On Tuesday, I ran my annual poetry workshop for the Medical Humanities students at Imperial College London, led by Giskin Day. For part of the workshop, we applied the techniques used in Tom Phillips’ classic art book, ‘A Humument,’ to the Hippocratic Oath. I provided students with four versions of the Oath: a translation of the original, a version for nurses called the ‘Florence Nightingale Pledge,’ a modern version written in the 70s, and the ‘Affirmation’ that Imperial College London medical students will take once they graduate.
I’ve written previously (there and also here) about the amazing adaptability and resonance of applying ‘A Humument’ to Medical Humanities workshops. Students respond with an overwhelmingly positive level of enthusiasm to cutting out paper, marking up the texts, and teasing out words and phrases relevant to their experiences. They’ve given me permission to post their works below – and this was from about twenty minutes’ worth of ‘treatment’ time! I’ve selected some of the most colourful, but I want to thank all of the students for their marvellous contributions.
Tom Phillips would, I hope, be proud of the range of styles, and also the humour here:
Each student came up with her (or his) own metaphorical style and approach. The artwork some of them did in just a fifteen or twenty minutes!
It’s not only impressive, but incredibly heartening, to see which words students chose:
This summer I’m pleased to be part of the extension of courses at City Lit reaching into the field of science. City Lit is London’s centre for adult learning, offering part-time and short courses in a huge range of fields.
In July, I’ll be leading an exploration into ‘London’s Curiosity Cabinets’ as well as offering a Medical Humanities course.
These courses are for anyone, though I would especially encourage those in the medical profession to take a look at the Medical Humanities course.
I’m also pleased to note that the Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, Dr Marek Kukula, is going to be running a summer course on astronomy, and Wellcome Trust Public Engagement Fellow, medical historian Dr Richard Barnett, will be giving guided walks & lectures on the history of medicine in London. Go to City Lit Courses and click on the ‘Science and Nature’ section for more.
I’d like to flag up a rewarding outcome of recent Medical Humanities teaching: For the third year in a row, I was invited by Giskin Day, course co-ordinator for Imperial College London’s Medical Humanities, to give a workshop on poetry and medicine to medical students. For part of the afternoon, I introduced them to the marvellous, unique book – what I would call an art book – A Humument, by Tom Phillips. There is an excellent review of it here: ‘Double Act’ by Adam Smyth, LRB Oct 2012.
So far, I’ve found students really enjoy being introduced to and creating projects using the idea of A Humument; my Global Health students also responded enthusiastically to it this year. In fact, it’s become a verb: we ‘Humumentize’ a piece of writing that is medically relevant, combining the art of Phillips’s ‘Humumentizing’ his selected novel (A Human Document, from whence the title ‘Humument’ comes,) with the medicine of a medical text. With Giskin’s class, we used extracts from Gray’s Anatomy, including images.
A group of students from the class then decided to take pieces from The Francis Inquiry (an essential and harrowing report on the failing of care in the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust – I recommend the video on the above link,) to create ‘Carers or Criminals? The Francis Inquiry in Humuments,’ which they presented as a poster at the 2013 International Symposium on Poetry & Medicine.
They said that by focussing closely on selected elements of the text, and ‘pulling out’ (or ‘excavating,’ as Phillips says, like a geologist or sculptor,) fragments of text that stood out to them, they were able to interpret the writing in a way that they hoped brought out the essence, or most important, or most poignant parts, of it. I pointed out how this act – shaving away all the words they felt were not absolutely necessary – was a type of poetry, and one of the students called it ‘found poetry’.
The students also mis-interpreted something in a very positive way: referencing the original title of Phillips’s treated novel (A Human Document,) these Medical Humanities students felt they were ‘discovering’ the ‘human documents’ within the Francis Inquiry: the human stories, and stories of humanity, that otherwise might have been lost amidst a sea of mistakes and pain in danger of blending into one anonymous voice of discontent.
This is a rewarding outcome and encouraging early experience in my teaching, and I’m proud of the students for their creative thinking and work. It is important to remember that any text we take up and ‘treat’ must be respected and that its original intent not be lost, but I think that ‘Humumentizing’ a work can allow all of us to shed new and important light on something that might be dense, technical, or difficult to approach in the traditional manner. It is also creative and fun, and these aren’t elements to be cast aside lightly – the students working on this project will always think of The Francis Inquiry in a uniquely critical way. Well done.
