Journal looks at world through poetry, essays, artworks
Host Amber Smith: Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, invites you to be The Informed Patient, with the podcast that features experts from Central New York's only academic medical center. I'm your host, Amber Smith.
The field of medicine can be so demanding and important and intimate that sometimes it helps to get creative, and Upstate is one of the medical universities with an outlet for that creativity.
I'll talk about that with Dr. Deirdre Neilen. She's an associate professor of bioethics and humanities at Upstate, and she's also the editor of The Healing Muse literary and visual arts journal.
Welcome back to "The Informed Patient," Dr. Neilen.
Deirdre Neilen, PhD: Thank you so much, Amber. It's great to be here, as always.
Host Amber Smith: Let me first ask you to describe the cover of this, Volume 23, which is a work by a French artist.
What drew you to it to choose as the cover image?
Deirdre Neilen, PhD: I'm so glad you want to start with that one because we've had the most enthusiasm from people as they get their copy of the new Muse. Kathy Faber-Langendoen, our associate editor, saw this picture on a website, and she brought it to us, and we said, "Oh, yeah, we love it. Let's see if we can get it."
And we found out that Raoul Brosseau is a French artist from Brittany, and the cover has three young bathing swimmers. They're in their suits, they have little caps on and goggles, and one is holding the hand of another. And the three stand together, and we loved it for its image of caring, protection. It's called "Le Protecteur" -- "The Protector." And I just thought it was perfect for what we tried to do with the Muse, that healing is for a single person, of course, but it usually bubbles out and envelops those who are around the person who is trying to heal.
And Brosseau, in his note, said, "Water is an element where you forget yourself and you disappear. Time no longer exists. When you come out of the water, you have that mysterious little smile, at once disillusioned and satisfied, that I put on all my swimmers."
So it was playful, but I thought there was a lot in it, and that's why we just loved it.
Host Amber Smith: Yeah, it's very striking.
Well, in this issue, at least three poems are from medical students, and I'd like to have you tell us about them.
Abha Japi received a writing award for a poem called "We'll Laugh Until Our Ribs Get Tough," about the durability of a friendship. What did you like about this poem?
Deirdre Neilen, PhD: Well, when I read it, I liked the title. I thought the title was -- was a little bit offbeat, but I do remember those times that you have such a deep laughter with a friend that you do hurt. It's just ... you can't stop yourself.
So that drew me to want to read the poem and then she mentioned, Lorde, the singer Lorde, in the poem, which led me to go look up Lorde. And indeed she does have a line in one of her poems about laughing this hard and long. So then I went back and read the poem again, and I think it's beautiful.
I mean, it's really about: This generation loves tattoos. My generation saw tattoos as something less than favorable, but I've become quite used to them, and I like some of them very much. And I thought, in this poem, where the speaker is talking to a friend and remembering how she asked her to get a tattoo, to make their friendship even more, I guess, deep and penetrating than it already is.
And then it's just delightful. She goes back and forth as to, OK, I'm trying to understand why you don't want to do that. And then she says, in the poem:
Permanence is scary, what if we get older, what if
our flesh sags in weird ways
And the words are distorted?
And the unsaid question: what if, one terrible, normal Tuesday I wake
up and I remember
we haven't spoken in months?
And I just, that just got to me, too, as such a wonderful, again, a young person's ability to envision a future in which the depth of what we feel now might not be there and how horrible that would be. But as the poem goes on, the poet resolves this for herself and decides she will get the tattoo and that she does believe that they will, as she says at the end, "no matter of time, space, and evolving skin and bone can change that." So it was, I think such a nice testament to people's abilities to love others.
Host Amber Smith: Yeah, very nice. Another student, who had good reason to remain anonymous, also received a writing award for "More than Just a Number."
Were you surprised that this wasn't about a patient who felt unseen?
