A Conversation with Pattiann Rogers
In 1997 the Olympia Poetry Network hosted a reading by Pattiann Rogers at the Washington Center in Olympia, Washington.
This interview was conducted while driving from Portland, Oregon, to that reading on October 22, 1997. We began talking about the mechanics of interviews and transcription. Pattiann noted her reaction to the literal transcript of an earlier interview:
Part 1. Uncertainty and responding to change.
Pattiann: I found Iíd used the phrase "I think" so much I wondered "what in the world is the matter with me?" Every other sentence Iím saying, "I think this", "I think that". Then I started listening to people on television, to politicians, even authors, everybody. We are prefacing practically every statement of opinion with the phrase "I think." People are really shy about coming out and making a statement.
Bill: I wonder if there is just more uncertainty out there.
Pattiann: Thatís part of it. We live in a world where new data come in and new technology makes certain things visible - things we didnít know about before.
Bill: Years ago at WSU in Pullman - I picked up a hitchhiker. He was an ex-student. I asked him why he had left school and he said, "It just drove me nuts the way the profs were always changing what they taught - what was true."
Pattiann: I know. In some ways you expect that in the arts Ė various interpretations of a work of literature or of a piece of artwork Ė but itís prevalent now in science, too. I remember the first bird-watching class I took Ė within a few weeks they had changed the classifications Ė determined that two geese were actually the same species rather than two different ones.
Bill: I think the American Ornithological Union meets every few years to decide these things. Afterwards they revise all the bird books. One time they lump species, the next time they split them.
Pattiann: Of course, that reflects the fact that the natural world canít be put in little categories. Still we have this underlying assumption that things are set. If we just learn whatís here - weíll know it. Thatís not the case. We know mountains are rising and mountains are disintegrating, that the continents are shifting on tectonic plates. I read the other day that the moon is moving away from the earth at the rate of an inch and a half a year. If you read the "Beak of the Finch" (an intense study of finches in the Galapagos) you find out much finch beaks change over a 30-year period in response to climactic changes - in part due to El Nino. If there was a period of very wet years it made a certain kind of foliage available for the finches - favoring a certain kind of a beak. Then a drought would come and favor finches with different beaks - maybe the strong, heavy beak that could crack hard seeds. It illustrates this point that you donít learn something and then never have to study it again.
Bill: Flux. And the importance of staying open to the world.
Pattiann: I suppose you could say, okay, hereís our certainty: "Everything is going to change," then enjoy that fact - whether you say be open to it or not, just accept the fact that thatís the way it is.
Bill: The news this morning (based on observations from the Hubbell telescope) was that two spiral galaxies are colliding. The talk was about colliding galaxies - that the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxies are moving toward each other at 300,000 miles per hour and five billion years from now theyíll collide. Other collisions apparently have spawned billions of new stars. Astronomers are theorizing that an elliptical galaxy forms out of the collision of two spiral galaxies.
Pattiann: Oh really! Itís exciting and daunting and bewildering and terrifying, all at once. But all generations of people have had to live with the fact that we donít understand this universe (that weíre part of) very well. Yet we have had to form some kind of structure of thought that enabled us to act, to make decisions - hopefully, to act in constructive ways rather than destructive ways. Today, all this information has come in and we havenít had time to adjust the structure - to incorporate that information into the structure (or into a "spirituality") that can help us to live, help us be self-sacrificing if we have to be, to live with restraint. We havenít had time to do that. So it seems to me that thatís one thing the arts can do--take in information and interpret it in ways that are sustaining.
Bill: Daunting, but critical.
Pattiann: It seems to me it is. Of course as a writer you write about what seems critical or crucial to you. That will be the thing that energizes you - the thing that you feel passionately about. The work is not going to be full of energy if you arenít passionately involved as youíre writing.
Part 2. Vision. Passion. "Being born" and "involution."
Pattiann: You hear the term "someoneís vision" in writing Ė somebody has a vision of the human condition, the world, and that their body of work is the presentation of that vision. That can be a productive way of thinking about your work. Itís often difficult to find the vision that is uniquely your own. It means experimenting with the language and it means having mastered certain skills so that you can experiment with the language. Then, as youíre experimenting, certain phrases or images will emerge. They seem right for some reason - they seem exciting. When you sense that happening Ė then you latch on to that image, that phrase, or that metaphor and investigate it more fully: expanding or modifying.
