Finding a Form, Choosing a Genre, Embracing Your Nymph

I’ve been zooming into lots of classes this semester (thanks for teaching RUE and inviting me, profs!). A common question I get, since I wrote poetry and creative nonfiction, has to do with how I know what genre a piece of writing should be in. Here’s a video of a reading and q&a I did for the Smith Creative Writers Reading Series at Penn State –Behrend where this question came up.

https://psu.zoom.us/rec/play/gX8iPSi69J5iHHWAY2KHpLD3iBq1kz5_JEQo-mZSchbmMNTGs95i1-ex9iJ4tn3LlKH_QDQXY-Bcc1ZV.44-hcSM1HKt58Z8S?continueMode=true&_x_zm_rtaid=zWdt-vFKQW20sZ61ZdrIow.1603470503878.237450ece0be684c51e9ef79b3e04f9c&_x_zm_rhtaid=514

One answer I have given to this question is to say that the work will teach you its form, to just write, and see what shape it takes on. For example, I was struggling to write this essay about the English spy Tilly Matthews, who was committed to an asylum after he witnessed many atrocities during the French Revolution. He had delusions and conspiracy theories about the origin of human suffering that were both highly improbably, but that also made a lot of sense to me, insofar as human suffering really makes no sense at all. I struggled to convey the complex relationship between madness and reason in his story for a long time, until I tried using the poetic form of a pantoum to shape the prose essay. I found the relentless repetitions, the highly ordered nature of that repeating, and the disorientation of encountering a poetic form in a prose genre to be an excellent way to convey those parts of the story I was finding so hard to express.

Or check out this essay, or this one, both by Traci Brimhall, that borrows their forms from the ghazal form of poetry.

But other times it can be really inspiring to choose the form first and discover the limits of your imagination as you reach for lines to fill the form. When I set out to write this essay about St. Dorothy, who was accused of witchcraft, I decided early on that I wanted to write an essay about her that would borrow its form from a crown of sonnets. I committed myself to creating fourteen stanza-paragraphs with 14 sentences each, and I paced each paragraph using the thesis-antithesis-volta-synthesis structure of a sonnet. This forced me to research St. Dorothy, other saints’ lives, the names of roses, witches broom and related plant disease, mystic poetry that references the rose as a symbolic image, and folklore related to the rosary which is a poetic form of prayer closely associated with sonnets crowns and roses. The essay exploded and I eventually published it using this form at Cleaver magazine. However, more recently, as I was revising essays for inclusion in my forthcoming book, The Witch of Eye, I found the sonnet forms was forcing me into an unnecessary wordiness. The new version of the essay is only a quarter as long as the earlier draft and has a much more open form, but it still draws together all of the threads the crown drew out of me.

So I would add that another way to decide what form you should be in is to experiment and play as you go, and to think of each form a piece takes as a necessary part of its metamorphosis. Love what you’re writing when it’s a nymph and then let it molt and become the dragonfly or grasshopper or jellyfish or barnacle or whatever final adult form it is reaching for.

Another observation I’ve shared about form and genre is that you can generate some really productive tension in your work by either leaning into or thwarting the expectations a reader may have. I note that readers typically come into a poem expecting to be given some intense emotion, meditative reflections, and a patient expectation that what they read will not necessarily make sense immediately or easily. Obviously not every poem fits these parameters, but this is a kind of idea about poems in the culture that readers bring to the page. And as a poet, I find it really satisfying to totally subvert those expectations by making my poems really chatty, incorporate rhetorical analyses and summaries of historical or scientific material, or offer lists of species with Latinate names. I like the way these unexpected modes can make the poem feel bracing and jolt the reader into a heightened state of attention. Here’s a poem of mine operating in this way. Daniel Borzutzky is one of my favorite poets who subverts readers’ expectations about poetry – “The Book of Non-Writing” is another good example of this.

