November 22–28, 2021
Laura Kolbe is a poet, doctor and medical ethicist. Her debut poetry collection, Little Pharma, won the 2020 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize and was published in October 2021 by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Kolbe’s poetry, fiction, personal essays and criticism have appeared in publications including the New York Review of Books, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Nation, American Poetry Review, Conjunctions, Poetry, New England Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Yale Review and elsewhere. Her medical work has been 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 Crown Heights with her partner Andrew and their dog Bonnie and tweets @laurakolbemd.
Author photo by Andrew Martin
Little Pharma’s Research
Sometimes when I leave the lab what’s outside
seems some detail of anatomy still, as if always
the metal gurney underlay the day. A man’s jeans
forming two blue veins coursing
beside my bed. The lamp’s sharp punctum where
light spools under the fixture. Street noise
leaking as through a weak wall in the heart.
The anatomist’s awe of layers, above all:
five skins between work shirt and rectus abdominis
hardly different from my skipping flat rocks minding
the many ways they waft out then fall in
or my skyping an old lover two skins,
two apartments back. Of course, the reverse
is just as true, like all the brightest
lies: in the lab I meet the rest of life, all the world
packed in one corpse: the body a kind of government,
a flame-red senate wrapped in fur. Its provinces
all fens and rivers, two-bit hucksters stamping
wet-booted outside the commissary store.
Out along the farthest limbs, nerves open dovecotes
for the wheeling flocks, homing, homing, home.
When I first met my hands, their small largesse,
they and I—we three—were amazed.
In the lab’s locker room they peeled off
my scrubs, glowed blue with a cold I couldn’t
yet feel but knew as mine. Little match girls.
Little lights. What is there to love
about this world without proportion? Impossible
to tell if one body is two, or five; to tell
whether, when I lie under my roof, it’s about
to slough right off, wizened epithelium,
raw life lying beneath it tasting
the night as new syrup serum sky.
—From Little Pharma, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
In this poem I wanted to get at the specific vertigo that comes from making rapid shifts in the scale of one’s visual attention. This kind of defamiliarization happens, I think, to anyone who looks hard at living things—how fractal-like we are, how every order of magnitude inward or outward opens another whole system of complexity—but it hit me hardest when I was in medical school. During that classic stage of training, the cadaver lab, I would spend hours peering at a bundle of nerves or counting the number of layers that sheathe the abdomen. Tiny work, beautifully nitpicky cartographic work. Then, jumping back into my “real” life, my larger life, I couldn’t quite shake the idea of following a similar atlas of fibers and vessels, just on an altered scale. I wanted to run up and down the scale in a way that feels as dizzy on the page as I did in life.
What are you working on right now?
Right now I’m mostly working on prose—I’m writing a memoir/critique of medical training that tells the story of this very strange (to me) subculture that is doctor-formation and its initiation rites. In my own travels through that world—particularly as an outsider or “nontraditional” trainee, someone who thought of herself as a writer and poet first, and then later became a doctor—I kept grasping for art, for literature, for episodes from history that would help me make sense of what was happening, or at least articulate the senselessness. On the one hand, a deeply dysfunctional healthcare system and the impossible tasks asked of clinicians. On the other, the holy terror of human bodies and their mysteries, of thresholds between life and death. The book tries to reckon with the beauty and the ugliness of that work and of the people—myself included—who feel called to that vocation.
What’s a good day for you?
