A Poet in Full
C. Dale Young ’91 writes poems that are featured in some of the finest publications in the world. Then it’s off to his day job as a radiation oncologist.
One day during his junior year, C. Dale Young ’91 had an appointment with the registrar’s office to make sure he was meeting his requirements for graduation. Young was pre-med (“When I was in college, everyone was pre-med or pre-law—clearly the late ’80s,” he said) and pursuing a biology degree, but the meeting held a surprise: The University thought he was an English major. That was because every time he’d needed an elective, he would flip through the gargantuan course catalog and always pick an English course. If anyone had asked Young when he started school whether he wanted to double major, he would have said no. But sitting there with two degrees—biology and English—mostly completed, he decided to do both.
That decision to pursue both writing and medicine marked a path that Young has continued to follow throughout his life. Today he is a full-time physician and the lauded author of five books of poetry and a novel. The accolades have been plentiful. The Washington Post wrote that Young “confidently locates himself at the crucial intersection between body and soul, invoking that foremost of American poet-healers, William Carlos Williams….” Young has been recognized with sought-after fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. His work has been published in the The Atlantic, The Nation, and The New Republic, and has been selected for three different volumes of The Best American Poetry. “Sometimes the ability to convey information compactly and quickly has moral grace,” Robert Pinsky, the former U.S. poet laureate, has said of Young’s work. “His writing can put garrulous narration or evasive speechifying to shame.”
The majority of Young’s writing is done in the early hours of the morning, before he starts his day job as a radiation oncologist. It’s a stressful occupation centered around some of the worst, most anxiety-provoking times in people’s lives. “His patients love him,” said Lisa Boohar, a fellow radiation oncologist who’s known Young since the early 2000s and practiced with him until 2018. “He’s very, very detail oriented. He’s super organized. He definitely feels the humanity of his patients.” Young introduces himself as both a physician and a writer, but if he somehow had to give up one of his careers? “I can’t really imagine not writing,” he said. “When I think about it, it just seems so completely preposterous.”
Now 52, young lives on the west side of San Francisco, a mile from the ocean. I visited him on a Saturday morning in November. We were scheduled to talk for an hour or two, and his plans for later that day included dropping off his dry cleaning, picking up groceries, and writing a letter of recommendation, the hodgepodge of things his strict schedule doesn’t allow during the week.
Young wakes up every morning between 5 and 5:30, depending on when he needs to be at the hospital. Most writing happens on the couch in his living room, where large windows highlight a view of the water, tufts of trees, and, just a few blocks away, a Catholic school much like the ones he attended as a boy in Florida. We sat down in the living room, with Young’s coffee table between us. On it, two remote controls, a tube of lip balm, and a single penny were arranged in an ordered tableau. “I am very much an obsessive person,” he told me, indicating the table. If someone were to move something, he said, he would know. Young works in the morning for an hour or an hour and a half, and on weekends he puts in additional time. Sometimes this work isn’t writing at all. Being a writer isn’t just writing, he told me. It’s everything else, too: reading something new and interesting, sending emails, editing, or even just thinking. And once all that’s done, it’s off to his day job.
Young works at a hospital in Redwood City, forty-five minutes south of San Francisco. Like at most medical centers, the radiation oncology department at the hospital is located underground, so Young had his office painted a special shade of bright yellow that reflects the fluorescents to better mimic sunlight. As a radiation oncologist, Young develops care plans for cancer patients, determining their course of radiation, checking in with them during treatment, and aiding with any side effects. It seems, at first, to be a radically different skill set than writing poetry. Does he pivot during the day from poetry to medicine? No, he said. “I just continue. It doesn’t feel different to me.” There’s a precision in both fields, he pointed out. As a radiation oncologist, “I literally make changes in beam trajectories of a millimeter. So it’s not that different from working on a poem where you’re like, ‘Oh, I didn’t dot that i.’”
Over the years, Young has realized that the idea that you need a lot of time for creative work is incorrect. It’s not how much time you have to work, he said, but doing it when you work best. (In grad school, before he adopted his current early-bird schedule, that usually meant 1 or 2 in the morning.) Those chunks of time in the mornings and weekends, his six books have proven, add up.
