Frank Clark, MD, wrote poetry in medical school to cope with depression. Now, with the strain of COVID-19, he crafts haiku.


  • Frank Clark, MD, psychiatrist
  • Sara Berg, MS, senior news writer, American Medical Association


  • Todd Unger, chief experience officer, American Medical Association

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Unger: The AMA is committed to making physician burnout a thing of the past by addressing issues that fuel burnout at the system level and supporting physician well-being. Individual physicians often have their own way of coping, like Dr. Frank Clark, who has found comfort in writing haiku.

Dr. Clark: I actually enjoy the practice and just the thinking about the 5-7-5 pattern that makes a haiku ... A walk in nature/and forests cacophony/a muser’s delight ... For me, poetry has been cathartic in a lot of ways and I find it again rejuvenating for my mind, my body and my spirit.

Unger: Dr. Frank Clark shares his passion for haiku in this episode of Moving Medicine. In his conversation with AMA Senior News Writer Sara Berg, Dr. Clark reinforces the use of creative outlets as a means of coping with burnout.

Berg:  Today I'm talking with Dr. Frank Clark and learning more about his experience writing haikus as a way to cope with burnout. Thanks so much for being here with us, Dr. Clark.

Dr. Clark: Thank you, Sara. I appreciate you having me on and it's always a pleasure to reconnect with you during these unprecedented times.

Berg:  Of course, definitely. What drew you to haikus? Where did it all start?

Dr. Clark: That's a very good question. I have been writing poetry probably since I was in medical school. I have been trying to focus on the silver linings during this pandemic. One of the things that the pandemic has allowed me to do is, I think it's reenergized me in terms of my passion for writing. I started writing more poetry, I was at a dormant stage maybe as it relates to writing. There's so much to write about now as regarding the pandemic and the social and political unrest and racial injustices that we continue to see in our society. I definitely had a lot of content to reflect on.

I just started trying to increase my versatility, so to speak, as it comes to poetry. I said, well, let me try writing haikus because I had never written them. I enjoy the practice and just the thinking about the  5-7-5 pattern that makes a haiku. I think it's, what, 17 syllables. The first line is five syllables, the second line is seven syllables and then the third line is five syllables. It takes a lot of work because sometimes you can have one extra syllable in there and I'm always trying to sound out words, making sure that I have the right number of syllables but I have come to enjoy writing them. I've been writing them probably now for the past year.

Berg:  I love that. I think that's wonderful. You don't hear too often that people write about haikus. I'm impressed for sure. What's was there a specific moment when you realized this was a good coping outlet for you? Or how did that happen?

Dr. Clark: Well, throughout my life, I have found various ways of coping, especially during times of stress. As we've mentioned, these dire times that we're living in. I first began writing poetry again, back in medical school when I was diagnosed with clinical depression and I've been in remission now, as it relates to depression for probably over a decade but I needed to find an outlet, running had always been my outlet. I ran on the high school and collegiate level track and cross country.

I have a fine arts background in general, in terms of growing up in the dance world with doing tap, ballet and jazz. Then also playing the piano and the flute. I decided that I needed to explore more of me. I think sometimes it's easy to not do a lot of reflection because we're so busy in our lives. That's how I started writing poetry mainly to help cope with the depression that I was experiencing in medical school. I have stuck with that and again, mentioning, it's kind of a rebirth for me in some ways in terms of writing the poetry and it has definitely served as not only as a coping skill and I guess also very therapeutic but it's allowed me to share it with friends and family. You and I, I know have collaborated on some things with your artwork. It's been a great experience for me.

Berg:  That's great to hear. You felt that it helped with your depression once you were diagnosed with it?

Dr. Clark: Absolutely. I work with individuals every day who have mental health conditions and substance use disorders due to a lot of different stressors that have gone on in their life, whether it be adverse childhood experiences or this pandemic or other things that are going on. I believe that it is important to take a holistic approach to patient care. While I believe in that philosophy, I also think it is prudent that the provider or the physician or nurse practitioner or PA, whoever it may be serving that patient also takes time to practice what they preach.

You don't have to write poetry in order to take care of yourself. Some people enjoy fishing, some people enjoy crocheting. I met a patient yesterday who enjoys doing the shag and swing dancing. It has to be tailor made for the individual. I think sometimes as healers, so to speak, we can be very hypocritical and we talk the talk but we don't necessarily walk the walk. I think it's very important that as mental health professionals, for example, that we heal ourselves. For me, poetry has been cathartic in a lot of ways and I find it again rejuvenating for my mind, my body and my spirit.

