Daisy Bassen is a poet and practicing physician who graduated from Princeton University’s Creative Writing Program and completed her medical training at The University of Rochester and Brown. She was the winner of the So to Speak 2019 Poetry Contest, the 2019 ILDS White Mice Contest and the 2020 Beullah Rose Poetry Prize. Recent publications: McSweeney’s, Miracle Monocle, [PANK], Smartish Pace, and Structo. She lives in Rhode Island with her family. Her work appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of LPR. Our Conversation follows.
LPR: In your poem “We Never Left Eden, We Never Left the Snake Behind” you describe these pencil drawings done by a committee for a sex-ed class at a Unitarian church. I have to ask: Was there really a drawing of a naked man in sneakers, holding a basketball at his side? Or was this fictionalized on your part?
DB: Yes, there really was a naked guy in his sneakers with a basketball. I’m not sure I could have made up something so striking.
LPR: I love the lines “those double-knotted laces, the misogyny/soaked into every sulcus in our collective brains.” I think this is the first time I’ve heard the term sulcus. What a great word!
DB: Thanks— one of the truths of becoming a doctor is that you learn an entirely new language (well, entirely new if you didn’t take Latin in high school I suppose). They feel both precise and novel to me and I have a hard time resisting bringing them into poems. So, I don’t.
LPR: Can you talk about the language of medicine and how it has or hasn’t influenced your writing?
DB: Part of medical school is learning the names of all the body parts— the ones everyone knows and the ones only doctors identify— and those names have a certain, separate loveliness to me that I often want to incorporate into a poem, to create the sense of something unknown becoming known or known from a difference perspective. It’s also true that in the medical world, we use some words very differently. The verb “elope” only means to run away or leave without permission, so if you ever overhear physicians talking about patients eloping, it’s not because they’re making a dash for City Hall. That experience of words having an alternate or almost secret-club meaning is one I like to bring into poems as well.
Part of medical school is learning the names of all the body parts— the ones everyone knows and the ones only doctors identify— and those names have a certain, separate loveliness to me that I often want to incorporate into a poem, to create the sense of something unknown becoming known or known from a difference perspective.”
LPR: Aside from getting your MFA in creative writing at Princeton, your work has been published in so many terrific journals and you’ve twice been nominated for a pushcart prize. Yet you are also a child psychiatrist. How have you managed to make time for both and which did you choose to pursue first?
DB: First, let me clarify— I graduated from Princeton with an AB in English, concentrating in Creative Writing, which meant that my senior thesis was a book of poetry (I was advised by the brilliant and giving Yusef Komunyakaa, which I don’t think I appreciated enough at the time.) I started writing poetry as a child and it’s been a constant through line in my life, though there have been some long fallow periods when I wrote few or no poems. The practice of child psychiatry is about asking questions, listening to stories, and being able to share space with patients with or without words, which is a lot like my process for writing poetry, so that helps me do both. In terms of logistics, I write most in the evenings and weekends, cobbling together the time and leaving open Word docs on my tab bar to return to editing pieces that I’ve started but haven’t yet finished.
LPR: What writers have influenced you and how?
DB: This is a great question and also a daunting one, trying to decide who to mention! Gerard Manley Hopkins was a poet I basically fell in love with as a teenager, for his use of language and sound and form, his eye for beauty and sense of the divine. In lieu of a Bible verse, we actually had “Pied Beauty” read at our wedding. I’ve always loved sci-fi and Octavia Butler is someone I wish I had read sooner than I did, because her novels straddle the line between insight and prescience, laying out our world and its possibilities so clearly, generous when she can be, honest all the time. I wouldn’t be a good Unitarian if I didn’t mention Mary Oliver, whose work is seemingly featured during 90% of services, though I would say she makes me want to grapple with the world. There is an ease to her poems that can be deceptive, little licks of shadow around the light. I love HD for the vividness of her imagery, which is something I always want in a poem.
I like to read writers in translation (Neruda, Cavafy, Akhmatova) though or perhaps because I always sense the poem in the original language hovering around, a dimension I can’t quite breach. I did some translation work in college and found it fascinating, though my French has declined to such a degree that I don’t think I could get back into it.
LPR: There has been a real movement in recent years to celebrate translators. In fact, Jhumpa Lahiri just published a book of essays about her experience translating Italian to English. In fact, in the book, having studied so many dictionaries and various workings she comes to the conclusions that, ““No words are ‘my words’ — I merely arrange and use them a certain way.” Does this resonate with your experience?
DB: I definitely see translation as its own art form and translators as artists who work both with the text and the matrix it exists in and draws from— I think a skilled translator is making artistic decisions about how best to convey the experience of the original work but must bring with them their own perspective and sense of the interplay of semantics, culture, and the music of language.
LPR: What books, if any, are you looking forward to reading?
DB: I’m always looking forward to reading books, some which are brand-new and some which are only new to me. I’ve loved everything by Ruth Ozeki, so her latest The Book of Form and Emptiness is one I am eager to get to and I am looking forward to Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire to arrive along with the next book in the Vanderbeeker series which I’m reading to my youngest daughter at bedtime. I picked up Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki the last time I was at The Strand in NYC and have it cheek by jowl on my bookcase with R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War because I love science fiction. Really, I could go on— I never really feel comfortable unless I have a queue of 6-10 books waiting to be read and am incapable of leaving a bookstore having followed any kind of budget! I tend to read poetry in journals and magazines rather than collections and I always check out what’s featured in the New Yorker, even if that’s all I read from the issue.