Reading poetry is a fantastic way to prime our brains for writing. The precision of language, the diction and lyricism of each line, it all comes together in the brain as something so much larger than its parts. When I’m in need of inspiration, poetry is my go-to and I particularly like Dr. Bayer’s poems for their insight into the mind of a physician.
I hope you enjoy this interview and encourage you to check out the collection for yourself.
April: When did you first start writing poetry?
Deborah: I wrote my first poem just before I started medical school at age 31. It was a response to an exercise I found in Gabriele Rico’s book, Writing the Natural Way. It was a poem for my younger sister. I didn’t write again until I was a practicing physician. Medical training has a way of making you drop the creative threads in your life, but you can pick them up again. Two poems arose as a way of coping with stressful events. A patient died and my professional partner had a sudden illness. I began writing seriously when I went to my first writing retreat in 2004.
April: When did you write these poems? I have this vision of you jotting down ideas on your clipboard as you’re doing rounds, but maybe it was more of a way to detox from a long day? Paint a picture for us of when and where you wrote.
Deborah: William Carlos Williams famously jotted down poems on his prescription pads, but my process was completely different. I coped with difficult work situations by compartmentalizing my emotions to get through the hard thing in front of me. But those compartments have to be opened and processed at some point. Since I had little time to schedule regular writing, I relied on writing retreats and classes to allow me to go deep and write. The prompts I got on my writing retreats were complicated enough to distract my thinking mind and let my unconscious express itself on the paper.
April: What is the strangest thing you know to be true about the art of poetry?
Deborah: Poems are like the body in that they often know things that you don’t. There is a wisdom in poems that surprises and teaches you. You have to be willing to let the poem tell you where it wants to go.
April: What was the most difficult part of writing this collection of poems?
Deborah: Most of the poems in this chapbook were not written with the intention of going into a collection. They were poems that accumulated over a period of ten years or more. About three years ago, I realized that I had a cluster of poems around the theme of healing: as a patient and as a doctor in the process of retiring during a global pandemic. I am fortunate to have a great critique group who read through the manuscript more than once. I doubt I would have gotten to this point without their help. My next collection will be more intentional. The poems that are accumulating now are clustering around the theme of family.
April: Do you have a favorite poem in this collection? If so, why?
Deborah: I tend to like the poems I have written most recently the best. Favorites in this collection would include “Progress Notes,” written just before lockdown, when I was struggling to articulate my conflicting feelings about working in the Substance Use Disorder Clinic. Another favorite is “Thrown From a Window,” which I wrote after reading Nicole Sealey’s ekphrastic poem, “Candelabra with Heads.” She invented a form called the Obverse for her poem, which I used in mine. The second half of the poem is a reversal of the first half, and the poem ends with a thesis question. The controversy over whether to include the final question led her to write “In Defense of ‘Candelabra with Heads’”
April: What advice would you give to busy professionals (doctors, lawyers, etc.) who want to write, but feel like they don’t have time?
Deborah: I was never successful at having time and energy for a daily or even weekly practice, but I always had some kind of accountability built into my schedule, either by taking an undergraduate course at my local university, or by scheduling a writing retreat. A day, a long weekend, sometimes even a week or more. My vacations were writing vacations, and after we were empty nesters, my husband would come with me if he liked the destination. He loved exploring Dundee, Scotland in 2016.
April: Do you have a favorite poet? Someone who inspires you when the creative tank runs low?
Deborah: Since I’ve started using poems as prompts for my generative writing workshops, I’ve been revisiting some of my favorite poems and poets. Right now, Ellen Bass is one of my favorites. I can almost always find my way into writing a new poem after reading some of hers. Kathleen Graber is a favorite for how she weaves so much into a poem. But thumbing through a Contemporary Poetry anthology works for me, too. I have two recent poems that began by reading Richard Wilbur’s “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” and Larry Levis’s “Winter Stars.”
April: I always like to end with a lightning round of silly questions, just to get to know you a little better:
Coffee or tea?
I have been a coffee drinker since I was a little girl. I lived in Brazil until I was eight years old, so the love for coffee began early. Tea is an important ritual, though, if I need to signal a transition into writing time.
Ocean or mountains?
I am not a beach person, but I love being near the ocean. In medical school, a walk along the vastness of the ocean would turn off the anxious churn about classes for anatomy and biochemistry. I could look out on the horizon, get perspective, and remember why I had chosen to take this rigorous path. The ocean is also my favorite metaphor for consciousness. The waves are a part of the ocean they are made from. Contents and context are one.
Woolf or Steinbeck?
Since I’m forced to choose, I pick Woolf. I had Steinbeck foist upon me in High School. I didn’t discover Woolf until I read her memoir. I’m reading a lot of memoirs as I write my own. Woolf’s novels are on my TBR list, but it’ll be a while before they work their way to the top.
Sneaked or snuck?
I use both. “The date snuck up on me,” or “I sneaked into the hallway.” As a poet, I choose words based on their sound and rhythm, so it depends on the context and the formality of what I’m saying. I love having choices of words and diction.
Bathtub or hammock?
Hammock! There’s nothing as delicious as lying in a hammock in the shade with a good novel and a tall glass of iced coffee.
Deborah Bayer is a poet (mostly) retired from the practice of Infectious Disease and Palliative Care Medicine. She is working on a memoir about the difficulty of assertiveness for women in healthcare. She has honed the craft of poetry in Peter Murphy’s workshops (now Murphy Writing of Stockton University), and she’s had the great fortune to study under Kathleen Graber, Cynthia Arrieu-King, Stephen Dunn, and Mark Doty. She spent her early years in Brazil, and now she lives outside of Atlantic City, NJ, with her husband. Rope Made of Bandages is her first poetry collection.