With that same spirit of jarring the reader with a kind of oppositional-defiant attitude towards genre, I often approach essays, which I think readers expect to be narrative and/or educational, with a highly poetic tone. The ellipticism I tend to avoid in poems, I bring with glee and reckless abandon into poems. I sprinkle inexplicable images liberally, juxtapose unrelated observations wildly, and embrace the sonnets, pantoums, odes, and sestinas that I find too constraining for a poem. Here’s one of my contrary essays  throwing all its poem feelings at the reader. When I’m trying to think about the potential in unexpected forms, I often look to the Mita Mahato’s work as a comic artist, which often crosses over into the realm of essays or nonfiction. You can see an example here.

Talking about Talk in Poetry

I was really delighted to have the chance to do a reading and conversation with John Gallaher about conversational rhythms, tones, and rhetorics as sources of inspiration towards poetic forms. John’s new book Brand New Spacesuit, is excellent and his previous collection, In a Landscape, was an important influence on me as I was writing RUE and looking for ways to weave intellectual and personal materials into poems that can hold my love for scholarly discourse and foul language, not to mention rhetorical flourishes and genuine authenticity, in the same breath.

Danny Caine of The Raven Bookstore (who also writes chatty poems that weave the political with the lyrical like these) hosted us via crowdcast. Before the reading, John and I put together a list of books that have influenced our thinking about talk. We touched on lots of these titles in the course of the hour, which you can watch a recording of here.  

https://www.crowdcast.io/e/gallahernuernberger

Here I want to share our list (my part was made by pulling books off my shelf about which I thought I might have something to say, until I had a very large stack), and reiterate a few of the comments from our talk, as well as elaborate on some of the works we never got around to discussing in depth. You can support The Raven, a fantastic independent bookstore that so generously nurtures writers and literary communities, by ordering a few of these books from them directly at https://www.ravenbookstore.com/.

The Talking about Talk Book List (An Incomplete and Growing List)

Lyn Hejinian, My Life – Conversational poetry, sometimes referred to as Ultra-talk, is often understood as an extension of narrative poetry. However, in our conversation John cited a number of poets more commonly associated with experimental poetics as important influences on his work. Our conversation suggested that many poets working with a conversational tone as much or more influenced by performance art as they are by traditional notions of narrative in poetry. Cole Swensen, Claudia Rankine, and David Antin are other writers on the list, sometimes thought of as experimental, who often cross over from literary spaces into the world of visual arts and performance art, or vice versa.

Adrian C. Louis, Ceremonies of the Damned – Ultra-talk is sometimes presented as being an apolitical mode (you can read one of the definitive critical articles on the style here), though I’d argue there’s no such thing as an apolitical mode, only the mode of being problematically in denial about the politics one is enacting. The lack of engagement with politics in the writings on this style makes me reluctant to enthusiastically claim the moniker “Ultra-talk poet!”

Personally, I see a lot of aesthetic similarities between the ultra-talk and other kinds of conversational poetics (the Gurlesque is just one that comes to mind) in which casual talk is used in a decided political way. Adrian C. Louis is among the writers I see attending to how language that spirals, like conversations tend to, among the political and the personal and the friendly and the ticked off. In this collection he has a really long poem, “A Colossal American Copulation,” that creates a litany of f*** this and f***. The lines move between cursing the encounters with racist good ole boys at the carwash, against genocides and thefts of land, against petty domestic inconveniences, against ducks, against the dementia that has taken the beloved’s memory – I very much admire the way this poem, and some of Louis’s others, move between small griefs and massive historical ones, between the personal and the collective, and the way the poem captures the simultaneity of being people in societies, in ecosystems, in history, in family, in friendships all at once.

I see a similar capaciousness in the voices, lines, and subject matter of Jaswinder Bolina, Daniel Borzutsky, Tommy Pico, and Denise Duhamel on this list.

