Friday, May 15, 2015

On Writing #60 : Priscila Uppal

On Creative Health
Priscila Uppal

Many of us know how to keep our bodies fit, even our minds fit, but…How do we keep our creative selves fit? What does it mean to let our creative muscles atrophy?
            I’ve been interested, for some time, in the connections between physical and creative activity. This interest took me straight to the Vancouver and London Olympics where I competed in my own marathon poetry event, writing and publishing two poems per day. The goal was to bridge the gap between the artsies and the jocks and to encourage participation in both worlds. We have a great deal in common, from discipline to passion to pushing boundaries and taking risks. Afterwards, I led workshops for Canadian Tire Jumpstart. Many kids left camp saying their favourite sport was Poetry.
            Just as our metabolisms slow down, so too are we at risk of letting our spirits down by ignoring our creative lives.
            I was recently shockingly diagnosed with a very rare type of cancer called synovial sarcoma. This cancer has no known risk factors, but tends to strike young, fit and healthy people who are not at risk for other cancers. I call it the Kick in Your Face Cancer. On Sept 11th, I underwent an extensive operation: 8 hours, 3 surgeons. Much of my abdominal wall was removed, replaced with a biologic mesh and my right thigh; and then because my runner’s thighs apparently had no fat, grafts were needed from my backside.
            My incredible medical team, led by the aptly named Dr. Wunder, thankfully believe the surgery was a success, and although one must expect a very long recovery period, I’ve been told that my healing process is “astonishing.” I went from a walker to crutches to a cane in two days instead of weeks and months. They attribute this to my very high level of fitness before the surgery.
            But I wonder if this is the entire story. In fact, I wonder about stories. I’ve written about illness and health for much of my life. I’ve read non-fiction, fiction, poetry, plays, about various illnesses, including cancer. I’ve watched dozens of movies on the subject too.
            Post-surgery surgeons, psychologists, social workers and researchers asked me endless questions—everything from pain and appetite levels to questions about family or work support. All were obsessed with my bowel movements. I am even part of a study where I spend hours recognizing shape patterns and repeating lines of numbers interspersed with  hundreds of questions, asking everything from: Do you feel your life is unfolding as it is meant to unfold? To Do you say sexually inappropriate things? (Of course I do, I’m a writer, that’s my job.) Questions about physical and mental health—extremely important—but I was never asked any questions relating to my creative health. (Have you read any books that are helping you understand what you are going through? Are you keeping a journal? Can I suggest an interesting novel or funny film?)
            Much more than medical articles, art has helped me understand that I am not the only person suffering in the world and that there are many ways one can approach, understand, combat, or be comforted through an illness. And expressing myself through art has been as an effective painkiller as morphine (in my case more so, since morphine just made me nauseous). Why is our creative health virtually ignored by our medical system when it can be such a strong factor in how we deal with illness?
            Just as many doctors are now empowered with prescription pads to prescribe physical activity to make patients more accountable—I would like to see what changes could be made in people’s lives if they were given prescriptions for their creative health too. For instance, read one poem three times per week. Or, as part of your follow-up, bring in a poem that you’ve written about what you’re going through.
            I’m still in the process of recovery, but I know that what I’ve experienced will show up in all kinds of ways in my future creative works because creative health is integral to my healing process and could be to others. I would like to see a medical system and an educational system that understands the vital role literature and art can play in this process.
Another Dysfunctional Cancer Poem

My body and I have now entered that phase
of relationship where all the quirks and ticks
that used to tug at your heart are sources
of irritation and argument. The monotony of being
with you, day in and day out, going through the motions.
We are now that couple no one wants to
see in public, whose shopping bags hang like broken
promises. We blame each other’s childhoods and
draft unacceptable separation agreements.
The hot tears and intermittent flowers are
the worst, the notes of distant affection,
the vague plans for future holidays. I am no
longer the love of your life. I have the black
eyes to prove it. Our pleas for forgiveness
are hollow. We live for the possibility of thrashing
it all out for the umpteenth time, falling asleep
exhausted and sore, but side by side.

Priscila Uppal is a Toronto poet, fiction writer, memoirist, essayist, playwright, and a Professor of English at York University. Among her critically acclaimed publications are ten collections of poetry, most recently, Sabotage, Traumatology, & Ontological Necessities (Griffin Poetry Prize finalist); the novels The Divine Economy of Salvation and To Whom It May Concern ; the study We Are What We Mourn: The Contemporary English-Canadian Elegy; the memoir Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother (Writers’ Trust Hilary Weston Prize and Governor General’s Award finalist); and the collection of short stories Cover Before Striking. Her work has been published internationally and translated into Croatian, Dutch, French, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Korean and Latvian. She was the first-ever poet-in-residence for Canadian Athletes Now during the 2010 Vancouver and 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic games as well as the Roger’s Cup Tennis Tournament in 2011. 6 Essential Questions, her first play, had its World Premiere as part of the Factory Theatre 2013-2014 season and will be published by Playwrights Canada Press in 2015. Time Out London dubbed her “Canada’s coolest poet.” For more information visit


Kate R. said...

Moving and thought provoking. I am dealing with arthritis pain and treatments which may or may not have worked. More procedures are on the horizon and the pain and inactivity which will follow are daunting, but reading Patricia U's piece and poem have reminded me that writing more about being broken may help with healing.

-Kate Rogers

Anonymous said...

Interesting and moving article and poem. Love them both - Get well soon Priscila Uppal