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The same and not the same: being an original poet

Monday, March 27th, 2017

Ohmigawd, another poet has pinched my idea!

Poets get caught up in pursuing, not the dream, but the nightmare of originality. You think, “Ha! I’ve come up with a clever idea for a sonnet sequence using the elements of the periodic table as metaphors for political leaders. No one else will think of that!” And then you open a litmag and find someone has done it already.

Let’s try and relax. It’s never exactly the same.

Case in point: I have two favourite books on my reading table, My Chimera, by Canadian poet Michael Penny (Buschek Books, 2006), and Les Animots: A Human Bestiary by Gordon Meade of Scotland (Cultured Lama Publishing, 2015). Two books written a decade apart, by poets on different sides of the Atlantic who have likely never encountered each other. However, I can imagine each of the authors picking up the other’s book and shrieking, “No! That was my idea.”

Both volumes consist of brief, free-verse personifications of a range of animals that seem light and even whimsical, but which create a laconic, satiric commentary on the humans who observe them. They even have poems about many of the same animals. Both books draw on the tradition of the medieval bestiary, in which descriptions of animals became morality fables. They also owe something to the idea of epigram – short, memorable, punchy poems.

In spite of these great similarities in concept, the two books are subtly and deeply different. Michael Penny’s animals become metaphors for facets of the poet himself, a point that is made by the format for the titles: “My Bat.” “My Squid.” “My Giraffe.” These are small, exact poems that illuminate consciousness.

There is the house-fly with its beautiful, crystal, “truth-detector” eyes that uses those eyes to find “all the shit in the world.” There is “My Giant Clam” that’s proud of its plush purple furnishings and content to stay in one place. “My Woodpecker” taps constantly, seeking explanations for the old question: Why doesn’t everything last forever?

The poems are witty and inventive in the connections they make. Each is a strand in the argument made by the final poem about the deep connection between human and other creatures:

“My Animals

are all so various—

experiments for their time

and my time.”

In Les Animots, Gordon shifts the voice slightly. These poems sketch animals from a more external viewpoint; they compile not so much a portrait of the individual poet as of society. The pronouns shift too: Penny’s use of “my” and “it” become “he,” “she,” “we.”

This viewpoint creates a nice counterpoint to the wonderful pencil drawings by Douglas Robertson that accompany each poem and give the book much of its pleasure. Robertson creates not so much illustrations but metaphors—not the snake but the snake’s tracks in the sand.

There are more allusions to contemporary culture in Les Animots. Meade’s grasshopper is introducing a new dance craze. Jackdaw loves the buzz of a mainline train station. The dolphin is practicing a new form of “hydrotherapy” where “Some clients leave having had / a proper spiritual experience, / others with just a thrill.” This is a dolphin stuck in an environment of human commerce, while Penny’s dolphin (like any wordsmith) “competes with air and gravity.”

It’s actually a lot of fun to compare poems about the same animals. Any creature is complex enough to offer many potential metaphors, and Meade’s elephant is not Penny’s elephant.

But the planet is full of different animal species and the two books are also full of different choices. The Canadian poet’s moose is a muse who

“… sends me new poems

if clumsily on cloven hoof

and ready for disassembly.”

The Scots poet’s badger, on the other hand, is a proletarian creature that the government has been trying to wipe out:

“…. There must be something

about his stripey snout

that upsets the ruling classes.”

Both books present ideas in quick flashes. I feel that Penny’s pays more attention to the sound and rhythm of his lines, creates the cage of words (“the strongest enclosure”) more carefully. But both are immensely enjoyable. You would lose by reading only one of them, and each is fully original in itself.

They are the same but not the same.

However, if you’re writing that sonnet sequence about periodic-tabloid politicians, remember, it was my idea first.

Books by their covers

Saturday, March 5th, 2016

There’s nothing quite like the first sight of your book cover—and the artwork that a designer has chosen for it. It’s like catching an unexpected reflection in a mirror and, slightly surprised, thinking, ‘Oh! That’s me?’

I’d be a very ho-hum book designer myself. If I try to think of images for my own covers, my brain plods down distressingly literal paths. When I sent off the finalized manuscript for Standard candles, I half expected that the cover would come back with—oh, I don’t know, something like a picture of the Andromeda galaxy taken through the Hubble telescope. After all, it’s a book inspired by the science of cosmology.

