Fuzzy Richness: An Interview with Mario Petrucci

In 2014 Gregory Tate recorded a documentary for Radio 3 about scientists who write poetry. One of the writers whose work featured in the documentary was Mario Petrucci, a poet who has a PhD in optoelectronics.

GT: You trained and worked as a scientist for a number of years. Did your interest in poetry arise out of your scientific work, or was it something that developed independently of it?

MP: I’m still contemplating that. I don’t think I fully know how science and poetry interwove for me, but there were at least two ways. One of them was poetry as freedom from science, an antidote to it, something I could do in odd moments, in which I could go anywhere I wished: a stub of pencil, a scrap of paper, and I could travel anywhere, be anything I wanted. I didn’t need a huge laboratory with complex equipment and a budget. It could just happen. So there was that, but there was also the sometimes extraordinary content of the science. I felt the fizz of working in an area that was metaphorically tabula rasa. I was possibly witnessing things that no one in history had ever witnessed, on a microscopic level – the atomic behaviour of certain crystal surfaces. And that gives you a sense of awe. Even if your poem isn’t particularly engaged with what you’re specifically working on as a scientist, the science can still inflame and inspire the poet’s profound wonder at the universe in general.

GT: So, your poetry was on one level an escape from your scientific work, but it was also inspired by it?

MP: Yes, in that more generic manner. And I suppose one thing I learned from science, especially quantum physics – which is what the cultural movement of Modernism perhaps in part learned from relativity, which evolved at about the same time – is that you could do many things simultaneously in a poem. You could have all these quantum states simultaneously alive in the poem. That plurality wasn’t always reflected in my scientific work, however, where I’d often have to focus and deliver a definitive answer, an absolute. The poetry seemed to hang off that limitation, but also provided a complement to it, where I could explore ideas in ways that were much more generalised or eclectic, far more open and ambiguous, and therefore more alive to those possibilities in meaning that can’t quite be resolved.

GT: Did you feel that you ultimately had to choose between being a poet and being a scientist?

MP: Yes I did. One morning I gave notice and left the lab and decided to move into poetry full time. No income at all; but it was essential. I’d followed my path in science to a point at which I could leave it.

GT: Why did you feel it was ‘essential’?

MP: Because the questions I was asking myself had moved beyond the scientific method. Although I loved physics, in many ways I couldn’t pursue that career with the same freedom with which I hoped to follow the poetic vocation.

GT: What do you think are the limits of the scientific method, and what can poetry do that goes beyond science?

MP: Before answering that, let me say a little more on the parallels. One thing I did carry over from science was cognitive staying power. As a scientist you can’t give up easily, nor should you settle too readily for the apparent. There’s something of that in poetry too: you don’t just go for the surface appearance, what’s obvious. That generally doesn’t make a good poem. Both scientist and poet, then, have to carry that distrust in them, in a sense – as well as a faith, concurrently, that what there might be, lurking beneath the surface, is often far more interesting than what initially presents itself.

That said, where do science and poetry part ways? Well, unlike most poetry that interests me, a great deal of science (and the scientific method) is rooting for a fixed, predictable or commonsense outcome – even with relativity behind us, and the intriguing idea that the cosmos might be a kind of giant hologram, where (as I see it) everything’s linked, and everything can be everything else. Let’s just pause a moment at that (latter) notion. When suggesting that “everything can be everything else”, that wouldn’t work in science in quite the same way it does in poetry via metaphor. Yes, metaphor, too, says that everything can be everything else; but (unlike science) poetic metaphor isn’t usually geared towards unified theory and unambiguous results. That, for me, seems to define an essential difference. By the way, I’m certainly not claiming here that, say, mathematical equations (to take just one example from science) are only ever pragmatic and objective, that they can’t also be intensely, irrationally beautiful: they are, in their fashion. But there are altogether different kinds of beauty in language, and in the sonority of speaking in a particular way that poetry can give you.

Finally, perhaps the clearest, most crucial point of departure between poetry and science is that the scientific method provides no obvious vehicle for the human heart. Whatever ‘the scientific method’ may mean (which is complex and contested), it’s of course generally believed to be designed precisely to achieve this.

GT: You mentioned that, both in poetry and in science, you have to go beneath the surface, to investigate and test your ideas. Is it legitimate to say that a poem is a kind of experiment?

MP: Yes, but it’s a highly subjective experiment. Science – even with its modern insight that the observer is always implicated in his or her experiment, even with that idea now firmly in place – still strives in most of its day-to-day practices to eliminate the subjective, trying to get to an impersonal, repeatable answer or end product. But in poetry you want the subjectivity; you don’t seek a final objective answer, necessarily. You probably prefer something that opens, for the reader, into the possibilities that the reader brings to it. You have, then, this highly reader-oriented (or listener-oriented) field that the poet drops something into, which may have had a very particular meaning for the writer but which is also, one hopes, of intense and plural universal value.

GT: Do you accept, then, as a poet, that you have to relinquish some control, that the meaning of a poem isn’t just yours but the reader’s?

MP: I think there’s actually a tension in contemporary poetry between (and this is stating it quite baldly) those who want to regain control of their experience and render it in the poem authentically and repeatably, and those who see poetry as a way of reaching into language itself, to all corners of its mystery and consciousness, so as to explore what a poem might not quite be able to say but points towards. One could argue that those two areas of poetic enterprise are fairly distinct at the moment.

GT: May I ask about language in poetry? Does scientific language have a particular use or interest in your poetry? Is it different from other kinds of language?

MP: Yes. There’s something about scientific language – such as Latin names, or the slightly untenable position that some scientific words hold in your mind when you first hear them – that’s wonderful, and that you can exploit. But you have to be careful not to name-drop, not to plop scientific words in, simply for effect. That’s rather gratuitous, and gives the semblance of being connected to science without getting underneath what those words and phrases really direct us to in the science.

GT: When you use scientific language and scientific concepts, are you using the science as a metaphor for other things, or for the interest of the science itself?

MP: I might be unusual in this, but I find that my main desire in writing a poem is, in some ways, quite similar to the desire I had to be a physicist, which is to get to something that can’t be found easily. I’m not looking anymore in poetry for something that can be said easily, that can be pointed to rather like a planet in the field of view of a telescope, defined in terms of its spectrum and so on. Actually, that’s one reason I went into my particular branch of physics, an area that was little known and little explored. Optoelectronics at that time was an opening field, and I was interested in that kind of ‘Waste Land’ of ideas that nobody had really gone into yet. I suppose, with language (including scientific language), I’m trying to do the same. I’m exploring that old/new path of the Modernists, which is to say that language is inexhaustible, language has an infinity of undiscovered possibilities. For me, this goes far beyond logical concepts, or even metaphor. We’ll never have the ‘Grand Unified Theory’ of language, but we can revel in – and investigate in our own time – as many aspects of language as possible. And I mean all of language, in all its fuzzy richnesses and precisions.