Yale-UCL Poetry Competition winners announced
4 February 2021
This year’s Yale-UCL university poetry competition provided a powerful platform for students of medicine and other disciplines to share their reflections on Covid-19.
Themes of hope and resilience came through strongly, alongside death, loss and issues of race and identity.
Winning entries in the competition, now in its tenth year, were announced at a virtual event attended by students, poets, writers and guests from both sides of the Atlantic, including Nobel Prize winning biochemist and cell biologist Professor James Rothman.
For the last decade, the competition has given medical students the chance to use their creativity to explore uniquely insightful reflections on their experiences and training.
First place in the competition for students of medicine and allied disciplines was After Closing the Cadaver by Anna Vignola. Anna, 30, a Yale Physician Assistant student from Los Angeles, who has written since childhood.
The poem, which judges described as a ‘tiny masterpiece’, stemmed from a quiet moment after spending hours in a lab, a moment of savouring the joy and relief of being alive - which Anna says she has clung to during the Coronavirus pandemic.
She said: “I think science is poetry and poetry is science, especially in medicine, which is such a creative field. We bring life into the world and then see people through to death, what could be more poetic?”
Runner up in this category was Sarah Wong, 25, a final year medical student at UCL. Her poem Housecleaning, which is about different forms of loss, was praised by the judges for its simplicity and profundity.
Sarah, who moved to London to study medicine from her home in Singapore, was also named the winner in the ‘open’ category, for her poem if not now – when?, which describes her reflections on the pandemic and Black Lives Matter.
She described this poem as an attempt to connect with the global situation where inequalities and disparities are so stark. “It’s about how much we rely on each other and also about the needless deaths we inflict on each other, and ‘all that we have taken from each other’”.
Runner up in the ‘open’ category was Fibrotic, a poem created in a single column of text by disabled poet Jamie Hale, which judges commended for ‘using form beautifully’.
Jamie, 29, who is studying for an MA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics of Health at UCL, said: “As I began to use non-invasive ventilation to support my breathing at night, I was struck by the idea that, like a tree, I stored carbon dioxide at night, and wanted to consider that image. The disabled body is so often posed as unnatural that I wanted to explore it amongst deeply natural images and shapes. It was important to me that I explore these images without leaning into pity or sympathy - just difference.’
The poetry competition was born out of the Yale-UCL Collaborative, which fosters partnerships in the biomedical sciences and engineering, and has influenced the study of social sciences, humanities, law and architecture at the two universities as well as facilitating student and staff exchanges. It aims to increase the quality of creativity in the two universities; to inspire, nurture and promote the humanities within medical education and give students an outlet for creative expression.
The award celebrations were hosted by Professor Stella Bruzzi, Dean of UCL Arts and Humanities and UCL medical student Jenny He, who organised this year’s competition in between working shifts in the intensive care unit at University College Hospital.
The judging panel comprised poet, playwright and journalist Clare Pollard and poet, paediatrician and writer Dr Irène P. Mathieu. The Winners were awarded £1000 ($1370) each and runners up £500 ($685). The event is sponsored by Mintoo Bhandari and Vinni Nahata Bhandari.
Celeberating and exchanging thoughts on poetry with the winning students were judges Clare Pollard and Dr Irène P. Mathieu, UCL Professor in Cardiovascular Medicine John Martin who, as co-director of the Yale UCL Collaborative, launched the first competition in February 2011
Other guests included Yale’s Nobel Prize winning biochemist and cell biologist Professor James Rothman, UCL Associate Professor of European Thought and Culture Tim Beasley-Murray, Yale Professor Anna Reisman MD, who is the Director of Yale’s Program for Humanities in Medicine and Director of Yale Internal Medicine Residency Writers’ Workshop, previous sponsor and New Yorker columnist Mark Singer and current sponsors Mintoo and Vinni Nahata Bhandari, who have generously secured the future of the competition.
This year’s winning poems, along with the judges’ citations, are reproduced below, with kind permission from the authors.
Closed Competition Winner - Anna Vignola (Yale School of Medicine)
After Closing the Cadaver
I come home
to admire the contours
of a chest rising
of warm skin
as I crawl to him sinking
into the sweetness
and guilt of being
It is hard to write a short poem well but this is a tiny masterpiece – no word is wasted, with the title itself part of this single perfect sentence. There is such shock and dissonance encapsulated in the way we move from the professional language of ‘closing the cadaver’ in the title to being, just a moment later, ‘home’, and asked to look upon a beloved living body; to enjoy this precious life. The difficulty and guilt the speaker experiences in making this shift is movingly conveyed.