(Side-track: Don’t you love the anecdote about the advertising exec who was shown a picture of the Andromeda galaxy. “Terrific,” he said enthusiastically. “Could we get it from another angle?”)

Alan Brownoff, the U of A Press’s insightful book designer, always does find another angle. For this manuscript, he hunted down a piece of digital art by Ramón Pasternak, an artist and musician from Chile who bases his works on fractal equations. Ramón doesn’t give titles to his creations. He says he doesn’t want to direct how a viewer will perceive them; he’s more interested in the emotions that a given piece could provoke instead of triggering our usual tendency to apophenia—our human compulsion to find familiar pictures in random data: “I see a bear.”

But fractal patterns abound through nature, and when I saw Alan’s cover design, I thought, “Of course!” Because to me, incurably apopheniac, this image suggests a pixilated image of stars at various distances. You don’t have to see stars in it. Maybe you’d see tunnels or a city map. But I bet that you’d come up with some sort of sense of mysterious dimensions, things that are similar and yet not quite the same. Which fits. The idea of trying to imagine different kinds of distance—personal as well as physical—is important to my concept of the book. So, whatever you make of it, Ramón’s image makes its own, separate comment on what’s inside.

This is my fifth book with the U of A Press, and every cover has given me the same kind of lovely startle. For example, I had expected that The Office Tower Tales would come back with some sort of urban skyline on the cover. But when I saw the drawing of the black-billed magpie, I was staggered by how perfect it was. City bird, natterer, totem animal of my particular city, ushering the stories in like a Black Rod to Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls—magpie is the perfect image to introduce readers to this book.

Then there is the tangled red ball from Lyndal Osborne’s print “High Voltage” that electrifies the cover of The Occupied World. Or the elegiac painting by Ted Godwin that designer Virginia Penny  found for Memory’s Daughter – it caught at my heart to realize it was called “Last Tartan for Will.” What a special, extra connection for a book in memory of my Scottish father, William!

And that’s the word for good book covers—connection. Not ‘picturing’ the contents like the label on a can, but helping to make links between different forms of communication, visual and verbal, that in turn help a reader to connect with what’s inside.


… or what’s a footnote for?

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

A poem’s reach should exceed its grasp…

It’s a little embarrassing to be a poet who needs notes to her poems.  Ten pages of them in Standard candles – good grief, Alice, are you writing poetry or an academic paper?

Critical voices hiss in my ears, colliding from opposite ends of the literary-theoretic spectrum like proton beams sparking into snarky virtual particles.

“A poem should carry its own bags,” mutter advocates of plain speaking. You shouldn’t need to look up concepts like optical molasses or the Pythagorean theorem in order to ‘get’ a poem. The poem should deliver its meaning right to your feet, as nicely self-contained as a packed suitcase on a baggage carousel.

From the opposite corner, post-modern voices hiss, “You don’t control the meaning anyway. Let the reader make of it what she will.” Let a reader rifle through the suitcase and unpack whatever they want.

And then another voice comes in, sounding remarkably like my Scottish grandmother’s: “You’re just showing off!”

Should I/can I make a case for footnotes in a poetry book?

Wasteland not ….

Well, I’m certainly not the first poet to use them. T.S. Eliot sent The Wasteland out into the public with eight pages of notes for a 17-page poem. I’m hardly in that league, but surely I’m allowed to follow in his big footnote-steps.

However, I’m not doing what that master was doing. Notes to poems serve two different functions. Eliot didn’t want to explain how readers should understand his work – he wanted to point them to the vast tradition of literature and myth that he was drawing on to create his traumatized mosaic of post-WW1 psychology.

His notes tell us that he is indebted to Jessie L. Watson’s book on the Grail legend and Frazier’s The Golden Bough. “Anyone who is acquainted with these works,” he says augustly, “will immediately recognize in the poem certain references to vegetation ceremonies.” But that’s all the help you get.

In other words, if you’re not acquainted with those works, go off and read them. And read Baudelaire, Milton, Ovid and Dante while you’re at it. Preferably in the original Latin or Italian.