I was talking to a student the other day. She said, "I donít think I have a vision". I said, "Well, you may be thinking only in terms of everyone elseís vision. Maybe you are trying to write like somebody else, or focus on what someone else has focused on and your total being is not committed to that writing because youíre trying to write about what somebody else found crucial or important." I donít have to write about my mother. I donít have to write about my grandmother. I donít have to write about urban living. I donít have to write about the natural world, if those are not the things that seem most vital to me.
Iím saying this simply because it was my experience at a certain point years ago-- when I knew pretty definitely what I did not want to write about. Thatís one way of finding what you do want to write about. To be able to say, "Iím not interested in this."
I realized that what I was thinking about most of the time never got into my poetry. I wasnít reading any poetry about what I was thinking most of the day - the things I was pondering, the questions I thought were important. I didnít realize that for a long time.
Then I began to try to write about what I was thinking about most of the time - obviously, the things that were important to me. Out of that I started trying to find a voice and a stance in the language that would allow me to write poetry about those subjects.
Bill: So in a sense, you didnít find any models out there in terms of materials?
Pattiann: Thatís a good distinction to make - in terms of materials or subjects, I didnít find a model. But the craft was still useful even if it wasnít the subject matter that I wanted. Mastering the craft of past work was still of great benefit.
Bill: "Learning the riffs" - playing the scales.
Pattiann: Exactly. Practicing the crafts. Learning to hear where the accents are falling, for instance.
Bill: But you must have known that you wanted to write if you put the time into learning the scales even though you didnít initially find the "materials" - the content - you wanted to write about.
Bill: Thatís odd. Or is it not odd?
Pattiann: I donít think itís odd. Do you think itís odd? Knowing you want to write without knowing...
Bill: ...what you want to write?
Pattiann: I donít think you should know precisely. I think the writing process itself ought to be the discovery of that.
Bill: Your poem "The Rites of Passage" seems to address that discovery: the moment when the poem involutes like a blastula, the moment when the heart of the poem start beating.
Pattiann: Itís odd that you should select that poem because thatís the very first poem in which I thought I accomplished what I had been trying to do for a long time. As Iíve said, I realized that when I sat down to write poetry I never addressed the things I was thinking about most of the time. One thing I wanted to do was to articulate the processes that science illuminates. Science is stories about how the physical world works Ė they are exhilarating and fascinating and full of mystery. One of those stories was the development of a frog egg.
I worked with an embryologist as an undergraduate. I also lived on a farm as an adolescent. We had a chicken yard and there was a rooster in among the hens so weíd get a fertilized egg occasionally. I was in the chicken yard one day and an egg had broken accidentally. It was fertilized and I picked it up. I was holding half of the shell; it was totally full of gold yolk and right in the center was a red dot that was beating. It was still beating! The egg had just broken and radiating out from that center dot of beating red were tiny veins. That was so shocking to me - to be holding that egg and seeing that heart beat. The fetal heart was still alive! That influenced the poem, "The Rites of Passage", although itís actually about a frog egg.
I didnít want to just describe the development of the frog egg. Thatís what science does. I wanted to do more than that. I wanted to say, "What does this mean?" - that there is a moment, an actual, identifiable moment, when that heart begins to pulse. What kind of magnificent line has been crossed at that moment when suddenly this is a thing alive that is liable to death? And it happens in an instant. Itís the most crucial line that we can recognize - that line between something inert and not living and something that is living - that can be stopped or killed or can die.
But I also went back to use the terms that I had used to describe the development of the frog egg. To say this is what happens - this "the involution of sight" - the way a concept comes to us out of that same kind of movement, but a movement of the mind...
Pattiann: Yes. Thatís what they call it in a pregnant woman.
Bill: When the heart starts beating?
Pattiann: No, when she first feels the fetus move. Isnít that whatís called quickening?
Bill: I had somehow thought it was when the heart began to beat.
Pattiann: Letís look it up.
Bill: Greg Darms [mutual friend, poet] sent me a copy of "Opus from Space" in which you write about birth.
Pattiann: "Opus from Space" is about things being -- moving, and being born. I donít want to say "being born" because it sounds passive. And the poem is about the action of that fetus outward.
Bill: Outward - into the world?
Pattiann: Into the world. So it isnít passive. Isnít that odd? Iíve never thought of that before, but we always say something is being born. Thatís passive.
Bill: And the other meaning is "being carried."
Pattiann: Yes, yes. So itís as if the fetus had no part in this activity of coming into the world and yet it -- my poem is about the fact that all of the pre-born are raging to come into life, to be their individual selves, whether itís a seed or a butterfly or a human being.
