Monday, 20 April 2015

Science and poetry again

Several poets are drawn to using science in their poems. In England the poetry of Prynne, Dorothy Lehane, etc sometimes includes a liberal sprinkling of science vocabulary. More mainstream are Heidi Williamson and Lavinia Greenlaw who use science or (more often) scientists as subject matter.

Science is the new Exotic to some (mysterious trinkets from another land), to others it's the new Theology - deep truths masked by code. With its cornucopia of new ("X-ray") and re-used ("charm") vocabulary it's tempting to raid its word kitty. If the result sounds clever, the reader might think the poet's clever too. Few readers are going to be in a position to challenge from a scientific position, and in any case, what would it prove? A poem's not a thesis. However, I suspect that if poets appropriated the vocabulary of Art in similarly cavalier fashion, they wouldn't get away with it.

The risk with using science terms is that the poem is going to come over differently depending on how much science the reader knows. This risk applies to many types of allusions of course, but in the science case the reading communities are easier to define, and the material may more easily become out-dated.

Using science words is easy. Less frequently, poets deal with science concepts. We are used to philosophical or religious poetry, poetry that presents an argument. Quantum theory and Relativity are common themes for those wanting to express scientific ideas poetically. Williamson's poems include "Schrodinger's pregnancy test" and "The Travelling Salesman Problem".

"Gathering Evidence" by Caoilinn Hughes is the latest addition to science poetry that I've read. Like Greenlaw, Hughes has written about Marie Curie, but she also uses technical terms in the way that Lehane sometimes does. Here's an example - "If he could secure/ a hailstone in a wheelbarrow, with solid algebra, he could square a circle.// To square a circle! He might as well have measured the Garden/ of Eden if he could master this binomial expansion". Maybe it's this kind of writing that encouraged a reviewer to write - Hughes uses scientific language with such precision that I wondered if she had an adviser on hand (booksellers New Zealand)

On the back of Williamson's book it says that her "fascination with science leads her to explore less usual territories for poetry, including mathematics, chemistry, and computer programming, as well as space travel, electricity, and evolution". I think that more poets who write about science go into it nowadays with their eyes more pragmatically open than that -

  • "The main difficulty with 'Night Photograph' has been the “poetry about science” tag. I grew up in a family of scientists and have long been fascinated by time and space, so this is a natural source of metaphor for me. I only became conscious of how much science there is in the book when it was pointed out. Since then, I have resisted science like hell. It is mostly too seductive, incomprehensible and exciting to be anything other than borrowed" - Lavinia Greenlaw, interview in Thumbscrew (1997)
  • "I married an astronomer! ... I think initially I was trying to write metaphors for the science, based on human experience but that wasn’t working out so well, the science was present, but the poetry seemed dry. I didn’t think I was achieving anything more than representing the original idea, theory, or astrophotography I was looking at, or the paper I was researching. So I tried to do more than represent the original by using the science as a launch pad but moving away from it, by keeping a dialogue with human concerns at the same time" - Dorothy Lehane, interview in Annex (2013)

Andrew Duncan reviewing Lehane's "Ephemeris" in Litter magazine writes that "Lehane’s project has to do with combining poetry and science. The two are intertwined in a very specific way here: objective knowledge separates projections of feelings and wishes from the information provided by the eyes, but here the idea is to interfuse them. Her poems are intensely personal and highly coded: everything profound loves a mask".

He goes on to suggest that "The poetry-science project is likely to draw a great deal of attention in the next twenty years or so. It is quite hard to define what the purpose is; I think the core is the sense of opportunity, that there is a wilderness here, and that if you buy creative people time they will wander around that wilderness and bring back things never before seen. Part of the impetus is the wish of museum staff to make their holdings presented anew in visible or audible form."

I think he's right in suggesting that there may be some mutually beneficial schemes available. I've written about Poetry about Science in the UK before, so I won't repeat the arguments here, other than to point out the risk that a mutually beneficial scheme can sometimes turn into uncritical mutual back-scratching.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Love, Love, Love

Time for a blast of egoism (aka marketing). I may as well take advantage of my surname - other people do. I was never into the Beatles, but they got a few things right. Here's some graffiti from Abbey Road.

The reason I write so much down (and take photos) is that my memory's poor. I even need to ask others about my childhood. That deficiency has advantages too - I tend to archive things, ephemera especially. I've a weakness for nostalgia and pottering in lofts.

See my illustrated CV for a potted history of places and events. I've not entirely given up the interests I had when I was younger, they've all been useful in their way, though my basketball aspirations faded fast (I'm 5' 8"). My career development, like that of many people, wasn't carefully planned. I tried various cities out, and rather expected to be self-employed in some way, or to do a 9 to 5 job just for the money.

I did physics and maths at university - the "Church–Turing thesis" type of maths in the end - but I don't think that Maths is really my subject. Having done Maths, Applied Maths and Physics at A level, the options were limited.

Computers have figured in several ways over the years, both in work (self-employed and otherwise) and play. I did a brief Fortran course while doing Maths, then after my degree played about at home. Before doing a Masters I wrote a cassette-based game. Then I found gainful employment. We've always had a programmable domestic computer. BASIC was the first language I had any success with. Search for "Tim Love Computing" and you'll soon end up in the UK's History of Computing Museum.

Writing's another hobby.

