Jan Conn was brought up in Asbestos, Quebec. She now lives in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and is a professor of Biomedical Sciences whose research is focused on the genetics and ecology of mosquitoes. She has published seven previous books of poetry, most recently Botero's Beautiful Horses (2009). Whisk, with Yoko's Dogs, is forthcoming 2013 from Pedlar Press. Please visit http://yokosdogs.com/
INTERVIEW WITH JAN CONN
Published in Contemporary Verse 2 Volume 30 Issue 3 [included here with permission from Sharon Caseburg and CV2]
Sharon Caseburg: In addition to being an award-winning poet, you are also a research scientist and geneticist. Given your varied subject matter and the execution of many of your poems, you obviously see a relationship between science and poetry. How do you define this relationship?
Jan Conn: I am a very visual thinker, so I think of a Venn diagram (two overlapping circles), with areas outside the overlap that are specific to each of poetry and science. Saturation with and concentration in subject matter, and intuitive associations, can lead to breakthroughs in both disciplines. Experimental design in science is often very creative, and novel insights that lead to the resolution of complex scientific problems are sometimes discovered when the conscious mind, full of relevant, detailed information, is allowed to drift or rest and subconscious images or even formulae surface. Since the beginnings of oral poetic tradition, dreams, both nighttime and daytime, have been fertile ground. Inside the overlap resides concise use of language to communicate information as clearly as possible, whether it be a state of mind, a mood, an aural or visual image, a new technology, description of a new species, an advanced computer program, or new evolutionary data about the effects of global warming.
Certainly a common practice is the editing process, with numerous revisions, in a scientific manuscript, an individual poem and a poetry manuscript. Another common area is the concept of newness. "Make it new" is a well-worn maxim from Ezra Pound but it still resonates, I think. It is certainly a vital and critical component of science (consider: a new discovery, a new idea, a new concept). A goal for scientists who train graduate students is to push them as far beyond their own training as possible. To move or break through boundaries. This is also something we applaud and reward in poetry. Yet another area of overlap is the high value placed on broad reading/literature review for background knowledge and a possible place to begin a new inquiry (in science) or to experience the breadth of language use and form worldwide (in poetry). Inspiration and history are important, actually they are crucial, to both.
An example of how I used a scientific concept in a poem is found in "The Clipped Language of Mathematics." I was playfully exploring concepts of n=1 (a sample size of one) that is too small in biology to do a statistical analysis because normally it can't be used as a representative of a population, but in poetry the singular is celebrated.
SC: What made you want to be a scientist?
JC: I think there were three key influences. My interest in doing fieldwork was affected by summers spent on Lake Brompton in the Eastern Townships of Quebec with my family until I was seventeen and moved to Montreal to attend CEGEP. There were five of us children, almost enough for a small tribe. We all learned to swim, sail, canoe and fish. My father was a successful mining engineer who conducted national and international geochemical and geological fieldwork nearly all his working life. And he had spent his summers at his family cottage in the Muskoka Lakes area north of Toronto. So I was very comfortable in woods and fields, walking, climbing trees, observing, writing notes.
My maternal grandmother, who lived with us for fifteen years, was an interesting influence. She had been a teacher in England before she and my grandfather emigrated to Toronto, and she excelled in mathematics. She was somewhat stern, but quite independent, and encouraged the development of my math and science skills.
The third influence was my father, who urged me to study science. This succeeded only through the end of high school. When I moved to Montreal to attend CEGEP at Loyola College, I rebelled and enrolled in an all-arts curriculum. After two years I had found no clear direction-I was equally interested in archaeology, history, english and psychology, so I decided to find a job. I don't recall why or how I found my way to becoming a quality-control laboratory technician at a pharmaceutical company, but I soon realized I had to have more training and education to have the luxury and freedom to do what might really interest me.
