An Interview with Jo Shapcott

by Deryn Rees-Jones

DRJ: Can you talk a little bit to begin with about your involvement in projects which aim to bring together scientists and poets? Why do you think there is a growing interest in projects of this kind?

JS: I am very curious about almost everything: there is nothing that is not interesting. Any aspect of the world - humans, our interaction with what's around, who's around - is likely to grab my attention. The things that scientists know and the way they know is fascinating. For example, contemporary findings in neuroscience and in physics are changing long-held philosophical views about identity, and about time and space. Who we are and where we live. How could this not be of cutting-edge interest to writers? I think this is why poets are seeking more opportunities to talk to scientists. 

DRJ: I've heard on several occasions' poets drawing the comparison between poetry and science and saying that poets are observers in the way that scientists are.

I've never heard a scientist make a similar comparison.

JS: Yes, you're right; it's an analogy poets have made from time to time. I instantly thought of Elizabeth Bishop's famous Darwin letter to Anne Stevenson in which she admires the quality of Darwin's observation - which she describes in epiphanic terms - and wishes the same thing for art. [I've pasted it here, but I don't suppose we'll be able to quote any of it . . .]

'Dreams, works of art (some), glimpses of the always-more-successful surrealism of everyday life, unexpected moments of empathy (is it?), catch a peripheral vision of whatever it is one can never really see fullface but that seems enormously important. I can't believe we are wholly irrational-and I do admire Darwin! But reading Darwin, one admires the beautiful and solid case being built up out of his endless heroic observations, almost unconscious or automatic-and then comes a sudden relaxation, a forgetful phrase, and one feels the strangeness of his undertaking, sees the lonely young man, his eyes fixed on facts and minute details, sinking or sliding giddily off into the unknown. What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration. (Letter to Anne Stevenson) 8-20 Jan. 1964;'

Bishop is right about what she describes in the letter as the need for 'self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration' in both art and science. But the question of observation is different. Scientists are always guided by the scientific method with its rigorous combination of hypothesis, observation and testing, a method which is accepted across all the scientific disciplines. Poetry had its own rigours, but I don't think there is really an analogy here, which is probably why you won't hear scientists make a comparison between observation in science and art. They're right. But scientists I've talked to are interested in making connections between the nature of artistic and scientific creativity: discovery, invention, originality, imagination. Recently, I was at a meeting with a bunch of scientists whose speciality is climate change. They see the Earth in terms of its systems, complex webs of interdependent factors in which a small change in one part can have a major impact on another. They were very interested in drawing parallels between the world of a novel or poem and the way they thought about their science. 

DRJ: Do you think poets need to work to have an understanding of issues in science, more say than the general reader?

JS: Anyone who is curious and I hope most poets are, will have that hungry attitude - the one that says there is nothing that is not interesting, and almost nothing not worth celebrating. I don't think poets have to understand science but I'd be amazed if their curiosity didn't lead them into wanting to know. I'm actually against writing about science - for the poet it's more that anything urgent within the consciousness will emerge in poems. Because of what the contemporary human knows about herself, inside and out, and knows about the Earth - and because of what humans do it - it would be amazing if some of these urgent nudgings didn't relate to science.  

DRJ: Do you think it is really possible for there to be fruitful dialogues between scientists and poets? Even when a conversation is initiated it often seems to me to be a one way street, that poets have lots to learn from scientists, and that an understanding of science can inform their work, but that it's hard to know what poets have to give in return. Does this matter?

JS: I agree with you - I think I get much more from scientists than they do from me. But I can think of one example where the scientists wanted to make the connection too. The climate scientists I mentioned earlier, are astonished that more people don't understand that climate change will be a huge threat to humanity within the next fifty years. In the worst case, all our lives will change drastically as the climate becomes unstable and other systems - civil society, the economy, for example - follow. They want everyone to understand this - especially the artists, almost as if once that happened it would be proof that the message had truly penetrated the wider cultural consciousness. 

DRJ: The urgency of the message brought to us by the scientists then brings a double dilemma to the poet who on the one hand wants to engage with the complexity of a subject, but who is also in danger of being overwhelmed by the desire to effect change with a poem? There's nothing new in poets feeling the weight of that anxiety. It's a big question, and maybe unanswerable, but how do you deal with that personally?

JS: It is a big, swirling question but here's an attempt at a little, swirling answer. I think a poet probably can't respond in a simple way to the urgency of any message. A poem accumulates more slowly than that in the imagination and less directly. But because we write - eventually - out of everything that touches us it would be amazing if some of these big, public issues didn't emerge in poems. I'm not sure that poems can change things: history would suggest not. But poems do mess with the imaginations of readers, move things around.  

DRJ: I think when we write we do have that desire to redirect the path of someone's thinking, in however small a way.

JS: Yes, I agree - or is it about different ways of seeing, first, then thinking second?

DRJ: Can you say some more? Is this the place - in the use of imagery and metaphor -- where poetry and science have most to share?

JS: I was struck when I first got to know scientists, that many - even most - of their ideas are expressed in the form of analogies. Some concepts may only ever be known by analogy simply because the way we are made makes it impossible for us to grasp them directly. Look at the analogies for light, for example: particle and wave - it's both but neither . . . It's acknowledged now, that our whole conceptual system may be metaphorically based which does suggest that even the scientific method - that famous essence of reason - has its roots in imagination and intuition. 

DRJ: We have recently reprinted an interview with Peter Redgrove on the poetryandscience website in which he says that poetry does a 'Romantic thing' in that it's 'taking you into a world which is enhanced'. He also talks about the fact that when poetry is spoken it's physiological; that it involves what he calls an 'inner dialogue with our physical capacities'. Do you agree with that?

