Category Archives: poetry

You Can Stop Donating to the NC GOP Now, Please

Following the firebombing of a Republican campaign office in Hillsborough, NC over the weekend. Shortly thereafter, a group of self-identified Democrats (but not part of the Clinton campaign) set up a gofundme campaign to raise funds to help them reopen, and within a few hours, they had raised $13,000.

The impulse to donate to something like this seems honorable on the surface. It’s a way of rising above partisan politics to condemn political violence. It’s also bullshit.

There is exactly one legitimate reason to donate to a campaign like this: to disrupt the media narrative of “Democrats firebomb GOP offices”. Sort of a show-don’t-tell version of #NotAllDemocrats. Mission accomplished. This fundraising campaigns will now be part of the news story, which will blunt attempts by Republican operatives to make this a campaign issue, or, worse, to encourage and justify things like voter intimidation at the polls.

So, I’m glad the gofundme campaign happened. But you can stop now, and maybe pause to consider the ways in which donating to the NC GOP is a bad idea, and how the decision to do so maybe does not reflect so well on you as you might think.

1. We don’t know what happened, yet

Despite Trump’s claim that the firebombing was perpetrated by “Animals representing Hillary Clinton and Dems”, we don’t actually know who did this or why. Yes, one option is that it was people associated with the Clinton campaign and/or the Democratic Party. A more likely possibility is that is was some pissed-off, disenfranchised kids who are fed up with Trump’s hate-fueled campaign.

It’s also possible that this was a false flag attack as part of an attempt to undermine the emerging narrative of Trump supporters being particularly violent. I’m not saying that this is particularly likely, but it is certainly not unprecedented. The most famous case, of course, is the Reichstag fire, which at least some historians believe was ordered by the Nazis to create a pretense for curtailing civil liberties. Certainly if any group were predisposed to do something like this, it would be hangers on of the Trump campaign.


There’s also the issue of the graffiti left at the scene: a swastika and the message “Nazi Republicans Leave Town Or Else”. What seems strange to me is the inclusion of the swastika. Most liberals perceive writing a swastika as an act of violence in itself, similar to using the N-word. I think your typical anti-Nazi activist would tend to shy away from drawing a swastika, even in the context of calling someone a Nazi. I’m not generally inclined towards conspiracy, but this, more than anything, makes me think that it’s a possibility in this case.

2. They don’t need the money

I assume that the NC GOP had insurance, and that the losses suffered in the fire will be fully covered. And I know that they have the financial resources to open another office, even if it takes some time for that insurance check to come through. So, while donating to “reopen the office” seems like fair play, in practice, your money is actually going to go to fund general operating expenses, that is, to elect Trump and down-ballot Republicans.

And if, for some reason, the NC GOP is not insured (or “self insured”, as the parlance goes), keep in mind that this is the party of personal responsibility. The libertarian argument against insurance mandates is that you should have the right to assume your own risk. The second half of the argument, for non-hypocrites, anyway, is that you should not expect anyone else to bail you out once you’ve made that choice.

3. Other charities exist

Donating to the NC GOP as a way of “not condoning” the firebombing makes a lot of sense, if you view the act in complete isolation. But the implication, of course, is that you are condoning every disaster – man-made or natural – that you did not donate to. And, in North Carolina, the NC GOP bears direct responsibility for at least some of the disasters befalling poor people, minorities, and LGBTQ folks.

If you’re a Democrat who was moved to open your wallet because some Trump/Pence signs got burned and the NC GOP is going to need to rent office space in a different strip mall, but you were not moved to open your wallet by the flooding of poor communities by Hurricane Matthew, or the systemic disenfranchisement of minorities, or the regressive anti-trans policies, maybe you need to take a good long look at what your actual motives were.


