Steven Leyva: The Editor’s Reflections

Three years ago, Laura Shovan called me to offer the position of Editor of the Little Patuxent Review. I was, of course, both flabbergasted and flattered, having only recently been published in LPR through the Enoch Pratt Free Poetry Contest (1st runner up). Laura and I didn’t know each other well, but I knew her reputation as an insightful, kind, and attentive editor of a regional literary journal that always managed to land some pretty big name interviews. That phone call is one of three literary moments that profoundly affected me as a writer. The other two are being selected as a Cave Canem Fellow and finishing my MFA at the University of Baltimore.

Steven Leyva, Editor

From the moment I said yes to the offer, I knew that I was both entering an organization with a good foundation and one that I could help move forward in various ways. I saw my role as twofold – act as a good steward of LPR’s egalitarian ethos and seek out excellent writing from diverse voices. I thought of the literary journal as serving the same purpose as the old town halls. LPR would be a meeting place for the community, by providing an ether of ideas and the physical space for literary events and readings. Get sharp people in the same (metaphorical) room and good things will happen was my unspoken motto.

Looking back on three years of editing with its ebbs and flows, I am most proud of how often LPR had the privilege to publish women of color. One particular issue, Summer 2015, is one where I think LPR grew close to having its pages look like the demographic landscape of central Maryland, and the Mid-Atlantic region as a whole. That issue featured the poets, t’ai freedom ford, Rachel Nelson, Breauna L. Roach, and Mary More Easter, alongside fiction by Nandini Dhar and others. The audience of the launch reading for that issue looked like the 95 corridor from DC to New York. Black, brown, and white faces beamed as authors read their work aloud. People talked, mingled, and shared stories during the reception afterwards. It wasn’t a perfect representation of diversity, but there was growth from where LPR had been. And that growth felt sustainable, without gimmick, and without any whispers of tokenism. And I think beyond any individual examples, honest and equitable growth towards building diverse literary spaces is a goal we reach towards in every issue.

As LPR continues to grow I don’t want to lose sight of the rhizomes that connect the journal to its local communities, but I also want that network of roots to expand. We can to do more to be a welcoming space for LGBTQ artists and writers. We can do more to bring the journal to different economic communities around the region. Not everyone can make it to Columbia, MD, twice a year for a launch event, particularly if you don’t own a car. We can do more to highlight emerging visual artists and put them in conversation with diverse communities. There is always more to be done, but I have come to realize that the literary journal isn’t the finish line. It’s the baton. The goal isn’t to run as hard as you can, passing all others, but rather to hand the baton off well. And anyone who’s ever run a relay can tell you that it requires trust, patience, and practice. I look forward to continuing to cultivate all three in the issues ahead.

Pushcart Prize Nominee: Myra Sklarew

Along with publishing emerging writers, one of the public roles and great pleasures of an independent, small literary journal is to nominate individual poems, essays, and stories for awards like the Pushcart Prize. This is one more way to say “thank you,” to the hard working writers, without whom LPR wouldn’t exist. These nominations also require renewed attention to the craft and presence of the pieces LPR publishes, and often that attention is rewarded with renewed joy.

Myra Sklarew was profiled by Lalita Noronha in the Winter 2014 Science Issue. Then-editor Laura Shovan reads this poem at the Winter 2014 issue launch.

The Sunflowers of Umbertide

Before I go into the dark places, before I enter
the tunnel of the past, before I climb down
into the pit where I kneel on the earth,
where those I once loved leave me a remnant
of bone, before their lost names scatter
to the wind, before the trees forget what they witness,
before for no reason at all a child is taken
from life, before before . . .

I stand in Umbertide

where the sunflowers turn their bountiful heads
eastward, their buds still in circadian rhythm.
And I am warmed by them, my eyes fill
with their seeds and petals, florets in perfect spirals,
their golden offerings risen high on their stems.
I carry them in my arms, the entire field of sunflowers
from Umbertide, so the coldness of the pit
in the cold country will not freeze me entirely.

