Something that Unites the Two Modes: Kristen Gunther on Science, Poetry, Writing and Research

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Which came first for you, poetry or science? Or did you have to choose between the two at some point?

It was always both. When I was a kid, I tromped through the woods all day, which led to a curiosity about the natural world – but also, as soon as I could read, I was memorizing poems. In my senior year of college, I used to leave a class on Shakespeare’s histories, pull rubber boots out of my backpack, and go out to net fish in a tidal bay as part of an ecology course. The strange thing is that nobody ever asked me to choose – it was always completely acceptable that I was studying wildlife management but also constantly reading and writing poetry. Even when I came to Wyoming for my MFA, it was always clear that I’d be allowed – encouraged, actually – to keep engaging with my scientific background. I think I’ve been incredibly fortunate that my academic track to this point has allowed me that kind of freedom, because it’s supported important growth in both my research and creative work.

What were some of your early literary/ scientific influences?

The first poet I loved was Richard Wilbur. And then there was Wislawa Szymborska, Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott…my mom was always bringing me new poets to read, and so I was constantly in the process of figuring out what I liked, what had resonance for me. For prose, I loved Emily Brontë and Ernest Hemingway and Gabriel García Márquez – both on their own merits and because I think all three taught me some valuable lessons about controlling or unspooling a line or image, lessons I translated carefully to my poetic study.

As far as scientific influences, I wanted to be Jane Goodall – well, that probably isn’t a surprise. I think lots of girls like me dreamed of living alone in the woods making careful observations of a study animal of your choice. More broadly, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in the mid-90s, and I was in elementary school and absolutely captivated by that story. I think, honestly, that was when the gears really started to turn in my head about the interaction between what we consider “natural” and what we consider to be “human.”

I also discovered sometime early in college that Darwin could write. His conclusion to On the Origin of Species is lovely, especially the very last sentence of the famous “entangled bank” paragraph – “….whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

You both received your MFA and are a Ph.D. student at the University of Wyoming. What is it like to get seemingly disparate degrees at the same institution?

The transition between programs wasn’t particularly difficult, partly because I kept one committee member between my MFA and ecology committees, partly because I was already engaging in the sciences a little during my MFA, and partly because once you have the lay of the land at an institution, it starts to feel like home. Of course, different disciplines and departments have their own cultures. You start to appreciate the diversity of work and theoretical approaches that any one campus hosts – it definitely helped me get perspective on both why we specialize in certain directions, and where interdisciplinary collaboration is possible and/or important.

In your essay on lessons for teaching science from the writing classroom, you write “…making the student into a scientist…is not about the concrete, about hard numbers, figures or facts – it’s about learning to ask and answer questions.” It sounds (not surprisingly) like you’re advocating for a liberal arts education. Do you feel you received (or are currently receiving) the kind of education you describe – one that privileges learning to think over memorizing facts or blindly achieving? If so, how do you think learning that way has influenced your choice of vocations?

I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my education – I was lucky to have teachers at every stage who encouraged this kind of critical approach over memorization of facts or vague notions of academic “success.” While I’ve always loved the written word and been curious about the natural world, I give a great deal of credit to teachers who encouraged me to pursue these seemingly disparate interests. Because I was never shuttled into one column versus the other (STEM vs. humanities), I learned to draw meaningful connections between, say, the kind of thinking you do in a lab versus while reading a text (not to say that they are the same – but to compare them, to understand why both are valuable and what one might offer the other).

How do you balance your life as a Ph.D. student and writing? What kind of shift in your attention do you notice between the time you were an MFA student and now?

It’s a difficult balance, certainly. The real gift of an MFA is that it gives you a space in which your primary responsibility is to write. It’s both terrifying and freeing to finish your degree and suddenly have to make your own space, entirely, for your creative practice. When I began my PhD, it was with full knowledge that my prioritization of time and resources was going to have to change. I won’t sugarcoat it – sometimes making “enough room” can be exhausting. Sometimes I’m forgoing an hour or two of sleep so I can get something done with my writing. Sometimes I have a beast of a week where I’m eating, sleeping, breathing my research and don’t actually have a spare minute to write (though even those days, I try to read a short essay or a couple poems, edit a few lines, just as a way to regroup).

When I started my PhD, I made a promise to myself that I would write every day, even if it was just for 20-30 minutes. Now that I’m in my third year in this program, I know that I can trust myself to maintain that commitment. I am forgiving of myself when I have to break from my writing – and often it’s in those “gaps” where I come back bursting with ideas, anyway (I’ve learned that letting my brain “creatively idle” for a few days while I pursue different interests is one way of spurring a burst of ideas). In some ways I feel like I’m more productive when I sit down to work now, because whatever ideas I’ve tucked away to work on later spin around and get cobwebbed into other ideas while I work on different projects. There’s less staring out the window, now, and more furious bursts of scribbling or typing.

