NeuroCantos: Poet’s Statement

Steven J. Fowler, poet

The NeuroCantos began with Rebecca Kamen. Not with her artworks, not with the experience of meeting her energetic and endlessly generous personality over a week in Salzburg. Not even with her insight into scientific principles currently quite beyond my understanding. But all of these things, and none of them, saturated and superimposed her remarkable epistolary language. Rebecca writes incredible emails. This is a compliment we should give more considering the ubiquity of electronic correspondence in our time. Her emails are expressive, eloquent, and kind, but more than this, what was so unusual, is that they were suffused with an understanding that seems to be the golden ticket in my field – they were essentially interdisciplinary. That is, they seamlessly fused scientific and artistic understanding into one mode. And beyond that, they did so in a very specific wielding of language. This is what I do, what I see my profession as, wielding and deploying language, refracting the endless, infinitesimal mulch of our experience of the world in semantics. Poetry, to me, is clearly the use of the materials that we converse and lecture (some more than others) in, for a purpose other than conversation and didactic statement. Where sculpture works in material and then uses language to discuss this work, poetry must mould the thing others contextualize in. That is why I do not see anecdotal, first person narrative, subject led poetry as poetry, in the 21st century. And it is why, at a time when I was seeking to grasp and reflect the language and concepts of neuroscience, my burgeoning friendship with Rebecca provided me with the material I needed to make a beginning. In her emails, I found concepts, expression, rich language material, and I began to remix it. Taking her words, phrases, her understanding, and redeploying it, then making additions, alterations, reorderings, so the poems began to form. The path was lit, I could then write freely, remix other sources, neuroscientists like Daniel Margulies, medical textbooks, contemporary neuroaesthetics papers and more.

When asked to explain my poems, as I invariably am, I prefer to question why the onus falls on my work to maintain clarity. Nothing of value is clear without context, and context is not possible without study, without education. Music requires an ear, science requires training. It is not poetry’s place to offer gratification to the impatient, it is not a palliative. Science isn’t clear unless you have the code, and what is that? Time given to gain expertise. Why isn’t this the same for art and for the collaborations between art and science? With time and rereadings my poems become clear. They are not representations of ideas that exist wholly elsewhere, in the mind, of the human brain. They are language material deployed to mirror neuroscientific ideas, not represent them.

To be able to expand my writing in the company of someone as extraordinary as Rebecca has been a privilege and a delight. A constant inspiration, an exemplar of someone who has figured out the root of wisdom, as it seems to me – erudition, hunger for knowledge, humility and kindness. And to have my words sit in print and in the brilliant soundscape of Susan Alexjander, to feel like this small gesture I have made in the world has a presence in the firmament of such interesting artwork, well it is the reason I write.