Arts & Culture: Diversity Dialogue

Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts in New York State’s Southern Tier

Ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds #1:How do poets, chemists and shortstops happen ?

My daughter, Lu Ann, is a junior in Journalism at Ithaca College. This semester she’s taking her first poetry writing class (“Just for fun, Dad.”) and has begun sharing work with me. Her stuff is frighteningly good – and I’m not saying that because she’s my daughter. It’s gooood, particularly for someone who less than two years ago approached the prospect of writing poems like a cat slinking around a pack of sleeping rottweilers.  I’ve put in a sample of one of her works-in-progress below so that you can be the judge.

Difficult Anatomy

People have spent eons moving passion around the body.

The Japanese found it in their stomachs,

rolling their hands over their bellies when in rage or fever.

Malayans move even lower, finding love in their liver,

the same organ that sucks poison from the body.


And of course, there’s the heart—rutting, beating thing

with all its gaping in and out points.

Such an ugly place to house all our adorations.


Maybe that’s why I’m so thorough in my lovemaking.

Checking meticulously, wetly behind the teeth, under the chin,

the crest of each fingertip.

For surely, passion has more taste

than to live solely in one organ.


I imagine it travels from hair to breath to thigh

grinning as it looks over our shoulders,

so that we’re kept in a perpetual hunt, perpetual heat,

rocking in blissful frustration,

just to find what it is the Japanese found in their stomachs. 

– Lu Ann Fong   10/22/08

Setting aside what appears to be a disturbing grasp of intimacy no less precocious than her poetry, my 20 year old daughter’s sudden appearance full-formed as a poet-like Athena sprung fully armored from the head of Zeus-begs for rational explanation.

Now let me say that I do have several quibbles with word choices above, and might myself seek an edgier ending line, (maybe the wonderful rocking in blissful frustration…) but it is the finished and confidently artistic quality of her very first efforts that arrests. It makes me want to understand the conditions, reasons and mechanism underlying such subterranean crystallization.

With a sense of wonder I’ve seen such satori transformations before. As a chemistry teacher I often instruct students I had in a previous freshman course who-after a single summer- seem to have been taken over by the pod people. Where once a `barely C student’ resided replete with lethargy and indifference,  I get back someone who is alert, organized and, honest-to-god,  interested and passionate about understanding the SN1 mechanism for halide substitution on higher degree alcohols. Before summer, they were incipient Homer Simpsons; after summer, they are young Linus Paulings.

Just what leads to this sudden blossoming in anything, be it writing poetry, solving chemistry problems, fixing cars or playing shortstop- is worth thinking about.  In the answer lies the path to our better angels.

My current ruminations on this business steer clear of the developmental psychologists’ Scylla and Charybdis: Nature and Nurture.  Frankly, in my daughter’s case, they don’t help. Indeed, they may have been part of the problem.

Lu Ann received plenty of nurture. She was the (unfortunate) focus of her father’s attempts at offering `fun’ lessons in chemistry, mathematics and physics, yet she never once exuded anything but sweetly polite disinterest to his relentlessly enthusiastic diatribes and antic home experiments.

She also had the ‘nature’. With little apparent effort (and less studying) Lu Ann got great grades in everything scientific and mathematical and was even offered a $20,000 scholarship from the University of Rochester to pursue the sciences.

What she didn’t have was an appetite and no amount of nature, nurture or good, old-fashioned parental handwringing, browbeating or cold reason about jobs, security and the cost of living could make her hungry to study chemistry instead of writing.

The `why’ of this has kept my puzzle-solving mind tangled up for a long time. However, when my own father died last year, a piece of the puzzle materialized as I remembered and mourned. Somehow, desire, or its opposite is connected literally and metaphorically to the magic of the summer season.

It was a hot Saturday in July when I was 5 and he brought out a ball, a bat and me to the lawn in front of our apartment building. I knew nothing about the game, but do remember how intensely wide, green and inviting the grass was and how my father’s white shirt stuck to him in the heat. I also remember his lesson.  In that single afternoon, he tried to transfer all the skill, grace, power and wisdom coiled up in him about hitting a baseball.  His desperate, religious zeal barked out to show me how to stand, how to hold the bat, how to judge a pitch, how to swing clean is one of my earliest memories of him.

