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Body/Language: An Interview with Shen and Jonathan Wonham

December 4, 2005 2 comments

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
are hooked.
I’m beautiful flight,
a perfect ellipse
from conception
to fulfillment —
a dancer,
a sculptor of stone
and metal, a glassblower
molding flesh.
Believe me when I say this —
I am selfish and understand
only one purpose.
Within my casing
I have no doubts,
feel no fear,
no bitterness,
no pain.
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.