Celeste Lipkes is a poet and medical student residing in Richmond, Virginia. She received her MFA in poetry from the University of Virginia and her work appears or is forthcoming in Rattle, Blackbird, Smartish Pace, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Bellevue Literary Review, SAND, Unsplendid, Labletter, and elsewhere. She has taught workshops at the Kenyon Review Young Writer’s Workshop, The Center for Talented Youth, and at VCU’s Massey Cancer Center. To read more of her work visit her on the web: www.celestelipkes.com.
Geosi Gyasi: You’re a writer, teacher and medical student. My question is, what is the medical student doing in the circle of writers?
Celeste Lipkes: I snuck in through the back door! I always loved writing and science; I feel very grateful that my mentors and parents didn’t write off one of my passions as just a hobby. My poetry teachers at both Hopkins and UVA were encouraging about my other interests—and very gratefully put up with the odd math equation that would appear in my poems. While right now I am focusing on my medical training, I plan to combine my poetry and medical careers in the future by continuing to write and teach.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember your first piece of writing?
Celeste Lipkes: I remember when I was very young my mom and I used to write holiday-themed limericks together. One in particular mourned the death of our Thanksgiving turkey. I like to think that working on these jingles is where my love of sound comes from.
Geosi Gyasi: You’re currently residing in Richmond, Virginia. Could you tell us about the literary culture there?
Celeste Lipkes: I wish I knew more! I moved to Richmond to start medical school, and unfortunately have not had much time to really immerse myself in the literary events in town. But VCU’s literary journal, Blackbird, does wonderful work, and the school brings in a lot great voices – recently I went to hear Stephen Dunn and Barbara Hurd.
Geosi Gyasi: You received an MFA in poetry from the University of Virginia. Why poetry?
Celeste Lipkes: I joke that the only reason I write poetry is because I have such a short attention span, but really I think I’m drawn to poems because of their intensity and their ability to make me feel known. As someone with a science-loving mind, I am also drawn to the patterns in poetry, especially to the tools of sound and form.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you get enough time to write at all?
Celeste Lipkes: Not much! But that’s all part of the deal of going into medicine. I knew when I was in my MFA program that the time I had there was very rare and precious, so I tried to make the most of it. I also feel most compelled to write when I am busy and out interacting with the world, so in many ways it’s actually better for my writing to have less free time.
Geosi Gyasi: When is your first book coming out?
Celeste Lipkes: I hope in the next year or two. My goal was to submit to first book contests this past fall, but with my school schedule that proved impossible. So I’m putting the final touches on my manuscript and would like to have it out and about in the coming months.
Geosi Gyasi: Is it difficult to write poems?
Celeste Lipkes: Of course I often become frustrated with the process of writing poetry, but especially since I’ve begun medical school, poetry has become more of a respite than a challenge. No matter how much I grapple with writing, I try to remember that it is a privilege to have time to put pen to paper.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the most difficult poem you’ve ever written?
Celeste Lipkes: Probably one that I’m still working on—a long sectioned poem that weaves stories from the history of magic with my own experience as a patient. I think the scope of the project and the personal nature of it makes it especially challenging.
Geosi Gyasi: You contribute to OnSurg, a resource for general surgeons. Do you mind telling us anything about OnSurg?
Celeste Lipkes: Dr. Porter, a general surgeon and instructor, began the website to gather resources on clinical skills, ethics, and education and to foster conversation among physicians and students. Dr. Porter does a wonderful job of featuring a cross-section of voices, and I have been one of the medical student contributors to the site. I think medical training for so long has been hidden by a veil to people outside the field, and one of the best ways to improve medical education is to engage people inside and outside of medicine about the process. That, for me, is the goal of writing about my work in the hospital.
Geosi Gyasi: What did you do as the residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts?
Celeste Lipkes: I was so grateful for my three weeks at ACA to work with Richard Blanco to round out my manuscript and produce new poems. It was also wonderful to interact with the other artists in residence, including other poets, visual artists, and composers. Especially being in school I am very much in a bubble separate from other artists, so it was refreshing to see their work and hear their stories.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have specific theme(s) you write on?
Celeste Lipkes: Perhaps predictably I write a lot about the body and illness – both my own experiences and the stories I have witnessed. I’m a big sucker for love poems. And the language of my faith runs through my work, as well.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you give us a glimpse of your forthcoming piece, “Put Down”?
Celeste Lipkes: Sure – when I was young, before I realized that I don’t particularly love cats, I thought I wanted to become a vet. I worked for a summer in a vet’s office prepping injections and doing odd jobs, and “Put Down” is about that experience. It’s an older poem, written at a time when I was almost solely writing in very tight form, so the language is very heightened (and PG-13!). It’s one of my favorite pieces to read aloud because of the sounds and the attempt at humor.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, “Two Small Fish”?
Celeste Lipkes: “Two Small Fish,” published recently in Rattle, was actually the first poem I wrote in medical school. It came out of my experience of being in a long distance relationship where a single visit with my then-boyfriend had to last me months. The poem plays with the idea of being satiated by very little by using the image of Jesus’ miracle of multiplying two fish and a few loaves of bread to feed 5,000 people. At the time I didn’t feel very grounded in time or place, and the lyric nature of the poem tries to reflect that.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell us something about your work, “Moon-face”?
Celeste Lipkes: “Moon-face” is a special piece to me, as it was the first poem I wrote about my own medical experience of living with Crohn’s disease and the first poem I ever published. Working on that piece really opened up my mind as to how my experience with medicine and my writing could co-exist. But I wrote it seven years ago and a lot of the language and sentiments now feel very distant to me.
Geosi Gyasi: Where do you get the inspiration to write?
Celeste Lipkes: In the smallest things – the way light hits the window, or a snatch of conversation I overhear. I always tell my students that to write good poems, all you have to do is pay attention. As a future physician I also am privileged to interact with a wide cross-section of people and witness many joyful and devastating experiences that influence my writing.
Geosi Gyasi: Which writers have had the greatest impact on your work as a writer?
Celeste Lipkes: I have always read much more non-fiction than poetry or fiction – I find it easiest to escape into and be inspired by. When I first started writing I was most impacted by poets doing unconventional projects within the constraints of form, particularly Gjertrud Scnackenberg and Christian Wiman. Now that I read solely for pleasure, my tastes have widened; May Szybist, Tom Andrews, and Katherine Larson are some recent favorites.
Geosi Gyasi: You have great experience in editing both poetry and non-fiction. Which of them is more difficult to edit?
Celeste Lipkes: I definitely enjoy editing non-fiction more—it feels like a puzzle, whereas I dread editing poems. I tweak my poems as I’m writing them, and they often feel crystallized by the time I finish (especially because I sometimes work in tighter, more traditional forms). It takes me a year or two to feel comfortable returning to a poem to make edits, whereas I am happy slashing up my non-fiction as soon as I hit the last period.