Jan. 29, 2010


by Dawn Potter

I am reading old MENSA posters,
waiting for my violin lesson,
listening to the child

behind the glass door, playing
do re mi not quite fa so la ti
flat do, and down.

Miss Barstow calls a halt;
talk talk talk;
and then the child begins again,

hauling each note up a steep hill
—do re mi mi fa.
Past the glass door, down

the hall, into the sunshine,
my mother reads in the car,
windows open wide.

Do re do re mi fa flat so.
Behind the glass door
fluorescence shimmers and pours.

My fingers follow the scale,
playing against my hand,
do re mi fa so la ti do,

and down.
Every note is right,
without thought,

like breathing.

"Wednesday" by Dawn Potter, from Boy Land & Other Poems. © Deerbrook Editions, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist, short-story writer, and poet, Virgil Suárez (books by this author) born in Havana, Cuba (1962). He's the author of more than 15 books, including his first novel, Latin Jazz (1989), and the poetry collection Landscapes and Dreams (2003). He's compiled several anthologies of Cuban and Latin American writers.

It was on this day in 1845 that Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" (books by this author) was first published in the New York Evening Mirror. It begins:

"Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door."

Within a few years, "The Raven" had been reprinted in newspapers and magazines across the country, and included in poetry anthologies. Abraham Lincoln eventually committed all of "The Raven" to memory.

It's the birthday of the man considered "the master of the modern short story" and a brilliant playwright, a man who said: "Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress. When I get fed up with one, I spend the night with the other. Though it is irregular, it is less boring this way, and besides, neither of them loses anything through my infidelity." Anton Chekhov (books by this author) was born 150 years ago today in Taganrog, a seaside city in southern Russia (1860).

His father borrowed too much money trying to build a big new house, and his grocery store went out of business, and he went bankrupt. In order not to be thrown in debtor's prison, the family fled to Moscow — everyone in the family, that is, except Anton Chekhov, who was left behind to finish his last three years of high school and to pawn whatever family possessions remained. He worked as a private tutor; he caught little singing birds and sold them as pets, and he wrote stories for newspapers. He sent all the money he made on to his family in Moscow. He described his teenage years as a "never-ending toothache."

He finished up high school, got into Moscow University's medical school and paid his own way, and at the same time continued to support his family by writing funny stories for Russian newspapers and magazines. He wrote under pseudonyms like "Antosha Chekhonte" and "Man without a Spleen." He once told a friend that "medicine takes itself seriously; the game of literature requires nicknames." He finished medical school, passed all of his doctor exams, and started to treat patients, mostly for free. The same year that he had officially become a doctor, he started coughing up blood. He'd contracted tuberculosis, and it would eventually kill him when he was in his 40s.

His stories, as well as the popular productions of his plays Uncle Vanya (1899), The Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904), made Chekhov famous throughout Russia. He acquired a reputation as "Russia's most elusive literary bachelor," preferring lovers and prostitutes to a committed monogamous relationship. He once wrote to one of his supporters: "By all means I will be married if you wish it. But on these conditions: Everything must be as it has been hitherto — that is, she must live in Moscow while I live in the country, and I will come and see her. ... Give me a wife who, like the moon, won't appear in my sky every day."

By some accounts, Chekhov considered himself a doctor foremost and a writer by hobby. There are a great number of medical doctors who also wrote fiction and poetry, among them 19th-century American poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sherlock Holmes' creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Robert Seymour Bridges, who is the only physician to have been Poet Laureate of England. American writer Walker Percy was a medical doctor, and Michael Crichton completed medical school before he became a full-time writer. Doctor Arturo Vivante wrote more than 70 stories for The New Yorker magazine. Mystery writer Robin Cook is a physician and author of the best-selling thrillers Coma (1977) and Mutation (1989). Dr. Abraham Verghese took a break from hospitals to attend the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the early 1990s; he returned to medicine and now teaches and practices at Stanford, where he has a secret unmarked writing office on campus.

And perhaps the most famous doctor in literature is William Carlos Williams, M.D., of Rutherford, New Jersey.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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