There isnít an active term for that, is there? Iíve got to write that down, because I didnít realize that until I started to say it, that thereís no verb for that.
Bill: It may be that creatures being born donít have a voice - in the sense that they cannot say what it is that they want to come into. We, looking back on it, can imagine wanting to come into the world, but there really are no authors among the "being born." Someone else has to speak for them.
Pattiann: Maybe itís a subtle revealing of the fact that we donít acknowledge that individual until it is in the world as an individual.
I wouldnít change this poem, but it could be that physiologically birth is passive for the one who is coming - I donít know that thatís true. I know itís not true for a bird, because a bird is fighting to get out of that shell. Whenever they describe the birth process for a human being, itís always the mother and the muscles of the mother that are giving birth. But I wonder if there isnít a struggling on the part of the infant.
Bill: This could be viewed as another dichotomy. When are there two beings? When is there one being? Itís really arbitrary wherever one divides. Although the birth process is the obvious place to divide, itís still arbitrary.
Pattiann: Yes, it is. Thatís the problem that is discussed or not discussed with abortion: When is it that you consider this growing...
Bill: Itís certainly not described by either of the sides. Perhaps folks in the middle, scientists or people without a political stake in it...
Pattiann: Thereís always the matter of saying: When is the fetus viable on its own? Is that when it becomes an individual human being? Or is it the moment when it is completely into the world and breathing on its own? Or is it the moment when the heart starts beating? See, I have an opinion on that, but it would be considered a political opinion.
Your original question had to do with the "Rites of Passage" Ė about the involution.
Bill: Yes. Whether there is the moment when in writing a poem it "quickens - when you realize that whatís important is coming out of this process, something that you hadnít realized before.
Pattiann: Thatís right, and that word "involution" is one that I used first with the actual process of the blastula and then used again to say the moon will never involute. Then I use it a third time as a metaphor for what is happening in the mind in contemplating...
Bill: Going back into itself?
Pattiann: Yes, and coming back out, having transformed somehow. Wishing to be able to imitate that movement, being able to imitate that involution in order to know the language created when that line between non-living and living is crossed.
Part 3. Spatial relationships. Walking on water. Music and resolving the poem.
Bill: Many of your poems seem to delight in and explore spatial relationships, figure and ground, volume and mass, interpenetration. Two examples that come to mind are: "There is a Way to Walk on Water", "The Importance of the Whale in the Field of Iris":
"And doesnít the iris, by memory of the whale
Straighten its bladed leaves like rows of baleen
Open in the sun? And doesnít the whale, rising
to the surface, breathe by the cupped space
Of iris it remembers inside its breast."
Could you talk about this fascination?
Pattiann: Part of the pleasure of writing for me is to try to stir everything up and look at it in a way that is not typical. Trying to break out of the rigidity that the language sometimes forces on us Ė channeling our perceptions in a certain way. If we could break out of the language that makes us speak about experiences in certain ways we might see and understand things that we otherwise wouldnít be unaware of. Those poems are just playful, like "The Importance of the Whale in the Field of Iris." They begin as playful attempts to see what happens when you think in a different way. They were efforts to break out of dichotomies that seem force us to think in terms of body and soul, or spirit and flesh, or day and night, or up and down.
Bill: Or animal and vegetable, in this case.
Pattiann: Yes, right. The iris and the whale. You also mentioned "There is a Way to Walk on Water" which I was thinking about because we have various stories of Christ walking on water. I thought. "What if he actually could do that?" Of course, Iím assuming a lot in that question. I wrote the poem thinking "Maybe thatís a power weíve always had, but that we just have never recognized we had it," and that part of the ability to utilize that power involved believing that we had it. It was an interesting question to me and it sounds mystical and like a kind of new age craziness, but it was fun to think in that way for a little while.
Bill: It has a dream-like quality. We do that sort of thing in our dreams, donít we? Fly.
Pattiann: Yes, like maybe we remember weíve have done that?
Bill: Yes, there seems to be a part of the mind that believes itís possible.
Pattiann: The poem also rose out of the fact that we know that when we hate something or someone, the body feels sick. Thereís a physical pain to hating. Itís in your chest; your breath is constricted. Thereís tightness in your throat that is an uncomfortable, physical feeling. So hating is uncomfortable enough that you can call it pain - a physical pain Ėhate is not this ethereal thing that has nothing to do with your body. Itís an unhealthy thing. Itís like a disease.
