The Shortlist in Conversation is a series in which poets shortlisted for the League’s 2019 Book Awards engage with each other’s works and talk poetry. In this installment, Adam Dickinson, author of Anatomic (Coach House Books) and Alice Major, author of Welcome to the Anthropocene (University of Alberta Press) – both collections shortlisted for the 2019 Raymond Souster Award – discuss research and creation, science and poetics, and the relationship between humans and the environment.
About the titles…
We both have books whose titles both feature a somewhat unfamiliar four-syllable word, coincidentally both starting with an “An…” Can you talk about what it means, how it reflects the book, why you chose it for your title?
Adam Dickinson: Anatomic is a book of poetry that incorporates the results of chemical and microbial testing on my body in order to examine, through personal, biological, industrial, and cultural contexts, how the “outside” writes the “inside” in necessary and toxic ways. The book is an attempt to think of “writing” in a more expanded mode by reframing the otherwise inscrutable biological and cultural writing intrinsic to the Anthropocene—that era in planetary history where humans have begun to influence earth’s systems and processes.
The title, Anatomic, directly evokes the branch of morphology that deals with the structure of organisms. In addition, embedded within the title is the word “atomic,” which signals the book’s engagement with both the “atomization” of a self, the “breaking apart” enacted through the chemical and microbial tests, as well as concerns with elemental constituents (an “atom”), be they ubiquitous pollutants that affect metabolic processes at minute levels, or tiny microbes that have the power to influence human moods and behaviours.
“Atomic” can also refer to singular individuals concerned with private interests. One of the points of exploration in my book is the degree to which we humans must not see ourselves as separate from the world, from the energy systems we choose to surround ourselves with, or from the microorganisms that are involved in making us who we are. The title engages these various contexts from anatomy, to atom, to Adam.
Alice Major: The word “Anthropocene” is a bit more familiar than it was when I started writing this book – one staff member at the University of Alberta Press asked me if I was sure I wanted that title because people kept asking “What’s an anthropocene?”
In fact, the term is so new that we’re still trying to figure out how to pronounce it (an-THRAWP-uh-seen? AN-thropo-SEEN?). And certainly we’re still trying to figure out what it means. Earth scientists aren’t entirely comfortable with it because they identify the epoch-cenes in Earth’s history according to clear indications in the rock record. Other people object because it makes it sound too anthropocentric—as though it’s Our Time, when really it’s a period when all life forms are affected.
As a poet, I rather like these ambiguities. For one thing, when you’re composing in heroic couplets, it’s handy to have options for scanning an awkward word! More importantly, they open up questions rather than defining answers. What is humanity’s impact on the planet as a whole? Where do we fit? What paths led us here?
About research and creation…
Both books draw on extensive research, especially in science. How does that research play into your creative process?
AD: Research is fundamental to the poetics of Anatomic. I deliberately wanted my research methods and data to be formally and conceptually present in the book. There are graphs and charts displaying chemical concentrations in my blood and urine, along with an unrooted phylogenetic tree depicting the relationship between bacterial species found in my gut. There are microscope images of my blood, urine, sweat, and hair as well as photographs of the experimental processes I undertook. The book begins with a list of all the chemicals I was tested for and all the microbes I found on my body.
Beyond the material presence of this research and data, however, I conceived of the book as a speculative, poetic research project. What happens when we consider the endocrine system as a form of writing? How might hormones offer examples for poetic form? I think it is useful and important to bring poetic and artistic methods to typically scientific domains of research because it makes possible unexpected insights and renovated forms of investigation.
AM: In an odd way, this collection didn’t take as much focused science research as some of my other books have—and certainly a lot less than Adam’s incredible book. I still have boxes of material that went into writing Standard Candles, but there’s only a modest pile for Welcome to the Anthropocene. It’s really based on decades of continually reading and thinking about science—physics, evolution, cognitive science, mathematics—as I’ve tried to get a sense of how patterns fit together to make up our world.
Really, the title poem almost poured out of itself. It started as a short piece about how we genetically modify other creatures, then rolled on across the territory I’ve been thinking about all my life. I did do a fair amount of checking on specific points to be sure I was understanding the science as well as I could, but actually most of my research was literary rather than scientific.
Some phrase in that short first draft of the title poem made me flash back to a dimly remembered university course. “Alexander Pope!” I thought, and went off to read “An Essay on Man” and more about the author and the period he lived in. Pope hasn’t been a fashionable poet for a century or two, but when I looked at what he was trying to do with that long poem written late in his career, I felt an odd kinship. He was trying to pull together the new scientific knowledge of his day into some sort of coherent whole and say, “Look, humans, a little humility would help.”
Next thing you know, I’m writing heroic couplets!
About the structure of your books…
How did you put the components of your book together? Do you have a metaphor for your book’s structure?
