Poetry of Logical Ideas: A Conversation with Mary Peelen

Mary Peelen was born and raised in Michigan. Her first book of poetry Quantum Heresies is the recipient of the 2018 Kithara Book Prize and was published in 2019 by Glass Lyre Press. Peelen’s poetry, fiction, and non-fiction writing have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Antioch Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Bennington Review, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, and other outlets. Peelen lives in San Francisco and Paris.


Gizem Karaali: Most of the poems that appear in Quantum Heresies were published elsewhere before. In fact, that is how I got to meet you and your poetry!

Mary Peelen: And what a great way to meet: I was really excited that you accepted four of my poems for The Journal of Humanistic Mathematics. I’m fascinated by the ways math intersects daily human experience, so it was a great fit. I’ll admit that I was nervous to submit to your journal, though… I’d never shown my poetry to a mathematician, and I was afraid I might have made an error in my math. And indeed I had, but you gently corrected my mistake, and I’m so glad you did, or else the mistake might have made its way into the book!

GK: That was a totally natural mistake to make. Glad I helped! Can you tell me a bit about how this book came about? Where did Quantum Heresies come from? How did these poems find their places in it?

MP: Like most poets, I suppose, I was hoping to make meaning out of this bewildering world. Originally my intention with Quantum Heresies was to show how mathematics and physics underlie everything in my life: my relationship, flowers, jackhammers, migraines, travel, Sylvia Plath, the mess in the kitchen. All of it. Then I had this idea that I wanted to make the shape of each poem follow a mathematical function, so I made an arbitrary rule that every poem would contain exactly ten couplets. At first this was like a game I was playing, but over time I grew to love the structure it provided, and it became so intuitive that eventually I could tell when a poem was finished when it fell evenly into my ten couplet form.

Inevitably, some of the poems escaped the confines of the formula, so there are exceptions to the rule, but in the end, forty-six of the poems in Quantum Heresies contain exactly ten couplets. Holding to this simple format, I managed to elaborate all kinds of heresies—including visits by ghosts, doctors, poets, philosophers, Wallace Stevens, my Grandma P. Poems are small vessels but they can contain a lot of stuff.

GK: Why Quantum Heresies? I want to split this question into two, actually. First, can we focus on the quantum? Quantum mechanics is weird, and probabilistic, and unintuitive, and quite magical, possibly as a result of the others. But in your poetry the quantum world shows up more as an opportunity to expand the personal to the global, connect the human particular to the universal. A murder of crows takes us to creation, teacups contain galaxies, feathers through binoculars lead us to Fukushima, motocross to St. Augustine, the song of the jackhammer to the most familiar constellation on the Northern skies.

What is it like to view the world as so connected in this way, from micro to macro and then back to micro all over again?

MP: It’s true, I’m persuaded that disparate elements of the universe are intimately connected in strange and secret ways. And I revel in universal patterns that repeat at different scales—this morning, for example, I saw an image of cancer cells that looks exactly like a cluster of stars in a distant galaxy. I think that recognizing patterns in the microcosm and macrocosm is a mathematical exercise as well as a spiritual one—it opens me to insight, to contemplation, and it suggests a universal viewpoint. It also suggests metaphor, so it feeds poetry too. Astronomers recognize the shape of a sea horse in a distant nebula, so why shouldn’t I see Feynman diagrams in the sky of a Michigan summer?

I can’t pretend to understand all the theory, but I’m intensely curious about quantum physics. So I read books and articles, and whenever I do, I’m left with the assurance that the universe is far more complex than I can possibly comprehend. I love this feeling because it gives my imagination more room to play. I don’t try to reconcile the contradictions of quantum physics; instead I celebrate in its strange magic, its weirdness, the probabilistic nature of things. I’m always looking for corollaries in my daily life—however apt, however odd—and then I write them down as raw material for poems.

GK: That is really amazing! Can we next probe a bit the heresy part? In many of your poems, God and faith appear in one way or another, but often as an uncertainty, what you choose to believe. You also have a degree in divinity, so clearly faith conversations will not remain only in the subconscious. Where do you see the heretical in your poems?

MP: Heresy is definitely something I try to commit every day. I’m passionate about it. I respect all religions, and I have a Masters of Divinity degree, but I ascribe to no particular dogma, never have. I can’t. There are so many ways to define the concept of god, and they’re all miraculous in their own way, so I refuse to be limited by orthodoxy.

One definition I like is that God is the universal reverence for what is unknown. This appeals to my mathematical side, though I’m not sure anyone would agree with me. Other times I argue that God is purely a creation of one’s belief, no more, no less. I dream up a different definition of god every time I write a new poem. That’s kind of heretical, I suppose.

GK: I certainly like that kind of heresy! Your book was published by Glass Lyre Press. According to their webpage, they offer “fine literature to rejuvenate the spirit, fuel inspiration and nourish the soul.” Are these also your goals?

