Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:
Lucille Lang Day, Poet, Scientist, Science/Health Educator
interviewed by David Garyan
DG: Your academic and personal background is extensive and fascinating. With regard to the former, your education encompasses both scientific and artistic disciplines, while your identity is circumscribed by Native and European ancestry. Indeed, a great deal of your writing deals with the relationship between the natural world and the man-made one. In what way, however, if at all, does science resemble poetry, and vice versa, and do you believe that highly specialized, systematic studies of nature ultimately interfere with indigenous traditions or can the relationship be a harmonious one—not only for Native Americans, but original populations everywhere?
LLD: Science uses many of the same mental skills as poetry: logic, reasoning, observation, knowledge. In addition, both science and poetry use intuition. In both realms, sometimes we have to take a leap into the unknown, following our instincts, in order to bring something to fruition, whether it’s a poem or a scientific experiment. Another similarity is that both poems and experiments go through many drafts or iterations even when they’re going well, and both require careful attention to variables, whether they be things like temperature, light, and duration, or rhythm, line breaks, and vowel and consonant sounds. Perhaps the biggest difference is that poetry embraces a larger range of experience by bringing in subjectivity and emotions.
I strongly believe that poetry can be used as a tool in science teaching because it uses many of the same thinking skills as science and can also convey scientific information. Poems by such poets as Pattiann Rogers, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Emily Grosholz, and Roald Hoffmann (also a Nobel laureate in chemistry!) would fit perfectly in a science class. So would poems from Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California (Scarlet Tanager Books, 2018), which I coedited with Ruth Nolan. Poetry can’t replace experiments, lab reports, problem solving, and scientific texts in science teaching, but it can be used in addition to them and possibly get people more excited about science since emotions are allowed.
I do not see a conflict between the Indigenous and scientific ways of looking at nature. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, has written extensively and poetically about this in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. These two ways of looking at the world can enrich each other. Although the origins of modern science don’t appear in the historical record until the fifth century B.C.E. in Greece, Indigenous peoples worldwide have been experimenting, observing, and passing their discoveries about the environment down to the next generation for many thousands of years. I will add that Indigenous cultures have figured out how to live in balance with nature and coexist with plants and animals, which is something that our modern, technological society needs to learn.
DG: Geography and location feature heavily in your work. In this respect, Birds of San Pancho and Other Poems of Place (Blue Light Press, 2020) is a captivating example. The collection is divided into two parts: “Foreigner,” and “Between the Two Shining Seas.” The former mentions places such as Greece, Mexico, Costa Rica, The Netherlands, France, Belgium, and Spain, while the latter is mainly an exploration of the US. At the same time, Jim Morrison’s grave at Pere Lachaise makes an appearance, along with Las Vegas and its replica constructions of famous European monuments. The differences between the two continents are indeed vast; however, the collection’s seamless transition between Old World and New World suggests a closer, more interdependent relationship. Can you talk a little bit about the writing of the book and what, in your conception, lies on the opposite shores of the Pacific? Is there in fact such a thing as a “new” and “old” world?
LLD: In truth, we have one world. The “new” world was the old world to the people of the Native Nations of North and South America. They had been here for more than 10,000 years before the Europeans arrived, and there is evidence that some of them had arrived as much as 33,000 years earlier. The idea of a “new” versus “old” world is a Eurocentric concept.
Landscapes, languages, and lifestyles vary from one continent to another, and I find it fascinating to look closely at the places I visit, learn what I can about their history, cultures, and creatures, and share my impressions in poetry. Despite the differences, though, between one place and another, your term “interdependent relationship” is right on target. Everyone, everywhere, is in an interdependent relationship with everyone else: we are economically, environmentally, and politically interdependent. Keeping the planet habitable for everyone is a collective enterprise: limiting emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, using resources sustainably, and preserving habitats and biodiversity are responsibilities of every country and every individual. Our interdependence is well-illustrated by the Covid-19 pandemic. No country can create a bubble in which the virus can’t reach it, and wealthy countries need to share vaccines and treatments in order to keep everyone safe. This interdependence between individuals, countries, and humans and the environment can be expressed in poetry.
DG: If you had to choose only two cities in which you could divide your time as a writer, what would those be and why?
LLD: One of the cities would have to be in the San Francisco Bay Area with its easy access to the ocean, the redwoods, the Sierra, and the cultural life of San Francisco. Another factor is that I have a daughter and four grandchildren who live here. I would choose either an East Bay city such as Oakland, Berkeley, or Lafayette, or a city north of San Francisco in Marin County, such as Mill Valley or San Rafael. Although I love San Francisco itself, I wouldn’t want to live there. It is often 5 to 10 degrees colder than the East Bay and Marin County, and a summer evening there can chill you to the marrow. Mark Twain famously said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” He wasn’t kidding! In summer, the heat of California’s Central Valley draws ocean fog landward. From the East Bay hills, you can see this icy mist rolling over San Francisco like enormous tidal waves.