Cathy Park Hong, Dance Dance Revolution – In Dance Dance Revolution Cathy Park Hong created a new dialect for a tour guide to an invented city. Many of the poems in the collection are monologues spoken by this tour guide. I am mesmerized by this book every time I pick it up. At first I found the dialect difficult to understand, but was drawn in by the way the poems were enacting a post-colonial critique of language as an engine of empire and a method for its transformation. As the book went on and I was immersed in the language I felt as if the poems were teaching me how to read them. I loved being carried into meaning and into a language that put itself in a complicated and critical position towards English as a language of colonization. The experience made me think differently about the work conversational syntaxes and grammars are doing to hold us to each other in conversation.

I think there is a similar kind of aesthetic effect in Jos Charles’s book Feeld, also on this list, which borrows from middle English to create a non-binary language the exposes all the ways grammars can limit or open up one’s capacity to imagine possibilities in and around gender, but also love, identity, community, the spirit.

Bernadette Mayer, Poetry State Forest – Ultra-talk poetics are often positioned as descendants of New York School poetics. Kenneth Koch’s playful, meandering poems do model a kind of carefree relationship to language, the line, and formal discourse. And you can hear me go on about Frank O’Hara’s brilliant and funny “Personism Manifesto” in the crowdcast.  Of all the New York School poets, Bernadette Mayer (who I first learned about via Maggie Nelson’s groundbreaking Women of the New York School) has been the most influential for me. Her poems sound more like a person talking to herself than to an audience, like the raggedy edges of a conversation had in and with your own mind. They are exciting in the way they catch a kind of addled disjointed inner monologue, one I recognize well as common among those of us raising small children, the attempt to find the thread between politics, art, feelings, and laundry. I found a great deal of inspiration and permission in the way she cultivates a kind of rhetorical honesty.

Claudia Rankine, Citizen

John Cage, Silence

David Antin, Selected Talk Poems

Jaswinder Bolina, The 44th of July

Jos Charles, Feeld

Douglas Kearney, Patter

Mark Halliday, Jab

Denise Duhamel, Blowout

Cole Swenson, Gravesend

A.R. Ammons, Tape for the Turn of the Year

Mary Ruefle, Dunce

Craig Morgan Teicher, Brenda Is in the Room

Jillian Weise, Cyborg Detective

Rachel Zucker, The Pedestrians

Tommy Pico, Nature Poem

Becca Klaver, Ready for the World

Leanne Howe, Savage Conversations

Anne Carson, Short Talks

Daniel Borzutzky, Lake Michigan

Chen Chen, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities

John Gallaher, In a Landscape & Brand New Spacesuit

Poetry Book Clubs

I’ve had a few requests for materials I can share with book clubs reading RUE. And I was so excited because BOOK CLUBS ARE READING POETRY?! I mean, of course they are, poetry is great. But apparently I’ve been underestimating poetry AND book clubs.

So I’m making the book group discussion guide for RUE available here for anyone to use. And I also want to share a couple resources for book club organizers who might be wondering how to have a great discussion about poetry.

These tips from Bustle on How To Host A Poetry Book Club make it as simple as it should be. The recommendations from ArtIdea.org are also great for readers who haven’t talked about a poem since their high school teacher ruined poetry with some combination of scansion and hours spent tediously unpacking some questionable symbolism.

Below are some questions groups are welcome to use to get the conversation going about RUE. If your group likes to incorporate writing exercises into the evening, I recommend modifying this one to suit your needs.