Sunday Morning Google Poems

So, as I have written previously, one of my favorite things in poetry is the poem sequence: a series of poems written in the same style, or on the same topic, or with some other feature that co-constrains them and links them together. This is different from a long poem broken into sections, where the relationship is more temporal or narrative. What I love is the sequence where each poem stands on its own, but then when you bring them into proximity with one another, you start to generate resonances and cross-reactions that add an N+1th dimension to the whole thing.

Anyway, with that as prelude, here, for your Sunday morning reading pleasure, is a sequence of Google poems (the latest hot nerd trend in found poetry). This sequence, if it were to be titled, would be titled something like “How long until . . . ”

Screen Shot 2013-06-16 at 8.42.59 AM

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If there are any screenwriters out there reading this, those last two could form the basis for an awesomely horrible romantic comedy.

E. O. Wilson is Wrong Again — not About Math, but About Collaboration

So, stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Q: What’s the difference between E. O. Wilson and a stopped clock?

A: A stopped clock does not have unlimited access to a national media platform to push its ridiculous ideas on the public.


A couple of weeks ago, E. O. Wilson published a piece in the Wall Street Journal, where he argued that you don’t need math to be a great scientist. There are two parts of the argument. First, that science is more about conceptual thinking that does not require mathematical formalism to get at great ideas. Second, that when it comes time to mathematize, you can always find a mathematician to collaborate with.

He has already been taken to task in places like Slate and Huffington Post. The criticism in these pieces and most of the grumbling I’ve heard around the internet has been something along the lines of, “Nuh uh! Math is too important!” More specifically, that the era of math-free scientific discovery is over. That to operate at the frontier of science in the twenty-first century, you have to be able to grapple with the mathematical and statistical concepts required in the days of big data.

There’s something to that.

On the other hand, I’m sympathetic to what Wilson is trying to do here. I would hate to see anyone drop out of science because they don’t feel that they can keep up with the math. Of course, that’s partly because I think most people can do more math than they think they can, if you know what I mean.

But what I want to focus on here is Wilson’s view of collaboration. This, even more than math, is going to be the must-have talent of the twenty-first-century scientist. The thing about science is, an awful lot of it has been done. To get to the frontiers of human knowledge requires years of study, and, for those of us without super powers, a lot of specialization. At the same time, the most interesting and important problems often lie between areas of specialization, and require contributions from more than one area. Those most interesting and important problems are going to be solved by teams and networks of people who bring different skills to the table, and who are able to integrate their skills in a way that leads to a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

It’s that integration bit, I think, that Wilson does not really get. Wilson’s view of collaboration seems to go something like this: you make some observations about some biology, come up with some ideas, then you go find someone who can translate those into the language of mathematics.

Here’s the thing about translation, though. It can’t be unidirectional, or rather, it shouldn’t be unidirectional. At the risk of something or other (obscurity? pretentiousness?), I’m going to dip into poetry here. Robert Haas (Poet, Berkeley Professor, and Occupy hero), in addition to writing a bunch of his own extraordinary verse, has translated seven volumes of poetry by Czech Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz. Or, more accurately, he collaborated with Miłosz to produce those translations.

After Miłosz’s death, Haas included their translation of Czesław Miłosz’s poem “O!” in his own volume Time and Materials. The poem is prefaced with this note about the translation process:

In his last years, when he had moved back to Kraków, we worked on the translation of his poems by e-mail and phone. Around the time of his ninetieth birthday, he sent me a set of poems entitled “Oh!” I wrote to ask him if he meant “Oh!” or “O!” and he asked me what the difference was and said that perhaps we should talk on the phone. On the phone I explained that “Oh!” was a long breath of wonder, that the equivalent was, possibly, “Wow!” and that “O!” was a caught breath of surprise, more like “Huh!” and he said, after a pause, “O! for sure.”  Here are the translations we made:

Now, if you’re not a writer and/or avid reader of poetry, it may seem strange to fuss over the difference between “Oh!” and “O!” But worrying about the difference between “Oh!” and “O!” is precisely the sort of thing that differentiates poetry from other forms of writing. Robert Frost famously defined poetry as “what gets lost in translation.” One way to unpack that statement is to say that translation can typically capture the basic meaning of words and phrases, but the part of writing that is poetry is the part that goes beyond that basic meaning. Poetry is about subtle differences in meaning. It is about connotation and cultural resonance. It is about the sounds that words make and the emotional responses that they trigger in someone who has encountered that word thousands of times before, in a wide variety of contexts.

