Campo is awarded one of the most important poetry prizes for his poem, “Morbidity and Mortality Rounds”
Wednesday, July 17, 2013
It was awarded for his poem “Morbidity and Mortality Rounds,” which reflects on the ways doctors learn from medical errors or failures in treatment of their patients.
The Hippocrates Prize is one of the most important international prizes for poetry. To accept the award, Campo traveled to London, where he spoke at the 4th International Symposium on Poetry and Medicine, held at the Wellcome Trust Library.
Dr. Campo has taught in Lesley’s nationally acclaimed low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program since its inception, and practices medicine as an internist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
“Rafael Campo is one of our foremost poets of the empathetic imagination,” says poet Steven Cramer, Director of Lesley’s MFA in Creative Writing. “An impeccable metricist, he has written poems that are singularly humane and boldly inclusive. Our poetry students always write more deeply as a result of having worked with him. The Hippocrates Prize to Rafael Campo makes perfect sense.”
The Hippocrates Prize recognizes the unique intersection of poetry, medicine and science. It is sponsored by prestigious biomedical, literary and scholarly institutions including the Wellcome Trust, a global foundation dedicated to biomedical research and the medical humanities to improve human and animal health.
“I was thrilled and delighted, and of course humbled, to be the winner of the international open prize this year,” Campo reflected. “It’s a wonderful award, specifically designed to recognize a poem that responds to the experience of illness.”
Dr. Campo’s poetry connects the humanities and science, and calls on doctors to value the human experience of illness to inform the best care for patients. He received $10,000 for winning the Hippocrates Prize, one of the highest monetary prizes for a single poem.
“Ten thousand dollars for a single poem is an extraordinary prize that underscores the importance of the humanities in healing, and this reawakening we are having to the practical uses of the humanities in medical practice,” Campo noted. “Just the fact it exists shows we are coming to a renewed appreciation of its utility and power.”
The son of Cuban parents who emigrated during the Revolution, Campo found his life always intertwined with poetry.
“For me, poetry was a way to remain connected to my Cuban background, culture and history,” he recalled. “And particularly, I’ve always associated poetry with healing. Cuba was this forbidden place and we could never go back, but through poetry it seemed there was still a way to connect and repair that fracture, and at a very early age, I began to think of poetry as a healing modality in a fundamental way.”
During his studies at Harvard Medical School, he took a hiatus and earned a master’s degree in poetry from Boston University.
“Medical school was very different than I imagined, and I found the training on intensive interactions with patients was really lacking. I wasn’t learning about compassion, empathy and healing in the larger sense,” Campo said. “Getting my master’s was this wonderful, contrasting experience to medical school. Then I went back to medical school, and really ever since then, I’ve been working to connect what I view as these twin vocations.”
Campo believes the humanities can help doctors reflect on their experiences, personalize their treatment of patients, and better listen to the way patients are describing their experiences and symptoms.
“So many of us these days have had experiences with doctors where we felt disconnected and felt doctors didn’t listen – and it’s driving a lot of alternative therapies,” he said. “They’re looking for that relationship that seems to have unfortunately been lost in western allopathic medicine, or sacrificed to this new god of science. I think we can really make use of the humanities to help doctors contextualize the work we do and really understand the human experience of illness as we tend to all the scientific aspects of disease.”
Campo has taught at Lesley University for the last decade.
“Lesley is just such an extraordinary place for someone like me who is interested in interdisciplinary work and the connection between the arts and humanities and the sciences,” he reflected. “At Lesley, people are involved in the intersecting of humanities and science in similar ways, including expressive therapies such as dance therapy, art therapy and music therapy – thinking very broadly about what is the experience of illness and how do we best help people.”
Dr. Campo has worked since 1995 as an internist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, where he directs the Office of Multicultural Affairs. He is also a Harvard Medical School associate professor.
Campo’s sixth book of poetry, “Alternative Medicine,” published by Duke University Press, is due out this fall.
“I hope that ultimately it’s a healing book, that people will come to the poems and recognize some of their own experiences dealing with illness or dealing with family members who have experienced illness,” Campo said. “And in many of my poems, I’m revisiting instances where I didn’t adequately address what my patients were experiencing, so the poems are healing for me, too.”
Campo lives in Brookline, Mass. with his husband, whom he met when they were undergraduates at Amherst College. Campo is a trustee at Amherst, as well as at Beth Israel.
Learn more about Rafael Campo.
Forgive me, body before me, for this.
Forgive me for my bumbling hands, unschooled
in how to touch: I meant to understand
what fever was, not love. Forgive me for
my stare, but when I look at you, I see
myself laid bare. Forgive me, body, for
what seems like calculation when I take
a breath before I cut you with my knife,
because the cancer has to be removed.
Forgive me for not telling you, but I’m
no poet. Please forgive me, please. Forgive
my gloves, my callous greeting, my unease—
you must not realize I just met death
again. Forgive me if I say he looked
impatient. Please, forgive me my despair,
which once seemed more like recompense. Forgive
my greed, forgive me for not having more
to give you than this bitter pill. Forgive:
for this apology, too late, for those
like me whose crimes might seem innocuous
and yet whose cruelty was obvious.
Forgive us for these sins. Forgive me, please,
for my confusing heart that sounds so much
like yours. Forgive me for the night, when I
sleep too, beside you under the same moon.
Forgive me for my dreams, for my rough knees,
for giving up too soon. Forgive me, please,
for losing you, unable to forgive.
– Rafael Campo
(reprinted with permission of author)
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