Virtual workshop integrates scientific research and creative writing

By Heather Fabritze
Elm Staff Writer

On Sept. 23, the Rose O’Neill Literary House co-sponsored, “Cross-Pollinations, Ingenious Hybrids, and Deep Mapping: A Generative Workshop,” with poet Katherine Larson and the Small Literary Arts Centers Coalition.

The workshop, which ran on Zoom from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., focused on the overlap between scientific research and creative writing.

The workshop was led by members of the Small Literary Arts Centers Coalition, which includes Associate Professor of English and Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House Dr. James Allen Hall. The coalition is a collaboration between Washington College, Bucknell University, and Smith College that develops programming which spotlights the liberal arts.

The event was available to any student enrolled in one of the mentioned institutions.

Larson, in addition to being an award-winning poet, is a field ecologist and molecular biologist. She is the author of “Radial Symmetry,” and winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets.

She currently focuses on her role as a Stonecoast Master of Fine Arts professor at the University of Southern Maine, where she teaches poetry and creative non-fiction. However, she continues to participate in conservation efforts with sustainable development organizations in the Gulf of California.

Much of her work is centered on exploring the science of poetry. She began the webinar by reciting short readings from her poetry collection, before moving onto prompt workshops designed to cultivate skills in both.

Larson feels that all students interested in poetry and/or science should strengthen their abilities in the other.

“I think it’s so important for writers and curious minds of all varieties that are interested in writing to learn the skill of writing in available moments and to take risks with different approaches, and not sort of wait for the perfect time or the perfect assignment,” Larson said. “And for those of you that are STEM students or maybe scientists yourselves, to recognize that cultivating a certain kind of flexibility and thought process through the kind of synesthesia, or juxtaposition, or non sequitur that writing can offer, can really offer some original and novel approaches to your work and to your life.”

Larson first became interested in this way of thinking when she was a freshman at Columbia University. The school had recently taken over Biosphere 2, which is a science research facility in Oracle, Arizona, that focuses on conservation biology, climate change, and geology.

She was given the opportunity to work with Desert Ecologist Tony Burgess, who took her and other students to the Biosphere on a trip. He told them to simply sit and observe the environment for three hours.

This experience, Larson says, is what truly changed her perspective permanently.

“It sounds like such a simple practice and sort of a simple thing to do, but it was an incredibly transformative experience for me because it was in that experience that I realized how little I saw what I was looking at most of the time.”

“I realized how I was sort of embedded in this matrix, and all around me all of these invisible relationships and invisible processes were happening,” Larson said. “[I] had to actually find ways to look and find ways to see them.”

Larson encouraged this mentality through the prompts on which webinar attendees worked on. The first prompt involved taking an everyday object and describing it in-depth. The second prompt focused on the concept of deep mapping, which is forming a multidimensional view of a topic. Audience members chose a photo that represented a science field they were interested in — then, they interspersed the description with narrative-based writing and statistics.

Overall, Larson hopes that attendees take away from the workshop a greater sense of how to analyze their place in the world, as well as how to use poetry and science to their advantage.

“For me, science and poetry and science and writing, as a practice, have just always been different modes of inquiry; they’re sort of complimentary…they both require discipline, and rigor, and patience, and both of them are really fueled by curiosity, and investigation, and experimentation,” Larson said. “There are different kinds of investigation, certainly, but I think the point is that you cultivate a certain flexibility in how you approach and try to understand the experience of the world.”

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