Impossible poems at invisible scales

An interview with Amy Catanzano

Note: In May 2015 Jace Brittain and Rachel Zavecz interviewed me about my third book, Starlight in Two Million: A Neo-Scientific Novella (Noemi Press, 2014). The book combines narrative fiction — in which three characters, two of whom are named for Greek concepts, join forces to stop a war — with lyric poetry, visual poetry, and memoir.We discuss the book’s cross-genre form, ’pataphysics, quantum poetics, fourth-person narration and the fourth dimension, and more. In addition to talking with me about Starlight in Two Million, Jace and Rachel wrote a collaborative review of the novella for the online arts magazine, Queen Mob’s Teahouse. — Amy Catanzano
Jace Brittain: I think it’s fun to start with the book’s undercard: A Neo-Scientific Novella. Before I had delved into the context of Alfred Jarry and ’pataphysics, I just felt this wonderful compulsion to investigate my optimistic suspicions that “neo-scientific” meant that this wasn’t going to look like one’s average novella. Light skimming confirmed this, and later, when I was actually diving in, the sections that stuck out to me visually, like “Aftermaths/Beginnings” and “War Novella,” ended up being some of my favorites to encounter while reading straight through. And, ironically, I think these are the sections where the respective pulls of ’pataphysics and quantum theory begin tugging at the narrative strings, warping the reality of the story and the form of the novella. This is all to say, let’s talk a little about the undertitle!

Amy Catanzano:
Thanks, Jace and Rachel.In some ways the subtitle is the book’s first hoax. Indeed, the book is not a standard novella, and like [Alfred] Jarry’s Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician: A Neo-Scientific Novel, I am aiming to hyperbolically interrogate genre. Ordinary narrative elements such as plot and point of view are constructed in the service of deeper explorations about language and spacetime. The “neo-scientific” section of the subtitle is meant to be interpreted more earnestly in that the book enacts some of the theories I explore in quantum poetics, where I investigate intersections between poetry, prose, philosophy, and science.

It delights me that you are gravitating to “Aftermaths/Beginnings” and “War Novella,” as they are the most blatant visual poems in the novella. Yes, I wanted them to warp the reality of the story, as you say. I think of them as visually subversive like Rachel’s wild “V” poems in Lac!/Lake that we recently discussed. I see “War Novella” as the novella’s wormhole. This chapter occurs after the authorial “I” comes into play in which I talk about rewriting the novella. That comes after Aletheia, Epoché, and the Enduring Karmanaut (the “visitor” at the beginning of the book) enter the war, which is an abstract war, an everywar. You may notice that the stream of capital letters spells out cries for war and no war, and what the novella is becomes a question. “War Novella” ends in the repeated letters, “IS,” which transforms into “ISIS” hissing the “S.” I wanted this to evoke the Egyptian goddess, Isis, the patroness of nature and magic, the protector of children, and the friend of sinners, slaves, artists, and the downtrodden. Today, of course, the term “ISIS” evokes something else.

“Aftermaths/Beginnings” ends on a square configuration that repeats the letters “l, o, v, e” but never spells out the word “love.” That was hard to do! This poem is partly an homage to bpNichol’s visual poem “Blues.” But the poem also privately speaks to a loss of love that occurred in my personal life, and if you decipher the disordered letters in the first few pages of “Aftermaths/Beginnings,” you’ll see an abstract narrative partly describing this loss. The book combines not only poetry and fiction but also memoir.

Brittain: I’m pretty taken with this idea of the subtitle as a hoax (one of many, perhaps!). In only a slightly different light, it might be seen as analogous to early mystery surrounding relativity at the quantum level […] with misbehaving molecules. Based on observations of the book from the outside — the subtitle, the approximate length and wordcount — this looks and quacks like a novella, but at molecular scales (and we should talk about what exactly that means), the novella isn’t behaving according to the rules we understand. And there’s where Jarry and his equation [an equation for the surface of “god” in Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, also appearing in Starlight’s front matter] come in for me … (∞ - 0 - a + a + 0 = ∞) … an unruly value there upsets infinity! Talk about hyperbole, everything ever is at stake. Like you said, narrative and plot are there, but they’re up to something else (there’s the hoax), a subversion that’s humorous at times and just as often points toward tough questions. There’s a very serious humor in Alfred Jarry’s work, and I think his gravity is very present in Starlight the genuine curiosity and radical smirk it requires to ask,  “What happens to our reality when a novella doesn’t act like a novella?” It’s a great jab at the serious and scared way some people discuss traditional forms, and then, in a very Jarry-like way, you ask, “but really, what does happen?” and poetry, philosophy, and theoretical physics get folded in.

