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.