blackbirdonline journalFall 2012 Vol. 11 No. 2
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KATHERINE LARSON | Levis Remembered

A Conversation with Katherine Larson
captured September 21, 2012

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Gregory Donovan: Well, as you all know, we’re here today to enjoy a chance to talk with Katherine Larson, and we’ll just go ahead and start in and, Katherine, during the recent weeks, I asked my students to read your book and respond to it by writing a poem and also talking about it online. And one of the things that they picked up on, and perhaps I guided them toward this, but I also noticed that they discussed it in their looking at your poems, is they noticed that your work characteristically includes a tension of opposites and then perhaps an interweaving of opposite entities, instincts, categories, realities, fields of inquiry, you know, the obvious one is science versus emotion, I suppose you might put it that way. But I wondered if you would talk a little bit about the background to that integration and that tension in your work.

Katherine Larson: Sure. That’s really perceptive of them, actually. I think I’m one of those poets that tends to write my way into a poem a lot of times, and one of the things that I find really interesting is, you know, I even sort of draw on kind of surrealist exercises to do this, and I find really interesting, you know, the sort of idea of starting from very disparate points and kind of forcing things into relation with each other. So, you know, you have poems in the book that have, you know, aquatic entomology and then ancient Egyptian burial rites. You know, and it’s like, so what is the common ground? How can you write your way into a place where these things come into relation? I feel like when these disparate things are forced into relation, which they are in a poem, and a poem is kind of one of the only places that this kind of thing can happen where you can move so associatively instead of so logically or so rationally in some ways, really surprising things end up happening, and, you know, it’s a kind of relic in some ways—them discovering this—of my process, in fact it’s a part of that.

David Wojahn: Katherine, could you talk a little bit about your dual background as a creative writer and also as a scientist, both in terms of how those two careers developed for you and how those two sensibilities, which you know as Greg says, you know reductively we often think of the scientific method as being highly rational and the creative method as being largely intuitive.

KL: Sure.

DW: And so, if you could just give us a little information about how you got to the position you’re in.

KL: Sure. I think it’s really interesting that you say that about this idea of the scientific, well I mean I would argue that the scientific method is a pretty rigorous method meant to be kind of rational. You have hypothesis, observation, and testing, and it sort of proceeds in that manner. But when you work with scientists and are around scientists, you begin to understand so much of the process, and so many of the really bright scientists you meet are incredibly creative people. And especially when you’re operating on a level in which, you know, your field of knowledge is fragmentary and you get to the place where you can’t exactly see beyond that horizon, you have to rely in some ways on intuition to get to that new place, and in fact, a lot of scientific language ends up using analogy and metaphor because you have to explain that unknown in terms of the known, so it’s an interesting thing. In terms of my own background, I came from kind of a family of scientists. My father was a professor of forestry and environmental science, and so I kind of talk about how my brother and sister and I grew up like feral children, you know, it’s like we were always outside. My dad and mom would take us out, you know, wood-cutting or coring trees, or camping, hiking, and it’s like we were always very in tune with the natural world and we would roam in the woods behind our house for, you know, the entire day. So that’s where, I think, this sort of genesis of some of the science began was. And my mom was actually a teacher, and in her classroom she had everything from a Madagascar hissing cockroach to turtles and, you know, all of these creatures. I remember first studying metamorphosis with her with mealworms, you know, and I was the one, of course, who had to clean the mealworms out, which was really, totally gross to me at the time. So that’s I think the science part of it. And then the poetry side of it ended up just coming . . . I think it was always something that was just kind of there, I just didn’t have the words, you know, to sort of articulate it when I was growing up. I was always drawn to the arts and in a lot of ways, I mean much of my poetry is very visual because I kind of feel like I’m a failed painter, you know, it’s like that’s what I would have really wanted to do with my life in some ways if I, you know, in the beginning had the training. So anyways, so I just kind of continued these paths in parallel through undergrad. You know, I got a B.S. in ecology and evolutionary biology and then a B.A. in creative writing and English, and then was working in the sciences at the same time that I was doing my MFA, so for me, for the last, you know, more than a decade I just sort of pursued the two things in parallel and actually have found that the scientific community is a really rich place for me to be. It allows me a kind of autonomy as an artist in a lot of ways, you know, I can sort of operate in some ways under the radar, and that was especially helpful for me as I kind of came into my own idea of my  poetics and my project that I was trying to do. And there’s a lot actually that the work, the kind of work that you do in the field and in the lab can often be—I mean, that’s a lot of laborious work to be honest. But it can also be very meditative in some ways, you know. There’s something pretty great about coming to the laboratory at five AM when nobody’s there and for me, it ended up just being kind of a great place to pursue both. And I actually did start at several points in time, I think it’s four PhD programs now actually in various aspects of science, and ended up taking a lot of graduate courses, and you kind of see some of this tension in my poetry, too, that the specialization is something that’s very counterintuitive to me as a poet, so I found it a little bit claustrophobic. And so I was, you know, I kind of was able to have the best of both worlds in some ways, to be able to be engaged with projects that I cared about while at the same time having the freedom and time at the beginning or the end of the day to kind of pursue, you know, my studies in pirates in Belize and whatever I wanted to look at.

