Gerri Frager is a retired physician and the former director of the IWK’s Pediatric Palliative Care Service. She is also a potter and a poet. Her debut collection of poetry, Signs of Life: Images formed from Words and Clay, was published by Pottersfield Press in 2018. In the following post, she shares her thoughts on poetry, inspiration, life on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore, and more.
How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and poetry in particular?
I have dabbled in writing ever since I can remember. Writing, particularly poetry, has served as refuge and renewal over many years. I found writing to be particularly of service while working as a pediatrician. For nearly 20 years, my specialty was caring for children with critical illnesses, as director of the IWK’s Pediatric Palliative Care Service. I truly enjoyed working with the children, their families, and our teams who cared for them, although it brought me very close to much sadness. Poetry provided me with a venue to reflect on difficult situations and afforded me a way to take a deep breath. I believe putting some of my thoughts and feelings down on paper allowed me to continue working as long and with what I hope, was as much heart, as I did.
In addition to being a poet, you’re also a potter, and the poems in your collection, Signs of Life: Images formed from Words and Clay (Pottersfield Press, 2018), are accompanied by photographs of your pottery. Do you see a connection between the two mediums? Do you find that your separate artistic practices inform each other?
I love that the relaxation and joy I feel when making a plate or a vase is enhanced by being able to create something that also serves a function: holds coffee, flowers, or food. Having others enjoy my work further adds to the pleasure.
I hoped that my pottery would complement the poems and have heard this from people who have the book. The poems and poetry seem more than symbiotic as folks have told me that viewed together, they feel greater than the sum of the individual parts. Each form mirrors, reflects on, and builds on the other.
You have a background in medicine as well, having worked as a physician in pediatric palliative care. How do you see the role of the arts in medicine?
I am a strong advocate of and value incorporating the arts into medicine and more broadly, health care. In my clinical practice, there were innumerable opportunities when bringing the arts into care served to open communication with the ill child, provided comfort and relief for the family and the health professional team who cared for them.
I was also director of the Humanities-HEALS Program at Dalhousie University. HEALS stands for Healing and Education through the Arts and Life Skills. There is substantial evidence that retention is enhanced when there is an emotional connection to the material. I found this firsthand and made use of it in my teaching and taught other educators ways they could incorporate the arts for their learners.
One particular example is a play I commissioned Mary Colin Chisholm to write. Ed’s Story: The Dragon Chronicles, is a play that is now part of the core curriculum for every second-year medical student at Dalhousie University. Ed was a 16-year-old patient with advanced bone cancer, in whose care I shared while working at the IWK. Ed kept a journal in his last months of life. Ed’s journal and 25 interviews of his friends, family and members of his health professional team were compiled into a verbatim play, that was a sold-out Fringe Hit at the Atlantic Fringe Festival in 2010. Formal studies and informal feedback from the medical students solidly document the benefit of learning in this novel way.
I was involved in many sessions promoting self-care for health professionals. Using the arts as part of the process was always significantly more successful than the times when arts were not part of the approach.
What do you love about living in Nova Scotia?
The people. The ocean. The land.
I consider myself extremely lucky and am continuously grateful for where I live, on the Eastern Shore of rural Nova Scotia. It is a place of great beauty shared with friends in our small, close community.
I had countless opportunities in my work life to travel widely; from Israel to Finland, Italy and all over Canada, the US and the UK. I always felt proud and happy upon returning home to where it feels like people are generally kinder, welcoming, and helpful.
I am able to swim steps from my front door, harvest vegetables from our beautiful and bountiful garden, and afford waterfront land where we have room for my studio.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Start. Vet/Share. Start again. Share/Vet some more. Follow your heart as it will most often lead you to a place of goodness, of satisfaction. Try not to take constructive criticism to heart. Continue to listen to your heart.
What’s great about writing in your part of Nova Scotia?
Much of my writing, as does my pottery, takes place in and explores the natural world. Nova Scotia is one place where that is easy to do. Nature abounds here and it is generous in the wealth of images found in everyday life.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Chips! Chips!! CHIPPS!!!
No, I’m not talking about a casual encounter. I’m talking - inability to exercise even a modicum of restraint.
What do you do when you have writer’s block?
Not applicable, as I guess because I don't think of writing as a task. It feels like something I do when I am moved. So, when I am moved I write. I write when I want to. I write when I need to.
Where do you like to write? Do you have a dedicated writing space, or do you prefer to move around?
I write where and when the spirit moves me. I generally have some shred of paper and a pen I can write with wherever I am. Typically, that tends to be outside when I am on a walk or in the passenger seat of a car.
What are you working on right now?
I recently did a reading at a University symposium. The person moderating the session is an editor for the Canadian Medical Association Journal and asked if I would submit three poems accompanied by three pieces of my pottery. As they had to be unpublished, they are new since Signs of Life: Images of Words and Clay was published. I just received word that the three pieces (poems and pottery) have been accepted.
As retirement has afforded me the gift of time, I’ve also been enjoying cooking. I’ve been making all kinds of new things I never had the time to try out before. I’m thinking about doing a book of poems and prose with each body of text accompanied by an image of cookware that I’ve made, the dish that goes in or on that piece of pottery, and the recipe.