My notes serve a different function.  I don’t want to send you out of my book; I want to keep you inside it! And my notes aren’t about a long-shared heritage of literature, but about fairly unfamiliar concepts from science that are just entering the popular imagination. Sure, you could Google “optical molasses” and get to a Wikipedia page replete with phrases like “Sodium MOT” and “the reduced Planck’s constant.” But I want to save you that trouble by giving you a quick framework for an unfamiliar metaphor (and a great-sounding phrase! What poet could hear the sounds of “optical molasses” and not want to use it?)

Science has been a source of metaphor for me for as long as I have been publishing poetry, and all that time I’ve struggled with how much needs to be explained within the poem and how much knowledge can be assumed. After all, any poem – science-related or not – calls on a huge body of knowledge that gives it context. Even an apparently simple line like “A host of golden daffodils” requires you to know that daffodils are yellow flowers and that ‘host’ can mean something other than a TV personality.

Poems never carry their own bags, entirely. They part of an ongoing translation project, a dialogue of ideas. When John Donne wrote “At the round world’s imagined corners… ,” the poem reflected the intense scientific debate of his time over whether or not the sun stood the centre of the solar system.

After a while, a concept like that becomes ordinary and familiar, part of the image bank that any writer can draw on. Part of the challenge lies in guessing what ideas might actually become part of that image bank.

Time and the suitcase

In my first book, Time Travels Light, I used the concept of the black hole as a metaphor – and I added a footnote, because when I wrote the poem in the mid-1980s, black holes were barely out of the conceptual box. Now, of course, we use the phrase in popular culture all the time. Readers don’t need to be oriented the same way.  So that particular note becomes a little, disposable peg that can be dispensed with, and you didn’t need to build a lot of information into the poem itself.

Of course, as time goes by, your poems will likely need notes again. My college textbook of Donne’s poetry had notes for almost every line, because many of the allusions (scientific and otherwise) that he could expect his audience to be familiar with are now esoteric.  Time dumps so much out of our cerebral suitcase, and ideas that fascinate me now – like the multiverse – will quite possibly disappear from the popular imagination as thoroughly as Ptolmey’s calculation of epicycles has.

This will happen to all poets, whether we write about cosmology or baseball. We want our poems to exist at that edge where things aren’t quite familiar.  So we have to go a bit further, we have to risk a bet on what images will resonate a few years down the road.

Otherwise we’ll be stuck with well-trodden metaphors. Dawn may eternally young and inspiring for poets and it doesn’t need a footnote. But you can’t write all your poems about sunrise if you can’t occasionally bring in a heliocentric solar system.



Genre and the pick-up truck

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

What’s the relationship of poetry and prose? I dropped in (via Skype) to my friend Suzanne Steele’s creative writing class at the University of Exeter last week. The group had reached the point of discussing that very question and Suzanne asked me what my thoughts were.

Which brings me to cars and trucks.

But first … I used to take a certain pride in being able to do anything as a poem – tell a story, explore a scientific idea, create a mythology, convey an ethical opinion, express any mood. If something could be looped into words at all, then I could do it poetically. It might make me feel at times as though I had set the limbo bar awfully low, but I liked that challenge.

Then I reached the point where I found that trying to do everything as a poem could be cumbersome. Especially when I got to the point of wanting to talk about poetry and its relationship to science. It always seems to me that writing about writing tends to lead to distinctly insular poetry.

And, although a poet like Lucretius has been able to sum up a huge body of knowledge in his epic poem De rerum nature, I have found that observing the constraints of a poetic form sometimes makes me say things I actually didn’t intend to say.  This is a source of invention and surprise that is very joyful in poetry, but it complicates your life unnecessarily when you are trying to express a specific idea without getting sent down rabbit holes.

Now to vehicles: I live in a part of the world where cars and trucks are so ubiquitous a part of life that you don’t notice them. They come in all different shapes, sizes, colours – the differences blur into the common denominator of movement from A to B.  However, I’ve been thinking that there is a genuine difference between the genres of pickup and sedan.

They both have the same fundamental body plan – four wheels and a steering device, engines, doors and windows. The difference comes down to differences in the function they are expected to serve.  The pickup is expected to carry things, the car is mainly for carrying people.  The sedan’s trunk is elongated in to the long, open bed of the truck. The truck’s cab is compressed to leave only enough room for driver and a passenger.