Young was born in the Caribbean. When he was small, his family moved to South Florida, where he attended Catholic schools and watched the towns swell with drunk college students on spring break, the passengers and crewmembers of cruise ships, and the winter’s snowbirds.
As a kid, Young, whose mother was an English professor, loved to read comic books and mythology. He was never conscious of the fact that he was reading poetry when enjoying something like the Odyssey, but that began to change in high school when he was tasked with memorizing “The Second Coming,” by W. B. Yeats. The poem left him “completely dumbstruck,” he said. “I could not understand how someone could make something like this.” He read it something like sixteen times. Probably not fully understanding it, he told me, but with a hunger. The poem seemed like a little machine. How could you make something like that? What he remembers most is how sharply the class’s attention focused on the poem once he began reciting it. There was a new stillness in the room. “And I was like, huh, how?” he recalled. “And then I was more fascinated by it, because I thought, not only did he make this thing that is fascinating and strange and odd, but it has the ability to almost mesmerize people.” Whatever he did with his life, he decided, he wanted to have that effect on people.
When Young started at BC as an undergrad, he thought that would happen through painting. So he joined the student publication The Stylus of Boston College, where he served as the art editor. (His main challenge was finding enough art to run, since students seemed to only submit poems or short stories.) Many of his friends at the magazine were talking excitedly about a certain poetry-writing class they were all taking, and Young felt left out. During his junior year, he approached the professor, Suzanne Matson: could he take the class, too? No, Matson told him. He hadn’t taken any of the prerequisites. Undeterred, Young came back the next day. He really liked poetry, he told her. He really wanted to take the class. No, Matson said again. Young kept returning, and by the end of the week, Matson finally acquiesced. “Fine, you can take the class,” Young recalled her telling him one Friday, “but if you get a C, don’t complain to me.” (“A C at Boston College is like failing,” Young pointed out.) Then Matson told him to bring her ten of his poems by Monday. Poems he didn’t have. So he spent the weekend writing what he now remembers as “horrible poems.” But he made it into the class.
When I talked to Matson, she mentioned Young’s “extraordinary” motivation. There are a lot of talented writers who go through the creative-writing workshops at BC, she told me, but not all of them keep writing and improving, and keep working through the inevitable rejections. “And one thing that was apparent with C. Dale was that he had this kind of drive,” she recalled. “He was very, very, very hungry to improve.”
By the end of Matson’s class, Young had realized something: He needed to write. “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” he said. That same year, he had a similar realization about medicine. By this point, he had switched his focus from painting to pre-med, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to continue with the major until his junior year, when an advisor recommended that he volunteer at Massachusetts General Hospital. So he did. Residents and interns warned him about the stresses of the field. But, he recalled, breaking into a laugh, that only made him want to do it more.
Young is relaxed and approachable, which is disarming if your idea of a poet is an unsmiling beret-wearer existing outside the everyday world of alarm clocks and pop culture.
After graduating from BC in 1991, Young enrolled at the University of Florida, where he earned a master of fine arts degree in 1993 and a medical degree in 1997. Med school was grueling. Some of the students were so ambitious, they were known as gunners. “The joke was, if they saw you in the parking lot, they would gun you down to make sure you couldn’t do better than they did on the test,” Young said. During his second year, he studied so much that he started getting anxious about spending time grocery shopping.
Young rotated through several specialties. He wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about any of them, until he started in radiation oncology. Within a day, he knew it was the field for him. “I just fit,” he said. He liked the detailed nature of it, and he felt comfortable being the calming presence for worried patients. When an instructor was showing x-rays in class, and asked the students where on the body they mapped to, Young knew. “Good,” he recalled the instructor telling him. “You can think in three dimensions.” For Young, it was simple. His art classes had made it obvious to him. It matched other parts of his personality, too: It’s easy for him to spot another radiation oncologist at a professional conference. How? Young—a person who lines up the magnets on his refrigerator in symmetric rows—explained that, “They’re the ones that are like, Excuse me, is there supposed to be a separate folder for this?”
