Tag Archive: poetry workshop

Poetry and Medicine

On Tuesday 5 April I had the pleasure of running a workshop on poetry and medicine for a class of 25 Medical Humanities students at Imperial College.
After a crash course in poetic terminology including iambs, iambic pentameter, end-stopped lines, enjambment, caesuras, run-ons, and rhyme (end rhyme, slant rhyme,) We compared and discussed three pairs of poems:
  • Theodore Roethke, ‘Epidermal Macabre,’ and
    Robin Robertson, ‘Making the Green One Red’
  • Jo Shapcott, ‘Somewhat Unravelled,’ and
    Simon Armitage, ‘The Overtones’
  • Don Paterson, ‘A Gift,’ and Dannie Abse,
    ‘Song for Pythagoras’
‘A Gift’ has especially been sticking with me lately; I love the rhyme and rhythm, the short form and the dark, mysterious mood. It was a delight to slip that into the workshop even though it isn’t particularly medicine-related. The imagery in ‘Epidermal Macabre’ is fantastic: this reads as a rather cheeky, playful poem, reflective of the medical images of the subject removing his skin and hanging it like a coat, as in Anatomia, from Juan de Valverde de Hamusco’s ‘La anatomia del corpo humano’, 1556.
Anatomia, 1556

‘Somewhat Unravelled’ hits home to anyone who has dealt with a family member aging and/or suffering some form of dementia, and ‘The Overtones’ is quite a trip: two very different poems about unusual mental states, the latter about synesthesia in a very playful and outrageous way. In fact (tangent,) all of the poems in Seeing Stars strike me as almost flash fiction or prose poems: mini-stories, capsules…they defy genre, and it’s delightful.

Meanwhile, I’ve been astounded by Robin Robertson since I heard him read (or rather, growl,) at the T.S. Eliot Prize, and linked the ‘incarnadine’ in ‘Epidermal Macabre’ with ‘Making the Green one Red,’ through the quote in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather The multitudinous seas incarnadine, Making the green one red”. Hurrah for intertextual references! There’s a great explanation of the etymology and evolution of ‘incarnadine’ here, and you can bet you’ll be reading it in a poem of mine in future.
Following our discussion, the students responded warmly to a prompt to come up with pairs of rhyming medical words, and we turned that into a group game of Bouts-Rimés, where I asked them to emulate the rhyme scheme in ‘A Gift’ and ‘Song for Pythagoras’. Wow, was I impressed with what these medics turned out in about twenty minutes! We had a mini-reading at the end and all in all I would say it was a great success. One student wanted to know where to find poetry readings in London (I said to start with the Troubadour, the Poetry Cafe, and the Poetry Library,) and another said this was much more pleasant than the poetry she’d previously been taught in school. Converts!

Ergot-derived drug to stop postnatal bleeding.

Our Fantastic Fungus day was indeed Fantastic this past Saturday – huge thanks to Ruth and Richard for their talks, which made the day, and to Claire and Steve and everyone at the Whipple for their work in making the day happen. We had 17 attendees!
The Dillon Weston glass models got a great deal of much-deserved attention, and Weston’s son and daughter came to hear Ruth’s talk.
Richard enlightened us on the gruesome details of illness from ergot wheat fungus, which saves lives (it makes blood vessels contract,) as well as causing, since the middle ages, gangrene and St. Anthony’s Fire. He also told a true story of a daring early submarine voyage lit with bioluminescent fungi.
We have some wonderful poems from the day which some workshoppers kindly shared.
One of our poets took the challenge of inventing mushroom puns and turned them into very clever and slightly scurrilous poetry:
Cogito Ergo Shroom
By Caitlin
Cogito Ergot Sum, or Cogito Ergo Shroom
Cap askew, stalk a bit hunched, I stand half-hiding in the grass.
My Celia
I reach out to you desperately.
I’m a fun guy, and I’m devoted to finding you. Will you have me?
If you can be mine,
I’ll burst with happiness.
A wonderful, frightening Halloween contribution from our youngest workshopper:
The Deadly Fungus
by Eleanor Randall
At the dead of night,
We are coming,
We are coming.
To get what
I ask,
Your vegetables,
Your vegetables,
But why?
I ask,
And they’re gone.
And finally a science-fiction inspired poem/story:



End of Mankind
by Nevin Randall
The end of the world is night.
Mankind has used up all the resources of earth. Everyone has boarded the ship to find somewhere, anywhere to continue.
Where to go? man does not know, someone does.
They eat their food with their fungi sauce; everyone agrees the food is delicious whilst worrying about what the future holds.
But they have a problem, there are no babies. There have always been babies.  Why aren’t there any babies?
They eat their delicious food with their fungi sauce and worry about why there are no babies.
On another consciousness level there is happiness and joy.
There is only one person left on the ship.  He knows he is the only person left on the ship.  He knows he is the last, why him? why is he the last survivor of Mankind? of Life itself, why him?
On another consciousness level there is much happiness and joy.
He eats a delicious meal with its fungi sauce and falls into his final sleep.
On another consciousness level happiness and joy abounds.
Mankind Dies Out.
Funguskind Lives On.
Mel & Kel in the Victorian Parlour

Mel & Kel in the Victorian Parlour

Mark your diaries! We have some excellent events coming up at The Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge.

I am so pleased to say that I will be resident at the Museum for the week of 19th October.

The Museum opening hours are 12:30-4:30 and I will be the Poet in the Parlour– the Victorian Parlour upstairs in the Museum, from 19-22 October.

I’ll be working on my next book, and I’ll be happy to chat with anyone who drops by about science and literature, poetry, and other related topics. You can leaf through the selection of science-inspired books I’ll bring along, and we can talk about creative writing. I may even be in costume, but I’m not making any promises.

The Whipple will also host two sci-lit events in conjunction with the Cambridge Fesival of Ideas.

Our first event will welcome Dr. John Holmes, who will read from his book, Darwin’s Bards: Poetry in the Age of Evolution. The reading and discussion will be 6-7:30pm– all are welcome; events are free, and I can highly recommend John’s readings and talks, as he is a delight to listen to.

Darwin's bards coverOver the hundred and fifty years since Darwin discovered Natural Selection, poets have explored the implications of his ideas for what it means to be a human being. Poetry not only makes us think about Darwinism in new ways, it enables us to feel more acutely and to understand more completely our own Darwinian condition.

In this talk, John Holmes, author of Darwin’s Bards, will explore some of the ways in which modern and contemporary poets have responded to Darwinism in their poems. With readings from Ted Hughes, Edwin Morgan, Amy Clampitt and others, he will make the case for poetry’s crucial role at a time when we need more urgently than ever to come to terms with Darwin’s legacy.

John Holmes is lecturer in English at the University of Reading and Director of the Modern Studies Centre for Research in 19th, 20th, and 21st Century Literature. He is the author of Darwin’s Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution (Edinburgh University Press, 2009), Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Late Victorian Sonnet Sequence: Sexuality, Belief and the Self (Ashgate, 2005) and numerous articles on Victorian, modern and Renaissance literature.

Calling all writers: Our second sci-lit event is a Creative Writing Workshop: Object Stories. The workshop will be led by Dr. Katy Price and myself. There are a limited number of places available, so please contact jf411@cam.ac.uk to pre-book a free space!

The workshop will be Thursday 29th October, 6-8pm. After some discussion of examples and technique, will use museum objects as inspiration, and provide time for each participant to create a new short piece of creative writing. This will be a unique opportunity to explore the Whipple Museum after hours and experience a new way of looking at the fascinating scientific objects the museum holds…


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 311 other followers