Monday, May 31, 2010

Jessica Goodfellow on Clocks and Chronospecies

“species: empty:” is the 18th of 30 poems in a cycle about a marriage. Both it and “clock: rules:” describe a period in the marriage when one partner has left temporarily and is incommunicado, and the other partner is in the unenviable state of waiting, but not sure for what.

One constraint I imposed on the cycle was that the title of each poem be two words: the first word being the second word of the previous poem’s title, and the second word being the first word of the title of the subsequent poem. This constraint had some unintended consequences. In particular, I reached the 18th poem and found that I had run out of things to write about species, having paid scant attention during biology courses in school. Consequently, I wrote a clumsy poem and moved on, ignoring the problem as much as possible.

When I had nearly completed the cycle and could no longer avoid the 18th poem, I was still flummoxed. I considered going through the 17th poem and finding a different keyword to put in its title, thus releasing myself from the necessity of thinking any further about species. But remembering the Paul Valery quote (as attributed by Reginald Gibbons), “poets are those to whom the difficulty of writing gives ideas, not those from whom it takes them away,” I started researching the meaning of species (with a heavy sigh, I might add).

When I found the definition of chronospecies, I saw that it fit into the cycle on at least two levels. First, since “clock: rules:”, the 22nd poem, was written chronologically before “species: empty:” due to the problems mentioned above, I knew the cycle was headed towards a consideration of timepieces. A clock is an instrument that measures the passing of time, and so a species is a clock, but really, I can’t think of many things that aren’t. Second, the missing marital partner has returned to the ancestral home in what feels to the left-behind partner like a turf war between allegiances and families, between the eras of childhood and adulthood, between hometown and current home, a schism strong enough to suggest even a difference in species across inhabitants of those times and places, even when one inhabitant is the same being.

It is easy to connect the dots between clocks and rules, between the calculations of time and the laws of nature. But since “clock: rules:” is more about waiting than about timepieces, I began to wonder about the rules of waiting: who makes them, and can they be broken, and if so, to whose advantage. The suspended state of waiting seems both continuous and endless, and yet the concurrent passage of time, as measured in hours and minutes, seems to be disjointed, ruptured. The list-like form of these poems I hope captures that tension.

My sincere thanks to the Beloit Poetry Journal for publishing these poems.


  1. I enjoyed this discussion, Jessica. While poetry is a great puzzle, I enjoy reading the background of how you create your poems, and find the content to be completely catharctic.

  2. It's wonderful to read these stunning poems and then get a peak into your process. Very interesting construction of form behind these wonderful poems.

  3. A fascinating look behind the scenes and further insight into your brilliant poetry. I also found a wonderfully informative Caltech article about your history and approach to poetry:

  4. I love the behind-the-scenes look at these poems, especially in light of the theme of marriage--desire and restraint inherent not only in subject but in form. How did you settle on 30 poems? I'm wondering if it's because that's when the cycle felt finished, or because if one is married then that implies "in the middle of" --or the exact half of a clock.

    Whatever the case, these poems are stunning even without explanation. Thanks, Jessica and Beloit!

  5. Jessica GoodfellowJune 1, 2010 at 9:36 PM

    Thanks, Deborah and Judy, for your encouraging comments. I too love to read about the processes behind writing. Beloit’s blog is a terrific resource for having a peek into the minds of lots of innovative poets.

    Mary, thanks for noting the Caltech interview. It was an interesting piece in which two of my worlds, poetry and quantitative analysis, collided.

    Which segues nicely into Erin’s question about the choice of the number 30. It’s a great question, Erin, since I have an almost personal relationship with, or perhaps more accurately a personal response, to most numbers. When I started this cycle, I had the interlocking title structure I described above, and I had the number 52. I meant to write 52 poems, representative of the 52 weeks in the year, all in the voice of an individual ruminating on the interconnectedness of everything, and the individual’s inability to see anything outside of the framework of the self (sort of a ho-hum theme, but it was what was on my mind). However in the 3rd or 4th poem or so, a second voice suddenly showed up, and by the 7th or 8th poem, it was clear my two voices were married. And soon there was an implied narrative going on behind the poems. I hadn’t intended any of this to happen; it was a huge surprise to me. By the time the poems numbered in the late teens, there was a crisis in the relationship. An ambiguous resolution in the poems in the late 20s let me know I wasn’t going to make it to 52 poems.

    Meanwhile, I had also meant for the title of the last poem to finish with the word that began the first poem’s title, to make the interlocking titles cycle back to the beginning. I always had two or three poems in progress simultaneously, and the titles to the subsequent two or three poems already figured out. So when I saw the crisis coming to its uneasy resolution at the same time that the titles naturally led back to the title of the first poem, I knew I was done. I felt a bit bereft at giving up the number 52, so I did a bit of padding to get the number of poems to 30, because the number 30 still had a slight connection with time, as you noticed, Erin, with 30 seconds being half a minute, half a clock. Half. Which, as you cleverly noted, when talking about a marriage, is an interesting word.

  6. Hi Jessica,
    I enjoyed this discussion too, and to see the insights into your process; I love the quote too by Paul Valery and can see how your 'difficulties' turn into poems, and can almost see a new poem arise with pairs of words from your essay, there is so much intrigue in the descriptions and one thing leading to another...
    BTW, 18 is my favorite # and 17 is a number that I pair well with so it was interesting to see those two appear in one of your paragraphs here. Best wishes and happy writing,

  7. Hi Jessica:

    Maybe there is also a time connection between the number 30 and the 30 days (roughly) in a month?