After graduating from medical school, Young headed west, interning in Southern California and then completing a residency in radiation oncology at the University of California, San Francisco. He had already started figuring out how to balance both of his passions, landing a job as poetry editor at the well-respected literary journal New England Review in 1995, while he was in med school, and publishing his first book in 2001, during his residency.
Young served as poetry editor at the Review until 2014, working with a handful of other poets to sift through the two to three thousand submissions the publication received each year in order to find the twenty to thirty they’d publish. Carolyn Kuebler, the Review’s managing editor, recalled Young’s openness to different styles, and his ability to bring in work from poets at high levels of their careers: the Pulitzer winners, the National Book Award recipients. “I think that he established it as a place where people wanted to have their work published,” Kuebler said. (She also has a theory about Young’s productivity: “Everybody else has twenty-four hours in the day. He has probably, like, thirty-six, because he just—I don’t understand how he gets so much done.”)
Two decades into his career, Young still has the drive evident in his first poetry class with Suzanne Matson. His typical output, year after year, has been four poems, but by the time we talked in November, he had already written six. “His poetry has a combination of inwardness and outwardness,” Matson told me. “It’s engaged in the world and, at the same time, it has a high level of lyric sensibility.”
Many of those poems start with music. Young writes in silence. But if he starts listening to a particular piece of music over and over, that’s when he knows he’s working through an idea. The music isn’t a direct arrow—the poems and music aren’t in conversation, he said—but more a signal flare. Classical pieces, I asked? No, he responded with laughter. Young is relaxed and approachable, which is disarming if, like me, you have a Simpsons-formed idea of poets as unsmiling beret-wearers existing in a dimension outside of the everyday world of alarm clocks and commutes and pop culture. Not classical, he said. More like Depeche Mode, or the new Dua Lipa and Elton John song. Or Britney Spears, whose song “Circus” started the churn in Young’s mind that eventually led to a poem in his most recent collection, Prometeo, which was published in 2021.
That collection, like his others, has poems of colorful landscapes full of movement, of saints and desire. There is physical pain—stories of suffering patients—and emotional pain, of the small ways people hurt each other, and the way they go on. One of his best-known compositions, for instance, the title poem from 2011’s Torn, is about a tired, gay doctor tending to the victim of a homophobic hate crime, and reflecting on how his work entails healing both the victim and the perpetrators, were they to somehow show up, and how he has to do all of this harsh, emotional work as quickly as possible.
“I can’t really imagine not writing. When I think about it, it just seems so completely preposterous.”
His narrators start out bold, then change their minds. In one poem, a narrator begins by accusing someone of leaving a mark, a “purplish and dark” bruise. But by the end, the narrator has decided to “forgo” the bruises: “I have hidden behind the beauty of metaphors/far too long. I have been hiding for far too long.” Among Young’s sharp details, there is interrogation, and an eschewing of the expected. He explores, for instance, how the Taíno people endured in the face of colonialism, and also the gleeful, tiny bits of recognition that come with being in love: “I know, no one talks about/joy anymore. It is even more taboo/than love.”
Young has studied and taught poetry—he worked in the MFA program at Warren Wilson College from 2005 to 2018—and I wanted to know how he would describe his own voice. “I have no idea,” he said immediately. “I think it’s very easy to do that when it’s someone else.” A lot of people tend to see his work through his biography, he said, or think of him as mainly writing about his cultural heritage or his work as a physician. But his poems, he stressed, are not biography. He would never write about a patient. That would be a violation of his oath. An aspect of one patient, or a small detail of another, might end up combined in a poem with an experience of his, but the poem is not his life, and that’s not how he thinks of his work.
