‘Bee’ Reviewed: Bycatch

A seahorse, possibly not of the Pacific variety; photo from The British Library flickr. For a better illustration of a Pacific seahorse see the Terrain link

I first discovered the Bycatch project (I think that’s the right word) when I stumbled across two poems, “Pacific Seahorse” and “Shovelnose Guitarfish” in Terrain magazine where they were published. Eric Magrane and Maria Johnson are part of the 6&6 project which aims to bring scientists and artists together to portray and understand the Sonoran Desert (this is my favorite type of collaboration). Interestingly, it seems both Magrane and Johnson have science and art experience – Magrane is a geography PhD candidate and writer, Johnson is a marine conservationist and illustrator.

Magrane and Johnson traveled on a shrimp trawling boat as part of their collaboration, gathering bycatch data (all caught species that are not the target species). Several poems and illustrations came out of the collaboration, including “Shame-faced crab” (published in Zocalo Magazine and easiest to find in a blog post on the 6 and 6 website), the two published in Terrain, and “Sonora Scorpionfish” published in Coordinates Society

These poems are addressed to the bycatch and are accompanied with detailed illustrations that use dots to imply shading and patterns. I feel as though Johnson deliberately chose this style though I am not familiar with her body of work. The beauty of the whole being made up of the sum of these tiny individual pinpricks (rather than flamboyant colors, fancy materials, or computer generated additions) seems to speak to the necessity of each individual species, each fish, of bycatch to the beauty of the oceans, but I could be reaching. These species are often of special concern, lending the poems the narrative tone of a conservationist from the get-go of the title, and the voice of the poem takes that voice quite seriously.

Each poem gives special attention to the species it dotes on and seems to address a specific fish found on the trawling boat: how it  got on the trawling ship, and a little bit of scientific information about it carefully hidden (in the description of its habit or habitat). Each poem also seems to philosophize about the species, utilizing its relationship with humanity (going so far as to anthropomorphize certain species) to make a point about it’s existence as a part of the bycatch. Each poem, by highlighting this ‘unwanted’ or ‘forgettable’ part of the day’s catch on the boat, draws attention to the uniqueness of the species. Magrane makes us feel for the loss of life of each fish through beautiful, short stanzas punctuated by an abundance of white space that creates a sense of breathlessness, a feeling perhaps like a fish out of water.

By far my favorite poem is “Sonora Scorpionfish”, which contains the following lines:

“what are the chances/ from thousands of eggs

one will grow to display/ your red pectoral fin

what are the chances/ a human will be drawn

 to your sharp appearance/ pick you up

  by instinct or chance/ and the next day

their arm will go numb/ all numb,

is that slight/ consolation?”

I recommend you check those lines out in the original (link provided again here) because Magrane’s use of white space and stanza breaks heightens the suspense and, again, makes you feel breathless and light-heated as you grieve for the loss of the fish, which is really amazing (and sad, all at once). This poem really inspires me – without drowning its reader in guilt or even anger, Magrane manages to draw out intense feelings of compassion for marine life. Magrane may have the poem directly converse with the

Nyx’s ‘eyebrows’ are particularly on point for this one thanks to the sunlight (print copy of “Shame-faced crab”)

fish, but really he is opening the door for a philosophical conversation with his readers about the state of our marine life and the extreme loss of life in the environment that is the ‘bycatch’ of our industrial goals. Do we care? Is a numb arm consolation for the loss of the beautiful world we inhabit?

I would recommend these poems and illustrations to anyone who loves marine life or wants to experience the ongoing sad, deep, and beautiful conversation poets are having about conservation. I hope to see more of Magrane and Johnson’s collaboration in other journals soon.

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DIY MFA Part 1: Orientation

For those of you paying close attention, you may have noted I’m intending to go to graduate school in Biology in the fall and not to earn my MFA. And yet, here I sit, managing a blog and website more dedicated to my love of the craft of writing than to my personal scientific pursuits. Since I would hate to miss out on any opportunity for schooling, I decided to pick up the DIY MFA, a new book by Gabriela Pereira that teaches its readers to write with focus, read with purpose, and build a community (what Pereira asserts are the three main principles of an MFA program).