I also travelled to Peru and Bolivia on my own, an incredible experience and adventure at age twenty-one. When I came back, still undecided, I reconsidered science. I spent three days in a fever, trying to do calculus problems and wrestling with whose decision this was: mine or my father's. Somehow, at the end of three days, I owned the decision, but it wasn't until I audited an entomology class that my brain lit up completely. Insects are absolutely gorgeous, endlessly fascinating, and challenging. I conducted research on pheromone ecology of bark beetles at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia for my MSc, on systematics and population genetics of Central American blackflies at the University of Toronto for my PhD, and finally settled on mosquitoes.
SC: Being a scientist, why do you elect to use the poetic form when practising creative writing? Why not write creative non-fiction or other genres of prose instead?
JC: When I was a teenager I was quite certain I would be an academic, and I thought I would have only small blocks of time available, so poetry seemed like a natural fit. My father sent postcards from his trips abroad with brief, vivid descriptions of his surroundings and experiences; I probably internalized these as a model for my own subsequent travel notes, many of which eventually became poems. Also, when I moved to Vancouver to pursue graduate work, I lived with my brother, David Conn, a writer and librarian. Many of his friends were poets, and some of them became my friends too. The poet Jane Munro generously invited me to become a member of a writing group, and I eagerly accepted. I have subsequently trained myself to write on planes, buses, on boats, in cars. I have written some natural history essays, but I didn't find them or the process creatively satisfying enough. Perhaps doing the research for the essays is too similar to reading and thinking about scientific manuscripts.
Poetry is wide open, it is at the vanguard of language, and I find this immensely stimulating. I love rhythm and sound in language, and poetry has both melodic forms and the possibility of playfulness (rhymes, assonance, alliteration, and so on) within a line.
In a recent interview with Mavis Gallant, Stéphan Bureau asks her whether she thinks there might be a link between an author's nature and his or her chosen mode of expression (in her case, mostly short stories). She says probably, and this feels accurate for me. Of course, many authors do more than a single genre, but I prefer to go deeper and deeper into poetry; I believe it fits me best.
SC: Why is poetry a good form for the topics you wish to explore?
JC: I don't consciously set out to focus on topics when I write poems. I write out of a deep desire to communicate, to startle, to move readers emotionally, to stretch or enhance their perceptions. I have a strong and vivid imagination. The poetry related to family and my mother's suicide, mostly found in What Dante Did with Loss (Vehicule, 1994), was especially cathartic, but also tremendously painful. Once that work was completed, I felt much freer, imaginatively, to concentrate on the wider world, which of course had been there all along. Suites of connected poems, like Amazonia, and whole manuscripts, such as Jaguar Rain, were not possible for me when I was younger and much more self-absorbed. Now the pleasure of deep and imaginative projection into other worlds and people's perceived lives is enormous. I am very curious and empathetic. At one point I tried writing natural history essays about Margaret Mee's Amazon, considering the possibility of including them in Jaguar Rain. But they were simply unsatisfying; they broke no new ground.
SC: Who would you cite as your poetic influences?
JC: My influences are wide-ranging and have changed and evolved over time. When I was really getting started in Vancouver, Pablo Neruda (Chilean) for his leaping associations and sensuality, Gary Snyder (American) for his inherent Buddhism, and Antonio Machado (Spanish) for his lyricism, irony and metaphysics were essential. While I was in the throes of working on the family poems, I found Robert Lowell, Sharon Olds and Louise Glück, all American, each indispensable, because they taught me to feel and say things in voices I had not had the courage or perhaps ability to explore previously. Two Canadian poets, John Thompson, for his striking and despairing ghazals, and Sharon Thesen, for her remarkable lyrical voice, were crucial influences in the shaping of the new poems in Beauties on Mad River, Selected and New Poems (Vehicule, 2000). I was seeking a different voice, and they provided the inspiration I needed. Jaguar Rain was written over four years, and I found Anne Carson (Canadian), with her bold and creative language use and tremendous imagination, and Elizabeth Bishop (an American who lived many years in Brazil), a masterful poet on many levels, to be most important.
SC: How do you balance your creative writing and your demanding profession?
