Maybe I had scientist’s block. Maybe I was grappling with the great unknown ahead of me, as I crossed an important threshold from knowledge acquisition to knowledge discovery. But that is how I became a poet. By writing a poem.
In addition to being an award-winning author, you are an ecologist and a professor at the University of Guelph. What drew you to choose this area of study and career? Can you explain to our readers a bit more about what you do?
I lead a diverse research program examining global ecological changes–from climate change mitigation to pollution impacts to invasive species and biodiversity declines. For a long time I studied how humans negatively impact ecosystems and what we can do to protect or restore them. But these studies, like many in ecology, assume fixed human behaviour. We know behaviour can change and is adaptive. So, in the past 10 years I have turned to studying feedbacks in changing human behaviour and social norms and feedback on environmental systems.
I never dreamed of being an ecologist. I have no recollection of even knowing what ecology was as a young person, no recollection of visiting natural history museums, or any natural areas. If anything, my immigrant parents avoided non-urban pursuits, because they were too busy helping us fit into our urban neighbourhood. I can remember a science project in grade school involving a wet paper towel and a bean, watching it transform over a few days, and sprout. In high school my partner and I dissected a cat to find four unborn kittens inside. I think of them now more as lessons in poetry than biology. I came across ecology much later, after a sequence of quasi-binary decisions I was faced with in postsecondary studies. Science or not-Science? Biology or non-Biology? Populations & Communities or Cells & Molecules? Then, in Year 4 of my BSc, I took two courses that steered me towards becoming a practising ecologist. One was Quantitative Ecology, where I met my future PhD supervisor who offered me a summer research position. The other was a field course in Algonquin Park, where I posited and—while getting into hipwaders with my waterproof notebook— tested my first hypothesis (on gradient formation of aquatic plants). In other words, and to paraphrase French biochemist Jacques Monod, it was all a combination of chance and necessity.
Could you describe how your poetry career began and what led you to poetry?
I don’t like the term “poetry career” unless we are talking about “an individual’s metaphorical “journey” through learning, work, and other aspects of life” (wiki). I wrote my first poem in the final year of writing my PhD thesis in theoretical ecology in 1996 at the age of 25, having practically no clue what a poem was. I don’t know why it took me so long to write one. No one had asked me to, perhaps. I don’t know why I wrote my first poem then. Maybe I had scientist’s block. Maybe I was grappling with the great unknown ahead of me, as I crossed an important threshold from knowledge acquisition to knowledge discovery. But that is how I became a poet. By writing a poem.
What is the driving force behind the poems in Parasitic Oscillations?
The driving force is the parasitic oscillation itself (defined in control theory as when part of the output energy is coupled into the input with the correct phase and amplitude to provide positive feedback at some frequency). In my book, the feedbacks occur between the actual and the desired, the present and the past, art and science, life and death, feather and father, theoretical and applied, sign and sing, and other false dichotomies, causing oscillations. Particularly important too for this book was the feedback between a 19th century text by A.O. Hume describing the nests and eggs of Indian birds and my visits to natural history museum collections in the UK and the USA of said birds.
Which poem or poems in Parasitic Oscillations are you most proud of?
The ones you can’t see. The drafts.
What do you hope readers, particularly those with no scientific background, to take away from Parasitic Oscillations?
A reader must take whatever they want from this book, irrespective of my hopes. I can’t be the person who reads my book for someone, because I am the person wrote it. As for scientific background, I don’t pick up a book of poetry worrying that I don’t share the same background as the poet, despite my many deficiencies in life experience and knowledge of different disciplines or cultures. Scientific knowledge/insight is a commons. It belongs to everyone and is increasingly publicly accessible. The book has been reviewed a couple of times already and it’s probably more useful to share what other attentive readers/critics are taking away. For example, Heather Green in Poetry magazine said it “troubled my sense of time and context while posing questions about ecology, power, and migration.” Rae Armantrout wrote: “The reader may feel a series of trap doors opening beneath her feet…where we too are specimens.”