Poetry Santa Cruz
Poetry Santa Cruz

Difficult News
An Interview with Poet and Physician Valerie Berry by Len Anderson

Len Anderson:  The title of your book, difficult news, has an added resonance after September 11. How do you see your role in bearing this news?  Are you consoling or challenging us?

Valerie Berry:  The title of my book, as many readers may recognize, comes from a poem by another doctor-poet, William Carlos Williams.  In “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” he writes:

My heart rouses
   thinking to bring you news
      of something
that concerns you
   and concerns many men.  Look at
      what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
   despised poems.
      It is difficult
to get the news from poems
   yet men die miserably every day
      for lack
of what is found there.

The events of September 11, unsettling as they were, seem to me another example of “what passes for the new.”  Unexpected illness, loss and death are not-new things that we keep rediscovering, yet we are so slow to get it, get the news inside those difficulties, and truly change our hearts.  It was gratifying that so many people turned away from the endless television coverage of September 11 and started looking elsewhere, such as poetry, for the news.

I like the double meaning of your question, “bearing this news”--both how do I deliver the news, and how do I personally withstand the gravity of it.  My book is a loose narrative of how difficult and unexpected events kept falling into my life, and how I fell with them until I could perceive whatever wisdom, or news, or consolation was folded into the suffering. It can be hard holding that tension, to bear it as a trial and then bear it as a message, seeing one's life falling to pieces and yet remain open to report on what rises out of the chaos.  I think that the last poem in the book, “April's Fool,” presents the core of the difficult news I wanted to share:  Loving and being open to the world doesn't prevent painful things from happening, but that it does give us a choice in how we can respond.

The dedication of the book--“for those who have gone to hell for love,” another echo from “Asphodel”--gets at that challenge/console question.  I wanted to do both, to show that loving is hard work, and its own consolation.

LA:  You are a practicing physician.  How does that figure in your poems?

VB:  It determines what I don't write about.  I have to be careful about writing about my patients.  First, it can be formulaic and boring: “My patient is suffering and I'm reminded of my own mortality, oh woe is me.” It is fine to acknowledge that feeling, but I don't think it makes for very interesting poems.  Second, the Hippocratic Oath says that what I see or hear in the course of my profession are “holy secrets” and should never be divulged.  I take issue with some of the Oath, but not that part.

I think my practice appears mostly in the language I use--lots of lungs and breath and muscular verbs--and in the way I look for the hidden, as in the Rodin poems, looking at the sculpted bodies, seeing below their surface to what story lies inside.  Also, if a scientific term seems natural and fits the rhythm of the poem, I use it.  For example, the Second Law of Thermodynamics appears in my poem about trying to run away from aging.

LA:  Is poetry also a healing art?

VB:  I think all arts heal.  Sometimes it takes us a while to recognize how, especially when the initial experience of it makes us uncomfortable or leaves us perplexed or angry.  I'm reminded of surgery.  For me, the sacred moment in surgery is when you hold the scalpel above the unmarked, intact skin.  You know that once you cut, it will never be the same, no matter how well it heals--yet the healing can't begin until the surgery opens the patient, reveals what's wrong.  I think art does that.

LA:  How do you find time to write?

VB:  I love this question.  It assumes that doctors are victims of time.  There is no required work week mentioned in the Hippocratic Oath!

What is more important is that I found out what kind of writer I am.  I don't have a discipline or a set time for writing.  I let poems find me.  Hiking or running--but not biking, oddly enough--seem to create space and make some agreeable connection between brain and body that fosters my writing.  I've learned to recognize when a poem has started:  an image or a feeling takes root inside me, and I know to just sit back and watch it gather words.  Sometimes it takes an afternoon, sometimes years.  I'll reach for paper and pencil and be amazed to find the poem writing itself.

LA:  What drew you into poetry?

VB:  I can't remember a time when I didn't write, though I wrote mostly stories when I was young.  I think Emily Dickinson had something to do with it; I identified with her eccentricity. In her own way she was powerful--in the '70s, we would have said “liberated”--and that quality shows in her poetry.  I wanted that quality in my own life, and I studied her poems as a kind of map “pointing the way to the next thing.“  I like to think I embraced the part she left undone:  I went out and got the diploma that admits me everywhere--like those letters of transit in Casablanca.  Meeting each new patient is like entering another country, one where, paradoxically, I can learn more about the unexplored territory of myself.  What I learn in such travels continues to support both me and my poetry.


Valerie Berry read with Terry Ehret at 7:30 pm on February 12 at Bookshop Santa Cruz.

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