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Rafael Campo crosses medicine with poetry at local reading

(Wikipedia File Photo)

(Wikipedia File Photo)

Rafael Campo, an Amherst College and Harvard Medical School alum, read selections from his poetry and essays and discussed how poetry works as a necessary tool for medical healing last Thursday evening in Fayerweather Hall at Amherst College. The audience consisted of about 80 students, faculty, alumni and locals.

While teaching and practicing internal medicine at Harvard Medical School, Campo has become a well-established poet of six published collections. Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets Mark Doty described Campo’s work as large-hearted, open and deeply felt. Campo is the recipient of several honors and awards, including the National Poetry Series award and the Lambda Literary Award.

Throughout his profession, Campo has primarily served Latinos, the LGBTQIA community and those with HIV infections. His poems reflect his care practice as they boldly encounter questions of illness, health and identity. Campo has “‘prescribed’ poetry and led poetry workshops” for his patients and his students.

During his introduction on Thursday, Campo was compared to William Carlos Williams, who also wholeheartedly pursued medicine and poetry. Both poets’ subsequent expertise in listening and speaking focuses language to confront a deeper, psychological humanity.

“Empathy is a two-way street essential for each patient’s dignity,” Campo said. “Poetry in clinics reminds practitioners that patients take care of us.”

After reading “The Enemy,” a poem that acknowledges the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Campo explained that expressing the fears and sorrows of his patients has been crucial for truly healing them. He said that medical students often approach their patients through the distance of “scans and charts” and must instead “think and feel at the same time.” Reflective writing and narrative medicine enact an individual’s unique story, making the technical human.

“Poetry provides a voice to patients marginalized and silenced in medicine and in culture,” Campo continued.

Campo read a series of poems that each described a struggling patient he has met. These poems detailed each patient’s trauma with empathy and spirit. Through them Campo further demonstrated how medical students should think across their rigidly defined disciplines to consider the social determinism of disease. He hopes that students overcome distance and become witnesses that don’t avert their eyes to the many forms of suffering.

“His poems are beautiful and I never thought about how literature and medicine could cross to heal patients,” said Noor Qasim, a sophomore at Amherst College studying English.

Campo discussed his own experiences of discrimination, addressing the lack of Latino students during his time at Amherst College, homophobia at Harvard Medical School, and finally a bias around being a poet practicing medicine.

“Many of my colleagues in medicine have teased me for believing in the curative power of words, joking that I should write some doggerel on my prescriptions instead of the names of medications and directions for their use,” read Campo from his essay called “AIDS and the Poetry of Healing.”

“If poetry is made of breath, or the beating heart, then surely it is not unreasonable to think it might reach those places in the bodies of its audience,” Campo said.

Campo also read his poem “Latinos,” a humorous yet intense philosophical examination of homosexuality and Latino identity in modern America. Using Super Bowl Sunday as a backdrop representing a typical American trend, he establishes subtleties of triumph within his homosexual relationship. Campo’s poems use similar impressions of identity and mortality to define human existence beyond its simple physicality.

“(The poem) does not renounce illness; rather, it reinterprets it as the beginning point for healing,” Campo said, “… like ancient healers who facilitated passage into another realm.”

Rachel Ravelli can be reached at rravelli@umass.edu.

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