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Dissecting Prose and Squid With Biologist, Poet Katherine Larson

March 13, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Using her career as a molecular biologist as a starting point, Katherine Larson shapes her poems with descriptions of squid, suction cups and branchial hearts. She won last year's Yale Series of Younger Poets competition and was recognized as a poet of "genuine promise" with the Kate Tufts Discovery Award last month.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally, another in our occasional series on poets and poetry.

Tonight, we hear from Katherine Larson. She won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition last year, and last month received the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, which recognizes poets of genuine promise.

KATHERINE LARSON: My name is Katherine Larson. And I live in Tucson, Arizona, with my husband and daughter.

And for the last decade or so, I have been a molecular biologist and field ecologist. And at the same time, I have been working in the sciences. I also got my master’s of fine arts in poetry. So, much of my poetry is infused by the science that I work in.

I grew up in a family of educators. My father was a professor of forestry, and my mother was a fourth-grade teacher. She had an avid love for science, so she had a classroom full of turtles and guinea pigs and tarantulas, and even a Madagascar hissing cockroach.

(LAUGHTER)

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KATHERINE LARSON: Having my daughter has altered my perspective of the world in ways I wasn’t even prepared for.

And I think that, because I’m an ecologist, I think about the state of the planet and what it’s going to be like with her when she’s grown, so if you think a little bit about how my poetry and writing can reach into those places.

My first collection is called “Radial Symmetry.” For many pieces of the book, there’s sort of dual meaning for them.

Radial symmetry is a biological principal, but it also alludes to the idea of symmetry as the guiding principle in the art. An invertebrate zoologist once told me that the point of radial symmetry is to be able to approach the environment from any angle or side. And I always loved that thought and loved the idea of the poetry as this kind of approach in a lot of different ways.

I think sometimes it’s helpful to take a scientist out of the ivory tower. Through the lens of this book, you have access to speakers that are engaged with everything from the purple gonads of moon jellyfish to ancient Egyptian burial rites, sometimes paired even within poems.

“Solarium.”

The pomegranates are blurs of rouge in the sky’s tarnished mirror, the city bleary with heat. Each day, the eyes of my cat assemble a more precocious gold. We press our blackened flesh against a sky so bright. I hold her in my arms at the fading windows. We gaze together at nothing in particular, down an avenue that leans so far, her tawny eyes gutter out. In my laboratory, immortal cancer cells divide and divide. The pomegranates are almost ripe.

Some splintered open the way all things fragment into something fundamental. Either everything’s sublime, or nothing is.

When I was working in the laboratory studying the signaling transduction pathways in lung cancer, part of what you do is dose and passage cells, that you have lung cancer cells that are in little flasks. And you often end up at the laboratory at very odd hours, late at night, 2:00 a.m.

It’s a very strange event to be sitting there with a flask of living cells of somebody who actually has passed away. Part of the poem comes from that place of a kind of intimate experience, but a kind of intense experience as well.

“Love at 32 Degrees.”

One. Today, I dissected a squid, the late acacia tossing its pollen across the black of the lab bench. In a few months, the maples will be bleeding. That was the thing. There was no blood, only textures of gills folded like satin, suction cups like planets in rows. Be careful not to cut your finger, he says. But I’m thinking of fingertips on my lover’s neck last June. Amazing, hearts. This brachial heart. After class, I stole one from the formaldehyde and watched it bloom in my bathroom sink between the cubes of ice.

The science gets to a certain place where you have a sort of horizon, a liminality of what you don’t know and what can’t be explained to a point that’s satisfactory to allow for the kind of breadth and depth of the complexity of the human experience.

For science, beyond pheromones, hormones, aesthetics of bone, every time I make love for love’s sake alone, I betray you.

GWEN IFILL: That was poet Katherine Larson reading from her collection, “Radial Symmetry.”