Order your own copy of the Winter 2014 Science Issue.

Enoch Pratt + LPR = a winning contest

When Shaileen Beyer of the Enoch Pratt Free Library contacted Little Patuxent Review to inquire if we’d be interested in partnering on a statewide poetry contest for a fourth year, we jumped at the opportunity.

By the time the contest concluded on March 1, 300 entries from 93 cities and towns, representing 22 counties plus Baltimore City, were submitted in the blind contest. Little Patuxent Review editor Steven Leyva and LPR poetry editor Evan Lasavoy judged the poems. Although they chose three finalists, all of whom appeared in our Summer 2016 issue, “Charlotte Darling” by Saundra Rose Maley was the winning poem.

Enoch Pratt-LPR contest

Contest winner Saundra Rose Maley has had poems in Dryad, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Full Moon on K Street: Poems about Washington D.C., and D.C. Perspectives. Her first book of poems, Disappearing Act, was published in 2015, by Dryad Press. She co-edited A Wild Perfection: The Selected Letters of James Wright with Anne Wright and is currently working again with Anne on a book about Wright and translation, tentatively titled Where the Treasure Lies. She also published Solitary Apprenticeship: James Wright and German Poetry. She teaches Composition and Research at Montgomery College in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Join poets Le Hinton and Laura Shovan on Wednesday, July 20, from 6:30-8 pm at the Central Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library as they read in the company of the 2016 Pratt Library Poetry Contest winner and finalists—Saundra Rose Maley, Maggie Rosen, and Sheri Allen. The host is Steven Leyva, editor of Little Patuxent Review, which is celebrating its 10-year anniversary.

Unveiling summer: LPR’s 20th edition

Summer 2016 cover

Summer 2016 cover. Photography by Lynn Silverman.

Raise the banners, strike up the up the band, call down the (purple) rain, rejoice and be glad, because in this issue Little Patuxent Review celebrates ten years of publishing literature and art. What a milestone for a labor of love, born from the attentive care of Mike Clark and Tim Singleton along with a host of others committed to supporting literary and visual arts in Maryland. While many journals have chosen to move to a solely online presence, LPR’s perseverance in publishing a high-quality, knock-your-socks-off, run-and-tell-your-mama print journal speaks to the ethos that runs deep in the consciousness of the editors, staff, board, and volunteers. It’s a part of our “Inscape,” to borrow a phrase from Gerard Manley Hopkins and something I recognized years ago when I was grad student looking for literary journals that might publish my poems. LPR had a good reputation, albeit a quiet one, and no one could deny that the physical, printed journal lived as an art object in the world. Little may be a part of the name, but there is nothing small about what this journal accomplishes twice a year.

I am humbled to be the editor during this tenth anniversary, and I am equally humbled by the stories, essays, and poems that have found a home in the following pages. Perhaps with a bit of unintended irony, since LPR is named after a river, readers will find that many of the pieces circle around the presence of water, not unlike the way Maryland envelopes its portion of the Chesapeake Bay. Origins have a way of insisting, it seems. Many of the pieces here call back to various themed issues LPR has published in the past. There are stories of doubt and audacity, poems that evoke social justice and childhood. Nature has its way even on the tongues of a “Roustabout.” And above all there is fine, fine music in the language and lines. Lynn Silverman’s art work is such a fine capstone to that fine music, with its hints at transcendence.

I want to personally thank Laura Shovan, Jen Grow, Michael Salcman, Deb Dulin, Lynn Weber, Debby Kevin, Evan Lesavoy, and Emily Rich who have all been a part of the editorial staff. If I were Lorca, I’d say they have so much duende. If I was Stevie Wonder, I’d say they create in the Key of Life. They make LPR shine. I would also like to thank the board members, new and old, who have never let go of that initial vision of lifting up the arts. They have been a lighthouse on the edge of troubled sea. I am beyond grateful. Lastly all thanks to the contributors, readers, and community who have trusted me with their work, time, and attention. Let’s celebrate turning what Billy Collins calls the first big number. Here’s to ten glorious years and a hundred more if the fates be kind.

