An interview with Jack Coulehan, author of The Talking Cure: New and Selected Poems
Jack Coulehan is a physician, poet, and—for the past twenty years—a BLR reviewer, helping BLR’s editors sort through the thousands of submissions that arrive each year. Reviewers are the unsung heroes, the quiet forces that help keep the BLR engine running. After two decades of diligent reviewing, Jack is retiring. We caught up with him recently to get some literary pearls from a master. His latest book—The Talking Cure: New and Selected Poems—is available at BLR’s Bookshop.
BLR: You are a physician, and you’ve practiced medicine at University of Pittsburgh and then Stony Brook for decades. How and when did you become a poet?
Jack Coulehan: I’ve kept crumpled folders full of poems I wrote as a high school and college student. Forlorn love poems, bitter social satire, the whole adolescent thing. Later, in medical school, training, and early practice, I managed to suppress the urge to write poems, but at a considerable cost. I was too busy, I told myself. My time too fragmented, my responsibilities too important.
By the mid-1980s, this kind of thinking led to a personal crisis best described by Dante’s words from Canto 1 of Inferno, “In the middle of life’s journey / I found myself astray in a dark wood / where the straight road had been lost sight of.” I imagine today we would call it burnout.
Around that time, I shared my love of poetry with a patient who taught creative writing at the University where we worked. She encouraged me to resume writing and even offered to critique my poems. Bang! That was like the starting gunshot in a horse race. I suddenly became a working poet, and – this is going to sound corny – I felt renewed motivation and energy. The poem became a way of exploring my deep, and sometimes conflicted, feelings about my professional and personal life.
BLR: How was your practice of medicine affected by being a poet? (And vice versa.)
JC: In his autobiography, William Carlos Williams wrote, ”When they ask me… how I have for so many years continued an equal interest in medicine and the poem, I answer that for me they amount to very nearly the same thing.” OK, that’s hyperbole, but I do believe poetry and medicine are synergistic.
Clinical care provides the subject matter for many of my poems, and some of the themes I explore in them – for example, empathy, compassion, uncertainty, loss, anger, and guilt – have driven a process of self-discovery that I think has made me a better doctor.
I’ve sometimes shared my own poems or poems by others with patients, as part of therapy. For example, I wrote a poem called “I’m Gonna Slap Those Doctors”* for a man who was angry about the way he was treated by physicians in the hospital. He found this therapeutic. I gave a poem called “The Man with Stars inside” to the grief-stricken daughters of a man who had just died of metastatic lung cancer.
(*read BLR Editor-in-Chief Danielle Ofri’s experience reading “I’m Gonna Slap Those Doctors” to one of her patients.)
BLR: You’ve been reviewing manuscripts for BLR for 20 years. In fact, you joined BLR when it was publishing its inaugural issue in 2001. What’s it like to have overseen such a large flow of poetry and fiction? What have you learned from being a reviewer?
JC: When we started, I was astonished by how quickly BLR’s star rose among literary magazines. Hundreds of submissions came rolling in, and much of the writing was of high quality. I found that reviewing poems in a wide variety of forms and styles forced me to become a better judge of craftsmanship and more open to styles of poetry that I wouldn’t ordinarily read on my own.
By what criteria should I judge a poem, if it’s written in a highly allusive style that I personally dislike? This forced me to become more inclusive in my understanding of modern poetry or, in some cases, to acknowledge and accept my limitations as a reviewer.
Reviewing fiction and non-fiction was also educational. As an avid reader of fiction, I’m used to judging a story by my overall reaction, rather than teasing out factors that contribute to my response. Here again, I learned to step back and examine my reactions more carefully. All in all, working with BLR has been a wild and exhilarating experience.
BLR: Which poets and writers do you look toward for inspiration?
JC: The first poets that pop into my mind are Mary Oliver and Seamus Heaney. They’re completely different from one another, and my own voice as a poet bears little or no relationship to either of them. Yet, I often go back to reading their work simply as a source of affirmation, a “YES!” experience that refuels me.
