WCW: writer and medical doctor

Despite all my issues with the grand Mr. Williams in my previous post, his “interview” about being a writer and doctor reveals an interesting (and helpful) perspective.  William Carlos Williams above all else is a proponent of language and of medicine. Being in the world helped him write about the world. If he had not been a doctor, it seems he would have not been able to be a poet. His views outlined below, excerpted from The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams, are a kick to get moving. So after you read this, ask yourself what is the other half of my writing practice? What helps me see below the surface of nonsense and humdrum to the substance of poetry?

AKS: So, Mr. Williams, what do you write?

WC: I write poetry, essays, plays, stories, and novels. Please refer to Poetry Foundation for a full listing

AKS: How did you get your start as a doctor and writer?

WC: Right after high school I was accepted into medical school, but soon discovered theater.

“The struggle was on…I thought I’d quit medical school and get a job as a scene shifter! Such was my humility….It cost 25 cents to sit in the top balcony to see plays in those days. I wanted to write, to write plays–plays in verse! I saw the great Ben Greet Players outdoors in the Botanical Gardens. I climbed a ten-foot spike fence around the nearby cemetery to get into that one. I had no money.

But it was money that decided me. I would continue medicine, for I was determined to be a poet. only medicine, a job I enjoyed, would make it possible for me to live and write as I wanted to. I would live: that first, and write, by God as I wanted to if took me all eternity to accomplish my design. My furious wish was to be normal, undrunk, balanced in everything. I would marry (but not ye!) have children and still write, in fact, therefore to write. I would not court disease, live in the slums for the sake of art, give lice a holiday. I would not “die for the art” but live for it, grimly! and work, work work, (like [my] Pop) beat the game and be free (like [my] Mom, pour soul!) to write, write, write as I alone should write, for the sheer drunkenness of it.

AKS: How do you find time to write while also being a full time doctor?

As far as writing itself is concerned it takes next to no time at all. Much too much is written every day of our lives. We are overwhelmed by it. But when at times we see through the welter of evasive or interested patter, when by chance we penetrate to some moving detail of a life, there is always time to bang out a few pages. The thing isn’t to find time–we waste hours every day doing nothing at all–the difficulty is to catch the evasive life of the thing, to phrase words in such a way that all stereotype will yield a moment of insight. That is where the difficulty lies. We are lucky when our lives will send up its pure water. It seldom happens. A thousand trivialities push themselves in front, our lying habits of everyday speech…

AKS: So you mentioned earlier, that you enjoyed medicine…tell us more about that.

It’s the humdrum, the day-in, day-out, everyday work that is the real satisfaction of the practice of medicine; the million and half patients a mand has seen on his daily visits over a forty-year period of weekdays and Sundays that make up his life. I have never had a money practice; it would have been impossible for me. But the actual calling on people, at all times and under all conditions, the coming to grips with the intimate conditions of their lives, when they were being born, when they were dying, watching them die, watching them get well, has always absorbed me.

As a writer, I have never felt that medicine interfered with me but rather it was my very food and drink, the very thing that made it possible for me to write. Was I not interested in man? There was the thing, right in front of me. I could touch it, smell it. I was myself, naked, just as it was with out a lie telling itself to me in the its very own terms. Oh, I knew it wasn’t for the most part giving me anything profound, but it was giving me terms, basic terms with which I could spell out matters as profound as I cared to think of.

[You] naively ask [me], “How do you do it? How do you carry on an active business like that and at the same timefind time to write? You must be superhuman. You must have the energy of two men.” But you do not grasp that one occupation complements the other, that they are two parts of a whole, that it is not two jobs at all, that one rests the man when the other fatigues him. The only person to feel sorry for his is wife. She practically becomes a recluse. His only fear is the source of his interest, his daily goings about among human beings of all sorts, all ages, all conditions will be terminated. That he will be found out.

Forget writing, its a trivial matter. But day in day out, when the inarticulate patient struggles to lay himself bare for you, or with nothing more than a boil on his back is so caught off balance that he reveals some secret twist of a whole community’s pathetic way of thought, a man is suddenly seized again with a desire to speak of the underground stream which for a moment has come up just under the surface.

The physician enjoys a wonderful opportunity actually to witness words being born. Their actual colors and shapes are laid before him carrying their tiny burdens.

For under that language to which we have all been listening all our lives, a new, a more profound language, underlying all the dialects offer itself. It is what they call poetry.

William Carlos Williams takes an interview

“So Mr. Williams, tell me, what do you write?”

Okay. So, WCW died in 1963, twenty years before I was born, and even if he hadn’t, I’m sure he wouldn’t have deigned to speak to the likes of me. I recently read The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams, first published in 1948 by New Directions Books. There are many things to be said about the life of prolific writer and doctor Williams…

Observation #1. He surrounded himself with artists…famous artists.

How did he know so many famous people. He went to school with and was a life long friend of Ezra Pound and H.D., dined with James Joyce, partied with Man Ray and bunch of other artists, conversed with Gertrude Stein, doctored Charles Demuth… the list goes on. Literally the index in his biography could be a who’s who of first half of the twentieth century.

Observation #2. He loved and respected his wife very much, but he had misogynistic (and racist) tendencies.

They leak out the sides of his autobiography and sometimes hit you square in the face. Besides numerous condescending descriptions of women and girls throughout his book. There was this stunning passage:

I have had several but not many intimate friendships with men during my life, patterned, I suppose on the youthful experience of my brother…You could count them surely on the fingers of one hand. On the other hand there is Flossie, my wife, who is the rock on which I have built. But as far as my wish is concerned, I could not be satisfied by five hundred women. As I said, at the beginning, I was always an innocent child.

Why, I remember once as medical student falling in love with the corpse of young negress, a “high yaller” lying stripped on the dissecting table before me.

