By Hope Randall
PATH Communications Associate
Anopheles: genus of mosquito, carrier of the malaria parasite, and… subject of poetry?
Have a brief conversation with poet Cameron Conaway and you will feel as though that last category should have been obvious.
I chatted with Cameron at the ASTMH Annual Meeting in New Orleans about his book, the artificial divide between science and art, and how poetry can be an innovative tool in the fight against malaria. Below is our conversation and an excerpt from his book, Malaria, Poems.
WRAPPED UP, IN
What’s worse? I asked.
Fire brighter. Cold wins.
She drummed words
out between beating
teeth. Body of bone
bundled in the ashes
of her skin then sealed
in the dazzling beads
of needing and sweat.
Her eyes are swathed
in jaundice yellow
but reach like ears
far beyond the bush
to the crushing hum
of the waterfall mask,
a blanket of sound
that hides the way
freezing now has her
heels denting dirt.
Please try to hold still,
the doctor whispers.
Warm rag on forehead
like a kiss too brief
and barely too long.
I am, she says as I will.
Birdsong along the river.
A drum signals dinner.
The waterfall explodes.
Children laugh loudly.
Please stay still.
She is still.
Children laugh louder.
WRAPPED UP, IN from Malaria, Poems, © 2014 Cameron Conaway, published by the Michigan State University Press. Reproduced by permission.
What are some of the themes or issues you cover in Malaria, Poems?
Great question! I think many readers shy away from this question for fear of the obvious answer… malaria! But the pulse of the book is ultimately about the way in which malaria intersects with everything else. This includes sexual violence, weapons of mass distraction, labor rights, imperialism, racism, love, privilege, and, in essence, the aspect of what makes us human: each other.
Out of many worthy global health issues, what compelled you to focus on malaria in particular?
In 2011 I was living in Bangkok, Thailand, teaching Shakespeare for Ottawa University’s online program while working as a freelance human rights journalist throughout Southeast Asia. I heard from fellow poet Colin Cheney that the Wellcome Trust was looking for a poet to attend their conference titled “Community Engagement: Under the Microscope.” My role would to be to serve as a sort of poetic synthesizer for the tropical medicine workshops and panels they had. I accepted. Each morning I opened with a poem based on what I took in from the previous day. This is where I met Nick Day and his team of malaria experts from the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit.
This access swirled around with an inner frustration that had been growing in me about the lack of contemporary poetry that tries to tackle the pressing social and global health issues of our time. It seemed to me that the slam poets had taken this fight seriously, but poets on the page (especially the twenty or so that seem to grace every magazine and literary journal) were writing brilliant poems that danced and shimmered on topics either stale or personal. “Make it new!” said Ezra Pound. It all seemed to drip with unchecked privilege, with the kind of complacency that perhaps naturally arises with tenure, prestige, stability.
Where was the engaged empathy that Juan Felipe Herrera proved powerful in the immigration debate? Where the imagination of Maya Angelou on gender and race inequality? Of Allen Ginsberg lighting our attention toward Bangladeshi refugees? Of Lee Peterson inhabiting voices from the war in Bosnia? I was too deep into the making of the book to feel it at the time, but I was living and writing from the place where Finnerty of Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano wanted to be: “I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”
So here I was. I had access (of location and geography) to dive into “material” I knew nothing about, “material” that kills nearly a million people each year. It scared me how little I knew about malaria; this is when I knew I had to bear witness and apply what Allen Ginsberg referred to as “bare knuckle warrior poetics.”
You’ve said you believe poetry can help end malaria. How?
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “[T]he arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” I believe this is in large part due to writers. Throughout history writing has been about waking up by slowing down; in this frenzied 21st century there is perhaps no more radical or important act. As malaria beats with the breath of death, our cell phones beat on with our ringtones. In the rush it’s easy to cast a narrow lens of the world. The goal, ultimately, was to raise awareness about malaria. Awareness among the general public, sure, but particularly awareness among (1) poets so that they begin to see issues of global health and concern as “material” and (2) scientists so that they begin to understand the significance of their role in communicating about these issues.
You help translate science into poetry, but you also encourage scientists to see themselves as communicators about the important work that they do. I like the example you’ve used of Sir Ronald Ross, who wrote a poem just after he discovered the malaria parasite. What would you say to scientists or researchers who might be shy or uncertain about their role in raising awareness about their work?
I’d first praise them for having such insight. Few of us (myself included) are able to reach into ourselves, tease out the insecurities and then have the courage to share them with others. I’d then ask them to—just one day a week to start—find a quiet place to do ten minutes of sitting meditation on these insights. Their shyness and uncertainty is natural and beautiful, but it’s on the surface. What lies behind it? Returning to mindful stillness on a regular basis is a reminder that sprinting through life isn’t the only way to absorption, that sometimes we need to swim the water and at other times let the water swim us.
You attended the ASTMH Annual Meeting for the first time this year. What were the main highlights for you?
The main highlight for me was the passion that those in the field of tropical medicine have for humanity. We tend to create an artificial binary between the sciences and the humanities, as though it’s one or the other. But to me these scientists were, first and foremost, members of the humanities. It’s just that science is their vehicle to render this part of themselves to and for the world.
Cameron Conaway is a former MMA fighter and an award-winning poet. His work has been featured on NPR, Al Jazeera America, ESPN, The Guardian and The Huffington Post. Conaway served as a 2014 United Nations Social Good Fellow and he’s the author of five books, including Malaria, Poems (Michigan State University Press) and Chittagong: Poems & Essays (Iris Press). He teaches creative writing at Penn State University. Follow him on Twitter @CameronConaway.