September 27th, 2013


Writing Verse about History and Science

In the way poetry often begins – is this eureka-ish or just another day? -- last spring a few people from history bumped against another in my mind, which set off other mini collisions about the ways we might understand plants, rocks, and stars. History and science seem like good subjects for verse narratives, for paring down the bulk of history can make it more intimate, and peeling off some of the complexities of science can show its spare beauty to a wider group. As I read about the lives of three girls who began their careers by age thirteen, themes such as supportive fathers, circles, and long, close looking started to overlap and mesh. I’m thinking of the book I’m now calling A Bouquet of Caterpillars as a sort of Borrowed Names, but with science, instead of mothers and daughters, as the connecting thread.

This summer I didn’t exactly throw myself into research, but I collected books and dipped, keeping an eye open for essential parts of character, key moments leading to recognition, and any bright detail that might later wiggle or swell into metaphor. Research sounds like a heavy word, but I was just hauling books into the hammock, holding a net lightly while keeping an eye out for images from the lore of astronomy, geology, and biology, though I don’t use those words, partly because two of them weren’t used during my time period. I twirled rather than gripped an imaginary net, and looked past the pages often enough. I wanted information, but only what sprung out. Along with collecting facts, I asked what some called to mind and what would someone who didn’t know much science (me) or about the era need to understand? As I mulled about what repeated images might be trying to tell me, some turned into metaphors.

By the end of summer, I had files for each of my three subjects, divided into headings about work, family, friends, and inner struggles. Each holds facts as well as a few lines of poems, stanzas, even occasional whole poems ready to revise. The biggest file for each girl is a hodgepodge just called Notes, which I’m now breaking up and organizing, while still tossing in new things as I bend chronology into plot. While I like to fuss with language, I wave my arms to remind myself of story and action. What should I take out to build suspense?

Questions are often more powerful than answers. The spare biographies have been handed down, but of course my subjects didn’t know how things would turn out, either in their personal lives or within a great body of knowledge. For instance, my biologist lived before pollination was defined, but she observed the yellow dust on the feet of bees and wondered.

Now I’m looking deeper into my notes about these three girls. The more I look, the more I see, and the more they engage me. This really is a labor of love. Will I sell A Bouquet of Caterpillars? There’s no way to know. But I’m thinking of some girls and their mothers who liked reading Girls Who Looked Under Rocks, and I want to write this for them, and anyone who encounter fascinating worlds I often miss from my desk.

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