Pereira’s book calls for her readers to do some surprising work that, at its surface, isn’t writing; many books, such as Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See, teach us that there is more to being a good writer than writing itself. I’d like to follow my journal engaging with her material and doing my own DIY MFA as a bi-weekly segment on this blog for… well, however long a DIY MFA lasts. Hopefully, for other writers working on developing their writing, reading, and community outside the MFA this experiment of mine will be useful.

And I do call it an experiment since Pereira’s first piece of advice (when distilled) is for writers to use the scientific method to develop good writing habits. She develops the acronym VITAL: choose input and output Variables, collect Information, set a Trip wire, evaluate and Analyze, and Learn and decide what’s next.

For my first two weeks, Aug 1 to Aug 14, I will be travelling between my former home and new home, so I’ve decided to test the input of light exercise over factors I think are actually more important to my writing (like place, writing time, and music/noise) which I cannot control given my extended travel. Each day before writing, I will stretch and take a ten minute run (hey, it’s hot out okay?) to see if that unsettles or invigorates me.

I’ll be using Pereira’s writing tracker to note my quantitative writing progress and qualitative experience over the two weeks, as well as which type of project I’m working on (as my needs for CNF, poetry, and genre fiction seem to be very different). My ‘tripwire’ (something that reminds me to evaluate my progress) will be this blog post; I will evaluate my previous twelve days of writing through the newest post and then learn and decide what my next variable will be as I write.

So far as I know, my best writing happens at midnight in Dennys at Geneseo with coffee, sad music, pancakes, and a looming deadline.

Throughout the two weeks, I will also be updating you with my thoughts on various parts of DIY MFA and how I think they fit into the reality of being a ‘young hopeful’ writer.

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‘Bee’ Reviewed: Science on Stage

Science on Stage 4
Nyx: Oh look, a book. Maybe I’ll stop to read it.

I first came across this academic resource while working on one of my honors theses in undergrad – Science on Stage: An Examination of Scientific Rhetoric in Drama. This thesis really pushed me into reading (and writing) science-theater hybrids and was inspired, in part, by reading this book. And that’s what this book mostly does – it inspires one to consider science on stage as a cultural entity, even if the book can be considered a bit biased (more than I would generally recommend for an academic source). Then again, Shepherd-Barr is breaking some ground here by collecting a whole book of science-play criticism in one place and is very upfront about her definition of science, so perhaps its unfair to judge the book as anything other than a little lax on what is considered a culture-shaking play or actual science.

Shepherd-Barr covers a lot of science plays, from the modern and popular like Copenhagen by Michael Frayn to the old and unexpected like Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, with a lot of coverage in between. The book is a good jumping off point for thinking about how science functions in plays, what can be considered science, how scientists and the process of science are portrayed, and how these science plays impact our societal perceptions of science. The book is comprised of chapters that focus on plays of different themes – physics, medicine, biology, etc. – and Shepherd-Barr also tries to touch on trends, tradition, history, and the importance of theater to science in other chapters.

Science on Stage 7
Nyx: Perhaps I shall read it, after all. Hmmm.

The book is an interesting read, if dense, but only for someone who is well-read in the science-theater genre (you won’t get much out of reading about plays you haven’t read). That being said, the book is a great starting place to look for plays that would be of interest to you as the appendix in the back is really helpful. I would recommend anyone interested in theater, or even writing plays that deal with science, pick up this book and delve into the world of science-theater hybrids.

A cautionary note: Dr. Carl Djerassi has a great article about this book and how it exaggerates the prevalence of science plays on stage, in part by having a somewhat loose definition of what a science play is. I would recommend reading his article – it’s important to recognize that Shepherd-Barr is casting a wide net, with many of the plays she mentions not having been performed frequently, if ever, and other plays featuring characters like Newton or Einstein but with no real science behind them at all.

