UCL News


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.

Competition finalists headshots

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

and falling

in sleep

the shock

of warm skin

as I crawl to him sinking

into the sweetness

and guilt of being


Judges’ comments: 

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

memories, because

they were all that

moments left behind

in their passing,

those tangible

moments that held in

their skin a sense

of being on their way

to somewhere

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.

Judges’ comments: 

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? 

Judges’ comments: 

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. 

Judges’ comments: 

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. 



Left to right: Jamie Hale (photo - Camilla Greenwall, Wellcome Trust), Anna Vignoble, Sarah Wong

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Jane Bolger

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