I recently met with the Nevada Street Poets for ‘Part II’ of our science-object-inspired poetry workshop. Part I was with Don Paterson at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science back in January. Part II was in ‘Henry’s Club’ at the Wellcome Collection. We workshopped seven new pieces inspired by objects in the ‘Medicine Man‘ collection at the Wellcome. Pocket Horizon, a pamphlet of these poems with drawings by Cassie Herschel-Shorland and an introduction by Don Paterson, will be published this autumn by Valley Press.
This morning I ran a poetry & medicine workshop for Medical Humanities students at Imperial College London with Giskin Day. We broke the morning into three major parts: for the first part of the workshop, we took a fairly traditional approach to analysing and discussing a stunning pair of poems: ‘The Swing,’ by Don Paterson, and ‘On Clachan Bridge,’ by Robin Robertson. Though the two poems were not written with the intention of having similar themes, by putting them side-by-side, some powerful comparisons and contrasts emerge. We had a really good discussion, touching on theme, form, sound and structure.
We moved on to discuss a recent spread of poems by Hugo Williams. ‘From the Dialysis Ward’ was published in the 24 Jan issue of the London Review of Books, and offers a very interesting opportunity to consider structure, layout, order, and theme for a group of poems. In fact, the students had such good insights on this series of poems, they rather convinced me that I liked it, when I initially saw a lot of problems with it (despite choosing the piece for the workshop) – but like or dislike, there is a lot in there to talk about, particularly when one is discussing poetry and medicine around the theme of form.
Finally, we moved on to a really different style of art / poetry / wordplay / sculpture – A Humument is a unique book that I’ve written about before, and something I love sharing because I find it such fun (I will also confess to buying the book and the app, and recommend both). Students respond enthusiastically to this book, as it is an unusual piece, and not something they’ve often come across. We took a brilliantly written piece of creative non-fiction (the Diary piece by Gavin Francis, also from the 24 Jan LRB,) and ‘treated’ it, or ‘Humumentized it’. The group each had the opportunity to work and re-work a fine piece of writing on brain surgery, and the material offered up something new every time. I’d like to arrange a more formal art project using this idea and medically-related writing and materials. Possibly the best part of the exercise was the students’ integration of printouts from Gray’s Anatomy intermixed with the text, although it was a close call for best artwork with some talented freehand drawing.
To round off our busy morning, Giskin and I encouraged students to consider the call for contributions (talks or posters) for the 2013 Poetry & Medicine Symposium taking place this May at the Wellcome. The Symposium is not limited to academics (or to poets, for that matter,) so do have a look!
The object in the photograph is tiny – the little kit beside it, unrelated, is a pocket set of drawing tools. The black surface reflects the gilded scrollwork of a larger object to the right, out of the frame. But the little black disc set on three legs is a pocket horizon, used, once upon a time, for navigation.
A proper pocket-sized history of the object will be included in a forthcoming poetry pamphlet, Pocket Horizon, with new poems, artwork, and an introduction by Don Paterson.
Pocket Horizon has grown out of a fantastic workshop with Don, who generously met with a group whom I’ve had the pleasure to be part of for the past four years.
The Nevada Street Poets – Mick Delap (River Turning Tidal,) Lorraine Mariner (Furniture,) Sarah Westcott, Malene Engelund, and Dominic McLaughlin – all accomplished poets, all widely published in magazines and anthologies, and some the founders of their own successful poetry ventures (Mick was a founder of Magma, and Malene co-edits the Days of Roses Anthologies) – joined me in writing poems about objects in the Whipple Museum. Our guest poet is Richard Barnett, better known as an historian (Medical London; Sick City; The Book of Gin,) and a talented poet in his own right (winner of the Promis Prize, & published in Templar anthologies, amongst others).
Together, the seven of us spent an afternoon with Don discussing our new poems, in an intensely focussed and very fruitful workshop last Friday.
Part two of the project will see us tackling objects in the Wellcome Collection in a similar manner over the next two months.
Valley Press will publish Pocket Horizon this year, and I’m delighted to say that Cassie Herschel-Shorland will be our resident artist, drawing images of each object to accompany the poems.
We’ll be planning launch events around the pamphlet, so stay tuned…
If you missed Part I, wherein I explain that I’m going to be teaching at Imperial College London, you can read about it here.
