Poetry & Medicine

‘Open the Windows: Poetry & Medicine’ – Staging the Dialogue Live

by Caroline Hawkridge, Rebecca Goss, Denise Bundred

Abstract for the poster presented at the 5th International Symposium on Poetry and Medicine organised by the Hippocrates Initiative for Poetry and Medicine at the Royal Society of Medicine in London, May 2014.

Open the Windows was the first joint reading by 2013 Forward Prize-shortlisted poet Rebecca Goss and Denise Bundred, who met as poets after Rebecca’s newborn daughter was diagnosed with a serious heart condition at the hospital where Denise worked as a paediatric cardiologist. This event also featured music celebrating ‘breath’ by Chris Davies and creative voice specialist Beth Allen. It was programmedby Caroline Hawkridge and hosted by the NHS National Aspergillosis Centre and Manchester Literature Festival at Manchester Museum last October.

Our presentation details our experiences of staging and participating in this distinctive performance, which juxtaposed the voices of a doctor and mother/patient. The aim was to raise awareness and encourage dialogue between patients, carers and staff by using poetry from different viewpoints to illuminate issues such as undergoing/performing diagnostic tests, receiving/ breaking bad news and coping with illness and bereavement.

Open the Windows owes much to Tony Harrison’s insistence on poetry being a public rather than private art; one that ‘should address the hardest things in life.’ Harrison’s inspiration was the Greek tragic vision ‘to keep looking, and keep singing.’ But, as he says, ‘you have to use a spellbinding language’ which brings ‘something undefeated, something braver than the situation it is describing’. Furthermore, the audience needs a collective experience whereby the bearing ‘is not only shared but seen to be shared.’

We will describe how this overview informed the duty of care adopted towards the performers, their material and the audience. It also prompted significant decisions about the audience interface and programme, including commissioning music on ‘breath’ to provide reflective time. Rebecca and Denise will discuss how they chose their material and the effect of performing in dialogue with each other and music.

A sell-out, Open the Windows was highly rated by 96% respondents. 14.5% had never attended a live literature event before. Using feedback, we will review whether it enabled dialogue –‘As a medical student, I was really moved by Rebecca’s recital’ – ‘Putting the two poets together was genius’ – and enabled a collective audience experience which, as Harrison says, ‘helps us to face up to that which is otherwise unbearable’. – ‘Wonderful synergy between the spoken word and the sung word, between emotions and inspiration’ – ‘I never knew poetry could be like that’.

Our case study will introduce some of the opportunities and issues that may face organisers and participants who wish to stage similar live dialogue elsewhere.

Open the Windows Poster ViewersReferences

  1. Ogden, C. Review of ‘Open the Windows: Poetry & Medicine’. http://mlf.clusterup.com/blog-posts/review-open-the-windows-at-manchester-museum-872 (accessed Mar 18, 2014)
  2. Goss, R. Her Birth. Manchester: Carcanet Press. 2013
  3. National Aspergillosis Centre, University Hospital of South Manchester, http://www.nationalaspergillosiscentre.org.uk/(accessed Mar 18, 2014)
  4. Winder, R. Winder meets Tony Harrison. Interview. The Independent Weekend 5th August 1995
  5. Lindop, G.  Grammar of Unreason. Presented at Poetry School. Manchester, 2009
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