Celebrating 25 years of Poetry of the Times with Richard Berlin, MD!
Richard Berlin, MD, has been writing a monthly poem for Psychiatric Times™ for 25 years. In celebration, we sat down with Dr Berlin to ask about the past quarter of a century full of poems and creativity.
PT: 2023 marks 25 years of Poetry of the Times. When you began, did you ever foresee this kind of extended relationship?
Berlin: I hoped for an extended relationship, but never imagined 25 years! Back then, I was in midlife and midcareer. I had published 60 scientific papers, edited a book on sleep disorders, and developed a good sense of how medical publishing worked. A few of my poems had been published, though sending out poems, tracking them, getting rejections, and sending the poems out again, was a demoralizing slog. I was glad I had a good day job! At the same time, Psychiatric Times™ was a young, dynamic publication that was open to many interesting new voices (Ron Pies, Peter Kramer, Sue Chance, Paul Genova, and others). Since most of the poems I was writing dealt with medical/psychiatric themes, I imagined Psychiatric Times™ as an ideal home for them. Then I came up with the idea of writing a poem each month to complement the issue’s Special Theme (depression, anxiety, suicide, geriatrics, etc). I put together a set of sample poems, a pitch letter, sent the package to the editor, and was thrilled when Christine Potvin and John Schwartz responded with a “yes”!
Of course, that “yes” created a new set of concerns: “What will it be like to reveal myself through poetry to over 40,000 colleagues every month? How will they “analyze” me? And what about the stress of having a monthly deadline?” But I had no need to worry. Psychiatric Times™ readers have continued to be a receptive and supportive audience, and my medical/psychiatric career has provided an infinite well of inspiration. Twenty-five years and 300 poems later, I cannot imagine a more perfect home for my poetry.
PT: Do you have a favorite poem that’s been featured in Psychiatric Times™?
PT: What’s your favorite poem by another writer?
Berlin: “Poetry,” by Pablo Neruda, which ends like this:
"…..And I, infinitesimal being,
drunk with the great starry
likeness, image of
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke loose on the wind."
PT: How do you think poetry and medicine overlap? Does being a poet ever impact your practice?
Berlin: Poetry and medicine definitely overlap.
The iconic doctor-poet William Carlos Williams said, “When they ask me, as of late they frequently do, how I have for so many years continued an equal interest in medicine and the poem, I reply that they amount for me to nearly the same thing.”
I have come to experience medical practice the way Pablo Neruda experienced poetry: a domain that includes, “the decrees of touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing, the lust for justice, sexual desire, the sound of the ocean, nothing deliberately excluded, nothing deliberately accepted, entrance into the depth of things in a headlong act of love…”
And yes, being a poet has a big impact on my practice of psychiatry, and psychiatry has had a big impact on my poetry writing, especially my experience providing psychotherapy, where it is so important to pay attention to flow, to allow themes to develop, and not interrupt the process too quickly. For example, when I first started writing, my father would suddenly become present in the poems; I would write few lines about something random, like playing Little League baseball, and there he was, sitting in the stands! But I knew from my psychotherapy practice that I should let the words unfold and not self-censor. As a psychotherapist, creating metaphors like a poet is a powerful way to reframe a patient’s mood, behavior, or life story.
PT: If you could go back 25 years and give yourself advice, what would you say?
Berlin: I would have advised myself to have started writing poetry when I was younger! Since that is not advice I can follow, I established “The Gerald F. Berlin Creative Writing Award” at UMass Chan Medical School to encourage people at all levels of medical and nursing training to write creatively. The award is named in honor of my father and is now in its 19th year.
PT: Do you have advice for other writer/doctors out there?
Berlin: As doctors, we know the discipline of hard work, study, and practice. If you want to develop your craft as a poet or writer, the same core values are just as useful.
Being in a writing group can be an excellent source of support and education. As you develop your craft, enlisting the wisdom of an experienced poet/writer/teacher/editor can help take your work to the next level. We all need a trusted person who can praise and criticize our work in ways that teach us how to improve our writing.
I would also urge writer/doctors to follow Stephen King’s encouragement to “read a lot, write a lot;” and to follow the advice of Anne Lamott: “Put your butt in the chair every day for 45 minutes and write a shitty draft.” Because writing happens only when you write, but not when you just think about writing.
There are many wonderful poetry writing guides. My favorite is The Art and Craft of Poetry by Michael J. Bugeja, who will walk you through the steps to create poems in every form from sonnets to free verse to pantoums.
Dr Berlin has been writing a poem about his experience of being a doctor every month for the past 25 years in Psychiatric Times™ in a column called “Poetry of the Times.” He is instructor in psychiatry, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, Massachusetts. His latest book is Freud on My Couch.