Scientist-turned-poet Julia Rose Lewis is pushing at disciplinary boundaries in her research and creative work. Travelling between Nantucket Island, Massachusetts and Wales, she explores the capacity of poetic and scientific techniques to enrich each other. Her first chapbook, ‘Zeroing Event’, is due to be published by Zarf this autumn. In the latest installment of our Poet of the Month series, Julia talks to Katy Lewis Hood about longing and belonging, experimenting with language, and the possibilities and tensions of international and interdisciplinary exchange.
Place is important across your work, and in ‘The Assembly of the Head‘ it comes in the form of Welsh mythology. How significant do you think myth and narrative are to ideas of place? And how do you negotiate your relationship to place as a poet moving between Wales and Nantucket Island?
In my first creative writing workshop, I was seated next to the professor and noticed that he had given us all pet names on the attendance sheet — mine was ‘Island Girl’. I love the literature of both islands: Gwyneth Lewis, Richard Gwyn, and Zoë Skoulding from Wales, and Herman Melville and Frank Conroy from Nantucket.
Travelling back and forth is a privilege, but I’ve developed a sort of chronic homesickness. So I use writing about the place I’m longing for as an antidote; I see islands as stories and stories as islands.
By this I mean that I see stories as a way of holding a place in our heads when we aren’t physically there. Stories can bring us back to a place. In ‘Lighthousekeeping,’ Jeanette Winterson writes: “There it is; the light across the water. Your story. Mine. His. It has to be seen to be believed. And it has to be heard. In the endless babble of narrative, in spite of the daily noise, the story waits to be heard.” This quotation encapsulates the importance of sound, so important to a poet, in making sense of place. I love the idea that the sound of a lighthouse in the fog can be understood as a poem.
When I’m in Nantucket, I miss the omnipresence of poetry in Wales, the sense of poetry as a national identity. I desperately hope to rearrange my summer work schedule so I can attend an Eisteddfod (a Welsh festival of literature and music). The poet Menna Elfyn has described Wales itself as desire — desire for the Welsh language, for Welsh sovereignty, for the past as well as the future. I’ve only lived in Wales for six months but it has been wonderful to see and hear the language, and I’m becoming more interested in translation and bilingualism. In this sense, my love affair with the country is just beginning.
Alice Entwistle has written about the ‘productive uncertainties of the interstitial’ for thinking about place, language and identity. Does your own work engage with interstices?
I hope so. Being in love with two places separated by a great distance has created questions of identity for me. I take great delight in the synchronicities wherever I find them: whales and Wales, Daffodil Parades, sailor’s valentines in Nantucket and lovespoons in Wales. A love-hate relationship with the tourist culture in both places makes me constantly question whether or not I’m becoming a tourist on either island.
It’s also really important to me to work across and beyond national borders. Perhaps this is because of my science background — Western scientists don’t differentiate research by country — and this has many advantages, but also causes problems. For example, one strategy Western pharmaceutical companies use in the search for new drugs is analysing and isolating the active ingredient in traditional Eastern medicine. The companies then apply for a patent for the drug, which results in a barrier to access for Eastern companies. This practice is known as biopiracy, and it’s a problem for contemporary science, just as cultural appropriation is a problem for poetry.
I think I would probably be guilty of cultural appropriation if I were to use traditional Welsh meter in one of my poems in English. What I love about experimental poetry is that it crosses its own border by asking the reader to reconsider the definition of poetry. Therefore, it is really important to me to read outside of poetry and literature in the humanities and social sciences. I try to make my reading habits omnivorous, because I have no idea what will become research for a poem.
As you’ve already mentioned, you’re a scientist by training. In some of your poems this quickly becomes obvious through your use of scientific vocabulary, but it also manifests itself more subtly across your work through precision of imagery and attention to minute details. How would you describe the relationship between science and poetry today?
This is really close to the question my PhD dissertation asks: what is lost without discourse between poetry and science? In my view, there are two approaches to writing science poetry. The surface approach uses some of the results of scientific research to create unusual images within the poem. The deep approach uses scientific theories as metaphor and language. By this I mean that the poetry embodies the research rather than just discussing it.
I would characterise this second kind of science poetry as experimental because it transcends poetic tradition; it could also be called revolutionary science because it transcends the boundaries of science. J.H. Prynne’s work in general, and the ‘Plant Time Manifold Transcripts’ in particular, is a good example of this. It is as much a poem as it is a parody of a scientific conference as it is science fiction. Prynne’s use of molecular biology is just as good as his use of poetic craft.
Poets, like many people working in the humanities these days, are keen to do interdisciplinary work. I think it’s great that there are now more opportunities for people to bridge the divide between the ‘Two Cultures’ — the arts and the sciences —that C.P. Snow lectured about in 1959. Balance and bidirectional exchange are what I look for in science poetry.
My own poetry absolutely emerged from my practice as a scientist. I was a part of Paul Grobstein’s applied neurobiology laboratory at Bryn Mawr College, and spent a lot of time talking and writing with him about why human beings behave the way they do. We were working on how stories, paradigms, and metaphors affect people’s actions. In the course of our conversation, I began to propose alternative metaphors for experience and my writing slowly became poems. My first chapbook, ‘Zeroing Event’ (which will be published by Zarf in the autumn) plays with the science poetry genre. It includes poems about the central dogma of molecular biology, Star Trek Deep Space Nine, and the way that refrigerators work, amongst other things.
Many of your poems make sophisticated use of repetition, sound patterning and wordplay. How do these distinctly poetic features contribute to the interdisciplinary and bidirectional experiments we’ve discussed?
I fell in love with Gertrude Stein’s writing in college because she was engaging with the psychology theories that I was learning as a neurobiologist. She was a bridge for me between neurobiology and poetry, and I think her wordplay is exquisite.
My wordplay is often used to create a poetic context around the abstract multisyllabic words I use. The bigger the word, the greater the number of possibilities for sound patterning. This is why I think that the diction of philosophy and science is ripe for wordplay. In addition, this language is less frequently used and therefore presents an illusion of greater precision and sophistication. In my work, I aim to show that technical discourse is not without beauty of either traditional or experimental varieties.
My poem ‘If Number, Then Name’ was directly inspired by the way chemists and students think. If you give a chemist a number between 1 and 120, then they will probably think of the name of the element with that number of protons. A sort of synesthesia by training. I received an 85 as a grade and was struggling to make sense of the British marking system, so I fell back on my training as a chemist. Exploring the history and properties of element 85, astatine, as an extended metaphor was a powerful lens for reflecting on my identity as a writer and a student.
How important are community and collaboration for your work?
I really adore the Enemies Project curated by S.J. Fowler. He pairs up poets to create new compositions and perform them on stage, and the readings are always very dynamic. I have been lucky enough to collaborate with Annabel Banks and Harry Man, and both experiences helped me to reflect on my process and craft.
For me, collaboration is an opportunity to learn from another poet on equal terms. Writing poems with someone else helps me to break out of habits, and I love reading with someone else on stage. Collaboration is inspiration and intertextuality happening in real time.
In addition to collaborating with other poets, I would love to work with scientists again, in order to participate in interdisciplinary dialogue that allows both parties to reinterpret their work. In particular, this would involve looking more closely at the processes of poetic and scientific experiments. I would love to see a community of poets and scientists working together on the same questions.