DW: Were there poets along the way that you’ve read that seemed to particularly empower you and encourage you?

KL: Oh, certainly. I think probably, oh gosh, there’s such a long tradition of really remarkable people, but Marianne Moore for sure is somebody who had a kind of veracity, you know, for knowledge, and such a sharp wit, and a wonderful, you know, just a wonderful kind of intellect in her writing. Elizabeth Bishop was another one too. And kind of later on, I ended up studying for a semester in Ireland when I was in college and so I came across the poets Medbh McGuckian and Ciaran Carson and some really wonderful Belfast poets, of course Seamus Heaney, I mean there’s such a wonderful tradition. And you know, poets like Neruda, you know, I’m thinking of just sort of like the formative years of coming into poetry, I’d say that Tomas Tranströmer, too. He was really wonderful.

Audience: So, can I, can I ask, you were talking about, you know, this interplay between science and the arts and everything, and you had mentioned that, you know, science has to use metaphors and analogies when you look at how Newtonian views of the universe affected our cultural metaphors of reality, and then it’s changing now, too. But I’m interested kind of in how you see how science uses language in a different way or how you see that working with the way that you use it in your poetry.

KL: I think a lot about, again, the specialization. We use the word science here in the course of the conversation, but really it’s kind of like, okay, well, are you talking about biochemistry, molecular genetics, or are you talking about, you know, and that’s just in, sort of, the life sciences, and so increasingly, it becomes in some ways it’s kind of a, it’s an interesting, I don’t know, a middle place from which to work because it’s very difficult for me to talk about. I mean to write a poem exploring, you know, yin-yang regulators and mac-related kinases, right? It’s like, such specialized vocabulary. So, I think that in terms of the main sort of discourse of science really happens in scientific papers, and the language there has to be very specialized and very clear. However, when you actually talk to scientists about their work, there’s a number of good friends of mine, I’m thinking of a neuroscientist in particular, that I mean literally in almost every other sentence, she uses some kind of metaphor or analogy to describe, and it’s such a powerful teaching tool. She’s a really phenomenal teacher. I don’t know if that answers your question.

Audience: No, it does. And you’re harping on the specialization, and that’s kind of what I see is, it’s hard to break into it I guess.

KL: It becomes very hermetic.

Audience: Yeah, yeah.

KL: I mean I think that certain fields, so in the book it goes to that series that is very much interested in ecology, and I think that that’s a field of study for example that’s very translatable because you’re talking about relationships. It’s a broad enough field, and it encompasses so much of sort of things that the everyday person would be perceptually aware of. The birds, and the shore line, and the tides, and you know, these kinds of things that I think that, as a result, there’s kind of like a shared—it’s an easier field to enter in terms of poetry or exploring it with language.