We’re halfway through the term – already! – and I feel like every class I teach, teaches me. Hopefully, I’m teaching the students as well! I feel very spoiled, because the Global Health students are excellent: they are sharp, keen, and open-minded. I’m working to remember names, and I certainly recognise faces.
For our first session, I gave an introduction on the concept of ‘Medical Humanities,’ and invited Year 6 medical student (this is a class of Year 4 medical students) Matt Rinaldi, aka Ananagram, to perform some of his wonderful medically-themed poems, including ‘Hatstand,’ one of my favourites. We looked at some of Sontag’s ‘Illness as Metaphor,’ considered extracts from The Natural Death Handbook and also explored some of Granta’s ‘Medicine’ edition. These pieces allowed us to think of literature and medicine in the form of poetry – both on the page (Natural Death Handbook) and on the stage (Matt,) creative non-fiction (Granta’s ‘The Perfect Code’,) and literary criticism (Sontag).
The third Humanities in Global Health session focused on ‘Tuberculosis in the arts’. We began with a series of case studies: Opera – La Boheme and La Traviata, and the modern musical Moulin Rouge! We looked at the death of Mimi in La Boheme, the death of Violetta in La Traviata, and the death of Satine in Moulin Rouge! (from a film clip). We thought about Sontag’s TB cliches / stereotypes in light of the examples.
Then, we moved on to looking at the life of poet John Keats, and reading ‘Ode to a Nightingale‘ and ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci,’ both of which have many references to paleness and death – could it be TB, or is it the traditional ‘Romantic’ vision of the grave? (‘Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;’)
(Keats nursed his brother, Tom, until Tom died of TB, and Keats himself died of TB – and Keats also trained as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital, London – so knew what fate awaited him when he first coughed up blood.)
For our last case study we considered the painter Edvard Munch, especially his painting ‘The Sick Child,’ an image of his 15-year-old sister on her deathbed, which he obsessively painted again and again. (Munch’s mother and sister both died of TB.)
The students had the opportunity for artistic expression with some drawing time, and many of them made relevant parallels to our case studies in their artwork; as the conversation progressed, we made links to the isolation of hospitals and illness, and the response to something sad (such as Munch’s ‘The Sick Child’) with wanting to draw or express something happy (such as riding a bike). We discussed TB in London today, and how the case studies are relevant in some ways, but very different (especially in light of modern medicine & understanding of TB) in others.
For our next session, we’re going to focus on Philip Roth’s novel Nemesis, a devastating story about a polio epidemic in New Jersey in 1944.
Since beginning my role as Poet-in-Residence at the Whipple Museum in 2009, I’ve had the opportunity to both curate events at the Museum (I suppose that’s the right word for planning, organising, and hosting events,) and also run freelance workshops for all ages. This has led me to unexpected places. Lichfield, for example.
Over the past two years I’ve run one-time workshops in Medical Humanities at Imperial College – the first, focusing on medicine in poetry; the second, using extracts from my play, Venus Heart, to explore the arts in medicine with 4th-year medical students.
This year, I’ve been invited to lecture on the Global Health programme, providing a series of sessions on ‘Humanities in Global Health’ – a healthy opportunity to integrate a great variety of art and writing with medical studies. And so I am to be a Lecturer in Medical Humanities for Imperial College London’s Global Health BSc.
If all of that read like a foreign language you don’t know, let me explain. Global Health is a course for students who are in year 4 (of 6) of medical school or are training in biomedical studies. In the Global Health course, they examine worldwide trends of both endemic and epidemic diseases. Some of those diseases include polio, TB, malaria, cholera, obesity, malnutrition, cancer, AIDS, and heart disease.
There is a growing awareness of the importance of the study of the humanities within the medical field.
To quote from Medical Humanities: A Practical Introduction: ‘The ancients conceived medicine as a fundamental branch of philosophy. To Hippocrates, medicine is an art. Only by close and careful observation of the patient can the doctor hope to be successful.’
And, so we don’t limit our thinking to doctor-patient relationships (which, importantly, make up a large part of MedHum studies,)
‘There is no fundamental difference between the aspirations of the great artist and the great scientist, or, for that matter, the great clinician. They are all striving to explore nature, and understand its complexities for what they are.’
