I’ve spent most of my adult life trying not to be a poet. I was conscious that I was a writer; but having grown up in a household where I was the first person in my family to earn a college degree, writing as a profession didn’t feel like a realistic option.
I’d also felt drawn to the sciences. In 2005 I began a nursing program, and was on the path to becoming a nurse-midwife. During my first semester, I was diagnosed with a serious illness (from which I’ve fully recovered). At that time, I had an extraordinary physician. He didn’t practice medicine as if he were simply going through a checklist of protocols; his genuine concern and individualized approach carried me through this most difficult time of my life. My experience of illness and healing changed my perceptions about the limitations of medicine and, as a result, my intended career path. I made a deal with myself: when I got better, I’d become a physician.
With all of this talk about medicine, you might be asking: What about poetry?
The imagination of poetry had always been present in my life. While learning about adverbs in second grade, the teacher wrote my name on the board because I couldn’t stop laughing about making up nonsensical words such as “mouthly.” My father read and wrote poems for me and my siblings. He created neologisms that expanded our understanding of how language functioned. I learned and loved how inventive language could be.
When I was ill, writing became my coping mechanism. I found that I was able to create a world which simultaneously expressed and contained my fears. I started out writing stories, but their narratives began shaping themselves into the forms of poems. After a while, everything I wrote turned into a poem.
During my years of preparation for medical school, I continued writing poems. With a professor’s encouragement, I submitted a couple to UMass Boston’s Academy of American Poets Prize; I won honorable mention. From that moment on, I decided to treat my work seriously, though it hadn’t yet been published.
I was lucky enough to take my first poetry workshop with Lloyd Schwartz. After a day’s worth of hard science courses, talking about the placement of a comma became the best part of my day. I combined my love of art and medicine by writing about illness, healing, death, and loss. Treating my work seriously also meant submitting to journals. In the spring of 2010, after many mailed submissions, my first poem was accepted for publication in Hiram Poetry Review. I can’t explain the feeling of finally seeing my work in print other than to say I realized that very day that I measured my professional success by my writing.
In the fall of that year, Yusef Komunyakaa gave a reading at UMass. Someone asked him, “When did you first realize you were a poet?” He said that he’d always known he was, but that for the longest time he wanted to study something along the lines of social neuroscience. Then, there came a conscious moment in which he knew he had to surrender to poetry. I was about to take the MCAT, and I remember thinking, Shit.
I interviewed at my first choice school. After a few months of waiting, I wasn’t granted admission. After six hard years of preparation, this was devastating news. But then someone very important to me asked, “If you had to spend the rest of your life doing only one thing, what would it be?” I was reluctant to admit it, but the answer was simple. Poetry.
And this time I surrendered to it. It was the hardest, yet most liberating decision I’ve ever made. It didn’t necessarily make sense, but I chose it anyway. Instead of reapplying to medical school, I decided to get an MFA. My journey into poetry was a long, meandering one, and when I finally arrived, I was more than ready. And I’ve learned that poetry can be just as healing an art as medicine.
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