Audience: Thank you.

KL: Yeah.

Audience: When my students were reading Radial Symmetry, they were struck by the inclusion of foreign language words and also outside sources or other voices like Euclid and Gauguin. Can you talk a little bit about where you made those decisions and how you made those decisions to include other voices in your work and then places that maybe you decided to not use them?

KL: Oh, sure. Yeah, it’s interesting that you say that. I realized at the end of reading the book when I was doing the proofing, I was like there’s quite a number of, it’s like Lugandan and Italian. It was just like “Oh!” I think that what ended up happening, this collection was actually written over a fairly long period of time. You know I ended up getting my MFA, I think the last time I think I was actually in Virginia was about eight years ago.  And part of it was it was hard sometimes to find a balance between the work and the science and then carving out time to write. And so the way that the collection ended up proceeding was really not as a kind of unified whole but more sort of like piece by piece and poem by poem. But in the course of putting it together there was actually quite a lot more material, and what you have in the book now is a very, you know, sort of like the pared-down poems, like the poems that kind of made the cut and it was really important to me that pretty much every single piece in there resonated in some way, that there weren’t any, at least to me, kind of fluffy pieces or whatever, but for me it was also important, you know, these last eight years for me have been very formative years kind of internally and intellectual for me, and I wanted this first book to be a place, sort of like my . . . a place to locate myself so that I could then work from that body. So, it’s not so much, I mean part of it is autobiographical in the sense that certainly I did learn Lugandan and I did, you know, study in Uganda and, you know, these places, but it’s not so much that that’s important as it was to, like, I guess, like I said, to locate this first book in a place where I could then kind of move from and it was kind of important to sketch out the territory of, I guess, where I’d been and then where I wanted to go. Does that make sense? So I guess the, you know, what, what I didn’t include were the pieces that I thought were lesser, you know, or didn’t fit within, kind of, the framework of the book. It was funny how, you know David kind of talked about this last night, but you realize you kind of, unconsciously, have these preoccupations or obsessions that find their way through, you know, thread their way through and so in a lot of ways the book had a cohesiveness that I was certainly surprised to find (laughs).

DW: Emillia’s question also makes me want to ask a question about place and travel.

KL: Sure.

DW: Because there is, you know, one of the other things that is interesting about the book is this dialogue between lots and lots of travel poems and poems like “Love at Thirty-two Degrees” which is a poem of trying to, in some ways, make a home landscape.

KL: Sure.

DW: And yet people often talk of, you know, in “The Sheltering Sky” Bowles famously makes that distinction between a traveler and a tourist, and what do you think the dangers are in writing about foreign locales? Because a lot of student poems I read tend to never reach up above exoticism.  

KL: I was just about to use that precise word actually, you know, because it’s very easy, the exoticism alone can sort of create this landscape of a poem, right, that can make it interesting. But your question is more what allows one to do that or what is, I mean I’m not, I hope that I was successful in the book with that (laughs).

DW: Yeah, I guess I see them as traveler poems rather than tourist poems.

KL: Okay.

DW: And I guess,  how do you arrive at that?

KL: Okay, sure. I think with the exception of maybe one poem, you know, for example the “Ghost Net” series, it was such a critical series for me to write. It was the last piece to finish in the book. Actually, the sort of genesis of that work was that I spent six months working, living and working, at a field station at the edge of the Sea of Cortez and this meant that I was, I was absolutely embedded in this culture. You know, I was invited to quinceañeras and I went out fishing on fishing boats and went out diving on diving trips and worked with local fishermen and, I mean really, I mean I was—I was a part of that community and  part of the reason that project was so important to me is it ended up actually being, it became a collaboration in which I worked with an artist, where fragments of the poem were etched in glass, in basically Cornell-esque boxes which were collections of old fishing, like fishing remains that had washed up on the beaches and she’s this incredible, incredibly talented artist, and we ended up putting this project together, and so it was like, it was very much a collaboration and the poems were in part written in response to her work. Her work was put together in response to the poems. And at the end we ended up selling the boxes and then donating about eight thousand dollars back to that community. So it, I mean, it was important to me that the work came from a place of, you know I mean, I guess I would say this sort of like truly authentic place, I was writing about this place because I cared deeply about it and cared deeply about the people there. You know, the one poem in the book that is located in Uganda or deals with issues in Uganda I spent a semester living there studying the language. I was, you know, living in this little village at the edge of the Nile, you know, it’s like . . . so, does that answer your question, David? So it’s like, so when you use language fragments or things like that, I mean, for me it was like, it was very specific. I wasn’t trying to use them just to be exotic but to say this is really, these are really beautiful words that you can’t really translate in other ways or become a part of the fabric of the poem.

