Michaels's book of poems, The Forest of Wild Hands (University Press of Florida, 2000), sorts through cancer-both her mother's and her own-and how loss affects a family. She wrote many of the poems during 1998 and 1999, for her, years of recurrence and remission. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1997.
Poetry helped Michaels through her illness:A mind occupied by the fascination of putting words together cannot succumb to self-pity, she says. Writing poems also clarifies her understanding of her situation, and she thinks reading poems has the same effect. "Readers and listeners who have had cancer, who have helped family members or friends through it, or who have worked with it professionally, tell me the poems are very helpful to them because of the honesty and the moments of humor."
For that reason Michaels hopes the book will reach various cancer support groups and be useful to cancer fundraising events-especially for ovarian cancer, which she calls "the stepchild of women's cancer." Symptoms are hard to recognize, not well publicized, and often not detected until stages three or four, partly because there is no reliable screening test. (Pap smears do not detect ovarian cancer.) Furthermore, the disease tends to strike women who have never been pregnant and who may not have younger family members to support them through the experience.
In October Michaels organized a benefit at a jazz club in Ann Arbor with her sister, a pianist and assistant professor of jazz studies at the University of Michigan. (Musicality runs in the family: Michaels played cello in the Vermont Symphony while an undergraduate at Middlebury College and plays the piano when she has writer's block. Both her parents were Julliard-educated musicians.) The October benefit supported Gilda's Club Detroit, a branch of the nationwide organization named after comedian Gilda Radner, who died in 1989 of ovarian cancer. The club provides emotional and social support to cancer patients and their families, including special programs for children.
Michaels has been a writer-in-residence at the Princeton Day School since 1974 and is also a poet in New Jersey schools for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. "Working with kids gave me tremendous energy" during illness, she says. She emerged as a serious poet in 1986 after spending a year-long sabbatical isolated in her family's Maine cabin; when desperate for human contact, she drove eight miles to the dump. She remains grateful to the exposure Bryn Mawr gave her to women scholars, a rarity in her undergraduate years.
Some poems in The Forest of Wild Hands do not relate to Michaels's primary subject. Instead they concern an elderly cat, hiking a glacier, final exams. "Robert Frost commented that if there is no surprise for the writer, then there is no surprise for the reader," she says.
Michaels's other books include Dancing With Words: Helping Students Through Authentic Vocabulary Instruction and Risking Intensity: Reading and Writing Poetry with High School Students, in which she encourages teachers to write and speak honestly about what they think and feel, treating students as fellow writers. Her poetry has appeared in Columbia Review, New York Quarterly and Yankee; two poems from The Forest of Wild Hands, "Weeding the Cove" and "Brief Visitation," can be read in the poetry section of the Alumnae Bulletin On Line.
For more information see www.judymichaels.com, www.ovariancancer.org and www.gildasclub.org.
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