The late John Stone became my mentor as a physician-poet. I value his work highly, along with that of my younger contemporary, Rafael Campo. Other fine poets who inspire me include Elizabeth Bishop, Natasha Trethewey, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Naomi Shihab Nye, among others. I often receive poems and books from other clinician-poets. I’m very grateful for this because in almost every case I discover something – an insight, an expression, a feeling – that inspires delight.
BLR: Tell us about the poem “Eleven Steps.” How did you settle on this structure and these particular metaphors?
JC: The poem was inspired by a fiercely independent stroke patient who was frustrated by her husband’s attempts to “protect” her during rehabilitation. She could never quite complete a task without his intervention. I decided to make it a series of short stanzas (each with 4 lines, about 9 syllables per line) to mimic her halting steps.
The images emerge from multiple levels of her conscious and subconscious life – direct observation (“our weathervane”), metaphors for her disabilities (“slurred world,” “hunks of dry wood”), and free association (“each stroke is a small fish” following “an arc of wet beach”). The patient’s internal monologue floats on a churning river of emotion – anger, loneliness, and love.
BLR: Do you have any advice for poets who are just starting out?
JC: Keep slogging away at it! Inspiration is occasionally spontaneous, but if you set aside time on a regular basis to play with words and ideas in a reflective way, you’re much more likely to reach a state of consciousness where poems begin to appear. When you get there, forget your inner censor. Let them happen.
Editing can and should come later. Sometimes the genuine poem begins somewhere in the middle of the first draft. Be skeptical of lines you think are fantastic; they might hijack the poem you’re trying to write. I’d also suggest learning about, and even trying, aspects of poetic form – rhythm, meter, rhyme, sonnet, villanelle, and so forth – as aides to developing discipline and, eventually, your own voice. I must confess, though, that I don’t always follow these precepts, but I try. And everything presupposes that you’re already reading and enjoying contemporary poetry.
BLR: What are you working on now?
JC: My current project is putting together a full-length collection of poems about Anton Chekhov’s life, characters in his stories and plays, and even his recent remarkable appearance eating breakfast at a diner in Port Jefferson, New York. Chekhov is the physician-writer I most identify with, even though he wasn’t a poet. He’s my hero because of the seamless integration of medicine, writing, public health, and humanitarianism throughout his life. The therapeutic qualities of empathy, respect, and acceptance infuse all his work, a theme I’ve explored in Chekhov’s Doctors (Kent State University Press, 2003), which is a collection of his stories that feature physician protagonists.
Jack Coulehan is an Emeritus Professor of Preventive, Family, and Population Medicine at Stony Brook Renaissance School of Medicine. Jack’s poems and essays appear frequently in healthcare journals and literary magazines, and his work is widely anthologized. He is the author of seven collections of poetry, including The Talking Cure: New and Selected Poems (2020).
Jack Coulehan Books:
The Knitted Glove, Troy ME, Nightshade Press, 1991
First Photographs of Heaven, Troy ME, Nightshade Press, 1994
The Heavenly Ladder. Canberra, Ginninderra Press, 2001
Medicine Stone. Santa Barbara, Fithian Press, 2002
Bursting With Danger and Music, Austin, Texas, Plain View Press, 2012
The Wound Dresser, Albuquerque, NM, J.B. Stillwater, 2016
The Talking Cure. New and Selected Poems, Austin, Texas, 2020
Belli A, Coulehan J. (Eds.) Blood & Bone: Poems of Physicians. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1998.
Belli A, Coulehan J, (Eds.) Primary Care: More Poems by Physicians. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 2006.
Soricelli R, Coulehan J. Grit, Gravity, & Grace, College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 2015
Coulehan J. (Ed.) Chekhov’s Doctors. A Collection of Chekhov’s Medical Stories. Kent State University Press, 2003.
Coulehan J, Block MR. The Medical Interview: Mastering Skills for Clinical Practice, Philadelphia, F.A. Davis, 2006. [5 editions, 1987 to 2006]