Home > Science as Poetry > Oranges and Rust: An Interview with Jeannine Hall Gailey and Jill Chan

Oranges and Rust: An Interview with Jeannine Hall Gailey and Jill Chan

November 30, 2005

I have long assumed that poets with a scientific background love science and poetry in equal measure, however I was also curious to find out to what extent science affects their poetry. Through a series of interviews, I made some surprising discoveries of my own.

Jeannine Hall Gailey is a Seattle-area journalist whose first book of poetry, Becoming the Villainess, will be published in the spring of 2006 by Steel Toe Books. Her poems have recently appeared in The Iowa Review, The Columbia Poetry Review, Verse Daily, and 32 Poems. One of her poems was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Studying for her MFA at Pacific University, she volunteers as senior poetry editor for Silk Road. Her chapbook, “Female Comic Book Superheroes,” is available from Pudding House Press and her website, www.webbish6.com.

Jill Chan was born in Manila, Philippines, in 1973. She has a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry, migrated to New Zealand when she was 21, and started writing poetry a year later. Her poems are published in Poetry NZ, Takahe, Trout, Deep South, Spin, and other magazines. She is the editor of the online zine, PoetrySz: demystifying mental illness.

I am curious to know more about your poetry and science background.

Jeannine Hall Gailey: I grew up the daughter of a professor of engineering and robotics and a journalism major/devoted poetry appreciator. So, there was no avoiding either science or poetry for me… I majored in Biology for my undergrad degree and considered medical school; I worked as a research assistant in a botanical genetics lab – fascinating stuff. After graduating, I decided against medical school and to try my hand at technical writing for a few years. I really enjoyed working with engineers and the fairly decent money, but ultimately it left me missing the artistic side of myself. I enrolled in a Masters’ Degree program in English, studying both creative and professional writing… I wrote a book about web technology in 2003 and [then] finally decided to devote myself full-time to poetry, to give it at least a fair shot for a few years.

Since then I’ve been focused on non-technical writing; I published a chapbook, “Female Comic Book Superheroes”, with Pudding House Press in January and spent a lot of time working on my first poetry book, Becoming the Villainess, which will be out Spring 2006 from Steel Toe Books. Last year, I started attending a low-residency MFA program, which has helped me focus on poetry and, hopefully, hone my skills even more.

Jill Chan: I have been writing poetry for ten years and have a collection of poetry, The Smell of Oranges, and an e-book, Telling Them Apart. I read poetry books, in translation or otherwise. Some of my favourite poets include Paul Célan, Fernando Pessoa, Elizabeth Bishop, James Wright, Rae Armantrout, New Zealand poets Anna Jackson, Paula Green, and Kendrick Smithyman. I also frequent poetry boards and blogs. I think they could be good resources for finding new contemporary work. One poet that I like who writes ‘science poetry’ is the British poet Lavinia Greenlaw. One of the reasons I like poetry is because I think poetry is alchemy. It is for me a most potent and transformative area of study to work with.

I have a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry degree. I think I took it because I’ve been interested in the world behind the seen, what laws govern it, what models have helped us see it.

So how does your science background impact on your poetry?

Jeannine Hall Gailey: My poetry is less about science in its subject matter than it is about sci-fi, although references to technology creep into my poems on a fairly regular basis; more than that, I think, geek culture – comic books, video gaming, animé, etc – is very important subject matter in my work, because I want a certain kind of reader (maybe a computer programmer who doesn’t read a lot of poetry) to pick up my book and identify with the poems. …One of my favorite authors is Margaret Atwood, who writes sci-fi (or at least, her work has elements of sci-fi) and poetry.

Jill Chan: I think my interest in concepts and the distillation of materials to their essence comes from my science background. The clear almost detached method of crystallising an idea, to make it manifest, I think that affects the way I write.

Jill, which poem of yours do you think has an almost perfect mix between science and poetry?

I have a poem in The Smell of Oranges called “Quantum” where I think this reaching toward the unknown, if on a personal level, is most evident. I like to write ‘science poems’ that borrow scientific knowledge and employ it as a metaphor but in reality touch on the personal.


I ask you questions,
feeling the bursts
of silence, your words
(when they come)
not lowered enough,
hang in the outermost
shell, almost
defying physics.

The years
I’ve known you
fall discretely
into pockets,
your hands firmly
hidden, the clothes
in the way.

I find the scientific concepts embedded within this poem, alluded to by certain charged words such as ‘bursts’, ‘silence’ and ‘shell’, balance so delicately with the more human relationship at its core. Is this in fact a goal of yours, to write what you call ‘science poems’?

Jill Chan: Yes, I would like to write more science poems, if not overtly, maybe poems that have a balance of clarity and meaning, plus the reaching toward the unknown I mentioned.

Jeannine, how does science manifest in your poetry, and which poem of yours do you think illustrates this?

I’ve been writing lately a lot of mythology-based poetry, but I could definitely see writing a collection around scientific subject matter. Maybe something about chaos theory, dinosaurs (seriously, we need more dinosaur poems) and genetics… My poem, “The Taste of Rust in August”, was published in Pontoon 7.

The Taste of Rust in August

Knoxville afternoons in summer, lightning on the air.
The horses whinny, nervous; the chickens roost.

Our chain-link fence is rusty. I like to taste it –
that metallic clean I imagine to be the flavor

of lightning. My brother was hit once, carrying
a metal bucket to water the animals. It burned

his arm, and left a funny taste in his mouth.
Mother says I have always sucked on spoons,

licked lampposts, iron grates, jewelry.
She goes crazy about the germs.

