by Bob Stallworthy
A Conversation with Alice Major
about Intersecting Sets,
A Poet Looks at Science
University of Alberta Press
I’ve known Alice Major for twenty-seven years. I first met Alice just after the publication of her YA novel, The Chinese Mirror. Since then she has published 10 books of poetry, published in a long list of periodicals, had her work performed on CBC, been the first Poet Laureate for the City of Edmonton, President of the Writers Guild of Alberta, President of the League of Canadian Poets, Chair of the Edmonton Arts Council, been awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award (2010) and awarded or short-listed for numerous awards including the Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry (Alberta Book Awards) and the Pat Lowther Award (League of Canadian Poets). Alice is a founding member of the Edmonton Stroll of Poets and the Edmonton Poetry Festival.
Alice has been asking some big questions about the world in which she lived since childhood. The questions trace back to the Christmas that she got a chemistry set and her younger sister got the book, Relativity for the Millions by Martin Gardner.
“You know, I think every kid has this interest. Where did I come from? What was here before me?”
The first chapter of Intersecting Sets, A Poet Looks at Science, is “The Frost Feeling”, it prepares the reader to deal with the more complicated concepts in following chapters.
“There is very much an arc, a dramatic arc to the chapters in the book. It starts very close and personal and as the essays move toward the end of the book they become more public with the social questions about both poetry and science. It is almost the process of creating a poem that becomes the arc of the book,” Alice says.
In that opening chapter she says, “The dust jacket, on her sister’s book, had an illustration in blues and purples, in which a spiral galaxy and a distorted clock floated.” When she ruffled through the book the illustrations, often in the same blue as the jacket, gave her the sense of being involved with the narrative of an urban Narnia. “When I read the text, it became even stranger than Narnia. I was asked to imagine being in an elevator in the darkest, emptiest region of space, free-floating. And then to imagine what would happen if an immensely long rope started to tow that elevator cubicle through space. I was asked to imagine travelling in a spaceship as fast as a photon. I fell into this strange geometry, as enchanted as if I had fallen into one of the pools in The Wood Between the Worlds. This book became the basis for a lifelong fascination with physics and cosmology.”
The concepts discussed in Intersecting Sets, A Poet Looks at Science are not, for me at least, ones that I have encountered when talking to other writers or poets. Concepts included: empathy having two parts, closeness and distance, separated by a small gap. Or can the creation of empathy be compared to the forming of hoar frost on trees and leaves and bushes in the garden. Or can one have a yearning which is both the desire to belong and not belonging at the same time. “My hypothesis is that this sensation of feeling connected and simultaneously separate, coupled with the urge to resolve the tension by expressing it, draws on the same brain systems empathy does.”
Among other concepts in the book are the following: is poetry like a hologram? Or points on a line? Or does poetry change the world any more than dropping rose petals down the Grand Canyon and waiting for an echo? Or how can poetry be compared to growing plants one time and growing animals another? These questions make this book a compelling read. And the gift she gives us at the end of the book is the poem that she was struggling to write at the beginning. It sums the book up cleanly. I’ve picked out a few of the ideas that made me begin to think about poetry in ways that had not occurred to me before.
The book is not just a poet musing to herself but is definitely written for an audience. The reactions from people who have read it have been varied on both the science side and the poetry side.
Alice says, “I’ve been quite relieved because one of my big fears was that a scientist would come along and say, ‘This woman does not know what she is talking about’. “The exact opposite has happened. She attended a Poetry and Mathematics conference in 2011 to present a paper based on one of the chapters. While there, she received an invitation to visit Long Island University in New York in 2013. The book has been reviewed in the American Scientist magazine giving it positive and enthusiastic comments.
And the writing/poetry community has reacted in kind. There has been one sour review. Alice says, “My guess is he was from a very post-modern viewpoint in terms of literary theory. That is something I’m trying to shine a different light on. I’m not all that fond of the literary theory that I grew up with.” The book is not a diatribe on post-modern poetic theory. “I think they are both about trying to understand the world. Using different tools often, but trying to analyze the patterns in the world and come to some kind of description of those patterns. So, whether you do it in a poem or in a hypothesis, you’re impelled by the same things and similar attributes of mind; curiosity, love of patterns, love of understanding what causes what.” If it is true, that what the writer wants is to have the reader discover, I never thought of it like that before. Alice succeeds with this book.
