The Scalpel and the Pen

Michael Salcman

Michael Salcman

I met poet, neurosurgeon, and art critic Michael Salcman five years ago. As a CityLit board member, Michael initiated the Harriss Poetry Prize and was its first judge. When I won the inaugural contest, publisher Gregg Wilhelm asked me whether I’d like feedback from the judge. I received more than feedback. Michael became a mentor, friend, and colleague. Little Patuxent Review has benefited immensely from his work as our art consultant.

Poetry in Medicine: An Anthology of Poems About Doctors, Patients, Illness, and Healing, represents the integration of Michael’s three major areas of expertise: medicine, poetry, and fine art. But the book also reflects his generosity. Its pages include luminaries of Western literature: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickinson; and modern poets who place their unflinching gaze on the body: Linda Pastan, Lucille Clifton, Stanley Plumly; side by side with poets from our local community: Shirley Brewer, Clarinda Harriss, Jennifer Wallace.

The book represents six years of compiling, curating, and organizing, but it also speaks to Michael’s lifelong love of poetry. He is, after all, part of an honored tradition of physician-poets who engage in two healing arts: medicine and poetry.

Shovan: This anthology represents several years of work. Would you describe its genesis?

Salcman: For years and years when I would see a poem by Emily Dickinson or by Anne Sexton that was about illness or about doctors, I would put it in the drawer because I was fascinated by their opinions about illness and doctors. Gradually these favorite poems piled up.

Shovan: You were encouraged by the poet Thomas Lux, whom you worked with at Sarah Lawrence’s summer writing program.

Salcman: I started going every year for ten years [beginning in 1998]. Tom would kid me that I was the only published poet who happened to be a brain surgeon… I told him I wrote poetry in order to get away from medicine but Tom would always greet me and ask, “So, have you written any medical poems this year?” Finally he started telling me, “You know, you’d be the perfect person to do an anthology about doctors and diseases.” It felt like a challenge.

Shovan: The anthology isn’t limited to modern medicine or modern poetry. How did you go about selecting poems for a book that covers hundreds of years of Western literature?

Salcman: First, I went through every volume in my poetry library page by page. Of course, I wanted the widest range. I wanted things by non-physician poets, people writing about their own illnesses, people who were parents of patients…poets like Blake and Poe who used the metaphor of medicine and illness to write social commentary.

Then I went through the major online sites: the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, Poetry magazine, all of them. People are surprised when I tell them that if you go on any of these sites, medicine, sickness, and health are major themes, major topics.

Shovan: Past anthologies of medical writing have had a more contemporary focus, or have been limited to doctor-poets. How does Poetry in Medicine differ from those books?

Salcman: I thought that it was time for a book that put together the very best poems on the subject no matter who wrote them, from the beginning of the Western tradition to contemporary times. My major criteria were literary excellence and the topic covered by the poem.

Shovan: I know you worked with your editor at Persea on refining the hundreds of poems you collected. Together, you came up with the wonderful thematic groupings for each chapter. The process took six years overall. What were some highlights of working on Poetry in Medicine?

Salcman: To begin with, Michael Collier’s Foreword is the most beautiful and elegant essay. His sensitivity as a poet is just amazing… And it came to him to start the foreword with a discussion of a great Eakins painting [“The Gross Clinic”] and carry the discussion from art to medicine and on to my life as a poet.

Once we had the physical book, I’ve been just really pleased with it. As an art writer and art collector I’m so proud and happy to have the other great medical painting by Eakins [“The Agnew Clinic”] on the cover, I can’t tell you how much that means to me. The book ended up as a dream project.

Shovan: There’s a push in current poetry to use fresh, specific language. I’ve read poems that seem to draw from medical textbooks in their vocabulary. What do you think of this type of realism?

Salcman: The language of science—of which medicine is a part —it’s both a science and an art— creates a fresh vocabulary for both poets and writers, but one has to be careful if one is interested in the music of the poem… Medicine is filled with nouns and not with verbs, whereas a poem seeks a good balance of both and needs to avoid polysyllabic Latinate words.

