22 November 2012

Everyday heroes

For the past week, I have been honoured to have been the poet in residence at a conference of emergency physicians. The EDs as they call themselves, held their annual scientific meeting in Hobart. http://www.cdesign.com.au/acem2012/ 

The convenor and professor of emergency medicine at UTAS, Prof. Geoff Couser, 
@GeoffCouser titled the event, the Art and Science of Emergency Medicine. 

It's hard to describe the effect on me: the deeply moving themes that the conference gave rise to have left me exhausted. 

The delegates shared their photography and writings about their daily lives (private and professional), and by the end of the conference, a rich tapestry of the happiness, grief, trauma and frustration of their lives was on full display in the conference foyer. 

The interactive art display allowed delegates to explore the conference theme through an interactive art project that included photos, poems, handwritten doodles, comments, sticky notes, hospital gloves scrawled with words and images, you name it. The doctors shared snapshots of their lives mountain-climbing, playing rock music, growing their own vegetables, nurturing their families, alongside their acerbic comments expressing passionate concerns about policy issues and the constraints imposed on their profession by forces outside their hospitals' four walls. All these jostled for space on the interactive art display's surfaces.

The art project was jointly curated by Dr. Farida Khawaj, an Emergency Registrar at the Royal Hobart Hospital, and Sara Wright, Artist Consultant at Silver Lining Projects in Hobart. Farida and Sara had invited me into their artistic space to provide a quiet area for reflection for the delegates, which I peopled with poetry books on loan from poets in Hobart including some from my own collection. 

It was thrilling to see people pick up James Charlton's collection, Luminous Bodies, along with Blake and John Donne. To be asked to find particular poems like Robert Frost's "The Road less travelled". To be told how much a delegate had enjoyed discovering the poetry of Tasmanian poet Kathryn Lomer.  

I had printed out some poems by a wide variety of poets for the display but my goal was to see these overtaken by delegates' writing – eventually, this began to happen, as delegates either emailed their contributions to the art project curators, or brought along newly penned, hand-written poems to share.

Encounters with grief and loss are frequent; the pressure of expectations, time and life-and-death issues fill these professionals' lives. In one of the conference sessions, one of the art project curators Sarah Wright recounted her own story of loss, moving the audience to tears. This opened the way for  delegates to use the interactive artistic space to share their own experiences in emergency departments. As the four days progressed, delegates' submissions of poetry began to be submitted. Some were submitted anonymously, some were proudly named, and some found their way into the "wrap up" at the end of the conference given by Dr Farida Khawaj.

Some delegates had loaned their own precious hand-made poetry notebooks for the exhibition area, notebooks where their favourite poems had carefully been pasted in; a doodle book with drawings in ink and coloured pen accompanied aphorisms to make powerful statements about a life deeply lived. A life deeply lived: this is the crucible for doctors of emergency medicine. In the opening plenary session, Jane Clark,  a Curatorial Consultant from MONA, made the important point that those engaged in the arts share one crucial thing in common with those engaged in the sciences: a deep appreciation of the human condition.

(Also see http://demted.com/2012/11/art-and-science-of-em-back-to-leonardo-and-to-our-patients/
and http://goo.gl/iHcSw )

I was aware that for many delegates, attending the conference, and visiting Hobart was a respite of a kind, and was careful not to overwhelm them with my own enthusiasm for writing: often I felt it best to stand aside and allow the delegate to enter the poetry space, find a chair and relax in the quiet atmosphere surrounded by poetry books. Perhaps I was too reticent, but I felt it was important to allow the delegates to own the space. However I tried to engage as many of the delegates in conversation as I could without being a pest. Some were determinedly unwilling to make eye-contact with a poet. Others sought me out. I respected both attitudes equally.

When we talked about poetry, all too often I heard stories about negative experiences at school, where poetry is often taught ineptly, sadly leaving people with a life-long aversion for poetry, or at the very least, a notion that it is hard to understand.

I also heard of their inner doubts about their own writing's validity, or about their difficulties with switching from the rigours of academic writing to the freedom of creative writing. Others were keen to begin their journey in writing.

How such busy people as doctors of emergency medicine find any time at all time to write, let alone reflect, meditate or do any kind of writing or journalling is a mystery to me. Ira Progoff's journalling method to help people in all walks of life access creativity, and James Pennebaker's research on the health benefits of writing, were some of the resources I felt I could share with these brilliant minds.

We needed more time to deal with issues raised in these conversations and only skimmed the surface, but a start has been made for many, I hope, to explore writing as a valid process for reflection and a tool for creative expression.

Writing, and engaging with the writing process, cannot be hurried: four days is not enough to engender in a person a love of writing. However, sitting here at home tonight, staring at my screen and looking at the Twitter feed for #ACEM2012, I feel thankful that I could participate, and that for some a start in writing has been made, and that for others, an affirmation of their private writing lives has been achieved. 

Thank you #ACEM2012 for involving me in your wonderful conference.
You are all everyday heroes ...

No comments:

Is the system being gamed, and "Does Australia Need an ICAC for Poetry?"

Does Australia Need an ICAC for Poetry?  David Musgrave's article in Southerly is not new, but it's worth reading if you missed it....