Poetry & Medicine

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.

Impressive: Humument-inspired medical artwork in a short amount of time!
Impressive: Humument-inspired medical artwork in a short amount of time!

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!

Teaching Humanities in Global Health, Part II

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 second Medical Humanities session took the class on a guided walk of John Snow’s cholera-ridden Soho: we spent about two hours tromping the paths in present-day Soho where Dr Snow himself traced the 1854 cholera epidemic. After the tour, we decamped to the John Snow pub for a pint, and the following morning the students threw themselves into a debate about a ‘modern day’ example of needing a ‘John Snow’ – during the 2010 cholera epidemic in Haiti, the details of which we read about at this wonderful website on John Snow from UCLA.

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.

Medicine, theatre, & bedbugs

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.

Gives me the creepy-crawly heebie-jeebies just to look at the little critters...tune in 02/03 to learn more about them!

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!

Drama workshop for Imperial

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.

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!