Linda Gregerson, born and raised in Elgin, Illinois, is a Renaissance scholar, classically trained actor, and science devotee, writes lyric poetry exploring the connections between science and art. She is the Caroline Walker Bynum Distinguished University Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan, where she teaches creative writing and directs the Helen Zell Writers Program. Her poems, which have appeared in The New Yorker and The Best American Poetry, among others places, have received multiple literary awards. Gregerson has also published a variety of critical works, including “The Reformation of the Subject: Spenser, Milton, and the English Protestant Epic,” in 1995. Her most recent poetic volume, “Prodigal: New and Selected Poems, 1976 – 2014,” was published in 2015. In 2014, Gregerson was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 2015 was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
Can you tell me more about your interest in science?
“Where to begin? I think poetry and scientific inquiry have a great deal in common. Poetry worth its name is a form of inquiry. And I’m absolutely enraptured by what I understand of the biological sciences and scientific research. My sister was a neuroendocrinologist. And actually, when I was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the summer before I began my MFA, I had a summer job with a group of neurophysiologists. I was just there as a temp, typing up lecture notes and turning them into actual English, and I was just thrilled with what I was learning. I really do think there’s an enormous amount of sympathy between the two disciplines. Part of it has to do with wonder. … I am perpetually astonished by the mystery of living in a body that is so much smarter than I am. A body that handles more things, is infinitely more complex — that does things I could not possibly do on purpose, and which I inhabit as a kind of guest.”
“I guess what moves me enormously about scientific inquiry is the gap between what we have by way of cognitive equipment, and what it is that our gaze is directed toward. This of course has been discussed in religious terms as well, the distance between the divine transcendence and limited human apprehension, but I don’t think we need to go there to encounter that incredible disproportion in scale. Poetry, in its own way, is after the ineffable, or the difficult to grasp by other means, that which does not readily lend itself to discursive explanation. I don’t think poetry is unreasonable, or anti-reason, or mystical, in any reductive way. But I do think the experience of standing before the world in wonder and wanting to come to what mindfulness we can is a very important stance. In my experience, it’s our common stance, common to poets and scientists alike. I have been the beneficiary of instruction from people who are exquisitely trained in scientific research. The magic of that research is the combination of aptitudes it requires: capacities for abstract inquiry, for tolerance of provisional thinking, or hypothesis, and also an array of practical skills. The scientist needs to posit some premise in order to formulate her question, and then to design an experiment that might help her refine the question, and she has to be prepared to jettison that hypothesis if her experimental results tell her it’s insufficient. You have to be invested in order to pursue the question, but you also have to prepare to be corrected. I think that’s also a moral stance. You can’t be not-committed, you must be strongly committed and yet prepared to be corrected.”
Why then did you choose poetry?
“There was, in an odd way, an early kind of tracking. I went to a very small high school in a very small town, and it wasn’t that I was discouraged from pursuing math or science, it was just that different kinds of arts were scheduled up against electives in math in science, and so I had to choose. Nobody intended that to be a limitation — people were doing the best they could — but it sort of wound up that way. But also, the first way I sort of found myself in the world. I used to look at people and think, ‘How do they do that? They look so intact, and I’m so inchoate!’ — though I didn’t know that word. Working in the arts was the first way I found some way of having a self, most importantly through acting in theatre, something I continued throughout college. I didn’t write poetry until two or three years after I’d graduated. And I knew nothing about it, I was incredibly bad to begin with. I didn’t know how to read contemporary poetry. I knew how to read John Donne, or I knew how to begin to read John Donne, I absolutely adored John Donne’s work, but I was very baffled by contemporary poetry. So I was a late beginner.
Would you consider your style contemporary, or more traditional?
