That is taken from one of our poems this week, “Thanksgiving, Visiting My Brother on the Ward” by Peter Schmitt. It is a complex and haunting poem about a “well” brother visiting his “unwell” psychotic brother in a psychiatric ward of a hospital. “If only he were faithful to himself/and took his daily pills…But what is the point/of such constancy when the world itself/has so profoundly turned away?
The opening writing prompt was to think about a “difficult patient” or a time within a health care encounter when the communication wasn’t going well, when the other person was ‘pushing your buttons’—and to write about that. We shared and discussed the resulting writing and did a bit of unpacking of the term “difficult patient.” We then read a rather light and wryly humorous short poem, “Overblown,” by Hal Sirowitz. One of our members reminded us astutely that something we might dismiss as easy to understand and ‘light’ might contain nuances of deeper meaning that we can easily miss. Another member asked what made this a poem to begin with—just the way it is written on the page? We then turned to a close reading of Peter Schmitt’s longer poem, written in a more traditional format of a poem. This led to a discussion of the nature of mental illness, especially of psychoses and the effects on the people directly suffering from them as well as friends and family members who care about them. The closing writing prompt was to take a particularly poignant line from one of the two poems and write from it.
I also shared some of my experiences and perceptions of attending and presenting at The Examined Life narrative medicine conference last week at the University of Iowa Carver School of Medicine. I heartily recommend it as a friendly, relatively interdisciplinary and not overly academic egghead conference. Great people. Don’t recommend the coffee. Some of us from the conference are beginning to plan a narrative advocacy conference to be held in Seattle, and our P&PR group this week came up with a partial title of “Doing It Differently.” We have good coffee here, as well as a unique mix of activists and writers and different sorts of health care providers (including CAM). So far we have begun to identify people such as Martin Donohoe, MD at Portland State to be part of the conference. If you don’t already know of his work, check him out at his Public Health and Social Justice website: http://phsj.org. So stay tuned for the conference, and if you have suggestions for people/speakers/topics, please send them my way.
We started off this week with the following writing prompt: Write about a person or patient you know who has a very different heritage/cultural background from your own. What was it like for you when you first met this person? We then read and discussed Sherman Alexie’s short-short essay “What Sacagawea Means to Me,” which explores his own feelings about his cultural heritage. He begins the essay with, “In the future, every US citizen will get to be Sacagawea for fifteen minutes.” He then ends the essay with, “I am a contradiction; I am Sacagawea.” He packs a lot into what amounts to a three-page essay and moves back and forth in time like a master trickster. He includes the memorable statement, “The Lewis and Clark Expedition was exactly the kind of multicultural, trigenerational, bigendered, animal-friendly, government-supported, partly French-Canadian project that should rightly be celebrated by liberals and castigated by conservatives.” The final writing prompt was to turn the tables—return to the subject of the opening writing prompt and write about the meeting from the other person’s perspective—what it must have been for them to have met you for the first time.
A local resource I brought in today was Pongo Teen Writing (www.pongoteenwriting.org), a local group of volunteer writers who meet with teens in juvenile detention and area shelters to help facilitate the teens writing poetry. They consider this therapeutic writing with a larger social justice advocacy element. I’ve worked with many homeless teens in health care settings over the years who have been helped by Pongo Writing. They have terrific online resources and tips for how to work with teens on poetry and are offering a one-day training May 14th in Seattle. ~Josephine
I began by sharing some word-salad nonsensical ‘poetry’ from the blog’s spam: “I, conversation bite dura seal retail outlets” and “The sorry slipped Thalidomide road wrestling twigs.” We progressed to better poetry.