On the other hand, love feels healthy and strong and energizing. You feel buoyant and ebullient. Itís a feeling of strength in your body, especially a love thatís returned. If itís a love of anxiety, then thatís different.
So I was thinking in terms of Christís message - that you love your neighbor as yourself; you love God; you love the world. I was thinking, "What if you could actually do that, if you could actually love everybody?
What could the body become at that moment?" Because we know that love affects the body; and we know that hate affects the body. I thought. "If Christ was a person who truly had no resentment, no hate in the flesh of his body and he actually loved everyone in the world, maybe he could walk on water." Maybe the flesh was altered in that state (because I know Iíve never achieved that state).
Thatís the supposition - that if we could just remember that way of loving maybe there is a transformation that could take place. But thatís all maybes, all supposition - not doctrine, not dogma Ė something interesting to think about and to write a musical work about.
I think more and more of poetry as a piece of music. We intellectualize about it an awful lot simply because the words of a poem have meaning, we intellectualize about it in a way that we wouldnít intellectualize about a piece of music. And so thatís what I think a poem is, sometimes. A hymn or, sometimes, itís a jig, or itís a waltz.
Bill: I picked up a book today at Powellís - itís Lew Welchís thesis exploring the writing of Gertrude Stein. In it he talks about getting "The Whole Thing" - by which he evidently means getting the music, the poetic experience, everything to all come together in a poem.
Pattiann: Itís a mysterious process so that you never really can articulate -- what happens to make a poem work in a powerful way. You can talk all around it, but a great part of it is music. Iím sure of that because--for me anyway--because music is a physical sensation. Itís also true that if you get the music right, often the meaning will be right, too. So in some ways theyíre not different. Theyíre the same thing.
Often at the end of the poem, when Iíve said what Iíve wanted to say but the music is clunking along there, I know I havenít really said what I wanted to - that Iím going to have to work a whole lot more. Iím going to have to feel out the proper sounds and cadence and accents. If I get the music right, then 9 times out of 10 the meaning will be right, too. It may not be a meaning I thought I was aiming for. Itís so strange. I often leave a blank in a poem, not knowing what word I want - but make dashes and working out the final lines later.
Bill: Iíve noticed that Iíll be working on a poem - struggling to make come together. Iíll take a break and go running, then take a shower. And sometimes a solution will come to me in the shower. Other times it will come first thing in the morning.
Pattiann: I know. I think thatís a common experience and not only with writing poetry. Iíve read accounts of scientists having the same phenomenon happen. Theyíve been working hard on some problem or equation, or trying to make sense of data. They go off to do something else, and all of a sudden the connection is made. I suppose it has to do with the mind working all the time at some level at that problem. Youíre not conscious of it Ė maybe being conscious of it was actually inhibiting the leap. Sometimes conscious effort is really holding back that part of the mind that can make the imaginative connection.
Bill: Showering is an experience of the senses. So the mind is taken even further away from actually thinking about the problem.
Pattiann: And the body is actually doing something there. Youíre engaged in something else. Thatís why in some ways it worked well for me when my children were at home. I could be working on a poem and thinking about it with the paper in front of me, then get up and fold the clothes that were in the dryer or wash the dishes - something that was a physical task. Then - not that the perfect word would come to me - but somehow it cleared out whatever baggage and trash was holding me back. I could go back and look at the poem and see what was missing or not working. I was able to see the poem more clearly.
I remember once years ago, working on a poem really hard and not feeling very good about it, but still trying to struggle with it. Then I just got up from the table and walked outside. Our cat was lying there on the patio and the line just came to me: "The cat has the chance to make the sunlight beautiful." And thatís the first line of the poem "The Significance of Location".
So the other poem was nothing. It never came to anything. But the effort of working on that poem - somehow when I walked out the door, the words and music were in my mind and that line came to me. "The Significance of Location" was, I believe, eventually published in Poetry and in The Expectations of Light. Itís a poem about how the earth has saved the sun -- has captured the sun and has changed it into all these various things. It turns on its head the idea that we worship the sun because it gives us power and light and energy. The theme of the poem is that the earth has saved the sun from oblivion because we have captured it and changed it into forests and animals.
Bill: Are there other poems that turn the normal on its head?
Pattiann: Yes, itís all the same kind of fun for me to just turn things a different way. In the new book "Eating Bread and Honey", I have a poem called "Kaleidoscope: Free Will and the Nature of the Holy Spirit". Itís about a woman, a baby, a lemur, and a rosebush. They are in relationship to one another in the first stanza and then the kaleidoscope is turned and they get all shaken up. Their relationships to one another are all changed again and, in a sense, they become different because their relationships to one another do. And then the kaleidoscope gets turned again. They get tossed around, shaken up, and are different again. So thereís that playfulness about it. The Nootka rose...