Discussion Questions for Book Clubs Reading RUE

  1. Poets’ voices are often described as lyrical, impressionistic, allusive, narrative, confessional, or intimate. Nuernberger is often described as a “chatty” poet. How would you describe her voice in these poems and how does that style serve the subject?
  2. Do you think anger ever has a purpose? After reading RUE, do you think Nuernberger would agree with you?
  3. Nuernberger frequently references feminist theories and key feminist thinkers like Adrienne Rich. A key feminist principle is that “the personal is political.” To what degree are the very personal poems in this collection political?
  4. What poem was the most challenging for you? Which one was the easiest to understand or relate to? Why?
  5. There are a number of poems in the collection that are about plants historically used for birth control. Before talking about them, think of a flower you recently saw in bloom and google its folklore. Share these findings with the group. Then talk about what kinds of relationships between people and the natural world you see Nuernberger imagining or proposing in these poems.
  6. The book is dedicated to Maya Jewell Zeller and a character in the one of the central narrative poems of the book, “When We Dead Awaken.” How do themes of love and friendship intersect in this collection?
  7. Nuernberger also writes essays. These poems are very conversational and long by poetry’s usual standards. Why do you think she chose to use line breaks? Would the poems work without line breaks?
  8. Are there other writers, artists, or films RUE reminds you of?  

Against Defending an MFA Thesis, but in Praise of Reflections & Closure

I spent this week attending the thesis defenses of my graduate students. I don’t love the word “defense” in this context, as it implies an adversarial stance between mentors and student and suggests that an authority’s approval of a creative work matters. I tend to think to think the task of an artists is to imagine a way through and beyond what has been done before; “defending” requires very opposite impulses.

But I do love defenses!

Specifically, I love the craft talks the students in our program give. I love learning from them and the way the delivery of public craft talks is an invitation to faculty to reverse roles and become a student once more. I love the way I spend a week each May reminded of my own teachers, who once nudged and challenged and nurtured me up to the point of my own thesis defense, and then beyond. And I love that we have a ritual in which we remind students their voices, their aesthetics, their path through the writing life must become entirely their to chart and that there is nothing about the fact of that path they need defend.

Another of the pleasures of defense week for me is that task of writing questions for defenses. I like my questions to serve as jumping-off points for self-reflection. I try to craft questions akin to the ones I ask myself when I feel I am a crossroads in my own writing practice – at the beginning or end of a series, sequence, or manuscript; also when I am thinking about abandoning a project.

While many of my questions this week were personalized to my students’ particular theses, some I think could serve as useful provocations for anyone making a transition in their writing. I’ll share those here:

  • I often ask students to write imitation poems as a way to build muscle memory for certain kinds of craft techniques or rhetorical moves. To do an imitation you have to read a writer closely and deeply to understand how their styles and themes, syntax and sensibilities are interwoven. How would you go about writing an imitation of yourself?
  • Whenever I read a poet’s collected works I like to look for poems I think of as vestigial tails – pieces that seem odd or distinct from the other works in the book where they first appeared, but fit in nicely with a book that came after. I love this reminder that writers seldom know in real time who they are becoming and even masterpieces are the result of fumbling in the dark. What poems or pieces of poems in your body of work are outliers that might be pointing towards the voice or style or approach you are growing towards?
  • What was a particularly challenging poem to shape or craft or articulate? What did you learn from making it work that you have or could apply to other projects?
  • Describe a piece you tried to make work that never came together. Why did you ultimately decide to abandon that work and what are some of the works that succeeded during or near that time you were struggling? Is it possible that feeling of seemingly fruitless struggle might have made other kinds of work possible, and if so what and how?
  • When have you been most productive as a writer and what circumstances contributed to that? When have you been most joyful as a writer and what circumstances contributed to that?

Finding Your Readers: Some Practical Publishing Advice

As we near the end of the semester I’ve been busy having conferences with students finalizing their senior theses. A lot of these conferences include a conversation about whether students are ready to start submitting their work for publication and what the risks/benefits of that process might be at their stage of development as a writer.

Rejection is a major part of submitting so I think one important question for writers to consider is whether a rejection will make it hard for them to keep writing or not. A lot of newer writers admit that they still feel vulnerable about their work and suspect a rejection might make them question whether they can or should keep going. I admire that kind of self-awareness and think it is really important to protect your psyche as you develop both your voice and confidence as a writer. It is okay to keep your attention on the art itself and save publication for later.

