There Is Light and There Is Dark:
C. Dale Young interviewed by Sasha West
Sasha West: You begin your first book, Day Underneath the Day, with a poem entitled "Homage to William Carlos Williams." By calling on the tradition of the doctor-poet, you seem to be focusing on the systems of dissection and naming that underpin both medicine and poetry. How do the two arts relate for you, and where do you find limits in each of them that the other art (or craft) can address?
C. Dale Young: I used to, naively, tell people that the two were not related at all. Over time, I have grown accustomed to both worlds and now actually find there is much in common between the two of them. In both medicine and poetry, the "reader" is presented with a world of data. In medicine, the patient tells a story that is rarely linear. There are radiology reports, consultation reports, other data. There is the human drama. In that setting, the reader is the doctor who then takes that information and consolidates it into a report of his own, both for himself and for other healthcare providers. In poetry, the data is different. There is not just a world of data but the world itself. The poet, as reader, takes that data and assembles a poem. There are so many choices in how to consolidate and present things that the resulting poem becomes not just a reflection of the world but a reflection of the poet as well. Both poetry and medicine are deeply human things, two ancient arts that have been with us as long as we have understood what it means to be human. It should not be surprising to us that Apollo was both the classical Greek god of Lyric (poetry) and of Healing.
With regard to your question about limits, I suspect the ones I perceive are more my own doing than anything else. That said, I do think medicine limits me in poetry because Medicine consumes a great deal of my time. I am not sure what, if any, limit poetry places on my practice of medicine. But, to be honest, medicine provided my poetry with a discipline it never had prior to my study of medicine.
SW: Your poetic presentations of the natural world often take the form of descriptions meditations on both the landscape of place and of the body. The poems in the first book return repeatedly to the specific landscape of Florida, using the sea, the native vegetation, and the weather to figure out the speaker's relationship not only to place but also to the mythology of place his own and the state's. At the same time, Florida acts as an anti-place, a landscape that is not the Carribean, a place that is colonized and thus has its "place-ness" rewritten. Could you talk about the philosophical and historical dialogues that occur between the natural world and humans? What is it about place that seems as if it could clarify memory or answer questions of identity and emotion?
CDY: That is a difficult question! Place informs us as much if not more than we inform it. I say that because place, call it landscape, has a profound impact both on our early cognitive development and on our actual biology. Anyone who has had allergies in one part of the country but is fine elsewhere understands this elemental aspect of landscape's influence on biology. Impact on our thinking is more difficult to explain but is there nonetheless. The landscape one first perceives, really perceives, which would be around the age of four or five, has a lasting impression on a person's imagination because it is precisely how one first sees the world. A world filled with cobalt blue water striking the shore, with viney flowers creeping up the walls, with palm trees whispering in late afternoon is a very different world than say.... England. In the end, my obsession with landscape started long before poetry. I started out in painting. And, not surprisingly, I mostly painted landscapes. We always feel we are different people than we were in the past. I certainly fall prey to this. I always feel I am doing something new, and then I discover a short while later that I am still doing something similar. I am not sure I have answered your question.
SW: It's not surprising you have a background in painting, given the painterly approach to description in your poems. Surely just as place informs us as we grow up, the disciplines we grow through inform our final discipline. What is it as a poet, and an artist, that draws you back to landscape? My questions come partially out of an intense interest in how your poems convey balance between the human mind and the natural world. In "The Magus" from the first book, for instance, a Prospero-like figure is forced to come to terms with his diminishing ability to control storms and the movements of the sky. In "The Philosopher in Golden Gate Park" from your second book, The Second Person, forthcoming in 2005, the final stanza reads "Is there really such a thing as love? / The Pacific refuses to grapple with such a question. / While the wind spiraling through the dunes has no answer, / a hundred mouths open and shut in a shift of sand." Could you talk about the relationship between the individual and the larger forces of Nature?
CDY: Well, it is complicated. I believe I am drawn to landscape out of a need to capture a moment in time, a place. But, to be truthful, I think I gravitate toward landscape because it is a means of avoiding people. In painting, I always found it difficult to paint people. I was far better equipped, for whatever reason, to render a field, a hill, a river. Everyone knows the most difficult things to paint are human eyes and human hands. Try as I might, I was never as technically proficient with those things. I can paint, but I cannot draw. Something more common than many might realize. Anyway, in painting, landscapes offered me a chance to be larger than an individual. And when I came to poetry, I felt much the same way. Over the years, I must continually remind myself that image cannot always be central, cannot always be the most important thing in a poem. Many of my poems must go through many drafts to make sure there is balance.
