Thank you to Shradha Shah for today's post about workshopping and her relationship to the physical and spiritual world, which grows out of her her experience working as an emergency medicine doctor. She works and resides in San Francisco, CA. Shradha is a native of Michigan. When she is not at her job or writing, she enjoys painting. She is an outdoor enthusiast and world traveler and has a love of languages. She speaks Gujurati, Hindi and Spanish and a little Catalan.
Letting go and Letting in
I learned an invaluable lesson last summer from my minutes with Jane Hirshfield at Breadloaf which is that I need to become a stern and removed reader of my own poems. Over the past few months I have revisited earlier work and begun to edit them with this in mind, by writing directly to the reader as if we were side by side and speaking to one another. Jane Hirshfield had expressed what others have said about my poetry in the past--that I'm vague, that it is hard to understand what is being said, to whom, and why--by saying that the experience as a reader of my poems was one of being left out and this felt extremely frustrating as a reader. In addition she indicated this type of closed poem implies arrogance and narcissism on the part of the poet. Not only was this something to guard against in my poetry, it struck a much deeper chord. In my professional life as a physician I advocate for my patients as my own family and strive to interact with him or her in a humble manner, and to hear that my poems evoke a feeling of arrogance or narcissim in the reader was disturbing.
I've had to think about why it is that I write this way, and why there is a big gap in translation between my thoughts, the words and the reader. I have a hard time connecting to a reader because I am writing from a space of assumed common ground and I have yet to invite the reader in, put out the placemat, and open the door. I do not want to leave the reader out. This rings true for me in poetry as well as medicine. I am keen on being an empathic practitioner which requires listening and seeing things from another perspective.
When my friends learn that I am a poet, they ask me if I write about medicine or if my practice as a doctor enters my poems. The world of medicine doesn't figure directly into my poems, partly because outside of the hospital I don't identify as a doctor. I write poems as way of processing and learning. Poetry is a place of wonder and discovery, a way of making meaning and relationships between the universe and self.
Sharing poems in workshop is integral to my growth as a person and poet. I find that all of my biases and preconceptions are laid bear when I am offering suggestions on someone else's poem as well as hearing how people read my own poems. When I hear someone else's editing suggestion that completely turns a poem in a way I hadn't previously conceived, I gain insight into how language works not only in my poems but in general. It's funny how tunneled our mind becomes with age, and time. I never want to go through life or poetry with blinders on, and it takes active practice to guard against becoming myopic. This desire to see the world in more than one way and to read or hear the diversity in voice is one reason I return to poetry often.
When I found myself in my last year of medical school facing the daunting task of selecting a specialty and nearing the end of school, I made a pro and con list of characteristics and lined them up. This pragmatic approach didn't really help me much, except that I noticed I was fixated on a way to build a life that connected my love of poetry and medicine. Emergency Medicine became an obvious choice not only because of the flexible schedule but because the characteristics and practice seemed to fit the practice of writing poetry. Both deal with triage, economy of interaction, and address what is at the root of human condition. In this way, each patient became a type of poem, each person had to deal with suffering and I could assist and alleviate their pain. Such an idealistic view of a specialty is typical of a student. However, people are not poems. The body as metaphor breaks down when it is literal and physical. When I attend to a patient I am speaking to him or her about the body and it's cellular death, how the body is compromised and typically attend to his / her physical and emotional pain. My ideal vision of the practice of emergency medicine changed almost immediately once I began practicing as an attending. During residency I had almost stopped writing poetry completely. Language and metaphor went mute or I was blind and deaf to it.
However, in the past few years I came to realize that my relationship to writing and reading poetry has changed. I am interested in the poetics of human experience when we are brought to the edge, whether it is in our physical suffering or emotional pain. It pushes me to understand our complicated relationship to mind and body as it begins to fail. In this regard, I muse upon how spiritual health and the health of my soul and mind become all the more prescient as my own body ages.