The second city would be in Hawaii, not on Oahu, which is very built up, but maybe on Maui, Kauai, or the Big Island. The tropical climate, amazing species—from orchids and spider lilies to petrels and parakeets—and awe-inspiring volcanoes are all draws. As I’m sure you gathered from my first choice of location, I am not a cold-weather person. I don’t snowboard or ski. Choosing a tropical location is tricky for me, though, because most of them are overrun by mosquitoes, and I am a magnet for these mini-vampires. Once in Mexico I got over 70 bites before I could grab the insect repellent! I have also been feasted upon in places as far flung as Costa Rica, Massachusetts, and the Camargue of southern France. I have a poem about this, “Mosquitoes,” in Birds of San Pancho. However, I have never had a mosquito bite in Hawaii.
DG: Would your choices differ if you answered from the perspective of a scientist? In other words, to what extent does the environment itself shape the creation of our so-called “objective” knowledge, as opposed to the subjective “creativity” of each individual person, and more importantly, is there really such a dichotomy in your view?
LLD: Environment shapes both our subjective and objective realities. How could we not be impacted both emotionally and intellectually by the people and natural world that surround us? The call of an ‘apapane on Maui might inspire either a poem or a scientific study of the ‘apapane’s habits and range. That being said, if one is trying to make a living as a scientist, one will need funding. This is true for environmental studies as well as for more esoteric endeavors—such as searching for exoplanets or dark matter, developing computer models of protein structure, determining the genetic relationships between Homo sapiens and earlier human species, or studying the chemical thermodynamics of organic reactions—and where you are located can impact your funding.
Although I trained as a scientist, I have made my living as a science writer and educator. If my goal were to make a living as a scientist, I think teaching at Berkeley or Harvard would be the ideal because the science professors at these institutions include so many Nobel laureates and recipients of other important prizes. I would have no expectation to receive such an award myself; just being a part of the scientific community surrounding these rock stars would suffice. These universities also attract some of the most promising undergraduates and graduate students in the sciences, and the resultant communities of professors and students and the research they do lead to major grant funding, donations, etc. These are therefore very good places to be if you want to pursue scientific research of any kind. So as a scientist, my first choice would be to live in Berkeley, and my second would be to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts (second because it’s colder there!). In either case, I would want to do environmental research, e.g., fire ecology in California or marine biology on Cape Cod. It would be possible to do research anywhere in the world during the summer or other times when I wasn’t teaching, but I could get to my research site more frequently and easily if it were in California or Massachusetts.
DG: Your 2015 collection, Becoming An Ancestor (Červená Barva Press) is a fascinating work, sometimes autobiographical, often historical, and at the same time contemporary, moving effortlessly between the dawn of America at Plymouth, to the Civil War, all the way up to Google and the war in Iraq. From a personal perspective, do you find that the challenges you envision for your descendants will be different than the ones your ancestors faced?
LLD: The inner challenges the next generation will face will be the same: sorrow, loss, anger, confusion, gullibility, the search for meaning, the struggle to discover and embrace their own identity, etc. But the external challenges will be different: climate change, the upheavals of a global economy, divisive politics fueled by the internet, global heath crises such as Covid-19. Our cultural evolution and increasing technological capability are far outstripping our biological evolution as a species. As human occupants of the planet Earth today, we are no different biologically from the people who made magnificent paintings in the Lascaux caves 17,000 years ago or the ones who found their way to North America in the late Pleistocene. Today, though, the internet, social media, and propagandist TV and radio channels that eschew fact-checking are surrounding people with a blizzard of misinformation. We have evolved to live in groups of a few hundred people who work together to provide food and shelter and thereby ensure everyone’s survival. Sorting through the barrage of true and false information now bombarding us each day is an extraordinary challenge for everyone. My own descendants, as well as others growing up today and in the future, will wrestle with many complex issues, including all the misinformation. If they write poetry, it will reflect that.
DG: And speaking more generally about the issue—do you perceive the course of America’s future pessimistically or optimistically?
LLD: It could go either way. About half of the people believe in social justice, gun control, science, environmental protections, universal medical insurance, childcare and education for all, etc. The other half are wary of immigrants and people of color, want to carry their guns, think climate change is a hoax and vaccinations are bad for you, value capitalism over the environment, and consider government investment in social programs such as health insurance, childcare, and education to be a form of socialism, and socialism to be un-American and bad. I hope that better education and the teaching of critical thinking skills will help us bridge this divide. We need more poetry about all of this. Poetry cannot solve the problems, but it can help people to think about them and see the world differently. I have a poem in an excellent anthology of political poetry that came out from Sixteen Rivers Press in 2018: America, We Call Your Name: Poems of Resistance and Resilience. Sixteen Rivers has a program that provides high school teachers with copies of the anthology and lesson plans to go with it. This type of project can stimulate critical thinking among the students regardless of whether they agree or disagree with the poems.