~Steven Leyva, Editor

What’s next for audacious editor?

Photo credit: Karen Leigh Studios.

Laura Shovan. Photo credit: Karen Leigh Studios.

When Laura Shovan wrote her editor’s note for the Little Patuxent Review issue on audacity, she ended it with the lines: “This is the real draw of audacity — a fascination with what happens next.”

And we’re all waiting to see what’s next for our audacious editor. Shovan spent years — from 2011 to 2015 — as the editor of the review, years that were crucial to LPR’s development. Shovan helped boost its reputation, its submissions, and its quality into the national sphere. We are slavishly grateful, and excited about her new projects, including promoting her first novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, which was published April 12, 2016, and writing a second novel.

Shovan, who moved to Maryland in the mid-2000s, published a few poems in LPR but was surprised when publisher Mike Clark called her in 2011 to ask if she’d like to edit the journal, she says. She accepted, then jumped in with both feet.

She pulled in guest editors, new staff, and contributors, a new approach to the website. She brainstormed interesting themes, expanded the readings, pioneered a middle school writing camp and answered probably a million emails. And finally, she recruited Steven Leyva to act as editor after she became poetry editor in 2014. Laura Shovan, who spent her last days as an ink-stained wretch with us on the issue published in January 2015.

I met her at Barnes & Noble’s coffee bar, where we had talked many times about books, projects, poetry and our lives.

Susan Thornton Hobby: What changes did you see in your tenure as editor?
Laura Shovan: One of the things was that the previous editor was publishing people from a limited number of states. I thought to grow nationally, we needed to open it up. It was a big step. We still take about 60 to 70% of submissions from the mid-Atlantic region. But we saw two things. First, we went to Submittable [LPR’s on-line submission processor], and we opened it up nationally. When you’re getting submissions nationally, you can be choosier, and the quality is better. The journal pretty quickly started to grow, we were contributing to national anthologies and Poetry Daily. We were just putting ourselves out there. We were, necessarily, before that, in an insular growth period. We just wanted to go from being introverted to being extroverted. The journal was ready for it at that point.

STH: Can you talk about some of your initiatives at the review, the middle school writing festival, the Concerning Craft posts?
LS: I loved the middle school writing festival. And we visited several high schools; Emily Rich did an annual reading at Prince Georges Community College. We really started to have additional readings besides the launch readings. One of the things that sets us apart is that once you’re a contributor, we’re going to support your work. We really liked inviting contributors to do small essays for the on-line site, I really supported the Concerning Craft series.

STH:What did serving as the editor do for you?
LS:It taught me how to put together a book — it’s not a straight narrative, but there still has to be a through-line. We’re not one of those reviews that publishes alphabetically. I love that idea that it should really be like a little book, it should read of a piece. And I really enjoyed the editorial [dimension]. We’re one of the few journals that works by making revisions. I had to learn to be a problem-solver. Because everyone is a volunteer, they’re protective of their time. And so it’s important in solving problems to be logical. I had to downplay any heated emotions. The editor is the one who has to be that way. You need to have the staff feel they are being recognized for their work, that somebody’s looking at the big picture. I sometimes felt like a Mama Bear.

STH:Your blog is full of poetic challenges, to kids and to teachers. Why?
LS: I started blogging in 2008, as part of the children’s lit project. I started with National Poetry Month. And then my birthday is 2/22, and on the year I was turning 44, it was my magic birthday, I wanted to do something. I had vintage postcards as prompts and wrote 44 poems, well more than 44 because I really liked it. Then I opened it up. It grew so big, I can’t have it on my blog anymore. I need a bigger platform. It’s all about having a daily writing practice. When you are sharing virtually as you’re writing, you can’t be connected to the idea of perfectionism. You have good days and bad days. It’s about creating a community around practice. One of my favorite things is that looking at a prompt for a day, some of the work is wildly different or there’s a thread running through people’s work. I feel like people enjoy it. I’m a community-minded person and I like doing things like that.

