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.

Interview with Danuta Kosk-Kosicka

9781627200455-FaceHalfIlluminated-COVProlific LPR contributor Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka has two books being published. The first, Face Half-Illuminated, includes sixteen original poems and Kosk-Kosicka’s translations of sixteen poems by her mother, Polish poet Lidia Kosk. Apprentice House published the book just this week, and its available on their site as well as Barnes & Noble.

In April, CityLit Press releases Kosk-Kosicka’s Harriss Prize-winning chapbook Oblige the Light. Contest judge Michael Salcman, a poet and the art consultant for LPR, selected Kosk-Kosicka’s twenty-eight-poem manuscript.

This is all in addition to the contributions Kosk-Kosicka has made to LPR’s pages in print and online. Her poems “Lake Patzcuaro” and “The Movie in my Head” appeared in our Spirituality and Make Believe issues, respectively. She also contributed an essay on her experience as a foreign-born poet as part of our On Being Invisible series that coincided with the Social Justice issue.

This fall, Danuta and I met over coffee at Ellicott City’s Bean Hollow to discuss her work.

LS: Congratulations on the new books.

DEKK: I keep smiling. It’s a very good feeling.

LS: Do you draft your poems in your native Polish or in English?

DEKK: I came to this country as a scientist. I have a Ph.D. in biochemistry. I was writing grant proposals, scientific articles. Everything was in English. So it became natural for me to write poems in English as well.

As a teenager I wrote [poetry] in Polish. I was a professor at Hopkins, and in the last few years I found myself, when I was writing scientific papers, scribbling some poetry on the back.

It’s just natural for me [to write in English]. I live here. I worked in this language. My kid was born here. Everybody around me speaks English. Most of my friends are English-speaking, so it was totally natural.

LS: Did you leave the scientific field to focus on your writing?

DEKK: I was beginning to feel very ill, and then I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Turning to poetry was a life-saver, so to speak, because I’m a very active person. Many people with fibromyalgia spend time in bed, can’t do anything. Of course, I have days like that too, but with writing and translating I can pace myself. Writing is a good thing and I chose poetry over novels. . . . I don’t have the energy to write a novel.

I had this burst of writing in 1997, a huge amount of poems in both languages. Apparently it was in me and it had to come out. I think it was probably that feeling of loss [after leaving my job because of my illness]. Having been an associate professor at Johns Hopkins, that was a huge loss.

LS: You came to the U.S. during a time of political upheaval in Poland.

DEKK: In 1980, people didn’t know much about Poland. It was not very often that scientists came from behind the Iron Curtain.

They wouldn’t let my husband come with me. The thinking was: Two professionals going abroad, they will not come back. He was let out in December only because Solidarność (Solidarity) was born in Poland and they let him go visit his wife. I was going to go [back] to Poland for Christmas and I couldn’t because martial law was imposed and there were no flights.

When you have no communication and you know you can’t go back, you have to kind of build a wall for security. You want to forget, but of course you can’t forget.

I’m looking at the titles of the poems and I’m thinking many of them are [about] loss. It comes in different ways. It’s the loss of country. For many months I couldn’t call my parents; there was no communication. I had to forget certain things so I didn’t go crazy. Part of the poetry is recovery [of those memories]. Many of the poems are like dreams.

LS: Translation is an art form in its own right. How did you get started translating poems?

DEKK: It’s a challenge. I guess that’s why I started . . . it was a challenge and something I could try to do. You know, the first poem I translated was Wisława Szymborska’s “People on the Bridge.” [When Szymborska won the Nobel Prize], a friend asked me if I could translate and I said I’d never done anything like that. At that time, there were no books by her in English.

When Szymborska’s books came out, that poem I translated was in two of them. My friend copied the published translation and compared it with mine. We realized they were very different. This was when I started to say, “Okay, what is a translation?”

Mom asked me to translate her poems. The first poem of hers I translated was a rhymed poem. That tells you how innocent I was—a rhymed poem in another language. It was published in Passager. Then I thought this was a great project to do.

LS: Do you remember your mother writing poetry when you were growing up?