JS: It's a brilliant interview but I think I'd go even further, in that poetry is physiological when it's on the page, as well. The scientists have helped us a great deal here. From neuroscience and cognitive science we now understand that our thinking is 'embodied', that the concept of body/mind duality no longer provides a satisfactory account of the way we perceive. I love this idea and its implications for language: that the images we invent are intrinsic to the way we see the world - according to thinkers like Lakoff, metaphors actually structure the way we think. All this puts poetry right at the centre of our (bodily) experience. 

DRJ: Wordsworth, Goethe, Rilke all pop up in your second book,Phrase Book. how important have they been to you in thinking about poetry and science. 

JS: In Phrase Book, Wordsworth and Goethe (and Byron) turn up in a poem called "On Tour" in which the speaker meets them as she travels over the Alps. Each encounter is different, but they all represent some aspect of the tradition, and the male tradition, at that. It's a theme with variations, if you like, and a record of the speaker's effort to locate herself both in relation to this tradition and at the same time necessarily outside it.  

DRJ: Rilke is an important figure to you as a poet. Can you talk about the importance of his work to you, in relation to ways of "knowing"?

In your work I see an increasing desire for science to offer another route in to talking about the female body. Do you think science still retains a masculine gendering, that poetry in some way counters as a feminine discourse?

JS: I've been inspired, recently, by the work of the artist Helen Chadwick, not least because she offers a route outside the dialectical, deliberately questioning dualistic definitions - 'to weave loops, twists and turns around binary categories,' as she put it. At one stage in her career, having previously made fascinating use of her own body in her work, she decided that she wanted to make art that would question even the duality of male/female, would be more "deft". The body, she said, 'immediately declares female gender and I wanted to be more deft.' So Chadwick would have answered your question by making a work in which male, female, science, poetry were looped together in a way which these binary categories were overturned.


I made a conscious decision in 1988 not to represent my body . . . It immediately declares female gender and I wanted to be more deft. (Helen Chadwick)

It's as easy to make an antibubble in your own kitchen
as it is to open up a crease in language
and reveal what you couldn't say yesterday.
Just a matter of squirting water onto water
without snapping the surface tension until liquid
surrounds a skin of air, surrounding liquid. My body's
a drop of water: its imperfections, its proliferating cells
refracting the full spectrum. These last breaths,
air, water bubbling at my lips. The soap film is my skin:
permeable-for-some-things, membrane, separating-other-things,
this and that, the moving point between, the unsettled
limit, stretching and contracting under the breath
that comes and goes: I am this one, I am that one,
I breathe in and become everything I see. 

DRJ: I wonder can you talk some more about the physicality of the experience of poetry as written or heard, and its connect with this desire to be 'deft' in relation to the body?

Do you think there is a particular tension here in the relationship between poetry and science for women? I don't want to get bogged down in that debate about women and poetry and women poets, which hopefully soon will be an out of date issue. But "Science" -- whatever that means -- has potentially offered women a discourse of authority, even when like Lavinia Greenlaw for example, women seek to question the weight of its narratives.

JS: In my earlier poems in which science got a look in, I was fascinated by its fallibility and by its language. The fallibility is, of course, built in: science will always overturn itself eventually. I like that as a sign that we can only ever know the world in fragments - part of our beautiful human vulnerability. We are all creatures of the Fall. But science now is a hubbub of discourses, not just a single voice. As one climate change scientist said to me, the days of The Man entering the lab, putting both hands on the table and saying, 'This is how it is' are long over. We're looking at interdisciplinary areas of discovery, which deal in models, probabilities and risk, and in fields like particle physics, which throw up concepts to challenge even the Surrealists for messing with what we think we know. The paradigm of authority doesn't really work now, I think. Again, using the climate change scientists as an example, they have a huge amount of predictive knowledge, but NO authoritative voice against the corporate interests which drive the fossil fuel age that we are in now. Otherwise we would all be living very differently. 

DRJ: Do you think that scientific ways of thinking about the world, in for example, asking us to think differently about the human body, will ever radically alter poetic form?

JS: I don't know the answer to this. Because thinking inevitably changes over time, and form changes too, it is hard to make a direct connection between the two kinds of change. But I can give you one example where our understanding of what we write - if not form itself - has changed. What neuroscience is starting to tell us about how the brain works, and about the self - which seems from what we now know to be an embodied self, rather than one existing in a dual world of mind and body - is having a huge impact on philosophy and all kinds of writing, including poetry. I suspect the work you've been doing, Deryn, on women writers and the body shows how the poets have probably understood this all along. 

DRJ: In his Physics and Microphysics (1955) the Nobel Prize winning physicist Louis de Broglie wrote: 'Confronted by the dangers with which the advances of science can, if employed for evil, face him, man has need of a "supplement of the soul" and he must force himself to acquire it promptly before it is too late. It is the duty of those who have the mission of being the spiritual or intellectual guides of humanity to labour to awaken in it this supplement of the soul.' Do you see poetry as such a supplement?

JS: I worry about poetry being given jobs to do outside itself. It may well do those jobs but as an overflow almost incidentally as part of the abundance of poems. I also worry about the putting science and spirit or intellect at opposite poles which is, at its most troubling, the position of creationists and another unhelpful binary perception - it surely ain't that simple. Modern physics very often strays into the spiritual in what it tells us about the universe. 

DRJ: Jo Shapcott thank you very much.