Poetry at Parnassus: an Interview with Dr. David Watts

Thursday, September 26, 2013

“Don’t shut down the humanistic side. It’ll make you unbalanced,” intoned Dr. David Watts, a gastroenterologist and UCSF clinical professor of medicine, at the end of our interview.

Indeed, Watts is anything but unbalanced, boasting a diverse range of artistic talents in addition to his medical achievements. Of these, he is perhaps best known for his poetry, much of which he scribbles in the middle of the night as his more emotionally charged alter ego, harvey ellis.

In his efforts to bring more of this humanistic side to our health sciences campus, Watts started an informal writing group about a decade ago.  Since then, the group has evolved into what is now called the Parnassus Poets, a continually rotating group of students and staff who gently critique or “workshop” each others’ writing. 

In keeping with this rising medical humanities movement, Watts’s group has agreed to help Synapse launch a new column, “Poetry at Parnassus,” which features short poems related to the experience of medicine.

The Parnassus Poets meet every Monday from 4:30-5:30 p.m. in Watts’s office at 350 Parnassus, Room 900.  All are welcome to bring in a piece of writing to share or simply listen. 

Synapse: How did you get into poetry?

Dr. Watts: [As a child], my father was reading Robert Frost poems at the dinner table, and I thought it would be wonderful to grow up and write poetry. In college, I wrote some in class, and it was terrible stuff, so I left it for a while.

Then I went through a period when some trouble came in, and I struggled with that. I began to write stuff, not particularly good stuff, but the writing of this material actually did help and made me more resilient to the things I was going through.  After that, I really wanted to do something with poetry.

Synapse: Can you tell us about your literary alter ego “harvey ellis?”

Dr. Watts: As I began writing, I fell into a narrative style in which each poem would tell a distinct story. While I liked that sort of work, I started experimenting with writing while falling asleep.  I developed a technique of waking up in the middle of the night when REM sleep is active, and the DLPFC — the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the logical part of the brain — is inactive.

The poems that emerge from that process have a jumping, quirky, electric quality, which I like. There have been two books now published, and several of these poems published in literary magazines. 

Synapse: How does your interest in poetry tie in with your medical career?

Dr. Watts: Quite tightly, actually. There’s a lot more to being a doctor than the science of medicine, because you have to take that science and insinuate it into the life of an individual going through difficult times.

You have to enter the thoughts of the patient well enough to present a rationale for why they should take a pill or a test or change their life in a significant way.  And poetry helps you do that, because there’s a universality in poetry that transcends science and art. I think I’m much better able to relate to [my patients]. 

Synapse: How did the group Parnassus Poets get started?

Dr. Watts: We’re on a health sciences campus, and we have nothing in the way of humanities to offset the rigid scientific training.  Science, of course, is critical to our training — if we didn’t have that, we’d be quacks.

But it’s also important to have a balance, to keep the humanistic side of the brain active. I felt that there was a need on campus for something in the way of poetry and writing and put out a little bulletin, and 10 or 12 people showed up. Over time, the group evolved to what it is today.

Synapse: Do you have any advice for more scientifically inclined readers?

Dr. Watts: Don’t shut down the humanistic side. It’ll make you unbalanced and, in the end, not as happy. I think experiencing life at its fullest gives us the best chance to share ideas with others, particularly in the process of healing.