Virtual Salon #11 with Martha Silano

Dear Mr. Wordsworth,

It turns out there is no tranquility.

When you read any of Martha Silano’s books, all of them fizzing with brio and invention and awe, you want to start a salon just so you can invite her. As Diane Seuss says about Gravity Assist, Silano’s fifth poetry collection is “popping with kinetic energy.” The physics references are sometimes metaphors for rising and falling in mood and body, but they’re not just metaphors: Silano’s worldview is scientific, balancing skepticism with infectious curiosity (am I allowed to use “infectious” as a happy adjective right now?–never mind, I’m sure Martha would tell me to go for broke). I read this book shortly after its 2019 publication then again this week, right after teaching Whitman, and this time I was especially moved by all of Silano’s Whitmanian reaching after connection through study, epistle, and even psychedelic mysticism (“prayer/ is like a bread line, a penny for your/ exploded mind”). There anger and grief here, too, especially about human destruction of the more-than-human world, but this restless, brainy poet often responds to crisis with praise of what continues to amaze. No one can solve all of life’s multitudinous inexplicabilities, but Silano’s asymptotic approaches are always wonderful to observe.

If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

First, we would sit down to a plate of antipasti: Genoa salami, calabrese, provolone, garlic-stuffed olives, roasted red bell peppers, Italian bread. For the main course: puttanesca served over linguini, paired with a mixed-green salad with vinaigrette. For dessert: fresh peaches, fresh cream, and squares of dark chocolate. Oh, and plenty of Chianti.

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

I’m doing better than I would have imagined. At first I was too anxious to write, but once I began drafting a poem a day things got better. I also attribute my wellbeing to going running at a nearby wooded park. Thankfully, my kids pretty much take care of themselves, and I teach online for a living. The California poppies are blooming here in Seattle. If they can be bright and cheery, so can I.

How can your virtual audience find out more?

My website is marthasilano.net.

Q&A,Tethered Letters: https://tetheredbyletters.com/author-qa-martha-silano/

I have new work up at:

Women’s Voices for Change https://womensvoicesforchange.org/martha-silano-when-i-begin-to-dig.htm

Barren https://barrenmagazine.com/i-bring-you-the-uncertain-music/

dialogist https://dialogist.org/poetry/2020-week-19-martha-silano

The Los Angeles Review http://losangelesreview.org/dear-diary-martha-silano/

Rust + Moth https://rustandmoth.com/work/when-i-realized-everything-had-been-said/

SWWIM https://www.swwim.org/blog/2019/11/15/jean-and-joan-and-a-who-knows-who

The Shore https://www.theshorepoetry.org/martha-silano-pain-is-the-foundation

Thrush   http://www.thrushpoetryjournal.com/january-2019-martha-silano.html

Waxwing http://waxwingmag.org/items/issue17/28_Silano-Instead-of-a-father.php

Reviews of Gravity Assist are up at:

The Rumpus  https://therumpus.net/2020/04/barbara-bermans-national-poetry-month-shout-out/

DMQ Review https://www.dmqreview.com/micro-reviews

The Adroit Journal  https://theadroitjournal.org/2020/02/05/measuring-the-future-a-review-of-martha-silanos-gravity-assist/

My books are available at

Independent Publishing Group (IPG) https://www.ipgbook.com/silano–martha-contributor-487072.php

Steel Toe Books https://steeltoebooks.com/books/3-books/books/57-blue-positive-by-martha-silano-sp-1358827673

Two Sylvias Press http://twosylviaspress.com/martha-silano.html

We are all steam engines

In The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction, Peter Atkins conveys an impressive degree of excitement about entropy. “No other scientific law has contributed more to the liberation of the human spirit than the second law of thermodynamics…because it provides a foundation for understanding why any change occurs,” he writes (37). Later in the chapter, after reminding us that we are basically steam engines, he describes how “wherever structure is to be conjured from disorder, it must be driven by the generation of greater disorder elsewhere” (61). (Is that why my house and office get so messy when I’m writing?)

