Azra Raza, MD
Chan Soon-Shiong Professor of Medicine and director of the MDS Center at Columbia University in New York City
When did your love of poetry begin?
I grew up in an oral tradition. I was made to memorize hundreds of verses of grand, classical Urdu poetry from the time I could speak. My childhood in Karachi was an extremely happy one, filled with excitement, energy, games, food, and fun in a family of seven siblings, adoring parents, and countless visiting cousins and friends of my parents. No conversation in my family was complete without one parent or the other quoting an appropriate verse. It was their culture, their tradition.
Even some of the games we played revolved around literary activities like staging famous plays, organizing stand-up comedies, and most of all, getting divided into two teams with one parent on each side and competing in poetry recitations. The game started with a couplet and the other party had to respond with another that started using the last letter of the previous couplet. To win, each side tried to find a couplet that ended in a rarely used letter to stump the other party. This meant having to memorize a whole lot of poetry, and it was great fun to do it because my parents loved these games and made us feel great if we rose to their expectations.
How has your passion evolved over the years?
I remember once when I was living in Chicago, my mother was visiting from Karachi. One morning, as we sipped tea while my daughter Sheherzad, barely two-and-a-half years-old, sat on the carpet playing. My mom and I started talking about a particular couplet by our favorite Urdu poet Ghalib. We had a difference of opinion about the interpretation. As a result, we kept repeating it over and over with emphasis on one word or another. I left the room for a minute and when I returned, Sheherzad jumped up, and in her tiny lisping voice recited the entire couplet. That shocked us, and my mother said, “Well, her memory is even better than yours. Now you must get her to memorize poetry.”
From that day on, until Sheherzad finished college, we did a poetry session for half an hour every morning. So much so that when Sheherzad was an undergrad at Columbia, I took two apartments in the same building so we could continue the sessions. As a result, now she has committed hundreds of verses to memory in multiple languages. What surprised me was the eagerness with which Sheherzad always showed up for these lessons, very surprising for a teenager who was rebellious in other ways. The answer she gave was the sweetest: “Mom, I remember feeling very happy whenever I saw you and grandma discussing poetry and having a great time. I thought if I also memorized poetry, maybe you and I could also have the best time.” And she was so right about this.
There is not one day when I don’t recite poetry to myself, read new poems, or speak or write about them. The passion has only grown by leaps and bounds with age, maturity, expanded readings, and writing.
What is it about poetry that inspires you?
I am moved by the metabolization of human anguish, the narrative intensity, the organized chaos, the heroics of rebellion, the compelling drive to examine macroscopic concerns and express them in microscopic language. The two lines of a couplet are like the two strands of the DNA double helix, containing oceanic infinitudes of knowledge and imparting wisdom.
I am particularly moved by the blinding light of love, passion, and desire conveyed in Urdu poetry because I feel fortunate enough to have experienced this transcendental state along with all its chaos in both love and in a quest to cure cancer. I am completely driven by this profound sense of wonder in both states. Sadly, my love for a person was more of, “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” since my husband Harvey died when I was in my forties. But this means my investment in the quest is all the more the focus of my energies.
Does your love for poetry intersect at all with your hematology career?
As a hematologist, I see 30 to 40 very ill patients with preleukemia and acute leukemia every week. Narration is a central theme in my practice. When I was a young oncologist in training, I suffered from perpetual anxiety over how to make sense of the fragmented information patients provide. Especially when the same events as described by patients and then by family members evolve and develop new lives as they travel from mouth to mouth, from week to month, from symptom to sign. What did I miss? What did I not hear? What did they forget to report? This is where poetry comes in. So much is said in so few words. One needs to be very attentive to the said and the unsaid.
Then there is the issue of how to deal with soul-destroying moments when people who are running out of time catalog their swelling regrets, their vanishing options in the maelstrom of disease and disorder. How to develop the self-control and equanimity and be able to follow the advice of Emory Austin: “Some days there won’t be a song in your heart. Sing anyway.”
For me, the poet Mirza Ghalib serves as a guiding light during some of my darkest professional moments. I walk countless individuals to their deaths, escorting them through some of the most harrowing, painful terminal illnesses. There is a point, reached rather invariably in these cancers, when no further treatments can be offered.
This stage is particularly distressing for the young oncologists. I counsel them to accept the bitter truth, but instead of feeling crushed, I advise them to focus on how to make the final journey less painful for their patients and shift their attention from trying to cure to trying to heal.
Do you have any goals or ambitions in poetry?
I hope to read more poetry every day, to talk more about it, to interpret it for others. And above all, to memorize more poetry. I run every day, and for those 50 minutes, it has been my routine to memorize grand poetry in several languages. For example, I can recite the entire thirty-third canto from “The Paradiso” in English. Poetry is so much a part of my being that I cannot help but constantly recite appropriate and fitting verses, even in daily conversation, and my goal is to awaken others to the profound beauty of the real epic stature of things in life.
I am convinced that reading poetry is the best way to understand oneself – this is why I have over a hundred videos on YouTube explaining, interpreting, and reciting poetry. Taking poetry away from my life would be like taking flight away from a bird.
What else would you like to share?
My message has always been to remain skeptical. Faith in science is generally misplaced. Keep your eyes wide open, question everything, and don’t take anything for granted. As Emily Dickinson so wisely said:
“Faith” is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see -
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency