Friday, September 3, 2010

Karen Lepri on "Root" and "Wave"

The poems “Root” and “Wave” come from a short series, "Meso Cantos," which belongs to a longer body of work made up of groups of these cantos. The label “cantos” is not only a response to The Canon (I was reading Pound, thinking of Ovid) but also a descriptor of how I view these short, lyrical works—I want the poems to sing, to combine rhythms, sounds, and images to produce lyric beauty. The different groups of cantos (Nano, Micro, Meso, Magna), organized by scale, mostly respond to scientific or natural phenomena; however, to borrow from Forrest Gander's writing on George Oppen, they also attempt a “meditative investigation into intersubjectivity,” a consideration of world through the body, through the human eye, through the observer's awe. They are poems of perception that struggle with the question of how and what to perceive in our surroundings: at what scale, according to what theory, in which world?

The "Meso Cantos" derive from what I consider middle forces—somewhere between universe and bacteria—currents, winds, atmosphere, waves, root systems. The elements vary in terms of global reach but are connected by their roles as carriers (of force, water, life) and the wide-scale effects of what they carry. When I write one of the cantos, I begin with two types of material, my own preconceptions and scientific research—though I used the Latin terms in “Root” less for their scientific meanings (which are quite bland) and more for their acoustic zing—the i's, s's, r's. This music elevated what for me is already a wonder—the roots themselves. In the moment of writing, I am often drawn to scenarios opposite to the ideal I initially imagined. I begin to incorporate vulnerability or subtle violence. I feel it is necessary to interfere with flat beauty or my own naïve awe.

The titles are important starting points, but they must transform in order for the poem to work. One of my colleagues once described this type of transformation as “self-revision,” a term I find interesting: the poem revising itself, not the poet revising the poem. In “Wave,” I began with the “real” world and moved into the imaginary. I live on the coast and spend a lot of time watching the waves arrive. I was thinking about where the force that forms the wave originates, if there even is such a place to pinpoint. The unpredictability of waves compared to the very predictable rise and fall of the tide in the harbors and beaches, as well as their unseen forces, led the poem to the incalculable consequences of war and the deep seas’ historic use as nuclear test sites.

With their short stanzas and frequent enjambment, these poems' broken, riddled forms allow space, I hope, for the reader to meditate on an image or to read multiple meanings. I want the poems to move beyond the page, as Barbara Guest has said, as opposed to resting in it. Their success depends wholly on the reader's terrifying leap from page into ___________.

10 comments:

  1. Karen Lepri, If I may, I have no idea what your two poems have to do with "scientific research." You use "Cambium" and "vascular" in "Root," and "aqueous genome" in "Wave." Those are blank terms, and "aqueous" a peculiar adjective to link with "genome." Scientific research is quest. You capture the mystery of trees well in "Root," the awe of the reality of waves in the other poem, and are perceiving your surroundings as you write about nature but not from science. Salud, Dave Steward

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  2. Thanks, Dave for your comment. As a poet, not a scientist, I use the term "research" more generally. It's creative research, not scientific questing. I immerse myself in the lexicon, informative texts, and so forth. It is an "aqueous" process for sure, open to flowing here and there without a strict method, thus the result is a poem, not a theory on the way things are. Thank you for clarifying this business of nature & science.

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  3. Though generally not a poetry-reader, I shall venture to comment anyway. I really enjoyed both of these poems - interesting, thought-provoking, meditative, and -- in a way, spiritual as well. I disagree with Dave- vascular makes perfect sense to pair with root and I found the pairing of "aqueous genome" to be rather clever and interesting. I must admit I had to look up "Cambium." The connected themes seem more about nature and biomedical phenomena than scientific research, though the "nature" lexicon could be considered science in a way. I especially enjoyed reading these before and after the description/commentary provided. Thank you for sharing and keep up the great writing!

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  4. Sure, Erica Anstey, vascular with root does make perfect sense. I didn't say it didn't. It's just that it's an adjective descriptive of nature and not of scientific research. DES

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  5. Karen,

    The subtlety in these poems, the subversion, using the address to conjure image and to leap with abandonment into the last couplet--all of this is ridiculously powerful.

    From "Wave:" If I push here, where will you feel it? / Which village / will cry into the distance? / Troops, march, march. / Underwater, a little bomb; above / black specks of surfers /

    I had to write it out, it is so well-hewn. Thanks so much for teaching us how to move clearly and cleanly, while exposing the violent undertow language forces us to face.

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  6. @D.E. Steward: I'm not sure what the nature of your objection is. Clearly poems cannot themselves do scientific research. Poems could be about the process of scientific research, either from a sociological or a personal perspective, but I don't think that's what Ms. Lepri is interested in here. Actually, all she has said is that she uses scientific research as material for a starting point, and mainly for the music of the language, at that.

    Science is very interesting for poets because it creates a parallel system of conceptualizing the world that is often at odds with our quotidian experiences. We grant that it is in some sense more accurate, more true, than our everyday common-sense notions, but its concepts are often obscure, and its lexicon can be quite alienating. When the concepts are understood, they can be a very rich source of metaphor, and I think both the impulses to do poetry and science arise from the human need to understand the truth behind the superficial experience.

    More than that, though, is the way science seems to make simple declarative statements about what is, but is completely silent about what it all means. Even if a poet is only deploying scientific terminology, and not scientific concepts, they are grappling with science's abstention on the question of meaning. I can read the word "vascular" as making a purely functional claim about the nature of roots. Compare with a word like "veiny" which turns the root into an animal, or possibly even a human. I think a poet who deploys a word in this way is trying to make sense of a scientific conceptualization of the world, and not just describing nature in a general sense.

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  7. Karen, I really enjoyed your thoughts on what it is to carry a thing, and how the act of carrying transforms the vessel. Lovely how your poems enact their own carrying so explicitly, as a visible part of the work. Curious to see the larger structure of this series.

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  8. dominika-kretek, Of course poetry is poetry and hard science is hard science. If Karen Lepri had claimed "scientific perception" or "awareness of scientific realities" instead of "scientific research" as one of the two bases of her cantos, I wouldn't be carping about her terminology. Those two poems themselves are beautiful.
    On a parallelism of poetry and science, all serious intellectual endeavor is clarification. Then there may be something special going on between poetry and science, most good scientists I know and have known evidence quizzical awe at fine poetry – or at least know they should respect it. But then many solipsistic poets could care less where a wave comes from. A nice thing about BPJ is that solipsisms don't often fly here. DES

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  9. Thank you, Megan & Dominika for your interesting analyses. Keeping on poetry (not terminology) I'd love to hear what people think about Megan Snyder-Camp's comment about "carrying a thing." I was not explicitly thinking about "thingness," when writing, but there it went, creeping in. Are people in agreement with Steve Burt on this one? Is "thingness" the "new old thing" for today's poets? Is phenomenology as a starting place passe? How does phenomenology shift as our means of observing (thanks to science!) change so drastically with time?

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  10. As a late-bloomer-blogger, I want to commend Karl Elder's "Ode In the Key of O".

    I feel that no one should have as much fun writing poetry as Karl Elder.

    The poem is a masterpiece with his patented intellectuality, his racuous play on words, and his absolute ear for sound and sense.

    I keep thinking Elder will run out of gas-- having read MANY of his poems-- but I guess he is driving a pure hybrid.

    His work is a bybrid of surrealism, deconstructionism, and any other proper ism that can be thought of.

    Doug Flaherty
    Professor Emeritus
    University of Wisconsin

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