There’s nothing more real than the body and its complaints and the fate we all share. You can use medical terms or anatomical terms in a way that’s very mysterious.

When Dickinson writes, “The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs,” it’s a terrific example of using simple medical terms to enrich a poem. When she describes the stages of hypothermia she leaves out the word “coma” in favor of “chill” and “stupor,” which are more everyday terms.

Shovan: The poet and the physician both have to be excellent observers. Talk about the up swell of humanities courses for medical students. How do they benefit the doctor? The patient?

Salcman: These courses are also called Narrative Medicine. At Columbia, for example, they take medical students to the great museums of New York and work on their powers of observation by looking at paintings… There are many courses that use short stories and poems. I think these courses are valuable in improving the empathy and sensitivity of the young physician as well as observational acuity.

Shovan: You are part of a great, but small circle of poets who are also physicians. If we look at stereotypes, the doctor is viewed as the scientist, driven by logic, but absent of the empathy we were just discussing. The artist, on the other hand, is viewed as a romantic figure, driven—and sometimes driven insane—by emotion.

Salcman: These stereotypes are based on the traditional battle of the two cultures. I responded very negatively to C.P. Snow’s famous book The Two Cultures. It argued that the West was all about the humanities, warm and fuzzy; the East was all about engineering and physics, which would take over the world. And that these two cultures spoke in mutually incomprehensible languages.

I have never believed that the arts and sciences were opposed to one another. Artists and scientists seek different types of truths, but their working methods are often similar and the objects they produce, certainly in the visual arts and in science, are gradually starting to resemble one another. Through great artists we first suspected that there were multiple visual systems in the brain, separately devoted to color, movement, and form. Calder explored movement, Matisse color, and Mondrian form to maximally stimulate the brain.

This back and forth between how and why we respond to artworks and how we create artworks I consider just one more piece of evidence that art and science spring from the same creative urge and use a similar logic.

Shovan: So, how does poetry inform medicine?

Salcman: Who else sees us in our most painful and intimate moments but doctors and poets? Because of breast cancer, women and women poets became very concerned with body image and the whole issue of whether they remained women after mastectomy. The number of great poems about breast cancer, such as those by Alicia Ostriker and Lucille Clifton’s “Lumpectomy Eve,” is truly amazing. Women patients and the poet friends of patients have really added something to our sensitivity in regard to the body: that we are not just pieces of meat, that we’re not just animals. As a result students of medicine should think of it as something of a holy occupation.

Shovan: In “Poetry in Medicine” we can see how the doctor-patient relationship has developed over time.

Salcman: There was almost a 200 year period in which people like Moliere and Dryden were incredibly sarcastic about doctors and about medicine. Samuel Johnson, who wrote a lovely poem about his deceased doctor friend was an exception—this poem is mentioned in my Introduction. Today doctors and patients enter into a range of person to person contacts beyond their traditional roles. Most poems have been kinder to the doctor in the modern era than they have been to the hospital. The hospital is often unfairly portrayed as the place one goes to die, as in poems by Cavafy and Baudelaire. I think a lot of the poems in the Anthology are complimentary in the way that a sophisticated thinker might look at a physician… in a nuanced, careful way. After all, the doctor isn’t perfect, but he’s what we’ve got and we’re all in this thing together, trying to deal with our ultimate mortality.

Online Editor’s Note: You can hear Dr. Salcman read from his Anthology on June 26 at Zü Coffee in Annapolis from 6 to 8:30 pm. He’ll also participate in a Little Patuxent Review reading at the Miller Branch of the Howard County Public Library on October 20.

Enoch Pratt + LPR = “Sole” mates

When Shaileen Beyer of the Enoch Pratt Free Library contacted Little Patuxent Review to inquire if we’d be interested in partnering for a third year on a statewide poetry contest, we agreed without hesitation.

Inga Lea Schmidt (Photo by: Shannon Finnell).

