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Narrative and Illness

Rafael Campo preaches about the value of poetry in the healing process

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He answers the phone with a reassuring "This is Dr. Campo." His baritone swells. His barreling laughter and thoughtful, measured words take over the conversation.

I'm not calling because I'm sick, though if I were, I'd relish hearing Rafael Campo's steady voice on the other end of the line. I'm calling to talk about poetry, despite (or because) Campo's a writer and a practicing physician at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and lecturer at Harvard Medical School. There should be a William Carlos Williams professorship somewhere. Campo would be a perfect fit.

He'll muse about the connections between poetry and healing to two seemingly disparate audiences in Tucson. The usual crowd will show up at the UA Poetry Center's reading series, but medical students and residents will hear new ideas at Grand Rounds lectures.

"When I've done Grand Rounds readings, I'm often surprised how many medical types harbor a secret passion for the humanities. I think it's because as doctors, we're immersed in narratives."

For some people, it's scary to read poems. For physicians, Campo says, it's almost anathema.

"I face resistance in my classes. Students roll their eyes and groan, 'What's this poem have to do with renal failure?' When I persevere, I'm pleasantly surprised. Most of the skeptical students come around quickly. They actually make great use of studying poetry and art during medical school."

So instead of referring to the breast cancer patient in Room 716, they learn about a woman with her own story. In the end, they give better care, insists the seasoned physician-poet.

Campo was born in New Jersey in the mid-'60s to Cuban immigrant parents. Steeped in exile culture, he says he was drawn to medicine because it offered a container to deal with his multiple, and sometimes incongruent, identities.

"The white coat camouflaged my Latino background, but it also covered up my own fears of being gay. So the machismo of medicine appealed to me."

But as soon as he immersed himself in the narratives of his patients, he says, he couldn't contain himself anymore. "It's gripping and empowering to know myself through the lens of others."

Campo is a prolific writer. He's the author of several books of poetry, including the forthcoming collection The Enemy, from Duke University Press, as is his 2002 collection, Landscape With Human Figure. He squeezed The Healing Art: A Doctor's Black Bag of Poetry between those two collections. In 1999, another collection, Diva, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; What the Body Told (1996) won a Lambda Literary Award; and The Other Man Was Me: A Voyage to the New World (1994) won the National Poetry Series Open Competition. The Poetry of Healing (1996), his collection of prose, also received a Lambda Literary Award for memoir. Campo has been honored in various circles, including an accolade from the National Hispanic Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Amid this literary swirl, Campo sees patients every day, primarily caring for Latinos, gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people, and those with HIV infections.

Campo's own experience in medical school 15 years ago was alienating: It was the zenith of the biomedical model of care, he says--a time when doctors lost sight of the patient's humanity.

"It's why I cleave so strongly to the relationship between narrative and illness. It's a reaction to my own abusive training."

There's a craving for stories in the body, explains Campo, a hardwiring to produce and receive language. He surmises our earliest moments of existence are exposed to rhythms, sensing our mother's heartbeat.

"Out of rhythms come stories. It's those rhythms I hear in my stethoscope, and they enter my writing."

Campo's verses are formal and conventional, a structured space for his mined stories. He "skitters from sestina to pantoum," says the poet Maxine Kumin of Campo's writing, "from sonnet to rhymed couplets, to say nothing of his own nonce forms devised as the situation suggests."

I let the phone ring 13 times before / she finally picks up. A TV blares / in Spanish in the background, crash of kids / across a dinner table where she's served--what? Boiled plantains mashed with salt and oil, / or maybe rice and beans again? "I soil / myself in church last days," she says, voice hushed, / in English both too formal and too harsh ...

Not all his poems detail patients' sad sagas, though their stories permeate his poems, as do Campo's many lineages. A book that contains images of an exile's lament and multicultural acceptance, and a gay man's eroticism is a book that draws on all the threads of Campo's tapestry. He's not beguiled by the seeming contradictions. Nor is he unaware of patients' needs to tell their stories in full.

"In medicine, we're trained to interrupt patients. To be denied the opportunity to tell your story is chilling. Learning how to listen to a poem is important for the student who's learning to listen to his patients."

Campo will finally get a chance to weave together his two passions in a new course he's pushed through the curriculum committee at Harvard Medical School. It's an elective offered alongside classes on international health, epidemiology or statistics. Students will read Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor and Tony Kushner's Angels in America, plus poetry by Marilyn Hacker and Audre Lorde. But they'll also discern how to look at art and maybe learn something about how to understand someone's story more deeply.

"So it has practical registers, but also deepens their understanding of another's experience. It's another tool to model empathy."

Campo is hopeful. His relationship with science and the humanities is equally profound. He's probably the only poet to use the word "epidemiology" in a poem and be excited that scientists are on the threshold of decoding the genome.

"Honestly, I don't want to live in a world that all of science can explain. I want more mystery, more of the unknown. The only language that speaks to that mystery is poetry."

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