The functions blur, of course. Car trunks carry grocery bags and suitcases. Some pickups are designed with extra seating squashed behind the driver. There are demure little city pickups no longer than the average parking space; there are sedans as long as limousines, as square as pickups, as noisy as the rumbling four-by-four beside me at yesterday’s stoplight. There is a whole range of van-like vehicles that occupy the continuum between the two.

But, though there is no one feature that distinguishes car from truck, you can’t say there is no meaningful pattern of difference between the two forms of transport, that you can’t tell one from the other. And the difference goes back to what they are intended for.

The vehicles of language have similar patterns of purpose. A piece of writing can be ‘mostly’ for carrying specified information – the price of petroleum, an opinion on bicyclists. It can be ‘mostly’ for making unexpected connections of  sound and metaphor.  However, the two ends of that continuum are never entirely separate, because the continuum derives from language itself.

Language can never be without a degree of poetic pattern, because it is built from our ability to recognize the statistically significant, regularly recurring patterns of sound. We have to know what those patterns are if we are to derive meaning from a phoneme like ‘ing’ or ‘’s’. To be competent users of language, we have to know how frequently sounds occur – that, in English for instance, that little schwa vowel at the end of “vowel” is far more common than the ‘ow’ sound in the first syllable. We have to know the typical stress patterns of a word, a phrase, a sentence.

As poets, we can play with that intuitive awareness in order to surprise, to focus attention. It’s what makes lines memorable, distinctive.  In doing so, we can create joy, attention, through the serious play that we first learned as babies. But as babies also learn from the get-go, certain combinations of sound have meaning, significance; they attach themselves to patterns out there in the world.

Experimenting with language’s sounds can only take us so far, just as the unicycle – being a device that only one person can ride on at a time – is fun to watch in action but not practical for large-scale transportation.  Language is meant to move more than an individual babbler from A to B, just as our cars and trucks are meant to move more than one individual at a time. (For the purposes of metaphor, we’ll leave the sad realities of the automobile-dependent society to the side for now.)

For a writer, choosing a genre isn’t about choosing to use a specific set of tools like alliteration or iambic pentameter, any more than the car designer defines what she’s doing by deciding it will require a size four wrench. Instead we need to decide on (or discover) our intent, the function we want to fill – and ultimately means asking ourselves what relationship we want to have with an audience. Do we want to fit 12 people in a passenger van or are we happy twirling on a unicycle? How much information load do we want to fit in the trunk?

I think this applies even to subdivisions of genres. Creative non-fiction – that grab-bag into which my book of essays, Intersecting Sets: a Poet Looks at Scienceis lumped – is the subject of constant quest for definition. How does an essay differ from a memoir? From a biography? From fiction itself? As just one example, look at the tangle posed by Mark Abley in Conversations with a Dead Man, in which he imagines conversations with the ghost of Duncan Campbell Scott. Scott was an esteemed poet of his time, but also the overseer of the Indian residential school program which has left a horrific legacy for Canada’s aboriginal people. Abley uses the techniques of fiction along to explore a ‘real’ subject.

Abley wrote a biography; I wrote a series of essays; other writers produce  memoir or how-to books. We all reach into the same tool kit – the wrenches of imaginative story-telling, the pliers of personal memory, the tire patches of fact and the buffing pads of patterned sound – but what we intend to do with this collection of tools differs.

So first, like any designer, we need to know who we want our vehicle to serve.

Time, Mandela and me

Friday, December 20th, 2013

On top of all the public news coverage of Nelson Mandela’s death – the jetloads of political leaders converging, the grief and celebration for his life, the debates and high-profile spats – there are also myriad small, private connections.

For me, it was the memory of that day after his release from prison in February, 1990. A day of fat, fluffy snow clumps falling slowly in northern Alberta. I was watching the international coverage of his first public speech and also watching out my window. We were separated by half a planet. Here, a winter morning; there, the hot red sunset of Cape Town’s summer. Here, a quiet garden; there, tens of thousands of people cramming the streets.

And it struck me intensely at the time: how could such different experiences both be called the same ‘now’? It made me think about time, how we call it ‘a dimension’ which is intimately linked with space. But what kind of dimension? It partakes of all the spatial ones – the singleness of point, the rolling border line of change, the three-dimensional artifact left behind.

