Sara Talpos is a science writer and poet living in Ann Arbor. She received her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she taught writing classes for ten years. Her poems have been published in RHINO, Crab Orchard Review, and Verse Daily, among others. She is currently working on two articles related to public health. Her essay “Lab Notebook: Identifying Unknowns” can be found here. It appears in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
It’s when your narrator is briefly distracted by the Walt Whitman line “containing multitudes” that she finds blood cells. Do you intend to weave a connection between finding the smallest units of the body and realizing that they signal the immensity of being a person? If so, do you see that cultivating and understanding of the microscopic is one of the best ways to understand ourselves in the scale of our daily lives?
Song of Myself intrigues me because Whitman uses more than one lens. The speaker focuses on the small—the “spear of summer grass”—and the large. Yet after sounding his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world, he addresses the individual reader. I sense not just hope, but also a hint loneliness: “Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you.” After connecting with the entire cosmos, the speaker is still waiting for a companion. The human-scaled world remains incredibly important. So to answer the questions: Yes, I love how the microscope invites me to see facets of myself and the world that I’d otherwise miss. But I hope that I don’t get swept away in the minutiae.
In some instances, it seems your narrator can’t help but personify and personalize what she sees on the microscope slides. Is this something you see as enhancing or corrupting her understanding of what blood cells and viruses and tissue samples actually are? Or is anthropomorphizing these images the best way to connect with them?
Personalizing the scientific material was crucial to my own learning process. As a teenager, I used to be methodical about science—writing flashcards, quizzing myself on key terms. That approach helped me pass tests, but I never felt inspired to go beyond what we learned in class. When I went on to study poetry, I discovered the power of associative leaps—the linking of seemingly unrelated things through a particular smell, shape, or turn of phrase. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that I’d think twin fetuses or tie-dye when looking at cells under the microscope. I was encountering those cells as a poet, which for me, made the material more interesting and less intimidating. I don’t worry too much about the potentially corrupting influence. You can find associative leaps in science textbooks, too. The molecule ATP, for example, is often depicted as a lightning bolt because our bodies use it to produce energy.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
During my MFA and for about a decade thereafter, I focused almost exclusively on poetry. My prose was pretty much limited to writing paper assignments and end-of-year teaching reports. “Lab Notebook” was a stab in the dark, one of my first attempts at creative nonfiction. As it turns out, prose comes more easily to me than poetry. Sometimes I wish I’d figured this out sooner. But I also know that the time I spent writing poetry influences how I approach prose.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
I love studying foreign languages. (Mind you, I have yet to achieve fluency in any of them!) As a graduate student, I studied Russian and now I’m studying Korean. In my everyday writing, I spend so much time trying to find the right word or construct the perfect sentence. When learning a new language, there’s no hope for precision and control. I have to choose words that are close enough. This helps me cultivate a sense of play, which helps with my writing when I’m feeling stuck.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
I may be misremembering some of the details, but I often think about Thylias Moss’s description of her own writing process. She said that whenever someone said, “Don’t write a poem about X, or don’t write a poem that does Y,” she’d take it as a challenge, and write a poem that did X or Y. And she’d do it in her own magnificent and inimitable way. This inspires me to question the limitations we writers sometimes place upon ourselves: Where do these limitations come from, and can we use them to create opportunities?
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’m currently working on an article about pelvic floor injuries, which can lead to symptoms like incontinence and prolapse. One patient I spoke with characterized the pelvic floor as a “hush-hush part of the body.” Because we don’t want to talk about it, we don’t realize how common these injuries are. One in ten American women will ultimately have surgery to fix a prolapse, which occurs when week or torn muscles allow a pelvic organ such as the uterus or bladder to drop down through the vagina or anus. Fortunately, surgery or physical therapy can help.