By Joe Ferguson
There are scientific breakthroughs that dazzle the mind--facts and discoveries that make the front page of the New York Times or inspire science-fiction big-screen blockbusters. The process, however, is usually perceived as dull and tedious, rarely inspiring interest or awe. Perhaps that’s why the National Science Foundation created the The Antarctic Artists and Writers program, to give us an idea of how amazing scientific work can be.
I had the opportunity to go to a reading by one of the recent participants in the program, the poet Jynne Dilling Martin. Her book and her experience--adventure, really--were nothing short of fascinating. I sat captivated as she related stories of blistering cold, spending the night in an ice cave as part of her on-site survival training, and the harrowing work of the scientists there. It was the first time I’d heard ooh’s and ah’s during a poetry reading. Jynne took time for this short interview, and I’d be surprised if you didn’t ooh and ah when you read her answers.
JF: Tell us a little bit about the National Science Foundation’s artist-in-residency program.
JDM: The Antarctic Artist and Writers program is a residency run and funded by the NSF. Each year they pick a handful of artists working in various mediums (writing, painting, photography, film, etc) to embed with Antarctic science teams and to create work inspired by what they experience. I proposed embedding with the teams that work with the animals - not only the seals and penguins, but the fish and the unsung microbes living by the billions in the Antarctic soil. I'm endlessly interested in how creatures of all kinds adapt to, and even thrive in, all variety of extreme circumstances. Out of my time there emerged many of the poems in my new collection, as well as nonfiction pieces for Slate, Glamour, and Food & Wine, among other places.
JF: How were you received by the scientists working there?
JDM: The scientists were incredibly generous with their time and expertise. They are under incredible pressure and time crunch: many have just a few weeks of the Antarctic austral summer to collect their data, before flying back home to the US, and they work literally around the clock. You'd think the last thing they'd want to do operating on just a few hours of sleep is explain the mechanics of a spectrometer, or how to sperm a sea urchin, to a poet, but they were unfailingly generous and patient.
JF: What surprised you most about your time there?
JDM: So many things. How the landscape is not white - it is more refracted rainbow, so many colors of blues and golds and purples, as the 24 hour sunlight hits the endless ice. How incredible the staff is - people who are Olympic medalists, have kayaked through Siberia, flown planes in South Africa, and are building a harp out of PVC pipe in their free time. And how humbling it is to be so dwarfed not just by landscape but by a sense of time - how brief and fleeting humans are in the history of our planet. It's driven home when you can actually touch an 800,000 year old ice core, or fossils of plants and animals that once roamed the continent.
JF: Science has very objective, exacting language. How did that affect your work as a poet?
JDM: Science has an exquisitely beautiful language! I couldn't get enough of it. The nematode worms, the fata morgana, amphipods. I also loved the larger questions being asked in a scientific sense that had so much poetic resonance: when an animal dies, what breaks first, the heart or the brain? The fish team was sorting out which of these fail first as a result of global warming, but it's so resonant as a larger question.
JF: How does poetry fit into the SciArt domain?
JDM: I wish there were more poetry that engages with the sciences, rather than falling into the Walt Whitman vein of When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer, which expresses poetic contempt for a technical or empirical understanding of the world. I think the poetic or humanities contempt for science, as a reductive way to see the world, emerges out of fear. The truth is scientists have a vast and detailed understanding of just how weird and beautiful and mysterious this world is, and I do my best as a layperson to learn from them, and to integrate some of their methodology, language, questions and obsessions into my poetry. My favorite poets who incorporate science into their work are Pattiann Rogers and Tracy K Smith, just to give credit to two who are doing it beautifully!
To read the blog that Jynne kept while she was in the Antarctic click here.
To pick up a copy of her book We Mammals in Hospitable Times click here.