Isis the goddess by design and now, unintentionally through current events: ISIS/ISIL. I remember reading “ISIS” in “War Novella” and trying to suss out the timeline in my head. Ultimately, I reduced it to coincidence while holding onto the thought that in human history, war is seemingly constant, dependable, so maybe this is a surprise/coincidence we should expect? Or maybe that kind of surprise is a product of the density of the referential web you’ve put in play, all the objects you’ve put into orbit (Jarry, Shanxing Wang, Martin Heidegger, and Laura Moriarity, for starters). With regard to authorial intent, in your Author’s Statement, you talk about “quantum jumping between intention and non-intention.” Can you talk a little about how your influences and intent (/non-intent) interact? And what happens to that after the book’s already out, in the reader’s hands?

Catanzano: I’ll start with talking about how I see the novella functioning at molecular scales. Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle claims that subatomic particles move by quantum jump rather than by cause and effect. Particles exist in states of superposition and can appear to jump into and out of existence. Position and momentum cannot be predicted with certainty and can only be measured in probabilities. Subatomic particles can occupy the same points in space at the same time, so time and space are reconceived in quantum mechanics. I wrote Starlight in a quantum environment. One aim was to quantum jump between intention — such as developing a question Shanxing Wang poses about fourth-person narration in his book, Mad Science in Imperial City (Futurepoem, 2005) — and subconscious or non-intention involving language play, intuition, and compositional experiments such as chance operations, collage, and more.

What does all of this quantum jumping mean for the reader is a great question. A reader can be thought of as an active observer, but we know from quantum mechanics that the observer is part of the observation, changing what is observed. I wanted to encourage the reader to creatively interpret the text, to go beyond and even oppose my authorial intent, but I also wanted to direct the reader through a quantum process.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition” is a useful essay on traditional authorial intent and how some authors try to direct the interpretive process for readers. Poe’s ideas may seem old-fashioned, but there’s a reason why we are freaked out by that eye in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” In the chapter of my novella with the title that spells out Aletheia and Epoché’s names in Greek, I write, “Our language is starlight. / We travel in all directions.” I didn’t write those sentences on Earth. Starlight travels in all directions outside of our relative position in space and time, and so does our language if we free it from Newtonian physics. I want the reader to quantum jump with me. Let us all be “misbehaving molecules,” as you say! Quantum mechanics, as a physics of dissent, challenges dominant notions of reality. These are some of the ways I see the book performing literary-scientific experiments in quantum poetics.

I’m not sure if the Isis/ISIS situation is a coincidence or a result of the referential web at play. In “Questionairre,” the characters come together in TAZ — Hakim Bey/Peter Lamborn Wilson’s Temporary Autonomous Zones — to enter the war (the “absolute system”) through a rigged telescope that Aletheia makes. In “Mock Heroic,” I show the war. Then comes the chapter, “The Novella,” where I talk about rewriting the novella. Next is “War Novella.” What I hope to subtly suggest is that Aletheia, Epoché, and the Enduring Karmanaut escape the war through Isis’s peaceful but powerful hiss. But now we see Isis as ISIS. Maybe my characters never escaped the war. Maybe the novella is still performing a quantum process, changing and being changed by changing circumstances. Maybe I need to launch a rescue mission.

Rachel Zavecz: I see Starlight as a complex experiment of inquiry, a multiverse of moving parts within the even larger multiverse that is literature as a whole. Within the neo-novella, every part on both a macro and micro scale has purpose; the overarching structure of poetry, prose, sentence, and the atomic vibration of letters. In “Aftermaths/Beginnings” we see the micro letter scale’s influence most clearly, the letters diffusing into new patterns and disrupting singular meaning.

In your last response you addressed the function of the reader, and I’m excited about the way that you encourage this reader to quantum jump with you through the process of such a complex experiment, the divergence in interpretation that really contributes to the multilayered density of the project. On a structural level, I wonder how the reader’s inclusion as part of the observed phenomena is benefited [by] or even depends on your use of the hybrid form, poetry specifically.

I focus most specifically on the poetics of the avant-garde. In your essay, “Quantum Poetics: Writing the Speed of Light,” you talk about the relationship between progressive art and science, poetry and quantum physics:

And like the relationship of the observed and the observer in quantum theory, the reader influences text through interpretation. It is also in this way that meaning, in both the new physics and poetic innovations, is a process rather than an end point.

Poetry seems to be a very important functional part of Starlight’s overall structure and hybridity. I wonder if you could talk further about this, and how you see other mediums (such as prose) functioning differently or the same in this regard.

