07 December 2011

Recursive in print

Addendum: By comparison with my other friends in other grad schools, I've often felt like a very lazy student. Like I'm not working much at all. And then I realize - if I add the hours of writing, the hours-upon-hours per poem, the reading of poetry - it could even be more. But I don't count that as work. It's what I want to be doing, anyway.

(approx one week ago - true, then. don't hate it today. more to write, soon)

Some days, I hate that I’m a poet.

As I’ve said before, it’s not a choice. Do I wish I were…a novelist? a journalist? a documentary filmmaker? an influential blogger?
Maybe, maybe, I could do the things I want to do, then.
Thing is, I’m a poet.
And today, I hate that.

I was speaking with one of the program admins/alums today, turning in poems for a scholarship application. She asked me if I like the program (MFA) better than med school. I replied with a decisive “No.” What I didn’t say, the background voice, is that I think I like med school better.


I saw a friend from med school last night. And standing there, on a street corner, discussing the aesthetics of science and the unbelievable, incredible elegance of development, experiments that can show that… I wasn’t an imposter. Not then. Med school friends are coming through for residency interviews. It’s a view of an alternate life, the path I could have been/could be on…but even discussing that, the medicine, how absolutely incredible it is, the privilege, to be a doctor… feels right.


I’m supposed to be getting an education in poetry. I think. My tutorial (one-on-one) prof said to me last week that I should take her class next semester, on 20th century American poetry. Because my ignorance, my naiveté shows in my work. (True? sure). One thing – that would mean 3 classes with her this year, which is too much. Second thing – it’s the same poets we’ve been discussing in this semester’s workshop. Third thing – I just can’t make myself care, enough. Right now.
There’s another course I could take, on more contemporary poetry – and this does actually include a number of poets I know and like. But then there are the comparative literature-type classes…*

*which explains that though I have a BS in Creative Writing, I have little to no education in poetry. I took the workshops, I did the one-on-one writing work, I wrote the thesis. I read a lot, I did. But I don’t have the background, and except for one course in France, I’ve never had that sort of formal study. Ever. And the one required course on the Western Canon, which is the only reason I’ve read (and loved) Milton. I wrote  things with a lot of religious imagery, that semester – the influences, yes, are important. But I took comparative literature courses for everything else. It’s more what I care about. Literature in context.

So do I eat my poetic vegetables, so to speak?

I don’t want to.

I’m working 20 hours/week at the Department of Public Health, now (that’s DOHMH in NY – Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. I’m actually in the MH part. Haven’t quite figured out what the “hygiene” bit is).
And it’s comfortable, easy to walk in, easy. I get how people are. I speak the language and I want to – I want to learn more, I want to learn so much more, I want to be part of that conversation, so to speak.

A few weeks ago, we did a training on buprenorphine, for doctors, so that they can prescribe it to patients. (It’s similar to methadone in that it can be used to help with heroin addiction, treatment, etc). I decided to go and help with it, though I didn’t have to – partly, yes, because it’s good form for work (to do semi-extra things), and partly because I was really, really interested, after I’d helped to put together the materials. (That’s another thing I really like about NGO/health dept-type offices – there’s no shitwork, no lowly intern things to do. If I don’t make the phone calls to remind people about the peer educator meetings? My supervisor does. We all – all levels – worked together to collate the materials (that took awhile…) Etc).
And it just felt right.

Before this happened, I was describing it to my poet friends. It was a Friday evening, we’d gone to a poetics lecture, and then we were workshopping in a pizza place. (these are the truly wonderful moments – that – and that we care enough to do it, to hold extra workshops).
One of my friends said – “What on earth can you talk about with methadone for a whole day?!?”
I didn’t respond much more than the “Everything….”
And I was thinking “How can you talk about line breaks for two hours?!?”
“How can you spend a career studying Emily Dickinson?”
It’s not that I don’t respect the above. I do. I do.
But I couldn’t do it and I don’t *get * it, quite. A little bit. With a lot of explanation.

I used to think that doctor was what I did and poet was what I was. Writer, rather. Everything has become inseparable.
Much of what I write, these days, is somehow related to medicine or medical language. More explicitly than before – perhaps on purpose, perhaps reactively, and perhaps as another way to re-engage.
I haven’t, as previously planned, applied medical ways of thinking/examining patients to examining a poem. That should be next.

Looking at the graduate English course catalogues of three schools, I’ve found three or four classes I would take. Not more than that. Were it a public health catalogue, it would probably be the majority of the courses. Were it a medical school “elective” list – I would want to take almost everything listed under medicine and under psychiatry.
As it were.