Bill: Thatís our wild rose here, right?
Pattiann: Yes, Nootka rose - not a cultivated rose, a wild rose. And the baby has on fleece pajamas, but then after one turn the lemur has on the pajamas. I donít know. It seems sometimes a bit self-indulgent to write poems like that to amuse myself. I told my students once in Arkansas that Iíd been writing a poem to cheer myself up, and they said, "Youíd write a poem to cheer yourself up?" They had never thought of writing a poem for such a reason, when itís actually...
Bill: It seems like one of the best reasons. If you can cheer some other people at the same time, so much the better.
Part 4. Nelson Bentley and the Influence of the Pacific Northwest
Bill: Carolyn Maddux [mutual friend, poet] wanted me to ask you this question: "Given the number of Nelson Bentley fans there are in the world (especially in the Pacific Northwest), how did Nelson influence you and your work; and did you come to study with him."
Pattiann: Well, I was in Stafford, Texas, outside of Houston. I had two babies and didnít have any contact with writers. As an undergraduate in Missouri, I had taken this poetry writing workshop with John Nyheart. I realized that I needed some feedback from someone whose opinion I could truly trust and respect. Feedback from your friends or from your husband, your spouse or your lover just is not going to do it.
My husband and I had a book listing all the correspondence courses in the United States. One was from the University of Washington in Seattle. The description of the course sounded like just what I wanted.
For each lesson I would send two or three poems to an instructor who would critique them. I had no idea who, and had to trust that it was somebody who knew something about writing poetry. It happened to be Nelson Bentley. There were six courses you could take: each one contained 36 lessons. That was a minimum of 72 poems for each course. I did five courses, so you can see that I sent a lot of poems to Nelson Bentley.
I lived for the mail -- to get those poems back. Very short comments. Bracketed parts of the poems saying "cut" -- with a question mark after it -- never "cut" with an exclamation point, but always with a question mark. Which was like "Iím suggesting you do this." I would have to think, "Why did he suggest that?"
Often things were marked "cliché". Helpful things. Lots of "oh wonderful", "terrific", "A+" stuff. So -- very encouraging remarks, too. Sometimes I would ask why and would get an answer.
As people who had him as a teacher know, he encouraged sending the work out for publication. He suggested places and I began to send poems out. I just worked really hard.
It was from about 1972 until Ď75 or Ď76 that I did those five courses with him. I made a trip to Seattle to my first writersí conference one summer because after a while I couldnít stand not knowing, "Who is this person that I am sending things to and placing so much trust in?" and I did trust him.
It was very very lucky for because I was encouraged to write the very kind of poetry I wanted to write. I was writing poems that had images from the natural world in them. That was common in writing coming from the Pacific Northwest. Nelson also valued evocative imagery and a sense of humor, poetry that tolerates and encourages playfulness.
Bill: You mentioned earlier that Nelson had written on one poem, "keep up the good....", and you couldnít make out the rest of the handwriting.
Pattiann: Right. "Keep up your good use of...." and I couldnít make out the word. My husband couldnít make it out, and it was "imagery". Itís funny because imagery is so dominant in my work. He saw that right away. It was lucky for me that I made that connection and had that kind of encouragement and help. It was at a time that I was -- I donít exaggerate when I say this -- totally isolated from other writers.
Bill: You were in Houston?
Pattiann: In the suburbs of Houston. We had only one car. I didnít have a car. I was in this suburban house which was quite comfortable, but it was a suburban house -- with no trees. Nobody had trees. We had little plants; sticks that we hoped would be trees some day. That and two babies and Nelson. That was it.
So it really was a lucky thing for me. I know I owe him and I say that whenever I have an opportunity. The gratitude that I feel for his being there those years for me.
Thereís a poem in The Expectations of Light called "Dwarf". He wrote at the bottom of it
"Terrific. Send out immediately!" (laughing) Just like -- the world canít wait any longer for this poem, you know. When youíre at that stage in your writing -- that just carried me for several days.
Bill: Yes, the energy that would provide...
Pattiann: Then I began to get a poem in a publication now and then. He had that little magazine called Puget Soundings and if any of his students started getting depressed or had a lot of rejections he could take one of their poems (because he was the poetry editor) and publish it. Bless his heart! He did that a couple of times for me.