JC: I write or read poetry nearly every evening for a minimum of an hour, and I spend all of either Saturday or Sunday writing, reading, editing and submitting poems. When I travel I basically divide my time on airplanes etc. between the two. I always carry science work (manuscripts, grant proposals or theses to review or revise) and my poetry notebook and one or two books of poetry I am reading or rereading, and hope to find inspiring. Both science and poetry provide me with enormous pleasure. I feel astonished that I have two passions in my life, and I am immersed in and nourished by both of them.
SC: In poetry, many writers find the power to reflect human physicality-both anatomical and the body's conditions. You have been doing this in your writing for well over a decade. You open What Dante Did with Loss with "Trop De Vert," a fantastic example of this, and fill the volume with numerous other pieces that engage with a discourse of the body. For example, "Between Tofino and Ucluelet," and "The Side Effects of Marriage + Malaria" among others. What is it about the physical that you find necessary to explore?
JC: I think part of my focus on the physical is because of my history of sexual abuse (as a child by a gang of adolescent boys, and as a teenager by a rapist, a stranger), which I have found extremely difficult to write about directly. I have noticed in myself and other people with similar experiences an extreme sensitivity to the physical presence of other people, to touch and physical boundaries, and I still find it very easy to become dissociated. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in her book Women Who Run with Wolves ,writes powerfully and eloquently about the stone child, one who has been abused, but learns to use this new sensitivity to create something unique. So writing about it has helped me to stay inside my body and not live entirely in my imagination, which I could easily do. Also, something Anne Carson wrote about in "The Glass Essay" in Glass, Irony and God where the narrator recounts the intense dreams/visions she has after the end of a tumultuous love affair to a therapist, who asks her why she stays with these visions that are quite violent and painful, why she doesn't go away. The narrator says something like "Go away where?" which I feel sums it up pretty succinctly. At the same time I recognize the strong pull and vitality and sensuality of body work, which I have done extensively.
SC: How does performing "body work" affect your writing?
JC: Body work was a vehicle for me to diffuse my anger, which was sharp and debilitating. It took me many years to recognize and accept my anger at my mother for her abandonment of us; primarily because I don't philosophically disagree with suicide. So I was attempting to bridge these two very conflicting feelings, and I found tremendous release in being able to work some of the anger out in a way that was not psychically damaging to either myself or anyone else. The sexual abuse, naturally, enraged me. I don't believe there is any such thing as closure. These kinds of events completely transform people's lives, and have complex, damaging, lifelong effects.
SC: Since your first visit to Brazil in 1987, your fieldwork has taken you repeatedly to South America, and, since 1995, annually to the Brazilian Amazon. This environment has obviously affected your poetry. In 2003, you placed in the CBC literary awards for a selection of your Amazon poems. What role does location play in your writing?
JC: I began to do field research on my first trip to the Amazon in 1987, and this gave me a taste of what it might be like to come to know it more intimately. I then did post-doctoral research in Venezuela from 1988 to 1990 on malaria and the mosquito species that transmit the malaria parasite. Place has always been a strong player for me. When I conduct biological/ecological research in a particular environment with its fluctuating characters of flora and fauna, I develop a special affinity for it. Saturation in the environment takes place, followed by learning to recognize particular species. I feel haunted and compelled by landscape, seascape, riverscape, skyscape, by the exuberant songs and sounds of birds, insects, mammals. I love natural history-it fascinates and absorbs me. I suspect the Amazon is particularly enchanting to me because of its biological diversity, the stories of its early scientists and explorers, the history of the loss of many of its indigenous people, their world views, cosmology, language and customs. I am very curious about the world and I learn it both by experiencing it first-hand and by reading fairly voraciously about it on multiple levels. If the suite "Amazonia" succeeds in conveying some of this, it's because my numerous visits there have resulted in layers of experience I have been able to draw on.
SC: Do you write poetry while in field camps, or do you carry your experiences back home with you, preferring to generate your work in more modern/civilized surroundings? Where are you most creative?
