With Rafael Campo took over as lyric editor The Journal of the American Medical Association A little over a year ago, he hadn’t expected to submit so many entries. (Yes, between case reports and clinical trial results, JAMA publishes original poems in every issue.) Some of the poems are charming and poignant, like this excerpt from one in a recent issue, about surviving the quarantine with another significant one:
Others grapple with more serious issues, such as a cancer-dying patient, or marvel at the magic of today’s common medical technologies, such as CT scanners.
First, Campo says, he got about 20 or 30 poems a week. Some come from patients or family carers. Most come from doctors and nurses. But as the pandemic started, more and more poems came. Now his inbox is full of over a hundred submissions weekly. “It is overwhelming. I will be honest. But it’s also very encouraging, ”he says.
Campo is uniquely suited to honor such a task. He is not only a family doctor at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, but also the author of nine volumes of poetry and director of writing and literary programs for the Arts and Humanities Initiative at Harvard Medical School. WIRED sat down with Campo to talk about the role of poetry in medicine. This interview was edited for the sake of length and clarity.
WIRED: Why do you think poetry has become so important to so many doctors during the pandemic?
Rafael Campo: I think doctors in particular are really looking for ways to express their experience of this terrible disease and what we’re all going through to fight it.
I think it’s particularly moving because we’re so isolated from this virus. We all practice physical and social distancing, so I think poetry is a way to connect with other people and hear our story. So I find it really stimulating. It helps me to feel less isolated and less separated when I read these poems.
WIRED: Is there something unique about poetry that makes this kind of connection possible?
RC: We are hardwired to hear the types of rhythms that exist in poetry and the way our body’s rhythms are expressed in meters music of poetry. I think right now, when we feel somewhat alienated and separated from our own bodies, it is simply compelling to have this visceral experience of listening to music and speech.
I think there are other reasons for the brevity of poetry. In a way, poetry fits into the fragmented spaces that we have as doctors as we walk around to deal with this crisis.
Another thing is that I always associate poetry with activism. When we think of some of the protests that are now taking place on the streets – people are singing out there – they are actually using some form of spoken word poetry.
Poetry has the ability to grab us and speak in the most pressing terms. It is a very physical language. It calls us to act. I always think back to when I was very early in my medical training when the AIDS crisis was at its peak. Similarly, people were on the street shouting, “Silence equals death! Silence is death! “It still comes to my mind today. These poems, this urgent language, really changed the course of this pandemic.