It was a wetter Africa you knew,
ancient giraffe —
more greenery, the sky a wider blue,
your longer horns more often used —
when your full size was less than half
today’s. The climate changed; you grew.
More than the tongue, the spots, your neck
is what your name has come to mean. When said,
the sounds stretch out, long As from Arabic,
the hissing, slurring F which spreads
just like your neck in centuries of drought.
And if your paradise returned, would you
revert? For language takes safaris, too:
a wetter word, you’re shortened to a shout.
Written by Mary Alexandra Agner of Pantoums and Persistence.
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. This is the second part of a series of interviews in which I make further surprising discoveries.
Shen lives in Adelaide where he works as a general practitioner, having arrived in Australia as a teenager in the mid-1980s. A poet of Malaysian-Chinese origin, he completed an Asialink Literature Residency in Vietnam in 2002. His first collection, City of My Skin (Five Islands Press), was published in 2001.
Jonathan Wonham has been writing poetry for some 20 years. His poems have been published in Poetry Introduction 7 (Faber 1990) and in magazines such as New Statesman, London Magazine, The North and Thumbscrew.
I would like to know more of your poetry and science background.
Shen: I graduated from Adelaide University Medical School in 1995 and now work as a general practitioner in Adelaide, South Australia. I have never formally studied literature/creative writing and am self-taught in poetry.
Jonathan Wonham: I began writing poetry at school. My first book publication was Poetry Introduction 7 (Faber and Faber, 1990) and my most recent is the anthology called Future Welcome, edited by Todd Swift (DC Books, 2005).
On the science side, I spent about ten years at university studying geology, graduating at the end with a doctorate. Since 1996, I have worked as a petroleum geologist in the UK and in France. I have also published a number of scientific papers in books and journals.
Would you consider science and poetry to be opposing camps, or complementary ones?
Shen: If I had to make a big statement on this matter, I would say that science gives us tools with which we can confidently explore the world (be that physically or mentally), but only artistic pursuits (to which poetry belongs of course) allow us to experience the world on an emotional level. There are fields where they intersect, of course — psychology has tried to quantify and map out emotional fields in a scientific manner for years — but to me essentially, the arts and science are different pursuits, moving the human endeavour along, side-by-side; neither complementary nor oppositional.
Jonathan Wonham: The words ‘science’ and ‘poetry’ both encompass an enormous diversity of human activity. However, what is common to a large sector of both disciplines is their interest in the natural world and I think this forges a fairly fundamental link between the two subjects.
The character of that interest in nature is not the same however. Scientists try to reduce natural things to their functioning parts or to a series of mechanisms. Alternatively, they may find means of classifying, differentiating and evaluating them. Poets draw on nature as a source of inspiration, in some cases as a set of ready-made metaphors, in others, simply as a scene-setting device. What I do think both scientists and poets generally share is an appreciation of nature and this can be a common ground for communication.
On the other hand, there is perhaps division between poets and scientists as to what constitutes ‘truth’. Truth in poetry is to do with the language being ‘true’, not absolutely true, but true in the sense that the poem ‘works’ and that we can believe in what it is saying, no matter how surreal, illogical or abstract it happens to be.
Truth in science is falsifiable truth. An experiment that can be repeated by another group of scientists on the other side of the world or a measurement that is proven by several different devices… Scientific language must not ‘get in the way’. It must present results in a transparent manner, leaving as little to doubt or interpretation as possible.
Somewhere between these two versions of ‘truth’ is reality as humans perceive it, constructed on somewhat unstable and shifting ground.
What impact does science have on your poetry? What about poetry in science?
Jonathan Wonham: Working as a geologist makes up a large part of my everyday experience and consequently filters into my poetry. I have written quite a few poems about the lives of North Sea oil workers, for example. I’m also interested in using geology as a source of metaphors in my poems.
I don’t have an agenda for putting science into my poems. It is something that turns up occasionally. I have sometimes used an objective style of writing in order to give a poem a ‘clinical’ feel, if I felt that matched the subject matter.
As for poetry in science, I once heard Miroslav Holub, the well known Czech poet who was also an immunologist, tell an audience: “I wouldn’t want to be announced at a scientific conference as a poet.” I find that perfectly understandable. At a scientific conference, the fact that I write poetry just wouldn’t be relevant.
Shen: I think my scientific tertiary education helps me have an analytical approach to the writing process. This is useful in the technical aspects of poetry writing — being able to discern if a poem ‘makes sense’ or not, for want of a better word. It also allows me to appreciate that there has to be structure to a poem. More specifically to my medical education, I approach many things in life in a problem solving way. Of course, a poem is not a problem waiting to be solved, but aspects of its writing can certainly be approached in that way (e.g. stepping back and analysing why a certain part doesn’t work, and why).
I write about my work a bit and incorporate events and stories that I have been told in some of my poems. And I am definitely aware that some of my recurring motifs are very anatomical/body-based, so that undoubtedly derives from what saturates most of my working day. I haven’t consciously tried to write a poem on an abstract scientific/medical subject — I think the human and emotional world will always fascinate me more.
The following poem, “the beautiful arc,” is one of the few in which I personify an object. Obviously what I’m trying to contrast here is the clinical precision of a bullet against the (unseen) mayhem that it can threaten to inflict on the human being at the other end. Perhaps it demonstrates my idea of how the scientific and the ‘human’/emotional world co-exist and sometimes potentially intersect (and not always with a beautiful result).
the beautiful arc
I’m a bullet —
with my cold face of steel
I’m anonymous and with
just one chance
I’ll change your fate.
I’m one voice, a crack
in the silence of night —
a threaded wisp of air
on which screams
I’m beautiful flight,
a perfect ellipse
to fulfillment —
a sculptor of stone
and metal, a glassblower
Believe me when I say this —
I am selfish and understand
only one purpose.
