Ellen Storm

Writing the White and Purple Coats

6th International Symposium on Poetry and Medicine – Morning Session


Friday 22nd May saw the 6th International Symposium on Poetry and Medicine come and go, and with it the launch of my first collection of poetry: Rupture.

I might write about Rupture in a separate post later, but for now I would like to concentrate on the symposium itself, which was fascinating as always.

After working the night shift in Liverpool on Wednesday night/Thursday morning, it was an operation of near-military precision to arrive at the venue in central London at 9am on Friday morning rested and alert, coffee in hand, lipstick in situ, and not having had a panic attack on the Jubilee Line at rush hour or having twisted my ankle in wholly unsuitable shoes.

The day started with a panel discussion on the purposes served by “medical” poetry. I was on the panel, along with Giskin Day (lecturer in science communication from Imperial College London), Femi Oyebode (poet and professor of psychiatry at the University of Birmingham), and John Riddington Young (author and ENT surgeon).

I have quite a lot to say on the subject of the purposes of medical poetry, but all I actually remember of my own contribution to this session was holding up a copy of the paper published by Jennifer M. Weir earlier this year in the Ulster Medical Journal, entitled From Hippocrates to the Francis Report – Reflections on Empathy. I hope I said something vaguely relevant at the same time! Again, I will try and corral some of my more coherent thoughts on this subject into a blog post all of their own in the not too distant future.

John Riddington Young then kicked off the speakers with a look at the epic poem  The Purple Island, written in 1633 by the Reverend Phineas Fletcher. The poem describes the human body as the Isle of Man, containing analogies between the natural world and almost every part: the tide is the blood flow; purple rivers are arteries and veins; the brain is a walnut; the liver, heart and brain are cities; and the pericardium is the city walls. This reminded me of my very early observation, when first studying pathology as a medical student, that diseased body parts are frequently described in terms of analogies with food. Examples include cauliflower ears, strawberry tongues, miliary tuberculosis (in which the infected lung comes to resemble millet seeds), and my own personal favorite: caseating (literally, “turning to cheese”) granulomata.

Self-defined American poet-cardiologist Joseph Gascho exemplified the dictum “write what you know” with his talk on ECHO poems – that is, poems inspired by his experiences of echocardiography. I still have some reservations about defining myself as a doctor-poet (since I don’t only write medical poems, and working as a doctor is something I currently do – but is it who I am?), but no such concerns here. Joseph raised the question of whether poetic reports are able to provide something a medical report cannot, and I was surprised to learn that he has actually shown some of his poems to the patients about whom they were written. I doubt that this is something that would be considered acceptable in the NHS, but I would be interested to hear any thoughts on this question.

Medical Student Henry Verrall from Imperial College London then gave an engaging talk about his poetry project for his BSc in Medical Humanities, entitled The Hollow Shrinks. He looked at the stereotypical images of psychiatrists in the movies, and shared with us his four poems arising from the four characteristics he felt were lacking in these depictions: empathy, sanity, fallability and professionalism. I wondered, returning to the purposes of medical poetry for a moment, whether one such purpose might be to redress this imbalance in the way doctors are perceived in society: that is, to connect patients and the public to healthcare professionals as real people, with real, and sometimes complex, thoughts and feelings. Does the act of writing, and of sharing that writing, as a medical or healthcare professional serve to reduce the power differential, because you cannot remain on a pedestal after that? Is it even possible to remain a professional while writing a poem, or is professionalism the exact opposite of the kind of authenticity that I believe is essential for the making of a good – read emotionally resonant between one human being and another – poem?

The final speakers of the morning were Romi Jones and Catherine Bailey from the University of Northumbria, who have been using creative writing in their work with both dementia patients and student nurses learning about dementia care. They noted the current educational requirement for reflective practice, and proposed the new verb “tick-boxing” to describe its increasingly prevalent form. In contrast, they suggested that writing, in allowing self-expression, creativity, and the time and space required to consider what it is to be human, is a great tool in reflective practice, enabling the mellowing of boundaries between self and other. This may help to reduce compassion fatigue, and help students to process feelings of defeat or despair. They described some of their practical challenges, such as the sense that many students felt they could not write creatively (only essays), and how they overcame them (for example using guided or prompted “automatic” writing exercises). They have plans to embed creative writing as reflective practice in their nursing curriculum, and will be the first university in this country to do so.

Before lunch I chaired the speakers panel, which basically meant walking around the room with the roving mic while people asked questions. I’m afraid, because I am a very visual person and wasn’t taking notes, I can’t remember much of what was said during this session either. Someone asked how poetry could compete with the strong research agenda in medical schools (excuse me if I paraphrase, but do chip in with your thoughts on this), and I do also remember replying to Michael Hulse‘s earlier question about my writing process – remarking that the act of writing a poem for me is primarily an artistic one – but apart from that it’s a bit of a blur I’m afraid. I blame it mainly on those wholly unsuitable shoes!


To be continued…


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