an interview with Helen Heath
by Johanna Knox
Several of your poems begin with ‘The truth about …’, What was your thinking behind that?
Mark Twain said: ‘Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.’ (Following the Equator, 1897)
I think both the demonstrable or verifiable truth of modern science and Aristotle or the Romantic’s poetic truth are equally important and equally beautiful. In Graft I wrote poems about Newton’s third law of motion and the observable shape of raindrops (among other things) to demonstrate that. In those poems, verifiable truths sit alongside poetic truths and within the context of the whole collection, add up to a personal truth and, hopefully, an authentic story.
When writing poetry based on fact I think there comes a point when research must be put aside and the imagination set free, which can be difficult when you have large piles of research. This is the point at which anxieties about ‘Truth’ come in for me.
The boundaries between fiction and non-fiction have blurred. More people nowadays seem to read fiction to learn. Anecdotally, there is an increase in the popularity of historical fiction, for example. However, at a conference for creative non-fiction writers I attended a few years ago, speakers argued for the place of invention in creative non-fiction. Not to change recorded facts, but to be able to fill in gaps and compress people into composite characters to improve the narrative structure.
Non-fiction increasingly uses literary styles and the storytelling techniques of fiction to create factually accurate narratives. This is a potential minefield that every writer will need to negotiate their own way through.
I write a little about this in a recent review for New Zealand Books:
Norma Khouri and James Frey wrote ‘memoirs’ that were later revealed to be fiction, creating a huge public outcry. People have a hunger for facts. I believe creative writers have a responsibility to get the facts right. However, at the same time it is our role to invent and create. We walk a difficult line between the Truth with a capital ‘T’ and ‘poetic truth’. When we describe our writing as non-fiction we create a contract of trust between our readers and ourselves, which inevitably must be broken at some level. So what role should the imagination play in non-fiction?
We can’t put a whole life in a poem, or even a whole book. Selecting a narrative thread from a life is a form of artful manipulation and therefore immediately departs from ‘The Truth’. As Ursula Le Guin points out in The Wave in the Mind: ‘Excellence in non-fiction lies in the writer’s skills in observing, organising, narrating, and interpreting facts – skills entirely dependent on imagination, used not to invent, but to connect and illuminate observation’.
– New Zealand Books issue 117 autumn 2017.
Of course today, in a Trump era of ‘post-truths’ and ‘alternative facts’, things get more complicated and polarised.
Postmodernism has been blamed for the rise of the post-truth era. While it does recognise the constructed nature of realities/truths, and the importance of a multiplicity of views, it is important to remember that postmodernism’s call for many truths was not a call for people to ignore facts and accept lies. It was a call to recognise that the life experiences, or ‘truths’, of many marginalised groups are often not included in dominant world views. When postmodernists discuss the constructed nature of realities/truths they are pointing out that nobody can be truly objective, and that our experiences shape our world views. However, if you step out of a 4th floor window you will fall: ‘You cannae change the laws of physics captain!’
Could you describe the mix of world views and knowledge-sets you grew up with in your family? And the effect on you?
Both my parents trained as scientists. My father has a PhD in Entomology/Parasitology and my mother was a teacher. I grew up in a positivist1 household that also revered literature. Nineteen-seventies feminism was thick in the air of my childhood.
It never occurred to me that all these concepts might be in conflict until my undergraduate degree in the early 1990s, a period that saw postmodernism at its zenith. My double major in anthropology and women’s studies saw conflicts between postmodernism and science play out. It was then that I first encountered the idea that feminism and science were not always at peace with each other. In one writing workshop, when I discussed science poetry, another poet spat out the descriptor ‘positivist’ as if it was a dirty word. However, science has developed a more sophisticated relationship with the truth than when that term was first used. The post-positivist scientific approach acknowledges the difficulty, if not impossibility, of removing the personal from narratives of knowledge.
I wrote a little about my father’s influence on me in an article for the New Zealand Book Council:
As a child, when my father showed me a butterfly, we didn’t just see its pretty colours and delicate flight. He showed me the beauty in the working of its rolled proboscis, we looked closer at the tiny overlapping wing scales, he told me how there are often ultraviolet patterns in the wings that we cannot see, but which may be seen by other butterflies, I listened to the beauty of Latin names. When I was older we discussed the “butterfly effect” and chaos theory… This is the experience of science I had in my childhood—the curious scientist seeking knowledge in an awe-inspiring world.