Within my casing
I have no doubts,
feel no fear,
I’m a bullet. Now,
tell me your name.
By way of contrast, Jonathan’s poem addresses science from a different angle.
Jonathan Wonham: A few years ago, I wrote a poem called “Biology.” It concerns a seduction in a biology lesson:
Among the formaldehyde jars
filled with unnameables
you did it to all the boys…
The girl leans on the boy’s back as he stares down a microscope, and he realises:
It was animal behaviour interested you
not the ghostly, floodlit cells
we had scraped from our tongues.
In fact, this poem is as much to do with human drama as it is to do with science and that is fairly typical of my work.
In closing, which satisfies you more — science or poetry?
Shen: To be honest, I think I have never been fantastically interested in the research/’scientific’ aspects of medicine. The bit that keeps me most interested is how the theory applies to people, and alleviates their problems/improves their lives, rather than constructing the theory itself. By the same token, I love the creativity of poetry and feel no compulsion to ‘study’ it in terms of an academic pursuit. So I guess my bent is more toward the practice of poetry, above all else I do.
Jonathan Wonham: Actually, I get about the same level of satisfaction from both geology and poetry. I’m lucky to have been able to get along in these two different areas in parallel and I feel a certain sense of obligation to do more in the future to try and interweave poetry and geology, something I have already been doing in a series of essays I am writing. To quote the French poet Francis Ponge in John Montague’s translation of “Earth:” “If speaking of earth like this makes me a miner poet, an earth tiller, that’s what I want to be! I do not know a grander subject.”
Interview by Ivy Alvarez of Ivy is here. She is the author of Mortal (Red Morning Press, 2006).
Shen and Jonathan Wonham retain all rights to their work. The authors and The North, who published “Biology,” grant permission to qarrtsiluni for use of the materials on this site.
Upon the announcement in the journal Nature that some dinosaurs ate grass, which matters — to someone –because no one knew grass was around then to be eaten.
Sauropod’s dancing on Jurassic grass; it’s a
Paradox, prancing in spite of its mass, for the
Experts all swore that the creature’s too old and the
Grass is too young.
But the dinosaur tries the strange
Fronds at its toes; it chews them and swallows six
Yards from its nose — if the mouthful is chewy it’s
Not a big deal, for a sauropod’s constantly
Hunting for meals.
Now the dinosaur’s stomach is
Coming around; brobdignagian muscles are
Brought to bear down, and in time an unspeakable
Solid hits ground and confuses the primitive
The dust and the sands of uncountable
Weekends enfold the remains of both feaster and
Feast — till a diligent scientist ranging the
Plains cracks a rock, takes a look, thinks a bit, holy
In a lab near the lawn of a famous old
College, a squad of researchers are sifting for
Knowledge. The stuff that they sift doesn’t signify
Now — with antiquity’s blessing, it’s just coprolite.
Simpler the language the better: Indelicate
Things are most easy to speak if the label’s not
Plain, and the language is Greek.Written by P.
intaglio print from circuit board with monoprinted brushstrokes, by Natalie d’Arbeloff of Blaugustine
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
I’ve known you
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.
on the macroscopic scale
can be deceiving. Measured
in microns, the fracture surface
resembles the long-lost, infinitesimal
twin of a rent in metal –
that famously elastic break.
So too, then, with glass:
cavities as narrow as a few nanometers
open ahead of the crack,
in the last fraction of a second before
the wineglass shatters under
the bridegroom’s shoe.
Atom separates from
in rapid sequence
wherever the amorphous
solid – glass –
The blind cane of an atomic
force microscope can tap
all along the edge of a crack
& find no sign of deformation,
no pits or pockmarks.
Glass must therefore be
as we’d always thought:
Atoms under pressure slip
& slide across each other;
nothing is simple. Friction
leads to atom-sized cracks
& the cracks widen into
the necessary cavities, yes.
But all along the fracture zone,
the same pressure
responsible for the break
makes the gaps snap shut
Let’s call them nanovoids,
these model wounds,
healing as perfectly as if
they had never been.
Approaching the fracture origin,
the surface of a crack appears
increasingly smooth. But under
an electron microscope, each region
shows the same kinds of features
at a finer & finer scale – a fractal
self-affinity. Beginning at ground
zero, we name these regions
mirror, mist, hackle,
macroscopic crack branching:
energy magnified in chaotic order.
Given an opening, given vibration,
atoms in the amorphous silica will
change partners – a choreography
of rings that first contract, then
join together, encircling ever
larger volumes until the last
bonds fail & the atoms
Inspired by an article in Research: Penn State, “What Makes Glass Break,” by Walt Mills (online, 2005). Also consulted:
F. Célarié, S. Prades, D. Bonamy, L. Ferrero, E. Bouchaud, C. Guillot, and C. Marlière, “Glass Breaks like Metal, but at the Nanometer Scale.” Physical Review Letters 90, 075504 (2003).
J.-P. Guin and S. M. Wiederhorn, “Fracture of Silicate Glasses: Ductile or Brittle?” Physical Review Letters 92:21, 215502 (2004).
R. K. Kalia, A. Nakano, P. Vashishta, C. L. Rountree, L. Van Brutzel and S. Ogata, “Multiresolution atomistic simulations of dynamic fracture in nanostructured ceramics and glasses.” International Journal of Fracture 121:1-2, 71 (2003).
J. J. Mecholsky, J. K. West, and D. E. Passoja, “Fractal dimension as a characterization of free volume created during fracture in brittle materials.” Philosophical Magazine A, 82:17/18, 3163 (2002).
by Dave Bonta of Via Negativa