Bill: Iíve heard that a great many of his students were published Ė 500, a thousandÖ
Pattiann: He kept an updated list of all his students who had published. He would ask them to let him know whenever they got a publication, then he would update his list. It was the back and front of seven or eight pages. He used to send it to me. Iíd look at the updated list -- the people who had lots of publications -- and think, "Will I ever have all those publications?" And then the first time I was ever on his list!
He was a wonderful teacher. He sure did bring a lot of happiness into a lot of peoplesí lives.
He had student readings every week or so. (This isnít something I should be talking about because I was never in Seattle at any of the classes, but he used to send me the programs for these readings.) On Halloween he would have a reading of the worst poetry you could find.
Bill: Did you have connections to other northwest writers? Are there aspects of your work that are linked to the Pacific Northwest and the West Coast? Youíve mentioned in previous interviews that certain aspects of your work seem Southern to you.
Pattiann: Even now I like Roethkeís work as much as that of any 20th century poet because you can reread and reread it. Itís always pleasurable, like listening to a symphony over and over. You anticipate the language thatís coming. Itís rich and itís varied. Itís full of particular names and a kind of a life. It has its dark moments, no doubt about that, but thereís even a kind of affirmation in his dark moments. Also I like his work because he fails sometimes. When he fails, you can sense the effort and the struggle...
Bill: The reach...
Pattiann: Yes, the reach for something really difficult. The intense desire to be able to address what heís trying to address. You have to love him for being willing to take that risk. Heís tried to do something very difficult and touching.
It seems amazing to me that I should have had this link to this part of the country where work was being produced that was so closely aligned with what I wanted to do.
Yet, although I think the imagery from the natural world is something that is, in general, characteristic of the Pacific Northwest writers, I donít think that my attention to science is so prevalent here. The vocabulary of natural history is; but not so much the attention to the conceptual aspects of science.
Part 5. Cynicism, Skepticism, and Truth. The Chief Purpose of Poetry.
Bill: Is anybody else writing poetry using science the way you do?
Pattiann: I donít know. But I donít think anyone is writing exactly the way I do. Kurt Brown is doing an anthology for Milkweed called "Verse and Universe". Itís a collection of poems that deal with science. Not just casually mentioning it to address some personal problem, but poems in which a scientific concept or scientific process is the subject of the poem. When that comes out, weíll see who else is in it and how they are addressing science.
Sometimes people define a "nature writer" as someone having an overly sentimental, idealistic view of nature that seems false. So sometimes itís not a compliment to be called a nature writer. Thatís not everyoneís definition, but there is a pretty large segment of the literary community that regard "nature writing" as a lesser kind of writing. So I was thinking that something that helps keep nature writing balanced against that overly sentimental view of nature - the desire to prettify nature when we know itís full of a lot of violence and a lot of pitiless killing - is science. Science can keep that kind of falsehood out of the portrayal of the natural world. And yet it doesnít keep out beauty or awe or the magnificence or the glory or the mystery thatís there. In fact I think that science reveals mystery - uncovers the fact that things are mysterious. In terms of my own writing, science has been helpful to me...
Bill: ...to keep that perspective.
Pattiann: Yes. To keep that perspective there, and the reality - because the reality is beautiful. It doesnít need to be beautified by some kind of false presentation of the natural world.
Bill: That raises the question of the respective roles of awe and skepticism in science and poetry.
Pattiann: This is another one of those questions that our generation struggles with. How do you believe and be skeptical at the same time? How do you do those two things simultaneously? That might be one of the things thatís behind this elevation of tolerance as a virtue -- that science has built-in skepticism. Somehow skepticism has a negative ring to it and so you use the word "open" as in "being open". Carl Sagan used the word "skeptical" so itís not that scientists donít use it, but he means skeptical about new theories that are advanced - that you donít just embrace them immediately or discard them immediately, but you test them.
Bill: Some people make a distinction between cynicism and skepticism.
Pattiann: Cynicism is more negative.
Bill: Right, less prone to being open - to letting that door open when, in fact, it should be opened.
Pattiann: Right. See I think itís one of the virtues of science that it does maintain this skepticism. When a new theory is advanced, the first thing that the community of scientists in that field do is try to replicate the experiment or go out and test that theory themselves in the physical world. At least ideally thatís the idea - to demand honesty within that community. Well, Iím not sure how many actually try to lie, but mistakes and misinterpretations happen in the scientific community just as they do in any field.