In Chapter 4, “Points on a Line”, Alice accepts physicist Richard Fenyman’s idea of the shortest distance between two points being a path. And, that any given path is actually made up of all the possible paths that could have been taken between the two points. This idea Fenyman calls the “sum over histories”. Alice makes the argument that a line of poetry or a poem, for that matter, could be seen in much the same way. “When you read a line of poetry or when you read a poem, there is meaning that we put to that. The thing about poems is that every word, once you get out into the language has its own resonance, its own history. None of this takes away from the idea that I am trying to get some information to you in a way that you will understand. What it does is to amplify the possible meanings. What I’m trying to do when I write a poem is make that straight line but leave this wide yarn of resonance around it so that you can enjoy it more and bring something of yourself to it.”
Surely, this doesn’t happen with all poetry. “Obviously not, and that is the whole point of the chapter. There are contemporary poets out there who are not the least bit interested in getting the meaning across. They want you to construct your own meaning. It is an entirely legitimate thing to do as long as it is not the only thing poetry is allowed to do. The apparently naive assumption that I am trying to say something to you is built very deeply into language, and to throw that out as a legitimate aim of poetry, I think impoverishes the art form. I don’t want to go down that road too far, but yes, it is important to me. I have to be careful, but I do want to talk about this because it was a bit of an issue for me. A lot of what gets handed on to young people in university courses is this assumption that this post-modern thought is the latest thing there is. We ought to be looking at what it is changing into and what influences are changing it.”
And, that leads into the idea of the difference between the expert reader and the naive reader or the educated reader as opposed to the uneducated reader.
Alice says, “I always felt that it was a real disservice to imply that literature was something that necessarily had to be decoded by an expert as opposed to simply experienced. That really got up my nose. It became a way of thinking in my English Literature courses. You were presented with a poem and expected to decode it and your reading, as an expert, would automatically be better than say, my father’s reading, who loved poetry but of course, did not have this contemporary literary power of theory. To call that naive and say that it is worse than the educated reader,that is downright offensive.
David Miles’ studies at the University of Alberta, using tools like FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to indicate that whether one is a university English Literature graduate or a high school graduate, one will stop at the same points in a piece of text to assimilate it. Those points are generally emotional ones or they reflect where devices such as sound, alliteration, and others are used. It doesn’t really matter whether you are experienced in reading or not. It does matter, the more we read the more tools we have to enjoy reading.”
It never occurred to me that the rhyme and rhythm of a poem might, in fact, be compared to the physical symmetry of floor tiles in a bathroom. Alice makes a compelling argument that the comparison is valid.
Nor had I thought about a poem being much like a hologram.
She says, “A hologram is something that has a lot of information but not all of it. You can take half the image away and still get the whole picture. To me, that is very much like writing. Obviously, when you have a good novel you’re not reading every single minute of every single day of the heroine’s life, but you’re still getting something that reliably conveys that life. The same thing happens with our visual and hearing systems. We don’t hear all the wave- lengths there are. That doesn’t mean that what’s left is unreliable information. The whole universe is organized so that we have some reliable information about it even if it is incomplete.” This makes sense to me from the point of view of being hearing impaired.
At the end of the book, we are delighted to find one of Alice’s poems. It’s the poem she hinted at near the beginning of the book. It serves well as a way to pull all the chapters together.
Alice claims, “I started the book by wanting to write a poem. It was actually the day of Barak Obama’s first election. Throughout the book I am laying little clues about how you do that. You get the poem at the end as a kind of evidence of how the brain pulls all these things together. It was a challenge to write these essays full of disparate pieces of information. One of the ways I was trying to do that was to make sure that every essay has a kind of metaphor that circles around. Whether it is the idea of a line, or of roses or the idea of animal versus vegetable journeying, those were all quite carefully chosen so that they could form a centre around which I could organize. The final thing is it is a very personal book. The stories of my father. It’s not quite a memoir but that was one of the other strands that I thought would make it easier for people to read.”
The simple response is, yes it does. This is a book to which I will return.
First published in FreeFall Magazine Volume XXIII Number 2