by Amee Nassrene Broumand
Hello Florence! Thanks so much for agreeing to speak with me here on Burning House Press. I’m fascinated by your bio: you’re a PhD student in physics who also writes poetry. I’ve got to ask, why? What draws you to both physics and poetry?
Hi Amee! Thanks a lot for this opportunity. Oddly enough, the driving force was, & still is, the same in both cases: a thirst for equilibrium, the urge to build an extension upon my collage-like experience of the world; to challenge myself out of my comfort zone, towards areas left uncharted on my maps; to counterbalance an excess of centripetence; to overwrite certainties; to ride a Trojan horse within my own fortress, then to open the gates to cross-pollination.
“my favourite places to roam are borderlands”
Before studying physics, I was enrolled in modern languages & literature—quite in character for someone who was most often pigeonholed as a literary person. Even though I liked that field of study, a sneaking suspicion had been gnawing at me: something was missing. At the beginning of my third year, I dreamt that I was doing maths again. The idea of veering into the physics route & starting again from scratch sprung from this dream & its lingering aftertaste. I spent that third year brushing up my rusty science & maths toolbox while injecting scientific references & imagery into my writing assignments. Five years forward: during the first year of my PhD program, I realized that my relationship with English had grown dull, dry, barren. As a lingua franca, English is a key tool in scientific fields, but the risk is to end up using it only in one way: I was increasingly doing that. Trying my hand at poetry was my way out. All this taught me that my favourite places to roam are borderlands.
Borderlands. That’s a very evocative term. Moving back and forth between literature and physics—between one language and another—sounds like an enriching, exciting experience. How many languages do you know, and how does switching between them affect your thought processes? What does it feel like to roam the borderlands?
I can say (I guess) that I know French, English, and Italian—in descending order of intimacy. They dominate my tonguescape: French: growing ever since my childhood, motherly, sturdy home to many tree houses, festooned with silk ribbons & rags; English: first alien to settle in, many-faceted colony, sprawling vines, aerial roots (practical for climbing); Italian: paired with English in college, florescent(ed) & raging shrub by the fire, butterfly catcher. Then there are the others: ogled in bilingual books / sluggishly deciphered / (a)periodically brushed up (without guaranteed progress) / overgrown by years of non-practice / glimpsed on childhood’s TV & rediscovered later on / never learned despite being present on bilingual cereal boxes & the like.
“I love languages, but I don’t consider them untouchable.”
Your question got me thinking about the position of English. One cannot overlook its linguistic hegemony, and I cannot pretend that my choice to write in English is neutral in that respect—nothing is neutral when it comes to languages. I like to think that hijacking this hegemony (via translations & a critical take on the act of translating) is the way to go. I have come to view English not only as an end in itself, but also as a footboard, a springboard: English has actually been a gateway to other languages for me, and I owe it the discovery of whole chapters of world literature. (That’s what I had in mind when I called English “practical for climbing” above.)
I cannot always track how I switch between French & English: most of the time (for example, now, as I think about my answer to your question), they seem to be playing their own quirky variation of ping-pong. Of course, this results in many questionable mashups & wor[l]dplays, but that’s fine. I like to think of languages as systems that cross-pollinate & influence each other, and I like it when my thought process is itself stirred: when words flow & flock, and I cannot manage to tame them into order. I love languages, but I don’t consider them untouchable. I’m interested in linguistic textures (from clay to stone), in ductility, in dents & cracks. Although I’m awfully self-conscious about my use of languages, I revel in experimenting with them, however grotesque it turns out to be. Poet & translator Don Mee Choi says that “[her] primary technique for translation and [her] own poetry is failure.” I like that stance.
How do you define the role of the poet? Do you think there’s something intrinsically gateway-like about poetry? What about physics? Do you think the role of the poet overlaps with the role of the physicist?
When I mentioned this question to my companion, who is also a physicist, he told me: “Physicists do physics. Poets do poetry. Which is more or less the same thing.” This cheered on the answer I had in mind: an answer which had already been written—was biding its time in a file—had undergone more than one edit & pruning in the meantime. Noncomprehensive: a rough outline: the dream answer.
a tale of 2
SCENE—the rim of the known world.
One says, I am a physicist. The other says, I am a poet.
The matter is closed, language split.
Yet come closer, watch closely. Watch as they work,
watch as they sleep, as they work the world to fit it in
their words. They feel the same: apprehensive & excited.
the same. Their feelings superpose & coalesce & collapse,
as they probe—tip-toe—new fields, uncharted equations,
unresolved imageries, hic sunt dracones. Both of them
quiver when blocks fall
into place & bubble over with a universe, the same when
the page is blank & grants the world no sense. They toss
& turn in their sleep, one turning into the other turning
into one, then they wake up: uncertain.
— Florence Lenaers
This reminds me of what Keats said about Negative Capability, that writers like Shakespeare are “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts”—but then adds, “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” It strikes me that physicists are also capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, yet their guiding light is reason. As a poet, what’s your relationship to reason?
(Tough question!) In writing (&) poetry I like it when reason misbehaves: when it goes over to the enemy, rubs shoulders with the absurd & the grotesque & the whimsical, & smuggles scraps of language & reasonlings across borders. Beyond reason, what matters to me is consistency, even (if not particularly) when it does not parade in plain view. (Come to think of it, in science I’d rather be guided by consistency, for reason is sometimes too faint-hearted.)
Here’s a photograph that reflects, in a very unreasonable but consistent way, my relationship to reason.