She says I do it because of what she calls iron-poor blood
and it’s true – there’s no rust in my skin at all,

dull and transparent as wax paper.
I run around the yard for hours, chasing the lightning,

tracing those fractal lines in the sky with my fingers
as the smell of ozone drives the dogs crazy.

This poem is very much present within the human realm and also draws on not only scientific concepts such as fractals and electricity, but plays with the idea of risk as well, touching upon the vulnerabilities of the human body from nature in the form of lightning, germs and disease, mental illness.

Jeannine Hall Gailey: Marianne Moore had a strong devotion for getting the details of the natural world into her work, so her poetry is probably what I’d point to as the perfect balance between the scientific and the literary. It always seems so effortless, and her vocabulary was brilliant.

Do you think science is poetic? Do you think poetry is a science?

Jeannine Hall Gailey: Yes, a lot of scientific theory and experiments are very poetry-worthy. Is poetry a science? Not purely. Poetry needs to lean on intuition and the subconscious for inspiration, then you can use your scientific methods, so to speak, on the poem.

Jill Chan: Yes, I think science is poetic. Science has a beauty as much as poetry. It is creative, and dynamic. It is meaningful. No, I don’t think poetry is a science in that there is a much more varied way of understanding poetry, of making poetry, than science. Poetry has a more open way of touching people that is dependent on each person’s experiences.

So, which satisfies you more (or less)?

Jeannine Hall Gailey: Writing a nice piece of code and working on botanical experiments was satisfying to one part of my brain; poetry satisfies a different part. I love to get e-mails from programmers who tell me how my technical book or articles helped them at work, but I love hearing from people who connected with my poetry even more. I think I might prefer poetry because I think it allows us to communicate with one another on a deeper level, which seems important these days.

Jill Chan: Poetry satisfies me more because I experiment with words now. I enjoy the surprise of working an idea, making things fall into place, learning through trial and error, connecting disparate things into something meaningful.

Interview by Ivy Alvarez of Ivy is here

  1. November 30, 2005 at 7:51 pm

    A terrific contribution! Thanks, Ivy. This is a vitally important discussion, which perhaps could continue here in the comments, if other readers are of a mind. I am wondering, for example, of the various ways in which poetry and science each serve the imagination, and whether the desire to communicate experience is really so different from a commitment to the experimental…

  2. December 1, 2005 at 9:55 pm

    Enjoyed the interview. Jill’s comment regarding chaos theory particularly interested me. A number of years back, when I first heard a little about chaos theory, my first reaction was that it was what resulted from scientists making a serious effort to describe art scientifically.

    I believe that the essential distinction between art and science is this: the goal of science is, ultimately, to create results that can be repeated over and over again, theoretically an infinite number of times; two plus two always equals four, an atom of sodium and an atom of chlorine always (under the right conditions) combine to make salt.

    Whereas the goal of art is, ultimately, to create results that are essentially unique. Once a poem has been written, or a painting has been painted, writing the same poem or painting the same painting over again isn’t the point. Art is going ahead and saying something else.

    The poet I think of immediately relating poetry and science together is the 20th century Czech poet Miroslav Holub, who (besides being a poet) was also a pathologist and immunologist. Throughout his life he wrote and published poetry and also scientific writings. His poetry is richly flavored by his scientific vocabulary and his generally scientific perspective: what other poet would write not one but two love poems containing the word “platypus”?

  3. December 2, 2005 at 8:03 am

    Hey, that was neat. And I like what Lyle said, though I’ll see his Holub and raise him a doctor — William Carlos Williams.

    I’ve been sort of disappointed that there weren’t more submissions — or at least published submissions — for this topic. But then, when I’ve thought about it myself, I’ve found it difficult to identify any concept that really is uniquely on this topic. Of all the submissions, Dave’s about breaking glass fell the cleanest for me in both categories, science and poetry. Even the bits quoted here by these two authors are not that clearly on topic for me, when I read them alone, without the commentary.

    Maybe I’m weird. I was raised by an artist who became a writer and a scientist who became a lawyer. Both also stayed what they had started out as, of course, and both were also musical, one more intuitively, one more formally trained. For me, even though I can confidently make statements such as “I’m good at languages but bad at math,” math and language, science and art have always been integrated, one whole thing, inseparable, each essentially about the other at its fundament. When I paint the human body, thinking always about placement of ligaments and distribution of veins and capillaries, blues and pinks, I paint biology. When I photograph plants, with serrated leaves and whorled leaves, oblate and pinnate, I photograph botany. When I draw a building, all angles and support and proportion, I draw geometry and physics. They all run into each other. And I use chemistry to explore different ways of recording bits of them. And though I want each work to be unique, part of the process is discovering techniques — which use science — for being able to create whatever effect I want, over and over again, at will — just recombined.

    I just don’t see poetry and science as separate, but I also don’t really think this is unusual. Rebecca Goldstein’s book Strange Attractors, about a mathematician whose specialty is the mathematics of soap bubbles, also describes how discovering the existence of this subject entrances another character, a poet whose mathematician husband says he never told her about such things because then she’d want to be a mathematician, too. A friend who studied biology at Oxford, with particular focus on the eye and how we see, both the physical and chemical mechanisms that allow it and the psychology of it, used to have long conversations with me about how science is art is science is art… Other friends and I have joked, “What happens to a scientist how can’t do arithmetic? S/he becomes an artist.” (Again, it’s a joke. Lots of artists can do arithmetic just fine.)

    I don’t think most people can separate science out of life; it is all about life, as is poetry, as is every art. Therefore, it’s very interesting to see what you finally ended up choosing for this subject, which sets up the premise that science as poetry is somehow special, and then to read about people who are able to consciously draw lines between specific poetic expressions and specific areas of science, at least while they’re writing.

    Cheers, all!

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