Deirdre Neilen, PhD: Yes. Yes. This poem came to us, and it is a surprise. Again, we live in the world. We know what is happening. The, refugee crisis, the immigration crisis, people talking all the time about what do we mean by welcoming people, being an open society, what is a border, et cetera, so I wasn't thinking that because my head is always on the patients, physicians, et cetera. But this was a beautiful, beautiful, just a request. Can all of us just listen to this for a second? For a person who has been deeply impacted by what we're saying about borders:
I am more than just a number
I say to myself every morning
-- and then she goes into this poem, remembering her childhood before she immigrated and feeling the way you want children to feel, open, free, honest, I can say everything. And then letting us know that now that she's crossed the border, she has to be not open. She has to be careful. She has to be very cautious. And it's scary, and it changes you. And at the end, I think the poem is a ringing declaration that this person is going to continue to work hard and achieve the goals that she had as a child that she still has growing as an adult, and as she says:
To live, speak and move freely
I am here, I matter and my voice matters
-- I thought that was good for all of us to read. I know that, at Upstate, we do take care of many people who might not have documentation yet, and our policy is, we are not asking questions about that, we are here to do the work of healing. And I like this poem because it reminds me that we are all here to listen, learn, be open, I think.
Host Amber Smith: Katie Farkouh wrote a poem called "Ego." Can you tell us what that's about?
Deirdre Neilen, PhD: Yes. I mean, anybody who reads it, I think they'll pick up on it right away. Katie's a very brave writer, I think, a med student, and her poem is remembering what her mother told her many years ago. and I like to keep thinking this is changing, that we don't have this binary gender thing where a male ego is so fragile that you couldn't possibly beat him at a game of cards or in a classroom, but I guess from this poem, we see that now things are very similar.
So the poet remembers:
My mother told me as a child,
"He does not like that you are more successful. They usually don't."
And she says:
I'll never forget it.
She said it with pride,
Pride in her daughter's achievements,
But also as a warning.
And then she goes on to say how she's been praised by her mother and told it's wonderful that you are achieving all these things.
But she's also reminding her that you must be careful.
And the poem I think is very radical because at the end she says:
The world is better
When it is run by women.
Not perfect by any means,
But better nonetheless.
He will never understand.
They will never understand.
It's depressing. I mean, that's one of our depressing poems, but, I liked it because it's a young person who is out there saying, "This is what I've seen, and I'm not going to pretend that I'm other than what I am."
Host Amber Smith: This is Upstate's "The Informed Patient" podcast. I'm your host, Amber Smith.
I'm talking to Dr. Deirdre Neilen. She's an associate professor of bioethics and humanities at Upstate and also the editor of The Healing Muse literary and visual arts journal. The latest issue is available now at thehealingmuse.org, and we're talking about some of the work that's included in this issue.
There's also a poem by pediatrician Jaclyn Sisskind, who won a writing award. How would you describe her poem, "Apart"?
Deirdre Neilen, PhD: I loved this poem, Amber, because it's about marriage, and it's about love.
And many times we get poems in which marriages are frayed and less than what the persons had hoped at the beginning.
But in this poem, what Jaclyn's speaker does is to just take a very short glimpse of what it's like when your partner has to be gone, has to leave, is doing work elsewhere, has left town or whatever.
And the speaker is remembering what keeps them together as she does laundry and as she folds his shirts and puts away his socks, and she says how it's so interesting that when he's there, she doesn't really feel that same need to straighten up and put things away, but when he goes, she does, and she says, because I have:
no urgency to stow away
But with you gone
I cannot bear the possibility
of a stray sock turning up in my sleeve
When the return of your foot against mine
is not promised.
So there's that little lovely like, "Oh, I hope you come back." I hope, the way we all worry these days about nobody knows what's going to happen. So I loved this poem because it was so short, but it's so full of love, and I just think we need those.
Host Amber Smith: I wanted to ask you in general how doctors, nurses, and other health care providers are using poetry. What have you seen in this issue and in previous years?
Deirdre Neilen, PhD: I think that they use poetry the way most of us do, first as a means of recording and reflecting on things that have happened in their lives.
Secondly, I think that they try to work out things that probably they couldn't work out during the initial clinical encounter or the operation or whatever it is that was happening. But what writing allows us to do is to step back from the immediacy of that incident and just think about it for a second.
Are there parts of it you wish you could change? Are there parts of it that you're going to take into the next encounter? I'm so struck, Amber, lately by the sense we get from our clinicians about how pressed for time they are. It's just not right that we are understaffed and trying to see more people in a shorter amount of time and keep up with the electronic medical record, which was supposed to make everything simpler and more streamlined.
