This interview was transcribed from a phone conversation with Rachel Hadas, editor of The Waiting Room Reader, Volume II: Words to Keep You Company.
I thought I would start this interview by asking you to say a few words about the project, specifically about the process of trying to bring the medical and the literary worlds together in this anthology?
Literature and medicine (or literature for, by, and about doctors, patients, social workers, etc.) is a cultural movement today. This anthology is a small example of a larger trend.
One way of thinking of the relationship between medicine and literature is to think of it as applied literature, to ask, How is this book actually useful? When I was spending a lot of my life in medical facilities, I always had a book in my bag. In fact, that is the subject of the poem, “The Book in the Bag,” in my recently published collection, The Golden Road. When you know you have to spend a lot of time in the hospital, what book do you take with you?
Could you say a few words about the experience of editing the anthology?
I really enjoyed it. Joan let me have sole artistic control, though she did veto a few selections and suggested I include prose. I had wonderful help from my able assistant, Joanne Chin. The overall experience was fun, and it went very smoothly, despite the fact that I was doing some of the editing at a very challenging time.
In the beginning, Joan put out a call for poems in Poets and Writers. So the first batch of poems came from all over and included a variety of work, some good and some not so great. But there were pleasant surprises in there. After that we solicited work. I also invited my MFA students at Rutgers to submit poems. And many of them did. I decided to take only one poem or prose piece from an author. Sometimes it was hard to choose just one. In terms of the ordering of the poems, I was surprised at how naturally the selections came together. The work seemed to group itself thematically into animal poems, food poems, object poems.
Could you talk about the criteria you used for your selection process?
Rita Charon, a pioneer in the field of Narrative Medicine, who wrote one of the blurbs, commented that there were no poems about illness in this book. Nevertheless, I wasn’t looking for poems that were simply about a happy childhood. I avoided sentimentality. I was looking for poetry and prose that was engaging, that might remind the reader that life is precious, and help focus the mind.
How would editing this collection differ from editing a general anthology, say, Best American Poetry?
I suppose an anthology like that might have been less thematic. It might also have included more famous poets. After all, the poems in a Best American have already been published. So in one sense, they are pre-selected.
I’m not really sure about the answer. I like the wide net I was allowed to cast out for this anthology. I like the fact that for some writers, this a first publication. And the selections in this anthology benefit from the company they are in. They belong in this neighborhood. They are part of this literary conversation. They might not all be as interesting alone.
Another consideration is that future readers of this anthology might be interested to find in it the early work of a then-unknown poet.
Did you have in your mind, as you were reading, a particular waiting room? And did you then imagine yourself reading the poems and essays?
I didn’t actually have one specific waiting room in mind. As I say in the introduction, there are many kinds of waiting rooms, but they all have something in common. I did recently find myself in a waiting room, which had a copy of the first Waiting Room anthology. I was happy to see it there.
Did working on this anthology have any influence on your own work?
It contributed to my thinking about my work. Some of my earlier poems have been too discursive, too abstract. The process of working on this anthology confirmed my general sense that poems which focus on specifics are often easier to read.
I often think of editing as a kind of thankless task. You put together such a lovely collection, but your work is not featured. I think that is my one disappointment with this collection. But I did want to close by saying, Thank you very much.
That’s very kind of you, but I think it is just good manners not to put yourself in an anthology. I would rather not be like Oscar Williams and Louis Untermeyer who included lavish amounts of their own work in their anthologies. After all, I have already been widely published. But I do hope people will seek out my work. As I said in the beginning, I have a new collection, The Golden Road, published last fall by Triquarterly, in which I have plenty of literature and medicine poems. I suppose if I were to have included a poem of my own, I would have chosen, “The Book in the Bag.”
FROM NIN ANDREWS
I thought I would end the interview with a poem from the anthology: “Collecting Spanishes,” by Roberto Santiago, a 2012 graduate of the Rutgers-Newark MFA program. I selected this poem because I think it is engaging, accessible, and representative of the qualities Rachel Hadas discussed in her introduction as well as in this interview.
by Roberto Santiago
Abuelita’s English was just like her
bread pudding punctuated with raisins
nobody ever asked for. Condensed milk
contradictions, fattening tenses,
cinnamon questions and eggshell promises.
Papi’s Spanish was a group of poets
workshopping. Not overly concerned
with agreement and never without purpose.
I don’t ever remember him
speaking in Ñ’s to me but I loved him most
when he spent all his accents on Momma.
Momma’s Spanish was slow-moving
silkworms which sometimes threaded
stars into Greek myth and lullaby.
Other times they tangled words
into ivy wrapping up a building brick by brick.
Abuelo’s Spanish folded itself into English
tea sandwiches. Cucumber and watercress
covered in adobo y habichuela negra.
I never tasted the recipe. He wasn’t around often
enough for them to be prepared
and something like that doesn’t keep well.