My “life” actually swings wildly between a couple compartmentalized lives. When I’m on a seven- or fourteen-day stretch doing shifts as a hospital physician, a good day is one in which I hit upon a diagnostic or therapeutic idea for a patient that hadn’t occurred to me before, and the pace is relaxed enough that I spend time having real and unhurried conversations with a few of my patients who feel like letting me into their lives, and I’m teaching or modeling something important to a more junior clinician, and then I have the subway ride home to read a novel or a poetry collection. When I’m not being deployed at the hospital, a good day means reading, writing, maybe a long walk or run through Brooklyn, maybe the extravagant pleasure of writing a long email to an out-of-town friend. Going to the movies, always.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I first lived in Brooklyn in 2010, in my mid-twenties when I was taking some post-baccalaureate adult education classes in New York in premed subjects (biology, chemistry, physics, etc.) in order to apply for med school. A majority of my friends were writers or were working with books and magazines, or hoped to be. Occupy was about to happen, too, for many a long season back and forth across the East River. The greatness of Brooklyn was already supposedly “over” or moribund for those older than me who’d been around longer, but for me it was a heady, vertiginous few years of endless house parties, pick-up soccer games in Prospect Park, gossip, long walks between bookstores, punctuating all the hours spent at my desk studying to be a doctor and working on poetry. I eventually left for Montana, where my partner was getting his MFA, then on to medical school in Charlottesville, then medical residency in Boston, but it was always the plan to come back here, which I did in 2019.
Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
My first apartment in Brooklyn in 2010 was on the border of Crown Heights and Prospect Heights, and when my partner and I moved back in 2019, we looked all over the place and wound up in one just a few doors down. So there’s something in me that tugs towards that block around Washington Ave and Park Place. In 2010, I didn’t really see or think about the police station at that corner very much; in 2020 it became one of the loci for very public protest and conversation and analysis, and I felt grateful to my neighbors and fellow Brooklynites for helping me see better what had been in front of me all along.
During the pandemic, that apartment started to feel small for two writers (also both using Zoom endlessly for teaching and meetings), a large rambunctious dog, and our hoard of books, so now we’ve moved across the neighborhood to a larger space in northeast Crown Heights. I am still getting to know this side of the neighborhood, but one thing I like is all the impromptu art-making and music: there’s an old dry cleaner’s converted into a flexible community art gallery, there’s often a drum line going under the LIRR elevated line or at Brower Park, and many times there’s someone with a mic and an amp outside Soulfood Caterers on Kingston.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
The sheer breadth of life-living that happens in Prospect Park—particularly under pandemic conditions, but perennially—is staggering and delightful. Just a smattering of the things I’ve seen people do there: eat, drink, use every conceivable drug, breastfeed, pee, cruise, play sports, play in a band, sing karaoke, declaim poetry, petition, protest, sleep, paint, learn a language, watch birds, bring a pet bird, bring a pet rabbit, ride a horse, dress as a pony.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
It’s hard to work without an ideal reader or readers in mind—someone generous and curious, with a musical ear, someone who will think about where your work fits alongside other art or writing they’ve encountered, but who also wants to push you and call you on your bullshit or complacency from time to time. For me, a poetry community is wherever that is found. I’m lucky to have a geographically dispersed community, in that sense, made up of friends all over the country, including some in Brooklyn. I would love for more of it to be in-person, but I think that’ll happen organically as the pandemic continues to recede.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Marianne Moore, who spent many years in Fort Greene, is hugely important to me. Exactitude plus insatiable appetite. George Oppen spent a chapter of his life here, though during the period when he gave up poetry to work on activism and organizing. I’m interested in that, too—having a capacious enough sense of one’s own life to undertake those kinds of radical reorientations. I really love Ben Lerner’s poetry collections, particularly Mean Free Path. I think he’s here, and I think Timothy Donnelly is, too, whose poetry, particularly in his most recent book The Problem of the Many, is just brilliant.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
In college, my first taste of what poetry could be came from my teachers, including Helen Vendler, Jorie Graham, Peter Richards, Peter Sacks. I’m glad I was inoculated as early as possible against the idea of poetry as something pretty, decorative or therapeutic. Plenty of space for play, excitement, improvisation, happiness, yes—but also thinking very hard, revising vigorously and even ruthlessly, taking the work seriously because there are realms of human thought and expression that absolutely no other medium can get to in quite the same way, so why on earth waste or take for granted that power? My teachers at the University of Virginia, where I studied poetry while in medical school, were also fantastic—Lisa Russ Spaar and Debra Nystrom. This was at a time when I was ingesting as fast as possible this colossal body of knowledge in my medicine lectures, and my instinct was to wall off my poet-self from my med-student-self, but they both showed me how much better the work would be if I let those worlds spill over onto each other.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I just finished Diane Seuss’s new collection, frank: sonnets, and dear God, please stop reading this and pick up her book now. It has that quality of absolute laser focus vis-à-vis the past, like in Joe Brainard’s I Remember, while continually expanding the boundaries of its own atlas.