I personally fall somewhere between Shepherd-Barr and Djerassi’s views on science-plays, not as harsh as Djerassi about the necessity of ‘real science’ to be the ultimate focus of the play but also not willing to say the barest hint of a scientist’s name qualifies a play as a science play (sorry, Darwin in Malibu). To me, each play that has a primary or secondary focus of science informs us about how our culture views science, and is thus a science play even if it doesn’t quite get around to teaching us the inner workings of a transmembrane protein. And how our culture views science is important – science cannot stand alone. So pick up this book to get a start on understanding the complexity of science plays – and make your own decision about what a science play is to you!

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Bee-ing Difficult: the Nyx Edition

Here’s a sneak peak at the book chosen for Sunday’s ‘Bee’ Reviewed – getting the photos with Nyx is a real saga. I thought I’d show you what I mean (these were taken over the course of an hour as I tried to get my cat to sit, stand, lay down – anything if she could just be STILL and LOOK at me):

Science on Stage 1
Nyx: I know it really annoys you when I come really close, stand still, and look away from you. It’s really frustrating and I know you love that.
Science on Stage 3
Nyx: First, I’ll go over to the bookshelf and pretend to be interested so mom tries staging the book there. Then, I’ll turn my butt on her. PERFECT.
Science on Stage 2
Nyx: If I keep walking by, between the book and the camera, that’ll really annoy her for sure. Look, Mom, I’m not interested in the bookshelf anymore!
Science on Stage 4
Nyx: What’s this? If I pose right in front of the clean laundry mom has yet to fold, then the internet will know all about her inability to do common household chores efficiently! Hah! Perfect!
Science on Stage 5
Nyx: I know? Aren’t I cute? And perfectly posed in front of the laundry, too. You’re welcome, mom.

Get excited for a post on ‘Science on Stage’ coming soon (and more cute pictures of my cat, the star of this blog)!

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What I’m Working On

Short term projects:

I’m incredibly excited to announce that I’ve finally finished beta-testing my game, Narborion Adventures: The Burning Trees of Ormen Mau. I’ll say to beta-testers everywhere that I do not envy you and your job. Playing games in the most boring way possible is an experience I do not wish to repeat. I am sorry. You can read an interview with me about the project here, watch the game trailer here on their homepage (all the way to the left in the videos section), or – soon – buy the game in the app store (available for Android and iOS)!

After being inspired by a call for submissions of unfinished manuscripts by Carina Press, I’ve taken a small break from science-writing to work more completely on a historical romance novel that aims to turn some of the traditional regency troupes on their head. Hey, sometimes we have to give love a little time to shine, right?

Also, three of my poems, “Acerum on Fomalhaut b,” “Comma after Late Budbreak: Defoliation by an Invasive Pear,” and “Dirty” have been accepted for publication in The Trumpeter online literary journal. As soon as they’re published, I’ll be able to start posting Biopoetics for those poems!

Long term projects:

I’ve decided to join the Philadelphia Neuwrite chapter after meeting their founder; I wanted to follow up on my involvement in the science-writing collaboration group from my undergrad at Geneseo (where I was a founding member). My first meeting will be in September, but it won’t be my last!

I’ve decided to continue diversifying by joining the Collaborative Writing Challenge for Project 6, which will be a Fantasy/YA Fantasy novel. This jives well with my gamebook experience and love of the genre. The project works with four authors each signing on to write the same chapter of the book. Each author receives the chapter selected before their assigned chapter and a concept outline, after which they have a week to write their chapter and submit their material to the story coordinator. The story coordinator picks one chapter of the four submitted versions as the ‘winner’ and then sends it on to the next four writers… building the story. Submissions are accepted for the started chapter and voted on by all contributors to the project. I’ll be working on chapters 23 and 27, not due until Feb/March of 2017.

Lastly, I’ve been collaborating with my brother to create a biography of sorts about his craft distillery, Black Button Distilling located in Rochester, NY (if you have the opportunity to buy the Bourbon Cream and/or the gin, do it!).

