Poetry Student Antoinette Bumekpor Tackles Chronic Illness Through Writing

BY Corinne Lestch, June 6, 2018

Current student Antoinette Bumekpor discovered that she could “write the body,” turning her pain into poetry while attending Columbia. 


Bumekpor suffers from endometriosis, a debilitating disorder in which tissue that normally lines the inside of the uterus instead grows outside of the uterus. She started feeling painful symptoms when she entered Columbia, where she is pursuing her MFA in poetry, and she found it increasingly difficult to focus. As her symptoms intensified, she confided in adjunct assistant professor Joseph Fasano '08.


“He asked, ‘Well, what are you obsessed about? Write your obsession.’ To which I responded, ‘I’m pretty obsessed about my uterus. I talk about it all the time,’” she recounted.


“The next week, I came in with a poem about one of my most memorable pap smear experiences, and as he read the piece he stopped for a moment, looked at me, and said, ‘You really wrote about your uterus.’”


She went on to do an independent study with faculty member Timothy Donnelly ’98, and read books like The Body in Pain and Illness as Metaphor, which challenged her to “speak clearly about the body rather than under the guise of metaphor.”


“I got to understand why I couldn’t read or write poetry after surgery, because pain destroys language,” she said in an interview. “I’ve been taking on reconstructing what was lost throughout the pain experience.”


Since then, Bumekpor has not remained silent about her illness and its effects — in workshops or other venues.


“I have a big mouth and silence just doesn’t suit me,” she said. “I would definitely like to see the [Writing] Program grow in the direction of being able to write trauma.”


She shared her experiences in an April TEDxColumbiaUniversity talk titled, Death by Chocolate Cyst: If My Illness Had a Voice, which she opened with a spoken-word poem: “That I would cry rivers until I became a drought / Then the remains of me would scatter amid the rush of people getting on with their lives.”


Bumekpor uses her medical records and lab treatment notes as source material, and she incorporates metaphors her doctors use — she was told when she woke up from a surgery that, internally, she was “a mess in there” — in her creative writing.


“My journey with doctors is still ongoing, but now whenever something happens, instead of drifting into hopelessness, I think, ‘I'm going to put that in a poem,’” she said. “I especially love conversations where doctors use metaphors in their position as experts, because their word usage reveals so much.”


Now, she is starting to explore the field of Narrative Medicine, and hopes to continue telling her story through different written formats.


“Sometimes I feel that my obsession is unhealthy and that perhaps I should write about birds, butterflies or calla lilies,” Bumekpor said. “However, I took a class this spring in the Narrative Medicine Master’s Program called Illness and Disabilities Narrative to embrace what calls to me. In that class, more so than with any doctor, I came to understand what a chronic illness actually is and that I am dealing with a chronic illness. When I am in my powerful place, I remember that poetry and body and advocacy are all synonyms.”


You can watch the TEDx talk below.