This all led me to a long poem, Words Selected and Imposed on Time, which like any other artifact got left behind as time moved on. But the other day I got it out to re-read, and was quite stunned to realize something we all know but always forget: we just don’t know how it will all turn out.

When I wrote the poem a decade and a half ago, we did not know that South Africa would abandon apartheid, that the man on the podium would be elected president of the country five years later. We didn’t know whether the country would collapse into complete chaos or slide easily to a happy conclusion, or – what we might have guessed but really didn’t – would go through great struggles to find its way. We only knew we were on the cusp of change, that there was a huge energy gathered.

Looking back, we forget that, at any moment, we didn’t know what would happen in the future. We impose a kind of certainty on the past. (Surely, at some level, everyone knew the Allies would win the Second World War. And wasn’t the internet obvious?)

Poets know no better ‘how it will all turn out’ than anyone else does. In this sense, poems are not at all timeless – they are indeed an artifact of a moment. They tell us how we felt when…

Poet control freak meets e-publishing

Friday, December 14th, 2012

Okay, so it’s a control thing.

Poets like me really, really care about how their work looks on a page. Don’t mess with my line breaks, buddy.

Now e-publishing should be a big sparkly gift box with a bow on it for poets struggling to get their books out beyond the corner store. But we’re looking the gift horse in the mouth and complaining about its teeth.

Case in point: for years, I’ve written a poem every Christmas for friends and family. The staff Christmas lunch. How the dog might feel about the season. Christmas baking. Solstice turning points. Whatever subject I can find in the barrel. This year, I had the bell-bright idea of putting a dozen of them together as an electronic chapbook to sell as a little fundraiser for the Edmonton Poetry Festival’s school program.  Easy-peasy, I thought. A little formatting, maybe a day or two, and we’re up and away like Rudolph’s sleigh.…

However, I ran straight into E-pub and Mobi and their sisters. To you, dear reader, it may seem like an unfettered good that you can read text in point sizes bigger than Santa’s hat, or on eensie-elf cell-phone screens. But you’ll bugger up my line breaks. I’ve seen books of poetry in electronic formats and it ain’t pretty.

However, I did discover iBooks. (We’re talking early November here. Remember, I thought a day or two?) “Woo-hoo,” I thought. I could manage this – how many photo albums and stuff have I done in iPhoto? Could it be that different? And the program promised me the possibility of making the pages look pretty. Like everyone else, I have a few artsy shots of Christmas tree needles that accidentally came out better than my usual snaps. (Actually, they are pictures of a rosemary bush, but don’t tell.)

“Jump in,” the program seemed to say.

It was like jumping into a vat of Christmas pudding.

Three days later, the basic structure still eluded me. There’s a table-of-contents thing that I should have started with. The format is set up to do books with chapters, but poems make awfully short chapters. I had managed to set it up so the pages only open in landscape format.

But eventually, slowly, I got to the point where it did look nice enough. “Up we go,” I told the cat.

Then I discovered that it’s easy, sure enough, to upload free books. If you want to sell them, you have to get involved with the U.S. internal revenue service. Well, “IRS” may partially rhyme with “Christmas”, but the acronym invokes Clauses that I, for one, would rather not get involved with.

On the other hand, free books don’t make a great fundraiser. I turned to Regina McCreary of Human-Powered Design, a lovely girl who helped me get the sleigh back in gear – a human Rudolph without the red nose. Things hung around in Apple’s cyber-space for a while, but here, a mere twelve days before Christmas – Ta Da! My Twelve Poems of Christmas is up.

Of course, since iBooks only works on an iPad, you can only read it if you’ve got one of those gadgets. That’s the Apple control freak coming out. And you still have to read it in landscape format so it looks the way I want it to. That’s the dictatorial poet in charge.

It’s just the way it is. Sorry. You could always just make a donation to the poetry festival.

On the publication of my first e-book

Friday, August 24th, 2012

Well, yes, I feel conflicted.

Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science is now available as an e-book. And I’m standing here with a mental balance scale tilting back and forth like a confused Statue of Liberty.

On the one hand, the beauty of creating with words is that they can be encoded in any form from papyrus to LED and then lifted from that coding to be resurrected in a human brain. It’s rather like DNA – information can continually start over in a new generation. Shakespeare’s words can be poured into the mouths of actors time and time again, costumed and re-costumed, re-imagined, re-rehearsed. We don’t have to pore over the pages of the First Folio to experience what the writer created.

