by Susan Sechrist
“Go Figure” is a regular feature at Bloom that highlights and celebrates the interdependence and integration of math and literature, and that will “chip away at the cult of youth that surrounds mathematical and scientific thinking.” Read the inaugural feature here.
– excerpt of “Catena” from Welcome to the Anthropocene
I first saw Canadian poet Alice Major speak at the Bridges Conference in Waterloo, Ontario in July of 2017. Bridges is a long-standing celebration of the intersections between the arts and mathematics, an opportunity for mathematicians and artists alike to write, paint, draw, knit, and sculpt with numbers, equations, and algorithms. The result is a mind-blowing array of creative work that proves mathematics is inherently beautiful, elevating, and transcendent. At the 2017 Bridges Conference, Major spoke about her sister’s rare type of synesthesia, Ordinal Linguistic Personification (OLP), a perception that imbues numbers with personality: “five is female, a motherly figure who is funny by accident, while one is a responsible father who is nice but a bit tired.” She showed how the Mayans also personified numbers, conceiving of them as complex glyphs with unique features and details, and concluded that numbers are not just abstractions or “symbol[s] of quantity,” but are also words that impart linguistic force and literary intent. “One” and “two” are quantities, but they are also words that build metaphor and make meaning. “Two heads are better than one” is not just a quantitative cliché about collaborative brainstorming, but a longing for deeper connection and community.
Major is a bloomer, publishing her first work of poetry in her 40s (though her debut creative work, The Chinese Mirror, a young adult fantasy novel was published in her late 30s). She exemplifies the curiosity and empathy of many blooming authors, those who never allow their craft to plateau, but who, perhaps because of a later start, are constantly reinvigorating and reinventing themselves and their creative work.
Two of Major’s works, her book of essays about math and science, Intersecting Sets, and her recent poetry collection, Welcome to the Anthropocene, are unique sources of solace, inspiration, and motivation these days—days of political, technological, and now, with coronavirus, biological upheaval. She is both artist and scientist: she uses empiricism to explore the meaning of narrative and uses her intuition and imagination to pull apart cells and atoms to see how they work. Her natural philosophy is just as accurate and revelatory a tool as the microscope or the cyclotron. She’s the artist I think of when I try to explain my own interest in the intersection between mathematics and literature, and my desire to write numerate narratives that are alive with algorithmic metaphor and geometric figuring.
Susan Sechrist: You are a poet who writes a lot about mathematics and science. Was this intersection always there in your work, did it evolve gradually, or was there some inciting incident that made it necessary to incorporate mathematical and scientific ideas and insights into your creative process?
Alice Major: We make poetry out of whatever we think about, and I happen to think a lot about science, even though I never studied it formally. So, from my very first poetry collection (which was published when I was in my 40s) this interest bubbled up in my work.
I’ve always been fascinated by the ideas of science and math—and even when I was little, I could get passionate about them. I remember getting into a tremendous quarrel with my father when I was about six when he was helping me with an arithmetic question: “What’s seven take away five?” Easy. Two. But then, being Dad, he turned it around. “What’s five take away seven?” I answered “Two” again, only to be told “No, you can’t do it. Seven is too big to take away from five.” “Yes you can!” I yelled. Even though I didn’t hear about negative numbers or the number line until years later, I had a very clear sense that there was a consistent difference between the two quantities that was still “two.”
SS: I first saw you at the Bridges Conference in Waterloo, Ontario in July 2017. You gave a fascinating talk that began with your sister’s perception of numbers as novelistic characters, a kind of synesthesia called Ordinal Linguistic Personification. Can you speak a bit more about OLP, and your own relationship with numbers as the core symbols of mathematics?
AM: When my sister first told me that she had always done this (perceived numbers as people with distinct costumes and characters), I thought it was a particular quirk in an imaginative individual. It turns out she’s not alone. Certain people have narratives like this that emerge early in childhood and last lifelong. It has to do with how their brains are wired. In particular, people with this kind of synesthesia may have extra connections to parts of their brains concerned with social relationships.
This stunned me because it’s not something my brain does with numbers at all—at least, not in that intuitive way. And yet, some years before learning about OLP, I’d written a series of poems inspired by reading about the Mayan number-gods. The Mayans developed stylized faces of gods that that they used to represent the first 20 digits, and I thought I would try to imagine figures from the streets of my northern city that could represent numbers here. (Learn more from Major’s 2017 Bridges presentation).