JC: Since my first trip to Peru and Bolivia when I was twenty-one, I have kept extensive travel journals. Sometimes I write poems on my travels in these journals, but more frequently, I write notes to myself and make sketches to use as a cipher later. Sometimes I need to look things up, to read more. Time and distance are the best editors for me.
SC: Jaguar Rain: The Margaret Mee Poems (Brick Books, 2006) is a lush and vivid collection. What was it about Margaret Mee that made you wish to imagine her life?
JC: Margaret Mee was a genius who, although celebrated during her lifetime, has not really received the recognition she so richly deserves. Once I realized that her books included so many well-written descriptions of orchids and bromeliads, and of her extensive journeys into Amazonian Brazil, vivid sketches, outstanding paintings, and evocative photographs, the combination of my interests and her work seemed irresistible. I also discovered that her many sketchbooks, travel notebooks and some of her plants were at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in the botanical library, and also that the botanical garden in Sno Paulo had a collection of both her plants and her earlier paintings of the Atlantic rainforest. I had been given a copy of her remarkable book (Margaret Mee, In Search of Flowers of the Amazon Forests) the year it was published, 1988, but it took me many years to focus on her life, work and art as poetic inspiration. In fact, a British sculptor friend, Cristine Kowal Post, first suggested that we collaborate together in some way on Mee and the Amazon, but she had to drop out early because of a lack of funding, and by then I was hooked.
SC: What challenges did you encounter while rebuilding her life poetically?
JC: I didn't perceive any major challenges. I contacted both the director of Kew, Peter Crane, and Greville Mee, Margaret's husband. Luckily for me they were interested in my project and tremendously helpful. I owe them, Elisabeth Mee (Greville's second wife), and the curator Marilyn Ward and her staff at the Kew library and archives, a tremendous debt of gratitude. I also was helped in the Sno Paulo Botanical Gardens by a curator there, Maria Tomas, and my mosquito systematist friend, Anice Sallum.
If there were limitations to Jaguar Rain in relation to Mee, perhaps they were related to my not probing imaginatively enough into her relationships with the humans she encountered. There are poems in which my transformed Mee addresses her husband, Greville, such as "Blue Silk" and "Serra do Curicuriari," and concerning her relationships with her indigenous guides (e.g., "Pico da Neblina, The Santa Casa") but I was probably most drawn to the way she was interacting with (locating, sketching, studying) plants and animals.
SC: How much of this collection is Margaret? How much of this is you?
JC: I don't really know. The whole focus for me was transformative. The places we both visited in the Amazon and our parallel experiences were one aspect that allowed some of the poems to surface quite easily. Perhaps these poems were more accessible to my psyche, or came to me more quickly, but I wasn't conscious of any difference in writing poems that were more based on my experience vs. hers. "Mountain of Mist and Cloud" felt to me as though I came as close as I could to a hint of her life experience in Amazonian Brazil, and I find it revelatory that this expedition was considered to be a failure in exploratory terms, because they did not reach the summit.
SC: What was the most interesting aspect of Margaret Mee's life that you uncovered?
JC: I felt tremendous admiration for her courage, persistence and determination to rediscover some of the plant species that Richard Spruce, her great mentor, had initially detected in the nineteenth century, but that had not been seen since. I was also astounded by her prescient focus on conservation of whole ecosystems, because I agree with E.O. Wilson, who reminds us that we cannot live profound, satisfyingly human lives without nature. This perspective permeated many of her paintings and her writing. I was also impressed by the importance of colour accuracy to her. On most of her field sketches she wrote the names of the tints and hues so that when she prepared the larger, complete painting at her home in Rio de Janeiro or Sno Paulo, the colours would match what she had seen in the plant's complex ecological environment and would serve as a guide to other botanists and naturalists.
SC: Many of the poems in Jaguar Rain are short (or on the shortish side). Why the economy?