Catanzano: Perhaps hybridity is a metagenre that surpasses what can be achieved in poetry, fiction, and memoir alone. But aren’t all of these literary categorizations like words on a map? North Carolina on a map is not the territory, North Carolina, where I am writing this; it’s a representation of a territory. Naming — a major theme of Starlight — is like a word on a map, a representation, but it is also political and carries power. At the subatomic level, what constitutes me in relation to my surroundings cannot be defined with certainty. The territory, what we often think of as the thing-in-itself or the physically “real,” cannot be defined without ambiguity. Likewise, what we mean by these literary genres is always in question.

In Starlight’s first chapter, “WMAP,” which I named after a NASA space probe, the authorial “I” says, “Love is the hybrid of us all.” Here I am trying to establish the breadth of the “us” in the book — the nameless “she” and “we,” the authorial “I,” and the three named primary characters, with one of them, the visitor/Enduring Karmanaut, giving itself a name. Inspired by the notion of fourth-person narration and Neoist practices where people make art under collective names and give themselves new names, I wanted to push narrative conventions for point of view and constructions of identity. But I encourage a sequential reading of the book, which I see as a traditional characteristic of fiction. There are characters and a plot. And I write mostly at the scale of the sentence. Sometimes I think of poetry as a U+F+O+L+A+N+G+U+A+G+E, an unidentified flying object that travels through unfamiliar territory — the text, our minds, physical reality — by way of warp drive. In Star Trek, warp drive is achieved not by making a starship fly really fast but instead by bending space and time around the starship. Warp drive is a lot like the concept of a wormhole, which Albert Einstein first introduced in 1935. He proposed that the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line but a wormhole if spacetime between the two points was curled. A wormhole, like warp drive, is a shorthand, not unlike some forms of poetry. Physicists know that relativity is useful in exploring spacetime at cosmological scales, but it fails when thinking about subatomic scales of physical reality. This is where quantum mechanics is needed. Quantum mechanics redefines Newtonian conceptions of spacetime. This has significant yet mostly unacknowledged implications for poetry and other art forms, and my work in quantum poetics is an attempt to explore these implications.

“Aftermaths/Beginnings” challenges axiomatic notions of reading and interpretation, just as your poems do, Rachel, and as Jace’s typographically and visually complex pieces do in Lac!/Lake. In all of these works, words, letters, and/or pictures are encountered outside of ordinary constructions of spacetime such as linearity and cause and effect. Poetry, like quantum mechanics, can provide a counterpoint to thousands of years of received ideas from Aristotle, Euclid, and Newton about space and time. Aristotle was one of the first people to articulate linear time, and he based his ideas on Euclid’s notions of linear space in geometry. Newton was influenced by Aristotelian time and Euclidean space when he developed the laws of motion that led to classical mechanics. Quantum mechanics, which rejects these received ideas, has been the dominant theory in physics since the 1930s; our literature needs to catch up! Postmodernism has made a number of important strides in rejecting received ideas, but it still hasn’t rejected received notions about spacetime. That’s one of the things I’m working toward.

One of my claims in quantum poetics is that poetry is expanding along with the known universe, which scientists believe is not only expanding but expanding at accelerating rates. The space between galaxies is getting bigger, for example. Language is a hyperdimensional object within the multiverse, the wilderness of universes of which our known universe is a part. Poets could be asking, “What is the physics of my poetry?” Physicists could be asking, “What is the poetics of my physics?” Seeing poetry as a shorthand, a wormhole, a warp drive capable of moving space and time around it is one of my bolder claims in quantum poetics because I’m not just figuratively speaking.

Zavecz: In thinking about poetry as a kind of shorthand, a wormhole or warp drive, I wonder how this concept might relate to Joyelle McSweeney’s “Bug Time.” She describes it within the context of the necropastoral as a sort of time where linearity becomes impossible. Instead of moving in a unidirectional line, it is as if time explodes in all directions simultaneously; literature proliferates too quickly to allow for tradition or hierarchy. Connections between literature across time and space become a matter of two-way warp travel — it becomes possible to say that influence moves both backward and forward through time. And as our universe expands, literature correlates in its exponential proliferation.

I wonder how you might see Starlight functioning within the larger literary world — does it function similarly to poetry’s warp drive? You’ve talked about influence from past authors, but I also wonder if Starlight might also be reaching and connecting with literary influence that exists in our future. In a universe where expansion is inexorable, how might poetry’s warp drive mutate to accommodate the increasing distance? How might your next literary project address this increasing scope, and how different and/or similar might that look in comparison to Starlight?

