Laura Kolbe of Brooklyn, NY is the 2020 winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize for her collection Little Pharma. Kolbe, a physician, medical ethicist, and poet, will be published by the University of Pittsburgh Press/Pitt Poetry Series next fall.
“The earliest of these poems were written in my first year of medical school in 2012, with the bulk of them written during my medical residency, a grueling and surreal time in my life,” said Kolbe, a native of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania. “Writing the poems felt like growing a subsistence garden—what do I need to make to survive? Or maybe like cutting trails—how can I keep finding my way out and back?”
Kolbe was a hospital physician during the COVID-19 surge in New York City, and some of the elegies in her collection about death and dying in the hospital reflect the intensity of those experiences.
“These poems are closely drawn from my direct experience as a physician, and provide a window into the sometimes disturbing, always moving world of hospital medicine.”
As the poet’s dreamlike double, the character “Little Pharma” navigates the murky channels of the hospital and clinic, the borderlands of the living and the dead, and the journey from novice to healer. The poems trace the arc of a young woman’s life, from being a hesitant and newly-minted medical trainee to becoming an adept of the otherworldly logic of the hospital wards. In between, interludes on love, family life, and escapes into art and history bob and weave among the hospital poems, bringing back the hot clamor of the outside world. Little Pharma is a journey from the depths of an institution, and of a pervading personal dread, to a renewed celebration of human contact, the body, and the giddy, terrifying excitement of ongoing life.
“Winning this prize and working with this press feels like taking my place among my teachers—so wonderful, and a little scary,” shared Kolbe. “Hearing Eleanor Boudreau [last year’s Starrett Prize winner] read her work aloud when we were both in our early twenties was one of those experiences that made me want to be a poet.”
Raised in Orefield, Pennsylvania, Laura Kolbe studied English and American literature at Harvard and the University of Cambridge before attending medical school at the University of Virginia. She now practices at Weill Cornell Medicine, where she works as a hospitalist and a fellow in medical ethics. Her poems, essays, and short stories have appeared in American Poetry Review, Conjunctions, The Nation, The New England Review, The New York Review of Books, Poetry, The Yale Review, and elsewhere.