Closed Competition Runner-Up - Sarah Wong (UCL Medicine)
Can I speak plainly of loss:
the casting out,
the breathing in,
the silent withdrawal
from life it brings;
the shadow it returns
to common things:
ticket stubs and
birthday cards in a box
you never thought
you’d throw out,
because you were
always the sentimental
sort and that was
the kind of thing
you did for the
they were all that
moments left behind
in their passing,
moments that held in
their skin a sense
of being on their way
and that sense was all
you needed, once,
before you learnt
that was not enough
to make a life
and everything just
started to take up
too much space.
‘Can I speak plainly of loss’? the poem begins. It is such a powerful start to this outpouring of grief told in short, self-deprecating, sobbing lines by a speaker who has – until now – kept this sorrow to themselves, as they mourn the loss of those moments ‘that held in their skin a sense of being on their way to somewhere’. In simple, ordinary language it is a poem that asks the big question of what it all means.
Open Competition Winner - Sarah Wong (UCL Medicine)
if not now – when?
when you run fresh into the opening
of spring, you become witness to the
thawing of death – as the life-breath it
encases grows warm, trickles down onto
young grass, and tickles it with dew
it is not uncommon to fall in love
amidst rows of shelves stocked to the
brim with desire – but caught between
naked aisles, we find our need exposed
and in shame, we forget to be kind
seething, life has worn itself soft,
silent, small to take the shape of these
four walls; breathing is easier – even with
all we have stolen from it, the earth gives
us air cleaner than we’ve ever known
all we have taken from each other
(do we see it now?) decorate the spaces
we’ve built for living – yes, we hoard far
more than survival demands but hey,
who can afford guilt in a crisis?
now we cannot unknow them, the faces
whose last memory of this world was
hate and their last words a plea – all the
violence we’ve but some lives caused with
our silence matter more, do we see it now?
This has the feel of a pillowbook or journal; there is something haiku-like in the attempt to capture the recurring seasons of the past year even as history pours through the verses. Like Eliot’s line ‘April is the cruellest month’ - much quoted last spring - the poet has captured the horror of new life mingling with disease in the image of death ‘thawing’ and trickling through a ‘seething’ April. I was moved by the way the poet moves through many of the universal experiences of this year – the ‘naked aisles’; the sense of life having worn ‘itself soft, silent, small’; the growing political anger, whilst always describing it with freshness, swerving the already-cliches.
Open Competition Runner-Up - Jamie Hale (UCL Arts & Humanities)
Fibrosis n: the thickening and scarring of connective tissue, usually after an injury
If you graft orange buds onto a lemon
they grow together - a salad tree of
sharpness and sugar - or the bud dies.
Connecting two incompatible things is
harder than you would think - the body
knows this; the trees told me the same.
Maybe while I slept, a tree was grafted
onto me. My rootstock rots; Necrotic
buds flower from my heel. Sometimes
lightening splits a tree hollow like a
cave, but it still grows spindly branches.
Nobody told it it was broken or maybe it
always knew. Both are possible - hollow
things grow strangely. And yet we grow.
Trauma changes our genetic sequence. I
am fibrosed. My muscles become
woody. Trees grow thicker year on year.
I thin. But I have roots. My legs are trees,
leech nutrients? No. Drain poison. The
puckering sharpness of crabapple before
it's boiled with endless sugar. Sour fruit
brings a longer harvest, grafted to an
apple tree, but do not try to eat them
whole. The cold splinters my branches,
cracks appear in my skin. I swapped
transient legs for permanent bark. A tree
doesn't travel. It doesn't need to; it knows
the forest, sends signals beneath the
floor. Swaps breadth for depth. Trees
whisper at night. People don't notice. I've
been blessed with ears that hear voices
that others don't. Or do they miss voices
that others hear? The grafted tree is
neither one nor another; nor is it both.
Maybe I just dreamed I was a tree. But I
store carbon dioxide at night. Or I did.
The machine breathes for me now.
This uses form beautifully – it is a thick trunk of a poem – and brilliantly sustains its conceit, linking the thickening and scarring of bodily tissue to the process of grafting fruit trees. ‘Connecting two incompatible things is harder than you would think’ the poem tells us, but it manages to do just that with wit and grace. The speaker, like Daphne in myth, is changed into a tree through trauma, but finds that also means to ‘swap breadth for depth’, to tune into a new and different language.
- Yale UCL Poetry Competition 2020
- UCL Collaborative
- Judge: Dr Irène P. Mathieu
- Judge: Clare Pollard
- Poet & finalist Jamie Hale
Left to right: Jamie Hale (photo - Camilla Greenwall, Wellcome Trust), Anna Vignoble, Sarah Wong
T: +44 (0)20 3108 9040
E: j.bolger [at] ucl.ac.uk