But I think our clinicians are finding out that there are good things about it, but it's not the best. It kind of encourages a rush-through and not thinking. So I think for those clinicians who like to write, I'm seeing in the work that they're sending us, more than ever, this sense that "this happened to me, I'm going to write it out, and then I'm going to try and figure out what was good about it or what wasn't good about it."
Host Amber Smith: Well, we've heard about the act of writing being therapeutic. Do you think the act of reading can be therapeutic?
Deirdre Neilen, PhD: Yes, speaking very personally. I think it does. I mean, sometimes I'm so amazed that I am allowed to say that my work is doing the Muse because it's intensely therapeutic to read. It's such a privilege to read these, even the ones that we're not going to accept, even the ones that we think, "No, this isn't for us." You are being given a glimpse into someone else's reality. And it's very true that there are only a certain number of stories that we keep telling over and over again -- you know, people grow up, people have suffering, people fall in love, people have babies. There's only a certain number of those, but everybody's take on it is so interesting, so I think that yes, if you sit down and read. I'll give you this example. We just had our (The Healing Muse's latest volume) launch the other day, and it was on Zoom, and so you get to hear the poets read their own words, and the first thing I did when I got home that night was to take out my copy and start to read again those poets that I had just heard, because the way they read it deepened for me how I had interpreted the poems. And I've got enough of an ego to say we chose wisely.
I mean, there wasn't a single person who read that I thought, "Oh, why did we take that?" I was like, "I'm so proud that we took that. It's a beautiful, beautiful poem or a piece of literature."
Host Amber Smith: Now in your editor's note, you write about The Healing Muse being a reliable way to turn down the noise, the heat, the anxiety.
Does it feel like that's more necessary today, either because of the pandemic or staffing levels or political turmoil?
Deirdre Neilen, PhD: Yes. I have not spoken to one person who says to me, life today is easy and not bad at all. Everyone talks about since the pandemic or since the elections or since -- I mean, you can put in what you want, but, I mean, it's just an ongoing struggle, I think, for people to find a space that feels safe, or at least like a good place to celebrate being human.
I think a lot of times looking at the news, we're not doing a good job. Whether it's to the climate, to the earth -- we just came through the hottest summers, and we're having all these hurricanes, and it's just a time when I think, yes, you need to have a quiet time. And I've stopped listening to the news as often as I used to just because I find it does provoke your anxiety. You can't do anything about some of the stuff that you're hearing or looking at.
But I think when we pick up a book, we can confront those same issues, but it's quieter listening to
one poet tell me something about life.
Host Amber Smith: Well, all of what you just said is part of the reasoning behind why we ask and are proud that you're willing to share an excerpt at the end of every "HealthLink on Air" (on WRVO-FM radio). If listeners tune in until the very end, they'll get a treat at the end, with a poem or a piece of literature. So thank you for that.
Deirdre Neilen, PhD: Oh, Thank you for giving us that opportunity because it really does mean a lot to both us at The Healing Muse and the poets that you feature. To hear their work,
I think, it's a thrill. It's great.
Host Amber Smith: Well, in terms of the role of The Healing Muse, are most of the readers, do they work in health care, do you think, or do you have readers who have really nothing to do with health care?
Deirdre Neilen, PhD: We actually have readers who have nothing to do with health care, except that they have had an experience of needing health care, or someone they loved has needed health care.
We do have, obviously, many clinicians, nurses ... we have people who have retired from positions in the health field, and now they say, "Now I have time to sit down, and I'd like to write up something that I saw happen."
So I would say a majority of people do have some kind of connection to the health care system, but we do have very many writers that, tell us, "I live in the woods. I was given a copy of this. I liked it. Here's the story. What do you think?"
And sometimes it works for us -- you know, it's great.
Host Amber Smith: Very nice. Well, thank you so much for making time for this interview.
Deirdre Neilen, PhD: Oh, thank you again for having us.
Host Amber Smith: My guest has been Dr. Deirdre Neilen, editor of The Healing Muse literary and visual arts journal, produced by Upstate's department of bioethics and humanities. You can learn more at thehealingmuse.org .
"The Informed Patient" is a podcast covering health, science and medicine, brought to you by Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, and produced by Jim Howe.
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