MP: I was incredibly fortunate in that my manuscript was chosen by Glass Lyre Press, and it’s been wonderful to work with them, but I’m not sure I would define my goals in exactly this way.

GK: So why do you write poetry?

MP: I wasn’t always a writer, and it wasn’t until graduate school (second time around, later in life) that I wrote any poetry at all. I took to it right away, though, because I had found the genre that allows me to weave all the strands of my life together and turn them into art. I never imagined this could happen to me. I read science books, and I have degrees in math, religion, and in creative writing. I’m also passionate about the environment, travel, my loved ones. I always assumed my various interests were so disparate that I’d never find a unifying pattern, but quite unexpectedly they all fit together with poetry. It’s remarkably satisfying because it calls on different areas of knowledge, as well as the importance of memory, emotion, life, death, and even breakfast cereal right alongside the most abstruse quantum theory. So I write poetry because it can hold what I’m trying to say. It’s crazy how flexible poetry can be.

GK: Was there a time you remember consciously making a decision to engage with mathematical and physical/scientific metaphors in your poetry? Or did the mathematical and scientific constructs play a significant role even in your earliest poems?

MP: Oh yes, I remember the decision quite vividly. My first poem that was inspired by math was also the first real poem I ever wrote. That was when everything changed for me.

I actually went to graduate school to study fiction, and I was hard at work on a novel—but as part of my coursework, I took a poetry class in which the professor urged us to choose a single topic on which we were to base all of our assignments for the semester. I was reading A Tour of the Calculus by David Berlinski at the time, so I wrote a poem about an unknown quantity entitled “x.” The idea of writing math poems took root immediately, and a number of the pieces I wrote that semester ended up in Quantum Heresies. I’ve written lots of poetry that doesn’t involve math and science, too, but for the most part, the place where they intersect is where I find my richest work.

GK: Readers find your poetry lithe, spare, contemplative. Does this resonate with you?

MP: Lithe, spare, and contemplative are flattering adjectives to describe my poetry, and I’m honored that Leila Chatti used them. She’s a young poet whose work I admire very much. Indeed, each of my poems is long-contemplated—sometimes I think of myself as a monk. I spend months and years on each piece, honing, refining, making the work just as lithe and spare as I possibly can. I wish I were a fast writer, but I’ve had to accept that I’m not. I take my time, because my subject matter can be very heavy (cancer, suicide, environmental disaster), so it’s important to me that each poem is flexible and strong enough to carry that much weight.

GK: What do you want people to say about your poetry?

MP: Well, nothing out loud—I’m kind of shy. But I do hope that people are moved by it. I hope they’ll say it gestures toward something beautiful, something whole.

GK: I was definitely moved by it in various ways. Now let me get us back to form for a bit. In 48 of the 52 poems in Quantum Heresies, you use couplets, and while reading I found myself circling couplet after couplet; each triggered all sorts of images and fascinations in my mind that I wanted to pursue on my own with my eyes closed for a bit. What about the couplet works so well for you?

MP: Couplets are an aesthetic choice that has a lot to do with readability. When I look at the shape of a poem on the printed page, I’m drawn most strongly to couplets. I find their basic symmetry viscerally appealing, and they’re pleasurable to my eye. They make me want to read them. They’re also rhythmically satisfying. A couplet has an element of call and response that hearkens to a certain kind of spiritual engagement that I like very much. It invites me in. I feel welcomed, engaged. But mostly I write couplets because poetry just comes to me that way. When poetry shows up intuitively, it’s always a couplet.

GK: That’s very interesting. Can you tell me a bit more about your process? How do your poems come into being?

MP: I always start with something: I keep a notebook where I write fragments of abandoned poems, quotes, notes on what I’m reading, shopping lists, anxieties, dreams, inane blather I jotted down when I was too tired to think. It really doesn’t matter where I begin, it just matters that I do. So I start with something from my notebook and then I see where it takes me. I frequently draw from the reference books lining my office. I let digressions lead me astray which is often when I find the best poetry. This can go on for some time.

When I have a critical mass of material on the page, and I can see where the piece is heading, I start to organize it. This is the longest and, for me, the most enjoyable part of the process. It’s like distilling a giant vat of information into an essence. Usually, my writing coalesces into couplets, as if on its own. Some of those couplets turn into poems.

Eventually, I emerge from my study, and my partner (who has dubbed my office The Distillery) reads the first draft. She’s a fantastic editor, and I’m lucky, not least because she’s utterly unafraid to tell me when I have to scrap a piece and start over.

GK: It’s such a great wealth to have a trusted reader like that! So here is another question I have for you. Albert Einstein said, “Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.” Do you relate to this?

