Contributor Spotlight: Cara Chamberlain

As a writer, I have absolutely no discipline. Some people write something every day. I don’t. Other people carefully set aside specific times and places for writing. I don’t. I guess I don’t even like to think of myself as a writer. It’s a little embarrassing. Like having a wart or a rash that you’d rather keep covered. I don’t know why I feel this way. Perhaps it’s because I don’t see myself as a “real” writer. I don’t make a living from my writing, after all. (Of course, most “real” writers don’t either.) Perhaps it’s because writing seems like a private process (the slam poetry scene disheartens people like me who became writers because we weren’t very good talkers). Perhaps it’s because I admire people who do work that has socially practical, socially helpful results. And rarely does writing seem practical. A big part of me wants to make the world better. I’m not sure how my writing does that.

On the other hand, a recent report on NPR indicated that in just a few years, if current trends continue, 50% of jobs in the USA will be performed by robots. So what does that mean? Humans have got to fall back on what humans (and not robots) do best: art, beauty, craft, skill. Perhaps just trying to write a sonnet is a way to stay alive and therefore remain viable.

When I’m writing, of course, I don’t think about all this. Poetry is a chance to work with an impression, idea, or thing that nudges me. Fiction is a way to disengage from my ego and enter into those of my characters. Nonfiction prose (like this piece) is an opportunity to discover things I don’t know I know.

The beauty about writing, as opposed to the other arts, is that you can do it with very few tools. A computer with good software is nice, but all you really need is a notebook and a pencil. Very low tech. Another jab at mechanization.

Words, of course, are difficult to work with. They are irreducibly complex. Even such small questions as “Should I put the‘the’ in this sentence?” or “Where should the line break fall?” are enough to make me tear up what I’m writing. And the difference between my ambition for a poem, say, and how it becomes embodied in words is often heartbreaking. From being the greatest piece ever written to finding its unceremonious way into the trash can be a small step for just about everything I write. If something, though, survives the initial disillusionment, editing can go on and on and on, and sometimes (often) be as heady as the initial creating.

Writing is a curse that I wish had never struck me. Sometimes it makes me feel as if I live a double life: there’s all the stuff I do and see and feel, and then there’s all the stuff I put down in words to try to capture all the stuff I do and see and feel. Several times I have thrown out all I’ve written. But I just keep playing with words. Someday, I think, I will be mature enough to not ask for outside approbation. (And by “outside,” I include my post-first draft self.) Someday, I think, I will be merciful with myself and embrace what I’ve written as the evidence of a valid and valiant human soul wrestling with the external and externally internal world. So what if it didn’t measure up to snuff? Until then, though, I will keep writing and editing, editing, editing, to try to recapture that original beauty I envisioned before I wrote, that inspiration that broke into my daily existence and told me to stop everything for a while and write.

Contributor Spotlight: Heather Hughes

Extrapolating Fantastically: Notes on a Science / Fiction Poem

I’m a sucker for the Oxford English Dictionary, and I love that the first definition, from the 1850s, for “Science Fiction”—tagged, amusingly, as obsolete and rare—reads thus: Fiction or poetry depicting some aspect of current scientific knowledge. I am often unsure whether poems of mine, such as “Margin / Mitosis,” could be classified as science poems (factual) or science fiction poems (imaginary). A definition such as this one gives me another way to think about these marvelous tensions.

The OED entry offers an incredible permissiveness and a useful reminder: that we can use science like autobiography; that is, we can let go of fact to get at truth. I don’t mean to imply or endorse a dismissive or shallow engagement with scientific truth. A deep appreciation of science can lead a poet to a more finely crafted image, a more surprising simile, or an unexpected meter or form. Marianne Moore’s “An Octopus,” for instance, relies on the poetic assimilation of scientific facts for its metaphorical link of mountain to mollusk, which sets the scene for a voyage of discovery, of truth seeking, as the poem unfolds. It also allows the poet a kind of fantastic expansiveness that incorporates everything from Greek antiquity to Henry James to beavers to businessmen. Perhaps what I more exactly mean is that mixing poetry and science can allow a third creation to emerge, a type of science fiction that takes fact and projects it into imaginative territory to get at truth. We, poets, have this extraordinary freedom to extrapolate fantastically.

For my writing process this means finding inspiration in both research and play. Scientific studies of Mars (a perennially fascinating sci-fi setting) continually uncover new and strange and unsettling theories about the planet’s aquatic geologic history. Tsunamis on Mars and microscopic ocean life look much less like fiction than they did only a couple decades ago.

The inspiration for “Margin / Mitosis” arose out of my poetic obsessions with outer space and the sea: What if there actually were a species of fish on Mars long ago? And what if some of their old bones could evaporate whole into the solar system as the atmosphere dissipated? Is that a terrible or a wonderful fate? Is it another end or a type of rebirth? This image  is a fantasy, albeit one that may be feasible on a sub-atomic scale—on the scale of metaphor. These what-ifs move the poem away from the current scientific knowledge of a vast Martian Atlantic into a science fictional realm where fossils might swim off into the interstellar unknown.

The aims of science and poetry seem extremely similar to me: to expand the limits of human knowledge by using imagination and intense observation to test and question what we otherwise take for granted. Neither the scientist nor the poet is entirely satisfied with their work until they’ve explored the complexities of a particular truth to the fullest extent possible with the tools available, whether those tools involve telescopes or alliteration or time travel or all of the above.