Sound familiar? Sound like the basis of all of my art/science poetry/biology writing and studies?
I’m excited to have the opportunity to challenge my students and challenge myself in exploring ‘Humanities in Global Health’. The sessions will combine lecture, discussion, readings, performances, tours, poetry, novel(s) and artworks. My head is full with books such as ‘Illness as Metaphor,’ ‘Treatments,’ ‘Medicine,’ and ‘Nemesis’.
It’s that time of year for many freelancers and academics (perhaps it’s doubly bad for those of us with one foot in each world,) to either submit grant / job / funding / project applications or to start expecting to hear back from earlier applications. These run in fairly predictable phases around the holidays, summertime, etc, and thus there are stretches of time where a writer simply feels as if she’s done everything she can on any given project, and it is entirely out of her hands, and she’s waiting. The positive side: despite not knowing what the outcome of said applications/proposals/grants etc will be, I know people are reading my work/book/proposal etc because they too are working to a deadline. Meanwhile, I’m busy with a handful of other writing projects and reviews, and I’m working on some engagement projects that are unfolding in delightful ways.
Tomorrow I’ll return to Imperial College with Rachael Black for our main workshop with the Medical Humanities students. I’m really looking forward to this: we’ve got a great core group of students who will be our actors, and we’re mixing pieces from Venus Heart with their own medical interpretations & experiences. Paired with Rachael’s extraordinary prowess at moulding what to me is an entertaining & interesting dramatic ‘sketch’ from a very, very short amount of time, this workshop is going to be a lovely blend of theatre and poetry. I’m going to spend some time introducing the material and explaining how I came to write the poetry play – this is the medical history aspect, all to do with anatomical wax models. I can’t think of a more relevant group to work with than medical students.
The radio collaboration I mentioned previously, my first experience with radio, was recorded over an extraordinary day at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine with Rebecca Tremain and Richard Barnett. The episode is going to be aired on 18 April by Resonance FM. Delightfully, the three of us are members of the Wellcome Club, ‘Henry’s,’ so Henry’s is holding a special club evening the week before with wine & snacks, inviting members to come listen to a (pre)broadcast of our ‘Bedbugs’ episode. The Bedbugs episode is only one part of Rebecca’s series, ‘The Gilded Vectors of Disease‘ which will all be available on Resonance FM. I can’t wait to hear the series: rats, mosquitoes, bedbugs, lice, fleas, ticks…oh my!
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.
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.
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.
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.
I enjoyed an entertaining, packed evening at Oxfork in Oxford on Thursday night with Badaude, who co-ran a Catalyst event, and Dr Richard Barnett, who spoke on the history of gin, from his new book, the Dedalus Book of Gin, which I highly recommend consuming gleefully with a martini in hand.
I modelled for the Chislehurst Artists Saturday morning. It was unusually chilly in the room, but as ever, they’re a lovely bunch. Biscuits abound. A photo of their work scattered on the floor at the end of the session so they could discuss & critique it.
This coming Friday, I’m running part one of a workshop for the Medical Humanities Students at Imperial College London, along with my friend, the lovely actress Rachael Black. We are enormously excited to run this workshop in the lecture theatre of the private pathology museum at Charing Cross Hospital, and we’ll be working from my poetry play, Venus Heart.
I spent last week in Cambridge, where I stayed in a charming room in Newnham College. Not only did I have a room of my own, but I co-hosted two events for the Festival of Ideas, which are described in the previous post. I rode my Vespa, right through the Rotherhithe Tunnel, where I may have developed black lung from petrol fumes, through London, up through Bishop’s Stortford, past Audley End House (haha, ‘house,’ right,) which nearly made me fall off the scooter it was so gorgeous, and to Cambridge.
The Discussion Panel went very well indeed: about 23 people attended, and the evening was covered by Kat Austen for New Scientist’s Culture Lab blog. We recieved support from the Arts Council England which helped us hold the event. I’m very grateful for the support of Anglia Ruskin University, the Arts Council, and the Whipple Museum – and especially for the hard work and organization of Laura Dietz, my co-organizer. Many thanks to everyone who participated on the panel, and to those in the audience who contributed their thoughts and challenges.
