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 Inside Out - North East & Cumbria: Monday October 11, 2004


Julia Darling in a workshop
Poetry with the power of healing

Julia Darling uses her poetry and writing to help others talk more freely about cancer. But how can poetry help with such a serious condition as cancer?

We gave you the chance to ask Julia some questions about her work and her experiences - Here is what you asked and what Julia said in response.

Q: Helen

I really loved your article in the Guardian about changes to Newcastle and the North East. It sounds like you think the city has got more boring and bland in the last 20 years. The Regional Assembly is being set up with the main purpose of driving economic growth at all costs. Won't it just make this place MORE like the South East and actually destroy the distinctive culture you celebrate?

A: Julia

Perhaps we can be economically vibrant AND diverse too. The Yes Campaign for the Regional Assembly is actively involving artists, poets and musicians, and I think in many ways it's up to us to make sure our voices are heard, and that the North East doesn't turn out bland and like every other city. There are lots of ideas within the campaign that seek to develop our sense of character and place....teaching children regional studies (the history of their street) in schools etc. I worry about the fact that only power hungry, money making, or very boring people go to political meetings, but I think we should start finding new ways to involve people in politics. I'm writing a political musical now! I really hope we can save the North East from Kentucky Fried Chicken and luxury developers.

Q: Sally

You mentioned you would like to write a manual, explaining how to talk to people who are dying. What things would you include?

A: Julia

Yes. I was imagining a little book the size of The Little Book of Calm. I started to write it, but then it became a poem, so I shall send you that instead...

How To Behave With Ill People

Approach them assertively, try not to
cringe or sidle as it will make them fearful.

Rather walk straight up and smile.

Do not touch them unless invited,
particularly don't squeeze upper arms,
or try to hold their hands.
Keep your head erect.

Don’t bend towards them, or lower your voice.

Speak evenly. Don't say
‘How are you?’ in an underlined voice,
as this can make the ill worried.

Don’t say, I heard that you were poorly .

This makes the ill feel paranoid.

Speak plainly, say ‘How’s your cancer?’
Try not to say how well they look.

compared to when you last met in Tosco's.

And don’t cry, or get emotional,
and say how dreadful it all is.

Also (and this is hard I know)
try not to ignore the ill, or to scurry
past, muttering about a bus, the bank.

Remember that this day might be your last
and that it is a miracle that any of us
stands up, breathes, behaves at all.

Q: John

You are so practical about facing up to dying. Are there things you still want to do before you die?

A: Julia

There are so many things I want to do before I die. They include: seeing the arctic wastes, walking from Alnmouth to Bamburgh along the beach, driving up to the Western Isles with my mum, buying an electric bicycle and going on an epic bike ride, travelling first class on a plane, finishing another novel, speaking my mind in public as often as I can, having adventures with my family, seeing a badger and an otter in the wild, learning how to apply make up.....the list goes on.... I think I won't leave without a struggle!

Q: Andy

I was really moved by your story and felt you and your family had some very important things to say.

But I wasn't really convinced that patients were going to start describing their pain to their doctors in terms of various types of fruit, or poetry or whatever you were suggesting. Sorry, Julia but there is no way I'm going to start spouting poetry next time I'm seeing my GP.

A: Julia

I've been running lots of workshops with GPs and we discuss how these ideas could be implemented in a surgery. Imagine if your GP told you he had been to a workshop and wanted to try something out..then he showed you a whole range of specific words and asked which applied to how you were feeling...would you be offended or grateful? I would be very pleased, as often I find I can't think what to say to my doctors. Doctors could also suggest that patients did things like keep diaries for a week, or maybe did a painting to show their pain. Poetry books would be in waiting rooms, and poetry posters. Primary health care leaflets would include poems by patients. I think we need to change the culture of medicine.

Q: Roger

Are you planning to publish any more novels or books of poetry?

A: Julia

Yes! I am publishing a new book of poems at the Hatton Gallery on November 10th 7-9.00 p.m. Please come and raise a glass if you're free. I am also writing a play, and working on a new book . I'm also editing a book of poems called THE POETRY CURE with Bloodaxe books which is an anthology of patients work.

Q: Sue

How widespread in the medical fraternity is your creative writing – are they doing it all over the country?

A: Julia

The world of Arts and Health is really blossoming at the moment. Here at the medical school students can do modules in creative writing, and there is also OPERATING THEATRE, and organisation that uses drama to explore the dynamic between doctors and patients. Nationally there is a wide network of artists and writers working within the NHS and with medicine generally. Gradually things are changing, although sometimes it feels as if they are not. The Cancer Centre at the General Hospital has changed radically in the decade since I was diagnosed. You can make things like hooky and proggy mats while you wait, there's a library, and lots of art on the walls.

Q: Sarah

Are you planning any public workshops that anyone can attend?

A: Julia

If you check out my website (below) you can see when I am running workshops. I 'm doing one in Scarborough on Nov 20th, and running a short story workshop (nothing to do with health) at the Literary and Philosophical Society at 6.00 p.m on October 20th. If you want to come to the latter phone Live Theatre 0191 232 1232. The workshop is part of the Festival of Stories. I'm also reading a new short story Monday 25th Oct at 7.30 pm at Live Theatre. Same number for tickets.

See also ...

Health - Living with Cancer

On the rest of the web
Julia Darling
Operating Theatre
Breakthrough Breast Cancer
Breast Cancer Care
Cancer Support UK
Cancer Research UK

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