Other students are hungry for an authentic audience to read their work and feel that the idea of an editor reading their work, even if they ultimately decide to pass on it, would be invigorating to their writing and revision process.

Whether or not you are seeking publishers for your work, studying the publishing landscape can be a really helpful way to imagine how your work might speak to its readers. There are so many fantastic magazines with such a diversity of aesthetics flourishing right now. But this abundance can make it hard for emerging writers to find the writers, publishers, and readers who will be most inspiring to them. To help navigate this terrain and find their place among the many writers flourishing right now, I give students the following assignment:

Finding Your Readers by Reading Your Writers

Start by reading a single literary magazine published in your community. (I used to assign my students Pleiades: Literature in Context, because it was the magazine affiliated with my university and many students worked as interns for the publication. Now that I am in Minnesota I might recommend Conduit, Mizna, Water-Stone Review, or Great River Review, though Pleiades continues to be an reliable source of brilliant new work I will never stop recommending.)

Pick 1-3 writers whose work you enjoyed. These form the trunk of your reading tree. If you’re using Pleiades 40.1 to start this project it might look like this:

Look at the bio notes for each of those writers, identify other literary magazines where their work has appeared. Branch out and read a bit of those literary magazines, looking for more writers whose work you like. Your tree will begin to look more like:

Just keep reading and exploring:

Eventually you’ll run out paper and have to let this process of branching and discovering become an ordinary part of your reading and writing life. As a practical matter, this list will help you know which magazines you are most likely to have success submitting to, because if you like what the editors choose to publish, it stands to reason that they are more likely to be drawn to what you are writing. But reading with an eye towards finding those writers who can be models and inspirations to you will also make you a better writer, someone whose craft is always deepening and growing, which will in turn, make your work more likely to be published when you decide to submit.

Seeing the Angles: An Exercise in Camerawork as Creative Revision

For years I’ve been starting my writing practice every day by walking to the woods (when I lived near the woods), the meadow (when I lived on homestead in the prairie), or the community farm (when I lived in the city), on the lookout for a plant that lit a spark in my mind. I’d come home and research the plant and then poems would start to happen. (If you’d like more details on this creative practice, I wrote a post about it here.)

“Staghorn sumac! It’s pretty, it’s a native species, and it’s late winter emergency food for quail and pheasants and thrush and pheobes and crows. I am finding its abundance very reassuring in these days of mounting scarcity.”

Even though I can’t imagine writing poems about plants again after writing about them so much for RUE, I still love the rabbit holes botany research sends me down. Did you know quinine is derived from the bark of the cinchona tree, which the post-colonial historian Rohan Deb Roy described in Malarial Subjects as “symbiotic with Empire”? I didn’t, until the day I wanted to know something about liverworts.

I’m a recent convert to Instagram — I missed the pictures-of-food years — but I have loved transforming my private practice of spotting and researching plants into a more public one that incorporates photography into the exercise. This practice has been reminding me how much the craft of poetic imagery overlaps with photographic techniques.

“Hard not to love these feisty burdocks even if there are a dozen in Fiona’s fur right now. Soon their huge wooly heart-shaped leaves will return and also the ghost moths, whose larvae feed on their roots.”

My wonderful teacher from my time in the MFA at the Inland Northwest Center for Writers, Nance Van Winckel, used to advise us to do a revision of every poem that focused exclusively on the angles of the imagery — did we have establishing shots, close-ups, long shots, medium and medium close-up shots? What about the bird’s eye view, the worm’s eye view, and the truck shot? Did we roll and tilt and pan?

When I started trying to make the camera see what I see in the plants every day, my friend, the filmmaker Polina Malikin, suggested I try to see the plants from below and also at their eye-level. (Or do I mean leaf-level? root-level? blossom-level?) I spend a lot of time these days contorted oddly in the grass at the park, but it really helps my writing to practice so many different ways of seeing.

