Possibilities for Discovery: An Interview with Ruby Robinson

by Sam Solnick

SS: Throughout your collection you use a variety of scientific vocabularies drawn from chemistry, biology, mathematics, medicine and so on: examples range from (I think) Schrodinger’s cat to Sphagnum moss. What are the challenges of engaging with the sciences as a poet and are there ways that you find it particularly useful?

RR: I find it interesting that there still exists a dichotomous approach to thinking about ‘the sciences’ and ‘the arts’. This binary thinking is so pervasive in our culture and often oversimplifies and inhibits possibilities for discovery, understanding and positive progress. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of science reads ‘The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment’. I think the only thing here that possibly separates science from art is the idea of systematic study, which I understand as implying analogous, linear, logical systems. I suppose in poetry we’re working with different sorts of systems – we’re not bound by the same linear thinking. (And I’m sure that scientists have made their best discoveries engaging in bilateral creative thinking – the ‘ah ha!’ moment.) In general, I think it is to be expected that poetry will draw on a complex range of disciplines, ideas and concepts. The challenges are not so much in the science but in the poetry; making a successful poem, whatever the influences or subject matter.

Perhaps there’s also the challenge, in our dichotomous way of thinking, in being taken seriously as a poet engaging in the sciences. Perhaps by making reference to science, we risk a sort of automatic discrediting, as though we’re not ‘qualified’ to speak from a scientific perspective?

I guess there is a risk of misinterpreting science and even of misleading readers by using scientific terminology incorrectly. However, these risks are also alive and well within the sciences and the media, with lots of science being filtered and diluted down to such an extent that the meaning is lost (e.g. the oversimplification of the left and right brain hemispheric function, as discussed by Iain McGilchrist in ‘The Master and his Emissary’). It’s difficult to balance the artistic freedom one has in a poem against the scientific urge for exactness. It might feel like a poem cannot be trusted to tell the scientific truth. However, I go back to the point that poetry and science are not necessarily at opposite ends of the spectrum. I feel that engaging with new scientific knowledge on a fundamental, human, creative level can bring a deeper understanding of and engagement with important discoveries.

Also, it should be said that there are, and have been, many scientists who are also wonderful poets! This is very exciting – as readers we have access to an intimate knowledge of so much of the world that most of us don’t ordinarily witness.

SS: How do you expect your reader to respond to scientific language or concepts that may be quite unfamiliar? Would you expect readers to look them up – the way one might look up any unfamiliar word when reading?

RR: When I’m writing a poem, I’m not really thinking too much about a potential reader’s likely vocabulary or grasp of scientific concepts. I’m just writing what feels right, from my own experience and vocabulary. But once the poem is written, I tend to think readers have a choice. If they find unfamiliar language, there is a choice whether to research the unfamiliar word or concept or not. I would suggest that it is very easy in the contemporary era of instant access to information, to look things up if one decides to do that. There is a worry that one might lead audiences to an oversimplified understanding of science, but this is one of the wonderful challenges of engaging with science in an artistic context, I think. And of course, one can use the complexity afforded in art to challenge common misnomers and encourage readers to question their own understanding of scientific concepts.

I think many people would be familiar with the function of the femoral artery or the liver or heart, vital to human survival. The public understanding of science is developing all the time. It seems a natural progression that we become more familiar with the language used to describe the nervous system, hormones and emotion, so that we might understand ourselves and one another. Poetry is as good a form as any to help develop awareness and understanding, not that it is obliged to do so. If people choose not to look up an unfamiliar word or concept, the poem ought still to carry itself so that readers can still find something in it. Unfamiliar words do at least appeal to those who are drawn to poetry through a fundamental love of language. And let us not forget that there’s a great deal of poetry that uses language and concepts unfamiliar to contemporary audiences but which would have been more accessible at the time it was written, for example metaphysical poetry.

SS: At a reading you gave in Liverpool recently you talked about your interest in aspects of contemporary neuroscience. Could you expand on this a little more in the context of your writing?

Neuroscientific study of traumatic stress in childhood has built an understanding of how environmental factors, most importantly interpersonal relationships, affect neurodevelopmental processes and therefore determine psychological / neurological symptoms in adults. Furthermore, recent study has explored the social aetiology of psychosis, showing a causal relationship between childhood trauma/adversity and psychosis. To put it another way, how we are related to as children affects the structure and function of the brain, causing a wide range of physical and emotional difficulties.

