Spotlight Author: Jocelyn Emerson
– By Courtney McNamara
When I think of the disciplines of poetry and science, I tend to imagine two different domains, two different lenses in which to process the world around us. The questions of science do not seem to cross the wonderings of poetry. However, this opinion was changed when I was able to learn about the inspiration behind the work of Boston University professor and published American poet Jocelyn Emerson. I have read poems written by poets who seem to play with ideas of cosmological significance, but I have never had the privilege of really understanding how closely scientific discoveries and poetic contemplations were connected.
As Emerson reminded us, “In the history of science, the separation between science and literature didn’t exist until fairly recently, and the literary and the “scientific” were inseparable in the early modern period.” The work of Jocelyn Emerson draws a strong inspiration from poets who focus on the metaphysical. She shared with us that although her cultural and historical context differs from those of early modern English poets, such as John Donne, their “experimental approach” to poetry has proved to be quite influential. Several of her own poems, including one called “Night Blindness” were inspired by scientific discoveries. Right as I began to wonder about how universal these poems could be if they related to such time-sensitive facts, Emerson revealed a powerful truth to me. She said, the scientific facts may be limited by later discoveries, but a poem’s treasures may remain useful to readers on many other levels.
The universality of poetry is one of the reasons for its power and grip on writers from every epoch. By beginning to understand Emerson’s influences, I started to see that whatever avenue you find most compelling could be the driving force behind your writing. She found delight in the worlds of alchemy and as she learned more about it on a scholarly level, it came to influence her poetry. But as a poet, Emerson of course has a particular way of crafting her work in an artistic sense. She shared with me the typical multi-step process by which she tends to produce her best work. She begins by focusing on the sound of a poem, situating herself in an area where she can “listen without distraction.” Next, she needs to get more involved in the meaning of the poem by thinking about “the connections between these words and cadences.” After this, more detailed thought goes into the structure of the poem when she will “structure the arguments of the poems in the margins.” After these stages, Emerson gets down to the editorial work of the poem playing with punctuation, etc. It is interesting to break down this process into such specific stages, and you can see the professor in Emerson come out as she was able to explain it in such distinct details.
What intrigued me most about Emerson, perhaps, was the way her poetry and scholarly research are so intertwined. As a professor, it is not surprising that she explores so many different avenues, but it is certainly intriguing how imaginative her work is. The themes of her poetry, in particular how she is able to wrestle with her own meditations about subjects such as the origins of the universe, are certainly inspirational to all writers. She shared with me that “I am satisfied with a poem when I know it has resisted me successfully”, referring to the idea that the intentions of a poem do not necessarily align with the final product; meditating on a subject can find you in a completely different frame of mind by the end of the process. You can check out her book of poems, Sea Gate to explore these musings further. Jocelyn Emerson is certainly a poet to be admired, and for those fellow non-fiction focused writers like myself, can serve as an inspiration to use scholarly discoveries to explore poetry.
BIO: Jocelyn Emerson was educated at Smith College (BA) and the University of Iowa (MA, MFA) where she held the Teaching-Writing Fellowship at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is a recipient of the Angela J. and James J. Rallis Memorial Award from the Humanities Foundation at Boston University. In 2008, she received the Robert H. Winner Award from the Poetry Society of America. Her collection of poems, Sea Gate, won the New York/New England Award from Alice James Books. Her poems, book reviews, and criticism have appeared widely in journals such as American Book Review, Black Warrior Review, Boston Review, Colorado Review, Contemporary Poetry Review, Denver Quarterly, Electronic Poetry Review, New American Writing as well as in the The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries (University of Iowa Press, 2004). Published scholarship includes book chapters on John Donne and alchemy in Textual Healing: Essays on Medieval and Early Modern Medicine (Brill Academic Publishers, 2005) and American poetics and chaos theory forthcoming in Science and Literature (Rodopi, 2009). She has taught a wide range of undergraduate courses in British and American literature as well as in creative writing, both poetry and fiction (From Boston University’s Website).