So, yes: however rational I am, I take pictures of stuffed animals when they are reading books (& when they are involved in high-speed chases aboard Tangerine Crate Cruisers). You may wonder what these two are reading. The answer: a gem of unreasonable reason, le Macchine di Munari. In this book, artist-designer-writer-inventor-&c. Bruno Munari describes—in details both painstaking & witty—a series of machines whose practical value is splendidly dubious. For example, why not design a machine to play the pipe at home even when you are not there [to the dismay of your neighbours]? The apparatus involves: (1) a mirror, (2) a black-dyed cat, (3) a blue mouse, (4) a rope soaked in seasoned Parmesan cheese sauce & fastened to (5) a violet-perfumed charcoal iron itself connected to (6) the valve of (7) a compressed-air bottle, (8) a hose, (9) a pipe and (10) a duckling whose wings are tied by a silk ribbon. Reason at its best: imaginative & sort-of-self-consistent.
Suppose that you could magically become someone else at will: a famous person (historical or living), a fictional character, or simply a different kind of person from your current self (from any era). Who would you become, when would you live, and why?
I’d love to become an archivist. Of sorts. (Disclaimer: the archivist I have in mind is infused with an epic Renaissance pop culture vibe, & does not pretend to be faithful to whatever a real-life, present-day, professional archivist actually is & does.) Not a state or government-affiliated archivist. Rather: a wild info forager, hunting & gathering, collating stuff on the fringes & in between, wherever & whenever the flow of information runs. I like to see archives as the seams which patch together our many [hi]stories—both macro & micro. Archives are also time capsules, and to some extent, being an archivist is [ersatz] time traveling minus the need to worry about paradoxes & the like.
But wait: we are talking about magic, so why worry about worrying?
Second take: I’d love to be a graffiti hunter travelling through space & time. Graffiti are marginalia in our micro & macrocosms: I feel them as rumbles—sometimes growling, sometimes droning, sometimes purring. I like listening to these unofficial soundtracks. I’d take photos or do drawings along the way: then I’d have them converse with each other in a book[room]. Of sorts.
These sound like occupations that would go well with being a physicist! (Confession: I like to imagine that there’s alternate universe version of me who’s a physicist.) What’s your focus as a physicist?
My primary research focus is atomic physics, in particular cold atoms. Once they are cooled down & trapped (courtesy of techniques involving laser beams & magnetic fields), atoms are more receptive to manipulation & interrogation, which is good news for precision measurements, quantum information processing & other dream stuff. The project on which I embarked nearly three years ago requires me to conjure up my inner experimentalist (or that slumberous part of me who masquerades as such), and well, in short: clumsiness + poor practical sense is not the formula for smooth sailing in the lab! Fortunately, I work on theoretical models & simulations as well—which means I can fulminate against recalcitrant computer codes. I’m also a teaching assistant, which, for me, is as integral to being a physicist as doing research.
This interview has been quite a journey—from Trojan horses and linguistic hegemony to Tangerine Crate Cruisers and cold atoms. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us! Before you go, I’d like to invite you to conjure up your inner experimentalist for us in a Mad-Libs-type game: I’ll supply some sentences with missing parts, and you can dream up potential parts for readers to plug into the sentences. Are you game?
Game on! It seems relevant to conclude this journey (thank you for it!) with a game that ramifies into, well, 3125 possible journeys.
I once had __________________ ,
(α) my own theme song
(β) a plan
(γ) pebbles in my pocket
(δ) a taste for pastiche
(ε) faith in the morning news
but that was before I __________________ .
(α) followed the crumbs
(β) stepped in a puddle of sour milk
(γ) bought eighteen pairs of overpriced, low-quality socks
(δ) learned how to froth milk without fancy tools
(ε) saw the best minds of my generation doing you-know-what
These days I just __________________
(α) patch plaids with bubble wrap
(β) stockpile ingots of frozen Bolognese sauce
(γ) pretend to be a space probe
(δ) grow peppermint in the kitchen sink
(ε) collect & collate color names
and hope that __________________ .
(α) our dreams are dishwasher-safe
(β) the roaring onions won’t wake up the neighbors
(γ) the supermarket keeps stocking canned laughter
(δ) the headlines won’t clog the sewers
(ε) error bars fit in the car trunk
However, last night I finally __________________ .
(α) realized that the bio was part of the poem
(β) beat the boss & saved the knight
(γ) removed scruples from my shoe
(δ) unlocked the piano keys
(ε) reversed the dictionary
—Florence Lenaers & Amee Nassrene Broumand
Florence Lenaers is a usurper—a physics PhD student pretending to be a poet, or perhaps the other way around. When not meddling with words, she weaves tales of atoms trapped in cages of light & castles of magnetic field lines at the University of Liège (Belgium). Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Strange Horizons, And Other Poems, Tupelo Quarterly, The Stockholm Review of Literature, The Tangerine, concīs, Dream Pop Journal, and Low Light Magazine. She tweets as @flloaers.
Update 22 November 2017: “Physicists do physics. Poets do poetry. Which is more or less the same thing.” This statement now has its own proof: Abstract//Proof. Available from Penteract Press.
About the interviewer: Amee Nassrene Broumand is an Iranian-American poet. Her work can be found in Word Riot, Sundog Lit, A-Minor Magazine, Rivet, Modern Haiku, & elsewhere. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon & blogs for Burning House Press. Follow her on Twitter.