Poet Interview: Kelley J. White

As a pediatrician who believes her work experiences speak of truth and honor in poetry, Kelley J. White gives her patients a voice to tell their stories because everyone has one worth listening to. The following interview reveals how poetry has been an important part of her life, even through her medical practice years.

What interested you in poetry? Did you take writing courses when you were in college? Have you written anything else besides poems?

I’ve always loved books and libraries and have wanted to publish a book since I was nine years old. There was a book I checked out of the Gilford Public Library called, I believe, O Ye Jigs & Juleps!, that had a ten year old author [Virginia Cary Hudson], and I wanted to rise to that challenge. I also wanted to be a scientist, though, and thought perhaps I could do it all.

I spent a summer in college working for the U.S. Forest Service in biology research and realized that I had more contact with people than being in a lab or at a research station provided. I thought of medicine as combining science and human service. I continued writing, and in fact was honored with a fellowship for creative writing during my senior year at Dartmouth College (after completing all the pre-med science courses). I have, therefore, a ‘novel’ in a box in the bottom of my closet. I made a brief effort to find a literary agent the summer before I started medical school at Harvard then put away that part of life for about a decade, although I did keep a journal related to my experiences as a resident physician in pediatrics.

Why did you choose to pursue a career as a pediatrician?

I had planned to become an obstetrician/gynecologist but realized just before beginning my internship that I loved children and babies—that I drifted over to the newborns after their deliveries and didn’t really want to read up on infertility or contraception. I was motivated to read about childhood illnesses and child development. For a year during residency training I made a commitment to write in depth about one patient each day. This came from the experience that as a physician (especially as a physician in training) we are privileged to participate intensely in the lives of children and families, often at times of the most extreme importance—birth, the diagnosis of serious illness, pain, or death—and then, oddly, we may never again see these people again. I wanted to honor these individuals. I wrote of them with respect and gratitude for their trust and teaching. A few poems have echoed those memories. I hope they have been honorable (of course names and details are changed).

How long did you work as poetry editor at The Schuylkill Valley Journal of the Arts? Were you working as a doctor and an editor at the same time?

I served as poetry editor for The Schuylkill Valley Journal of the Arts from about 2003 until I left Philadelphia to return to New Hampshire in 2008. The founding editor, Jim Marinell, a wonderful poet and kind, wise, human being accepted a few of my poems when I first began sending work out for consideration of publication. He was that rare editor who made a personal response to each submission including careful comments on each poem, comments that truly helped me shape poems. He was a guide and mentor to many writers. After Jim’s untimely death, in his honor, and with respect for Peter Krok, the current editor, I took on the title of poetry editor, though with a team of readers who read and ranked each submission without any author cover letter or other identification. It was a demanding process. I spent lots of time copying and collating work. I learned a great deal, though of course had less time to write.

And yes, I was, and still am, working full time as a pediatrician. Bill Wunder, the current poetry editor of SVJ does a fine job, with some assistance in reading, but has more editorial clout! A personal response from an editor is a rare and wonderful thing. I tried to be personal in my responses to submissions and to offer encouragement. As a new poet, I made a vow to write a grateful response to any editor who took the time to make a comment, even a negative blast or the single word, ‘sorry.’ I have often taken the short cut of sending postcards, but I do think even those quirky little bits of mail in my terrible doctor’s handwriting are appreciated. I also write to poets whose work I’ve come across and enjoyed or been moved by in my reading. I have quite a few correspondents around the world, of ages from nine to ninety, though, sadly, too many of my favorite editors and founders of small journals, like Jim Marinell, have passed away.

Did you draw inspiration for most of your poems from your profession as based on your poetry collections’ titles (e.g. The Patient Presents, Living in the Heart)? Is there a particular reason as why that is (e.g. perhaps to give reader a glimpse into your profession)?

There were things I wanted to express, stories I needed to get off my chest: most of my work in medicine has been with families living in poverty, and I have had the nerve to say I wanted to give my patients’ voices. I want to bear witness. Friends tell me that I should write essays, op-ed pieces for the New York Times, try to use the power of “Harvard Medical School graduate” in advocating for ‘the poor.’ That doesn’t feel honest to me. I believe that poems honor the truth of my medical experiences far better than essay, ‘creative non-fiction,’ or other narrative can. Very few, perhaps 3%, of my poems relate to medical work. Journals have seemed reluctant to publish them individually but several of my collections have directly related to my experiences, as the titles suggest, The Patient Presents, Against Medical Advice, Living in the Heart, Toxic Environment. One chapbook, Rule of Thumb, consists of poems specifically related to domestic violence. My most recent collection, Two Birds in Flame, however, was inspired by the Shaker Community in Canterbury New Hampshire largely in the nineteenth century and an upcoming chapbook, Lotus Feet, is largely in the voice of my children’s great-grandmother, Yang Sieu-Yoeh, speaking of her childhood in Shanghai.

Who is your favorite poet? What is it about his/her poetry that stood out to you? What “lessons” did you take away from his/her works?

Kobayachi Issa, 1763-1827. Haiku. I received a little book of his poems, A Few Flies And I, with charming illustrations, when I was a child. I could also give a list of 50 to 100 others, with a huge range of styles, genres, forms. But I return to Issa for his careful observation of nature, and human nature, then leads to moments of compassionate enlightenment. And humor. A wise uncle gave me a beautiful collection of haiku, interestingly enough translated into rhymed couplets, called A Chime of Windbells. It’s interesting to consider that haiku have really only been accessible to the west for a short time, hardly a century.

What inspired the formatting of the poem “Essay Questions,” which appears in Volume XXXIV of The Worcester Review?

I had occasional playful moments. Perhaps it came of spending a lot of my time with children, and of course, school is a very real experience to my patients, so the format of an essay test wasn’t really such a far reach. A few lines sprang into my mind, questions that somehow hinted at a narrative that’s out there somewhere; some novel, poem, book, play, text, or experience that’s real, and these questions were a way of approaching that other. I hope they give the reader a chance to open out to some rich imagining. And memory, perhaps, of their high school 10th grade English teacher. Mine was particularly wonderful.

For “Essay Questions,” how did you choose what to write about? Did each question have any relevance to each other?

I stayed close to some particular unfolding imagined text in the first ‘stanza’ then took on a meaner and meaner persona as the tyrant of the ‘short answer’ section. I had a lot of fun with the writing. And I think a little bit of a comment on how a test, perhaps just as arbitrary, might influence some significant moment in a person’s life—the decision to apply to college, to moment of giving up on a dream or to reflect on a relationship. Looking at the piece again I must have some pretty odd merchandise on the shelves in my mind.

Do you have any advice for poets?

Read. Write. Read. Read your work out loud whenever and wherever you can. Write to other poets. Correspond. Send your work out to the world. You learn with every experience, everyplace, everything. Pay attention. Honor a person by listening to their story. Everyone is your teacher.

On a last note, readers can find links to Dr. White’s works below:

Thank you Dr. White for taking time out of her schedule to answer my questions and her contribution to The Worcester Review publication.