Wednesday, November 12, 2008

FSPA Keynote, "Poeticus Interruptus," Part 5 of 5

Poeticus Interruptus
(or: Is that a poem in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?)
Keynote at the Florida State Poets Association Convention (theme: "A poem in your pocket"), 18 October 2008, Part 5 of 5

FSPA Keynote, "Poeticus Interruptus," Pt. 5
FSPA Keynote, "Poe...
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Audio quality on this recording is somewhat poorer than the others due to compression. The original file was too large for eSnips specs.


At that convention I was part of a panel called "Creating Speculative Poetry," along with speculative poets Jo Walton, Mary Turzillo, and Geoffrey Landis. Through discussions and readings we learned how each of us creates poems in different ways, whether in traditional forms or in free verse. Geoff described one workshop in which he was faced with two bowls, one holding cards with topics and the other holding cards with different poetic forms -- like our contest descriptions if all the different categories were thrown into a Mixmaster.

Ideas can come from anywhere. Another item suitable for pockets is the velvet pouch in your bag. That pouch holds cards of writing prompts -- to be used one at a time or in combination or however you like. And the pouch includes several blank cards, so that you can add your own prompt ideas.

You never know where markets are going to come from, either. Again responding to both a Sunday Scribblings prompt and a comment by Virginia-based blogger and poet Colleen Redman, I wrote "Algebraic Sestina for the Ocean." Ocean was the prompt offered by Sunday Scribblings, but on that same day Colleen's blog contained the comment, "Sestina is a poetry form that sounds too much like algebra to me."

I couldn't resist the temptation to combine the two.

Algebraic Sestina for the Ocean

To undertake Pythagorean feats,
Or write about subtractions in the sand?
I sit, Muse cleaved in two by bladed thoughts:
The sea in one, the other stirred by math.
Quadratic ebb and flow, perhaps, a line
And then a grid, new theorems taking form.

I've sat on rock walls, mesmerized by form,
The ocean glass, then froth. Watched diving feats
Of pelicans and gulls. A jetty line
Breaks water from its anchor in the sand,
Grows slippery in spume, stones piled in math
That measures splash, a road of dammed-up thoughts.

On calmer nights I float on buoyed thoughts,
The ocean of my brain a shapeless form
Whose neurons spark a phosphorescent math,
As though the patterns there were schoolgirl feats
Awaiting pencil tests, my gritty sand
Small points of reason straining toward a line.

I cannot fight the straight horizon line
That keeps its distance from my tide-pulled thoughts.
What drops have formed my soul? What grains of sand?
What salt-encrusted air affords me form
That twists me toward imaginary feats
Whose physics fall away? Clear pools of math

Dry up into the simpler shells of math:
The chambered Nautilus, its life a line
Curved into mortal coil. No startling feats
But life and death, the transience of thoughts.
A spark of poem that struggles toward its form.
These scattered words dull irritants. Like sand.

So let's start over. Here's a bucket, sand.
We're in a world where all we know of math
Is counting toes while piglets take their form.
Sharp bird tracks sink a many-crisscrossed line
As surf rolls over mud to clear our thoughts
And we begin anew. Our greatest feats

Not feats of formulae. My tattered thoughts
Refuse to walk a line, or take a form.
Let me be sand. My heart will do the math.

Two months after I wrote and posted that poem I heard from Anna Lovrics, a doctoral student in theoretical mechanics at the Wolfson Centre for Stem Cells, Tissue Engineering and Modelling at the University of Nottingham in the UK. Earlier this year, she used the poem in her article, "What is the connection between poetry and maths?" in the STEM Newsletter.

Lovrics had attended the 49th British Applied Mathematics Colloquium in Bristol. There, she listened to talks with titles like "Approach towards a silent aircraft," and on topics like mathematical biology, which included a stochastic model for stem cells. Don't ask me what that means; I have no idea.

Then Lovrics wrote, "On Wednesday the Mathematical Biology talks did not look that much promising so maybe with the help of some sort of women's intuition, I chose the Dynamical Systems session instead. And that was when I heard about sestinas for the first time in my life. 'Sestinas are a form of poetry where the end-words of the lines do not rhyme but get repeated from verse to verse. However the order of these end-words is permuted.' … And I can't deny that my all time favourite was this talk because as much as we need mathematics to solve applied problems, I hope for me it will also always remain something really entertaining, something we can play with."

In addition to my sestina, Lovrics included a photo she took of the Giant's Causeway in Ireland, describing it as a, quote, "breathtaking example of the way patterns in nature are built from the complex and delicate interplay of physical processes," unquote. She adds, "We as scientists strive to understand and express these processes in the language of science: mathematics. But the beauty of nature can never be conveyed through mere formulae alone. Perhaps this is most effectively realized through the words of the poet."

Poems also come from and with music, which is why I'm going to close with a musical poem. I perform spoken word at the Woodview Coffeehouse open mics in Lecanto. Most of the performers play instruments -- we tend to be two or three poets and the rest musicians.

At some point, hearing all those instrumentalists, I got to thinking, "Dang, I should try to write a song." One with words, because I also perform wordless singing, making up the melody as I go along. This time I wanted to create a fairly fixed melody to go with fixed words.

I got my song in May of 2007, when we had a bumper crop of love bugs. They were all over me when I went to Woodview Coffeehouse that month, and before I knew it I was writing. The Latin name for love bugs is Plecia nearctica, so I'm going to close my talk by singing "The Nearctica Waltz."

The Nearctica Waltz

They meet in the grass, rising up from the dirt.
And before we all know it, he's stuck up her skirt.
They pump their sweet lovin' right onto your shirt --
Such tender romance. Up your arms. Down your pants...

They float in a passion. The world is their bed
For his tiny body and her tiny head.
And after their tryst, they will finally drop dead.
For that's the Nearctica Waltz.

They couple on walls, in the air, on your clothes.
She drags her companion wherever she goes.
And glued end to end, they go where the wind blows --
On windows, on shorts. How they're flaunting their sporting...

They float in a passion. The world is their bed
For his tiny body and her tiny head.
And after their tryst, they will finally drop dead.
For that's the Nearctica Waltz.

Plecia nearctica, little lovin' flies.
They mate in mid-air with the greatest of ease,
Gumming our windshields as we watch them die
In their short-lived, pornographic trapeze.


I give them the finger, but it does me no good.
They're already on it, producing their brood.
Wherever I go, they're lascivious and lewd.
How devotedly he humps her, right onto my bumper...

They float in a passion. The world is their bed
For his tiny body and her tiny head.
And after their tryst, they will finally drop dead.
For that's the Nearctica Waltz.

They teach me on the highway,
Every spring and every fall:
'Tis better to love and then be squashed
Than to never
At all.

Thank you all, and Write On!

Gift Bag Contents for Keynote Speech

Covenant, the first volume in the Deviations Series, is available from Aisling Press, and from AbeBooks, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Book Territory, Borders,,,, DEAstore,,,,, Powell's Books, and Target. Deviations: Appetite is forthcoming. The Deviations page has additional details.


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