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interview with

M. Cynthia Cheung

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In addition to being a well-published and intelligent poet, you are also a practicing physician. While you do write poems (like "I Have Seen My Death") that incorporate medical and anatomical knowledge, your writing does not carry the cold remove that some people (me) associate with doctors. In fact, that poem is aligned with the patient's perspective. Your writing is overall very much engaged in the world; with suffering on a spiritual and cultural level as well as on the personal (as in "Forms of Water"). You have a clear love for language, and use the "I" as a pillar that holds up a poem. I especially liked our poem "People Are Sad" - it feels like a mirror held up to God holding up a mirror to humanity. 

 

You also serve on the judging panel for Baylor College of Medicine’s Michael E. DeBakey Medical Student Poetry Award. While we may see many examples of how medicine and discovery is useful to poetry via people like WCW and many physician-poets today, do you think it goes both ways? How does modern poetry, if at all, impact the medical community? What is it like helping to select poems for this award? 

 

Thank you for your kind words about my poems! I actually started writing poetry during the pandemic, as a way to cope with working on the Covid wards. There was really no other outlet, and I do wonder whether reading and writing--whether poetry or other literary forms--could have benefited more of us on the front lines. I strongly believe that physicians should have more exposure to the arts and humanities. Of course, we want our doctors to be experts in the science of medicine (goes without saying), but what about everything in medicine that isn't science? You can't teach empathy, but you can teach the next closest thing, which is poetry. I love judging for the Michael E. DeBakey Medical Student Poetry Award. These young, almost-doctors are learning how to stretch their wings, and it is so interesting to see where their anxieties lie, as well as their joys. It is a special privilege to read the students' work and give them a platform for their artistic expression. 

 

I notice that many of your poems interweave historical events, are placed in ancient scenes, or utilize threads (for example, "the great Marat was killed in his bathtub by a girl") to illuminate new ways of reading a poem's other lines and scenes ("Incarnation"). I even think of you as an anthropological poet for the elements of unearthing, unburial, and discovery that converge into a sense of getting at the complete human experience, with subject matter in any given poem flowing from gentle beauty to hard calculation to blood to mud to stars. I assume that you might research as you write. If so, what does this process look like, in a practical sense? What about the poem-to-be might appear first in your mind, and do you build that idea up with outside sources, or is it the other way around?

 

Again, thank you for such a generous, close reading of my work! I'm honored by your description of my process as anthropologic. I think there's a lot to be discovered when we re-examine the history we were taught or thought we knew. The ghazal, in particular, has become a form I find suitable to juxtapose elements from historical events (or science or medicine) and my own personal experiences to (hopefully) uncover something new. I do often research as I write, though many of the events or people I write about have been floating in my mind for months to years. Other times, I come across a quote or story in my everyday reading, and it sets a ball rolling. In those cases, I read a lot more before I start writing. So, to answer your question, it goes both ways on which is the chicken or the egg. 

 

I also like to ask writers what in their poetry might be misunderstood or misinterpreted, or what you wish to see more of in poetry, whether yours or out in the world.

 

I'd love to see more poetry of ritual, poetry of dark places that are beautiful in their darkness, such as the work of Mag Gabbert and Lisa Compo. I'd love to see more work from poets like No'u Revilla and Samyak Shertok, who use twisty syntax and startling leaps we don't think about often in American poetry. As a person who started writing later in life, I'd love to see more books from people who also write outside a traditional career arc or background, including poets like Burnside Soleil and Francesca Bell. As far as interpretation or misinterpretation of poetry in general, there are certain important topics that are very difficult to write about without appropriation or exploitation of another group of people, and I believe it's important to acknowledge this, as well as the nuances of identity and how writers can navigate addressing subjects outside their own immediate lived experience. There's a lot of dialogue around this in the poetry community, which is a good thing that we ought to continue thinking and talking about.

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M. Cynthia Cheung is a physician whose poems can be found in The Baltimore Review, Four Way Review, Pleiades, RHINO, swamp pink, SWWIM Everyday, Tupelo Quarterly and others. She is the recipient of an Idyllwild Arts Writers Week fellowship, and was a finalist in the Sunken Garden Chapbook Poetry Prize and the Snowbound Chapbook Award, both from Tupelo Press, as well as finalist and semi-finalist in the Two Sylvias Chapbook Prize and the Black River Chapbook Competition from Black Lawrence Press, respectively. She serves as a judge for Baylor College of Medicine’s annual Michael E. DeBakey Medical Student Poetry Awards. www.mcynthiacheung.com

Interviewer: Marina Kraiskaya (Brown) is a Ukrainian-American poet and the editor of Bicoastal Review. She recently won the Markham Prize for Poetry and has been nominated for the Pushcart and Best New Poets. Find her in Poetry International, Southeast Review, The Los Angeles Review, Zone 3, The Shore, EcoTheo, Deep Wild, Leavings, Petrichor, Pollux, and other journals. To get in touch, visit mkraiskaya.com or email theeditors@bicoastalreview.org.

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