Berg:  That's wonderful. Do you share that also with your patients, your coping mechanisms?

Dr. Clark: That's a very good question. I think sometimes we have to be mindful of self-disclosure. What I have shared with my patients is that when they talk about their coping skills I've asked them, do they enjoy writing? I will disclose to them that I enjoy writing poetry just to kind of break the ice, so to speak. A lot of times when individuals are coming to the office for the first time or they're coming in on the inpatient unit, it can be very anxiety provoking, especially if they've never seen a psychiatrist. I like to explore people's interests, what fills their love bank, so to speak? Where do they find meaning and purpose? Some will tell me that they enjoy writing poetry or other forms of art or exploring the humanities.

I take that opportunity to share with them that's one of my interests and that can then break the ice and it can create more of a conversation. I've had some very interesting conversations with patients about the arts. What I have found over the years is that a lot of my patients are very artistic. Sometimes there's such a stigma with individuals with mental health conditions that we forget that we are human beings and that we forget to explore humanity in all its glory.

Berg:  Those are all really great points. Do you have a favorite haiku or two or three that you could share with our listeners?

Dr. Clark: Sure. I'd be happy to. This is one that I wrote, let's say probably last week and to preface this one, I do a lot of wellness walks. I just got back from one before I knew I was going to be meeting with you today to clear my head and just rejuvenate my mind and spirit.

This is the haiku, A walk in nature/and forests, cacophony/a muser’s delight. The other one that I will share, Sara, is one that you and I collaborated on. I don't know if most people know this, I guess I want to brag on you a little bit here because you're a phenomenal writer but also you have an appreciation and passion for the arts. And you and I have corresponded over the last couple of months. And you have shared with me some of your artwork, which is wonderful. I remember you sharing with me your most recent piece where it was, I believe, two manatees and I decided to write a haiku. I was inspired by your artwork. I'm going to share that with our audience members, the haiku that I wrote based on that. Deep ocean lovers/Manatee intimacy/two cuddlers for life.

Berg:  I love it. It's been wonderful collaborating with you as well. It's great how you can easily flow your haiku with the paintings that I do or other people do. That's wonderful.

Dr. Clark: I appreciate it. It's been great to collaborate with artists like yourself and others that I've been doing some collaborations with locally and internationally. I'm very grateful for those opportunities. It's been a blessing.

Berg:  You also collaborate with artists like Lisa Teo, who will create a painting to accompany your haiku and vice versa. How did that collaboration start with you writing a haiku or a poem and someone painting a picture?

Dr. Clark: That's a good question. I'm a go-getter. I refuse to take no for an answer, unless, well, I have taken no for an answer but I … my mom has always said that if you don't ask and you don't know. I kind of live on the edge, I'm a risk-taker, I think in some ways. Lisa Teo, she's a Malaysian artist. Her first career is as an attorney and we actually connected on LinkedIn. And I really enjoy seeing some of her artwork. She reminds me of almost, she's really into impressionism. She kind of has that Monet feel so to speak and you've seen some of her artwork, I know as well, and just a very talented individual. I just messaged her and we started talking about just the art and humanities. I was telling her about my background as it relates to being in mental health and how I think that there's some intersectionality there when we think about mental health and the arts in the humanities—and she agreed. So sent her a haiku, and within an hour or so, she came up with a sketch and then to go along with my haiku, which was published in Psychiatric Times. Then we just started talking about ways that we could collaborate and we're working on a collaboration with her and her friend Rekha Raveenderen, I think I pronounced that correctly, but she is a Malaysian composer who has done a lot of work on various films throughout her career, including Avatar and Pan. We are doing a joint collaboration, where I have written 13 haikus with the theme of self-compassion using nature symbolism, so to speak. Lisa is going to be doing some paintings that are inspired by the haikus and Rekha is going to be composing the music. We are hopeful to have an exhibition in the U.S. in the New Year to premiere this collaboration. I consider it providential; I don't believe in coincidences and that's been one collaboration. We have others that I'm doing with some local artists in South Carolina, including Dawnielle Ferguson and Lisa Shimko.

Berg:  Good. Do you publish your work anywhere online?