Louise Gluck’s “The Silver Lily” is a great example of how this videographic approach to poetic imagery can work. The poem begins with tactile sensations in the body:

The nights have grown cool again, like the nights
of early spring, and quiet again. Will
speech disturb you? We’re
alone now; we have no reason for silence.

Then she moves on to an establishing shot of the moon over the garden:

Can you see, over the garden—the full moon rises.
I won’t see the next full moon.

We get a sequence of close-ups — snow drops opening and closing, maple seeds falling. There are daffodils in the crook of a tree trunk which the reader sees as if peering over the shoulder of the newly risen moon:

In spring, when the moon rose, it meant
time was endless. Snowdrops
opened and closed, the clustered
seeds of the maples fell in pale drifts.
White over white, the moon rose over the birch tree.
And in the crook, where the tree divides,
leaves of the first daffodils, in moonlight
soft greenish-silver.

And then we return to the sensations in the body — fear, trembling, longing:

We have come too far together toward the end now
to fear the end. These nights, I am no longer even certain
I know what the end means. And you, who’ve been with a man—

after the first cries,
doesn’t joy, like fear, make no sound?

I”t’s wild mustard time here! Known as famine weed and charlock to the 17th c. herbalists, the leaves were ‘boiled and eaten by the common people in spring before the flowers blow.'”

Creative Revision Exercise: Choose a poem that isn’t quite working and try rewriting it with three new close-ups. Add an establishing shot and a shot that moves in some way. What happens to your poem if, as in Gluck’s, you frame it with lines situated in the sense of touch or sound, before you turn the camera on?

“Despite what “some people” say, I think it is a poet’s duty to stay in the moss and fern room at the conservatory until the docents throw you and your notebooks out in the snow.”

Digital Readings

Regretfully the Spring 2020 book tour for RUE had to be cancelled. It was a bitter pill since I had planned to drive around the country in my used 2002 Coachman RV (we call her Baba Yaga’s House of Poets), picking up friends to read with in different cities along the way. But I am loving the unexpected joy of getting to attend virtual readings during this time of social distancing. I feel closer to the literary community than ever.

I’m so grateful to The Social Distance Series Reading Series from Green Mountains Review for adding me to their line-up. You can see my 15-minute reading here…

The Social Distance Reading Series

Since I’ve been loving the way virtual readings give these lonely days a jolt of unexpected human connection, I wanted to shout out a few of the other online events I’m looking forward to in a couple weeks:

The Poetics of Spells

I’m really excited to have my essay, “Medusa and the Poetics of Spells” up at Guernica today. You can read it here.  The essay began as a craft talk for a poetry class and evolved into something much more historical and much  more personal, so I thought I’d share some outtakes of poems and essays that informed the earlier, more crafty version.

One definition of magic is “making things happen.” Under that rubric a spell is “words that make things happen.” In this context, a political poem can be understood as a spell. Especially the most powerful ones like:

Other spells, like the Anglo-Saxon aecerbot to heal barren or cursed land, or the healing spells practiced by the accused witch Lisbet Nypan, which we can read about in the testimony from her witch trial in 1670 (where she confessed only to being a healer and denied any and all charges of maleficium, contain a description of a previous time the spell worked that end in a plea for the magic to be repeated now. This formal balance between a prose and verse, between the how-to logistics and the ethereal use of rhythm and silence, reminds me of CA Conrad’s (SOMA)tics. (There are lots of examples here.) The way Conrad’s work also proposes magic is rooted in the powers of imagination, that a spell requires a speaker with a capacity for imagining a way justice or joy might be called forth, also reminds me of this ancient tradition.

