Tuesday, April 05, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Laura Kolbe

Laura Kolbe is a writer as well as a doctor and medical ethicist. Her debut poetry collection, Little Pharma, won this year’s Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize and was published in the Pitt Poetry Series in October 2021. She studied English and American literature at Harvard and the University of Cambridge before receiving her M.D. from the University of Virginia. She has published poetry, fiction, personal essays, and criticism in publications including The New York Review of BooksThe Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, and Poetry. Her medical work was highlighted in The New Yorker’s coverage of COVID-19, on LitHub’s Thresholds podcast with Jordan Kisner, and in the Yale University Press anthology A World Out of Reach: Dispatches from Life Under Lockdown. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner Andrew and their dog Bonnie. More of her work can be found at www.laura-kolbe.com or by following @laurakolbemd on Twitter.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My book Little Pharma is my first book. Years ago when my partner got a short story accepted by the magazine he most admired, our friend John called it the “Velveteen Rabbit moment,” after the (very dark!) children’s book by Margery Williams, about certain toys becoming live animals by the force of a child’s love. It’s the moment when someone’s loving regard for you (or your work) turn you from a crumple of cloth and stuffing into “the real thing,” whatever that is. I want not to believe in this – I want, rather, to believe that I would be just as “real” a poet even if no one ever offered me the chance to publish a book – but being a social animal, having a book that can circulate in society has felt like a personal metamorphosis.

Most recently I’ve been working on a hybrid memoir in prose that uses my own development as a medical trainee and a poet to cut a rambling path through the history and philosophy of medicine and art. I’ve always been a magpie of art and history, and sometimes of autobiography. But as a poet, I’m somewhat unused to making arguments that need to stick. It’s a different rhetorical muscle.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

A shallow and a somewhat deeper answer. My first college crushes were all poets, and I wanted very badly to have a chance with them. Longing does wonders for work ethic. But in fact, even as a much younger child I immediately grasped and loved the uselessness of poetry, that it could communicate unstably and without necessarily teaching, that it could say several things at once.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

I’ve tried to keep a notebook, but I often get too self-conscious about whether it’s becoming a “good” notebook, whether the contents are smart enough or interesting enough. It’s colossally disorganized, but I actually do much better when I’m jotting passages and observations in twenty different places – email, different apps on my phone, the backs of grocery receipts and utility bills. I don’t want any reverence or self-consciousness about what’s happening when I’m first starting out on a new project – it freezes me up. The informality of making a huge mess works much better for me.

4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I wish I naturally had book-sized thoughts, but most of my attention and planning happens at the level of the individual poem (or short piece of prose). Within that unit, I have a hard time breaking the silence properly, and try a large number of false beginnings to see where they go.

I watched an internet video recently of wolf pups learning to howl, first by making a lot of grunts and squeals and coughs, and it reminded me a lot of my own process.

But sometimes even a false beginning is a useful way to get to a true central passage, and then the job later is to find a more interesting and apt way to have gotten there than the bad opening lines I wrote.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I do deeply enjoy giving and attending readings, but maybe it’s an innocent excitement that I’ve preserved because it doesn’t happen much – I’m often found in the evenings at the hospital where I work.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I really don’t think reading or writing has intrinsic moral value, but I’m very interested in the widespread persistence of the belief that it does. What are we hoping for, or what are we trying to avert?

I’m also interested in questions like, what do I owe you? How can I write different flavors of silence and pause? What’s happening to me when I’m not thinking? Who am I aside from the knowledge I’ve acquired?

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I think when writers pursue their private obsessions, scratch their itches on the page, we all benefit by that honesty and the discomfort and surprise it engenders.

It’s also terrific, of course, when someone says something like, “I want to know what ‘justice’ is, and I’m going to keep writing until I figure out what I think I mean,” or “I want the world to know my theory about debt, so I’ve written it down” – thank God for these people! – but I think that’s often a slightly different endeavor than the unabashed disregard for utility that often gets writers to the most exquisite (and sometimes even useful!) places.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

My understanding is that many editors of literary magazines and small presses are poorly paid, overworked, may indeed hold additional jobs, and likely don’t have the time to engage in painstaking collaboration at the line level. In such cases, I’m grateful for their existence and perseverance, and for the occasional gracious suggestion about a better word choice or piece of punctuation. The few times I’ve had a poem rigorously edited tip to stern, it’s a little frightening and painful, but also exhilarating. I only wish it happened more often.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

I live with a really exquisite dog. I think a lot about her consciousness, her feelings, her hopes. It’s also extremely helpful to me when my friends and family remind me, “She’s a dog.” There’s a lot of implied advice in that statement.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to essays to stories)? What do you see as the appeal?

