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Poetry During a Pandemic: A Tool for Self-Care

In the 38 years of the William Carlos Williams Poetry Competition, Northeast Ohio Medical University’s  national contest for medical school students, this may have been the first awards celebration that participants’ pets have snuggled up on couches to attend.

But then, there are some advantages to getting together remotely, as first-year NEOMED College of Medicine students did Friday, April 17, celebrating the contest’s winners and hosting its guest speaker, Arthur Ginsberg, M.D. Rachel Bracken, Ph.D., who teaches Human Values in Medicine, led the event with John Boltri, M.D., chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine.

April is National Poetry Month, and a strange time like the one we’re in – the COVID-19 pandemic – lends itself well to poetry, said Dr. Bracken, welcoming the group that normally assembles in Watanakunakorn Auditorium for the awards event. Raising their spread hands like goal posts and waving them to signal applause (as in American Sign Language, or what dancers call jazz hands), the audience and guests enthusiastically connected over a shared love of language, not to mention the good humor of the visiting poets.

The three winners – Joey Lew (University of California, San Francisco), first prize and an honorary mention; Ellen Zhang (Harvard Medical School), second prize and an honorable mention; and Wesley Chou (Harvard Medical School), third prize, were on hand – remotely – to read their poems. Zoom’s chat feature helped them connect further with the audience of students and faculty.

Lew may have had the group when she mentioned bingeing on cheesecake while sheltering at home in the San Francisco Bay area — or maybe it was with the title of a pandemic-inspired poem, which if this listener heard correctly, was, “My face is a cinder block and I hate everything.”

Topics of the day? Trading names of favorite poets and writers, of course –Sherwin Nuland (How We Die) Jane Hirshfield, Ross Gay, Terrance Hayes, Kate Weiss Orcutt, Danez Smith, Alessandra Lynch (Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment) – and also some favorite musicians: J. Cole, Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Richard Thompson, Robert Glasper and Flobots.

A NEOMED tradition

Each year, the competition attracts submissions from medicine students across North America who like to do what the acclaimed physician-poet William Carlos Williams did: express themselves through poetry in the evenings after practicing medicine all day. Not everyone will win the Pulitzer Prize for their writing, as Dr. Williams did in 1963. But guest speaker Dr. Ginsberg, a neurologist who returned to school to earn an M.F.A. in creative writing at age 65, said everyone should write, regardless.

Quoting the Chilean writer Isabel Allende in A Long Petal of the Sea, Dr. Ginsberg said, “We have to defend democracy, but remember that not everything is politics. Without science, industry, and technology, no progress is possible, and without music and art, there’s no soul.”

Writing poetry is a powerful tool to help physicians practice retrospection, said Dr. Ginsberg, echoing a principle that NEOMED embodies in its Human Values in Medicine curriculum.

Dr. Ginsberg left the group with advice:

Remember that every patient has a soul. Practice relationship-centered care. And write poetry!

His tip for anyone having trouble getting started: Write the first four lines of a poem. If by that point you don’t know what your poem is about, throw it in the trash. If you do know what it’s about, then start fleshing out your topic and be ready to do lots of re-writing – because that’s what it takes.