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Oncology’s Poet Laureate: An Interview with Dr. Frank Meyskens

Apr 22, 2014

Writing a poem: Seamus Heaney compared it to digging, Emily Dickinson to telling a slanted truth. For Frank L. Meyskens, Jr., MD, writing a poem “is like breathing”—not in ease, but in fundamental necessity. In spare, concise, deeply emotional verse, Dr. Meyskens, founding Director (Emeritus) of the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center and a professor at the University of California, Irvine, writes of loss, healing, relationships, and politics. His second collection of poetry, Believing in Today, publishes in May 2014.

AC: When did you start writing poetry?

Dr. Meyskens: I started writing poetry in my third year of medical school, in the 1970s at the University of California, San Francisco.

AC: Is your writing process structured, or are you able to write anywhere inspiration strikes?

Dr. Meyskens: Ideas can come anywhere and usually come to me when I’m relaxed. I often come up with an idea at one of my favorite jazz places, and I’ll write down a few words or occasionally a complete poem. I also do a lot of writing at 30,000 feet, looking out the airplane window at the clouds. There is something eternal about that situation. I set aside Sunday mornings as a structured time to write and rewrite—with pen and paper, not the computer.

AC: Who are the poets who inspire you?

Dr. Meyskens: The poets I like don’t tend to be mainstream. Alexander Pushkin, the great Russian poet who died in a duel over his wife at age 37, is beyond compare. I admire Michael Ryan, who writes about practical things. Jane Kenyon is also a favorite; she had a personal experience with cancer. And Roddy Lumsden, who is totally alive and out there.

My hero is Václav Havel, a poet and the president of Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic, who brought peace to the country in the 1990s. When Slovakia wanted to become a separate country, he facilitated that peacefully. Poets are the canaries in the coal mine—in places where there is no stable democracy, writers and poets are the first to be persecuted when there’s a change in ideas.

AC: Many of your poems are about your experience as a physician—how do you approach them?

Dr. Meyskens: Most doctors who write poetry describe diseases. That’s not what I’m about. I take a fly-on-the-wall approach to interactions between a doctor and a patient, or a doctor and a colleague.

AC: When did you begin publishing your poetry?

Dr. Meyskens: Around 2002, I believe.  I am a member of the Oncology Times Editorial Board and had an idea for a series on “Poetry by Cancer Caregivers.” I have offered about 10 of my own poems to the series over the years. I’ve had poems published in the International Journal of Dermatology and several in the “Art of Oncology” series in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, which are accompanied by some terrific academic commentary.

AC: Your first collection, Aching for Tomorrow, was published in 2007. What was the publication process like for you?

Dr. Meyskens: I asked Michael Ryan, one of my favorite poets and a creative writing professor here at UC Irvine, for guidance. I sent him a copy of my manuscript, and it led to a long lunch meeting. My first question was, “Where do I submit this?” He gave me the excellent advice, “Submit it to the places where you like their poetry.” With that in mind, I narrowed down the list of publishers to five, and one responded, “We love what you’re doing—let’s talk.”

At that time, as an academic, I was very concerned about whether my poetry was “good.” Michael told me, “Frank, ‘good’ doesn’t matter.” He was right. As a poet, you have to believe in what you’re putting on paper, because it’s so intensely personal. You have to be prepared for people to look at you in a different way after they read it. As a reader, you have to believe in the person who wrote those words. People are often surprised that I am a physician, a “cold” scientist, and work in molecular biology and also write poetry, but I find them to be similar disciplines. They are incredibly precise and very personal. At a conference, I’ll give a presentation involving molecular biology during the day, and in the evening the wine comes out and the poetry starts.

AC: How has your writing changed between the two collections?

Dr. Meyskens: My first book is probably 80% related to patient interactions. Believing in Today is maybe 25% patient themes, with the rest about  life realities, family dynamics and relationships, and death in my own family, particularly the death of my father. My
colleagues and I are at an age at which our parents are passing away, and we begin thinking about our own mortality. There are some political poems in which I rant at the state of the world. Any reader will quickly understand my political leanings.

When I was cleaning out some things, I found some of the poems I wrote as a fellow at the National Institutes of Health, back when fellowship meant working long shifts seven days a week, 365 days a year. These are included in the book, called “From a Long Time Ago.” It was interesting to me to see how my style has changed—and how my worldview was even more existentialist then than it is now.


Mark Allen O'Rourke, MD

Jun, 08 2015 11:02 PM

Good job, Dr. Meyskens.  You inspire us all.

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