His desire to give me everything at once burst from him like a star gone nova.  He had played on the 1939 Colorado state champion high school softball team, a team on which-as the only Asian American- he had batted fourth.  During the championship game he homered in the bottom of the ninth inning at a count of 3 and 2, with two men out.  It was one of the happiest, most fulfilling and triumphant memories of his life. But his intensity and hunger to pass all of what he knew and felt both about that game and about the craft he had inside to achieve that feat was too much for a seriously uncoordinated and shy 5 year old. My mother tells me that after I missed a few easy pitch balls, I ran off, leaving my dad to pick up the ball and bat and go back inside. I remember being hungry only to run around on the green, green grass and do my own thing. I never played baseball within my dad’s sight again.

I think I had the same effect on Lu Ann some 40 years later, when I thought I was giving her the equivalent of the `easy pitch’ balls when making soap from ash and Wesson oil in the kitchen, or eagerly declaiming about moles, limiting reagents and stoichiometry when all she wanted was the answer to problem 6 or her chemistry homework.  She has never played chemistry in my sight since, either. 

My nature, just like my dad’s, led me to try to do too much when all the kid ever wanted was permission in the `summer’ to fool around on her own, and roll in the metaphoric grass.  It’s probably why some of my students come back so suddenly interested and enthusiastic. They got that chance while far away from the barkings and exhortations of their too-earnest teachers, and they have allowed their minds to gambol and travel around.

Which brings me back to Lu Ann’s sudden emergence as a poet.  I did little to encourage her at that. Indeed, I think I have inadvertently been dismissive of the craft since I have made the point in her earshot that not a single American poet alive makes his or her living solely by writing poems.

Nonetheless she has observed me `rolling around on the summer grass’ and `driving under the metaphorical stars with the top down ‘ when I furtively work on poetry late at night, after all the other `real’ work is done. I think this is why she is letting me watch her play the poetry game. I think it’s also why she sent me the poem below first, about the car her grandfather, my father gave her one fine summer day just a brief few months before he died.

’87 Acura Legend

Half the trim on your driver side door is sitting in your trunk, waiting to be sewed back on.  Your front bumper’s been scraped often and bleeds rust red.  You look like a man who’s forgotten how to shave.

Sometimes you really get to me.  Like when you grumble “check engine” every time we go downhill.  Or when your gas meter gets the runs, dripping from half tank to under E, in half a minute. Or when you choke and gasp somewhere deep under your hood in the mornings I’m late for class.  Or when you decide to stop braking, halfway home from school, your brake pedal sighing into the floor mat like it’s too old for this kind of work.  Like you resent me. 

But then I remember the day we met. Grandpa, expansive; me, elated.  Giving and receiving you, the car as old as I am.   You are a luxury car.  A sports car.  The kind of car he was told again and again and again that he would never be able to buy, no way.  Till he did.  Drove it for sixteen years.

And there we were, our palms pressed on your hood still warm from driving around the neighborhood. Him handing me your key, telling me that this way I can go wherever it is I need to go.

–  Lu Ann Fong   9/16/08

3 comments on “Ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds #1:How do poets, chemists and shortstops happen ?

  1. Lu
    November 13, 2008

    Good grief, I’m not sure I know how to comment on this! Setting aside the embarrassment of reading about my childhood obstinacy (not to mention seeing my extremely rough drafts in a public domain) I think that you are absolutely right: this is something worth thinking about.

    What I don’t quite agree with is that “in the answer lies the path to our better angels” Is there really a need for an answer at all? Part of the beauty of inspiration is its exasperating ambiguity. Creating is navigating without a map, a compass or even the stars moving in their predictable paths…it’s sailing blind toward a horizon that promises something inexplicable.

    Perhaps that’s the reason why I shunned science even after you tried so hard to transfer your obvious love of its intricacies. True, there is always more to explore in science but the immediate answers are far too concrete for me. I prefer the science of people (which is essentially, what poetry is, right?) It’s blinder, grittier, more fickle, but to me far more interesting than the science of purines and pyrimidines, although you’ll be glad to hear that yes, I still remember what they are. : )

    I know I’m not doing justice to the thought you’ve put into this but then, you’ve got a lot of years on me. Thanks for making me think a little (despite my predisposition…not…to…haha) Say hi to the cat for me. I notice he’s in your profile photo!