Personally, I’ve never been a ‘collector’ of books. One copy of Alice in Wonderland is all I need. I used to get mildly exasperated at someone who kept buying me different editions of it for Christmas under the strange illusion that I’d like to possess more than one. I have enough books to squash on a shelf, thanks.

And yet, and yet … There’s another kind of continuity besides the constant reincarnation of words. It’s the way objects go on in time. Who wouldn’t want a chance to have that four-hundred-year-old First Folio volume on a table in front of her and turn its pages of a particular shape and heft and shade? It’s the one-of-a-kind pleasure of the plastic, visual arts – the way a painting or a clay pot is evidence of human craft and design, thought and muscle control.

Even if books have not been one-of-a-kind objects since the printing press began to turn them out in batches, they are still designed objects. They appeal to more than one sense; they are differentiated by weight and kinetic sensation and scent. But every book on my e-reader is the same weight and the ‘pages’ feel the same to my fingertips. The only sense I can apply is my over-worked visual cortex.

And even the visual cortex can’t use some of its basic skills when reading an e-book. Words may take shape in our restless heads, but it’s frequently nice to be able to nail them down on a page, to ruffle through them again and think “That bit was on a left-hand page about half-way down towards the back of the book….”

Yes of course there are search functions , and you can have sound files embedded in electronic documents and all that, but still… I’ll never think, “That bit came when the little bar on the bottom was about three-quarters of the way towards the end.”

Intersecting Sets – the print version – is a beautiful book. Designer Alan Brownoff has made it a little narrower and a little taller than the usual trade book dimensions. The royal-blue cover has the Mandelbrot set wrapped all the way around it – you’ll see the front on the e-version, but not the way it continues all the way around the spine and onto the French flaps. Nor will you feel the satiny cover, or see the elegant font chosen for the inside.

(It isn’t just me who finds it to be an elegant artifact. Alan has won a number of awards for it in the 2012 PubWest Book Design Awards and from the Association of American University Presses.)

The e-version is pretty good as e-books go. Some of the design features have been kept successfully. But it’s not the same and it can’t be.

So – tilt the scale one way – I’m glad to have an e-version out, glad people can order it from anywhere and not pay the shipping costs, glad that you can read it without the bleach and chemicals of paper, glad the DNA of my words can wiggle through the cyberworld to replicate itself without adding to the sag of bookshelves. Glad no-one is going to buy anyone collector e-ditions.

But I’m also glad to be on the threshold of this new world, with one foot in the old one. The days when a publisher would undertake to put my writing into a three-dimensional form.

With French flaps. Now that really tips the scale.




Another transit of Venus

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

To mark the rare astronomical event happening today, here’s a poem. “Transits of Venus” appeared in my first poetry collection, Time Travels Light.

Transits of Venus

Vancouver airport. I have crossed this space before

leaving lovers – a small planet moving slowly

over a vast and polished floor, circled by strangers.


Beyond the lounge window, gray skies, gray tarmac.

Straight, white, painted lines plane off across

the wide-winged delta and intersect the arc


of the horizon. I watch a train of luggage carts

cut a tangent towards me, towed through a bubble

of silence – sound severed from me by glass –


and think of moon buggies, vehicles designed

to cross the surface of a satellite, exploring flat

gray plains, Mare Oscularum, Mare Incognita.


I am exploring the thought of leaving you –

you the men who stayed there on the Island,

you, the men who left on flights back east.


Transits of Venus occur perhaps too often

in my life. The inner planets, small separate

circles, cross the blazing surface of the sun


and then separate, depart to shine alone,

the wandering ones together only for a time,

contained by the bright circumference of love.

Math and trap doors

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

“Oh, yes,” I’ve been saying to my friends. “I’m just back from the Banff International Research Station for Innovative Mathematics and Discovery.” I feel like a kid impressing her classmates with news of a trip to Disneyland.

I toss the name off as if I could actually tell a Gaussian distribution curve from a Faustian one. This airiness conceals the huge alarm I felt that first morning, walking into a smallish classroom with the Banff mountains like bright, attentive students beyond the picture windows.