Catanzano: There does seem to be a strong connection between Joyelle’s “Bug Time” (great concept!) and the lack of linearity in quantum mechanics and my novella. “Bug Time” seems to reveal how humans conceive of space and time through the subjectivity of their positions without considering the relativity of those positions. It is fascinating to think of influence occurring between texts across space and time in a two-way wormhole. Texts interacting across “space” and “time” expands the now (“time”) and the here (“space”) so that the “spacetime” or “now-here” combines into “no-where” (“now-here” mutates into “no-where” by repositioning the hyphen), which is a kind of “every-where.” Nowhere and everywhere happen in the now-here. 

In some ways I am writing for a transhuman or posthuman readership. But I don’t believe in stable realities or linear conceptions of space and time, so rather than contextualizing my work as vanguard and futuristic, I view it more as functioning outside of “space and time,” where these words are separate concepts, and more in “spacetime,” where these words merge. As you mention in your collaborative review of Starlight at Queen Mob’s Teahouse(thank you, again!) in the chapter, “Under the Ocean Floor,” Aletheia writes to Epoché: “This is an allegory of space and time and how each word became one.”

Space and time are the same thing in the fourth dimension, where the three dimensions of space meet the dimension of time. On a piece of paper, zero dimension, 0D, can be exemplified by a point. 1D can be exemplified by a line, 2D can be exemplified by a plane like a square, and 3D can be exemplified by a cube. A cube drawn on a piece of paper is a 3D projection, unlike a square, on a 2D plane. 4D, the fourth dimension, is a temporal dimension, not a spatial dimension. 4D can be projected on a 2D surface or modeled in 3D as a hypercube or tesseract, which combines the three dimensions of space with the temporal dimension of time. I wanted to make my novella into a tesseract. Using spacetime as a literary device, I wrote in fourth-person narration by combining first-person point of view, second-person point of view, and third-person point of view with the authorial “I” and poetry. The fourth dimension can be seen as the narrative that results from my experiment. Plus, a literary work like my novella that is written in fourth-person narration can be conceived of as a projection of 4D spacetime on a 3D plane, the book. And if a book occurs in 4D spacetime through the interaction between the book as object and the reader and writer, fourth-person narration can be a projection of 5D or higher spacetime on a 4D plane. But on what plane does a book exist?

It would seem that the writer/reader determines the number of dimensions upon which a book is capable of interacting. I have discussed some of these ideas with Charles (Chuck) Stein. At one point he suggested that a higher dimensional consciousness in the fifth dimension could be imagined as time traveling by moving freely between the 3D spatial states in the fourth dimension. In some versions of string theory, the multiverse — a wilderness of universes in which our known universe is a part — is thought to exist in at least eleven dimensions. This is one way I see my novella conceptually operating within the contextual frameworks of the mathematics in string theory and beyond.

One cool thing is that I recently learned how to hand-draw a 4D tesseract. Chuck makes drawings with hundreds of interconnecting Necker cubes, ambiguous cubes that appear to shift orientation when you look at them. He became interested in Necker cubes because of the conceptual and Fluxus artist Henry Flynt. Some of Chuck’s drawings also contain tesseracts, and he taught me how to draw one. You draw one 3D cube inside another 3D cube and attach the corresponding vertices. Voila! From each face, there’s an inner distorted cube that is a cube, too. He has dozens of these drawings. They are quite profound. It is as if he is drawing a representation of the fourth dimension over and over, which makes the viewer perceive dimensions far beyond four. The drawings pulse. They look like hyperdimensional cities. Sometimes he draws little people in them. The people represent “the people” and first appeared when Chuck was active in the Occupy movement. Some of his drawings contain Roman letters and invented languages. Some include what look like organic, atavistic, scorpion glyphs.

Whereas in Starlight I was trying to enact fourth-person narration by using the fourth dimension as a literary device, in one of my new projects I am using the symbol of the tesseract — what I think of as the body of the tesseract or the mathematical image of the fourth dimension — in a serial visual poem titled, “Borealis: Time Signatures.” I may add a hand-drawn tesseract, but now I’m using a computer-generated tesseract that has different-colored sides, which highlights the tesseract’s multidimensionality. It’s very pretty. It’s like a jewel that plays tricks with the mind. Working from an idea Chuck had, I may assign vectors to the tesseract image to highlight its temporality. The poem in which this tesseract image appears has a word-cipher representing the names of my twenty-three favorite authors. I thread this cipher through visual poems that explore theories of time.