My former teacher Lisa Russ Spaar has an incredible book of new and selected poems, Madrigalia, coming out this week. The “madrigal” form in the most recent section of the book is such a brilliant approximation of polyphonic song on the page.
I just gave a craft lecture on Kim Hyesoon’s Autobiography of Death and it still rattles me each time I get to revisit it—that punk explosion of anger, political acuity and extreme vulnerability.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
There are some manuscripts out there that I trust will be published sometime soon and am desperate to read in their final form as books—but the wait is killing me. I’m thinking about the work of Amanda Gunn, Chris Spaide, Chris Knapp, Helen Chandler, Amanda Korman, Sara Martin, to name altogether too few.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I am definitely a dipper when it comes to reading. When I do occasionally seize a book and consume it in a few large slurps, it’s a wonderful sensation, but so intoxicating that I lose my ability to talk about it, write about it, or do much else. A nice thing about New York life is that different journeys across the city invite different kinds of reading material—so I’ll have one or two slim poetry volumes in my tote if I’m taking a long walk towards an appointment or errand, and when commuting to work by subway I’ll have a chunky novel for the morning ride to forestall reality a little longer, then maybe a book-review magazine or something else in an argumentative or hortatory mode for the ride home while my analytical brain is still overfiring. And of course even more choices about what would suit on the way to a party, a dinner or a movie. But physical paper and binding, always.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’m fascinated by very long poems—those with the page counts of short stories, or even books. I have no idea how it’s done, but I’d love to play with that. Hannah Sullivan’s book Three Poems, partly about roaming New York City, is a beautiful example.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I love sitting outside the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, looking at those incredible gilt doors and columns, which remind me of the idea of the Golden Record—what images would immediately summon some approximation of the beauty and multiplicity of the human imagination if we had to choose?
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
The bookstores, obviously. Although there are many greats, I have the greatest visceral affection for Unnameable Books on Vanderbilt Ave. I feel so at home in its warrened layout and its curation—it feels like touring an aspirational version of my own brain. I love shopping the various Middle Eastern groceries and bakeries at the far western end of Atlantic Ave and coming home with armfuls of treasure. I love the architectural fantasias you encounter if you drive out on Ocean Ave to Brighton Beach, and I adore Brighton Beach.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate in flashes as though with rescue-mirror
And what I shiver whitely at your camp you catch as sun cut down to slips of kerning
For every beam I speak as me as good as speaks the verb dysconjugate that might align
I / / you.
If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.
Permission to love
the lung for its rob-
the-air prying, the pen
and its sweet pealing sin,
uneven pavement in Brooklyn
lying in wait for hammer and jack,
ghosts of the sweat-crowned Dodgers
at Ebbets at evening, any mothers or fathers
we dream up on hot air exhaled astral as Biggie.
Elizabeth Bishop said it best in her poem “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore,” which tries to coax Moore out of Brooklyn:
… Whistles, pennants and smoke are blowing. The ships
are signaling cordially with multitudes of flags
rising and falling like birds all over the harbor.
Enter: two rivers, gracefully bearing
countless little pellucid jellies
in cut-glass epergnes dragging with silver chains.
The flight is safe; the weather is all arranged.
The waves are running in verses this fine morning …