At 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning, I boarded the research vessel Centennial, along with a crew of poetry students, science students, established poets, and established scientists. We were on a two-part mission. Part 1: Find and bring back a poacher fish (aka alligator fish), alive. Part 2: Write down stuff that catches our ear and eye.
The poacher is distinctive for its armor. It has bony plates for scales, which makes it resemble an alligator. Adam Summers, associate director of the University of Washington's Friday Harbor Laboratories, who was on the boat, is interested in studying the poacher because its armor developed under three selective pressures. (1) Defense: The bony plates and a spiky bone below its eye make it nasty to eat. (2) Movement: Somehow, the fish has to move in this armor. (3) Communication: The poacher can click its bony plates together to "chat" with other poachers. Summers wants to get one, scan it, and figure out how it's doing all that.
On the boat, Captain Craig Melvin showed us how to not fall overboard and pointed us to the cables that could cut us in half. Then we unmoored, navigating past the kelp forest and into the San Juan Channel. Marine operations manager Meegan Corcoran dropped an otter trawl (a long black net equipped with lead weights) to the bottom of the sea 120 meters below us (a little longer than a football field), scraped the bottom, and pulled up the net. The first haul contained about 14 shells and a clump of kelp.
"Didn't fish right," Captain Craig said. The net was "flying," which is what happens when the boat moves too fast with too little rope out. He said we'd have to drop the net on the way back and see if we couldn't get a better haul. When we did, we did. The ample findings were dumped onto the boat's metal sorting table.
Our crew crowded around the table and sorted through spot prawns, spider crabs, big purple urchins, curly rhino shrimp, slime stars (a starfish that extrudes a pink slime that suffocates attackers), and skate. A guy in a Seahawks hat announced he found a poacher, held it up for all to see, and then threw it in the collection tank. Mission accomplished, we dumped the rest of the catch and headed back to the labs.
Students collected and cataloged the new specimens and posted their literary findings to a corkboard in the chow hall for all to see. "He doesn't like fishing, but he likes catching," one read.
The Poetry and Science Symposium at Friday Harbor Labs, now in its fourth year and organized by Katie Ogle and Elizabeth Cooperman, is an annual meeting that pairs the seemingly dissimilar animals of science and poetry. Over the course of a quarter at UW, poets study in the marine biology labs, go out on research vessels, and collect and describe specimens used for research. Scientists study creative-writing strategies in poetry workshops.
Students poke and prod at sea squirts, metaphors, decorator crabs, sentences, and work toward answering questions that interest them. In early November, all convene to present the state of their current projects at the symposium, and, of course, to sing sea chanteys.
These presentations are the opposite of TED Talks. Instead of reducing the world to a single problem and claiming a 14-minute PowerPoint presentation will solve it, these fledgling and established academics practice what John Keats called "negative capability," which is one's capacity to rest in "uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." This mode of thinking inspires rather than forecloses thought.
The heart of the task for scientists and poets isn't to solve a problem, necessarily, but to ask a really interesting question. A sample of the questions at issue this year: How come different sharks have different kinds of teeth? Can a robot write a poem? How big is the world for a rockfish? Does every albatross fall in love? Are plosive sounds more attractive to employers than nasal sounds? Why do we associate "up" with happiness and "down" with sadness?
Trying to answer those questions takes talent, determination, and expertise, but above all it takes imaginative thinking. To answer the shark tooth question, for instance, Adam Summers worked with scientist Katherine Corn to fabricate shark teeth and attach them to a sawzall (a robot shark jaw they dubbed a "Jawzall Mark 1"), which they used to methodically saw in half scores of salmon and dead baby seals.
After doing this, Summers and Corn learned several things. Some teeth cut fish better than seal. Teeth dull within four contacts with prey, some even fewer. They don't know this for sure, but some shark teeth seem to be only single-use devices. They also learned something that they didn't expect to learn: You can't manufacture shark teeth. The shark tooth achieves its sharpness by adding material, and we can achieve sharpness only by removing material.
When the scientists drop metaphorically resonate facts like those, the poets reach for their pencils. They're here not only to learn about science but to glean sentences like "teeth and tears are the only true solids and liquids in the body." They're looking for inspiration, and marine biology offers a wellspring.
The science students learn from the poets, too. At the symposium, Summers told those assembled that the writing workshops and presentations help the scientists use language in ways that make their research sound more compelling. If you can make the night life of the rockfish sound irresistible, then you have a better chance of getting published. Since he started working with the poets, his crew has published more work—plain and simple.
The symposium isn't only a culmination of several weeks of work by scientists and poets. It's a continuation of a conversation Professor Richard Kenney started in his creative- writing classes at UW nearly a decade ago. (Full disclosure: I studied with Kenney when I got an MFA at UW.)
According to Professor Kenney, one of the main quandaries at the core of poetry is this: Language is really good at communicating provisional information, but it sucks at conveying emotional information. Stated as a plain English sentence, the best thing or the worst thing that ever happened to you carries the same weight as directions to a taco truck.
Language distances us from our emotions, but language is the medium through which the poet must evoke emotion. If you're trying to make somebody cry, laugh, or just be generally interested in what you have to say, then you have to appeal to the senses, drum on limbic systems, move people. But how can poetry do that? Which tools work, and how and why do they work?
To answer this question, Kenney incorporates concepts and research from the fields of cognitive linguistics, evolutionary psychology, and biology. Using those scientific materials, a few essays he borrows from Robert Frost, and, of course, poems, Kenney opens up several scientific/literary rabbit holes into which his students descend. He sends them with paper and pen, asks them to look, then to look again, and then to report back honestly, beautifully.