Understanding the complex processes that happen in the nervous system when a human being is under threat unlocks a huge amount of understanding about relationships, mental health, society and politics. Abused and neglected children tend to have smaller corpus callosum than non-abused children. The corpus callosum is responsible for interhemispheric information exchange in the brain. Poor integration of the hemispheres along with underdevelopment of the orbitofrontal cortex – another symptom in abused and neglected children – leads to difficulty regulating emotion, lack of cause and effect thinking, inability to accurately recognise emotions in others, inability to articulate one’s own emotions and an incoherent sense of self and autobiographical history. It’s pretty basic brain science, which innovative schools and mental health services for children are beginning to incorporate into their practice, but it has yet to assimilate into common consciousness or indeed training models for mental health practitioners.
I have explored contemporary neuroscience because it is helpful in my own recovery from childhood trauma, in understanding intergenerational cycles of interpersonal abuse, neglect, loss and separation. It has also helped me to understand and to provide better care for my birth mother who lives with the legacy of chronic childhood trauma herself, as someone with a diagnosis of schizophrenia as a longstanding inpatient in a psychiatric hospital. I write poetry as a way of articulating my perspective on the world, so it is natural that contemporary neuroscience would feature in my writing.

SS: One question that popped into my head a couple of times while reading your poetry was – why is love, of all the emotions, something we feel anxious about discussing in scientific terms?

RR: There has been an air of great mystery around the concept of love, as though it is a magical, mystical phenomenon that can swing the balance of fortune and have a kind of “golden goal” effect, in relationships and more widely in society. I think this is why people are reluctant to think about it scientifically – as though there is an anxiety that love will be reduced somehow by discovering a scientific explanation. But the mystery of love is a trick – we are taught by the media and popular culture, by politicians and religious leaders that love has a remedial effect and can solve problems. The concept of love, just like the concept of religion, can be abused. People hurt each other in the name of love, they expect to be allowed to use their power against vulnerable people in the name of love and this is what I feel so strongly about. When someone is trying to oppress and harm you at the same time as insisting they love you, the result is confusion and paralysis about the meaning of love. It is challenging to call into question what is meant by love; to try and pin it down and quantify it. The idea of love gives people hope but very often it is illusory. People feel a need and a desire to own and control others and they will say that this emotion is love. We can sum emotions up in this inaccurate way, or we can use the scientific understanding of human needs, desires, chemical processes, hormones, interdependency and neurological development to understand human attachment, behaviour and feeling. This is very much more exciting for me as a human being and as a poet than to rest back on the old love tropes we’re used to.

Interestingly, I have just been reading Measures of Expatriation by Vahni Capildeo and come across ‘I Love You’, which has an interesting take on this theme.

SS: Are there any writers: either scientists or figures from the arts who write about science that have been particularly important for you?

RR: Yes – so many! It’s a privilege to be able to mention them. Bessel van der Kolk is a huge hero of mine, along with the likes of Dan Hughes, Bruce Perry, Stein and Kendall, Alan Schore, Dan Siegel, Sue Gerhardt. John Read did some extremely important work here at Liverpool University a couple of years ago, on how early childhood trauma may be linked to psychosis. There are many more excellent and compassionate people out there putting into ‘science’ the importance of healthy relationships on neurological development and therefore developing healthy minds, bodies and societies. A couple of other authors whose work is accessible to the more mainstream audience just beginning to take an interest in neurodevelopment would be Stephen Grosz and Oliver James.

SS: Your background is in the humanities. Do you try and keep up with contemporary scientific research – if so how? 

RR: I read tons of books and journal articles about neuroscience and had I more time I’d read about the natural world more widely also. We should never stop learning.

SS: Do you generally find yourself engaging with the sciences to find answers to questions, or to pose questions?

RR: Very interesting question. I can answer by using the example of childhood trauma and subsequent emotional wellbeing. I’ve always had the knowledge, at a fundamental level, that being treated very badly and experiencing chronic trauma as a young child leads to feelings of self-loathing, shame, self-destruction, a lack of identity, a lack of sense of self, a lack of autonomy, the cutting off of emotions, numbness, anxiety, inability to connect, isolation, somatic illness and ultimately psychosis, paranoia, extreme inability to regulate emotion. I’ve always known, contrary to what people have told me, that experiences and relationships are what shape our emotional and nervous lives but I didn’t have a way to articulate this. So I look to science for help in articulating, for the language and concepts and structures to hang the knowledge onto. The language of science, when spoken truthfully, can be used to give a clear voice to those whose voices have been overpowered or stolen.

Ruby Robinson is a poet whose debut volume Every Little Sound was shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection. She was born in Manchester and grew up in South Yorkshire. Her work has appeared in Poetry (Chicago) and The Poetry Review and she was awarded an MA in Writing from Sheffield Hallam University, where she also won the Ictus Prize.

Read Ruby's poem "Love II" here.