Men have given the direction to my life and women have always supplied the energy.

There is so much weirdness in that passage. I’ll just let you stew on that for a while.

Observation #3. He is an amazing writer and thinker.

Through at times, I felt I did not like the man I was reading, ultimately he has a thoughtfulness and delicacy with words–that made his autobiography a page turner. As a case in point and prelude to my next post–an “interview” with WCW about being a working writer–I’ll leave you this:

And it must be said of a life of confinement, if he survives it, that much of the world’s greatest writings has waited on a removal from the world of affairs for its doing. Concentration is what a man needs to bring his mind to harvest. We may and he will, whoever he may be, change ourselves by our contacts, but to drain off the good we must find quietude. The monk’s cell is ideal for the purpose…it represents a quiet relief from economic pressures: one can write then. Prison, though, is better, or seems to have been so in the past. Aesop was a slave; many a Greek did his best work in exile to Sicily or even the next city. Sappho must have felt mightily confined by Lesbos; Raleigh wrote well in prison: Pilgrim’s Progress came from confinement–as birth does also–but the best of all was Don Quixote, when Cervantes was put in jail…

The poem is a capsule where we wrap up our punishable secrets. And as they confine in themselves the only “life,” the ability to sprout at a more favorable time, to come true in the secret structure to the very minutest details of our thoughts, so they get their specific virtue.

We write for this, that the seed come true, and it appears to be this which makes the poewcwm the toughest certainty that life experience acknowledges.


Where are they now?

A lot of things worth talking about have taken place in the last year!

Lana Spendl has been tearing up the flash fiction pages: Read her piece “The Virgin” in Prick of the Spindle and look for her forthcoming piece “Soap Bubble Words” in Monkeybicycle.

Paula Carter has been making it waves on the nonfiction circuit both on stage and on the page. Listen to her podcast from Second Story in her piece Lessons from Almost-Mother or read her recent essay in TriQuarterly.


And Angela Narciso Torres published Blood Orange  available via Aquarius PressSmall Press Distribution,  and Amazon.  Watch the book trailer for Blood Orange! Yes, a trailer for a book!

Congrats you lovely ladies and writers on your accomplishments!

St. Peter’s B-list


St. Peter’s B-list, a new anthology I am pleased to be published in, will be for sale on March 10, 2014 from Ave Maria Press. As the Press itself describes:

This soul-stirring collection of more than one hundred poems—composed by a wide variety of contemporary award-winning poets—awakens readers to the beauty and humor in the broken, imperfect striving of the saints for holiness.

St. Peter’s B-list features poems by Dana Gioia, James Tate, Mary Karr, Paul Mariani, Brian Doyle, Franz Wright, Judith Valente, and Kate Daniels, as well as many new and emerging poets. This anthology invites readers to view the saints as they’ve never imagined them, reaching for the sacred, doubting, bumbling, and then trying again. The collection features wide-ranging poems on ordinary topics, such as a mother trying to get her newborn to fall asleep, an older brother concerned about the marriage of his sister, a lonely man trying to meet a woman in a bar, and a burn victim’s compassion for a small child. Neither devotional nor pious, these poems capture how, in unexpected ways, the saints illuminate daily life for everyday saints-in-the-making and engage readers in the important struggle to see the action of God in their lives.

A Time for Form

So I’ve never claimed to be a formalist. I’ve tried my hand at sonnets and ghazals, but I often prefer to invent new forms for each poem. But the other day I was trying to write a poem whose content needed to be returned to again and again. I wanted a looping effect. I tried that organically, but it wasn’t working. Then I turned to the good old villanelle and the cycle, repetends all a landed perfectly (a few hours of wrangling later).

Which again leads me to think that all forms no matter how old, common, rare, or structured are organic for certain occasions.

In my freelance writer life, I’ve been writing ACT-like English passages that must have certain errors, subjects, lengths, alternatives (answers), and spacing. The work of writing these feels so similar to piecing a puzzle of poetry together. When I complete a passage, there is that satisfaction of accomplishment. MFA skills translating into the paying world. I also feel a certain amount of guilt for creating new material with which to torture poor high school students.

Enjoy this link to the english languages most popular villanelle. One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

A list of nonsequitors

1. We had our first successful tutoring session on at Washington Park Field House. It was all things working for good that brought one student and her little brother with a folder full of homework. We analyzed a poem and brainstormed an essay on identity. It was delightful. It was pulled off by no means of our own. It was poorly planned (finding a location was difficult), poorly advertised (text messages sent to students) but it worked out better than I hoped it would. Next week, if text messages are followed through on, we should be expecting 3 students! Baby steps.

2. I had a dream last night I sold my heart. Even though I knew this would kill me. It was in order to avoid a worse death in a Nazi like state that was coming soon. However, when the date came closer, I realized I wanted to live. I went to the butcher to find a substitute. However, the butcher only had light pink animal (pig or rabbit) hearts. I took the biggest one with hopes of dying it a darker more human red. The heart in my dream were vivid and disconcerting. The person who I had promised my heart to called and asked if he could have it a week early. It was for his pregnant wife. No. No. I said, you can not have it early. I was still working on the disguise. I thought to myself, I have money. I can buy a plane ticket to the U.S. when they find out its not my heart, that I’m not dead, and before the Nazi party seize power.

3. Every day with 2nd and 3rd graders is going to be different. Prepare and expect something unexpected to happen.

4. My sister, Sonnet, had her EP release concert last weekend. Go buy it on itunes. It’s phenomenal. Everyone who was lucky enough to be in attendance said she killed it. But you don’t have to take my word for it, if you think I am biased. Interview with Sonnet on HuffPo here. Anthems, dance tunes, ballads, pop songs with thought. She proves its possible to have it all, with grace and heart.