Young’s poems often go through nearly twenty drafts before they reach a point where he feels they’re done. Most of the time, he said, it’s the last line of a poem that comes to him first. Then the challenge is finding his way to that ending. When Young’s friend Tomás Morín, a poet and professor at Rice University, was working on his first collection of poetry, he struggled, like many poets do, with figuring out the best way to order his work. Young encouraged Morín to try his approach and choose a final poem that would make readers want to go back and start reading the book from the beginning. The two men met around twenty years ago when Morín discovered Young’s blog. Morín, who is Latino, was looking for a writing community and was happy to find a poet of color who seemed accessible. Young identifies as Latino of Asian descent. Morín said that Young “from the very beginning has been a sort of possibility model for me in the writing world.”
Another friend of Young’s, Isaias Fanlo, an Iberian literature lecturer at the University of Cambridge, emphasized Young’s command of form. Young thinks about what he wants to say, but also what form best fits what he’s conveying. Young has read poems in various stages to Fanlo, allowing his friend to see their evolution. Nothing is random, Fanlo said. Everything has been carefully decided. Fanlo said he knows of no one else in contemporary poetry who “works so thoroughly in this very happy marriage between form and content.” Fanlo also noted Young’s use of color, a holdover from his art training. His poems feature rusty browns, titanium blacks, and the blue of a cobalt solution set aflame: “a brilliant blue,/the flame itself bluer than the richest of skies/in summer.” And many of Young’s poems begin with an imperative, much like the myths he read as a child. Young is also willing to work slowly, Fanlo said, something he sees as a respect for poetry. The early mornings that produce his writing seem like an expression of that respect, of giving the art he loves the intense focus it deserves. It’s the same intense focus that he’ll give his patients a little later in the workday, and the same focus he gives to his friends. When Fanlo was diagnosed with COVID in 2020, relatively early on in the pandemic, he was living in Spain, where the health care system was saturated. Young called several times a day, instructing Fanlo on what to drink and the kind of Tylenol to take, and quizzing him on his temperature, even as he grappled with the pandemic’s impact on his own practice. “He might be the most loyal person that I know,” Fanlo said.
Lisa Boohar, Young’s friend and fellow radiation oncologist, noted his strengths at guiding patients through terrible, stressful periods. Communicating and connecting with people during these situations is a part of the job that has always come easily to him, she said. There is also, she said, Young’s “use of English language—the way he uses it in his books, in his poetry—he brought that into his medical notes.”
One day about a decade ago, Young was on a shuttle bus from Corvallis to the airport in Portland, after a talk at Oregon State University. As he sat on the shuttle, a sentence came to him. Usually when that happens, the words wind up as the end of a poem. But this line wouldn’t work that way. Maybe, he recalled thinking, it was actually part of the beginning of a story. So he started writing, and by the time he arrived at the airport, he had completed two handwritten pages, which ended up as part of the first chapter of The Affliction, a novel of short stories published in 2018.
Poetry and fiction are opposite writing styles, Young told me. If he knows the ending, it’s a poem. “If it’s fiction, I can’t know the end of it because otherwise there’s nothing for me to do, to get to the end.” Young started working on a follow-up to the novel, and by early 2020 it had reached an overwhelming 145,000 words. Sick of it, he put the book down for a year or so. But then, last spring, he felt the urge to pick it up again. News of the pandemic was changing every day at that time—was it airborne? Could it be transferred via shoe? Was there enough protective equipment available?—and the novel was a balm. It was an entire world he created, but one that needed work. “And you can just dip in and lose yourself for an hour or two while you clean up paragraphs and make sure you’re not writing redundant sentences,” he said. “There’s something calming about that.”
And so Young wakes up in the mornings to write before heading off to the hospital, the same routine he’s had for more than twenty years. Having an entire career apart from writing allows him to continue producing work at his own pace: He’s the only writer, he jokes with his editor, who wants his book to come out later, not sooner. He doesn’t worry about keeping up with any literary Joneses. For him, doing the work is the thing. While he’s working, he gets to exist solely as the artistic version of himself. When I continued to ask for the details of his morning routine, he remarked that I seemed to be thinking of it as a chore. It’s not, he said. He likes it. Without the early morning writing time, he said, “I would feel like I wasn’t doing what I’m supposed to do.”
Shelby Pope lives in Berkeley, California. She has written for NPR, the Guardian, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.