Doctor turned poet — and adrenaline junkie

After recently winning a prestigious international poetry award, doctorturned-poet Kathy D’Arcy talks to COLETTE SHERIDAN about her upcoming show with Harry Moore which deals with their separate attempts to climb Mount Everest
Doctor turned poet — and adrenaline junkie
Kathy D'Arcy

QUALIFIED medical doctor turned poet, Kathy D’Arcy, who recently won first prize in the health professional section of the prestigious international Hippocrates Awards for Poetry and Medicine 2017, likes to set herself challenges.

Not just run-of-the-mill challenges but extreme ones that take her out of her comfort zone and call on vast supplies of forbearance.

Kathy, who has published two collections of poetry, is also adept at making performance pieces out of her experiences. As part of the Cork Harbour Festival, she and artist, Harry Moore, will present a show at L’Atitude on Union Quay about their attempt to climb Sagarmatha (the Nepalese name for Mount Everest).

Kathy, who is currently working towards her doctorate at UCC’s School of English, went to Sagarmatha in 2013 while Harry was there in 2014. They discovered that they both shared similar responses to and feelings about their undertaking and decided to perform a narrative fusing their separate experiences into an immersive, multi-media performance.

Their show, Sagarmatha, running from June 6- 8, celebrates the dangerous beauty of the highest place in the world. Reflecting on her adventure, Kathy, who also walks the Camino in Spain every year, says she sometimes thinks she is “self-flagellating”.

“I feel the need to put myself in terrible situations when I could be making good poetry. I always feel the need to face up to stuff beyond the coalface. I think that’s a problem to be honest; it’s not a particularly brave position to take. It’s like being an adrenaline junkie.”

After first doing the Camino and writing a long poem about it, Kathy says the reason her poem is so lengthy is because she wanted to replicate the experience “of the endless time being by yourself”. She added: “You’re totally reliant on your own resources. There’s always a point where you fail and think you can’t do any more of it. It’s the time afterwards that’s interesting.

“You realise you felt like an absolute failure but you still kept going. I have chills talking about it now. It was a really beautiful experience.

“I did a performance based on the Camino in the TDC (Theatre Development Centre) at Triskel Christchurch a few years ago. People thought it sounded like a terrible experience, as if I’m trying to make myself feel like shit all the time. But it’s not about that.

“There’s a clarity that comes in certain moments which is beautiful. It’s like a drug. It’s the ability to see; to get the whole perspective on things. I think it changes you as a person.”

On her climb of Sagarmatha/Everest, Kathy made it to base camp.

“I wasn’t on top of any mountains but you can’t imagine how hard it was. We trekked for 14 days. When Harry was there, it was snowing whereas when I was there, it was sunny during the day time and cold at night. We were sleeping on wooden pallets. What really got to me was the altitude.

“Both Harry and myself kept diaries and the play is a fusion of our two diaries. The amount of things that were the same for the two of us was really interesting; like getting sick and how we felt emotionally. At a certain point, both of us were going — ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’”

Kathy says a change came over her, as it did with Harry.

“You’re face to face with your humanity as a person and your vulnerability and your failure. We are all failures. What matters is how you see the idea of failure.

“Both Harry and I were both incredibly unwell on the trek. We had altitude sickness and that kind of changes your brain. You can’t breathe properly, you can’t see properly and you have a pounding headache all the time.”

Unaware that this was going to happen, Kathy had read about altitude sickness and optimistically thought it wouldn’t happen to her.

“Until I got back, I didn’t realise what had happened. I was just putting one foot in front of the other. I did 4,000 metres which is really high. I didn’t do enough training beforehand. It was just me by myself and 12 young Australians.

“Altitude sickness doesn’t care whether you’re fit or not. So a lot of the really fit people got it. I was by far and away the least fit member of the group.

“But it was very beautiful. Although you can’t breathe properly, even when you’re resting, it never in a million years occurred to me that I would stop.”

