Friday, 22 July 2016

The poetics of illness stories

As a lone qualitative sociologist in a mostly hard science-based, quantitative field of teachers and researchers, the opportunity for Dr Marg Simmons to present her work at a recent conference in Italy was a welcome one.

Based at Monash Rural Health Churchill, Dr Simmons’s current project is focused on collecting stories of illness from survey participants. Her conference presentation offered a voice to these participants through ‘poetic representation’, where she chose to explore some of the responses on illness narratives, in poetic form. “This conference took an interdisciplinary approach to the ‘broken narrative’ which occurs when people become ill and the narrative structure and stability of their life stories are disrupted.”

Transformative: poetry can convey ideas and emotions more powerfully than prose text. (Image Deviant Art.)

Dr Simmons’s presentation also referenced authors whose research on illness refers to the loss of a ‘roadmap’ for a person’s life when illness strikes, the non-discriminatory nature of illness such as cancer, the shock and acceptance around diagnoses, the use of military metaphors to describe illness, the perpetual interruption to life which comes with illness and the gratitude expressed by some people with illness.

A series of poems were constructed and presented by Dr Simmons, each of which sought to capture the stories of her participants. One collective poem, ‘No particular words’ - in response to a survey question about language or words used to describe a participant’s illness – explored the irony of there being many words to describe illness yet often no words for the suffering.

Dr Simmons said the act of constructing poetic-like representations of her data was “careful and thoughtful transformative work” with the analysis process demanding that she ask herself constantly ‘what is this poem trying to tell me?’ “I think poetry can sometimes convey an idea or emotion more powerfully than text and is certainly very evocative and moving,” she said.

“I hope my research will add to the body of knowledge which can help to translate illness experiences into important stories that highlight the connections and similarities in those stories as well as the challenges and disruptions that illness brings to people’s lived experience, to hopefully make a difference for patients,” she said.

The local researcher also hopes her work will help to better inform health professionals about the use of language around illness.

Dr Simmons’s study is ongoing, with her survey still open to anyone who has an experience of illness, whether they are a patient, carer or professional.

The survey, which takes about 30 minutes to complete, is available online. For more information, contact Dr Marg Simmons by phone  (03) 5122 7527 or email

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