DEKK: She is a lawyer and she worked all her life. Her first book was published when I was already here. Mom—she’s just totally amazing. [I remember her] writing occasional poems for the kids in school.

Putting together this book [Face Half-Illuminated] at Apprentice House was very difficult. I felt a huge sense of responsibility because it’s my mom and me together. [Kosk-Kosicka has translated and edited two previous collections of her mother’s poems.]

I came up with this idea. I proposed it to Apprentice House. They picked it when I was in Poland this year. So I told Mom, “We’re going to have this book!” Then I started going through the translations all again. My poems had to speak to each other. Her poems had to speak to each other and then they had to go across. I was the only one who could do it. My mom does not speak English.

LS: Who are some of your favorite Polish poets that Americans haven’t really discovered yet?

DEKK: Gałczyński. This is a poet we grew up with, my generation. And Norwid. He’s very difficult. A philosopher, a bit like Blake . . . he was very serious. I don’t know anybody who wrote like that.

Find previews of poems from both books here and here.

Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka is a scientist, bilingual poet, writer, poetry translator, photographer, and coeditor of the literary journal Loch Raven Review. Her poems have appeared in the U.S. and throughout Europe in numerous literary journals and anthologies—most recently in International Poetry Review, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Spillway, and A Narrow Fellow Poetry Journal. Her translations of Maryland poets laureate—Lucille Clifton, Josephine Jacobsen, and Linda Pastan—have been published in Poland. Her translations of Lidia Kosk, Ernest Bryll, and Wisława Szymborska’s poems have been published in the U.S. She has translated into English almost 100 poems for two bilingual books by Lidia Kosk: niedosyt/reshapings and Słodka woda, słona woda/Sweet Water, Salt Water, the latter of which she has also edited. Danuta is the author of Face Half-Illuminated, a forthcoming book of poems, translations, and prose (Apprentice House) and the winner of CityLit Press’s fifth annual Harriss Poetry Prize for her chapbook manuscript Oblige the Light.

Lidia Kosk is the author of eleven books of poetry and short stories, including two bilingual volumes, niedosyt/reshapings and Słodka woda, słona woda/Sweet Water, Salt Water, as well as two poetry and short fiction anthologies that she compiled and edited. She collaborated with her late husband, Henryk P. Kosk, on the two-volume Poland’s Generals: A Popular Biographical Lexicon. Her poems and prose have been published in literary journals and anthologies in Poland and in the U.S., most recently in Lalitamba, The Blue Lyra Review, The Fourth RiverThe Dirty Goat, and International Poetry Review. Her poems have been translated into seven languages and into choral compositions and multimedia video presentations. She was featured, with Danuta, on National Public Radio station,WYPR’s “The Signal.” Lidia resides in Warsaw, Poland.

An Interview with Rebekah Remington

Rebekah Remington

Rebekah Remington (Photo: Stephen Jonke)

I find it hard to believe Rebekah Remington when she tells me that she’s dealt with failure. Rebekah is the winner of the 2013 Clarinda Harriss Poetry Prize for her chapbook Asphalt. It is a solid collection, marked by eloquence and vision. I believe it to be a success but am sympathetic to her remarks.

Of course she has dealt with failure. We all have. Just the process of writing this blog post, my first for Little Patuxent Review, has me pulling out my hair over possible failure. And when I read through “Little Invocation” and “I Call Her Inez,” the chapbook’s first and sixth poems, I think of the first rejection letter that I received. Like the speaker, I, too, “feel enough failure as it is.” I remember thinking, what do I do now?

When I ask Rebekah about the character Inez and the idea behind the piece, she replies that she once watched a video of the Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame speaking about artistic inspiration. What did Remington take away from the video?

I think Gilbert’s main point was to put in your writing time. Don’t get too stuck on the idea of success or the idea of failure. When things don’t work out, blame it on the muse. I had experienced a lot of failure, so I decided to write about my love-hate relationship with my muse.

But who does she see in a positive light? To whom does she turn for inspiration?

“Mainly other poets,” Rebekah says. Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Glück and CD Wright are named. In particular, she mentions the recent collection Space, In Chains by Laura Kasischke, which earned the 2011 National Book Critics Circle poetry award. I have to look up Kasischke but immediately understand why Rebekah is drawn to her work. Kasischke has been hailed by critics for her honest but respectful portrayals of domestic life and the different stages of adolescence and adulthood.