Of course we have this situation now where "scientists" are being hired by various groups with agendas. It can be a pharmaceutical company. It can be the government. It can be any group that wants its agenda advanced. Science is being misused in that way. But I think thatís a perversion of the process of science. Remember when those two scientists, two or three years ago, said theyíd discovered cold fusion?
They were on the cover of Time magazine and there was a big uproar. The community of scientists remained skeptical because they had not seen the data. They hadnít seen a report, a journal article, on this. It turned out that these two scientists had done what you cannot do in science. They had isolated themselves and convinced themselves that they were seeing something that in reality was not there. Thatís the strength of science - it has to be made public. Everybody in the community has to be able to test the theory advanced - and ascertain that, yes, this is the way the physical world works. If you isolate yourself from your community, then what has happened so often in human history is that you begin to convince yourself of things that arenít actually happening. Just like this cult that killed themselves because they believed that there was a spaceship following the comet coming to pick them up. You know, people can convince themselves of...
Bill: ...just about anything.
Pattiann: ...just about anything. One of the strengths of science is that it must be public. Your colleagues must be able to look at your data, replicate your experiments, before something is incorporated into this story of the universe that science is trying to tell.
Bill: Itís always subject to modification. There is no dogma.
Pattiann: No, right. Jacob Brownoski, who is someone I greatly admire, passed away in the 70ís. His belief was that everything in the universe is connected in some way to everything else. That any act of imagination, whether itís in art or in science, is seeing and recognizing a new connection, then incorporating it into a description and knowledge of the world. If itís in art, then incorporating it into our spiritual or emotional world. A metaphor does that. It establishes -- makes evident -- a link between two things that might not ever have been seen before as linked in any way. Science does the same thing. So he believed that whenever that imaginative leap happens - and new connections are seen that have never been seen before - then the body of knowledge opens up and takes in that new connection, reorganizes itself or modifies itself. Then the body of knowledge remains until itís necessary to open it and expand it again -- to open it and take in another new connection that has been discovered. Thatís kind of pat, but it seems to be a productive way to think about both art and science -- the creative imagination operating in a similar way in both of those fields.
Bill: What was Brownoskiís field?
Pattiann: He was a mathematician, but he was also a humanist and a Blake scholar. He wrote poetry and was knowledgeable and influential in a lot of different disciplines. He wrote some books that I suppose you could call philosophy - about science and art and society. He thought one of the primary virtues of science was what I said a minute ago -- that you cannot get away with a lie, that it demands truth and honesty. You can be mistaken, but mistakes and falsehoods will be uncovered eventually. A lie will be, too. He felt that the process of science was a major step forward for human beings, a discipline where truth is inherent to the discipline.
Bill: I keep thinking that about an admonition Gary Snyder gave us at Art of the Wild: "No bullshit;"
Meaning, I think, that itís fine to speculate as long as itís clear that youíre speculating. Itís not OK to present something as fact unless you know itís fact. There is an honesty required of poetry and of, I suspect, all literature. It comes back to haunt us if we donít play it straight.
Pattiann: Thatís right. Itís a little more difficult, of course, to identify honesty in the arts than it is in science - if youíre promoting yourself, for instance. But, although it may be harder to identify, it does seem like they are similar in the sense that at some point any work of art has to be presented to the community. Not just the community of writers or other artists, but to the community at large. That final judgment - as to whether this work of art has struck a truth (thatís even vague) - is up to the audience that receives the work.
You know, I say these things sometimes to groups and I donít think they ever hear it. I emphasize (or itís often emphasized) that I use science in my work. I explain that science is exhilarating to me. That although Iím not a scientist it always seems exhilarating because it reveals things that seem so fascinating and so mysterious and so full of wonder. I emphasize those things and then I will say, "But science is not answering every question and it doesnít try to answer every question. It answers those things it is capable of addressing and has the tools to investigate. But it canít answer for us ĎIs there a divinity?í. It canít answer ĎWhat is faith and what is its role in our lives?í ĎWhat is justice, what is hope, what is love?í"
All those things that are so important to our lives are not things that science tries to address or is capable of addressing. That doesnít mean that science has no value. We know it does. But it seems to be the role of the artist to try to deal with some of these experiences in our lives that science is not capable of dealing with. To express those in ways that are emboldening and health-promoting in human beings, in ourselves, and in the artist himself/herself first.
It seems that people never hear that - that science doesnít answer all questions. It doesnít try to and never will answer all questions. But it certainly has a place in our lives and I think to deny the place that science occupies in our lives Ė its images, its cosmology, its strengths - is to weaken ourselves.