They are different cities, a few hundred miles apart, and I like them all. I can’t run back and forth between them in the same day – I waste a lot of time just trying to exit one and enter the other, and then I’m tired and irritable when I arrive. But I love being privileged enough to spend a season or a year in poetry, then have a question that I don’t know how to answer in poetry but I think I can answer in essays, so I move house for a while.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

Days when I’m working at the hospital, I just do that to the best of my ability, and feel pleased and grateful if I jot a few lines down or do some good reading on the commute that leaves me wiser or less complacent than I was before. Days that I don’t see patients, I try to put in a solid half-day of writing, spend a few hours outdoors, see a friend, read with greater intentness.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

When I feel stuck, just leafing through Wallace Stevens or Marianne Moore can unlock something for me. The breadth of the lexicon, the variety of the syntax, the vast gap between the rather narrow life and the wild roaming of their imagery.

I hold a lot of other writers dear for the particular things they can teach me when I’m stymied by something particular – from formal problems like ways of incorporating documentary information, to maybe what we might call “moral communication” problems, like accounting for one’s own bad behavior or unsavory thoughts without being either flippant or self-involved.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Incense (the church-y kind) is the smell that most connects me with my childhood, being bound up in some of my first experiences of the sublime at the Catholic church I grew up attending. I’m not at all a connoisseur of scent or of luxury products, but somehow have come to own and hoard two perfumes (Penhaligon’s Elixir and Aedes de Venustas’s Copal Azur) that plunk me right back in the mystery of being twelve years old.

Also cooked apples – my family lived on an apple orchard when I was young. My mother hates waste and loves ritual, and so made endless vats of applesauce every fall despite not being able to stand the stuff herself.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

I am entranced by the vocabulary and syntax of medicine, my other profession, as well as the other life sciences. I love classical music for being about delay and inevitability.

A lot of my spare time is spent encountering or attempting to encounter visual art, so allusions to that life experience sometimes come up in my work in a more diaristic way, but I haven’t yet figured out how to let the visual art influence the poetry without getting autobiography caught in the middle.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

My partner Andrew Martin is often my first reader and is, excuse my bias, a brilliant fiction writer and critic in his own right. He’s always telling me that it’s okay to be funnier, less serious, which can be particularly helpful when I get into one of my funks of solemnity.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I would love to collaborate with artists working in other media. I have a pretty ignorant but ardent love of opera, for example. And I’m interested in nonverbal visual languages.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I like my life as a doctor and a writer, but it’s very hard to get the proportions right. I anticipate spending the rest of my life trying to solve that riddle.

I have boundless awe for primary care and family doctors, particularly those in rural or otherwise isolating circumstances. I’m not sure I could hack it, but in some ways I think it’s the utmost a person could be.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Well, I did do something else – become a doctor and medical ethicist – and my next book is about whether that was the right choice, and more fundamentally whether that’s a useful or honest question.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I just read an incredible, slim pseudo-ekphrastic novel, The Eleven by Pierre Michon (translated beautifully for Archipelago by Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays). The speaker is ever more vehement in exhorting you to look closely at a painting that’s the crown jewel of the Louvre: a group portrait of the eleven members of the Committee of Public Safety, architects of the French Revolution’s so-called Reign of Terror. The painting and the painter don’t actually exist, to my glum disappointment. The canvas is so sturdily and relentlessly imagined, though, as to support a gorgeous intertwining of narrative biography, philosophy of history, and a jolt of just unabashed voluptuous love of what color and light can accomplish. At under a hundred pages, it has the pace and precision of an outstanding poetry collection, which it almost is.

During lockdown I saw Claudia Weill’s 1978 film Girlfriends for the first time. I couldn’t believe that here I am, trying to live in New York City as an artist and a woman, and all these years I had been missing this wise and funny document that would have been such a challenge and a prickle and a comfort if I had encountered it at 22. It’s like your older sister or aunt left you this hugely informative and engrossing voicemail that you forgot to listen to.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m still writing poems, but mainly I’m trying to finish a memoir of my medical training and my concurrent development as a writer and a reader. I think doctor-memoirs can sometimes be a bit pious or self-bowdlerizing, so I’m trying to introduce more chaos, more irreverence, more of the squalor of real life than generally makes it into the subgenre. Poetry has also taught me a few techniques for the artful (I hope) digression, so there are lots of intertextual leaps and forays into the history of medicine and medical ethics as well.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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