These things almost never have simple one-to-one correspondences from one language to another. That means that a good translation of poetry requires a back-and-forth process. If you have a translator who is truly fluent in both languages — linguistically and culturally — this back-and-forth can happen within the brain of the translator. But, if your translation involves two people, who each bring their expertise from one side of the translation, they have to get on the phone every so often to discuss things like the difference between “O!” and “Oh!”

Doing mathematical or theoretical biology is exactly like this.

The theories and observations that build up in the biological domain exist in a language that is profoundly different from the language of mathematics. For theory in biology to be both accurate and relevant, it has to stay true to both of these languages. That means there has to be a vibrant, even obsessive, back-and-forth between the biological observations and concepts and the mathematical representations that attempt to capture and formalize them.

As in the poetry case, if you, as an individual scientist, have a deep understanding of the biology and a fluency in the relevant mathematics, that back-and-forth can happen in your own brain. Where E. O. WIlson is right is in his assertion that, if you don’t have the math, you can still make a contribution, by focusing on building your deep understanding of the biology, and then by finding yourself a mathematician you can collaborate with.

But there’s a trick.

If you’re going to follow this route, you have to sit down with your mathematician, and you have to walk through every single equation. You have to press them on what it means, and you have to follow the thread of what it implies. If you’re the mathematician, you have to sit down with your biologist and say, “If we assume A, B, and C, then mathematically that implies X, Y, and Z.” You have to understand where, in the biology, A, B, and C come from, and you have to work together to discover whether or not X, Y, and Z make any sense.

Basically, each of you has to develop some fluency in the other’s language, at least within the narrow domain covered by the collaboration. If you’re not willing to put in this level of work, then yes, you should probably consider a different career.

Now, maybe you think I’m being unfair to Wilson here. After all, he doesn’t explicitly say that you should hand your ideas over to the mathematicians and walk away. And obviously, I don’t have any privileged access to the inner workings of Wilson’s brain or the nature of his collaborations.

But let’s go back to a couple of years ago, when he collaborated with Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita to write a controversial paper in which they argued that modeling the evolution of social behaviors based on “kin selection” was fundamentally flawed. That paper elicited a response from the community that is rare: multiple responses criticizing the paper on multiple fronts, including one letter (nominally) co-authored by nearly 150 evolutionary biologists.

I won’t go into the details here, as I have written about the paper and the responses multiple times in the past (here and here, in particular, or you can just watch my video synopsis of the criticism here).

Briefly, the controversial article (published in Nature, arguably the most prestigious journal for evolutionary biologists), completely misinterprets, misrepresents, and/or ignores the work done by other people in the field. It’s a little bit like if you published a physics paper where you said, “But what if the speed of light is constant in different frames of reference? No one has ever thought of that, so all of physics is wrong!” That’s an exaggeration, of course, but the flaws in Wilson’s paper are of this general type.

The weird thing about the paper is that it includes an extensive supplement, which cites much of the literature that is disregarded by the main text of the paper. It is exactly the sort of error that happens when you have something that is written by a disconnected committee, where the right hand does no know what the left hand is doing. Basically, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which someone could actually have understood the papers that are cited and discussed in the supplementary materials, and then turned around and, in good faith, have written that paper.

That leaves us with a few possible explanations. It could be that the authors were just not smart enough to understand what they were talking about. Or it could be that they deliberately misrepresented prior work to make their own work seem more original and important. For the purposes of our discussion here, let’s assume that neither of these explanations is accurate.

