What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
Here are a few favorites from recent years. Yours, by Kristen Eliason and Paradise Hunger by Henry W. Leung are spare and gorgeous, and they move me. Yours, in particular has given me courage to press deeper into loss and grief in my own work. Jane Wong’s Kudzu Does Not Stop is a wonderful, off-kilter romp through an unruly catalog of invasive species. It delights the closet biology nerd in me. I also love the playful (at times coy) conversation between Lori Larusso’s paintings and Carrie Green’s poems in their collaborative chap It’s Not My Birthday, That’s Not My Cake.
What’s your chapbook about?
Periodicity explores the lives and stories of a number of historical women in science. All of the women in the chapbook either built careers around science, technology, or medicine, or were the wives or daughters of famous scientists. As the daughter of a scientist myself, I’m interested in how the poetry of the natural world and the choreographed music of the scientific method sit within the domestic space. I’m also interested in decay and resilience, in the inheritance of passion and of suffering, and in the condition of being female in a man’s world: what did it mean for these women to be pushing the envelope in heavily male-dominated fields during the periods when they lived and worked?
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
“Marie Curie, Dying” is the oldest piece in the chapbook. I wrote it as an undergraduate, while studying with then-Stegner fellow Andrew Grace. Andy challenged me to write a poem that took the rhythms and imagistic patterns of Charles Wright’s “Clear Night” as its form. I used to get chronic canker sores (huge, festering ones that would also make my face swell up and my glands hurt), and the day I sat down to respond to Andy’s prompt, I had a particularly bad one. As I sat there, mouth on fire and feeling slightly feverish, I couldn’t get Wright’s moon out of my brain. I think something about the electric nature of pain, how its energy strings itself through you and makes you aware of your body at a minutely precise, nearly cellular, level, brought my mind to Marie Curie and to the cratered surface of her mouth as cancer overtook her at the end of her life. There is a bitter irony to her story (as there was for many of the women whose poems followed); she accomplished so much in the field of chemistry, pioneered the study of radioactivity and its uses—and yet, the very thing to which she devoted her life, heart and soul, was what killed her.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Did you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What was it?
The manuscript was cobbled together over the course of several years (it began as a short series of poems, then morphed into the center of my MFA thesis, and was then extracted and condensed down into a chap), so the writing practices and processes I employed for different sets of poems varied. However, because all of the poems in the chap interest themselves with real historical figures, my process for most began with a period of some sort of research. In some cases, as with the poems about Beatrix Potter and Emma Darwin, the seed of the poems originated in language drawn from source material like letters, journal entries, obituaries, contemporary newspaper articles. In other cases, I began with some central concept related to the subject’s work (like the lacy shapes of the lichens Beatrix Potter studied or the principle behind Chien-Shiung Wu’s disproving of the law of conservation of parity) and experimented with building the poem out of that.
How did you decide on the title of your chapbook?
The title of the chapbook, which comes from the poem “Periodicity,” refers to a concept in chemistry that describes the tendency of families of elements to share particular repeated properties (think: the periodic table). In the titular poem, the sense of repetition and iteration over generations reflects the strength and complexity of women in the Curie family and especially of the relationship between Irène Joliot-Curie and her mother Marie. I think of the project of this chap as a broader exploration of the same concept: I’m interested in not just the individual stories of the women I’m writing about, but also in the things that connect their stories. So many of these women suffered immense loss and heartache, were denied opportunities, were not taken seriously (often because of their gender), and yet in their lives there was also great beauty and passion and joy, a love for their work, and a dedication to knowledge that defied all odds. When taken together, their stories reflect and reiterate and echo one another; they form, in short, a kind of unique periodicity.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
The cover illustration and design for Periodicity were done by a talented artist friend, Killeen Hanson. Early on in the process, I sent Killeen the manuscript to read and suggested that something botanical or that featured one of the women in the book might be nice, and she came up with a number of really innovative ideas, the most captivating of which involved cyanotypes inspired by the work of Anna Atkins (who features in two of the poems). The cyanotype process (better known to some as “Sun Prints”) is considered to be one of the earliest forms of photography. It involves placing the object whose impression is to be taken on a sheet of treated paper and exposing the setup to sunlight. After the image is exposed, the objects are removed and the paper is washed to fix the dye. The results are distinctive, brilliant, blue-and-white prints that are marked by beautiful, transparent shadows and watery irregularities, depending on the thickness and shapes of the objects being captured and the conditions under which they were exposed. (If you’re familiar with the cover of Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, the design is actually a manipulated version of one of Anna Atkins’ iconic prints.) Killeen made several cyanotypes, and we eventually decided upon a print of a lilac for the cover. I thought the monochrome blue, almost ghostly, impression spoke to the central motifs of the chapbook very nicely. Not only is it a direct homage to the work of one of the women featured in the chap, but the color blue itself and the ghostliness/ trickiness of narrative, image, light, and the body are central motifs that recur again and again in the book. I loved working with Killeen, and I was incredibly pleased with the cover she designed. We were English majors together during college, and because of her literary studies/ creative writing background, she has a deep understanding of the written word and its complexities. I feel incredibly blessed to have had the chance to work with someone who understood and could interpret my work so well.
