I know I haven’t shown my face around here for over two years, but a couple of weeks back, the wonderful Luisa Igloria invited me to participate in “The Next Big Thing” (a “book tour” survey meme of sorts in which writers reflect on their own books using a series of questions and then refer their readers to other blogs) and I figured that now might be as good a time as any to make a (sheepish) reappearance on this blog.
So here I am. (Hi! I’m—sort of—back!) And I have a published chapbook now, that’s coming out in February! It’s called Periodicity (you can pre-order it here, or read an excerpt here), and it’s based on that middle section of my MFA thesis, the one I wrote about here, when the project was still very much in-process (seems like forever ago now). So here’s a little bit about Periodicity. (N.B. I’ve changed the wording of some of the questions slightly to make the survey more applicable; for the original questions, please see Prof. Igloria’s “Next Big Thing” post).
1. What is the title of your book?
Periodicity. After the principle around which the periodic table of elements is organized. (It’s also the title of one of the poems therein).
2. Where did the idea for the book come from?
My father was a chemist; he lived and breathed his passion for science, and as a result, I grew up steeped in it—from the impromptu lesson on boiling points he once gave me when I asked about making soup to the time he was developing a saliva pregnancy test and asked my mom to freeze vials of her spit every morning as a control! In middle school, I developed a deep fascination with science of my own accord, a fascination that followed me into college. Though I ended up majoring in English rather than in Biology, my interest in the natural sciences never waned. I remember writing a few poems in college using imagery from things I was learning in my biology courses, and my professor (Bruce Snider) encouraging me to continue writing about science, as he observed that it seemed to be a fruitful source of creative inspiration for me. The real seed of the project that became the women scientist poems, though, was planted during the Levinthal Tutorial I took with Andy Grace during my senior year. One week, Andy challenged me to write a poem using the sonic structure of Charles Wright’s “Clear Night” as a form. For some reason, I found myself writing about Marie Curie. When that poem was written, I thought about the women scientists I’d grown up learning about in high school biology: Rosalind Franklin, and the terribly unjust treatment she was given by Watson and Crick; Barbara McClintock, who always seemed like such a wise and lovely, but incredibly lonely, soul; Rachel Carson, whom so many people accused of being crazy at first. I thought that it might be interesting to try writing some poems about these and other women in science—women whom I’d grown up seeing as heroes and role models as my own interest in science had developed. So I did.
When I began my MFA program the following year, I brought a couple of the women scientist poems into my first semester workshop, and was very surprised when people said that they liked them. They encouraged me to write more. So I did. And the women scientist poems became a project. I researched more women scientists, experimented with ways to distinguish and differentiate their voices from one another on the page (some of my strategies included trying out different forms, borrowing language from their own writings, trying to shape the arc of the poem according to a particular force or principle that was important to their work, etc.). I even began writing about women who weren’t scientists themselves, but who, like me, has a close, loving relationship of some sort (as wife, daughter, sister, etc.) with a well-known scientist. I found that what drew me to these women was not just the force of their stories (the importance of their research, the misogyny they often they struggled against), but the way in which science became for them not just an intellectual passion, but a way of life. They were wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, lovers; and their drive, the thing which they loved and lived and breathed (or which, in some cases, their loved ones lived and breathed)—was often inextricably inflected in these relationships.
Eventually, my handful of women scientist poems expanded into a whole sequence, and that sequence became first the core of my thesis, and later—in revised form—my chapbook.
3. What is the genre of the book?
Poetry, of course!
4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I don’t think my chap would lend itself to film very easily, unfortunately. It’s not narrative in nature; nor is it meant to be. (A filmmaker friend who’d asked to see my work a few years ago once gently confirmed this!) Nevertheless, because the book relies heavily on persona and other forms of dramatic monologue, it’s interesting to imagine it performed in another way, maybe as an audio piece. If I had to cast actors, though, I’ve heard that Renee Zellwegger’s film portrayal of Beatrix Potter was phenomenal, and I think it would be interesting to see Eve Curie as a sort of Anne Hathaway / Sutton Foster type figure. I must admit that I’m not too sure about any of the other figures in the chap.
5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Periodicity weaves together the voices of 15 different historical women whose lives and relationships were inextricably entwined in the world of science.
6. Who is publishing your book?
I’ve been lucky enough to have been taken on by Finishing Line, a small poetry press that’s local to the Lexington, KY area (where I moved in January to work at the University Press of Kentucky).
7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
This is bit of a hard question to answer: I’m not sure that the manuscript (as a chapbook) ever had a complete first draft at any given time. But the poems in it have all been in process, at one stage or another, since my senior year of college (2008). Those first couple of woman scientist poems did not turn into a project until 2009. And that sub-project did not become a chapbook until 2011, when I decided that the focus of the full-length project needed to change, and that the women scientist poems probably deserved to be a separate manuscript of their own. (You can read more about my process in the last question of this interview, which the folks at The Collagist were kind enough to run earlier today, or hear about it in this radio interview I gave).
8. What other works would you compare this book to within your genre?
I can tell you what books I looked to for guidance and inspiration, or which drew my interest while writing: Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris, Jill McDonough’s Habeus Corpus, Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia, M. Van Jordan’s Quantum Lyrics, and to some degree, Jeffrey Yang’s An Aquarium. I’m not sure I’d say that the result is comparable, though; I admire all of their work too much to consider mine anywhere near equivalent!
9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
[See question #2].
10. What else about your book/your writing might pique the reader’s interest?
Most of the poems in the book are persona poems. That is, I’m often writing from the perspectives of the women whose voices I’m exploring, in the first person.
I was also privileged to have had a talented artist friend, Killeen Hanson, design the cover of the chapbook. Killeen read through the manuscript and was inspired by the cyanotype prints that figure in the poems about Anna Atkins (a british botanist, who’s also thought to be the first woman photographer). Killeen went out and created her own cyanotypes of a variety of botanical forms; the final image that we chose for the cover features one of her prints of a lilac. I love the lush blues and ghostly whites of cyanotypes, and Anna Atkins’ poem was one of the most personally resonant for me to work on, so I feel very grateful indeed to be able to have Killeen’s gorgeous print for my cover.
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I am not very good at memes, and I’m afraid that I did not plan far enough in advance to inform anybody that I was interested in tagging them. So instead of explicitly tagging anyone, I think I’ll just list five poets who blog and whose recent books and/or chaps I think you should check out (and if you’re one of those poets and you happen to stumble across this, feel free to pick up the meme thread yourself on your personal blog!)