There is a definite presence of the domestic life in Asphalt. And while Remington admits that she is unsure whether the book as a whole has a narrative arc, I can see recurring themes. Remington calls them “obsessions.” Those obsessions include motherhood, childhood, time and death. I thought that I saw some Asian references, particularly in “School Morning,” “Wanting” and the title poem. That is new to Remington.

It’s interesting that you noticed that. I really don’t know that much about Asian cultures. Before I had children, I saw a lot of foreign films. Probably some of the images stuck. I’m thinking of Raise the Red Lantern, Farewell My Concubine, To Live. I love the way film can transport.

More failure on my part? I would like to think of it more as subjective interpretation.

And, yes, a powerful film can transport the viewer. The same way a that powerful poem can transport the reader. For me, it was the beauty of the last two lines of the simple but earnest poem “Goat.” I mouthed the words over and over, loving how they came out.

The sky had taken on a shapeliness like
a flood plain
in an aftermath, an eerie pinkish
erasure.

Of course, I laugh when I learn that the ending of that poem did not come easily to Rebekah. She says that she rewrote it many times before coming to the above.

There is no mistaking the speaker’s role as a mother. Bits of train track and LEGO pieces, piano lessons and the pivotal moment of learning to ride a bike are strewn across the chapbook. And isn’t there an interesting relevance to those previous feelings of failure when it comes to motherhood?

One of the challenges of parenting is getting your children out in the world and exposing them to things. I’m not sure I’m good at that, but I’m trying.

When we place the mundane aspects of domestic life in the context of such serious contemplations, it is no wonder that poetic expressions about the domestic life can be so emotional and riveting.

The concept of time changes as well. Mothers such as the one in “In Praise of the Last Hour of the Afternoon” would “trade pearls for quiet” and cherish just a few more minutes in bed with the bedroom door locked in “January Morning.”

I find it understandable, if not comical, that in more than one poem we find Rebekah’s speaker thinking about how much she wants a drink.

Rebekah is far from being the only mother or writer who has doubts about herself. But, a perk to being creative types is that we have the benefit of blaming the self-doubts and feelings of failure on our muses. Blame it on Inez, Rebekah.

Rebekah Remington received her bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University, taking classes taught by David St. John and Peter Sacks. She received her MFA from the University of Michigan. She is currently an adjunct professor at Towson University, where she teaches Introduction to Poetry. (I am sorry that we never crossed paths.) Her work has been published in RattleNinth Letter and The Missouri Review. Once in 4th grade, she won a prize for a patriotic poem that she wrote in honor of the nation’s bicentennial celebration. She lives in Catonsville, MD with her husband and children.

The Clarinda Harriss Poetry Prize, sponsored by City Lit Project, was established in 2009 by poet and neurosurgeon Michael Salcman. He wanted to honor the poet, publisher and teacher Clarinda Harriss and her lifetime of service dedicated to the literary arts. Clarinda is the founder, director and editor BrickHouse Books, established in 1970 and, as such, Maryland’s oldest continuously operating literary press.

Michael is also the Little Patuxent Review Art Consultant and Clarinda a regular contributor to both LPR print issues and our blog, so there are connections. What’s more, the judge for the 2013 prize was poet Marie Howe, who happens to be featured in the upcoming LPR Summer 2013 Music issue. And previous prize winners include LPR print and blog contributor Bruce Sager (2011) and LPR Editor Laura Shovan (2010).

Blue Versus Blue

Carolyn Case’s 2012 Blue Versus Blue, oil on panel.

I know Clarinda as a poetry professor and BhB editor. After taking her poetry class at Towson, I interned for a year at BhB as an assistant editor. She has worked with Ogden Nash, partied with Michael Stipe and taught one of the best poetry classes that I have ever taken. My time spent with her is invaluable to me as a young writer, and I completely get why such a dynamic and delightful individual has a prize in her name.

Rebekah’s book will be published by CityLit Press. A painting by Carolyn Case, an artist teaching at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), will be used for the cover design.