Five Questions with… Madhur Anand

Madhur Anand, author of A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

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IFOA: Tell us a bit about your debut poetry collection, A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes.

Anand, Madhur (c) Karen Whylie, Coyote Photos

Madhur Anand: The title refers to critical transitions from complex systems theory. These occur when a small perturbation causes a big change and leads a system to a different place, a surprising place or a catastrophe. They are also known as tipping points.

Scientists are developing indices to predict when a system is about to undergo such a transition. Some are concerned that critical transitions are difficult to adapt to. But in many systems with nonlinear feedbacks, these kinds of transitions are inevitable. My book examines transitions in human-environment systems at many levels (e.g. individuals, families, societies). These may be represented by surprising changes in, for example, identity, displacement or relationships.

Recent research suggests that a “critical slowing down” in dynamics can be an early warning for such transitions.The system takes longer and longer to recover from small perturbations. This critical slowing down, these expanding moments, weeks, months or years, might be an opportunity for closer and closer observation of a recovery process and for learning. Poetry can emerge from this.

This is just one way to read my debut book of poems. Other descriptions are on the back cover. And that’s Doryanthes excelsa (‘exceptional spear-like flower’) on the front cover.

Anand, A New Index for Predicting CatastrophesIFOA: You hold a PhD in theoretical ecology and currently work at the University of Guelph as a Professor in the School of Environmental Sciences. How does your poetry tear down the dichotomy between science and art?

Anand: That there is science in art and art in science we’ve known for a long time. The fact that my title refers to a scientific phenomenon is one way to combine art and science, but that’s just the beginning. To “tear down” (or as I would put it more subtly, dissolve) the dichotomy, science and art must be shown to have a dual nature, to be bistable (to borrow again from complex systems science terminology).

Here is one example of how I think science and art co-exist in my book. Thirteen poems are composed from the text of 13 of my scientific articles. These poems take on new lifebecome seemingly independent entities (though they are not)and a surprising thing happens. I am an environmental scientist but not always an environmentalist; an ecologist but not an eco-warrior. Yet the process of extracting poems from my science (ranging from evolutionary biology, to theoretical ecology, to biodiversity and conservation) led in every instance to sociopolitical poems I did not realize were in me.

I invite the reader to think about other ways in which art and science co-exist in my book and in general. Please let me know what you think.

When did you first start writing poetry and why?

The Key to the Fields

Figure 1: “The Key to the Fields” by René Magritte

Anand: I wrote my first poem during the last year of my PhD work some time in 1996. I was immersed in equations and complexity theory and computer simulations of old-field succession. I spent entire days, sometimes weeks, alone in a lab. One summer day I walked over to the window and stared at the framed horse-chestnut tree surrounded by lawn. When I returned to my computer, I wrote my first poem. You’ll find seven of those (unpublishable) poems actually appearing as the preface to seven chapters of bound thesis. My supervisor encouraged me to put them there when I told him what was happening.

At the time, and still today, poetry is a way in which I am able to inject a perfectly perpendicular mode of being and thinking into my life’s dominant (scientific), and sometimes predictable, course. Maybe poems are my little critical transitions (see Figure 1). Maybe I do it to practice dealing with catastrophes, maybe to avoid burnout. But then I think poetry is more than just therapy. Maybe it’s simply to perceive the world in other dimensions, to experience the full richness of human experience.

IFOA: What inspires your writing?

Anand: Great writing. The right mentor. A phrase, memory or idea that doesn’t go away. Human-environment systems. Children. Plants. Travel. Beauty. Games. Heritage. Discovery. Loss. Symmetry. Asymmetry. Congruence. Incongruence. Freedom. Constraint.

IFOA: What are you reading right now that you can recommend to our readers?

Anand: Your readers should probably read poetry. Right now I am reading prose: The Book of Nature by Ruskin Bond (Penguin Books India). I’ve been wanting to read more work by Indian writers lately. He writes fiction and non-fiction (memoir) based on the small town (now the big city) of Dehra Dun, where my mother lived from adolescence to marriage. Here are some lines from his introductory remarks: “Nature doesn’t promise you anythingan after life, rewards for good behaviour, protection from enemies, wealth, happiness, progeny, all the things that humans desire and pray for. No, nature does not promise these things. Nature is a reward in itself.”

Madhur Anand’s poetry has appeared in literary magazines across North America and in the anthology The Shape of Content: Creative Writing in Mathematics and Science. She completed her PhD in theoretical ecology at Western University and is currently a professor in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Guelph. Anand presents a reading from her debut collection, A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes, as part of the McClelland & Stewart Poetry Night on April 9.