Keith Jarrett, Poet In Residence: poetry in the pandemic

Keith Jarrett, Poet In Residence: poetry in the pandemic

09 February 2022

Keith Jarrett is a writer, educator and international poetry slam champion. He was selected for the International Literary Showcase as one of the 10 most outstanding LGBTQ+ writers in the UK. Since 2020, Keith has been working as our Poet in Residence across Imperial College Healthcare’s five London hospitals. He’s been working with staff and patients to document their experiences during the pandemic, using his collaborative poetry writing project, ‘In Touch’, to explore and identify shared ideas and recurring themes.

Poetry is a useful tool in processing difficult or complicated emotions, allowing people to step outside of themselves and connect with things in a different way. Poetry is powerful, it allows you a certain control and command of language.

I began working with patients and staff at Imperial College Healthcare in 2020. I was aware of how physically disconnected people were with each other during the first lockdown. There was this feeling that we were losing a sense of physical contact and connection with people.  Poetry allows you to connect with your senses – and touch was one sense that was being turned upside down. That’s where the idea for my collaborative poetry project, ‘In Touch’, came from.

In this project, I envision staff and patients sharing their experiences of the pandemic through poetry - how the pandemic has changed how we feel and our connection with each other. The collection of poems will form an anthology and an on-site display across the hospitals.

“There was something loving and precious about that moment – what they needed was to just connect with each other.”

Keith Jarrett

It’s been a real pleasure working with NHS staff. From dementia to sexual health staff, it’s been a privilege to support a variety of teams.

Many staff members come into the sessions with an idea from school of what poetry should be or what is expected of them, only to find their outlook completely changes. They begin to see poetry as a space for them to connect with each other and share what they’re thinking and feeling. The conversations they have with each other inform their poetry and draw them together at a time when they’re struggling with feelings of despair and loneliness.

Listen to staff member Wendy’s powerful spoken word poem here.

It’s been wonderful seeing how open and honest patients and staff members have been with each other. One of my favourite moments throughout the residency was with young bone marrow transplant patients. Halfway through the session, we reached a point where it became less about getting through the activities, and more about providing a space for them to talk with each other and share how they’re feeling. They showed a sense of relief at being in touch with each other. There was something loving and precious about that moment – what they needed was to connect with each other. They even created a WhatsApp group after the session so they can keep in touch!

I’ve felt privileged to be a part of the Imperial College Healthcare community. Staff have shared how the sessions have been a real break from the intensity of the pandemic. I hope it has been an escape – and an opportunity to slow down and focus on something specific.

To me, poetry is versatile and allows you to articulate something without approaching it head on – and I think it’s been more valuable now than ever before.

You can create a poem with Keith’s new activity book, Eight Ways to Write a Poem During a Pandemic.  Created in collaboration with design studio On The Mend, this book provides the reader with challenges where they can explore feeling, touch, and connection. Get stuck in with the activity book here.

‘In Touch’ will result in an anthology and on-site visual display across St Mary’s, Hammersmith, and Charing Cross hospitals.

If you’re a staff member or patient at Imperial College Healthcare, follow the activity book to write a poem and submit it to arts@imperialcharity.org.uk for your chance to be featured in the project.