Katherine Larson and the Webbing Between Science and Art

Photo of poet Katherine Larson

We recently had the chance to interview poet Katherine Larson about her work, life and interests. Larson is a professor of creative writing at the Stonecoast MFA program in Portland, Maine whose first book of poetry, Radial Symmetry, was selected by Nobel-prize winning writer Louise Glück as the winner of the 2010 Yale Series of Younger Poets. However, Larson also has a background as a research ecologist. That background in science and the natural world informs and is in conversation with Larson’s writing in a way that resonates with our goals as a journal. As such, we were really excited to talk with her about her work, the writing process, the environment, and the branchial hearts of squid. We hope you find her thoughts, written below and lightly edited, as illuminating as we did.

Our review focuses on poetry, prose, and visual art that live in the world of science and nature, a category that your work certainly falls into. Can you give us a bit of a background on what brought you to the science-art nexus and where you are now?

My father was a professor of forestry and my mother was an elementary school teacher. Both were fascinated by science—not just in an intellectual sense (explanations and predictions), but also by the invisible relationships and sensual aspects of the natural world. We spent a lot of time outside when I was growing up: hiking, camping, fishing, woodcutting, tide pooling, blackberry-picking. So, paying close attention to the landscape: clouds, snakes, clover, birds, soil—and then asking questions about how those things came to be, how they were changing and so on, was a kind of foundational structuring not just for the study of biology but poetry for me. I’ve always loved discovering things. And I’ve always been curious about the experience of being in the world (and by being, I also mean I think about all kinds of beings in the world—fish, algae, plants, insects, birds, etc.). Poetry arose out of that sense of investigation: I wanted to understand how language interacted with some of the phenomena I was experiencing, and how it could house or structure emotive, empathetic, and intellectual responses to it.

Later, I formally studied both ecology/evolutionary biology and creative writing. I’ve always found it important to keep both in my life in some capacity because they are inextricably linked for me; I can’t imagine one without the other. There is still a lot of debate about the so-called Two Cultures and certainly, there is a point of specialization where there is a divide—in practice and vocabulary—but I’m personally most interested in rich areas of overlap, interdisciplinary insight, even synthesis. Having experience in both worlds lends me that kind of perspective.

Where do your poems start?

These days I’m working more with the lyric essay form rather than poems. But poems and essays start everywhere! Recent ones: trails of purple blossoms that leaf-cutter ants drag into our front yard each night from our neighbor’s, and a lyric essay based on Dino Buzzati’s “The Falling Girl.”

Jules Supervielle once wrote a beautiful essay “Reflections on the Art of Poetry,” in which he speaks about decanting his deepest poetry only by “dint of simplicity and transparency.” He “see(s) to it that the ineffable becomes familiar at the same time this it guards its fabulous origins.” In my own work at least, I’m very curious about the ineffable and its translation into language. I find I’m not as interested in wild convolutions of wordplay or obscure symbolism—it’s the mind behind the play, the intense attempt to distill a particular insight or perception that’s of interest to me, and those invitations are anywhere and everywhere.

In one poem in Radial Symmetry you write: “What makes stars shiver in their/ burning coats?” Can you describe the energy you get from thinking about a question like through the lens of poetry versus through that of science?

It’s been my experience that you can’t study any field of science—be it conservation genetics or astrophysics or paleobiology—for long without bumping against the horizon of the unknown. There are those things we know we don’t know, and those things we don’t know we don’t know. In both science and poetry, you have to either figure out a way to bridge those gaps or to find a way to exist within them.

So, I view poetry and science as different but complementary forms of inquiry: both require discipline, rigor, passion, and patience. Both are fueled by curiosity; both depend on investigation and experimentation. They’re different investigations, certainly, but I think the point is to cultivate a certain flexibility in how one approaches and tries to understand the world.

In the Foreword, Louise Glück writes: “Larson trained as a biologist, but these poems do not seem (at least to a layman) a scientist’s work. They prize sensation over analytic scrutiny, the individual example over the category. Her education in science manifests here as a passion for detail…” Do you agree? How do you feel like your science background is in conversation with your writing?

I think I agree a little more with a different section of Glück’s introduction: “Larson’s repose is also a quivering suspension, in which multiple perceptions, multiple elements, are held in extended and mysterious relation.”

I say that because, as I mentioned before,  I find that I’m a writer that is deeply interested in synthesis; I’m attracted to the tension that’s created by drawing seemingly disparate categories into relation in order to see what can be exposed, what kind of receptivities can be explored, what perceptual shifts may happen. And my writing is often engaged with and/or emerges from a place where there is always the desire to unmask, to examine subjects through several lenses and investigate even their own investigations.

In terms of how my scientist background is in conversation with my writing, I’d say that my writing thrives in a space where scientific inquiry, empathetic and aesthetic experiment, and careful observation can meet. A place where squid hearts can be dissected and meditated upon, Baudelaire can be reincarnated as an argumentative baboon, and Paul Klee’s paintings become stages in which inanimate elements of a landscape can soliloquize. It seeks to house a world in which perception can be delicately distilled, where the surreal can flash with clarity and where the precision of observation is offset with the imprecisions of human nature. I grapple with the powers of poetic imagination as well as the realization of the human capacity for both profound invention and environmental destruction.

