Poet Kathleen Housley has long been interested in science and faith, two topics that feature prominently in her latest book, Epiphanies. We caught up with Kathleen to gain some insight on what inspires her to write and how she manages to navigate the terrain of both modern science and theology to honestly reflect both in her work.
When did you start writing poetry about science and faith—what got you interested in exploring this intersection?
I have always been fascinated by what I call the borderlands between science and faith. When I was a teenager, the two vocations that attracted me were biologist and minister. I didn’t pursue either, but my fascination with both remains to this day. One of the earliest poems I wrote where science and faith come together is titled Aurora Borealis, in which I recall a time in elementary school when I first heard those two Latin words. To me, their “sound alone was wonder, more sung than spoken, evoking a goddess to a triune-bound class, commingling polar darkness and Mediterranean dawn.” The poem probes my expanding scientific understanding and misunderstanding of solar winds, Van Allen belts, and spectral beauty.
In 1999, I attended a conference at M.I.T. sponsored by the Templeton Foundation on artificial intelligence. It opened up for me the vast subject of what was “natural” intelligence as opposed to artificial. Where was the field of artificial intelligence headed? Were humans merely “computers made of meat?” How does human sentience relate to divine sentience? However, it was not until I attended a workshop sponsored by the journal Image that I realized I had the capability to jump boundaries. The workshop on faith and the arts was held at St. Johns College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Concurrently, St. Johns was providing housing for a group of young scientists who were working at the Santa Fe Institute. At lunchtime in the cafeteria, I found that instead of sitting with the faith and art people, I sat with the scientists, asking them about their research, and sharing stories. Only after I returned home did I realize how effortless it was for me to move back and forth between humanities and science.
To write about science when I am not a scientist requires me to approach scientific subjects with as much integrity—and humility—as I can muster, and that means serious, concentrated reading. I read very broadly, and I try not to skim. It is extremely difficult for scientists to stay current in their own highly specialized fields. For me, it is absurdly difficult. But as Plato wrote, the improbable is not the impossible. Besides poetry, I write articles and books on materials science, an arcane field that is way beyond me. My method is reading, reading, and more reading, followed by asking questions of experts to whom I carefully, and gratefully, listen.
What kind of response do you hope your readers will have to the poems in your latest book, Epiphanies? Who do you imagine reading your poems?
It is possible to drown in words. Think of all the non-fiction words written about the supposed schism between science and religion. I feel oxygen-deprived just thinking about them all. Poetry can cut through the jumble by throwing together disparate ideas and letting them ping against each other. It lets in air, enabling readers to engage with the ideas and emotions, instead of telling them what to think and feel. Poetry’s power comes not only from the use of metaphor but also from juxtaposition. For example, in my poem Pavane for a Dead Rover, I combine astronomy, robotics, hero-worship, English literature, Antarctic exploration, even metallurgy; what results from this unusual brew is insight into what it means to be human. The Biblical writers liked to describe the moment of sudden awareness metaphorically as scales falling from the eyes. Good poetry can elicit that response.
I don’t write with a particular reader in mind. To do so would be to run the danger of being didactic, which would be deadly for a poem. There is such a thing as holy skepticism. The root of the Hebrew word Israel is “struggle,” indicating that God expects us to struggle and seek intellectually. Martin Buber wrote in his book Man to Man, “I have occasionally described my standpoint to my friends as the ‘narrow ridge.’ I wanted by this to express that I did not rest on the broad upland of a system that includes a series of sure statements about the absolute, but on a narrow rocky ridge between the gulfs where there is no sureness of expressible knowledge but the certainty of meeting what remains disclosed.”
How have your inspirations to write changed throughout your life as a poet?
My inspiration has always been God and the natural world; less so my own personal life. I want my poetry to expand beyond my day-to-day world, even though that world is full of wonder. And if I fail to sing a new song, as the Psalmist instructs me to do, then perhaps I can riff on an old song in a new way. For example, my poem Psalm for a New Human Species riffs on Psalm 8 and the question “what is man that you are mindful of him?”
If I find that my mind is becoming stale, I start learning something entirely new. I haven’t taken up auto mechanics yet, but there is still time. God does indeed speak in mysterious ways. Our job is to listen.
You’re also an emergency medical technician. How has this experience affected the way you see, and thus, write about nature and the human body?
I could list as reasons for being an EMT such things as compassion, the need to do something worthy, even the chance of being heroic. And they are all true. But there is much more. EMTs see the sick or injured person and the world in which that person lives. They see the night, the slick pavement, the skid marks, the broken windshield, and the panicked child standing beside the road. They see the messy apartment, the glass of milk gone sour, and the phone on the table out of reach of the woman lying terrified on the floor. When the EMT and the patient arrive at the hospital, American medicine, in all its technical array, takes over. Believe me when I say that for me to kneel down beside a sick or injured person, on scene, is to be in the presence of the sacred.
At the moment, I am not riding as a volunteer EMT, though I am still teaching first aid and CPR. By inclination, I am not suited for EMT work. I do not crave the rush of adrenalin. I don’t like driving big vehicles at high speeds. And I hate having to make decisions under enormous pressure. I prefer to have time to ponder, to sit back, to think about my course of action. The immediacy of EMT work is far out of my comfort zone, but being out of that zone is precisely what makes me grow and keeps me real.
What is your writing process like? Do you have any special writing “talismans” on your desk, or certain places where you like to work?
I write in the morning. I read scripture first, usually one page of the Torah in Hebrew, helped along mightily by an English translation. I am not proficient at Hebrew so I have to read slowly, looking up numerous words, puzzling out the verbs. But slowness is a blessing; when I am reading in English I go too fast and thereby miss a great deal.
I have no talismans; I reject the idea of having such a thing. However, my office (Virginia Woolf’s idea of “a room of her own”) is very important. I generate ideas everywhere, but I give them shape in my office. I am also disciplined; for example, I don’t allow myself to check email all the time or to call people on the phone. I don’t listen to music. When I’m working, I’m working.
Sometimes artists and other humanities folks are seen as being apathetic about science. Can you comment on this as one who takes the opposite approach?
C.P. Snow said the following about the importance of having some understanding of science. “Most scientists would claim that you cannot comprehend the world unless you know the structure of science, in particular physical science. In a sense, and a perfectly genuine sense, that is true…It is more justifiable to say that those without any scientific understanding miss a whole body of experience: they are rather like the tone deaf, from whom all musical experience is cut off and who have to get on without it.” He concluded that people who do not possess any understanding of science will not be able to understand the depth of their own cultures.
I agree with Snow, but the problem is that scientific knowledge is expanding so fast it is like an explosion. As a result, scientific specialties are splitting into more and more specialties, fractal-like. No one is simply a biologist anymore. Now he or she is a computational neuroscientist or a mathematical chemist studying molecular topology, to give two examples. In each specialty, there is so much to grasp that even the specialists can’t keep up. For non-scientists it seems hopeless. The result can be frustration and negativity toward science, or apathy. I don’t know what the answer is, except to keep trying, and to value the attempt to understand.
Join us tomorrow to enjoy reading and pondering a few of Kathleen’s recent poems from Epiphanies.