I’m also writing a hybrid critical-creative work on quantum poetics, which collects my speculative essays. And I’m writing a conceptual memoir titled “MEPO: A Conceptual Memoir from Loveland,” which argues that conceptual poetry and confessional poetry can exist in a quantum superposition.

Brittain: I always like finding out (often in interviews) what people are excited about, what they hope to do. And it seems especially relevant to discussing your work because even these different projects engage in similar conversations and build off each other, like iEpiphany and Multiversal in Starlight. It’s similar to the way we discussed influences earlier. I’m interested in the responses you’ve gotten from others, including students. I think you mentioned you brought quantum poetics into one of your classes. In what kind of directions did your students take these ideas?

This has been a blast and a very generative experience for both Rachel and me. Thanks so much, Amy.

Catanzano: Thanks, too, Jace and Rachel. Quantum poetics is one of many frameworks I explore as a writer. I started using the phrase around 2007 and soon discovered others using the phrase. For example, Stephanie Strickland uses the phrase to discuss digital poetics in her essay “Quantum Poetics: Six Thoughts,” published in Media Poetry International Anthology (Intellect Press, 2007). Daniel Albright uses the phrase in his book Quantum Poetics: Yeats, Pound, Eliot, and the Science of Modernism (Cambridge University Press, 2006). One thing that distinguishes my use of the phrase is my focus on quantum mechanics as well as my development of a criticism and poetics attentive to physics alongside my own creative writing and art.

There have been a number of encouraging responses to quantum poetics. Michael Palmer, in his foreword to Multiversal, mentions my experiments in time and physics in that book, and reviews of iEpiphany and Multiversal by Tina Brown Celona, Rebecca Porte, and others have responded to my ideas in quantum poetics, as have newer reviews and responses to Starlight in Two Million. Jerome Rothenberg was an early supporter of my critical/speculative work in quantum poetics, talking with me and publishing my first essays on Poems and Poetics, which was mentioned earlier.

I gave one of my first talks on quantum poetics when Anne Waldman invited me to chair a panel discussion on the topic of poethics and the environment in the Summer Writing Program at Naropa University, where I was working and teaching at the time. I remember a contentious comment from an audience member who claimed that incorporating science into poetry takes away something essential from poetry; he associated poetry with a typical Romantic antirationalism. That was the first negative response to quantum poetics I received. Soon after I participated in a discussion project for Jacket2 (“Like a Metaphor”) on poetry and science with nine other poets. There I shared early drafts of my “Borealis: Time Signatures” project. I received many encouraging responses.

More recently I wrote a series of commentaries at Jacket2 on quantum poetics, where I discuss and present work by writers such as S. S. Prasad, Jena Osman, Allison Cobb, Andrew McEwan, Bhanu Kapil, M. NourbeSe Philip, Adam Cornford, Adam Dickinson, Jennifer K. Dick, Will Alexander, derek beaulieu, and others. This gave me a forum to use quantum poetics as an interpretive framework. As part of this I published a series of written exchanges I had with Andrew Joron about science and poetry.

Earlier this year at Wake Forest University, where I teach, I was invited to give a lecture on quantum poetics as part of a colloquium series in the Physics Department. There were about sixty physics faculty and students at the lecture. I discussed, among other topics, the uncertainty principle and the role of ambiguity in poetry and quantum mechanics.

Ming-Qian Ma, a professor at SUNY Buffalo who specializes in innovative poetry and poetics in relation to philosophy, science, and art, discusses one of my poems in Multiversal, “Objects of the Visible Language,” alongside quantum mechanics in an essay that will appear in a forthcoming Northwestern University Press book, “Articulating Contemporary Poetics,” edited by Charles Altieri and Nick Nace.

One of the first times I taught through the context of quantum poetics was in a summer workshop at Naropa. In one exercise I developed, students read about Einstein’s theory of relativity and wrote poems that could “exist” in a rocket ship traveling at the speed of light where space compresses, mass increases, and time slows. The students experimented with literary strategies that can evoke these concepts on the page and in performance. One student was taking the class for noncredit. She was in a circus troupe coming through town. At a reading she recited her poem while juggling what looked like crystal balls, synching each word in her poem to when each ball hit its apex, which meant her juggling had to follow the varying tempos of her poem. It was amazing. I also taught a Naropa summer workshop where students learned about the history of imaginary and constructed languages and developed projects out of their own created languages. In my current courses I teach a range of approaches to reading and writing. Rae Armantrout has cotaught a course on poetry and science with a physicist at the University of California San Diego. I would love to coteach a course with a physicist someday.