Poet Adam Dickinson explores how chemicals interact with our bodies and our culture.
By Tyler Irving
Adam Dickinson is a professor of English Language & Literature at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont. whose work often touches on the relationship between science and art. Dickinson’s third collection of poetry, The Polymers, explores the connections between chemical polymers and modern culture. Last summer, he received funding for a new project, Anatomic: Semiotic Bodies, Chemical Environments, which addresses how our bodies are constantly re-written through contact with both natural and man-made chemicals. ACCN spoke with Dickinson to discover what poetry and chemistry have in common.
ACCN Explain the meaning of the title Anatomic: Semiotic Bodies, Chemical Environments.
AD I was thinking of several different possibilities, one of which is the word ‘anatomy’ and the fact that I’m dealing with a body, in this case my body. I was also interested in the word ‘atom’ located inside that word. Bodies have been understood as atomic forms through different kinds of discourse; we see this in terms of medicine but we also see this in terms of poetry, where the body of lyric or confessional poetry itself becomes a kind of atom, or atomized subject that needs to be broken down. I’m interested in this idea of an elemental constituent; the body, of course, is the fundamental way with which we interact with the world. The skin is a very permeable membrane and this permeability is partly what I’m interested in thinking about through art.
ACCN How did you become interested in the connection between chemistry, the environment and our bodies?
AD I’ve been accused of being a germaphobe ever since I was a kid. I don’t feel that I’m frightened of germs, I’m just very interested in my relationship to the unseen world around me. And as much as that includes microbes it also includes, as I have come to learn, chemicals. I’ve been interested in studies that identified toxins in waterways, the persistence of chemicals like birth control pills or antibiotics in water systems and problems in fish because of endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
Another inspiration was an experiment by Bruce Lourie and Rick Smith, authors of Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects our Health. They subjected themselves to a number of chemicals over a three- or four-day period and then tested their blood for things like phthalates and mercury. They ate a lot of tuna, microwaved their food in plastic dishes and stain-mastered their couch. People of a certain age have measureable amounts of dioxins in their bodies. What does this mean? What kinds of permeable beings are we and how do we reckon with this pollution? Moreover, this is pollution that doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor.
ACCN What do you plan to do in Anatomic?
AD In addition to extensive research, I will subject myself to ‘body burden’ testing and microbial screening via blood and urine tests. This will measure levels of common pollutants in my body as well as resident viruses, bacteria, fungi and other symbiotic organisms. I am planning to test myself for 68 chemicals that fall under the following groups: phthalates; PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls); PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals); OCPs (organochlorine pesticides); OPIMs (organophosphate insecticide metabolites); PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and BPA (bisphenol A). All of these chemicals are believed to exist in every human to varying degrees. By making a map of the toxicological and symbiotic circumstances of my body, I want to then use this information to create methodologies for producing poems. As a kind of unconventional science project, the poems will take their cue from the structures, histories and behaviours of the chemicals and organisms involved in order to re-write a body being rewritten by its environment. Ultimately, in addition to raising questions about pollution, part of what I am interested in doing is reframing distinctions between the natural and the unnatural as well as between the human and the nonhuman.
ACCN How will you turn the data into poetry?
AD While I am interested in drawing attention to important questions about pollution, it’s not my intention to produce a knee-jerk screed against these chemicals or to criticize chemists. Instead, I’m interested in the way in which our bodies are being rewritten by the world we live in — this is part of the evolutionary process. I plan to include the section on microorganisms within my body in order to complicate that relationship. What counts as pollution if microorganisms have already been contaminating the body for symbiotic purposes over the course of a lifetime and over the course of evolutionary history? I’m not simply condemning the fact that we live in this world of volatile chemicals. I want to look closely at the ‘outside’ that has come ‘inside’ and the problems that we have making such a fundamental distinction.
If the environment is rewriting our bodies, how can we respond to that through writing? How can poetry respond to the contemporary predicament of chemicals in the environment? I want to create a kind of toxicological map of my body and I’ve got these 68 chemicals that I’m going to test for. But I also want to do a lot of research into the cultural and scientific history of these chemicals. Mercury has been with us for thousands of years. We’ve known it’s a neurotoxin for a very long time, yet we work with it. Lead is another example.
I also want to research the ways in which these chemicals are produced. Plastics are essential to how we live our lives now, but I think people don’t know very much about how they’re produced or the history. A lot of inventions in plastics were accidental. The poems will reflect the kinds of methodologies that I discover, through historical, cultural and scientific studies of chemicals.
ACCN Can you give an example of a poem you might write?
AD I’ve been thinking about BPA as an endocrine disruptor as well as its chemical structure. Taking the repetition of this formal polymer structure as a poetic methodology, I wanted to write a poem that enacted the misreading that takes place as a result of BPA. I had two texts interfere with each other. BPA is prepared through the condensation of acetone — in this case, words drawn from the first and last sentences of each chapter of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring — with two equivalent units of phenol. For this, I used the unfolding text from Stanley Milgram’s advertisement seeking volunteers for his deceptive experiment on obedience conducted in 1962. I’ve combined these texts according to this repeating unit of BPA. The structure of the molecule constrains the structure of the poem itself.
ACCN The idea of a polymer structure constrainingart and culture is something you also explore in The Polymers.
AD I’d been thinking a lot about plastics, and I see these two projects as connected with The Polymers an unofficial prequel to Anatomic. I’m interested in giant molecules because they are integral to the constitution of organic beings and also because they are important in synthetic materials like plastics.
Plastics are fascinating. They are considered banal or cheap but they’re also futuristic: colloquial and scientific all at the same time. Plastics have this relationship between the literal and the metaphorical — they are often asked to stand in for things in the natural world, a replacement for wood, steel and rock. So there’s this literary tension between the literal and the metaphorical.
I suggest that culture itself is a kind of polymer. If you look at cultural memes repeated on the Internet, YouTube and Facebook, they have a kind of polymeric structure: things get repeated and chains get built and extended. Culture is also a kind of plastic in the way that people think about it and treat it in the popular media.
ACCN Who is your audience?
AD I expect and hope that my work will appeal to poets, environmentalists, literary scholars, researchers and students in the arts and science as well as a general audience. Given that poetry is concerned with the limits of language and the experimental horizons of writing, I think it is uniquely positioned to engage these sorts of questions. In the contemporary zeitgeist, people are thinking a lot more about the relationship between nature and culture as we’re confronted with issues like global warming or issues of local pollution. I’d like to frame the discussion in a unique way.
ACCN Do you see chemistry as a cause or a solution for environmental problems?
AD It’s too easy to condemn the presence of the chemicals around us. I think in many ways the environmental crisis is very much a crisis of imagination. By this I mean that we have to think about how we construct our relationships to the things we produce and the things we consume — these are fluid and culturally determined definitions. My project is about paying attention to this, and trying to shift the conversation a bit as well as grounding it in my own body. I think that it’s easy sometimes for us to forget that while pollution concerns are out there, they’re in here too, inside our own bodies, and I want that to be my point of departure.
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