On Friday 9 March, actress Rachael Grace Black and I ascended the dismally inelegant post-war tower of Charing Cross Hospital to Floor 11, to spend the afternoon in one of the most fascinating rooms I’ve ever had the privilege to work in.
La Specola, Firenze.
Led by Giskin Day, the Imperial College Medical Humanities programme provides a respite for students in the middle of their studies as medical students. It is an opportunity for them to explore the creative connections of medicine and the arts, including visual art, film, theatre, and poetry. Giskin invited me to run a poetry workshop for her class last year. When she invited me to return this March, I told her about my poetry play, Venus Heart, and asked if we could use some of the material with the students. Rachael, who has been an invaluable help to me in working out the direction of the play, agreed to join me in running a workshop that coaxed the theatre from the poetry – and from the students.
We zoomed up in the metal coffin of an elevator to meet Vin, the extraordinary man who runs the hospital’s Pathology Museum. This is a one-room space full of pathological human specimens. The Path Museum has closely guarded access and only students, teachers, and medics have the opportunity to make educational use of the material. We were able to use the empty seminar room adjoining the Museum.
Giskin had invited a handful of students to take part in a preliminary workshop, so we could set up a short dramatic piece for the students to then perform to their classmates during our main workshop on 22nd March. We needed at least five students, and six showed up; a promising start. I gave them a brief overview of the anatomical wax models of La Specola in Florence, and described my characters as well as a rough outline of the story. Venus Heart is based on thorough research and historical fact from the 18th century wax workshop. Much of this information came to me via the historian Anna Maerker, who has been enormously generous with her work on these ‘Model Experts’. I’ve combined this base of research with a blend of Gothic Frankenstein and classical Pygmalion literary influence. It is two parts science, two parts history, and a good dose of fiction.
Wax modelling materials in La Specola.
It was fascinating to see the students respond to the excerpts we shared. Rachael got them on their feet, running through over an hour’s worth of ‘warm-up’ and ‘ice-breaker’ exercises, coaxing, in a matter of minutes, improvements in their style of dramatic reading. We took one very small piece from the play, a back-and-forth of monologues switching from the female character of Teresa to the Director of the Museum, Fontana: Fontana is dissecting an ear, while Teresa is gathering snails to cook for a meal. The students were able to capture the mood and actions incredibly well.
We were treated to a tour of the Pathology Museum from its guardian, Vin. He has managed the specimens for over thirty years, and he works to engender a respect for all of the human remains kept there. He shared a few stories of specimens in the museum now which came as gifts from people he once knew, for Vin himself is a doctor. I hope to return to this amazing space and hear more from Vin.
Rachael wound up the day by preparing the students to think about a dramatic sketch we’re going to put together on the 22nd, which we’ll then share with two classes. We’re going to use material from my play as well as the group’s input about becoming doctors. I think it’s going to be an excellent workshop.
Glorious dusk outside of the orphanage in Florence. Human specimens were given to La Specola's anatomists from the orphanage and nearby hospital, Santa Maria Nuova.
I was delighted when Matt, one of the six, came up to me at the end of the afternoon and reminded me that we’d spoken last year – he’d been in the class last year and was coming along to this workshop because he’d enjoyed it so much. (I felt better once I checked that he’d had bleached blond hair last year and now it’s brown – hence me not recognising him!) Last year, Matt asked me for some advice on where he could find poetry events in London. I’d directed him to Poetry Unplugged at the Poetry Cafe, and to the Poetry Library in the SouthBank Centre for further resources about events, competitions, and of course, books.
This year, I learned that Matt recently won an award from the Institute of Medical Ethics for his poem ‘Hatstand’. This is an incredible piece, and you can watch it at the attached link (skip ahead to 1:56).
Matt was happy to let me post his performance, and I’m so pleased. He’s embodying exactly why this type of interdisciplinary work is important. I work in the crossover between literature and science because I love walking that line, exploring that ‘grey’ area, blending zest, colour, texture, from creative arts with intellectual rigour from science and history. To see medical students responding so well to these workshops confirms the worth and the need for this combined approach.