Dr. Clark: I do. I self-published a book of poetry, my first book back in 2014, and it's called “The Other Side.” I needed to explore the other side of me about, mainly what people really don't know about me and what I didn't really know about myself. Kind of doing some digging and having some time for reflection. That's on Amazon. I think it's about five bucks for purchase but I have published there. Then most of my writings now have been published through Psychiatric Times, which has been a psychiatric magazine. I serve on their advisory council and I'm the section editor for diversity and inclusion. I've been very grateful for my colleagues at Psychiatric Times for giving me the opportunity again, to share my thoughts and reflections with a wider audience. It's been fun. I will usually write at least maybe two to three, maybe even more than that haiku a week, depending on what's going on in the world or depending on what I'm thinking about.

Berg:  That's impressive. That's wonderful that you can do that. Do you have plans to put together any more books like your one from 2014?

Dr. Clark: That's a great question. You and all my other friends have asked me this question. I will never say never, to do the self-publishing, it took a lot of time and effort. I would like to self-publish a second book or maybe I can find a publisher that likes my work and will assist in that. I think it is safe to say that you can maybe anticipate another book coming out from me down the road. It'll definitely be a lot of haikus and some other works that'll be dedicated to various people in my life, including my wife and my daughter.

Berg:  I like that a lot. I'll definitely keep an eye out for that.

Dr. Clark: Awesome.

Berg:  Do you focus just on haikus or does your writing expand into other styles and how do you decide which one to go for?

Dr. Clark: That's a very good question. I do a lot of free verse, I would say. I tried writing some sonnets. I'll tell you, Shakespeare, I commend that guy. The only thing we have in common is that we share the same birthday. I don't always write haikus. It just depends on how I'm feeling. Sometimes I can consolidate my thoughts, they can be consolidated into a haiku but sometimes I have a lot more to say. It just depends on my mood and how I'm feeling and also what I'm writing about.

Berg: It does also seem you can easily write a haiku at the drop of a hat. Do you feel that's the case?

Dr. Clark: I would say so. If you asked my wife, she always knows when I'm writing haikus, because I will be counting on my fingers. What I'm doing is making sure that I have the right number of syllables for each line that I'm writing in. I'm very grateful for her support because she knows that once I'm in a zone, it's hard to get me out of that zone, but she also is very supportive because she knows if I'm writing, that is an outlet for me and she enjoys reading them as well. I think your example of the collaboration that we did together, you sent me your artwork. I think it was in the evening, and I think I within maybe five minutes or so, I replied back with a haiku.

Berg: Yes. It's very impressive. What is the importance of art and narratives in medicine?

Dr. Clark: Well, I think that it's the most important part of the person that's sitting across from you. One of the things that I don't want to say preach but I encourage, our residents that I work with and medical students, is that who you're treating is more important than what you are treating. We have the skill set to take a detailed history and come up with diagnosis, and that's great. We want to make sure that we get the diagnosis right, so to speak. That we can come up with the right treatment plan but the person sitting in front of you, if you really listen to their narrative and you explore the narrative, the diagnosis will be there.

When we're developing a treatment plan for our patients, we have to explore all aspects of them. What's going to help get them well. Yeah, some Zoloft, Prozac. Sure. That may be helpful. What about the spiritual aspects of that person that they have any religious or spiritual beliefs? What about the person that says playing my guitar brings me happiness? Well, yeah. We want you to continue to do that. Let's put all of your wellness pieces of the puzzle together so that you can be your best self.

Berg: I like that. Is this something other physicians or individuals might want to consider? Haikus or any sort of arts?

Dr. Clark: I find that a lot of my colleagues are creative in their own way. I think sometimes we forget to explore that other part of who we are. I would recommend that whatever your creative juices are and whatever flows, nurture it. There's so much that can be said for what the arts bring as it relates to healing. There's a plethora of literature out there that has illustrated that art therapy and music therapy can be very beneficial. You can look at the studies with individuals of neurocognitive disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease and how art therapy and music therapy can be beneficial, individuals with depression. The studies are out there. The research is out there and we just have to be more intentional and motivated to be able to carry out these things. I think that our patients will appreciate it as well.

Berg:  Absolutely. I just want to thank you Dr. Clark for sharing your experience with writing haikus as a way to cope with burnout. It's been a pleasure speaking with you, as always.

Dr. Clark: Sara, it is always a pleasure to work with you. I appreciate you and your friendship over the years and I look forward to many more collaborations with you.

Berg:  Absolutely. This has been wonderful. Thank you so much.

Dr. Clark: Thank you.

Unger: You can subscribe to Moving Medicine and other great AMA podcasts anywhere you listen to yours or visit I’m Todd Unger and this is Moving Medicine. Thanks for listening.


Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed in this podcast are those of the participants and/or do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the AMA.

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