AD: My goal was to make literal the metaphorical idea that the environment writes our bodies. I took seriously the proposition that chemicals and microbes constitute forms of metabolic writing. How, then, to write this writing? I thought very hard about structural questions, about what form a hormone might take in language. Ultimately, I settled on the sentence and its brief encapsulation of a dramatic arc (a cause and an effect) as the principal compositional method I wanted to employ. It seems to me that this is analogous to the small anatomical narratives that hormones initiate in the body. Consequently, as way of generating this endocrine analogue, the prose poem became the dominant form in the book. I also liked how the prose poem, as a non-flashy, ostensibly innocuous form, suggested the subtle ways in which many of the chemicals I tested myself for affect the body: endocrine disruptors, or hormone mimics, intervene in metabolic processes precisely because of their inconspicuousness, their capacity to be mistaken for naturally present hormones.
Anatomic is structured like a hormone inasmuch as there is a long poem in sections (called “Hormone”) that runs through the book with the chemical and microbial poems floating in this stream. The “Hormone” poem is, among other things, a meditation on crowds and crowd theory (as I came to discover my body crowded with chemicals and microbes). The chemical and microbial poems each bear an epigraph that indicates the level of a particular chemical in my blood or urine, or the presence of a microbe on or in my body. I also decided to include a series of “specimen reports” that reflect on some of my experiences performing the tests and acquiring the results. I found it very distressing to learn about the contamination in my body. I experienced anxiety as I looked into my blood, urine, and poop and saw the Anthropocene staring back at me.
AM: It’s always a challenge when you’ve got one 20-page poem and you’re trying to build a book around it. Where do you put that lump? Thwack in the middle, with shorter poems sprinkled before and after it like slopes of a hill around the peak? At the end? And what do you put with it?
Eventually, I decided that the long poem should go at the beginning, and I do have a metaphor for that. I think of the book as a cantilever structure, a bit like a construction crane: you have an anchor, a centre of mass, to support the weight of a long thin beam reaching out over the area you want to bridge.
The long poem attempts to anchor the book by taking a global look at this Anthropocene in which we find ourselves. How are humans linked into the network of living things? How did intelligence emerge (and did it have to be us)? What is our ‘human nature’—its cognitive biases and default settings? What is that mindset doing, cumulatively, to the planet? The poem pulls out even further, to the physics of the cosmos and the connections that link its largest and smallest elements.
From here, the remaining sections of the book look at how we operate against this background. We can only experience the universe as individuals; we experience global issues like climate change through their local impacts. So there are poem-groups about people in ordinary jobs, about living in my own urban-boreal landscape, and even some poems about poets at work using basically the same kind of brain as everyone else.
About writer and this book…
Both of your books deal with the relationship of human and the environment at this point in the planet’s history. How personal is the global for you?
AD: Writing Anatomic has changed my life. The scrutiny that I subjected my body and my habits to was unlike anything I had experienced before. I had to keep a food diary for long periods of time (the microbiologists who were helping me wanted to know what I was eating). I could see in my body the residues of the agricultural, industrial, and military activities of the world I live in. I found shifted microbial communities associated with the Western diet, such as those related to high sugar consumption. This made me think about the history of sugar, its connection to colonialism, slavery, and capitalism. My body contained and continues to contain the traces of all these global forces.
In addition, while I discovered through my research that demographic factors matter in terms of patterns of chemical exposure and diversity of gut flora, the chemicals and microbes are in all of us. Generally speaking, what is in me is in you, too. The global is personal. We are written over by our environments in ways that are necessary but also in ways that are potentially harmful. I hope my book, in whatever modest manner, might contribute to the larger cultural conversation about these issues.
AM: Change. That’s really the context out of which this book comes, and what I’m trying to cope with personally.
We humans have a complicated relationship with change—it’s not something that we get our heads around easily, though we evolved to be very attentive to cause and effect, agency and narrative. We’re animals, we get bored with being static, but essentially we expect change to occur within familiar limits. The change of seasons, birth and death, even disaster and recovery are things that seem ‘normal’ to us. And the models of math and science we’ve developed over the past several millennia were based on smooth, fairly linear chains of cause and effect.
We’re not good at understanding runaway change: feedback loops, exponential growth, tipping points. Our math models are only beginning to be able to tackle this kind of analysis. Yet this is where we are living now—on a cusp. I’m frequently staggered when I think that in my lifetime the planet’s population has tripled. I can see the impacts even in this far-from-central place that I call home. I worry about it, and feel guilty about it.
But we have to live with the knowledge that change is eternal—that we can influence it but can’t control it entirely. How do we do that without collapsing into grief or unbearable anxiety? Well, I write poetry.
Adam Dickinson’s work has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, the Trillium Book Award for Poetry, and the ReLit Award. He was also a finalist for the CBC Poetry Prize and the K.M. Hunter Artist Award in Literature. He teaches poetics and creative writing at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. Find Adam on Twitter @AdamwDickinson.
Welcome to the Anthropocene is Alice Major’s 11th collection of poetry, and continues her long engagement with science and mathematics. In the collection she tackles the urgent questions raised by human activity on the planet: how do we get along in this complicated period when it can hard to figure out how to do much about the big stuff in our small way? She has also published the essay collection, Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science. Her many awards include the Pat Lowther Award and a National Magazine Award Gold Medal. As well as reading her work across Canada and in the U.S. and Britain, she has been an invited speaker at science and math gatherings. Alice founded the Edmonton Poetry Festival while serving as Edmonton’s first poet laureate. She received the 2017 Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Distinguished Artist Award.