Our first writing prompt was adapted from Addonizio and Laux’s wonderful book The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry. Describe an object that you associate with a particular patient or friend or family member. Write about that object through the description of the person’s use of it—create a portrait of his/her character. We then read and discussed Galway Kinnell’s poem “Little Sleep’s-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight.” This lovely poem was recommended by one of our Rounds regulars. To me it captures the fierceness of a father’s love for his daughter as in no other poem I know of. “I would suck the rot from your fingernail” as an example of that love. The second poem we read was a meta-poem—or a poem about poetry, Billy Collins’ “The Trouble with Poetry: A Poem of Explanation.” In the second stanza he writes, “the trouble with poetry is that it encourages the writing of more poetry, more guppies crowding the fish tank (….).” Poetry also encourages him to “sit in the dark and wait for a little flame to appear at the tip of my pencil.” We ended with a writing exercise of found poetry, taking words and phrases from the two poems we read and composing our own poem out of them.~ Josephine
Just to be clear, this refers to the Great Conversation of the history of Western Thought and not the Catholic version of talk in purgatory. This week we read and discussed part of the chapter “Snow” in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. I discovered several drawbacks of using such a reading for Poetry and Prose Rounds. The first was that it is almost impossible to adequately photocopy part of a chapter from the middle of a 700 plus page hard copy book. The second was that it is a difficult book to summarize quickly for people who are unfamiliar with it. Some sort of understanding of the characters and the various overlapping plots of the book are important to guide any discussion of a portion of the book. Having read this book twice in the past year, I was eager to share a part of it in Rounds.
The summary I gave of the book was this: It is the story of Hans Castorp, a rather fumbling simple-minded German young man who goes to visit his cousin who is a patient at a TB sanatorium in the Swiss alps. He intends to stay three weeks, but becomes sick with TB and stays seven years. Through his various relationships with patients, visitors and hospital staff, he wrestles with issues of time, illness/death, art—so that the book sums up the mental life of the West. At the end of the book he decided he is well and leaves to join the army in WWI. Throughout the book, Mann discusses the interrelationships between art, disease and death. In an essay on Dostoyevsky, Mann writes, “…certain conquests made by the soul and mind are impossible without disease, madness, crime of the spirit.”
We talked about the concept of “sick role” from Talcott Parsons and the various rules of sickness within our society. Our first writing exercise was to write about the last time we were sick—not Arthur Frank’s “deep illness” (life shattering/dislocating—more in line with the quote from Mann above), but rather a mild illness of a ‘cold or flu.’ After reading and discussing the dream sequence and ‘awakening’ of Hans Castorp, we each picked out one line of Mann’s work and wrote a poem or prose piece off of it. The phrase I chose was “…a dream poem of humanity.”
I started out with a writing prompt: write an American Sentence. I was cheating in a way since I was gearing up to use the writing of American Sentences in a large health policy course this quarter. I wanted to see how people would engage with this exercise. The American Sentence is an Americanized version of haiku, developed by Allen Ginsberg in the 1980’s. It is a sentence composed of 17 syllables. He wrote some really raunchy American Sentences, so I’m not using those as examples in class. Much better and more pertinent examples come from Wendy Call, a generous spirit and a local writer. She was writer-in-residence this past year at Harborview, our behemoth public Level 1 trauma center in downtown Seattle. One of her current projects is “Harborview Haiku and the American Sentence,” (see her blogsite entry by that title). She’s providing an American Sentence on each patient meal tray, and encouraging patients, family members, and hospital staff to write and submit some of their own.
Brevity counts. Concise, clear, cogent. Health care workers need to be able to observe carefully, listen carefully, and distill these into words. The American Sentence is a great format for this. The group members came up with some interesting sentences.
Our “guest group member” this week was Suzanne Edison who agreed to lead us on a close read/discussion of several of her poems, “Teeter Totter” and “St. Biopsy” from her chapbook Tattooed with Flowers (2009). Suzanne has been a psychotherapist and movement educator with families and adolescents, and has written poetry based on her experience as a mother of a child with a chronic illness. The resulting discussion went to a deeper level than any of our previous Rounds. It was such an involved group discussion that we ended the hour with that and not with a second writing prompt.
Next week we really will read and discuss part of a chapter of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. In addition, readings for the rest of the quarter (as well as ones from the past two weeks) will soon be uploaded under course readings on this blog.