  • "truly excellent website", Michael Donaghy
  • "I admire the intelligence, seriousness and exhaustive reading I find here", Prof George Szirtes, Aug 2010
  • "I commend TL's website to you as an excellent resource", Prof Stephen Payne, Nov 2010
  • "Tim Love is a very clever chap", Jane Holland, 2010
  • "Just a quick message to say how much I enjoyed your Happenstance chapbook. It was unexpected in the best way. The boldness and intelligence of the poems reminded me of twentieth century German poetry. It's a remarkable collection, and I hope it thrives", Alison Brackenbury, Dec 2010

I've lived in Cambridge since 1987, always working in the same place, but shifting emphasis every so often. I began working with computers before the web was invented, then being webmaster became part of my role. I don't do much system management nowadays. I've taught future astronauts and gold medalists though.

When I was little, the only spaghetti I knew about came in cans. I preferred baked beans. I visited Italy first when I InterRailed in about 1980. I've been there many times since (by car, train, and plane). My inlaws live north of Milan, but we've visited most areas, Sicily being the main omission. I've put online some write-ups of Italian books that I've read. Alas, my Italian's not good enough for the write-ups to be in Italian.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Some prose recommendations

Glancing back through some of my write-ups I noticed some authors and works I was particularly struck by, but haven't yet suggested to people. So here goes -

  • Short story writers - Padrika Tarrant, Sarah Hall, Jai Clare, Anthony Doerr
  • Flash/Short stories/Novellas -
    • "Everything in this country must" (Colum McCann)
    • "Story of your life" (Ted Chiang)
    • "What I've seen" (Dragan Todorovic)
    • "The Goldfish" (David Means)
    • "All downhill from here" (Guy Ware)
    • "Remaking the moon" (David Gaffney)
  • Novels - "So many ways to begin" (Jon McGregor)

Monday, 30 March 2015

The language of menus (and poetry reviews)

  • "a subtle hint of truffle"
    Why "subtle" rather than "slight" or simply "weak"? The same trick is used in poetry reviews, especially with comic verse written by famous, non-comic poets. "weak" implies a lack (in quality or quantity) of ingredients. "subtle" is more to do with perception than final significance. It describes something that's hard to initially discern, perhaps because there's little worth discerning (i.e. the effect is weak), but it may describe something that though well masked has a strong effect once it's detected (e.g. a sigh that means so much). You need to be an astute observer/taster to notice something subtle - the recipient is being flattered by the writer.
  • "Rutland beef in a white sauce"
    Why not "beef in white sauce"? Detail and particularity are valued in poems. In poetry it won't do to give someone a flower, or see a bird pull at a worm. Use African pansies, and magpies. There might not be significance in the choice of detail - in this menu example the extra "a" adds no information, and there's no reason why Rutland beef should be prized. What matters is the evident attention to detail - a reason for the poetry reader to be optimistic.
  • "with a smooth articulation of aftertastes"
    Beware when a word representing an admired quality in one context is used in quite another. Wine in particular needs to import terms, given the limited range of raw materials at its disposal. As soon as more than one factor is involved in a meal or poem, terms can be used from other domains (often engineering) to indicate successful integration - cogs meshing, etc.
  • "clean-flavoured, relaxed, precise cooking"
    Precision is valued in many disciplines. Poetry precision is harder to define and measure than precision of musical performance or realistic art (look no further than the tolerance granted to line-breaks), and yet poetry reviewers, even good ones, praise exactness without explaining the term. For example, Judy Brown in "Poetry Review V103:4 (Winter 2013)" mentions how the reviewed poems have "engineering exactness", and "how precisely they achieve their friable effects".

Thursday, 19 March 2015


Friends sometimes ask unpublished writers why they don't just self-publish nowadays. After all, an e-book's so easy to produce. Why involve a publisher?

One answer is that being associated with a publisher connects you to other writers. You can put on readings together. Another is that if you're lucky, the reputation of the publisher will enhance yours.

Sean O'Brien's review of Tony Williams' "The Midlands" isn't just great news for the poet, but for the publisher Nine Arches Press too.

My other publisher, HappenStance Press, is also active. Most recently, a video of Helena Nelson in conversation with Lindsay MacGregor has appeared in which Creative Writing students are given tips about getting published. Amongst my HappenStance stablemates are 3 generous bloggers who I always read - Matthew Stewart, Matt Merritt (who's also a Nine Arches Press poet) and Fiona Moore (Saboteur's "Best Reviewer 2014").

HappenStance has a subscription scheme so that those who haven't been published can still feel they belong.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Does writing prose affect my poetry production?

Below are graphs showing how many poems, stories and Flash pieces I've written and had published since 1991.

I was curious about whether writing lots of Flash suppressed my poetry or story writing. Though a peak in the production of one type of writing often coincides with a trough on another graph, it as often coincides with another peak, so although there's a relationship it's not a simple one. I guess Flash and stories are most nearly the inverse of each other, which isn't such a surprise.

If one views the blue lines (how much I wrote) as quantity and the red lines (how much I published) as quality, I'd say I've not improved over the years. Nor has my quality control changed - the more I write, the more I get published, though my volume of output (which is never high) is patchy to say the least. Some years I produce no examples of a mode. Stories in particular don't come naturally - I have to commit myself to writing them; the temptations of Flash/Microfiction are too great. Increasingly my stories are episodic, a sequence of related flashes.

Or perhaps earnings should be the measure of quality. I hope not, but for completeness, here's the data.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Some recent story successes

  • A New Start (Cortland Review) - Written in 2014. It'll be interesting to see which of its non-mainstream features people have the most trouble with.
  • Death and Deception (the Honest Ulsterman) - Written in 2009. Flash-length Creative non-fiction?
  • "Out of the Blue" (written in 2004) will be in Cambridge Writers competition anthology e-book later this year - highly commended (i.e. not in the first 4 of the competition's 18 entries!)
  • Correspondence (Necessary Fiction) - I wrote the first draft of this back in 1992. Subsequent drafts varied in how easily they could be treated as SF.