MP: I originally intended to use this quote as the epigraph for my book! So I love that you’re asking me this. Einstein is the greatest. I don’t understand much of his mathematics, but what I do understand is that he was an amazingly creative thinker. He invented this whole new intellectual perspective—his famous thought experiments—from which he imagined a revolutionary way of seeing the universe. How poetic a notion is that?

GK: That’s such a neat way to think about his work! Do you think this poetry of logical ideas or perhaps something of Einstein’s poetic perspective is reflected in your work? How so?

MP: Both poetry and math can convey large amounts of information in a small space. With a single equation, mathematics can sum up what it takes a professor an entire lecture to unpack. I’m chasing that sort of compact logic in my poems, too. Most of them are very short but (hopefully) they contain multitudes.

GK: I can see that. Precise language and an economy of words are valued in both. Language is really a vital component of both. So let me ask you about that next. You write in English but also live part of the year in Paris, I think. Does your poetry ever emerge in another language, too, such as French? Do you read poetry in other languages?

MP: I learned French by speaking it, so unfortunately I don’t read or write it particularly well. So no, I don’t write poetry in French. But I spend time in France every year, and I definitely notice that living there changes the way I relate to language, alters how I listen to words and to sound itself. Oddly, France changes my personality, too. My partner is always pointing out how I’m more outgoing there. Participating in Parisian life demands a certain amount of attitude—in the metro, in the shops, in the street. I recognize how the daily civic engagement (and emphasis on language, literature, food, and the arts) makes for well-lived lives. So I speak up when I’m in France, I talk to people. I’m much more of a hermit when I’m in San Francisco.

GK: That is interesting. Do you interact with other poets in either setting? In what ways?

MP: I have a writing group in San Francisco that is fabulous and wildly generative. But my physical disability prevents me from being more involved in any literary scene, and I’m not part of the academic circuit, so mostly I communicate with other poets online. Whatever criticisms I have about social media (and I have many), I will also say that it is a fantastic place for poetry and for poets. Women poets, in particular, are remarkably enthusiastic and supportive of one another. For someone who’s (mostly) a hermit, it’s quite thrilling for me to be part of such a vibrant online poetry crowd. I’m between two countries and time zones, so I find myself communicating with poets in Scotland, New Zealand, Canada, Korea, China, lots of places beyond the U.S. and France.

GK: What about mathematicians? Are you finding yourself in communication with any on a regular basis?

MP: Are you kidding me? I’d be way too intimidated. I admire mathematicians very much. But from afar.

GK: Hmm, that’s unfortunate, on our side mostly… I do agree that mathematicians can sometimes seem intimidating. Let’s get back to poetry, though. Who do you appreciate reading these days?

MP: At the moment, I’m on a bender with the poetry of Laura Kasischke. I just finished a close reading of her book, The Infinitesimals. She’s wicked smart, deeply honest, doesn’t spare herself at all. The connections she makes are astonishing, leaps that catch me off guard every time. Brilliant stuff.

I’m also reading Elizabeth Bradfield’s new book, Toward Antarctica, which is lush and gorgeous. She’s a poet-scientist, a naturalist, and also an amazing photographer. The biological sciences aren’t my bailiwick, so I always learn a lot from her work, and that is a pleasure.

GK: Now I want to read them too! Thanks for the recommendations! But in short, you read to learn and to savor and to fill your bucket, it seems. Let us look at the other face of the coin next. What mathematics is intriguing you and keeping you awake at night these days?

MP: I’m reading The Prime Number Conspiracy edited by Thomas Lin, a collection of math writing from Quanta Magazine. It’s one of my favorite periodicals, perfect for the reader like me who doesn’t have an advanced degree in math but who is deeply curious about the concepts. Just now, I’m studying a pair of articles by Natalie Wolchover about infinity: its history, and how some infinites are bigger than others. I’m a huge fan of Wolchover’s writing; she’s so convincing in her math and science that I often feel like I understand things that are way above my pay grade.

GK: Do you think there might be a new poem in there?

MP: I’m taking lots of notes, and I can definitely tell you there’s a non-zero chance that a poem is lurking in there somewhere. I hope I can find it.

GK: I hope so too! I for one am looking forward to reading whatever is next. Thank you, Mary, for this inspiring conversation.



Gizem Karaali

Gizem Karaali is originally from Istanbul, Turkey, where she graduated with undergraduate degrees in electrical engineering and mathematics. She received her PhD in mathematics from the University of California Berkeley. She is currently professor of mathematics at Pomona College, which, together with her editorial roles at the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics, the Mathematical Intelligencer, and Numeracy, keeps her busy. Her poetry in English has so far only appeared in poetry readings, anthologies, and periodicals directed toward mathematical audiences. Gizem’s most recent book is 'Mathematics and Social Justice: Resources for the College Classroom,' coedited with Lily S. Khadjavi.

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