So it occurred to me that numbers have this interesting quality—they are abstractions, used for a fairly narrow purpose: to signify quantities. But they’re also words, patterns of sound. And words make linkages all through our brains. That capacity for making long-distance connections is at the heart of metaphor. And maybe, since the words for numbers are abstract and don’t come with pre-loaded connotations, they might allow us to make unusual, interesting connections.
SS: I’ve interviewed mathematicians who write and writers who love mathematics and have yet to find a distinct intersection that defines the relationship between these two seemingly divergent disciplines. What is it about these two ways of looking at the universe that feels connected (or disconnected and ripe for unification) to you?
AM: I think there’s something essential to both math and poetry that has to do with patterns. Poets play with language the way that mathematicians play with number, going back and forth between two poles: noticing patterns that occur in the world and exploring pattern for the sake of pattern.
Math started as a way to measure and count things in the world—herds of sheep, areas of land. But from very early in human history, mathematicians started noticing and exploring patterns within the numbers themselves. One example would be the relationships among prime numbers. And often, when those patterns are explored for their own sake, they turn out to have connections back to the world—the way prime numbers turn out to be useful for encrypting data.
Animals have always made sounds to communicate and humans took that a step further, developing words to talk about things in their world. But poets notice the patterns inherent in those words—their sound, their rhythm—and use those features to play around with language for its own sake. And then we use the patterns to say (hopefully) interesting things about our world. I find it really interesting how putting together words for the sake of their sounds can make some unexpected idea or meaning pop out.
SS: Poetry has some uniquely mathematical underpinnings inherent in rhythm and meter and form. How do you inspire readers to go deeper into the more subtle mathematical structures and metaphors that feature in your work?
AM: An excellent question—and I’m not sure I have thought through a good answer. I suppose I try to make a poem interesting even for those who don’t have any background or interest in math. But the mathematics is there for those who do. It provides another dimension for enjoying the work.
And, as a bit of a cop-out, I often add a little bit of context in notes at the back of the book. Poets aren’t supposed to depend on notes—as Mary Oliver noted, a poem should carry its own bags. But every poem draws on a base of cultural knowledge that people need to “get” it. I rather like having the excuse to get a little bit of mathematical information out there, just as I’m always trying to get people to enjoy poetry. It’s my inner missionary, I suppose.
SS: One mathematician I know expresses discomfort with the appropriation or over-simplification of mathematical concepts for creative or figurative use. For example, I used a rounded-off version of the Golden Mean as an aesthetic measure in a short story, but the Golden Mean has a very strict mathematical definition: as the irrational number that results from the convergence of the Fibonacci series. What are your thoughts on this critique? Are we writers playing too fast and loose with mathematical concepts?
AM: This is something I think about a lot! For the most part, I want to get the math or science right and get a bit irritated with poets who toss a word like “fractal” or “singularity” into a line because they think it sounds good but clearly don’t understand the concept. However, a lot depends on what we’re trying to do with a poem, and concepts are always moving back and forth between the language of science and the language of day-to-day life. Look at how “black hole” becomes an easy metaphor for the junk drawer—I’m not going to get too excited about that.
However, poetry has also been used throughout history as a way of encoding knowledge in memorable ways. And if that’s what your aim is, if the point of your poem is to talk about some mathematical concept and how it is used in the world, then yes, you do have to get it right. Or at least as right as you can, given that even scientists have trouble translating their equations into language and images that the rest of us can follow.
I have a whole essay about this subject actually—it was triggered when I realized I had screwed up the science in one of my own poems, which made me feel just awful.
SS: There is a chapter in your latest work, Welcome to the Anthropocene, called “Long Division,” which features three poems titled using mathematical ideas that I also find extraordinary and compelling: catenary curves and Euler’s number, division by zero, and the imaginary numbers that define the complex number plane. Can you describe what it is about each of these mathematical concepts that you find inspiring or illuminating? What was your process of turning them into poetic forms? Was it obvious and easy or obtuse and arduous? Were there surprises?
AM: Sometimes when you want to write about something that’s deeply personal, you need some way of making the emotion manageable. And that’s what I was trying to do with all three poems—to find some shape for difficult subjects that would help me move beyond just blurting onto the page.
The poem using the catenary curve, for instance, was written after the deaths of two family members, both of whom had to live with congenital illnesses that shaped their lives. My niece had died at the age of 40 from a form of muscular dystrophy that progressively limited her physical abilities, while a brother-in-law died in his late 60s after living with schizophrenia since his early teens. I wanted to express something of the hardship this had meant for them and for their families, the arbitrariness of the luck that shaped their experience, the continuity and discontinuities that resulted from genetic malfunction.