JC: I suspect that my subconscious plays a role in focusing me on the form that is most appropriate, and I had also been reading many different forms of poetry, including haiku. I thought that Amazonian haiku might be especially fascinating to explore. There are three sets of haiku in Jaguar Rain, but they are well disguised. "Small Pink Nebulae" includes my personal favourites. I also felt for the plant biographies (such as "Urospatha sagittifolia"). In order to try to approach the essence of a species, I read a lot of long, detailed botanical monographs, essential for botanists, but perhaps not for most poets. The core of a species is somehow very elusive, perhaps a swarm or cloud of variable individuals, cannot be easily articulated, but the biographies were the closest approximations I could manage. Also, writing in the voice of a flower persona is a huge, literary vein that has been mined for centuries; I wanted to do something in homage to her plant portraits but distinct from them.
SC: Jaguar Rain is alive with rich imagery and is very sensual in its discovery. The poetry in the collection has an almost tactile quality to it. What is your process for giving this tactile experience?
JC: I think it's the Amazon itself. It feeds me. It's so vivid, almost hallucinogenic, and so much is happening, continually, on all sides. I experience sensory overload, but it's vibrant and delightful.
SC: The notes section at the back of Jaguar Rain is fascinating and adds a whole other dimension to the reading of these poems. Not every poet would have been inclined to include so much information about the specifics of her work. What compelled you to do so? How did you determine how much to include?
JC: I am curious, and I love to read and research. Natural Amazonian history is particularly attractive to me, and perhaps also for some readers. Whenever I conduct fieldwork, I always read and examine the environment and its history in all its glories and complexities. I think the notes try to show some aspects of the multiple layers of my own discovery that provide background (sometimes) for the poems. I think it enriches the poems, but I also think the poems stand alone and the notes aren't necessary. I think the danger comes if the poem can't really be understood without the notes, even though Neruda, among others, had a playful respect for the obscure poem. But mostly it comes back to communication, which is why I write. How I decide how much to include is completely intuitive. When my own curiosity is reasonably satisfied, I stop.
SC: Which poem in Jaguar Rain speaks most to you, a modern-day explorer in your own right?
JC: "Amazonian Whites" is my personal favourite. It continues to evoke (for me) some mysteriousness, unexplainable feelings and sensations compounded of experiences Mee had coupled with those I had. It was fun and challenging to explore words and situations in the Amazon connected to the colour white, which is, after all, the presence of all colours.
SC: Are you conscious about form when you write?
JC: This varies with the poem. The haiku were very deliberate, and the prose poems in the first section, Antecedent, were very conscious of themselves in their particular form. I like to experiment and play with form. I am very conscious of the look of a manuscript. I don't want (personally) page after page of poems that all look superficially similar, even if their content is radically different. Often, for me, the form comes after the first handwritten draft. But sometimes I am surprised.
SC: Can you tell us about your current poetic project?
JC: A new manuscript, Botero's Beautiful Horses, was recently accepted by Brick Books, forthcoming in spring 2009. It combines Mexican and Brazilian poems, predominantly, although there is one written in Montreal and another on Mars. Many of the Mexican poems spring from my frequent visits to Mexico since I was about twenty-five. I have been studying Mexican art, architecture and archaeology, informally, since I was fourteen when my father gave me a copy of The History of the Conquest of Mexico and the History of the Conquest of Peru, by William H. Prescott. I wouldn't mind living in the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. It's outstanding! There are over 100 museums in this amazing and difficult city. I also became very interested in and inspired by several Mexican artists, particularly Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, Rufino Tamayo, Diego Rivera, Freida Kahlo, among many others. Mexico is at least as fascinating to me as the Amazon, even though I am not currently doing any scientific work there (some of the work for my doctoral studies was done in Chiapas and Tuxtla Gutierrez, in southern Mexico).
SC: Do you have any advice for aspiring poets?
JC: Read poetry daily, read broadly and deeply, read bilingual editions too for the flavour of other languages. Read poets who are masters, poets better than you. Don't waste time on mediocrity. Write often and write hard. Edit, then wake up and edit some more. Learn to be constructively critical: it's an art.