that are particularly useful with a given population or goal.

To learn more about Poetry Therapy, contact the National Association of Poetry Therapy at www.poetrytherapy.org or link through the National Coalition of Creative Arts Therapies Associations at www.nccata.org .

To learn more about psychodrama, contact the American Society for Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama at www.ASGPP.org or the American Board of Examiners in Psychodrama Sociometry and Group Psychotherapy; their website is: www.psychodramacertification.org .

Stephen Kopp, MS TEP

Oklahoma City, OK




Estelle Fineberg, LCSW, LMFT, TEP

105 NW 4th Street

Ft Lauderdale, FL 33301



I’d rather learn from one bird how to singthan teach ten thousand stars how not to dance. ee cummings

You meet people in the artificial setting of your office. I meet them on the street and in their homes, in their natural surroundings. You analyzed their dreams; I try to give them courage to dream again. JL Moreno [to Freud]

© copyright March 2016



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