issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > moolten
Remedial Writingby David Moolten
The fall of 1986, my final year at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, proved a time of unsettling discoveries. With a sleepless internship and years of residency still in front of me, I never expected graduation to provide respite from the grind. But I at least counted on a clear path. I'd spent the summer interviewing for post-graduate programs in radiology. "Rays" was one of the "cooler" specialties and I was already becoming an ace at spying subtle diagnostic details on patient scans. Pressured by friends to do something about a chronic cough, I went for the perfunctory chest x-ray, slid it up on a light box and read it myself, floored by what anyone could see was a large and very ugly "mediastinal mass." A biopsy from beneath an excised rib showed Hodgkin's disease, the "good" kind of cancer to have. Major surgery to stage the disease would be followed by months of daily radiation treatments with remission and hope for a cure.
So when the Associate Dean, Frederick Burg, summoned me to his office in the spring, I assumed the other shoe was now somehow dropping. Perhaps a tuition payment had gone missing, or I'd failed a board exam, or was to be admonished for some heretofore innocent prank. I considered my clerkships, wondering if I'd held forth a little too tendentiously on rounds and angered a senior physician. Instead, the professor who had contacted the Dean turned out to be Daniel Hoffman, who, in response to my actions, insisted Dr. Burg discuss matters with me in person.
I first dabbled in verse as a college junior and despite two solid undergraduate writing workshops felt out of my depth, taken seriously by neither my fellow science majors nor the campus literati. While I'd become addicted to writing, and stubbornly refused to give it up in the face of rolled eyes and the comments of one interviewer at another medical school, who wondered if there wasn't "enough poetry already," I doubted my prospects, and opportunities to work on my craft grew elusive. Penn went out of its way to attract well-rounded students and foster pursuit of the arts. But clinical rotations with their 24/7 schedule had been slowly attritting other interests until the illness and its lengthy treatment curbed my dedication by force, and a poster on a kiosk about Professor Hoffman's graduate seminar in poetry writing promised what I assumed would be a temporary distraction.
By June, I had my diploma and another future. I'd traded radiology for pathology, which would afford more time for prosodic pursuits. I'd also chosen to stay in Philadelphia for my post-graduate work, and could thus sit in on Professor Hoffman's seminar again the following year.
Dean Burg? When Professor Hoffmann approached him, it was to talk about poetry, mine still mostly a clandestine enterprise as far as the medical school was concerned. Certainly the Dean knew nothing of it. But Professor Hoffman spoke with great generosity and enthusiasm about my writing and how a physician poet furthered tradition at the school William Carlos Williams attended. The Dean, not wanting to spoil the suspense, hadn't bothered to explain his invitation.
Coming when it did, Dan's gesture was pivotal in my growth as a writer (and as a doctor, and, well, in general). But it also illustrates the qualities which made his mentorship unique and distinguished his seminar from any other workshop I've experienced. He took his students seriously from the beginning and in every facet of the art, treating them as colleagues. His expectations were correspondingly higher, and weren't mitigated by one's talent, potential, or prior accomplishments. If, for instance, my ear turned to tin translating a line by Apollinaire, he didn't hide his impatience. But his demands were always accompanied by his confidence in our ability to meet them, and this, for me, never failed to generate the requisite desire to do so. I remember him giving me a hardcover copy of one of his books in the first few months I knew him. It was just after he'd lectured me on the pitfalls of submitting to poorer quality literary magazines. He insisted that I should only send my poems to the best journals, and if or when rejected, I should keep, as he put it, "running them through the typewriter." If I didn't consider my work worthy, who else would? The inscription he'd written in his book read, "with the hope you'll reciprocate soon." Owing much to his guidance, I soon did.
But Dan's support went beyond the long table in his office where the group of ten or twelve young poets met to read and listen and consider, or across from him at his desk where he gave more focused individual recommendations. He took it as his personal obligation to support us as writers out in the world, which of course is where we would spend most of our time. Fred Burg was only one of many people to whom Dan has recommended me, not with undue influence but out of the genuine belief that poets needed to be noticed, given a chance, read and heard. Nor was I singled out. Dan did the same for my companions in that room, and many others. Over the past thirty years I have stayed in touch with him, he has continued to provide direction and wisdom regarding poetry and the literary community. There were dinner parties at Dan's house in Swarthmore, which included his lovely, gracious and talented wife Elizabeth McFarland. He has come to my book releases and my readings. He has met my family and asked with concern about the balance I have managed between medicine and literature, and was I happy?
A typical weekday that spring twenty six years ago began with a trip to the XRT suite, where I lay down on the therapy table, heard the brief buzz of the linear accelerator and received the invisible jolt that made the nest of malignant cells melt away. I then proceeded to Bennett Hall on the northeast edge of Penn's campus. I had it all timed. The nausea would kick in two hours after the treatment. By then the class would have dispersed and I'd be safely ensconced again in my apartment in West Philadelphia, feeling sick, but nevertheless tinkering with a villanelle or a sonnet or vers libre. It was Daniel Haller, an oncologist, who first saw and reassured me about my illness. It was Julius Mackie, a surgeon, who determined its extent, safely removing my spleen and lymph nodes. It was Bill Powlis, my radiation therapist, who cured me. But considering what poetry has meant to me all these years, it was as much Dan Hoffman who saved my life.