Book Cover 2[The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary] grows out of my interest in community. When I taught high school — I taught for five years at the beginning of my adult working life — one year I taught Literature of Society and used the Spoon River Anthology. When you’re a reader of that book, you’re putting things together. It’s not a mystery, but you’re connecting clues. It puts a lot of the work of the story on the reader. In my work for the state arts council, I worked in the lower grades. Spoon River is a snapshot of a community at the turn of the century. And in the schools, each classroom is its own little community. The first draft stuck close to the model book. I thought I would tell the story of a classroom, with 30 students each having their own poem. But in the children’s lit world, in critiques, nobody knew what it was. It didn’t work for the readership. I was interested in how children and a teacher in a class form their own community.

STH: What has reading so many other people’s work, as an editor, influenced in your own work?
LS: It made me think about the places people trip up. In beginnings, people write on-ramps — I do that. And with endings, you’re either wrapping it up with a bow, which I look for in my own work. Or there’s often a door in the poem. The author is showing the reader the door, but they’re not walking through it, they didn’t go far enough. They seem like opposite things, but a poem is about striking that balance.

And as editor, I had to be aware of my own preferences. I had to make choices against myself sometimes. When I came in, we added a staff of readers. If they were all liking a poem, it makes me go back and think, what kind of prejudices was I bringing to that work? So I looked at the Best American anthologies. I pushed myself to read more widely so I could be a better editor.

STH: Talk about the “open door” note you write on some poems.
LS: In your own work, you’re not recognizing it. sometimes I can put something away for a while — a few months. Like this children’s book, I’m asking readers to make some leaps. You have to strike a balance in the poem, between the urge to tell everything and the urge to hide everything. The poem is somewhere in the middle.

STH: What are you working on now?
LS: A middle-grade novel about middle-schoolers who are wrestlers, a boy and a girl. Wrestling is at such an interesting period right now. My editor is asking me to stretch and do prose. I’m always up for a stretch.

Online Editor’s Note: Join Laura Shovan on Saturday, April 23, 2016, at The Ivy Bookshop (6-7:30 pm) for a special launch reading of The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. Stay abreast of other events or follow her award-winning poetry blog at

  • Kirkus Review says of Shovan’s first novel, “This novel in verse is a remarkable feat of mimicry. The poems sound exactly like they were written by real fifth-graders.”
  • Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “This entertaining debut novel in verse follows the fifth graders at Emerson Elementary as they attempt to save their “run-down” school, which is in danger of closing. In an ethnically diverse class… characters …will inspire readers.”

One Hundred Thousand.

One Hundred Thousand. A number so large I can’t even picture having that much of any one thing. When LPR poetry editor Laura Shovan first uttered that phrase to me, I misheard her and instead pictured 10,000 Maniacs, one of my favorite bands. Strains of “Verdi Cries” came to mind. “Are they coming in concert?”

Official poster for 100TPC World Conference, 2015.

Official poster for 100TPC World Conference, 2015.

Ever tactful, Laura repeated herself. “One Hundred Thousand Poets for Change.” She’d been invited to participate in a conference. In Italy. Other details were shared, most of which I didn’t hear. Italy. Images of statues, fountains, fresh pasta and red wine filled my consciousness.

Joking around as I always do when someone mentions a trip, I said, “Let me know if I can carry your bags.” The joke was on me when a few days later, Laura texted me that the conference materials included triple room rates. “Want to come?”

It took all of a nano-second for me to reply that I would love to. Details worked in my favor, thankful as I am for frequent flier miles and a supportive family, and that’s how I attended the first One Hundred Thousand Poets for Change World Conference in Salerno, Italy with Laura and contributing editor, Ann Bracken in June.

Laura sent along another surprise. “You’ve been invited to read, too.”

“But I’m not a poet,” I said, feeling like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. (I secretly wanted to read, knowing that chances to do so come all too infrequently when one is unpublished and relatively unknown.)

Poets are kind and generous people. Michael Rothenberg, one of the two co-founders of the 100TPC, sent me a note, saying I could read anything I wanted. “It can’t be longer than two pages or five minutes in length.”

