Courtesy Donna Tong, LAB’20, Class of 2024
Experimental literature

An advanced poetry course explores the science of poetry and the poetry of science.

Creative writing lecturer Nathan Hoks often gets a particular kind of student in his classes: science majors who love poetry but can’t dedicate much time to it. Partly that’s because their studies are demanding. But partly, he says, science majors are stymied by “conventional social messages that treat poetry and science as total opposites, water and fire.”

Hoks’s interdisciplinary course, Advanced Poetry Writing: Weird Science, which he taught for the first time in Winter Quarter, takes a different view. “science and poetry,” reads the description of his opening lecture (lower case in original). “admixture? alchemy? frenemies?”

The syllabus encourages students to “use, misuse, and borrow from science” and to “approach poems like science experiments.” At the end of their quarter-long foray into experimentation, students’ final projects were to include a “lab report” (a one- to two-page writeup of their results).

In her lab report, third-year Donna Tong, LAB’20, wrote that she took inspiration from her developmental biology textbook, scribbling poems in the margins. A double major in biology and creative writing, Tong says that “Elegy Template” (below) was one of her “most concrete mini-experiments.” She asked herself, “Can science sound sad?” To create the poem, she looked up a template for an elegy (“The title is very self-explanatory,” she notes) and combined it with language from developmental biology.

Her broader experiment for the course focused on scientific language. The challenge, she says, is that its tone can be so strong, it can overpower the poem.

One of Tong’s portfolios of science-based writing, “Cells to Cells,” won the Margaret C. Annan Memorial Prize for poetry; the $1,000 award supports a summer writing project. After graduation, Tong plans to attend medical school. Hoks will teach Weird Science again next spring.

Elegy template

By Donna Tong, LAB’20, Class of 2024

It’s late, and it will always be late.
    To me, the adult thoracic cavity has always been
dependable. But when we were
    young, it wasn’t always so. The histoblasts were
dormant until the time came, riding
    the wave of mighty proliferation. Those cells weren’t
ready, but it doesn’t matter because
    there’s never been an epidermis quite like this. After
metamorphosis, there might never be
    again. Again, it’s late, and it will always be late. That’s
how I know they’re practicing. There
    are no beeping timers or alarms. They just always are.