Problem is, I am a poet.


And yet.

And yet.

Some days, I love being a poet – or, at least, I love poetry. And poets.

A few months ago, I first* read Cyrus Console’s The Odicy. This was before going to a reading he did with Omnidawn Press. And the first time I read it, I couldn’t stand it was over – I had to start again. I did this at the end of each of the five sections, too…no, no, no I wanted it to keep going. Breathless. Submerged. It had been a long time since I’d had that sort of experience with a book of poetry. I was expounding on how much I loved it to my classmate/friends, before the reading began, and before I knew that Cyrus Console was sitting behind me. At one of the breaks, I did have the nerve to talk to him.** I only get this way around writers. So I said – the above. I didn’t want the book to end, I didn’t want the sections to end, it was one of the best books I’d read in a long time. He said thank you, quietly, I think. It was a very quiet and seemingly awkward exchange. But, I’d said what I had to – and I had to say it. Too much to not. ***
I certainly didn’t have the nerve to ask him to sign my book, then. It’s fine. It was fine. What counts is the interaction with the writer, the reading, etc…
Later, at the reception, Cyrus Console came up to me. And he asked if he could sign my copy of his book.
He said – thank you. For what I had said. Because that would make him keep writing, another book – hearing that kind of thing. That it meant something to write something out in the world.

He asked me if he could sign it.
On the title page, he crossed out his name. And then wrote: “To Jenny, with thanks – Cyrus.”

Best inscription I have, besides the ones from mentors (different).

Even published writers – ones I admire so, so much – don’t believe in themselves and what the words can do for other people.

*I’ve read it 4 times since. Several more to go until I understand/see more and more and more…
** Cyrus is, perhaps, 5-7 years older than I am. At the most. Not intimidating at all – quite the opposite, quiet, unassuming, somewhat diffident.
*** Similarly, I once told Li-Young Lee “you’re the kind of poet who changes my breathing.” I think he understood. He seemed to, anyway. But he is quite wise.

Poets certainly aren’t known for their self-confidence. I recently read Console’s first book, Brief Under Water. Same reaction. It was over too soon; I had to start again.

It’s the love-hate of poetry. In other (non-art) disciplines, you can finish things. There are infinite things, but you can finish one. Thing. Gain an understanding of something. Learn about a disease. Policy. Community programs and theory and epidemiology and pharmacology and pathophysiology and pathways.
You can finish a book, you can finish a paper. But a poem?
 (as described above)

 A “finished” product is one (often) I can’t bear to look at again. If I do, I’m likely to drown or light it on fire. In my undergraduate poetry thesis, there is a poem about just that - how much the poet wants to destroy the manuscript. A year later...it was better. Okay.

Anything, looked at too much – and carefully, down to each punctuation mark, spacing, letter – loses meaning. Like a word you say too much. A poem becomes – terrible. Nothing. Can’t see the forest for the trees, to use a terrible clichéd metaphor. And the work itself – hurts. It’s recursive. It’s never done – until the above happens. I spent six hours working on one poem last weekend (and many others on others; this, however, was six straight hours). One poem of 19 lines. And it’s passable, maybe, with several red marks and slashes (not mine) as of this afternoon. The poem was initially written in September, was then completely dismantled and rewritten, and, soon, it will be again. Unless I get rid of it entirely. All the work? Well, learning, becoming a better poet, better eye, more critical, etc…
but to show for it? Lots of unused and failed files.

Our “assignment” over winter break is to write a book. And to fail. “May as well get it over with,” said our workshop teacher. Setting out – to fail. “How many failed books do you have?” “…All but three.”

And it can fail, and you might get one page, or one line, and that’s good! He says. I don’t know. Including us in that dialogue, though, included us in the discourse of published and future-published writers. Failure. Blood, blood everywhere (“writing poetry is easy; all you have to do is find a vein, and open it). Discarded paper everywhere (to be recycled).

Thus, simultaneously, public health program design, research, paper writing, article searching, curriculum creating - things that do feel satisfying. Partly in their ability to be complete, enough.
For writing.

Start again.



  1. Sarah P.10:26 AM

    You can be a poet first and still wear numerous other coats. Like, that white one. Embracing two or more roles is tricky. But having only one singular identiy is impossible. There is no escape. And that's the cauldron where poems are born.

  2. Cauldron. Good image. No, nothing is any one thing. It's never been an easy interaction,though - part of the decision for the MFA was it seemed the poet was sabotaging the med student; frustrated, couldn't do enough work. I don't know which is first, any more. And there is no escape.