Audience:  It seems like they had become part of your own kind of language, too.  

KL:  Yeah very much, I mean, like I said this book, you know, these experiences that I had I was very lucky in that when I was an undergrad I got a scholarship that actually paid for me to choose, you know, my own travel and have the ability to do that, and it all became such formative, these were formative events in my life that, well I mean, have profound impact on me I think as a person from now on. So it was sort of natural that it would come out in the poems, too.

GD:  One of the ways it seems like you move outside of the mere tourist’s interest in exoticism is that, in your poem “Oranges in Uganda,” for one thing, you’re doing very funny things with language—it’s so, just the title indicates that—but also you reach for the mythic.

KL: Yeah.

GD: You’re walking around with Death (she says “yeah,” laughing as well).

KL: Yeah. (laughs) I don’t know that, but it was funny that Louise was like, “I don’t know that you can get away with this poem.” (laughs) I was like well, I don’t know, you know, you have to, we have to sort of risk something. And, I mean, the fact of the matter is I talk about this being a profound experience and the fact of the matter is, is that you’re living in a place where, where you’re walking around and one out of four people is affected with either HIV positive or very visibly, in fact, has AIDS. You’re living in a place where, you know, there’s no running water. You boil your own water, and it still is yellow when you drink it, and you’re working and loving people who are living every day in incredible pain and have not even Aspirin. So it does become, you know, yeah I mean it may seem dramatic and mythic but it’s because the reality is something that, even coming back to the U.S. and returning, it’s very difficult to make that transition from such an alternative reality.

Audience:  In thinking about your collection as basis for your work from moving forward as you mentioned do you find that your work now is, sort of, taking a turn from the subject matter and the themes in this book or is that something you work at consciously, or come to naturally?

KL:  Well, that’s a great question. I think it’s definitely the preoccupations that I have are things that I, I have a hard time getting away from, but I mean it changes in some ways so, you know, the artists that I speak about in this book are transformed now and now I’m looking a lot at the work of the kinetic sculptor Theo Jansen or Cy Twombly or . . . so, so certain elements definitely change. I think elements of transformation, like David was saying, transfiguration this is, this is kind of a running theme, the, I think that the tension that’s created between disparate fields, also, is something that’s really rich territory to explore and I’m also really interested in the power of the imagination to, really the power of the imagination to transform, to allow us to become more empathetic, more imaginative in the way that we perceive our world and ourselves and our identity, so those are sort of large themes, you know that, there’s definitely, like, an undercurrent of real anguish in the book that comes, especially in the “Ghost Net” series, from what I see as an ecologist of sort of these ecological and environmental questions and issues and that, probably, more so than some of the other science work is a little bit where I’m focusing now. I’m also always going to be very interested in, in other life forms and how they perceive the world, and how we can imaginatively operate to understand that, you know, from jumping spiders to squid. I think I’ll always be kind of intrigued by that consciousness in all of its forms I guess.

Audience:  Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process—you mentioned it was difficult to figure out how to carve out time—and maybe what you went through and where you’ve arrived now?

