Rafael Campo is a poet and essayist who teaches and practices internal medicine at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Campo earned a BA and MA from Amherst College and an MD from Harvard Medical School. His primary care practice serves mostly Latinos, gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered people, and people with HIV infection. Campo is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including a Guggenheim fellowship, a National Poetry Series award, and a Lambda Literary Award for his poetry, and an honorary Doctor of Literature degree from Amherst College.
In interviews Rafael Campo has called himself “a mutt, a mongrel, a kind of happy monster,” referring to the disparate professional and personal identities he has learned to negotiate. Born in Dover, New Jersey in 1964 to Cuban and Italian parents, Campo attended Amherst College and Harvard Medical School. Raised Catholic, he is openly gay and has devoted much of his practice to treating Latinos and gay, lesbian, and transgendered people, and those suffering from HIV. Campo’s poems often address questions of illness, health, suffering, and identity. Though originally reluctant to let his patients know he was a poet, he has since “prescribed” poetry and led poetry workshops for patients. “We come to poetry,” he has said, “I think because we are silenced in many ways. In biomedicine, we’re so good at appropriating the narrative—the biopsy report, the CT count, the potassium level. Writing gives patients an opportunity to say, this is my cancer, this is my HIV. It’s not a generic, what you see on the mammogram or how many lymph nodes are positive—I’m an individual.” The author of many books of poetry and several collections of prose, Campo’s writing reflects his commitment to poetry as the fullest expression of self, and his understanding of it as a necessary tool for both healing and empathy.
Campo’s own poetry tends to mix narratives of family, history, and illness with an attention to form, especially received forms. His interest in forms, he has alleged, comes from his own “hybrid” experience: “Being a hybrid myself, I’m very interested in playing with Indonesian forms and Middle Eastern forms, importing some of these things, being in a way almost promiscuous with form.” Campo’s first book, The Other Man was Me (1994), won the National Poetry Series; his second, What the Body Told (1996) was awarded the Lambda Literary Award for Poetry. Critic Frederick Luis Aldama has described Campo’s technique in his early work: “His poems are highly structured… he uses the security of form as a position from which to delve deep into the heart of his own feelings—feelings for his AIDS and cancer patients and for emergency room arrivals who have suffered from brutal encounters with an overwhelmingly homophobic and racist American society.”
Other collections of poetry also utilize a dramatic range of forms. In Diva (1999), which includes Campo’s translations of poems by Federico Garcia Lorca, he attempts terza rima, villanelles, pantoums, heroic couplets, and envelope quatrains. In the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Jay A. Liveson called the book Campo’s “most pointed” collection to date and “a virtuoso display” of formal poetic styles. Campo’s other collections of poetry include Landscape with Human Figure (2002), winner of the Gold Medal in Poetry from ForeWord, and The Enemy (2007), which received the Sheila Motton Book Prize from the New England Poetry Club. His latest book of poetry is Alternative Medicine (2013).
Both of Campo’s collections of prose, The Poetry of Healing (1997) andThe Healing Art (2003), address the subjects found in his poetry, while describing the difficulties and rewards of being a poet-doctor. The Poetry of Healing won praise from many different quarters, including reviews in medical journals and a Lambda literary award. In Christian Century, Arthur W. Frank examined the book as a piece of “medical self-reflection” that challenged the administrative restrictions common to the profession. “Campo’s writing—the transformation of life in narrative and poetry—is the final expression of his fidelity to his patients … Campo shows the difficulty of cultivating public-spiritedness as an individual virtue within systems of managed care.” The Healing Art also received praise from literary and medical journals alike. Using poems from poets like William Carlos Williams, Marilyn Hacker, and Lucia Perillo, Campo addresses the necessity of differentiating between “healing” and “curing.” In the New England Journal of Medicine, Teresa Schraeder claimed that “Rafael Campo uses a palette of poetry to provoke the reader to philosophical, even existential thoughts about the ways in which illness and death define human experience.”
His work has also been selected for inclusion in the Best American Poetry and Pushcart Prize anthologies, and has appeared in numerous prominent periodicals including the Boston Globe, Commonweal, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The New Republic, the New York Times Magazine, the Paris Review, Salon, Slate, and the Washington Post Book World.
In addition to his medical teaching and practice, Campo is also on the faculty of Lesley University's Creative Writing MFA Program, and frequently lectures widely and gives seminars and workshops relating to medicine, literary writing, and culture.