Open Alphabet welcomes Lynn Pedersen and her new book The Nomenclature of Small Things,
published by Carnegie Mellon University Press (ISBN 978-0-88748-609-8).

Lynn Pedersen

Lynn Pedersen is the author of Theories of Rain (Main Street Rag’s Editor’s Choice Chapbook Series), and Tiktaalik, Adieu (Finishing Line Press New Women’s Voices Chapbook Series). Her poems, essays, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in New England Review, Ecotone, Southern Poetry Review, Nimrod, Slipstream, Poet Lore, and Borderlands. She is a playwright and member of the Dramatists Guild of America.

A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, she lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

All this agonizing over theories and origins and it comes
down to something small: the sugar bowl
on the table. Dust to dust

is partially right, though our forefathers omitted the bit
about interstellar molecular recycling. Impossible
to be nothing.

No wonder soliloquies invoke the night sky.

— from "Sugar in Space"

Open Alphabet: Hello, Lynn, and welcome to Open Alphabet. I'm always interested in how poets come to poetry, as a reader and then as a writer. Do you remember your first experience of either? The Nomenclature of Small Things

Lynn Pedersen: Thanks for inviting me to participate in your interview series, Maurice!

I began as an essayist and only started to write poetry after graduating from college, so maybe I came to the genre later than most. I took my first poetry workshops in Boston, and I became hooked on reading contemporary poetry. Some of the first poets I read were Philip Booth and Wislawa Zymborska. The first poetry reading I attended featured C. K. Williams.

OA: The cover of The Nomenclature of Small Things has the look of a scientific text from a previous century. This image is reflected in the book's organization into three sections (Catalog I, Catalog II and Catalog III), so your book feels very cohesive, as if it was pre-conceived and intentional. What initiated this project, if I may call it that?

LP: The cover art is an 18th-century print from the Getty Museum. I specifically asked the press to choose art that would resemble a 19th-century botanical print, and they picked an image that echoes the content and feel of the book.

I’m glad that you noticed the cohesive structure of Nomenclature. In the early stages, I didn't have a master plan for the book. I was interested in the patterns of grief I recognized during years of fertility issues, and I felt compelled to express those experiences — though there isn’t a good vocabulary for grief in today’s English language. The final arrangement of poems was planned to the extreme. It had to be, though. Placement is essential in this book because the poems deal with grief, and the experience for the reader needs to be considered. It’s not helpful to hit a reader right off with eight intense grief poems in a row. The poems alternate between three narrative threads, and also move from very grounded and personal narrative poems to more abstract lyric reflections.

OA: How did The Nomenclature of Small Things find Carnegie Mellon University Press?

LP: Carnegie Mellon University Press holds an open reading period once a year, and I submitted the manuscript during that open reading window in 2014.

OA: Rather than small things, your poems deal with big, albeit intensely personal things. How did you choose the title?

LP: The title was inspired by Linnaeus and his work with taxonomy. I wrote the science-themed grief poems first, poems that contained astronomy metaphors, telescopes, the vastness of space, and later I wondered about small things — microscopes and Robert Hooke’s work and tiny organisms and cells and objects we cannot see.

OA: Your poems display a consistent duality of voice. Difficult topics are dissected and examined under cover of science, which only intensifies the emotion in the second voice. I was reminded of Harold Bloom's closing to The Art of Reading Poetry, where he notes that, " ... metaphorical of consciousness, the poet's words invite us to share in a strangeness". Do you feel that this "strangeness" applies to your work?

LP: This question speaks to the roles of science, voice, and mystery in the book.

Science works on several levels — as metaphor, content, and organizing principle. It’s also an emotional buffer for the reader. There were only so many grief poems I could write (and that a reader could stand to read), so another voice had to step in and carry the narrative, and in this case it was science. I drew on many voices when writing Nomenclature — Charles Darwin, Alexander Wilson, Robert Hooke, naturalist George Shaw, and J.M.W. Turner. Using these different voices as a filter allowed me to move beyond the present and the immediacy of my own experience. (Geologic time in Nomenclature moves from the Precambrian to the Anthropocene.)

Science has everything to do with the unknown, with mystery, and I write as much about what I don’t know as what I know. I’m more comfortable speaking about mystery and the unknown than strangeness. There is, though, a unique take on the world that each of us will bring to a poem (whether as writers or readers). The duality that you mention in my writing reminds me of the mentor who pointed out that my poems look inward and outward simultaneously. In that shift between the internal and the external, I’m hoping the reader and I will cross paths, share a common experience.

OA: Over the course of writing these poems and designing the book, has your creative process changed in any way? Is it more or less regular?

LP: The process was messy and uncertain, and I would not want to imply that I had all of the structure and turns in the book figured out early on in the writing. I had an initial starting point — grief and science — but the project took on a life of its own. Most surprising to me was discovering how the form and topics of the poems changed as the book progressed. The first poems were narrative grief poems written in first person. Each poem led to more questions or more research, and I moved on to science poems as a second phase. Those science poems were written in second and third person — some in prose form. I did not realize at the outset the extent to which the logic and structure of science would be necessary as a buffer to the emotional content of the poems (“The Infinite Density of Grief”). Nomenclature was the last topic I worked on. These three narrative threads — obsessions really — weave throughout the book.

I function like a hunter-gatherer in my writing practice. I spend months reading and researching, absorbing and digesting, and eventually there is a cross-pollination of ideas and images. That basic process is consistent over the years.

OA: Are there particular poets, contemporary or not, who you see as your closest kin? How do they influence you?

LP: There are many poets that I admire from Walt Whitman, Frank O’Hara, Miroslav Holub, and Larry Levis, to Wislawa Szymborska, Tomas Tranströmer, Linda Bierds, and Lucia Perillo. I’m always keeping an eye out for poets who incorporate science into their work. Perillo had a wildlife management background and her love of science is reflected in her poetry. I’m also looking (as I’m reading) at how poets use facts and history in poems, and for references to art and time.

OA: Who are you reading right now? What is on your desk?

LP: My poetry reading stack includes Ada Limon’s Bright Dead Things, Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Wislawa Szymborska’s Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts, Robin Coste Lewis’ Voyage of the Sable Venus, and Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine. I recently read Lucia Perillo’s Inseminating the Elephant, and Selected Poems of Francis Ponge.

I read a lot of things other than poetry, but the sources that come back and work their way into my poems are usually science, natural history, and biography — nonfiction books. Reference books and maps are a rich source of words and images, too, and I like the personal voice of diaries, journals, and letters. Many of my poems are a response to my reading.

OA: Do you have another project in the works? What can we look for next?

LP: After Nomenclature was finished, I threw myself into research for about a year. I took a variety of science classes and did environmental volunteer work, and the next project will emerge from that well of information and experience. It’s too early to tell what will happen with a new manuscript. I have multiple topics that I’m pursuing, and I can’t predict if they will merge into a collection or if they will become separate books or projects. With the first book, I had to write past the ending to realize that I had a complete collection.