The next months were spent agonizing over what to read, how to pack and speed-learning Italian. Our trio met and divvied up responsibilities. Laura booked tours. Ann took care of lodging. I handled transportation.

Historic Salerno. Photo credit: Deborah Kevin, June 2015.

Historic Salerno. Photo credit: Deborah Kevin, June 2015.

We arrived in Salerno via a train from Rome. It’s a historic seaside town south of Naples. Our B&B and the Santa Sofia complex, where the conference was being held, were both in the historic part of Salerno. Picture crowded together tall buildings in ochre, cream and buttercup, with shutters thrown open wide to catch the sunlight. Clothes lines hung from every home, bright and cheery. Narrow warrens of streets, more alley than avenue, wore cobbles like uneven teeth.

We stayed in Salerno Antica, where our host Daniele Abbondanza treated us like royalty. A sumptuous Italian breakfast, complete with thick dark espresso, greeted us each morning. One morning, Daniele served grilled vegetables fresh from the market. Never have zucchini and eggplant tasted so delicious! Another morning, we devoured a spinach pie. And always there were fruits, cheese, salami and homemade sweets.

Sunset in Salerno. Photo credit: Deborah Kevin, June 2015.

Sunset in Salerno. Photo credit: Deborah Kevin, June 2015.

As delightful as our B&B was, nothing could have prepared us for the emotional experience of 100TPC. Our first night we gathered together on the roof deck of Santa Sofia for a meet-and-greet party. In some cases, people who’d been talking together virtually for as long as five years were meeting face-to-face for the first time. In others, folks were introduced that night. As the sun set over the Tyrrhenian Sea, turning the sky from baby blue to orange to pink and, finally, to purple, we hugged, laughed and cried. Age, race, nationality, sex — none of it mattered. We shared a love for language, a passion for improving humankind’s lot on earth, and a deep-seated desire to make a difference.

100 Thousand Poets for Change World Conference, 2015. Photo Credit: Ciro Fundaró.

100 Thousand Poets for Change World Conference, 2015. Photo Credit: Ciro Fundaró.

The conference lasted for four full days and included break-out sessions, readings, music and tours. Poets from over 30 countries attended: India, Malaysia, Romania, Hungary, Mexico, Canada, Italy, Germany, Ireland, Australia, France and Ghana to name a few. Even when people struggled to communicate because of a language barrier, they somehow found a way to connect. The conference had a talented translator name Giulia Sensale, who spoke a multitude of languages and worked hard to keep everyone caught up. I was even more impressed to learn she was only 18 years old!

Richard Botchwey and Deborah Kevin.

Richard Botchwey and Deborah Kevin.

I hesitate to call out by name some of my new friends, because there are so many. But I’d like to share a few people who touched me deeply. I hope you’ll get to meet some of these and more right here on the Little Patuxent Review’s blog.

Richard Botchway of Ghana became one of the conferences most beloved attendees with his ever-present smile and warmth. Orphaned at seven, he has survived the worst experiences to thrive, give back and encourage others to rise above their circumstances. His visa troubles in Germany on his return home had us all in tears, knowing the purity of his soul. Sadly, he is not the only person who experienced visa issues. It made me realize how much I take for granted the ease with which I can travel.

Elaine Foster of Malaysia opened our eyes to the challenges teachers face in that part of the world to simply teach language and poetry. She’s articulate, funny, and passionate. There’s a fierce fire burning in her. When she recited her re-imagined story of Medusa, we sat entranced, spellbound.

Gabor Gyukics, Budapest, Hungary, wore his gray hair long. It’s probably what most people would first notice about him. His kindness, thoughtfulness and intelligence were outweighed, maybe, only by his gentlemanly behavior. Author of many books, several in translation, Gabor was someone with whom I would have loved to have spent more time talking. Budapest has long been on my top places in the world to visit and I know when I get there, Gabor will welcome me, and I will be delighted to see him again. We’ll dive right in, discussing books and world issues, and it will be as though we’ve never been apart.

