Issue #11, 1998
About the Author: Alison Hawthorne Deming
About the Author: Alison Hawthorne Deming
Alison Hawthorne Deming had a relationship with science from a very young age. "Even as a little kid I had a very cool encyclopedia of natural history with great pictures and also a wonderful little book of narratives called "Great Scientific Expeditions" that presented science as great travel narratives." She made her first connection between science and poetry when she wrote a poem called "Science."
Deming wrote "Science and Poetry: A View from the Divide" when she was invited to give a talk at a biosciences seminar at the University of Arizona, and began by pulling out references, quotes, and other essays that she had filed away. The essay helped her bridge the art and language of poetry and the wonder of science. In "A View from the Divide" she explains the importance of uniting the two disciplines: "Much is to be gained when scientists raid the evocative techniques of literature and when poets raid the language and mythology of scientists. The challenge for a poet is not merely to pepper the lines with spicy words and facts, but to know enough science that the concepts and vocabulary become part of the fabric of one's own mind, so that in the process of composition a metaphor or paradigm from the domain of science is as likely to crop up as is one from literature or her own back yard."
Science opens a metaphysical domain of questioning for Deming, and that in turn feeds her poetry. In writing this essay, she wanted to honor that connection and explore the possibilities of a relationship. She writes: "It is the mythological significance of science that continues to attract me as a poet, not simply the guiding stories and metaphors "The Big Bang,' 'The Tangled Bank,' and 'The Neural Jungle' " but also the questions that drive scientific endeavor, the ambiguities and uncertainties it produces." For Deming it is a very fine line that separates the mental processes of scientist and artist.
She is interested in how people working in either discipline may benefit from exposure to the methods of the other field. "As a poet I am really interested in associative logic." In writing "A View from the Divide," she strove to find out how both entities unite in her own creative life.
Most of her essays are meditative essays, "thinking my way through a question," as opposed to arguing a point. She begins an essay with a research question that she tries to gain clarity on as she works her way through the writing. She admits that most of what she writes evolves differently from what she thought it was going to be: "as you work your way through any writing it may redefine its direction."
Deming is a "serious and chronic reviser." When she feels less than sure in her factual information she consults friends or specialist. In "A View form the Divide," she wasn't positive that she had gotten all her science facts correct and showed it to a scientist friend, who steered her in the right direction. She studies neuroscience and animal intelligence theories, out of both a personal interest and a commitment to research, and calls herself a "science groupie."
Deming hopes that her essay will make people think: "People are locked into the belief that these two fields are completely polarized. I think science is running into more metaphysical questions all the time." In this essay she wanted to communicate ideas that she had a feeling about as well as educate the bioscience audience. She advocates the bringing together of students and faculty from creative writing and biological sciences.
Deming runs the Poetry Center at the University of Arizona and teaches poetry and nonfiction writing. She encourages writing students not to be afraid to think out loud when they write. "We are so seduced by 'event' in this culture, and we're often told in poetry and fiction that we should let narrative and image embody our ideas and one of the charming differences with the personal essay is that it does allow you to think out loud." She also admits that the personal essay allows you to liberate techniques from other genres and employ them in creative ways.
Reading is the best action a writer can take to improve his or her own writing. "Read read read as much as you can. Read back in history. I think everyone should read the great historical essays." She believes that attentive reading is a form of neurological conditioning that can train your brain to assimilate language and literature. "The mind has a propensity toward form-making and in reading you are feeding that propensity and paying attention to form & you're neurologically preparing yourself for being a more accomplished writer."
She recommends doing all that we can to cultivate the language capacities of the brain. "We all get stuck in our own boring and familiar language and by reading you are constantly renewing your vocabulary and that of course is central to your development as a writer."
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