Loricas and caims are ancient forms of protection spells that use litanies as a way to make a circle of language, to have the lines wrap their arms around the speaker. One famous example is St. Patrick’s lorica, also known as “The Deer’s Cry.” The story goes that St. Patrick recited this poem-spell to disguise himself and his followers as deer. I call bullshit on the suggestion that the enemies they sought protection from were druid warriors, though, or at least declare any enemy of a druid is an enemy of mine. Jennifer Givhan’s book Protection Spell is rich with more contemporary examples how the circle of a poem can become a shield. Here’s one.

I wrote a book-review essay on other contemporary poets whose work might be interpreted as spells for West Branch, available online here. Faylita Hicks, Kenji C. Liu, Gala Mukomalova, Ariana Reines, and Janaka Stucky’s work, reviewed in that essay, is always in the back of my mind when I’m writing and thinking about spells.

Science, Poetry & a History of Disrepair

Southeast Review just came out with their new issue, which includes “A History of Disrepair,” one of the poems I’d hoped to share on the AWP panel, Science at the Source, this year. Unfortunately, but necessarily, the panel was cancelled due to the pandemic. Go here to read that poem, which is about Genevieve Jones, a nineteenth century ornithologist, climate change anxiety, and what it means to love each other in a crisis.

Genevieve Jones

I’d also like to share some of the remarks I’d planned to make on that panel, which was organized by Rosalie Moffett and also included John James, Nomi Stone, and Rushi Vyas.

I am interested in science because I am interested in error. I am interested in learning as a process of determining which assumptions created confusion and unexpected insights that led to the understandings of the world I now think of as “known” or “true.” In science error is an invitation to try asking different questions.

When Benjamin Franklin began his experiments with electricity the driving question about electricity was whether it was a wet or fire. Because the guiding framework for understanding the world was based on the elements, not the periodic table. When I was a fellow at the Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life scientists and historians of science would ask me what I was there to research. I started out saying “quack medicine” and was told “don’t say ‘quack’ that’s pejorative.’” I said “dead ends” and they said “you never know.” I said “mistakes,” “wrong thinking,” “foolhardy notions” and they said “you’d be surprised what has turned out later to be true.”

Which has me thinking about Cortney Lamar Charleston’s poem “It’s Important that I Remember a Current Event is a Current –” in Southeast Review:

…carries a charge, attracts the opposition’s glee or anger
to the anonymous comment section. Of course, the current
state of affairs flows through me entirely, twists static
into my hair…

Cortney Lamar Charleston

Read the complete poem here.

Or “Elegy with Mayfly Sex” by Jihyun Yun from the same issue:

Love, I want to tell you all I learned today
of the mayfly, known for their one-day life spans.
How they’re named after the fact of their fast deaths:
ephemeroptera, briefest of wings. How this isn’t fully true,
as they can live submerged as nymphs for years until their sex
forces them out of the water. Just because we don’t see
their living doesn’t make it void….

Jihyun Yun
A page of Carl Linnaeus’s notebook

I became interested in science as a subject in my poems because of how fascinated I was by scientific processes at the beginning of the age of Enlightenment when so much scientific work was based on seeing – microscopes and many other ocular devices were brand new, devices like the chronometer were developed to create a precise way to talk about shared experiences perceiving the color blue. I liked reading scientists’ notebooks and letters were the wonder was utterly unfettered; Carl Linnaeus makes some great tender and self-deprecating jokes in the course of his work on plant and animal taxonomies that are mixed in with some truly terrible drawings. Maria Sibylla Merian annotated her ecological illustrations of plants with their pollinators with information she learned from people indigenous to those ecosystems about the medicinal uses of the plants, the red bird of paradise for example was used as an abortifacient.

Maria Sibylla Merian

I don’t have formal training as an historian and I was raised inside the white supremacist propaganda machine that is the prevailing curriculum in most US schools so I’m sorry to say I have learned slowly and at times only by accident or through the generosity of people willing to correct me important truths like how Carl Linnaeus was also the scientist who, in the course of his work on taxonomies, proposed the racist notion that there are four human races. Maria Sibylla Merian I learned used the labor of enslaved people  to obtain her specimens, she did not credit or compensate her sources for the knowledge she commodified in her book and that knowledge, particularly about plants that could be used for birth control was likely used by slave-holding colonizers to further control the reproductive choices of people they believed they owned.

