Rafael Campo ’87 Gives Talk on Poetry, Healing
Issue   |   Wed, 11/16/2016 - 00:36

Renowned physician and award-winning poet Rafael Campo ’87 gave a talk titled “Medicine and the Humanities: Healing with Poetry” in the Cole Assembly Room on Friday, Nov. 11. He spoke about poetry as a crucial way of empathizing with people across differences and diverse experiences.

Campo is currently a professor and physician at Harvard Medical School, where he received his training. Much of his clinical work is focused on providing care to LGBTQ, Latinx and HIV-positive patients. Additionally, he is an acclaimed poet and essayist, having written four books of poetry and two collections of prose. His many recognitions include a National Poetry Series award for his poetry collection “That Other Man Was Me,” as well as coverage by Boston Review, The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times Magazine.

Campo’s visit was funded by the The Institute for Science & Interdisciplinary Studies and the Charles Drew Pre-medical Society of Amherst College.

Campo began his talk with a reference to the recent election results and its troubling effects on his patients, many of whom are immigrants. He compared these sentiments to those he felt 15 years ago, during the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“I remember being struck then as I am now, in this moment, really [by] how language, the act of narration, can bring us together more than anything I can prescribe from the world of medicine,” Campo said.

Campo also stressed the importance of empathy and poetry in bridging cross-cultural divides and being present in other people’s suffering. “Empathy is so critically important to my work,” he said. “My colleagues always tell me that you can’t really define empathy so … how can you bring it into a clinical setting with medical students? One way we can do that is … [defining] it through poetry, through the kind of gesture the poem makes in that close, intimate encounter with our patients.”

Empathy, he said, helps him get past the checkboxes and list of tasks that doctors often are cornered into, and truly connect with his patients. It also helps patients — those from different backgrounds but suffering the same disease — come together and support one another.

Throughout the talk, Campo alternated between telling stories of his encounters as a physician and reading poems he had written in response to these experiences. Poems featured in the talk include “The Enemy,” “Latinos,” “Iatrogenic” and “Heart Grows Fonder.” Each poem captures experiences, either cultural or traumatic, that he hopes will help bridge gaps between the listener and the subject of the poem.

“I had read Rafael Campo’s works during my sophomore year in an English class, Representing Illness,” said Scarlet Im ’17, who attended the talk. “I remember being enthralled by the possibility of combining poetry and medicine. Now, as someone who is planning to pursue a career in education, listening to Dr. Campo and his poems made me think about using poetry as a form of healing and agency in classrooms with students from underprivileged backgrounds.”