Last month, I was part of a featured reading at the magnificent Venue on 35th in Norfolk (still the BEST open mic ever), where the audience was invited to ask questions. I’d closed my set with a poem called “hometown” (which draws in part on the terminology of theoretical physics), and a man asked a question that was equally delightful and disarming:
When did you realize you were in love with physics?
I answered poorly in the moment and have since thought and rethought what I wish I’d said…which is, I’m not sure I am in love with physics, but I do adore science with some madness. And maybe that’s the same thing.
Science is so like poetry, really. I mean, don’t both pursuits demand an obsessive curiosity? Aren’t their practitioners more like devotees? Aren’t poets and scientists equally nerdy and more than a little inward?
And my sweet Apollo, the metaphors! Science is rife with them, and poets eat them for breakfast.
Poetry on Demand and the Science of Beer
Which is why I try never to miss the night, every few months or so, when local poets crash an event called Science Cafe—a monthly lecture series at the NC Museum of Natural Science.
This time, the topic was “The Science of Beer,” presented by Erik Myers, head brewer at Mystery Brewing Company in Hillsborough, NC (whose pub, I learned, not only hosts a monthly book club but also has no televisions…reason enough to make it my new favorite place).
As I’ve done before, I joined a few other members of Raleigh’s Living Poetry group to listen to Erik’s talk and write a topical poem on the fly. After the presentation and Q&A, we took the stage to share our freshly brewed work.
(See what I did there?)
As you might imagine, the experience is quite different from an open mic. The audience didn’t come for poetry per se, but the shared experience always seems to put them in a receptive frame of mind. And they seem to appreciate how we poets pull phrases and concepts from the talk and play with them in our non-scientific ways—with much fondness frothing over.
It helps, I suppose, that you can’t write a poem too long or too ponderous in 45 minutes.
The museum live-streams Science Cafe each month and keeps an archive. You can watch the lecture and performances here. (The poetry happens in the last 5-7 minutes, but to get the full effect you really should watch the whole thing.)
I’ve since edited the poem (just a little), which you can read here.
But Back to Science and Poetry…
Indulge me in a little experiment:
Imagine you’re introducing yourself at a party and someone has asked what you do. Now say the words, “I’m a poet” or “I’m a scientist.” Feel that strange mix of reverence and shyness—like you just borrowed the hat of person with some grave responsibility and you’re not sure it fits?
Yeah. I feel like that most of the time.
When I tell someone I’m a poet, I wish with equal strength that he’ll (a) look super-impressed and ask me to recite one of my poems on the spot, or (b) ask for directions to the men’s room so I can slink away and join a nearby conversation about the weather. And I’m willing to bet that scientists do too. At least sometimes.
We are lovers of mystery and intimate detail and once we get going, we can be hard to stop and we know it’s more than some people are really angling for.
For us, nothing is too small and nothing is too large. We would explain the universe, time the five heartbeats of an earthworm, and draw lines around death. In the name of poetry or science (which is to say love), we would magnify a grain of sand, circle it and circle it again with arrows and flashing lights, and commit it to memory. Later, we would name it after our children. Or vice versa.
Because it’s just that damn important.