These kinds of errors, which are more precisely called moral failings, are to this day a part of the systems of science and are encouraged by the close relationships between research funding and for-profit enterprises.

I see Kabel Mishka Ligot raising these objections to the intertwining of systems of knowledge and systems of empire in “Duwende Sonnet/Applying for an O1-B Visa,” also in the Southeast Review:

If I list the word enchantment under occupation, I imply that it’s never been felt
on these islands. But people have always been running amok across all
oceans, returning home late at night with monstrous appetites, welts
embroidering their backs.

Kabel Mishka Ligot

We had planned to include a discussion of other poets engaging with science who have influenced us. If you are interested in reading more I suggest starting with:

John James’s books Chthonic and The Milk Hours are great — you can start reading him here.

Rosalie Moffett’s books are Nervous System and June in Eden, a selection of her poems is here. 

Nomi Stone’s Kill Class makes extraordinary use of research in the social sciences and you can also find a sample of her poems online here.

Rushi Vyas writes beautifully about science, faith, and imperialism. You can read some of his poems here.

I also love to recommend:

Brenda Hillman’s tetralogy of books on the elements all provide different, interesting approaches to this subject. I’m particularly interested in Practical Water and Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire because of the way they incorporate transcripts and notes taken while she was doing work as an activist attending congressional hearings on the environment.

Camille Dungy’s poems in Trophic Cascade and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison, as well as her anthology Black Nature are essential reading for poets interested in writing about science.

Rosebud Ben-Oni’s poems and also her work editing a special feature for the recent issue of Pleiades in which poets write on elements from the Periodic table.

Hahn Kimiko’s Toxic Flora is such a great example of a poet engaging with science. She wrote her poems in response to a column about botany that appeared regularly in The New York Times and blends the precise rhetorical registers of science writing with the more affective possibilities in confessional lyric in such resonant ways.

Hopefully we’ll get a chance to talk about these ideas and other at AWP in Kansas City next year.

The First Review of RUE!

It means so much to me that the first review of RUE was written by Karen Craigo, the poet laureate of my home state of Missouri (and the landscape that forms the backdrop for the book). It also means a lot to me that Craigo understood and appreciated the way this book was born of myriad interlocking misogynies, including those in the medical profession and those surrounding the experience of motherhood.

Craigo writes: “Although I’m going on and on about the rhetoric here, don’t think for a moment that Nuernberger doesn’t get personal. Within the bounds of these arguments, the speaker of these poems talks about her workplace politics (and I absolutely love that she writes about this topic), or she calls out a townsperson who is too touchy-feely at the coffee shop, or she indicts an obstetrician… I know so many mothers who have part of this story to tell — a birth plan mocked and ignored, with no chance that it will be put into effect — but the story told here, of a doctor physically hurting the speaker, goes much further.”

You can read the rest of the review here.

Karen Craigo, by the way, writes with wit and painful honesty in her book, No More Milk, about motherhood and fertility. I’d also like to shout out Dominique Christina’s Anarcha Speaks about the violence at the core of the OBGYN profession and how the field is based on James Marion Sims’s torturous experiments on Anarcha and other enslaved people.

Other poets who have written important and deeply moving books about what it is like to in this culture with a uterus include:

Elizabeth Alexander, Antebellum Dream Book

Lucille Clifton, Next

Olena Kalytiak Davis, The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems

Jennifer Givhan, Landscape with Headless Mama

Brenda Shaughnessy, Our Andromeda

Rachel Zucker, Mothers

I’m grateful for all of these poets who provide models for how to talk and think about the experiences of living inside a body that is sometimes fragile and sometimes treated like a target.