We use Euler’s number e to calculate all kinds of exponential growth and decay, including the formula for catenary curves. That’s the natural curve that something—a chain, a line of spider silk—follows when it is suspended by its own weight. This gave me a metaphorical thread to follow. (Learn more from Major’s 2018 Bridges presentation).
As well, e is one of those transcendental numbers like pi. The digits in its decimal expansion go on forever, never settling down to a fixed pattern. This gave me more metaphorical connections to explore, but also a form for the poem based on the digits in that decimal expansion. That sequence governs the number of lines in each stanza.
Was it easy to do this? Yes and no. The idea for that form was suggested by a mathematician-poet friend, Sarah Glaz, who pointed out that a similar approach had been used for poems based on pi but not for other transcendental numbers. Then I had to thrash around researching e until I found that link to the catenary curve. That gave me a phrase or two to work with. But once I had this spark, the formal structure seemed to pull me along. There was so much to say about those recent griefs that, as I said, my main problem was containing it somehow.
The same kind of process helped me write “Zero over zero” about being terribly worried over my sister’s mental health during a period of great stress. Trying to divide zero by zero leads to a paradox—one line of argument gives the answer as “one,” the other line of argument leads to “zero.” Both are completely logical. It seemed to work as a way of thinking about suicide.
“Complex number plane” came out of a kind of shame at not having understood someone close to me many years ago who subsequently went through gender reassignment surgery. Times have changed so much; when I was young, we really thought of gender as a straight line between male and female. But the complex number plane adds a whole other dimension to that narrow number line, and that became a metaphor for how we can expand our thinking about gender.
SS: Do you have favorite writers or artists (or scientists and mathematicians) who also bridge the two cultures in interesting ways? Whose work most inspires or nourishes or challenges you?
AM: There are more and more people working at the intersection of the arts and the sciences—the old divide between “the two cultures” is becoming more porous all the time. I’d say that the number of poets using math as a source of inspiration is a pretty small subset of the these artists, but I have met quite a few at the Bridges conferences you mentioned in your introduction and find that really exciting—it’s like finally finding a particular shade that suits you!
However, for nourishment, I like to go back to someone who was both artist and scientist before that combination became a thing. Miroslav Holub was a prominent Czech immunologist and researcher, and also became internationally celebrated as a poet. I discovered his poetry first, but I also have two books of his essays which I really enjoy reading. He is so thoughtful about the relationship between poetry and science.
SS: I adore “Bird Singularities,” a poem in your Anthropocene collection, because you touch on how other creatures may have a natural mathematical sense that we devalue or ignore; and that this sense is less about logic and more about sensing and responding to the environment in embedded, integrated ways. This may be a silly question, but which birds would make the best mathematicians? I think it may be magpies…
AM: Yes, it has to be one of the corvids! One of math’s central functions is to keep track of nested hierarchies. (“If Fred can beat up Squawk and Squawk can beat up me, well, I’d better not mess with Fred.”) Math is, at heart, a very social activity. So social birds like ravens and magpies would have a claw up.
So I’d vote for magpies too. We live in a city where they’re our totem animal, and I’m positive they can count the number of all cats in the neighbourhood.
SS: Bloom celebrates authors who publish their debut work later in life. You mentioned that you published your first book of poetry in your 40s. What inspired you to take that leap? What are the advantages (or disadvantages) to being a “bloomer”?
AM: I have written poetry since I was a little girl, but I wasn’t in an environment where I could connect with other poets. We think of poetry as a solitary pursuit, but you still need community and encouragement to take what you’ve written out of the file folders and share it with the world. It was only when I came here to Edmonton that I found a poetry group and started to learn the ropes about sending your work out. And I only moved here from Toronto when I was in my early 30s.
In fact, my first collection Time Travels Light was only published because a group of friends got together and decided to start a publishing house. This has been a very sustaining place for me to find myself!
SS: Lastly, what are you working on now?
AM: I’m stumbling towards another poetry collection (my 12th) and a second book of essays. They’re circling round the ideas of science and apocalypse—how do we face our difficult times? Especially with brains that have been evolving over millions of generations and may need things like religion and power structures more than they need logic and data.
Susan Sechrist is a freelance technical writer and PhD student at the University of British Columbia, striving to better integrate her creative and mathematical sides. She published her first short story, the mathematically-themed “A Desirable Middle,” both in Bloom and the Journal for Humanistic Mathematics.
Feature photo courtesy of Etan J. Tal / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0).