In my second book, the poems arose out of a need I had to create not just landscapes that hint at emotional states but actual emotional landscapes. I wrote many of those poems out of a belief that one could render an emotional landscape in much the same way one can a natural landscape. I wanted desperately to write a different kind of poem, one that was more compelling and more personal, just not necessarily confessional. As I mentioned earlier, we always want new things, and I think we need to believe we are doing something different. Already, however, I can see that much of the new book is similar, in many ways, to the first. I don't think they are the same poems, but they are definitely written by me and not, say, my friend, Brigit.
As for the individual and the larger forces of nature, well.... What strikes me is the fact that people, since the time of the Industrial Revolution, have come to think of Nature as something within their control. It isn't. It never has been. We trick ourselves into thinking this way because we can dam a river or drain a pond. But Nature, in the larger sense, feels nothing for us. It continues with or without us. Our pride and ego prevent us from realizing this. Ah, you can see that I have lived in California for some time now.
SW: The Second Person brings in, as the title suggests, the searing presence of a Beloved a "you" that seems to advance and retreat from the gaze of both the speaker and the reader. While there certainly is a continuity between the two books, the poems in the second do feel far more infused with a tradition of the love lyric and explorations of loss. What was the genesis of the second book? Other than the important shift to emotional landscapes, what changed for you between the two in process or in your thinking about poetry?
CDY: Hmmmmm, that is a difficult one to tackle. Well, it took me eight years to write The Second Person. That said, because it took such a long time to place my first book with a publisher, the second book was finished not too long after the first one appeared in 2001. But I can say that my desire to write a more compelling, more personal poetry directed me to many aspects of the love poem. In 1995, I got into an argument with the poet Sidney Wade. She was preparing to teach a course on love poetry. I told her I couldn't think of a more wretched thing. An entire class on love poetry? Sidney finished our argument by stating it was much more difficult to write a truly affecting love poem in the contemporary age because it is so difficult to infuse the love poem with a freshness or difference. She then asked me if she could read one of my love poems. I had to report I had never written a love poem. It was very embarrassing. I was shamed by this. I set out to write a love poem and wrote the poem titled "The Field." I ended up adding it to my first book, but it started me down a path toward the second book, toward rendering the beloved.
Because the second book was written during a period of time in which I was mostly concerned with the first book, it had the overwhelming feeling, to me, that it just arrived. Indeed, when I first sat down in an attempt to organize all my poems, the second manuscript was there staring at me. For months, I couldn't believe it was a manuscript. I had forgotten all the years that had passed since I had written the first poems in it. At the center of that book, for me, is failure. Failure hides among so many of the poems. Failure as a husband. Failure as a lover. Failure as a doctor. Failure as a father. I was tempted to title the book, The Book of Failure, but a friend of mine warned me that to title a book like that was to simply beg for reviews ridiculing it. That said, in my mind, The Second Person is my book of failure.
The assembling of that book, not the writing of it, happened during a time when my life was completely upturned. Someone I had shared most of my adult life with left me. At the same time, I was finishing my medical residency. My entire world changed dramatically within a span of six months, so much so I could scarcely recognize the life I used to have. It is always difficult the first time someone breaks your heart. It is also infinitely more difficult to have one's heart broken for the first time at the age of thirty as opposed to seventeen. I watched as I literally became a new person, a second person. Of course, the pain and joy of life we see in our own poetry is not always there, just there by association with the times in which they were written. There is an ancient Roman epigram that speaks about how fire suddenly rises above one's head and that one then feels himself stepping out of the ashes, a second person risen from the fire and the cost of fire. The epigram will be the epigraph of this new book which, for me, adds a different dimension to the book, a complication. Without the epigraph, the title of the book comes entirely from a line in my poem titled "Infidelity." I didn't quite care for such a singular association.
SW: How does form play into all of this? I ask because the formal concerns in The Second Person seem to reflect some of the emotional ones. There's far more use of repetition both in form (pantoum, villanelle) and image an obsessive working through of things in an attempt to arrive at transformation or understanding. How do the form and the poem relate? (This is the poetic version of asking where you stand on the chicken/egg debate.)