Instead, let’s assume that everyone involves is fundamentally competent, and was acting in good faith. In that case, perhaps the problem came from a failure of collaboration. E. O. Wilson probably knows more than just about anyone else in the world about the biology underlying the evolution of social behavior — especially among eusocial insects. Martin Nowak is a prominent and prolific mathematical biologist. Corina Tarnita was a postdoc at the time, with a background primarily in mathematics.

Wilson, as he acknowledges, lacks the mathematical skills required to really understand what the models of kin selection do and do not assume and imply. Tarnita, I imagine, has these skills, but as a young researcher coming out of math, perhaps lacked the biological knowledge and the perspective on the field to understand how the math related to the prior literature and the state of the field. Nowak, in principle, had both the mathematical skills and the biological experience to bridge this gap. He’s a curious case, though, as he, rather famously in the field, is interested in building and solving models, and has little interest in what has been done by other people, or in chasing down the caveats and nuanced implications of his work.

Among the three of them, Wison, Nowak, and Tarnita have all of the skills and knowledge required to write an accurate analysis of models of kin selection. But if assembling the requisite skills was all that was necessary, that Nature paper would have been very different — in much the same way that you could dump a pile of gears, shafts, and pistons in my driveway, and I could drive away in a Camaro.

The challenge of interdisciplinary collaboration is to combine your various skills in a way that creates something greater than the sum of the parts. If you can master this, you’ll be able to make great contributions to whatever field you apply your skills and interests to.

In the case of Wilson’s disastrous paper, what we got was a situation where the deficits that each of the researchers brought to the table combined to create something greater than the sum of the parts. Sadly, I get the feeling that Wilson does not understand this difference, that he thinks collaborating with mathematicians means explaining your intuition, and then waiting for them to “prove” them.

So, yes, you can be a great scientist in the twenty-first century, even if you don’t have great mathematical skills yourself. But, just as Robert Haas called up Czesław Miłosz on the phone to discuss the difference between “O!” and “Oh!” maybe you’re going to have to call up your mathematician collaborators to talk about the difference between O(x) and o(x). You don’t necessarily have to understand the difference in general, but you do need to understand the difference and its implications in the context of the system you’re studying, otherwise you’re not really doing science at all.

Galaxy Poetry

So, you know Galaxy Zoo? That’s the outfit that has been leveraging the power of millions of people who have grown tired of the excessive availability of pornography on the internet to help them to classify the shapes of millions of galaxies observed as part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

Well, they’ve got this cool thing where you can enter text, and it will render it in a sort of galaxy font, made up of galaxies that resemble letters. It’s not, you know, the most readable font in the world, but if you use this in your presentations, you’ll probably get less crap from design geeks than if you use comic sans.

Anyway, here’s an illustration, featuring a new poem, which is part of a series. The title of the series is still in flux, so it is presented here untitled.

A little hard to read, but some of the letters are awesome. And, you know, each one of these is a whole galaxy, which is, like, crazy.

Anyway, here’s the original text for those of you who don’t find satisfaction in extreme textual disorientation.

You believe in a
revolution that

comes like a billiard
ball, but Erica

knows the wind is made
of molecules and

lovers and guns and
copper coils spinning

around a common
belief in a spark

that destroys the world

It’s got a limit of 250 characters, but that’s at least long enough to translate all of Kim Kierkegaardashian’s tweets.

On Psychotherapy, Poetry and Constraint

So, the Economist published a brief interview with psychoanalyst Adam Phillips last week in which Phillips points to the similarities between psychoanalysis and poetry. The interviewer asks Phillips about the introduction of one of his books, in which he refers to psychoanalysis as a “kind of practical poetry.” Phillips responds:

On the one hand, psychoanalysis is practical in the sense that there is an attempt to solve a problem, or to cure somebody, or at least to address their suffering. But the other thing that psychoanalysis does is that the project is to enable somebody to speak. It’s the attempt to create the conditions in which somebody can speak themselves as fully as possible. 

