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If You Think You'll Never See A Poem About Malaria, You're Wrong

Poet Cameron Conaway (left, in gray cap) visits malaria-hit areas in the Chittagong Tract Hills, Bangladesh, in June 2012.
Courtesy of Cameron Conaway
Poet Cameron Conaway (left, in gray cap) visits malaria-hit areas in the Chittagong Tract Hills, Bangladesh, in June 2012.

Before traveling to Thailand in 2011, American poet Cameron Conaway viewed malaria as many Westerners do: a remote disease summed up by factoids:

It's borne by mosquitoes.

Half the world's population — 3.4 billion people — is at risk of catching it.

The disease claims 627,000 lives a year – that's one death every minute.

Conaway, 29, gives a human face to those figures in his new collection, Malaria, Poems. Each poem is paired with a related fact: "roughly one in ten children will suffer from neurological impairment after cerebral malaria" connects to a poem with this line:

"Here / a girl of ten / confused / why her arms won't raise / when she's asked to raise them"

Conaway started writing poetry in 2004, inspired by Lee Peterson, his poetry instructor at Penn State Altoona, who wrote about the Bosnian war. "She taught me that these literary tools weren't just for playing in the sandbox," says Conaway. "They could serve a social purpose."

He came to malaria in a roundabout way. Conaway's trip to Thailand was motivated by a desire to practice Mauy Thai kickboxing (he is a former mixed martial arts fighter and people sometimes call him "the warrior poet"). After he arrived in Bangkok, he met another poet hanging out there, Colin Cheney, who told him about the Wellcome Trust, a global charity that funds health research as well as projects on how culture affects health issues, such as with their features publication Mosaic. The Trust was soliciting applicants for its arts award, so Conaway attended one of the its conferences. There, he met Nick Day, the director of Bangkok's Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit (MORU), one of the Trust's affiliates.

"I was impressed by Day's ability to talk about malaria and his research in ways that a normal human could understand. He did so with charisma and I really connected with him," says Conaway.

And Conaway learned that malaria has a poetic history. Sir Ronald Ross, who won a Nobel Prize in 1902 for identifying malaria parasites, often wrote poetry about the disease and his discovery:

"With tears and toiling breath / I find thy cunning seeds / O million-murdering death."

With Day's suggestion, Conaway applied for the Trust's arts award and became MORU's first poet-in-residence. He spent seven months traveling to villages and vaccine research centers near Bangkok and in Bangladesh, gathering impressions for his work.

Malaria, Poems was published this month by Michigan State University Press. The poems touch on everything from counterfeit malaria medicines to stillbirths caused by the parasite to traveling bards who perform plays about malaria awareness. He also wrote poems that address social issues such as violence against women in Bangladesh and the lack of medical care in the region.

An excerpt from Malaria, Poems follows and describes Anopheles mosquitoes, which transmit the parasite between people.

Excerpted from Malaria, Poems by Cameron Conaway. Copyright 2014 by Cameron Conaway. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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