CDY: Well, to use my long poem "Triptych at the Edge of Sight" as an example... I had been trying to write that poem since 1991. I attempted it no less than six times over many years. But every time I tried to draft the poem, I tried to do it in my usual twenty-five to forty lines. Each time, the poem was thin, lacking, unworthy of revision even. I would be happy with the opening lines or the last lines, but I was never happy with the poem itself. I kept the final three lines with me for years. Each time I attempted the poem, those lines were there, but the poem would drift into drivel. Several things happened in that difficult time I mentioned that brought the poem into focus for me. It was the only poem I wrote in that dark time of my life.
I have, hanging in my living room, a large triptych, the last thing I painted, in 1993 I believe, just as I had started medical school. I had been thinking about the core subject of the poem and realized it was essentially about a speaker and two other people. It was about three people that were intertwined in a difficult and complicated situation. The notion of triptych suddenly took on a new meaning for me. At the same time, I was studying Tai Chi three times a week. My master would often mutter phrases as we practiced the form in Golden Gate Park. One of these phrases stuck with me. She said, "There is light and there is dark..." She was referring to the notion of Yin and Yang in the form, but the phrase became an obsession for me. Some of the phrases in the poem come from Tai Chi, the teachings of the calm able to generate great force. These two things, the notions of triptych and the notions of opposites able to generate harmony, puzzled me. I thought about them for weeks. And then, it happened.
I woke one morning and, while getting ready to go in to the hospital, put in a CD I have of Mahler's First Symphony, the one we refer to as "Titan." In the opening section, there is a dark line, a horizon line strung across nearly the entire section. On this, Mahler placed two other themes of music that return over and over throughout the symphony. I was completely fascinated by this. On my way to UCSF on the streetcar, the poem began to take shape. I often draft poems in my head, something that medicine, and its limitations, made possible. By the time I reached the hospital, I already had close to 50 lines of the poem. I was so overwhelmed, I skipped morning conference and hid in a room with my laptop. Within 45 minutes, I had written the first 87 lines of the poem. At that point, this was the most I had ever written at one time. Call it a depressive state, a contemplative state. I am not sure what it was. I was so disturbed by the whole thing that I left it alone for days. Over the weekend that followed, I again wrote a lot, something like 56 lines. A week later, I finished the poem in one sitting after listening, again, to Mahler's First. In the end, the poem weighed in at twenty-seven sections, each with three tercets. 243 lines! I was utterly convinced, at first, it couldn't really be a poem. But I left it alone for a month, and it refused to leave me. I showed it to Susan Hahn, my editor at the time, because she was fascinated by our discussions about it. She ended up taking it whole for TriQuarterly. In the end, it was a great lesson for me. Poetry relies on form, not necessarily meter or rhyme, but a latticework frame, if you will. After a decade of attempts to write this poem and failing, I wrote it with very little effort once I found the form it actually required.
SW: These other arts keep coming into the discussion, situating poetry in a continuum of art. Who are the visual artists, musicians, composers, etc. who are most meaningful to you?
CDY: Among composers, I have always had a deep love of Mahler. His Fifth Symphony, the Adagio movement, once moved me to tears on a flight to Seattle. The sun was reflecting off of Mt. Ranier and the Mahler was swelling, and then I scared the poor man next to me with my tears. It was somewhat funny. I also have grown to respect and deeply admire the chamber music of Brahms, and I have special places in my heart for Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto and Copland's "Quiet City."
In terms of artists, I have a not so surprising love of landscapists. One of my favorites is Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot. His painting of Saint Sebastian is actually the cover art for The Second Person. That said, I also love painters such as Lyonel Feininger, Braque, Pollock, and paintings like those Vermeers stolen from the Gardner museum that you can now only see in reproduction. And then there is Rothko with all of those spooky, strange windows and doors. Luminescent moments that transcend the brushstrokes. I have a Rothko print hanging in my office at the hospital. It always elicits comments from people.
Of course, now that I have said all of this, I have to admit that many times the music that fuel my poems is not classical. I have poems urged into draft by many popular songs. Among them are Sting's "Be Still My Beating Heart," Peter Gabriel's "Red Rain," Cher's "All or Nothing," and even jazz trumpet player Chris Botti's "Steps of Positano." There is Ella Fitzgerald's "Someone to Watch Over Me" and Chet Baker's remake of that same song. There is Talking Heads and depeche mode; N'Sync and remixes done by Paul Oakenfold. If images and words start me thinking, it is almost always music that prompts me to write. Friends will tell you they many times know I am about to write a poem because I begin to listen to a particular song repeatedly. I am not even sure what it is I am listening for, but something about cadence, pause, the lingering sound of a minor key something in music clarifies things for me.
