Poet (and erstwhile Wales Arts Review contributor) Jamie Woods explores his own debut poetry collection Rebel Blood Cells, a sequence that seeks to unearth the nuances of his own experiences being diagnosed with leukaemia in 2019.
I started writing my first drafts for Rebel Blood Cells in 2019. When I say drafts, I mean I scrawled messages to myself, my wife and the nursing staff at University Hospital Cardiff in a notebook. Gone out for fresh air. Leukaemia is the Kampuchea of illnesses. Please play this at my funeral. I was seriously ill with a rare and acute form of Leukaemia, which as I had just found out, was a type of blood cancer. I was 50 miles away from my wife and children. I could hardly see and the chemotherapy drugs weren’t working. It was an incredibly difficult time and I struggled to understand what was going on. Hospitals are difficult places to navigate: how can you rest, understand your illness and recover when there is so much going on?
The Silence of The Hospital Ward
In remission by the end of 2019, I then had another 6 months of chemotherapy, and was reluctantly starting therapy for PTSD. I have always written: lyrics, limericks, first chapters of novels, short stories, reviews for Wales Arts Review… but had stopped for about 5 years. But I felt I needed to write again – in the same way that I’d processed many parts of my teenage waywardness in short stories, I needed to process my illness in a similar way. I took an online workshop with Natalie Ann Holborow titled Beauty in Darkness and started editing the things I’d been writing into poems. The goal was never publication, or sharing, but I was very in touch with my mortality, so sent some out into the world, just in case they were any good. Not long after I was commended in the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine in 2021, with a poem I wrote to express my survivor’s guilt and my fear of relapse.
Ring the Bell
There’s this tradition,
to signify the end of treatment,
to mark the new you,
to ring in the new year:
to ring the bell,
ring the all-clear.
“It’s not for me”, I say.
“There’s others in this day unit
who may never get a chance,
and as much as they might be happy
that the man with the headphones
has finished his chemotherapy,
the ringing may just break their hearts,
as mine would if I heard that sound.”
But I live in fear that if I ring it,
if I do a little speech
and take some photos,
that the cancer will come back.
Then I’ll have done this to myself:
gloating that I had it beaten,
when it was still skulking in the dark,
a wounded tiger, regaining its strength.
I now work with the charity Leukaemia Care as their poet-in-residence. I want to share the joy of poetry with fellow leukaemia patients, both reading and writing. I’m never going to run a marathon or do a skydive or find a (better) cure, but I can use my writing ability to raise awareness and money and advocate for people in my position. As I said, I had no idea that Leukaemia was even something adults could get. It was just something I knew in passing.
Blue Peter Bring and Buy Sale 1987
I always thought that Leukaemia was a children’s illness
I never knew that adults could get it
I didn’t know that it was a type of cancer
I thought it was just one of those things
like Great Ormond Street or Kampuchea
that we raised money for with Blue Peter Bring and Buy sales
in the school hall when we were ten
and you’d buy a second-hand calculator for 20p
and play with it the next day, upside-down
writing 71077345 and 5318008 while Janet and Peter and Simon
explain why our efforts are so important
and show how high up the totaliser we’ve got to
but forgetting it all when Neighbours came on straight after
and I really wish I had paid more attention
and I wish I’d brought and bought more things.
Rebel Blood Cells is my Leukaemia, my PTSD, my desperation, my anxiety, my heart, my soul, and most of all, my hope. I’m not a positive-thinking cancer warrior, but a hopeful survivor. It’s not heroic or inspirational: it is an honest, open, and raw account of cancer and the impact it had on me. It’s not an easy read, but I think it’s an important one.
Rebel Blood Cells is available now from Punk Dust Poetry. All author and publisher proceeds from the sale of Rebel Blood Cells are being donated to Leukaemia Care UK.
REBEL – an online poetry event for Leukaemia Care is the launch party for the book on 17th August.
Join Jamie in reading on the night is an all-star bill of poets: Rachel Carney, Mari Ellis Dunning, Bethany Handley, Natalie Ann Holborow, Phil Jones, Andy N, Dean Rhetoric, Tracey Rhys, JP Seabright; and a Black Bough open mic hosted by Matthew M.C. Smith. Tickets are available from here. Again, all proceeds to charity.