KL:  Sure. I think it, it’s actually pretty funny if somebody, somebody were to ask me now, like well, “What is the most important thing that you can do in order to figure out how to become more disciplined as a writer?” I’d be like “Have a baby.” (everyone laughs). It’s like, it’s so true, I mean, because now it’s like I wake up at six in the morning, I take a quick shower, I grab some breakfast and coffee, and I begin. And I have four hours in which to, you know, do, like I have, basically a schedule of writing and reading and, you know to sort of fit into this time period, and I think about when I was a graduate student and how I’d float from coffee shop to coffee shop . . . you know, be like, I don’t know this person was really bothering me. You know, it’s just. It’s funny.  So the process—yeah, I’m sure some of you guys can hopefully understand that. So the process has altered in that way, that when you don’t have that much time, you definitely use it. But I also think that I just arrived at a point, it took me, it took me, I feel like kind of a while to come into my own, and I would say that I’m just now really at the beginning, you know, like to begin to do this. You know, like to finish this collection and kind of close the chapter on that period of time. I have a much more rounded and intuitive sense of where I want to go, and you know the other thing is, is that I think it’s so important as a writer to structure your life in a way, you know, so the things that have had really profound impacts on me is I have a partner that is incredibly supportive of my work. That’s huge, you know, and I found a couple of people with whom to exchange work. And as I see this really great community that you guys have here, I’m so impressed by it. It’s really remarkable and to keep that, it’s so precious, you know to keep that as you move forward in your life, the people that are good readers will stay good readers of your work. So, I would say that you know in those ways, those are the kind of changes.

GD: You mentioned that you began with more ambition. I feel like I understand that very well because I did that too, and one of the things that, you know, in thinking about your book, one of the things about them that is scientific is that they had a kind of humility before their material. The material came first and then they responded to it. But the interesting thing for me about both of them was, and in your work as well, is that, what that leads to is the transfiguration. The imagination comes in and begins to operate on the material. So you’re not just satisfied with the description of reality, you want an investigation of it.

KL: I think that that’s such a profound thing to say, actually. That investigation is what really, as a poet, keeps me going. This is fueled by curiosity. I’m really interested in phenomenology, and one of the people I sort of return to again and again—Katelyn, you asked me about process—I actually begin my day every day when I‘m working by reading a page out of one of Gaston Bachelard’s books. I find that just even that, you know a page or two, puts me into that space. You know, I think Poetics of Space is a really—I would recommend it to any poet—Poetics of Space is a really great book to start with. But that idea of the investigation, the investigation into our own perception and awareness of things, to pay enough attention so that the familiar and what we think about are familiar constructs, like the neuroscientists talk about this, you know, the way that the brain establishes its construct of the world: once you begin to examine it more carefully, more intimately, it sort of begins to fall apart, you know? And so as a result, we defamiliarize what’s familiar and you then can, then you have this sort of gap sometimes that happens where you can perceive something completely differently, you know? And if you can embody that, if you can create a structure for that in a poem—this sort of living perception—that’s really what keeps me going.  I find that that experience is, it’s completely fascinating. Sometimes people have talked to me about being kind of a, like a science poet, and I don’t necessarily think that it’s so much that; I mean my subject matter as a result of kind of my—what I’ve spent time studying, but if I had spent time doing cultural anthropology or something like that, you know, the subject matter may be different, but I think the investigations and that process would be similar.

DW: You mentioned Tranströmer a little earlier, and Tranströmer too is a scientist.

KL: Absolutely.

DW: And you know, one of the things that I love about his poems is that notion of going into these dreamscapes, these places of irreality that are just completely unknown but he always seems like he’s in a lab coat taking notes.

KL: Yeah, that’s true.

DW: And so I’m also interested in the notion of how the dream life, how what you had earlier mentioned surrealism, starts to impact the poem too.

