As I slogged my way through medical school and residency, I was weighed down by career choices. Would I pursue clinical medicine or would I ensconce myself in a lab doing research? Would I train in neurology or stick with internal medicine? Would I stay in the public hospital system or seek the tonier private world? Academic medicine or private practice? New York or Boston? The choices were endless, and endlessly taxing. But suffice it to say, reading poetry and editing fiction were not among the options playing through my mind. As I paid off my student loans from my intern salary, I did not ever imagine that I might spend two decades of my medical career immersed in literature.
If nothing else, this experience has taught me to embrace serendipity. As a medical resident, I overheard a fellow trainee talking about locum tenens, temp work for doctors. Exhausted from an AIDS-saturated residency, I took off on an 18-month sojourn. Between temp jobs, I had my first opportunity to reflect on the intensity of medical training, and began to write down some of the stories.
I returned to Bellevue as an attending physician and wanted to incorporate this experience into my teaching. When my students handed in the clinical histories of their patients, I requested that they ask their patients instead what it’s like to be sick, to just tell each patient’s story. At that time, Dr. Martin Blaser had returned to NYU as the new chair of medicine. He was also asking his students to write short essays inspired by their patient experiences. An astute colleague suggested we meet.
We initially considered assembling a student journal, but then thought that there might be a broader interest in these topics. We came up with the idea of Bellevue Literary Review and took out a two-line call for submissions in a writing magazine. When we were flooded with nearly a thousand submissions, we realized that we’d touched a nerve.
Pulling together the inaugural issue during the summer of 2001 was both heady and nerve-racking, as we trod uncharted territory in everything from poetic sensibility and creative-nonfiction definition to font size and paper weight. We had just packed the first issue off to press in the first week of September when the attacks of 9/11 occurred. Everything ground to a halt in New York City, logistically and emotionally. Not only could we not get our print run delivered, but we could hardly muster the spirit to find joy in any accomplishment. In the heavy pall of grief, everything else seemed inconsequential.
The journal eventually arrived, but we were faced with a difficult decision. We’d planned a coming-out party for BLR—an inaugural reading in the historic rotunda of Bellevue Hospital—on Sunday, October 7. Rafael Campo was coming down from Boston to participate. David Lehman, the series editor of Best American Poetry, was scheduled to read. But no one, anywhere, was in the mood to celebrate. How could we possibly think about planning an event when the fires were still burning in lower Manhattan?
In the end we decided to go forward, even though our hearts weren’t fully in it. The morning of October 7th we awoke to the unsettling news that the U.S. had invaded Afghanistan. The country was officially at war and everyone’s already frazzled nerves were even more on edge. The prospect of a poetry reading that evening felt inconsonant, even disrespectful.
We were floored, then, when more than a hundred people showed up. It was standing room only. All had to walk past the emotional gauntlet of wall-to-wall posters of the “missing” that still plastered the entranceway to Bellevue. And yet, they came. The audience was attentive and gracious. There was a feeling of relief to be together, grappling with conflicting states of mind, relishing the power of the written and the spoken word. It reminded us all how central the arts are to healing.
The Covid-19 pandemic has again shaken our foundations. It has been strange to feel the whole world suddenly focused, together, on medical issues and public health. A year in, there’s a recognition that scientific facts are necessary, but not nearly sufficient, to address the rippling vulnerability that Covid-19 laid bare. The arts are surely part of this equation, especially the arts that deal directly with health and healing, illness and disease.
Since the pandemic, BLR is now a fully independent nonprofit arts organization. This puts us on steadier ground, and allows for an even more expansive range of possibilities for the future. While my day job is still as a primary care doctor, all the rest of my time resides on the literary side of the street. When I was in training, this particular combination of endeavors certainly wasn’t on the docket of options alongside endocrinology, rheumatology, or research. But just as you can’t know how an essay or poem will end when you plant the first word on the page, neither can you know where your life might take you when you plant the first steps on your path. And thank goodness! Every good piece of writing needs a twist, and I suppose every life needs one too.
We are thrilled to present to you the 20th anniversary issue of BLR. This larger issue—our 41st—allows us to print even more of the wonderful writing that comes our way. Reading through the proverbial slush pile is a literary treasure hunt. You never know what or who will turn up.
Two stories in this issue contend with obesity in radically different scenarios. In Rosaleen Bertalino’s story “Intensive Care,” an ICU doctor in Mexico probes his own relationship to food while caring for patients on the brink of death: “He didn’t think gluttony was his problem, though. No, it was something else. Something sadder, stranger, webbed with despair.” In the story “Kale,” by Marilyn Abildskov, an aging Utah matriarch has to simultaneously wrestle with her own self-destructive behavior and her sanctimonious daughter-in-law, “fit in black yoga pants and purposefully messy bun.”