“I think we have to live in our moment. The world may need another John Donne, but a John Donne provided now would not sound like John Donne of the 17th century. I cannot be John Donne — I would be a very very poor imitation. Which does not mean rejecting our marvelous heritage, at all. The most powerful contestations in art are those which are in conversation with that which has gone before us. They may take a highly subversive stance, but that itself is a form of honor: it’s continuing the conversation. So I deeply believe in history, I think it’s essential to our being in the world and to the production of art of any form. But John Donne wrote in his moment. All the artists I know worth reading wrote in their moment: they were not dead to the world around them. In fact, it’s noticing the world around us that I think poetry gives us the opportunity to do, and demands of us.”
Who are some of the poets who inspire you?
“That’s a question I can never answer. I read as broadly as I possibly can. Some of the first poets I learned how to read at all were the metaphysicals. I learned how to piece out a metaphor, follow a piece of syntax, follow syntax that sometimes seems to be going off the rails and then recuperating itself: I think that’s thrilling. To that extent, that has been an influence. I try to make sure that my language is capacious: that is, I want it to include all forms of diction, both formal and informal, colloquial and otherwise. But I also want sometimes to build a syntactical project that is in danger of collapse, and then recovers itself. I think that’s a cognitive path.”
What your creative process looks like: how do you go about writing a poem?
“It can start almost anywhere. I can start with a piece of language, one I encounter somewhere, something I overheard on the bus, something I saw on a page somewhere, maybe the morning newspaper, something in a piece of language that makes me very distraught or worried: at some level, it’s trying to find momentum that’s already in words. But sometimes it might be a picture, a landscape, a vision of a young child being pushed down the street in a stroller: it can be anything. It can be an emotion, a memory, or a piece of a narrative — it’s really quite diverse. And then I start to try to generate language. It sounds very superstitious, but my earliest drafts must begin in pencil on a yellow legal notepad, in my atrocious handwriting — the fact that I then sometimes go back and have trouble deciphering it seems to me to be useful too, it keeps things kind of fluid. I need to keep it fluid for a while. But then I discard, try something maybe next-door-neighborly to it, say that was the wrong place to begin, I need to start at a different angle. But then finally I have to start pinning it down, I have to start establishing a very firm syntax, and experiment with a stanza pattern which seems to have the right musical relationship to the syntax. Once I’ve established that, I’m writing into that stanza pattern.”
You’ve also written numerous critical works: is there a particular area or subject that you find yourself coming back to in your analytical writing?
“Poetry. A lot of my scholarship is focused on Milton, and I never lose interest in that body of work, in that historical period and its complicated intersection of radical change, emergent political and epistemological models, and of course, often violent religious struggle: the Reformation in England. The Renaissance came late to England; the Reformation came early. And they intersected in ways they did not elsewhere.”
“I’ve written about Reformation Iconoclasm: it’s a subject that interests me enormously because of its investment in signs, and the sense that they are of urgent importance — in how we use them, how we construe them, how we circulate them, how we understand them. I never stop being fascinated, it’s just too, too wonderful. And of course it’s also a period before what we construe as the separation between science and art, and theology and science, before those firewalls were erected. And I think there’s an enormous amount to be gleaned from that.”
From where do you get inspiration for your writing today? Would you say that you write with a message, to provoke some kind of change, or are you more interested in recording life as you see it?
“I probably wouldn’t put it either way. I certainly don’t think poetry is very good at didacticism. That explicit mission to teach or instill — that’s just not one of the things it’s good for. And stories alone don’t quite capture what I hope to be doing, although I think sometimes a narrative or a fragment of narrative can be a really important component of a poem, as essential as voice, or metaphor, or meter. I try to make the poem, in the first instance for myself and therefore, I hope, for a reader, an occasion for simple and concentrated noticing. I’m so keenly aware of how much I’m oblivious to, how much passes me by without my paying sufficient attention to it. I don’t want, on my deathbed, to think my life has been all a blur, that it’s been lost on me. I’m just trying to keep it from being entirely lost on me. I think shared moments of paying attention are absolutely the most important things human beings can do for one another in any context. And so I also take it very seriously that, insofar as a reader is going to attend to my poem, I take that as an honor, I’m grateful for it, and I want to do justice to that.”