SW: I want to return to your last answer, in which you talked about Susan Hahn's belief in "Triptych," which was clearly very important to you. One of your many professional manifestations is as Poetry Editor at The New England Review. What do you see the role of an editor as being in the literary world?
CDY: Susan was the editor of my first book. At the time, she was the series editor of the TriQuarterly Books imprint at Northwestern University Press. By the time my first book came out, we were friends, good friends. I showed her that poem in that capacity. But she liked it enough to take it for her magazine, which was not really why I showed it to her.
As for the role of the editor, I believe editors have to not only edit but also support. I try very hard to stand behind the poets I publish, not only by publishing their work but also by nominating them for things, recommending them, working to promote them, making sure others pay attention to them. I send out a quarterly email to all of the poets I have published (if I have their emails) to keep them up to date on what is happening at NER. I have always seen the writer-editor relationship as a friendly one. That said, I am very demanding on those whom I have published. I only want the best for NER, and so being a former contributor to NER doesn't guarantee you anything. But I care for the poets I publish. And there are more than a few NER poets out there who will tell you that if they publish an amazing poem in a magazine other than NER, they will usually hear from me. I email or call. I congratulate them. And then I ask how come I haven't seen anything like that from them recently! They know I am kidding, and they know that I am not.
There hasn't been a year since I started editing poetry for NER in 1995 that I haven't published a poet very early in their career. Sometimes, it is their first poem in print. But I am relentless about standing up for poets I believe in. Some of the poets I published very early in their careers include: Cate Marvin, Rick Barot, Natasha Trethewey, Nick Flynn, Victoria Chang, Jennifer Grotz, Geri Doran, Pimone Triplett, Chris Wiman, etc. I did a feature on the new generation of poets for our Winter 2000 issue. At the time, five of the fourteen poets had books. Recently, I revisited that issue. I realized that since 2000, all the poets who had books now had second books published or about to be published. And of the nine that didn't have books when the issue ran, seven now did. I was thrilled. In some ways, I am as excited about their successes as I am about my own. When Jennifer Grotz won the Bakeless Prize, I called her and screamed into the phone as if I had just won it. I felt the same way when Geri Doran recently won the Walt Whitman Award. Although being a poetry editor also opens you up to a great many people who will dislike you for not publishing them, the good things, the discoveries, the successes of your writers, make the job more than worth it.
SW: How does this different relationship to writing affect your own thinking about or practice of poetry?
CDY: Well, I am not sure. I definitely understand that poems have to not only be good but also interesting. I say this because a great many poems are fairly good, but they have no passion in them. I don't mean romantic passion, but real passion, a drive to present something accurately but not necessarily precisely. So many of the poems that arrive at NER seem as if they could have been written by anyone. Amy Clampitt can completely engross me in a bird or plant poem because she is so interested in what she is writing about that it becomes infectious. Being an editor has taught me, if anything, to write about what I feel passionate about, what I can present in a way no one else can present because I know more than most do about it.
SW: Being an editor also means you have an overview of contemporary writing. What trends and movements have you noticed in both emerging and established poets? Where do you situate your own work among these?
CDY: I many times don't see these trends until a bit of time has passed. What I can say is that somewhere around 1998, I did notice a trend. I refer to it as Fusion, and it is what prompted me to do the feature on the new poets of the new century. A good number of younger poets began to submit poems that took the ultra-aware speaker we recognize from the confessional poem and used that voice to interrogate instead of confess. The poems embraced craft and rhetoric with this interrogating voice. That fusion of the "confessional" voice and the rhetorical concerns of the high modernists seemed new, despite the fact it was a fusion of two very standard notions in our poetry. It was almost as if the younger poets felt no need to challenge either of these poetic precursors. These younger poets just picked them up and put them together. Philosophy, distrust, language, rage, it didn't matter.. . all could be absorbed by the poem.
I think of Pimone Triplett's work, especially her newer poems. The voice is almost masculine, menacing, determined, but these poems don't confess the same old boring things like a man with a personality disorder. That determined voice takes everything in its path apart, dissects it, almost. It is stunning to watch. As for recent trends, I am not sure. I sure do see a lot of what I call the Wordsworth-gone-mad poem, the one that details everything one did this morning after finishing breakfast. But this isn't recent. I have been seeing this kind of poem since 1995 when I started at the magazine. I have gotten them each and every month since then.