– Booknotes, issue 176 autumn/winter 2012.
I guess the effect my upbringing and education had on my writing was to make feminism, literature, imagination, awe and science inseparable.
Was the pull of science ever enough to make you want to be a scientist? Why was the pull of literature greater?
When I started my undergraduate degree I felt as if I needed to choose between science and the arts. I guess I was the black sheep of the family in some ways. My brother started a science degree, and my sister has a degree in maths and psychology. I actually wanted to be an archaeologist as a child, like Indiana Jones. Anthropology, as a social science, was a good compromise and actually an excellent grounding for a writer in scrutinising people!
It wasn’t until I started my MA that I fully succumbed to literature, but even then I wrote about science.
Did you ever think of becoming a science comms person? Or a non-fiction writer? The way you talk about science through poetry feels unique – why is poetry the vehicle you choose?
Yes, I did consider science communication, in fact I tutored the science communication paper SCIE 311 at Victoria University while I was completing my PhD, and I mark student work for the science writing paper at the IIML. I have a high regard for good science writing.
I write non-fiction essays as well, so poetry isn’t my only vehicle. That said, I do think poetry has something special to offer – the heightened language of poetry and also voice. I’ve been experimenting with different voices and multiple approaches towards the same subject in my new work.
What about becoming a science fiction writer?
When I was a young woman, in the early 1990s, I read authors such as Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, and later, Carol Ann Duffy. They were rewriting history as ‘herstory’, writing feminist revisionist mythology – literature informed by feminism that engages with mythology, fairy tales, or religion.
Fairy tales may be described as the science fiction of the past; Carter regarded them as such, in that she used them to explore ideas of how the world might be different. These women were a big influence on me. My book Graft reworks fairy tales and my forthcoming book Are Friends Electric? follows the feminist speculative fiction tradition.
In 2014 I saw Natalie Jeremijenko speak at a Royal Society of New Zealand event. She discussed how we might redesign our relationship to natural systems, using science as a cultural resource, and how art can be a shared public memory of a possible future – starting with a wondrous engagement. She made me think about how art and speculative poetry can not only think about concepts but also enact them. I began to see my poems acting as thought experiments, allowing public engagement with cultural dialogues.
Initially I resisted writing speculative poems: the first half of my new collection deals with real people interacting with technology, and often this was weird enough without adding a speculative element. But I began to realise that my responses to representations of women and robots, and to the theorists that I was reading for my PhD thesis, needed to enter the speculative realm in the tradition of the feminist writers before me as a way to write about ideas, possibilities and alternatives.
Once you start to ask where technology is taking us, speculative writing becomes almost inevitable.
Does the word ‘spirituality’ mean anything to you?
I’m allergic to the word ‘spiritual’. I’m an atheist; I don’t believe in dualism of mind and body or spirit and body. I think that our knowledge of the world is inseparable from our bodily experience in the physical world.
I do find the natural world awe-inspiring in a way that some people might describe as spiritual, but I would call it a heightened embodied experience, or a state of sublimity. I find meaning in science and art. Interdisciplinary knowledge and the sublime can rub up against each other. They frequently do in the work of my literary heroes, and hopefully in my own work.
Egan, Kieran. (2007). The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Heath, Helen. (2012). Graft. Wellington, N.Z: Victoria University Press.
Heath, Helen. (2012). ‘How I learned to stop worrying and love science’ in Booknotes, 176 (autumn/winter).
Heath, Helen. (2017). ‘Poetic Truths’ in New Zealand Books, 117 (autumn).
‘Re-Integrating Art, Design and Science for a Future World.’ Royal Society of New Zealand, https://vimeo.com/109171541 Accessed 14 June 2017
Twain, Mark. (1897). Following the Equator. Hartford, CT: The American Publishing Company.
1 ‘Positivism is marked by the final recognition that science [empirical evidence] provides the only valid form of knowledge and that facts are the only possible objects of knowledge’ (Egan 115).