KL: Yeah. So the poet Jules Supervielle, he has this incredible essay, and I think it’s just called something simple, like “Reflections on Art and Poetry” or something like that, but he has this really lovely thing. He says, that he decants his deepest poetry only by dent of simplicity and transparency, that he sees to it that the ineffable becomes familiar, at the same time it guards its fabulous origins. I just love, he writes in this essay, it’s such a tremendous piece because it’s so authentic and he comes to it sort of at the end of his, near the end of his career and saying, “Alright these are things that I didn’t really have the courage to sort of put down in words before, but I’m just going to put it all out there.” You know, and he says that he has this really beautiful image of the dream being—this part I‘m not going to remember totally correctly—you know, but the figurehead of the ship; you’re moving through this sort of reality and how important, basically, the dream in the dream state becomes. And Bachelard also talks about this in Reverie—in The Poetics of Reverie—so that place . . . you know, I think about the way that poetic image, Bachelard talks about it as being, you know, a place of sort of, the genesis as sort of a preconscious kind of thing. And I think this is really key because—I’m not sure I’m always able to articulate this anyway, so, I don’t know, you can tell me if I’m being a little bit vague—but so for example, when I’m working on something that I care deeply about, like the “Ghost Nets” series, which has to do with very specific sort of ecological kinds of things, you know, you can get to a place as a poet when you care deeply about something that it becomes a very didactic exercise. You know, and so I was very careful in that sequence never to use words like “habitat fragmentation.” But there’s a really important thing that happens too, and the British poet Jo Shapcott talks about this, where she talks about, you know, instead of writing directly about something, whatever’s urgent in the consciousness will then appear in the poems. And so I feel like that’s the place where I bring it all together, in terms of dream and reverie and the image. I feel like the subconscious is really the rich and deep territory that’s necessary in order for the poem to really breathe and resonate and become a living thing instead of a kind of descriptive exercise. In the same way I feel like you can hone your critical skills, as a professor and teacher, as a scientist, as a critical thinker, I feel like you have to also figure out ways to hone your creative skills. It’s a very different and personal kind of thing, to learn how to do that. But in my process, I find that the poem comes into being when that connection is made. When whatever information has been sort of stewing in my subconscious, you know, comes out then, in the form of an image and resonates. Does that make sense? I know I was kind of weaving around there.

DW: Well folks, we have time for one more question, so?

Audience: I could see the specialization in your scientific work sort of coming in handy when you’re working with poetry, because you have this language and the ideas there naturally. Whereas a lot of us, if we want to write a poem, it may require some sort of scientific research, or any kind of research, we’re on Wikipedia, getting, like,  surface information that may not integrate very naturally when we want to bring it into our writing. So, could you talk about that a little bit? Is that something that you notice in your work?

KL: That’s a really great question, in a lot of ways. Because I feel like, that’s a question for every—in some ways, actually, for every scholar, really, it’s not just even poetry. I think that what the critical thing is, is that you, you don’t let yourself be intimidated by that fear of not being perfectly fluent in a kind of language. And there’s something that you find really interesting in say, paleontology, you know. That you do the research, and then you talk to a paleontologist, and then, you know, that you sort of just proceed, I think fearlessly. Because the bottom line is, is that their knowledge, too, is actually very fragmentary, and the way that you perceive it, and the way that you’re coming to it to study it, can actually offer a whole other element that’s, you know, maybe even they’re lacking in their understanding of. I’m working on some pieces now that have a lot more to do with artificial intelligence, and this is a field of study that I, I mean I am in the squishy sciences, you know, that’s what I am comfortable and familiar with, but the work, you know, is taking me in this direction and so, I think—and maybe this is helpful to you—one of the most valuable things that I have found is in fact not to just go to the research material but to talk to somebody who works in that field. There are some really great, you know like, there are some really great opportunities and really open-minded scientists, and you just have to find those people and I mean you pretty much know, you can send an email and do it kind of like that or show up and talk to them. But that’s I think one of the best ways to kind of garner that information.  Does that answer your question a little bit?

Audience: Yeah, thank you.

GD: I had a drunken conversation one night at a bar with a guy who was a mathematician, and he was explaining to me string theory, and I actually thought I understood it…until the next day.

KL: Alcohol helps, too. (Laughs) Exactly.

DW: Well Katharine Larson, thank you so much for sharing all this with us.  end

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