The Intersection of Science and Poetry

Photo credit: Eric Martinez

This year, Bonnie Arning published Escape Velocity, a deeply honest collection of poems that examine love, violence, and the burden of being a small part of a vastly expanding universe. When you read Arning’s work, you feel as if perhaps you shouldn’t be there, and neither should she. Yet, through cunning and beautiful language, Arning invites the reader to witness the way love can both build and destroy, and how – even when you change course – you cannot escape the persistence of memory.

She writes, “What kind of comfort is it to know? / The forces that propel you forward and pull you back / both diminish equally – but can’t disappear.” 

Originally from New Mexico, Arning is currently a writer and educator in Corvallis. She’s also a force to be reckoned with.

Corvallis Advocate: Were the poems for Escape Velocity all written to be part of this collection, or did you write them at different times and then collect them?
Bonnie Arning: The majority of these poems were written while I was working on my MFA at the University of New Mexico. My mentor and thesis advisor, Lisa Chavez, helped me write in a focused way for my thesis project. When I graduated in 2013, I had already laid a great framework for the book. I spent the next two years filling in holes and revising poems until it finally felt like it told the whole story I wanted to tell. 

CA: I watched a video of you reading on YouTube. In it you say that the universe can serve as a metaphor for relationships. Can you expand on that a bit?
BA: Well, I’ve always said if I had my life to do again, I would’ve become an astronomer. In college, I was terrified of failure and bad grades, and wasn’t brave enough to take on the math. Looking back, that was a huge mistake, because studying the universe is the best way I have found to make sense of my own life and terrestrial existence. 

I have always been struck by theories of how the universe began and theories of its future trajectory. One theory is that the universe is like a balloon and that all the matter will expand until it reaches a point of ultimate tension at which it will start to deflate back in on itself – which will result in another big bang. And the other [theory] is that, like a balloon popped by too much air, all the matter in the universe will break through the point of tension and expand infinitely. 

I’m sure scientific theories have evolved since my initial inquiries and there is now some more definite answer. However, at the time, those two options seemed eerily similar to the state of my marriage. Like the universe, our relationship had begun with this tremendous amount of heat and energy and closeness – but over time, things became distant and cold. I started asking myself if, like the universe, we would reach some ultimate point of tension and start to come back together, or if our fate was to drift away from each other. 

I’m interested in using scientific physical landscapes as a way of defining more ephemeral emotional landscapes. Sometimes it’s difficult to write about emotions because I worry no one will believe me. But theories about universal expansion, mathematical equations about velocity – those are concrete. Those can be proven. I create metaphors that join the scientific and the experienced as a way of conjuring validity for the transitory.

CA: How much of this collection is autobiographical? What is it like for you to share such intimate details with the world?
BA: During the early stages of this collection, I asked my now husband – who is also a writer – for some advice about a poem. 

He asked me, “What is the wound? Where is it located?” 

That really stuck with me. I thought of the writing of this book as locating the wound and really trying to figure out what it was. Which parts of our lives are ours: which are decided by our family history, which are created with our own bad decisions, what is and isn’t our fault? 

I was always writing deeply about my own life. However, at some point the book became more than just a group of poems arranged next to each other. At some point, the poems were revised as to be in conversation with one another. At that point, some details changed or shifted around. But, as uncomfortable as it is, this book tells the story of my marriage as it became unhealthy and violent and moved toward divorce. 

CA: As a poet from New Mexico, did you find a lot of your poetry inspired by the nature you saw there? By the culture?
BA: I didn’t feel the need to write about New Mexico until I left it! Since I’ve been in Oregon, I’ve been writing all these wistful poems about home. Perhaps it’s the landscape, but people are different there. In the desert, there’s nowhere to hide – everything and everyone are in the open. I am used to big jewelry, loud talkers, [and] subwoofers. Here in Oregon, I think it’s the trees. It’s like everyone is politely hiding from each other. I’m always afraid I’m too much for Corvallis. 

CA: Are you working on a new collection? What’s on the horizon?
BA: Right now, I am working on poems about New Mexico and about poverty. So much of 2017 has been spent talking about “the poor” and “working class America,” as some sort of explanation for Donald Trump, as if they just arrived or are new. As someone who didn’t grow up with money this attitude does, and always has, annoyed me. I used to let the idea that “capital P” Poetry isn’t the place for those kinds of topics stop me. But now, more than ever, I think it’s necessary for us to write about all facets of human and American experience. More than ever, it’s time to really see and hear each other. 

CA: Anything else you’d like to share with the community?
BA: Currently, I teach English and ELL at Corvallis High School. The CHS community has made me feel at home in Oregon. It’s the best place I’ve ever worked, and it’s wonderful to get to teach the things I’ve learned as a writer to our Corvallis youth. 

You can pick up a copy of Escape Velocity at Grassroots Books. To find out about upcoming readings visit Arning’s website: https://www.bonniearning.com/ .

By Anika Lautenbach

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