Professor explores poetry’s power in tenuous times

Paul Mayne // Western News

English and Writing Studies professor Madeline Bassnett sees poetry as a way to see through tough issues. Her new book, 'Under the Gamma Camera,' offers a frank portrait of her journey through breast cancer, and a larger picture of our internal struggles with external realities.

Growing up, Madeline Bassnett easily imagined becoming a writer – but not, so much, a poet.

“Poetry was destroyed for me in high school because there was this secret meaning I could never get. That was always a little bit depressing,” she said. “It wasn’t until I moved to California in my mid-20s and started taking writing classes that I got drawn towards poetry and where I feel settled in.”

Today, the English and Writing Studies professor enjoys how poetry makes her think about language, and appreciates its power to lay issues bare in tenuous times – be they political, environmental, or, in the case of her most recent collection, personal.

Bassnett’s Under the Gamma Camera provides a frank portrait of the emotional and clinical aspects of her battle with breast cancer, and a broader picture of humanity’s internal struggle with external realities.

“In a time of real uncertainty and crisis, one of the things about poetry is the ability to express things that are really hard in a straightforward way. It gets to the core of emotion.”

Bassnett wrote – and walked – her way through to recovery, her route round Gibbon’s Park the backdrop for contemplation.

“My academic work focuses on environmental issues, so I spent time thinking about the illness of the Earth, as well as the illness of the body. It reached well beyond me into the natural spaces I was walking through,” she said, with poems such as Colony Collapse, continuing the book’s overall theme of death – in cells and in life – while calling out the deadly insecticides killing bees worldwide.

In The Secret Life of Crabs Bassnett uses the ‘slightly repellent’ and ‘hiding tactics’ of crabs as a metaphor for her cancer, with ‘mouths of villains anticipating someone’s pain … clambering over each other…each indistinguishable, as if replicated from one source.’

“I remember when I lived in California I saw crabs by the seaside. They have this weird thing they do with their pincers – it’s unsettling and I found it very creepy,” Bassnett said, noting the poem was also inspired by artist Ai Weiwei’s scrambling, chaotic River Crab installation.

“It was a very nice way to think about the invasion idea and the odd paradox in which your body is turning against you.”

With notes and musings from her illness in hand, Bassnett drafted her poems in the mountains, having earned a spot in a two-week, self-directed writer’s residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Nestled in one of the nine unique Leighton Artist studios – a cabin that was once a boat – Bassnett returned home with a finished collection of poems that focused closely on her personal journey, which she later revised to appeal to a broader audience.

“Most of us know someone who has gone through chronic illness,” said Bassnett, who also writes of her father’s death in the book. “The specificities are different, but some of the emotions that arise can be very similar.”

And what of poetry’s place when it comes to global issues? Bassnett feels, “It fits very well. Some of the things we are dealing with are hard to talk about, as well as our feelings around them.

“Climate change is huge,” she continued. “How do we really come to terms with it, feel and think about what it means or imagine how we might live in it? Or what we can do about it?”

It’s an idea she explores in her approach to her current piece of work, a poem about the border and immigration. “We see pictures, we have feelings, then they go away, they’re erased from our brain as we gallop along.”

“Poetry allows us to express these things and helps us to understand, because it helps us to feel them.”

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Under the Gamma Camera will launch at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 25, at Brown and Dickson Bookstore, 567 Richmond St., with readings from Bassnett and English and Writing Studies lecturer David Barrick, who will launching his first poetry book, Incubation Chamber.