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‘Bee’ Reviewed: Radial Symmetry

Nyx: If you won’t pet me, maybe this book will. *knocks book over*

Katherine Larson’s Radial Symmetry is less about science than I expected, given that it was written by a research scientist and field ecologist. As a book of poetry, Larson’s imagery, clarity, and vividness is to be admired – there are moments of great beauty scattered throughout the book.

Unfortunately, Radial Symmetry wasn’t really the book for me; if you’re a reader who likes a cohesive narrative (or poems that feel connected), this collection will feel disjointed. Larson writes of her own experiences with loss, love, travel, and more, couching them in biological imagery (sometimes) but leaving us without any discernible threads to meaningfully connect these reflections. Within each of these reflections, there are certainly precise and beautiful moments of writing and insight; it should be noted that Larson pays particularly excellent attention to sound within her work. But much of the collection felt vague and too personal for me to understand. There were also a lot of noncommittally ‘thoughtful’ statements where Larson seemed to be attempting philosophy but fell short of dedicating herself to it – for example a catch-all, like “Either everything’s sublime or nothing is”.

This book of poems would work well for those who appreciate scientific reference without scientific exploration and who like to go on a personal journey with the author through a life not your own. Larson does offer a unique perspective on her human experience, particularly through poems about loss like Grandfather Outside. Readers who appreciate poetry collections in which there is a lot of variety and diversity in thought, imagery, and style will also appreciate this versatile collection.

Some of my favorite lines follow – from Statuary:

“But somewhere between/ the crane and the worm/ between the days I pass through/ and the days that pass/ through me/ is the mind…”

from Study for Love’s Body:

“Saturn revolves/ repeatedly around some distance/ where space is nothing/ yet still something that separates.”

from Love at Thirty-Two Degrees:


beyond pheromones, hormones, aesthetics of bone,/ every time I make love for love’s sake alone,

I betray you.”

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Shame and Publications

One of the alumna of my undergraduate institution, Katherine Fusco, recently wrote a post I’d like to highlight: So, I’ve Been Publicly Shamed: On Writing and Resilience. As with all posts that I write about the works of others, I recommend you read the original piece first to better understand and engage with my post.

Fusco graduated from Geneseo in 2003, long before I began attending, and went on to earn her M.A. and PhD from Vanderbilt. She has numerous publications, teaches courses at the University of Nevada, and holds the Crowley Distinguished Professorship in Core Humanities. She is an excellent role model for a younger alumna like myself, just beginning her journey towards a PhD and a writing career. Recently, Fusco was publicly mocked online for her academic work in the field of film studies.

Fusco’s article is well worth a read, crossing the STEM-Humanities divide to speak to every person who publishes work as part of their career. Fusco was mocked on Twitter, where an account I won’t name (so as not to give them attention) posted a photograph of the abstract of an academic article she wrote with the caption, “When you’re not all too bright but the salary’s better in academia than Starbucks.” Fusco speaks of old feelings of fear resurfacing as the Twitterverse began to retweet and engage – fear that she was not good enough (as an academic, a writer, a thinker), fear that her coworkers were all laughing at her, fear that her public college undergraduate education was a stain on her reputation in the often-classist structure of academia.

Fusco’s work is just one of many to be mocked; much of the ridiculed work relates to women’s issues, feminism, or is simply written by women (leaving those mocking them to distribute their picture and comment on their appearance, as Fusco notes happened to her). We could derail into a feminist dialogue here (albeit an important conversation to have), but I’d rather stay focused on something else: As writers/researchers, whether we publish academic work or creative work, we must become prepared to deal with the feelings of anger, fear, and sadness that will come up when we, and our work, are mocked online. Gone are the days when a scientist’s work and the critique of their work were largely separated from them as a person.

As a young writer, I worry that I don’t have the resilience Fusco displays – that I don’t have the maturity, sense of self, and career behind me to overcome being mocked. I hardly have the presence of self to send out work for potential publication or share my poetry with my writing group. In undergrad English courses we talked a lot about how to be resilient in the face of rejection by academic or literary journals, but not at all about how to overcome the feelings associated with being actively harassed for our work. When writers are not able to overcome these feelings of fear, anger, and shame when other ridicule or mock them for their publications, we lose valuable, communal knowledge, stories, truths, etc. as those writers/scientists stop pursuing certain lines of work or publishing.