It is as though Freud invented a setting or a treatment in which people could not exactly speak the poetry that they are, but that they could articulate themselves as fully as they are able. [A session] lasts 50 minutes, and it’s always at the same time each week, just like a sonnet is always 14 lines. It’s a similar thing. The form makes possible the articulation.

I don’t know. What do you think? I feel like maybe there’s something there, but the analogy isn’t quite working for me. Yes, structure (or form, or constraint, or whatever) plays a critical role in poetry. Some poetry, anyway. In those poems, however, it has always seemed to me that the role of form is to constrain the creative impulse, to cut off most avenues, and create a sort of internal pressure, which sends that creativity off in some other direction.

Imagine you’ve got a room, and you pump in a bunch of ketchup. (Stay with me here.) And then all the ketchup gooshes predictably out the door, and maybe also out the window, assuming you’re pumping it in fast enough. That’s, like, Maroon 5 lyrics. Now, plug up the door and the window, and just keep pumping in ketchup. With the obvious escapes blocked, pressure builds, and the ketchup starts to seep into some of the (heretofore unnoticed) cracks in the wall. Pretty soon, a huge chunk of the wall explodes, killing the annoying neighbor who really needs to get curtains in their bathroom, and splattering the neighborhood with lycopene-rich poetry goodness.


When tomatoes turn to poetry

The fifty-minute psychoanalysis session seems different to me, more like a sort of safety belt. You can dig into uncomfortable or even dangerous territory with the comfort of knowing that at the end of the session you’ll be able to stop. Maybe it’s like a bungee cord, then.

It seems to me that the benefits of formal constraint in poetry is more analogous to specific tactics that a psychoanalyst might employ, like word association, or inkblots, or, you know, things that actual, non-fictionalized psychoanalysts do.

The regularity of the session, the same-time-every-week-ness, which creates a context in which speech occurs, strikes me as related in a different way. It sets an expectation, in the way that, say, having a writing group does. So, maybe that would be like the pressure that is pumping all that ketchup into the room in the first place.

I was hoping that this was all going to come together in a way that seems not to be really happening, so I’ll just jump to the other thing. [Clever transition T/K]

Speaking of that, how about John Berryman’s Dream Songs! Berryman is one of those mid-century poets who started off writing in the New Criticism professor/poet style, where every word was chosen with the idea that graduate students would someday be writing theses about them. But then he underwent years of psychoanalysis, and started writing down his dreams. Out of that came the Dream Songs. They have a much more informal, unguarded feel, mix all sorts of diction, and represent some of the best of the “confessional” movement in American poetry. Each song consists of three stanzas with six lines each. Taken all together (there are 365 of them, although, to be honest, he could have just stopped after the first 77), they form a long narrative of self examination.

So, not only was the diction and content explicitly influenced by Berryman’s experience with psychotherapy, but the form was as well, with each song like its own fifty-minute therapy session.

Anyway, I’ll get out of the way at this point, and just let you enjoy a couple.

Dream Song 1 

Huffy Henry hid    the day,
unappeasable Henry sulked.
I see his point,–a trying to put things over.
It was the thought that they thought
they could do it made Henry wicked & away.
But he should have come out and talked.

All the world like a woolen lover
once did seem on Henry’s side.
Then came a departure.
Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
I don’t see how Henry, pried
open for all the world to see, survived.

What he has now to say is a long
wonder the world can bear & be.
Once in a sycamore I was glad
all at the top, and I sang.
Hard on the land wears the strong sea
and empty grows every bed.

Dream Song 29 

There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
só heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.

And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of.  Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late.  This is not for tears;

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.

My god. That third stanza in Dream Song 29, I could just sit here and read it all day.

Darwin Eats Cake Valentine’s Day Cards

So, it’s almost Valentine’s Day here in the States, and you’ve forgotten to buy something for your spouse / fiancé(e) / boy- and/or girl-friend. Fortunately, we’ve got you covered. Just print out these handy-dandy Valentine’s Day cards, and you’re all set.