I was here through the kind invitation of Robert Moody. A mutual friend had introduced me to him when I needed to find some illustrations for my new book, Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science.  When he finally read the published book, he thought I might be interested in coming to a particular BIRS workshop on “Mathematics: Measure, Maker and Muse of the Arts.”

The invitation to Banff thrilled me, but it also tipped me through a trap door in my psyche.  I would be surrounded by people who negotiated the academic environment easily. The list of participants detailed their various affiliations, but I had to be categorized as ‘independent.’ That sounds a lot sturdier than I felt. University had been a very scary place for me four decades ago. All my fellow students seemed to know so much more than me, to be so much more sophisticated than a kid from Outer Scarberia. I never seemed to have the right answers in class, the right clothes. And at that time I was only coping with the English program – a language I could supposedly understand – not the dense math language of symbol  and equation.

So here I was. Nor could I just sit at the back of the class and absorb. At some point I was going to have to stand up and wring myself out. I’d have to talk to them. By the time I actually did so, my brain was melting jelly.

I intended to talk about metaphor, how it is an underlying mode of thought, not just a decoration, and applies to all realms of creation. Fortunately, writers can read bits of what they’ve written, and at least those sentences are coherent. I got through the outline of what I meant to say. But, in the discussion afterwards, when David Mumford asked a question about how we might teach metaphor better, I could only look at him and think, “A Fields medalist is asking me a question. What the $%@# do I say now?”

I gave some feebly irrelevant response. It was only afterwards, when the neural jelly was starting to re-set, that I thought, “For heavens sake, Alice, that whole chapter of the book is about how we can teach and learn metaphorical thinking!”

Even though this Uriah-Heep ‘umbleness had taken over my brain like an evil twin, I did manage to shake its cling aside during the week and step into that Magic Kingdom where information and ideas make their click-click-click combinations.  A number of talks concerned the area of stylometry in visual art. How can you use mathematics to identify features – brushstrokes, textural fluctuations – to decide whether a painting really is by Van Gogh or if it belongs to his Arles period? It may sound like a question that’s only interesting to art historians, but it also goes to the heart of making art. A painting is a physical object created through muscle control and repetitive modes of thought. How stuck do we get as artists into relying on our habits? Can we ever shake those patterns up at a fundamental level?

(Could I ever really write a decent haiku?)

As the week went by,  an effervescence of topics led in all directions, crossing like Venetian canals. James Wang  told us how his group has built a website to compare their computer-generated rankings of a photograph’s aesthetic quality with how much people actually like the photos. The work of trying to create computer versions of human thought is fascinating in and of itself, but in his preface to the main talk, James casually mentioned his earlier work on identifying the gender of the handprints in ancient cave paintings.

(You mean all those beautiful drawings were created by men and women? It wasn’t just a guy thing?)

Craig Kaplan showed how you can use a famous math challenge, the Travelling Salesman Problem, to create an algorithm that will draw half-tone pictures. (How does a brain assemble lines and dots into images?) Luke Wolcott used extracts from his thesis as the lyrics for a musical composition, using the phrase ‘you have to stay in this universe.’ (Mathematicians are always being told they ‘have to stay in this universe’ when they’re solving an equation. Don’t we all?)

We looked at the math of Persian mosaic designs and shoved round tables together to create large versions with blue tape. We looked at the exhibits being designed for the new Museum of Mathematics in New York and tried to twist the puzzle pieces brought by mathematical sculptor George Hart back into their neat cubes.

Now that I am home and the mountains are no longer looking over my shoulder, I have slammed the trap door shut on my evil twin and am thinking how rich the intersections of thought make us. I would answer David Mumford’s question properly now.

We don’t ‘teach’ metaphor any more than we teach people to breathe. We put a pile of different things together and encourage them to find the points of contact and the relationships between those points. It doesn’t matter whether we are in a schoolroom, a seniors’ centre or a gathering of eminent mathematicians. We just play in order to develop metaphor’s basic ‘muscle memory’ in the brain. We put a poet in a room with mathematicians, a mathematician in the room with poets.  We take ourselves to Disneyland – not the Disneyland of pre-programmed rides and candy floss, but the Magic Kingdom of collision, of discovery, of our human handprints on rock.

A poem for the Year of the Rabbit

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

turning point

“Turning Point” is a poem originally written for the last Year of the Rabbit, in 1998. Our hopes don’t change.

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