Inga Lea Schmidt (Photo by: Shannon Finnell).

By the time the contest concluded on March 1, nearly 250 entries from 93 cities and towns, representing 17 counties plus Baltimore City, were submitted in the blind contest. Little Patuxent Review editor Steven Leyva, LPR poetry editor Laura Shovan and LPR poetry readers Evan Lasavoy and Patricia VanAmberg judged the poems. Although they chose three finalists, all of whom will appear in our Summer 2015 issue, “Sole” by Inga Lea Schmidt was the winning poem.

I asked the judges what made this poem a stand out. Patricia, who is also an English professor at Howard Community College, said:

Playful wording of the poem “Sole” appeals in many ways: The first of these is vivid and specific imagery—all the way from a fish that “looks like a tongue”—to the solitary cup of coffee. Consistent themes of loneliness/flatness ensure that the diverse meanings of the word “sole” bond coherently. Sound devices like the judicious alliteration of S (solitary—seven—seconds) enhance the flow. Finally, the poem is well crafted with effective line breaks and transition.

Evan added:

“Sole” is a clever poem that doesn’t get caught up in its own cleverness, doesn’t get smug about it. While it’s structured like a dictionary definition, it reads like a plain spoken explanation. This allows the poet room to explore beyond the strict meaning of the word, to wander off on tangents right from the beginning that open the poem up and give it room to reach out beyond itself. It was the simple, yet compelling, voice of “Sole” that first struck me; its movement and nuance won me.

Inga shared her own thoughts about “Sole.”

I love when poems veer off course. With the first few lines you have a pretty good idea of where the whole thing is headed, you know exactly what you’re looking at, and then it happens: a turn. It can be subtle at first, but soon the poem is turning and twisting away from you and before you know it, you are so far from where you started.

This is the effect I wanted to achieve with “Sole,” which was inspired by Phillis Levin’s beautiful “Part,” another poem that breaks down the definition of a word. I began with the structure of a dictionary entry, straightforward and dry, then gradually introduced bits of myself and what the word “sole” means to me personally. I liked the idea of something so clinical — a dictionary definition — becoming something revealing and human. The flatfish turns to feet, turns to solitaire, turns to intimate feelings of isolation and unsettlement. I hope when readers finish the poem, they feel they are far from where they started.

“Sole” can be seen on display in Enoch Pratt Free Library’s front windows starting next week. On Saturday, May 2 during the CityLit Festival, please join us at the Little Patuxent Review session in the Poe Room (11 to 11:45 am) where Inga will read “Sole.” In addition LPR editors Ann Bracken and Steven Leyva will joined by contest finalists James Carroll (“Nick’s Diner”) and Micia White (“Rest Stop”).

Enoch Pratt Free Library Poetry Contest Winner:

SOLE

By Inga Lea Schmidt

Sole: a flatfish,

small fins, small eyes,

small mouth, it looks

like a tongue. Also

a shoe’s solid base or

the undersurface of a foot,

a calloused pillar where

the weight of a person

is carried, where the one hundred

and forty eight pounds of

blood and bone and brain

and too much thought and fear

rest. An adjective:

having no companion: solitary.

A card game I can win

in two minutes and

seven seconds. From the French

seul, meaning only, as in,

being the only one, as in,

am I the only one? Sole:

having no sharer. Sharing

with no one. Use it in

a sentence: I make a sole cup

of coffee, sit at the window,

and wait.

Online Editor’s Note: Inga Lea Schmidt is a poet and fiction writer living in Baltimore. Her work has appeared in Off the Coast, Puerto del Sol, and Best Indie Lit of New England, and, in 2013, she received the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ Intro Journals Project Award. When she isn’t writing, Inga works as a mediator resolving conflicts in Baltimore prisons. In the fall, she will begin an MFA program in Creative Writing at Hollins University.

To learn more about how the collaboration between LPR and the Enoch Pratt began read “Meet the Neighbors: Enoch Pratt Free Library.”