As for where my work belongs, I have no idea. I don't think of groups of writers when I write. I don't consciously aim to write a traditional poem or an experimental one. I just write the poem as best as I can. I find discussions of tradition vs. experiment tedious, and yet younger poets never seem to tire of it. Oh this one is experimental. Oh that one is traditional. One hundred years from now, the distinctions we make now will not even exist. Someone will pronounce us all Post-Romantic. Mark Bibbins and David Yezzi might easily be discussed for their similarities and may well end up together in a textbook as history erases most of us. Even our ideas of Modernism will fall apart. Eliot may well be regarded as a late Romantic poet by then.
SW: You read some amazing new work at Brazos Bookstore, in particular a poem entitled "Torn," a poem that takes on prejudice and violence, specifically gay-bashing. What directions have you been pursuing since the work in The Second Person? Do you have a sense of the third book as a whole yet?
CDY: Well, I have been busy writing plays, a book of essays, and a novel....
Just kidding. It is hard to say in what direction I am heading. I finished my medical residency on June 30, 2002. I was in a practice seeing patients two weeks later. From June of 2002 through June of 2003, I wrote nothing. I was busy studying for my specialty board exams. I was busy learning three new hospitals and three new staffs, not to mention three new groups of referring physicians. In any spare time I had, I was reading poems for NER. A week after I took my Boards and found out I passed them, a weight lifted from my shoulders. It was then that I wrote "Torn." I had tried to write it at the end of my internship four years earlier, but I couldn't. The memory of the event at the core of that poem was too painful, too terrible. I foolishly thought by writing the poem, I could put the horrible images of that night in the Emergency Department behind me. But I was wrong. When I finished writing "Torn," I couldn't look at it. Every time I read it, it terrified me all over again. I quickly dismissed the poem as some kind of journal entry. I showed it to a couple of friends of mine who are poets, and they reassured me it was a poem. But my doubts were too great. I feared these friends were just being nice to me. I decided I was going to throw the poem away and come back again, fresh, in a year or two. My partner, Jacob, told me to let it sit and forbid me from throwing it away. A few weeks later, I asked Carol Frost to take a look at it and tell me if it was something I should keep. She wrote back that it was definitely a poem and definitely a keeper. I still had doubts. What changed my mind was the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. I was a Fellow there in 2003. Just before my reading, I freaked out. I was so nervous I called Jacob. I told him I was a wreck because I had to read in front of an auditorium of other writers. I was in a panic and wasn't sure what to read. He told me to read "Torn." I told him he was crazy. But then he said something that struck me. He told me I had to read it because it was important. I finished my reading there with that poem. For the rest of the conference, people kept coming up to me and telling me how moved they were by it. I had never had such a response to one of my poems. It seemed unreal. I published the poem in the Virginia Quarterly Review, and Poetry Daily picked it up. It was then I was to realize the true oddity of that poem. I received 68 emails from people all over the world from Japan, Australia, Algiers, Peru, Germany, all over telling me how much the poem meant to them. I was floored. In the end, I am struck by the fact that something in this poem speaks to people in ways I cannot even pretend to understand. I remain humbled by that poem. I may never fully understand it because each time I read it, all I see are the things behind its genesis, and those are terrible things.
To return to the question, I guess Medicine is invading my poems more and more each day. It has been gradually doing so all along. I consciously avoided it for many years because I was afraid it would somehow be a betrayal to my patients. The doctor-patient bond is a powerful thing. I know things and see things about people that many others never see, would never be allowed to see. It is only recently that I have begun to feel I have the restraint and the craft to write poems based on my practice of medicine without betraying my patients. I have learned how to cull elements of the stories I witness everyday without writing out someone else's exact story.
I never sit down to write poems with a resulting book in mind. I am not a project writer. Any unity in my books is purely a result of my obsessive mind. But something tells me my third book will revolve around Medicine and the ways it has enriched and damaged me as a person. That said, I would never give up being a physician. Never. I always wanted to do something with my life that would help people. I cannot think of any other job on the planet that allows you to go home so many days of the year knowing you helped make someone's life better. There are the bad days, but the good days outnumber them.
Volume 17, Number 1
University of Houston
Executive Editor: Mark Doty
Managing Editors: Sasha West
Associate Editors: Jennifer Grotz, David Ray Vance
Copyright © 2004 by Gulf Coast
All rights reserved.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission.
Poetry Daily / Amazon.comSelected books available by C. Dale Young:
The Second Person Paperback
The Day Underneath the Day Paperback