Jena Martin’s essay, “The Secrets of Hair Loss,” illuminates how early childhood experiences intertwine with adult career choices and emotional reckonings. Now a dermatopathologist who studies hair disorders, Martin reflects on growing up shrouded in a mother’s shame from early hair loss.
In the essay “Our Eyes Were Watching Marcia,” Samuel A. Autman recalls how he and his sister grew up identifying with sitcoms of idealized white family life—especially The Brady Bunch—that had nothing in common with their family experience and the undiagnosed mental illness that wreaked havoc with it.
Publishing first-time writers is a long-time BLR tradition that we are particularly proud of. We are thrilled to showcase Ryan Daniel Pollard’s first published story “Housekeeping, ” in which a college student grappling with a stutter finds himself working as a hospital housekeeper. Chris Murphy also debuts in this issue of BLR with “Hart Island,” a fictional but all-too-real accounting of one poignant sliver of the Covid-19 pandemic.
We’re equally proud to showcase veteran writers, like Edward Hirsch and Ted Kooser. In the poem “Sit and Eat,” Hirsch describes his mother setting the table, thinking that he is coming for dinner. “I am a thousand miles away,” he writes. “I am only a mile away / in her mind.”
Kooser’s poem, “Midsummer Rain,” describes awakening “…to a thunderstorm / making its way toward the dawn, a half dozen /big thunders pulling it forward, straining on /leashes of lightning.”
Several of the poems in this issue offer intriguing plays on structure. Two poems by CAConrad choreograph a path for the reader, adding geometry to the poetic repertoire. Beck Nison uses her own medical records as raw material. Selectively blocking out some of the medical jargon, she finds poetry in what remains, effectively “Reclaiming Records.”
In the essay “Hypnotic,” Mohan Fitzgerald walks us through the experience of being hypnotized in an attempt to cure his jaw grinding. In “Falling,” Zoe Fowler intertwines artist Gustave Dore’s meditations on falling with her own. There is so much thought-provoking and engrossing writing in this issue, and we’re excited that you are about to dig into these pages.
These past twenty years have been a remarkable journey. There are far more people to thank than could possibly fit on the printed page, but I will single out Marty Blaser, our founding publisher, and Stacy Bodziak, our managing editor for the past seventeen years, for their foundational contributions. BLR simply would not exist without them. A huge thanks goes out to our intrepid editors—past and present—who’ve shepherded hundreds of manuscripts from submission to publication (with a special acknowledgement to Jerry Lowenstein and Ronna Wineberg, the founding nonfiction and fiction editors). BLR editors are distinctly hands-on, eager to roll up their sleeves and dig into the literary weeds. Many writers have commented that working with BLR has been the most intense and rewarding editorial experience they’ve ever had. (You’ll have a chance to hear from some of these remarkable editors in the “Editorial Roundtable” included in this issue.) With this issue, we also say farewell to Jen Hyde, our poetry editor for the last five years. Jen’s keen artistic eye and her constant broadening of our literary tent have left a measurable and memorable mark on BLR. We also welcome a new assistant poetry editor, the fabulous poet Omotara James.
Our reviewers are instrumental in helping us sort through the thousands of submissions that come over our metaphorical transom every year. These stalwart reviewers are the unheralded cavalry who make it possible for BLR to open our doors as expansively as possible, and we are endlessly grateful for their time and thoughtful attention.
Each of these thousands of submissions, of course, represents a writer who has been toiling on the page. We recognize the immense work and emotional commitment of all the writers who submit their work. Without them, BLR’s pages would be empty. Even though we can only publish a tiny fraction of the writings that are submitted, we are indebted to the prodigious efforts of all the authors who share these precious parts of themselves with us.
Last, but assuredly not least, I want to acknowledge you—the reader. Readers are the raison d’être of any literary enterprise. Your steadfast loyalty over these twenty years is what has made it possible for BLR to thrive for this long. Whether you are new to our pages, or have been here from the get-go, your valuing of great literature is what allows us to continue.
Many of you have also become donors. This financial support underpins our sustainability as a nonprofit, and we are immensely appreciative that BLR is part of your charitable giving.
BLR’s two-decade milestone offers a thrumming sense of possibility. We’re eager to seek unheard voices, to forge new artistic collaborations, and to explore new ways of creatively probing the issues of health, healing, illness, and disease. We hope you’ll continue sharing your ideas, your writing, and your support. We hope you’ll share BLR with a friend who’s never heard of us. The next twenty years can be whatever we—the BLR community—decide we’d like it to be. And we’re thrilled that you are part of this community.