The last two spring semesters, I have had an interesting teaching opportunity. I have been teaching Fourth Year Medical Students at the Medical School of the University of South Carolina Creative Writing. We have met on a weekly basis in a very comfortable conference room over in the VA complex off Garners Ferry Road in the late afternoon to read and comment on their poetry, short fiction and memoir pieces. Many things have impressed me about these workshops, but I have been quite fascinated by the relationship these students seem to have to their work. I realize that what I have observed is not entirely unusual for any group of writers who have no serious intentions of being professionals at writing and who are quite comfortable with the occupations — indeed, they know, at this stage, that they will have to complete their internships and go on to work for a number of years to deal with the debt they are going to be for a while. Medical students invest a great deal of time, money and concentration on their training, and so it is clear that this focus will not change even if they discover themselves to be amazing talents as writers.

For most of them, writing is not a new thing. Writing creatively is something they used to do. They also used to enjoy history, play a musical instrument, and play competitive sports. They no longer do these things. Indeed, as we went around talking about why they had enrolled in the class, the students all spoke of having an interest in writing at some point (usually in high school), and then becoming consumed with the kinds of courses and programs of study that they had to embrace in their quest to be doctors. There is a watershed period in the fourth year for these students, and in that time, they get to breathe a little. The elective is offered then because it is the only time they can realistically take a class just for the fun of it.

There is a strange sense in which the writing class transports them back to those high school years, but they are also coming to realize that they are now in a new space and time. Reconciling the two things is one of the challenges they face. Another challenge is coming to the realization that the giftedness of a sixteen year old writer is not necessary going to stand out when that writer has turned twenty six and is trying to capture that old magic. What they recognize is not so much that they have matured but just how young they used to be.

Yet the most striking thing about these students and the thing that surprised me the most was the conservatism in their work. And here I am not speaking of a clichéd conservatism of ideology, but something else. I kept being surprised by the reluctance to write work that might be racy. The language was circumspect, and a certain decorum would break into a story or a poem that seemed to want to go somewhere else.

At first I did not know what to make of this. I knew, from conversations, that these were not prudish students, and yet there was this thing happening. At one point I raised it jokingly, and while they agreed with smiles, they never explained it.

But then I began to notice something curious. They began to betray a concern about who would be seeing their work. At one point, a student giggled and said, “I can’t believe I am writing this!” So I asked about this, and there they explained that the medical community is a small and close community and everyone knows everyone. They had to be careful about what they wrote.

This caution was not aiding the work at all, but I became curious about how they perceived their relationship to the work they were doing. The more we talked, the more I realized that they were responding to the challenge of writing the way they responded to the challenge of being doctors. In many ways, they were being trained to avoid being vulnerable, to reveal as little of themselves as possible to their patients, to be aware that any act or gesture on their part could be the trigger for a law suit, and to never lose sight of the fact that their capacity to work as doctors depended on the world having a certain trust in them. Their authority in front of a patient depended on their distance, their anonymity, if you will. They saw the writing of poems, of stories and memoir work as exposure. For them, a work that was risqué, that showed any sexual content, was likely to undermine their standing before their patients.

Now, none of this is remarkable, really, and it is in fact quite reasonable that these concerns dominated their minds and even affected their writing. But I was struck by just how much poets who are committed to being professional writers put ourselves out there and take risks as necessary parts of what we do. In many ways these do not seem to be risks. We write as we do because we are able to comfortably hold in our heads the idea that what we write, while possibly being autobiographical, is not necessarily so. And the people we expect to read our work — the people, that is, who we write for — get that, we think. And we gallop along, doing this, with relatively little hesitation.

Perhaps this is a nobility, a quality of heroism in the writer that is worth celebrating. Yet one can’t help wondering whether the conventions that we take for granted, the slipperiness of the separation of self from subject — the difference, that is, between the confessional and the persona poem — may well be a coded entity that is not immediately embraced by all readers.

For these students, writing involved a certain risk that they were often not willing to take. Eventually, they took these risks in the class, but they never lost sight of the fact that their colleagues — their fellow students — were discovering things about them in this class. And I am convinced that there was some caution about that.

Interestingly, I am also teaching a more traditional MFA poetry workshop at the same time. And what occurs to me is that despite the amount of poetry that has been written and read in the class, I can’t say that my MFA students have revealed a great deal about themselves in their work. Indeed, there is a scrupulous effort to obscure self, to obscure thought and person. They do it with humor, with elliptical turns, with allusions, and with the great deflecting device of the persona poem with its uncertain subject. And the only risk I see on the page is that risk of showing work to other students — the risk, that the students will not like the work.

Now, I don’t believe that all poetry must expose us in the manner of confessional verse, but I happen to think that a poem’s strength must involve some kind of risk, something that makes the poem urgent. And, yes I think that the poem should reveal us in some way. I come to that belief because when I reflect on the poems that I remain moved by, there is that quality there, almost all the time. That is the poetry, I believe, that arrests me, that stays with me and that haunts me for a long time.

I wonder what would happen if my two classes were joined together. I fear that the “professional” poets would be the stronger influence and they would push the medical students further into a shell. They will learn quickly that subterfuge through literary devices is the way to sound “poetic” in a workshop. It would be a real shame.

Originally Published: April 13th, 2011

Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...