It’s ridiculous to assume that we can stop online trolls but shouldn’t we better prepare our young writers/researchers to deal with often personal harassment and ridicule? If yes, how do we prepare them? Fusco offers some advice, as a scholar and teacher, to others who find themselves mocked, saying:

  1. Writing something better would not have mattered.
  2. Your work is not you.
  3. Some people wish you would just shut up and go away.

It’s important we teach young scholars and writers these principles (among others like: don’t feed the trolls) to prepare them for ‘peer review’ not by literary or academic publications but by the masses that often engage in ‘intellectual crusades’ against those that offer alternate views, lifestyles, etc. As our work and our selves become more intertwined with the ever-increasing net the internet casts, we must prepare the next generation of writers/researchers to deal with all kinds of critics, and to know which ones to ignore. We must teach this generation how to heal when ridiculed, how to respond, how to be resilient like Fusco works hard to be. Otherwise, we run the risk of having many writers shut up and go away, letting the trolls win to the detriment of society as a whole.

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The Perpetual Writer’s Block

Last December to February, I was behind on a writing contract (for the game/app I’m almost done beta-testing…finally). Every day, before and after class, in between homework and sorority, I did nothing but write. With the story rounding out at 185,000 words and completion in 2.5 months, I wrote an average of 2,312.5 words a day. I think one day I wrote about 9,000 words. It was nuts.

For the past month, however, I’ve been trying my hand at regularly producing content for this blog and I’ve discovered what makes my writer’s block shine.

  1. Not having a deadline – as a former college student (and soon-to-be grad student), I’ve realized that I’m very motivated by deadlines and… not by much else
  2. Perfectionism –  each post gives me the anxiety attack of wondering if this post will help or hurt my career overall (the logical side of my brain understands the answer is neither). How can I post something now when I’m not my best writing self yet? Paradoxically, of course, becoming your best writing self takes practice – say, developing content for a blog or something.
  3. Wanting to write something else – honestly, anything else. As soon as I settle down to write something for this blog, I quickly decide I want to write something else. Anything. Fantasy, Sci-Fi, recipes for pizza rolls.

You’d think the fact that this blog is in its infancy would help me not worry about being perfect; logically, if no one is reading what I write what does it matter? Unfortunately it seems I still have a ways to go before I separate my writing self from my emotional self enough to write unburdened by anxiety.

Do any of you suffer from writer’s block in the form of how-to-write and not what-to-write? How do you handle it?

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‘Bee’ Reviewed: I Thee Wed

Nyx, doing a more typical heroine pose for a romance novel cover, looking up toward her tall, dark, handsome man (a.k.a. scratching post)

I have a confession – I used to be an avid reader of romance. About five years ago, I worked as a reviewer for three blogs and also had my own personal blog where I held contests and centralized all my reviews. Unfortunately, college quickly forced me to re prioritize (homework? sleep? eating? pick two, and forget about the rest of life!). I was delighted when I heard about Celeste Bradley’s most recent regency romance novel, I Thee Wed, which came out in May of 2016 and features not one but two scientists! This was a book with relevance to this blog, if only in how we portray science in mass market paperback.

Orion Worthington is an aspiring scientist in 19th century England with lofty ambitions, working for Sir Geoffrey Blayne as a lab assistant. Hoping to put his family name behind him and advance into the upper echelons of science-society, the last thing he needs is his own personal scandal with Blayne’s niece, Italian scientist Francesca Penrose. Francesca and Orion both agree that their mutual desire is impacting their research goals and something must be done to remove the distraction that temptation provides. But will one night of passion be enough experimentation to last a lifetime? (As any good scientist knows, all experiments must be repeated many times over. So right from the get-go, I’m going to say… no).