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
“Anna Atkins,” in which the titular figure grieves the death of her father, comes from a place of deep personal significance for me. Between the time I began writing the poem and the time that I completed it, my own father passed away. My dad was a chemist, and it was through his influence that I gained my fascination with science and the elegance of the natural world. In the wake of his passing, I remember being devastated that the objects he’d left behind didn’t feel comforting to me—they were just things; they weren’t him. As I returned to revise “Anna Atkins,” I began to see it with very different eyes. Originally, the poem was more outspoken, perhaps a bit more angry. But what I eventually came to realize was that the poem needed the exact opposite of my original impulse: it needed silence, not noise; the finality of absence, not ghosts. So I rewrote it, stripping away as much as I possibly could.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
“Botanical Variations.” It’s a cento, shaped roughly into a crown of sonnets, whose language is taken from an eighteenth century primary source (the field notebook of Jane Colden), and the language and the pace of it are thus substantially different than the syntax and rhythms of the rest of the book. When I write using my own voice, I tend to write with an eye to both sonics and narrative. But “Botanical Variations” is entirely reliant on the sonics to move it forward. The listener has to trust the music of the poem to buy it. So it’s a trickier piece (both to read, and to hear performed) than some of the others in the book. And yet in some ways, it’s probably one of the more important poems in the chap, because it’s the only one that incorporates one of the women scientist’s actual language—the “sound” of her scientific voice, so to speak—in such an integral way. That’s why I placed it in the center of the chap: I wanted Jane Colden’s remixed words to serve as a kind of sonic and textural heartbeat underlying the narrative and lyric that surround them.
What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?
Lots of things. News headlines, Scientific American articles, scripture, letters and other types of correspondence (both historical and my own). Novels that are important to me (e.g. Cannery Row, Jane Eyre) provide voicings, background ghosts that infuse and inflect the underpinnings of my work. Maps and oral histories are wonderful jumping-off points, especially for historically based poems. I’ve worked with (and borrowed from) medical dictionaries and science textbooks, diaries and technical notebooks, biographies. They keep my language fresh. I work in editorial at a university press by day, and sometimes my responsibilities there also season my poetry in interesting ways, whether through the subject material of the books I work on, or through the influence of the sort of technical head space that I need to access in order to perform my job. I have to turn off my “editor brain” when I’m composing and reading poetry, but the technical attention that is required to make precise and measured decisions about style and grammar has sometimes proved helpful during revision: it gives me a kind of double-vision, a simultaneous sense of both the aesthetic landscape of the poem and the physical scaffolding of the language that enables me to play with the poem on both levels.
Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?
Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris and Jill McDonough’s Habeus Corpus hooked me into persona as a compelling form, and Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia continued that interest. A. Van Jordan’s Quantum Lyric and Kimiko Hahn’s Toxic Flora were also both helpful at different stages, as examples of collections that handle the language of science deftly and beautifully.
What kind of person do you imagine writing to?
I of course want other poets and lovers of poetry to read my work; I envision my reader as the contemplative sort who loves, like I do, the music of a poem, the movement of its lines, and the pleasure of crisp, clear imagery. But perhaps even more than that, I long for my work to have some point of entry for people who are not poets, and who may not even think of themselves as book people. I want people like my dad, who knew nothing about stanzas or line breaks, but who saw and loved the poetry in the banded spectrum that blooms up the shaft of a chromatography column, to be able to read or listen to my work and find in it something that moves them. Today’s world is full of women who have made their mark in STEM and who are continuing to pave the way for others in what is still a very male-dominated field. They are the legacy of the women I’ve written about in Periodicity, and in some ways, this chap is as much for them as it is for anyone else.
Iris A. Law is the author of Periodicity (Finishing Line Press 2013) and founding editor of the online literary magazine and blog Lantern Review. A Kundiman fellow, she lives and works in Lexington, Kentucky.
for Chien-Shiung Wu
In essence, we are all lopsided. The baseball player,
flexing the tensile length of his body, favors
the smooth parabola of one arm
over the imprecise swing of the other.
The marksman, settling the line of his gun,
fixes his shot with a single, steely eye.
There is no parity in decay. Matter collects
its property to itself in asymmetric heaps.
In this ultraviolet umbrella of a universe,
electrons evacuate their atoms from unbalanced poles.
Cobalt, heavy with grief, drips particles like pearls
snipped too close to the quick of their string. And you,
when wound against the axis of my own unfurling arc,
align to another contour entirely. We do not mirror
one another. Rather, we resist replication, shaping our stories
stubbornly against our chosen vectors: one arm, one eye,
a single plotted quadrant into which we arrange
battered folding chairs and settle in to watch the sun
slide liquidly into the diamond-speckled dark.