Kathy came back to Cork with what’s known as the Khumba cough, called after a glacier.

“That cough, which I think is a product of altitude sickness, lasted for six months. I was as sick as I ever was in my life.”

When people ask her to sum up the experience, she describes it as getting “too close to the gods and being burnt”.

“That’s symbolically how I felt. People who live around Sagarmatha feel nobody should climb it because it will kill you. You shouldn’t be disrespecting it.

“It felt to me that I got too close. It isn’t that I believe in God but that’s how it felt. It felt like the mountains were screaming at me, like I had invaded some kind of sacred space.

“But if I had my time back, I would want to be burned again because of how it made me feel. Even while climbing, you’re seeing yourself in a new way.

“There’s so much crap out there now with TV and various input, that we forget ourselves. We’re all trying to do our mindfulness. But you can’t get away from yourself.

“In a situation like Sagarmatha, your self is right up in your face all the time.”

Not being up to the task is not the issue.

“In our society, we have to succeed. The thought of failure is terrifying. We panic all the time. It influences what we do and don’t do. But when you fail miserably, the world is your oyster. I think there’s nothing more liberating than absolute failure.”

Both Kathy and Harry “really want to perform our failure, our inability to master Sagarmatha/Everest,” she says.

“It’s great to talk to someone who has been through it. You can’t talk to other people about it properly.”

Kathy, who is active in the Cork Pro-Choice campaign to repeal the 8th amendment, is a highly engaged individual, both artistically and politically. And the yen to travel is always there. Last year, she and her partner, Declan Barron, drove from Los Angeles to New York.

“I really like crossing things, whether on feet or in a car. It’s only a matter of time before I’ll have to do that again.”

There really is no stopping this dynamo.

Sagarmatha is at L’Atitude on Union Quay from June 6 to 8. Tickets priced €5.

Kathy recently won the first prize in the international Hippocrates Awards for Poetry and Medicine 2017, which were announced at an award ceremony in Harvard. She won the award in the health professional section.

The Hippocrates Prize attracts both health professionals and established poets from around the world with an emphasis on accessible poetry that comes from personal experience. The judges were Pulitzer Prize winning poet Jorie Graham; paediatrician and ER producer Neal Baer; Scotland’s Makar (National Poet) Jackie Kay; New York poet Maya Catherine Popa, and New York poet and psychiatrist Owen Lewis.

Kathy’s poem Inside explores the relationship with the human heart. She said it was partly inspired by her medical internship. The Hippocrates Prize is one of the highest value poetry awards in the world for a single poem. In its eight years, the prize has attracted more than 8,000 entries from more than 60 countries.


Here we publish a poem called 'Girls, Scarecrows and Dragons', by Kathy D'Arcy, which was published in UCC’s literary journal, The Quarryman:

Mary was born twice, once, and her sisters Mary soon after and before.

The bumps of their heads uneven the ground, enrich the mulch of leaves so something grows in the shape of a man, a man always standing across the road.

When visitors come, an orange falls from his hard old hand, dimple-belly, to the ground like an invitation. The maw in the centre of the diningroom is uncrossable (whorls of old carpet).

The orange could be handed round to take the heat of our pink hands, germinate.

Mary is both so angry that her bodies rotate at the rate of once a year.

She must surely act.

As it grows older it changes shape

smells stronger, begins to kick;


The little juice-slits sustained from a lifetime of cutting drive many mad but are unnecessary.

Who is the one who has broken this one and this one but left this one alone?

Now he sees us, though we close our eyes for the kind of fire on the inside.

He dropped it to see if it flies.

Dark whirl-holes over the edge of the sink.

The juice is the reward.

Inside, the juicy reward.

The trick is to play hide-and-seek Until it is tricked out of hiding And caught.

Will you come out, creature, and show your brazen wingspan?

It broke when he dropped it, whirled, and something showed in the gap.

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