    -Jie (the first kid.)

  2. fongjd
    November 15, 2008

    It’s ironic that as an `invited artist’ I should be defending the honor of milady Science, but what you’ve written is provocative and I’m going to wade right in.

    I was most interested in two of your statements :

    “Creating is navigating without a map, a compass or even the stars moving in their predictable paths…it’s sailing blind toward a horizon that promises something inexplicable. ”

    “True, there is always more to explore in science but the immediate answers are far too concrete for me. I prefer the science of people (which is essentially, what poetry is, right?) It’s blinder, grittier, more fickle.”

    Both comments are just lovely and I completely agree that the best part of creating art is that moment when you get surprised at the end of a meandering, fretful and unexpected journey.

    Your image of science -if I could extrapolate-is unconsciously borrowed from the Wizard of Oz when he refers to the Tinman as a clinking, clanking, collection of colligeous junk. Now I know you don’t view Nature as `junk’, but while the `intricacies’ (your very apt word) of the vast `machine’ of Nature are interesting and intriguing to you, your sense is that it’s a machine trundling along a path radically different than the `blinder’ journey taken by humans and more specifically artists.

    That’s where I differ with you. All the great scientists referred to their work as `a journey’ or `a great adventure.’ Darwin even blended the intellectual journey through the `machinery’ of Evolution with the visceral one, replete with seasickness and worms on the HMS Beagle. Reading his account of that journey would tell you about the very human, very conflicted and `blind’ quality of both inner and outer voyage.

    The problem, of course, is that to really grasp the powerful core of Darwin’s sort of mapless travel, you have to assiduously study all `that science junk.’ It means setting aside the feelings, insights and creative urge so powerfully alive in you, to lay bricks.

    It’s sad, and unavoidable, but most undergraduate and much graduate training in the sciences-notably physics and chemistry- amounts to teachers and professors saying to the students: “Shut up and listen. You aren’t smart enough yet to contribute anything meaningful or creative.”

    You can see the underlying -if brutal- sense of this. What 20 year old science student taking his/her first course in modern physics could be more innovative than the 50 year old Albert Einstein in his efforts to create unified field theory? Isn’t it better to listen and learn from Albert first, rather than striking out (no pun intended) on your own ?

    By way of contrast, you are already writing vital, original and publishable poetry in the first 10 weeks of your first poetry class. While your instructor has done an excellent job of exposing you to the many modern approaches to poetic expression, he hasn’t crammed any one style down your throat. The immediacy of being able to let your creative dogs run free is what attracts you to the arts, and repels your from the sciences.

    It takes so much longer to get to that state of freedom as a scientist. And I admit that scientists as a class are rarely poets. The sheer fact that they have `laid so many bricks’ to build the edifice of their understandings and techniques, has made them muscle-bound, phlegmatic and inflexible in the way they transmit what drives them. Mea Culpa.

    But in an attempt to give you a sense of the journey all scientists try to take, whether they admit it or not, I’ll leave you with a little poem written by Jacob Bronowski at the end of is essay: “Science and Human Values.” it captures better than I can conjure, the last `sweet’ pleasure and art integral to being a scientist:

    I, having built a house, reject,
    The feud of eye and intellect,
    And find in my experience proof
    One pleasure runs from root to roof,
    One thrust along a streamline arches
    The sudden star, the budding arches.

    The force that makes the winter grow
    Its feathered heaxgons of snow,
    And drives the bee to match at home
    Their calculated honeycomb,
    Is abacus and rose combined.
    An icy sweetness fills my mind,

    A sense that under thing and wing,
    Lies taut yet living, coiled, spring.

    J. Bronowski
    from ” Science and Human Values”

  3. Akua
    December 22, 2008

    Ahhh. Such delightful considerations. I adored science and while I always wrote, I thought I would become an oceanographer, a farmer, a doctor.
    Thank you both for letting us listen in on the conversation and consider
    our paths and origins.

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