Throughout Radial Symmetry, the reader inhabits the speaker’s scientific world through some really lovely images– a squid’s branchial heart, the Milky Way swaying its back “across all of wind-eaten America,” water snakes falling “like a knot of silk/ loosed.” How do you look at an experience in science– whether it’s camping in a field site in the plains or dissecting a squid in the lab– differently than a scientist that is not also a poet?

I think of it this way: when you displace the scientist from the proverbial ivory research tower and consider him/her as an individual: a person with complex motives and passions, with an intricate emotional and intellectual history, you recognize that there really is no such thing as a completely objective perspective. (Which allows you to realize the value of fluidity and flexibility—even of imagination—in thought processes. After all, many scientific ideas are expressed in terms of analogies or metaphors—how else can you explain the unknown except in terms of the known?).

It also allows you to recognize a quality of vulnerability. From a phenomenological perspective, the universe is not merely a universe we are aware of—it is the universe of our present awareness, of a scientist’s particular present awareness.

So really what that means is that I can’t answer your question in a satisfactory way. My subjective experience as a scientist and poet doesn’t allow me to. I don’t know what it would be like to not have this weird poetic aperture that I seem to have—or to not be constantly exploring and excavating dialectics (reductionism and holism, mythology and scientific fact, etc.). All scientists are unique in their perceptions and perspective; all poets are, too. I know some scientists that are exceptionally creative individuals and some that are meticulously conventional.

You teach at the Stonecoast MFA program in Maine. What advice do you find yourself returning to when working with beginning writers?

 I have a quote from Hokusai, the esteemed Japanese ukiyo-e painter and printmaker of the Edo period, above my desk (this was translated by a dear friend who visited an exhibition of his in Paris):

“From the age of six, I have had the passion/mania to draw the form of objects. By the age of fifty, I had published an infinity/countless drawings; but I am unhappy with everything I’ve produced before the age of seventy. It was at the age of seventy-three that I understood little by little the form and true/real nature of birds, fish, plants, etc. Consequently, at the age of eighty, I will have made considerable progress; at ninety I will arrive at the depth/base of things; at one hundred, whether it be a point or a line, everything will be living. I ask those who will live as long as me to see if I keep my word.”

I share Hokusai’s belief that the life of the artist is one of lifelong apprenticeship. And I think as a beginning writer, you have to recognize and internalize that. You constantly struggle; you constantly strive to refine your art and practice. And that’s all a part of the journey. It takes time and effort—discipline, really—to cultivate a practice of paying attention, to capturing and rigorously polishing thought. 

I also find myself often reminding my students to take risks—even when it’s a scary thing to do.

There’s both aesthetic risk (working with new craft techniques) and fundamental risk (which has more to do with the personal, intellectual, emotional encounter of the writing itself). Certain craft elements can be learned, taught, practiced, and honed, but that quality of mind behind the poem must also be cultivated—and usually that cultivation (often a very personal, individual process), also involves risk of some kind.

Where there’s risk, there’s fear. That, too, is a normal part of the process. So, I remind students of the luminaries that have gone before them (writers, scientists, artists). Like the inimitable Audre Lorde who says: “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” And of celebrated Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat as well: “Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously…knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them.”

What does poetry have to say that scientists could learn from?  

One of the aspects that I think of is how important it is—especially now—for scientists to become excellent communicators.  Poems have the capacity to move people, to transform their perceptions and behavior. So, understanding the literary devices and tools which allow language to enter into that territory, to wield that power—that’s a pretty fascinating thing.

Recent advances in the fields of cognitive science, artificial intelligence and neurobiology show that our motor and perceptual systems influence or “embody” our cognition, thereby allowing for a far more dynamic interplay of the mind/body connection than previously thought.

So, some of the devices that good literature offers—imagery, for example, which can draw upon all five senses in order to add authenticity to the work and to ground its symbolism—become a really interesting thing to consider as a scientist. Music (assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia, etc.) does as well. Figurative language (simile, metaphor, hyperbole, personification) is also huge and is ,in fact, something that scientists make use of in powerful ways even now. Take the explanation of light as both particle or wave—both are metaphors.

But there’s more, too.  As the Surrealist André Breton suggests, in order to change ways of being, we must first change ways of seeing. Which circles back to that idea of flexibility in thought processes again. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard talks about obstacle épistémologique—basically the idea that scientific progress can be blocked by certain habitual patterns of thought. I think the associative logic of poetry can help disrupt mental habits that have become routine or repetitious and allow surprising connections to be made. I know that personally, the kind of metaphor, non sequitur, juxtaposition, and synesthesia that occurs in poetry has allowed me to defamiliarize the familiar and see the world—or particular scientific problem—in new ways.

This blog series is called Inspirations. Is there a person (perhaps also in the art-science intersection) whose work you are particularly inspired by?

These days I spend a lot of time exploring the work of visual artists. I’ve been entranced by the work of Heather Green, Olafur Eliasson. Rachel Sussman, and Janet Saad-Cook.

What are you up to these days, in terms of both your science and your writing? Any projects you are particularly excited about?

I’m currently working on a book-length collection of lyric essays that explore the work Japanese writers Kenzaburō Ōe, Minako Ōba, and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. But really, the project draws upon pretty eclectic inspiration—from Japanese beetle hunting to explorations of phenology and ecological “resilience”; short films of Jean Painlevé to bio-inspired robotics.


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