Newnham College is one of the women’s colleges where Virgina Woolf gave her famous series of lectures resulting in her essay ‘A Room of One’s Own,‘ so I was especially delighted to be accommodated there for the week of science-and-literature events. The college is made up of a series of red brick buildings linked with long window-lit halls, reminiscent of my alma mater, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia. I felt I’d come home. The bannisters and stairwells were polished wood; parquet floors squeaked comfortingly and dry heat blasted from every radiator. Walking repeatedly through what ‘has now become the longest continuous indoor corridor in Europe’ (according to Basil Champeney’s design and Wikipedia’s reporting,) I looked out across the lawns in the mornings to watch lacework mist rise off the landscape and slowly unravel in the rising sun.
The Department of the History and Philosophy of Science, of which the Whipple Museum is part, holds an annual Fungus Hunt in the autumn. This is an historic outing led by Nick Jardine, fungus expert extraordinaire. It had been an uncommonly dry few weeks, so fungi were few and far between, but the group (30, 40 people) managed to find a few. I was chuffed to finally make it to the hunt – going on 3 years as the Whipple’s Writer-in-Residence, this is the first time I’ve made it!
I’ll use Nick’s words on reporting the afternoon, as they (and he) are emblematic of the Department’s style:
Dear Annual Fungus Hunters and others, Despite the sad dearth of fungi, we had a most enjoyable expedition thanks to David and Allison’s provision of learned guidance round the splendid gardens, designed by Humphry Repton, and tea…
In fact there were some fungi. Lots of earthballs (Scleroderma), a few Stalked Puffballs (Lycoperdon pyriforme), some rotten Wood Woolly Foot, Buttercap and Toughshank (species of Collybia) and Brittlegills (species of Russula). More interestingly, on an old cow pat Allison found the pretty little reddish-orange Coprobia granulata and on old grass stems Ramona Braun and A.N.Other found, respectively, the tiny Goblet Parachute (Marasmiellus vaillantii) and yet smaller Ivory Bonnet (Mycena flavoalba).
What we want now is some serious rain and no frosts, then there will be a real fungus season.
Other events during my stay in Cambridge included dining with Elsa Streitman, an absolutely delightful lady whom I met at the Whipple when Lesley Saunders came to read her poetry. Elsa is Vice President of Murray Edwards College, where Lesley completed one of her poetry projects, and Elsa has been kind enough to introduce me to the college’s wonderful New Hall Art Collection. I met Sarah Greaves, who looks after the collection and runs the temporary exhibitions: right now she’s compiled the most amazing series of film clips by female filmmakers called ‘Mirror/Lens’. Lunch included a fabulously inspiring discussion with two of the college’s (male, I find it relevant to add,) post-doctoral Research Fellows about The Gothic, wax models, Frankenstein, the trope in literature & art of turning women into furniture, and related ideas of constraint and bondage. Only in Cambridge?
On Friday, I walked to Grantchester with friends Caitlin Wylie & Richard Barnett: all of us were either recovering from colds or coming down with one, but it was a clear, muddy day, and no doubt the fresh air did us good. We walked to The Orchard for – what else? – scones and tea. On the way, we passed a flat along a pretty, tidy street where Ted Hughes & Sylvia Plath lived for a time.
The tiny village of Grantchester is famous as the haunt of Rupert Brooke – a booklet from The Orchard tea rooms announces: He had moved out of Cambridge, hoping to escape his hectic social life there, but in vain. The charismatic young Brooke drew a constant stream of visitors, and eventually became the centre of a circle of friends, later dubbed by Virginia Woolf the ‘Neo-Pagans.’
I daresay the charismatic young Brooke enjoyed being the centre of attention, and had he truly wanted to escape the social milieu, he would have gone further afield than Grantchester…
‘The Grantchester Group’ is listed as including E.M. Forster, Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell, Augustus John, Maynard Keynes, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
On our walk back to Cambridge I confirmed an edit and the final line (over the phone; not very pastoral,) of my first review of a play. I reviewed ‘An Experiment with an Air Pump’ for New Scientist’s Culture Lab blog. You can read the review here.
I also found out that a review I’d written for the Journal of Literature and Science had been published. I reviewed the article ‘The Comedy of Nature: Darwinian Feminism in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts.’ You can read the review here: scroll down to ‘Article Reviews’ and click to open the PDF.
I rode my Vespa back to London, and, to continue the Virginia Woolf – themed week, I visited Knole in Kent the following day.