Bill: People tend to go to one side or the other. Either science is everything or science is nothing, rather than seeing both sides.
Pattiann: Yes. Sometimes thatís true. When I talk about what I value about science: that it is exciting and it makes us aware that we are living in a varied world with many things constantly going on; that we canít look at the sky and not be amazed at the thought of what is actually happening up there - the galaxies that you were talking about colliding Ė science expands our experience of the world. It doesnít constrict it. It makes our experience so much wider, so much more varied and full of intricacy. Then after I say all that, people assume that I am saying that science is the end-all and be-all of everything. That scientists are the high priests. You know I had somebody say that yesterday. It seemed to me that I shouldnít have been misunderstood like that.
Bill: People bring their own pre-judgments and itís hard to change them.
In earlier interviews youíve quoted Richard Feynman [Nobel-winning physicist]. From what Iíve seen on the Nova specials, he was a wonderful person. Did crazy, wild things.
Pattiann: And totally full of energy. It seems like most successful people have an abundance of energy, or maybe those things feed off one another. You canít lump all scientists together saying that they arenít interested in the arts.
Richard Feynman describes some experiences heís had in science that to him are so mysterious that he calls them religious experiences. He says scientists find that every stone they turn over reveals a new mystery. They turn over the next stone and itís still a new mystery. He says scientists go forward never fearing that theyíll be disappointed by the things they find. They take pleasure in turning these stones over and finding more and more mystery. He says, "itís true few unscientific people ever have this kind of religious experience." He says religious. Then he said "I donít know why our artists and our poets arenít inspired by the vision of the universe that science is finding." Instead of hearing a poem or a song about it, theyíre resigned to hearing a lecture. He said, "I donít know why this is. This is not yet a scientific age." Meaning thatÖ
Bill: Öitís not integrated?
Pattiann: Yes, not integrated. He said he feels a need for the artists - wants the artists - to give an artistic interpretation to what science is doing. For me itís just human nature to want to know, "What does it mean to us as human beings, that there are two galaxies colliding up there right now and new stars being created and our galaxy heading into a collision with Andromeda? That the sun is burning out and the moon moving away?" You canít say that those thoughts are devoid of emotion. You canít say those facts dispassionately.
So how are we going to interpret this? What does it mean in terms of divinity, in terms of how we behave? Thatís what we havenít faced - the fact that science is not isolated. If we hear these amazing stories and they become part of our lives it does affect how we define ourselves. How we define ourselves determines how we think we should behave; what weíre here for; what our obligations are. Those are questions that havenít been addressed adequately.
Bill: Maybe the question, to paraphrase the Presbyterian catechism, is: "What is the chief purpose of poetry?" Is that the question at the core of your work?
Pattiann: For me itís the only question that energizes me sufficiently to work at the level I need to work at. That is, "What is the purpose of man?" or as I formulated it previously, "How does this information that science is bringing to us about the construction of the physical world affect the way we define ourselves and consequently how we define our obligations. Especially in this country where we have the leisure, the health, the time and the resources to contemplate those questions - it is essential that we define ourselves and our obligations because it reflects back on how we are going to use the earth. Are we going to be able to restrain this drive to possess things and to surround ourselves with all the material goods that we can? It is an understandable biological drive. It was necessary for the survival of the species at one point, that overwhelming drive to survive to feed and clothe ourselves and our children - but it has its...
Bill: ...should have its limits.
Pattiann: ...should have it limits. But any restraint is going to have to be an act of will.
Bill: The news today also had the first leaks of Clinton administrationís position on global warming. It didnít sound very committed.
Pattiann: Without blaming anyone - realizing that each of us individually are part of the solution because each of us in this society are culpable. In some sense my ability to write depends on the fact that I live in this society, that Iím healthy and well cared for physically.
I think we have to have a spiritual basis thatís strong enough to help us have the will to restrain those drives that are so strong - the drive to gather around us all the material possessions that we can. Itís going to have to be something else that helps us to restrain the overuse of the earth. Reasoning, laws, condemnations, wonít do it. It seems to me it is a belief in a divinity or a belief that we have certain obligations that nothing else that we know of in the universe can fulfill. Then we aim toward fulfilling those obligations believing that there is a benevolence or divinity in the universe that in some way depends on us. Thatís an order of faith. Itís not a matter of being able to prove it in a scientific way, but to me it is true and it needs to be addressed.