This book has all the classic elements of a well written historical romance: there is a great cast of warm, eclectic supporting characters and a completely contrived plot that gets resolved miraculously at the end (literally. the answer here is ‘magic’) which could have been resolved with a simple conversation earlier on. There’s hot, passionate kisses and daydreaming and sex and no one can keep their hands off one another. The dialogue is humorous and both Francesca and Orion are compelling characters. If you’re into romance novels of the historical variety, I would recommend this book – on an A+ to F/Did Not Finish scale, this book would come in at a solid B-. Above average, if only slightly.

But what is compelling and unique about this book is its relationship with science, particularly in that it seems to reflect an incorrect, but socially popular, view of science. The book’s major scientific discovery comes as a singular epiphany and one night of work by Orion, alone in a lab; that discovery is then presented to the scientific community about 16-24 hours later at a conference. In reality, science can involve epiphanies (though they generally need extensive tweaking) – but even in the 1800s, experiments had to be rigorously repeated. Science is slow; having the epiphany does not guarantee you’ll have figured it out the first time around or that your experiment will run without issue (actually, when does that ever happen?). And after getting your experiment to run, repetition and independent verification are required before bringing forth the results to the community (though today that process is more rigorous than in the 1800s, I’m sure).

Additionally, Orion is never seen doing research for his experiments in that he looks at no other literature. Science often requires us to stop and consult the work of others; it is not the work of a mad genius, alone in his lab, but of a collective mind, thriving. To someone not involved in science, I wonder if Bradley’s interpretation of scientists as lone geniuses with perfect epiphanies and perfect results after one night of work would seem odd (the way it did to me) or if this is, truly, the way modern society still understands the process and people of science.

Overall, the book remains light on discussions of scientific theory, touching briefly and vaguely on Lamarck and evolutionary theory, even as the process of science frames the overall plot. Charles ‘Charlie’ Darwin makes an appearance, which I found really humorous. I would even go so far as to say Bradley was daring in portraying a child-like Darwin, this serious scientific figure whose theory changed the course of biology, as a mildly asthmatic, whining troublemaker. This exchange in the epilogue particularly amused me:

“You’re older than Charlie,” he reminded her. “You should have kept him out of the deepest water.”

Attie was clearly offended. “I’m helping him. He needs to get more fit if he is to survive.”

Overdone? Perhaps. But just the kind of light-hearted, dramatic humor to end this kind of book.

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BioPoetics: I: Matured

First published in Mind Murals magazine, page 11, in the Spring of 2016. Listen to it read aloud here.

This poem blossomed out of I: Seeding in which I wrote about the way a strong wind can affect the shape of a growing sapling. Shortly after writing this poem, I learned that sugar maple trees are primarily wind-pollinated, not pollinated by bees as I had originally been led to believe in my previous research (this discovery is relatively new; Cornell’s website uses materials from 1996 which indicate bees pollinate sugar maple flowers but more recent studies show it’s actually primarily the wind). I felt it was necessary to write a follow-up about the relationship between the wind and the trees, when they grew older.

Photo by Kent McFarland entitled ‘Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) flowers’ (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License), link through photo

Sugar maple trees begin to produce flowers around thirty years of age (this is the minimum for fruit-bearing) and the process of flowering is known as inflorescence. During good years (usually cyclical every two to five years depending on environmental conditions), the flowers fill the tree canopy so heavily that the tree takes on a yellowish cast. Most sugar maple trees will produce flowers of entirely male parts, those of entirely female parts, and those that have both male and female parts.

Pollen grains are (i.e. male spores) and can be found in the pollen sac, or microsporangium, before being distributed by wind (in the case of sugar maples). It’s important to note that all pollen grains are spores, but not all spores are pollen grains as there are also female spores (megaspores). Primitive plants and seed-bearing plants utilize spores differently in reproduction.

If a sugar maple flower is pollinated, it develops into a fruit – what we would colloquially call a ‘helicopter seed’ but can also be called a double samara. After pollination, the flower ripens into a fruit for about two weeks before each samara falls off the tree and is blown by the wind all over the land. The ‘winged’ shape of the samara lends itself well to being carried by wind through forests and fields, over snow and sand. Eventually, the samara settles and germinates if the conditions are right.

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