For example, in human beings: “the dispersal that corresponds to an increase in entropy is the metabolism of food and the dispersal of energy and matter that that metabolism releases. The structure that taps into that dispersal is not a mechanical chain of pistons and gears, but the biochemical pathways within the body…Thus, as we eat, so we grow. The structures may be of a different kind: they may be works of art. For another structure that can be driven into existence by coupling to the energy released by ingestion and digestion consists of organized electrical activity within the brain constructed from random electrical and neuronal activity. Thus, as we eat, we create: we create works of art, of literature, and of understanding.”

I am reading about thermodynamics and quantum theory in order to better understand some poems, naturally. A former undergraduate student–a poet and a Physics/ English double-major, Max Chapnick–is now an English PhD student at Boston University, and he contacted me last summer about putting together a panel on physics and poetry for the International MLA Symposium. It was accepted, so now we’re all going to Lisbon in late July (hurrah!). This requires me to spend a few preparatory weeks analyzing Samiya Bashir’s excellent 2017 collection from Nightboat, Field Theories. I understood what she was doing with thermodynamics and quantum theory just enough to generate a proposal, but to be able to write in some depth about what radiation means in her book, how blackbodies function, whether or not that one poem is meant to resemble the “ultraviolet catastrophe” graph, etc.–well, it’s hard.

Work is motion against an opposing force,” Atkins writes, and I’ve definitely been feeling the weight of my own intellectual resistance. It’s not that I don’t want to do the writing or even the thinking; it’s a privilege, truly. But I’ve been puzzling through problems laboriously, in a mood of worry. I’ve written before about the annual difficulty of kicking my brain into a different gear, and surely that’s part of it, but I’m also experiencing one of those bouts of insecurity that afflict most writers I know, no matter the genre. It’s not only “am I interpreting these difficult poems in plausible ways?” but something more like “are my scholarly/ interpretive moves sufficiently interesting that anyone would really want to read or listen to me, or is everyone just humoring me because I once showed some intellectual promise and remain a reasonably nice person who tends to do the work and show up on time?” It doesn’t help my morale that I was just informed that I’ll receive an average raise this year, percentage-wise, when I know my DH recommended me for an exceptional one. Between you and me, I did a monstrous amount of good teaching, service, and publication in 2018, but my radiation did not seem to fall into the spectrum of visible light.

This is not my first self-doubt rodeo, so I can reassure myself that continuing to work is better than the alternatives, and confidence comes back. Besides, delivering Bashir’s accomplishments to new audiences is in itself worthwhile service to an art I love. And when self-doubt veers into guilt, as it should sometimes–a mediocre raise, how sad for you! or why do I get to eat a nice lunch and metabolize the results into criticism while refugees ail at the border in dangerously overcrowded detention camps?–I should make a donation or put that rally on my calendar, but still keep dispersing most of my daytime labor among tasks I’m competent at and believe are worthwhile.

Scholarship is a smaller portion of that array of tasks than it used to be, in part because it sharpens my existential angst more than other kinds of labor. I’ve been studying a couple of brilliant, well-written books about literature and science by scholar N. Katherine Hayles, for instance, and realizing again: look how amazing this is, how much work and hard thinking it represents, and here I am skimming the damn stuff. I would so much rather read and be read than keep participating in the scholarly skimmability system…so whenever I reenter this arena, I end up pondering ways to reinvent the universe.

So I remind myself: just write the conference paper, Steam Engine. Next week, start re-revising your book of hybrid criticism, which WILL come to print in 2021. Keep submitting and revising shorter works around the edges and planning some exciting new courses. At an undetermined date (but soon?), you will be asked to submit your poetry ms to Tinderbox Editions, then there will be edits, then galleys. In August, after Lisbon, come novel edits (the pub date for Unbecoming has been pushed back to March-ish, same as the poetry collection, yikes). In the mix should be book promotion planning, reviews and reference letters, grant applications for that 2020-2021 sabbatical. There’s a lot of landscape to cover, Steam Engine, but address one task at a time. Don’t panic and increase the pressure unsustainably, but don’t quit either. It’ll take as long as it takes.

Chug, chug.

Also a steam engine, believe it or not