DG: Let’s move back in time and talk about your first collection, Self-Portrait with Hand Microscope (Berkeley Poets Workshop and Press), published in 1982, and selected by former US Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky, along with David Littlejohn and Michael Rubin, for the Joseph Henry Jackson Award. In this collection, the microscope serves not only as a tangible symbol of introspection, but also acts as a metaphor for analyzing the often unseen or hidden beauties and flaws of life. In this respect, one of the most powerful poems is “First Wedding,” where you write “Standing at the altar, I remembered my blue room. / For years the walls had been shrinking. / I saw myself grown huge like Alice / in a box, small and blue, the door shrunken / to shoe box size. I had to burn my way out.” In various interviews you have already spoken at length about the difficulties of your young adult life, but it would be interesting to know: How did the writing of this collection ultimately help you heal, and are painful experiences good or bad creative fuel?
LLD: Through writing poetry and my memoir, Married at Fourteen: A True Story (Heyday, 2012), I came to understand myself and my choices better. Writing helped me come to terms with both my experiences as a teen mother and my relationship with my own mother. I actually wrote my way to an understanding of her. So yes, painful experiences are good creative fuel, but that does not mean that happy experiences are not. Creatively, I don’t value my mistakes, losses, and failures more than my achievements and successes.
In writing poems about my life and channeling my emotions into poetry, I have been greatly inspired by Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. The events of my life and my emotional responses to these events are very different from those of Lowell, Sexton, and Plath. My life has been nothing like theirs, but the power and precision of their language in documenting their lives and emotions take me right there with them, and I have hoped to do that in my own poetry. Emotions ranging from sorrow and anger to love and compassion are transformed through poetry. A raw complaint is not a poem, nor is an angry rant or even a declaration of love. A poem must transform the emotion into a work of art, and once that happens, a reader can participate in it and understand something better, and so can the writer.
DG: Inspired by Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions, you wrote a chapbook called The Book of Answers (Finishing Line Press, 2006). As a scientist, would you prefer to have more questions or answers?
LLD: Carl Sagan said, “We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.” To come up with a deep answer, we need to start with a good question. You can’t have one without the other. Also, answers in science tend to generate more questions, and that is an important aspect of how science proceeds. I don’t think we’ll ever run out of questions or have all of the answers.
DG: And what about poetry—should it have more answers than questions, or vice versa?
LLD: Both questions and answers are important in poetry, just as they are in science, but to avoid being didactic in poetry, sometimes it’s best just to raise the question or describe the problem and let the reader come up with the answer. For example, my poem “What Flows Into the Gulf of Mexico” in Birds of San Pancho documents the many types of pollutants—cleaning products, antibiotics, pesticides, fertilizers, etc.—entering the Mississippi River every day. The poem doesn’t offer a solution to this problem, but I hope that by raising people’s consciousness about it, the poem will inspire some people to take appropriate action.
On the other hand, sometimes an answer can be suggested without being didactic. My poem “The Butterflies Are Dying,” which appears in Interlitq, describes how climate change is endangering four hundred fifty species of West Coast butterflies. The last stanza suggests a partial solution: “Oh, welcome them with milkweed / and sunflowers, rabbitbrush, mustard. / Today, say Come to my garden.” Thus, while we are waiting for governments to creep around to taking action to reduce the use of fossil fuels and thereby mitigate global warming, we can help the butterflies by providing habitat for them in our yards. The monarch population in California is higher in 2021 than it was in 2020, and biologists think this is due primarily to the work of individuals who have planted milkweed in their gardens.
DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?
LLD: I just finished reading Bewilderment, a novel by Richard Powers. A troubled autistic boy with deep concerns for animals and the environment is being raised his father, an astrobiologist. It’s an engaging story but ultimately a downer, since the boy can’t save the world and the father can’t save the boy. Currently, I’m reading Deep Hanging Out: Wanderings and Wonderment in Native California, a nonfiction book by Malcolm Margolin. “Deep hanging out” is not only something hippies do but also an anthropological term meaning to immerse oneself informally in another culture. For the past 40 years or so, Margolin has been engaged in deep hanging out with the Native American tribes of California, and he has much to share.
My own latest book, which came out in November 2021 from my press, Scarlet Tanager Books, is a small anthology called Poetry and Science: Writing Our Way to Discovery. It contains poems and essays by Elizabeth Bradfield, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Ann Fisher-Wirth, and Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, as well as my own work. So I am currently trying to get the word out about this book. I hope that my next book will be my “new and collected” science and nature poems, which will contain work from the seven full-length poetry collections I’ve authored over the past 40 years, as well as new poems.
About Lucille Lang Day
Lucille Lang Day is the author of seven full-length poetry collections, most recently Birds of San Pancho and Other Poems of Place and Becoming An Ancestor, and four poetry chapbooks. She has also coedited two anthologies, Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California and Red Indian Road West: Native American Poetry from California, and has published two children’s books and a memoir, Married at Fourteen: A True Story. Her many honors include the Blue Light Poetry Prize, two PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Awards, the Joseph Henry Jackson Award, and eleven Pushcart Prize nominations. The founder and publisher of Scarlet Tanager Books, she received her MA in English and MFA in creative writing at San Francisco State University, and her BA in biological sciences, MA in zoology, and PhD in science/mathematics education at the University of California, Berkeley.