If you’re in Australia, Valentine’s Day is already half over, and while you also forgot to buy anything for your special someone, you’ll get away with it, because sheep never know what day it is.

Higher-resolution versions can be found over at Darwin Eats Cake.

Sherlock / Smaug reads Kubla Khan

So, the official title of this is “Benedict Cumberbatch reads Kubla Khan,” but if you’re like me, you’re all, “Who the hell is Benedict Cumberbatch? That sounds like either a good way to ruin poached eggs, or some sort of sexually transmitted fungal infection.”

To save you from embarrassment, I’ll just tell you. He’s this dude:

image from Wikipedia

That’s the actor who plays Sherlock Holmes in the most recent incarnation from the BBC, Sherlock.

He’s also going to be playing the dragon Smaug in the upcoming Hobbit movies (via motion capture), and providing the voice for the Necromancer (aka Sauron). In those same movies, Bilbo Baggins will be played by Martin Freeman. Freeman also plays Watson opposite Cumberbatch’s Holmes.

Somehow the whole situation seems Oedipal to me, although I can’t quite articulate why.

Anyway, here is Cumberbatch reading Kubla Khan, one of my favorites. It is embedded here as a YouTube video, but is just audio.

If you’re watching it with the sound off, but want to know what the experience would be like if you could actually hear it, here are a few comments from YouTube:

     “I want to be these words. His voice practically caresses them.”

     “I would gladly go to that pleasure dome if he was in it.”

     “me gusta”

     “OVARIES GO BOOM!!!!!!”

1971 Bukowski letter on poetry reading

So, I’m not a huge fan of Charles Bukowski’s poetry, but the dude wrote some awesome letters. This one was posted yesterday at Boing Boing. It is his response to a request to perform a poetry reading.

Just check out that last paragraph:

I’m working on my 2nd. novel now, THE POET, but I’m taking my time. They say it’s 101 [degrees] today. Fine then, I’m drinking coffee and rolling cigarettes and looking out at the hot baked street and a lady just walked by wiggling it in tight white pants, and we are not dead yet.

You read that in a letter and it is smoking-hot prose that makes you want to go get drunk with the guy. That’s a paragraph that could only be written by the coolest person you know. But somehow, his poetry all sounds exactly like that. And, for me at least, in the context of a “poem,” I would probably feel that it was trying to hard. Or, rather, trying too hard in some ways and not hard enough in others. Maybe it is the extra expectation that is placed on words when you call them a poem, or maybe the sense of deliberateness that it implies. I’m not sure.

I think when I read that paragraph as a spontaneous statement, it crackles, but if I assume that it is deliberately crafted art, the crackle goes away. It makes me wonder if it would seem as compelling if it were written in 2001, rather than 1971, using a word processor rather than a typewriter. Maybe even the typo in “degrees” is key in conveying the authenticity / spontaneity of the statement.

Anyway, Mark Frauenfelder at Boing Boing got the letter from the tumblr this isn’t happiness, which is full of cool stuff. If you don’t already follow it, you should. Here are just a few of many, many gems to be found there (arranged roughly from FTW to WTF):

Transistor Rodeo mini-review in The Literary Review

So, I just found this short review of my book in the Summer 2011 issue of The Literary Review. Thanks to reviewer Sarah Barber for the kid words:

Jon Wilkins

Transistor Rodeo

University of Utah Press, 2010

Jon Wilkins’s  Transistor Rodeo  is a portable rodeo where poems barrel through American cities from Memphis to Los Angeles, roping in Elizabeth Barrett Browning, James Madison, tired waitresses, the Pope, and proms. In an explosion of association, invocation, and formal trickery, this daredevil of a book asks us to consider the seriousness of play, to imagine the wolf-whistle as an endangered species, to picture the “wee symbolic life” of people living in a topographical map, and, above all, to enjoy the smash and noise of language, “a hammer / in a London china shoppe.” Wilkins lets us pretend to be very skilled rodeo riders, crashing around without taking any very bad tumbles. —Sarah Barber