“Scientific” poetry, or poetry influenced by science, is a little bit in vogue right now – but if we look back as far as the Romantics, poets have always been a little bit attracted to the questions, procedures, and debates of science. What poets have you encountered, if any, who you think bring together a poet’s mindset and a scientific mindset in an interesting, provocative way?

A.R. Ammons comes to mind – his incredible poem “Mechanism,” which is a stunning meditation on a goldfinch, is always one of the first pieces I think of when people ask me for examples of work that bridges that distance between scientific thought and poetic execution. “heat kept by a feathered skin: / the living alembic, body heat maintained (bunsen / burner under the flask) // so the chemistries can proceed, reaction rates / interdependent, self-adjusting, with optimum / efficiency—the vessel firm, the flame // staying: isolated, contained reactions! the precise and / necessary worked out of random, reproducible, / the handiwork redeemed from chance…” I think the risk you take when you try to write using scientific terms and concepts is that the technical language locks out the reader – Ammons finds a way to somehow liven the scientific words, but not obscure them.

My fascination with ecology derives from my love of the natural world, and I think there are a great number of poets who write with a clear, bright observational eye and probably spurred my abilities as a scientific thinker. Robert Hass, Pattiann Rogers, Jan Zwicky, certainly Wendell Berry.

You make a statement on your website that bridges your creative and scientific work: you say you “investigate the ways in which humans define landscapes and come to terms with environmental forces that are beyond our control.” How do you treat this mode of inquiry differently in your poems than in your research? How do the two approaches dovetail, if ever?

My poetry is frequently observational – I’ll begin with an image and let it cascade in some direction, possibly to return – or maybe not. Observation is in many ways the foundation of scientific questioning – but in science, there is a rigorous mode of inquiry that follows observation, in which you form and test a hypothesis, then use your findings to evaluate the hypothesis and ask further questions. I would say that there is little testing in the way I write, and more of an apparent synthesis of observation and meditation. I think I tend to disguise a poem’s gears and cogs a bit in its final iteration – there are concepts and decisions that swim under the text of the poem, but the final product is a surface, beyond which you can choose to probe (or not). There is a much more open conversation about process – how and why this hypothesis, for example – that is a necessary part of research and scientific writing (both mine, and research in general). Something that unites the two modes – in my poetry I am always very concerned with the question, “What do we know, and how are we sure we know it?” That’s certainly an obsession that carries into how I approach my research as well.

Further, my actual work is quite interdisciplinary – I study the way that emerging science is translated for ecosystem managers and “on the ground” application. My research questions have much to do with the idea that how you present something changes the way people respond to it. In both my writing and my research, I am considering the ways in which language facilitates dialogue. A poem generates a unique response from each reader, which is an intrinsic part of the poem’s experience. Likewise, presenting emerging science to an audience of (for example) agricultural producers is not a simple A –> B transmission – it is a way to foster multidirectional communication, draw out observations and questions, and identify shared goals.

How do you maintain contact with a community of writers while in your doctoral program? Do you know other scientist-poets?

As a matter of fact, I went through my MFA with a geologist-poet! Actually, it seemed at times that a (perhaps) unusual number of writers in my MFA cohort came from science backgrounds – geology, environmental science, ecology. I think it had to do with Wyoming – it’s a place with a rich, entrancing natural history and more pronghorn antelope than people (and lots of mining, for those curious geologists) – lots of things to attract the scientifically-minded. As far as staying in touch – as much as I hate to admit it, Facebook is a wonderful tool for chatting and keeping people up to date with what you’re up to. I have a small circle of women writers with whom I regularly email, too. Beyond that, there is an arts community in Laramie and people are doing all kinds of interesting work – and it’s easy to go to events, talk to people. I’ve seen some incredible collaborations from artists and writers lately. Laramie may be the third largest city in Wyoming, but 31,681 people does not a big town make, so it’s easy to keep apprised of what’s going on, even if I don’t always have time to jump in with both feet. I think as long as I’m getting out there to events, having conversations with different writers and artists, I feel invigorated and tied to a community.

What advice would you give to new MFA students coming from STEM backgrounds, or who are interested in pursuing them after the degree?

I would say – don’t be afraid to be creative about how you engage with different disciplines, and resist the urge to split yourself into two academic “versions.” Some of my favorite poems I’ve ever written derive almost directly from an animal behavior course I took during my MFA, and many of the ideas at play in my research now are linked to things I was considering when I was working on my creative thesis. At the same time, if you think you want to pursue STEM, it’s important to keep your scientific thinking skills sharp – explore the literature and see what’s going on. It will prepare you to engage as a scientist, and probably also spur some great work.

Kristen Gunther is a doctoral student in ecosystem management and ecology at the University of Wyoming, where she also completed an MFA in creative writing. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in West Branch, CutBank, Parcel, THRUSH, Word Riot, and elsewhere. She lives in Laramie, Wyoming, and can be found online at www.kristengunther.com. 

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