David Loret de Mola of Sacramento is a slam poet, who struggles with depression. Observing him work and hearing him speak, I learned how one can turn an obstacle into an opportunity. He’s beautiful to listen to and brave for sharing so openly his experience. His voice is an important one.

Lisa Vihos from Sheboygan, Wisconsin was one of those women with whom Laura had been corresponding for years. Seeing them connect was like seeing a college reunion. Lisa’s enthusiasm felt contagious and her poetry transported me. Hearing her cross-roads story felt familiar. You’ll want to read more of her work, follow her story and see where this incredible woman takes us.

Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal, a young Indian poetess still attending university at St. Bedes College, who has also published a chapbook called, Musings of Miss Yellow, to great acclaim. Her quiet demeanor belies a strong, smart woman. Keep an eye on Amazon for her book to become available more readily in the U.S.

Robert Priest from Toronto recited a poem from his book Rosa Rose. It is one every person ought to read (actually, they need to read his book). It was about Mohammad Ali. I loved how he shadow-boxed as he told the story of Ali choosing not to fight in Vietnam.

Siobhan Mac Mahon (do I even need to tell you her place of origin?) read riotous feminist poems, encouraging us to recite the refrains along with her. The last night we were together, she clambered up on a chair to share her poem about Lilith, Adam’s first wife. I think most of the photos I have of Siobhan show her with a fist held high in the air, hair swirling wildly about her head like a Celtic warrior maiden. She’s fierce and determined just like that.

Michael Dickel, late of Minnesota but now of Israel, read his work beat poet style to guitar music, unrehearsed and rather unplanned. He grooved along, digging each moment and we couldn’t help but enjoy watching and listening to him. He continues to be encouraging, even from afar. You can see some of his poetry on Author Amok.

Not all readings were performed in English. Perhaps the most lovely of all were those read in the poet’s native language, like Spanish or Italian. I listened to the rhythm and cadence, the pauses and could hear the yearning. The messages resonated deep within me. Isn’t that how poetry should be?

Things weren’t all rosy in Salerno. For example, in the public restrooms, there were no toilet seats. Karen Alkalay-Gut from Israel immortalized this shocking fact in — what else! — a poem. The young poets, which consisted of a cross-cultural group, made “demands” which must be met by the next conference, among them inclusion of a wine fountain (no disagreements here).

While the large group settings were enjoyable, what I found most suitable for my personality was the smaller gatherings. The “let’s grab lunch or a drink” where we could talk and delve more deeply into who the other was, and hear her story. That’s when the real connections took place. We discussed heavy topics like the responsibility we share to select our words for greatest impact, to not shy away from challenging the status quo, and for banding together to bring about lasting change. And, we ate copious amounts of delicious pasta and drank fair amounts of delightful vino. “When in Rome….”

The three Grace(less)s cavort before the Temple of Athena. Photo credit: Waqas Khwaja, June 2015.

The three Grace(less)s cavort before the Temple of Athena. Photo credit: Waqas Khwaja, June 2015.

Ann, Laura and I played hooky from the conference one day, traveling to the historic site of Paestum with Waqas Khwaja, an English professor from Agnes Scott College in Georgia, who came late to the conference because he’d been traveling with a group of students to historical sights of literary significance throughout Great Britain. Our conversations with him were rich and much too brief.

And our time in Salerno with our  new poetry friends felt all too short. Now it feels as though it were a dream. And my reading? It went pretty well. I read a short essay about autism called, “Seeing Anew.” I felt loved and supported, but most of all grateful.

Online Editor’s Note: September 26, 2015 has been designated 100 Thousand Poets For Change Day around the globe. If you’d like to organize a local event, you can! Simply register your event and you’ll get information and support from around the world to make it happen. Last, but not least, I’d like to give a shout out to Michael Rothenberg, Terri Carrion, Filippo Trotta, Valeriano Forte and Pino Green for all their hard work before, during and after the first 100TPCWC to make it happen so beautifully.

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.