  8. Jessica,
    To me, an essential function of poetry is to disrupt the habitual routes thought takes so as to clear the way to fresh perception. In your germinal poem “A Pilgrim’s Guide to Chaos in the Heartland,” published in the Summer 2004 issue of the BPJ and accessible in our online archive, random numbers serve this function by graphically interrupting the verbal text. Yet, as this discussion indicates, numbers also serve to generate the formal—i.e. predictable—structure of your work. How do you describe to yourself the role numbers play in the creative tension between order and its disruption?

  9. Oh, I like that Lee just referenced your first collection here--I hadn't thought back to that specifically, but it's right on! Order and chaos. . .

    Thanks for telling about the process, and about being surprised by this narrative and the characters who drive it. Can't wait to read the whole cycle.

  10. How better to nurture the moments than with assiduous attention to the care and feeding of time? I'm intrigued by the attempt to use developing technology to date absolute events, such as efforts to use the results obtained from the VLT telescope to date the age of a star.

    I love the way the way that cyclical events connect us to the reality of time, or at least the real sense of perceived time we experience. I live in the northern part of Texas in the USA--a place without mountains or ocean or the other majestic reminders of erosive time and its igneous or granitic fuels and remnants. Here I content myself with the changes of plants and birds as the seasons pass.

    My favorite hiking trail is called Trinity Trail, on which I walk a 9 mile roundtrip over flat land punctuated by scraggle woods by a large lake. Each week that one walks on this trail in the Spring, Summer and Fall, the wildflowers alter and develop. The January lull, fairly short-lived, creates a seeming moment of barren wasteland--but it is just a pause, a perception of drift rather than nature actually cast out to sea.

    Time as a metaphor for relationships offers its own clocks disguised as gods. I wonder, though, if in relationships a dash of January is all too often mistaken for death itself,
    and if even the heat of Summer leads one to forget the wonderful wildflowers of the Fall.

    On Saturday I saw a tri-colored painted bunting, fleetingly, in my binoculars. In January the bird might instead have been
    a ruby-crowned kinglet. Year round I hear the caw of the crows. If I draw too many conclusions from what I see, I might think the world--or a relationship, is all bunting or crow. Yet the complexity is so much more rich--and difficult.

    I like the way that this poem uses timing and instructions, as if all problems are about timing, and instructions.

  11. Jessica GoodfellowJune 3, 2010 at 12:26 AM

    JGY, I'm glad I'm not the only person who has personal responses to specific numbers! As for using difficulties as starting points, I have to admit I have been encouraged in the past by well-meaning people to seek the path of least resistance. Due to some perversity in me, I have never actually tried this strategy. It may work better than seeking out difficulty, and be less painful, but I couldn’t really say at this point.

    James, yes, I like the suggestion of periodicity, of repetition, in your reference to 30 days per month roughly. My younger son’s favorite joke these days is the old one, Q: Which month has 28 days? A: All of them. Using lunar months as a reference, I guess I could have stopped at 27, 28, 29, or 30 poems, depending on which definition of lunar month I used (assuming the number of poems would have to be an integer, and wouldn’t it be interesting if we didn’t assume that?—but that’s for another day). Anyway, in the case of choosing the number of lunar months, it wouldn’t be the number specifically, but its suggestion of periodicity, which is valuable, and which works well with the cycle idea. Thanks for pointing that out.

  12. Jessica GoodfellowJune 3, 2010 at 12:30 AM

    Lee, your question is one I probably cannot answer. Like many people, my attraction to numbers began when I was very young, as a way to categorize and find order in the world. The periodicity of certain qualities in numbers pleased me then (and still does now). But a very good way to illustrate chaos is to show a string of numbers in which there is no apparent pattern. And for those of us attracted to numbers as a kind of control over the randomness of the world, as a paradigm for understanding the world, that’s scary. That’s what the big search among mathematicians for patterns in the digits of the number pi is all about; that’s the fascination. (Okay, I’ve grossly oversimplified the meaning of the search for patterns in pi. Here’s a great article if you are interested:

    In the poem you mentioned, Lee, one of the epigraphs I used was William A. Dembski’s “We know what randomness isn't, not what it is.” If you can find a pattern, it’s not random. If you can’t find a pattern, it may or may not be random. So the tension in numbers between order and randomness is already there, existing as a kind of microcosm of the tension between order and disruption in the larger world. It’s a source of creative momentum because that’s all we can do in response to the discomfort and unknowingness we feel in this uncontrollable world: create something that demonstrates control, or something which mimics the lack of control we experience. Numbers work as well as any other impetus in the crazy world, and since they are a vocabulary I am familiar with, I use them. Happily their qualities suggest form as well as content, which might be one creative strength over other sources of order/disruption dichotomy. That was a rambling answer which probably did not go anywhere, yet another demonstration of disruption in attempted order.

    Erin, thanks to both you and Lee for pointing out the connection of these pieces with previous work. I really hadn’t considered it, but I see it now.

    Gurdonark, thank you for sharing your beautiful description of wildlife as a clock, as a demonstration of the cyclical. I’ve never been to Texas, but have noticed that timelessness that you mentioned in other stark landscapes. As you said, time is more complex and rich than most of us, viewing it from points within it, can probably grasp. I’m guilty of seeing everything as a problem to be solved, if only the right instructions can be found, as you noticed. It’s a paradigm which is often limiting and unhelpful, but I hope the tension in seeing the passing of time as a problem, rather than a condition, has resulted in something interesting. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.