Emily Grosholz - Interviewed by Mark Jarman
Interviewed by Mark Jarman
Emily Grosholz was born in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and attended the University of Chicago and Yale University. Since 1979 she has taught at the Pennsylvania State University, where she is now Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Philosophy, African American Studies, and English. Her first book of poetry, The River Painter, appeared in 1984; her most recent book, Childhood, has been translated into Japanese, Italian and French, and has raised $2500 for UNICEF. Her translation from the French of Yves Bonnefoy’s Beginning and End of the Snow was published in 2012. She has lived in France, Germany, and the UK, and traveled to Japan, Russia, Costa Rica, and around the Mediterranean and the Baltic. Since 1984, she has been an advisory editor for the Hudson Review. She and her husband, Robert Edwards, raised four children in State College, Pennsylvania, on the flanks of the Tussey Ridge, countryside that they and their neighbors, with the ClearWater Conservancy, are working to protect and preserve. She teaches at the West Chester Poetry Conference and at Writing the Rockies in the summer. Her book, Great Circles: The Transits of Mathematics and Poetry, will be published in 2018 by Springer.
The Stars of Earth: New and Selected Poems, newly released by Word Galaxy Press (summer 2017), is her eighth book of poetry.
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MJ: I suppose one of the things that most interests me is what you do for a living. You’re a philosopher. That aspect of your life emerges throughout your work, though usually in the background. I do wonder about the difference between what you call “systematic thought” at the end of “Rivers,” and poetry. Or am I making up a difference that doesn’t exist?
EG: I discovered poetry as a small child, and philosophy when I was thirteen, and higher mathematics only towards the end of high school. But when I went to college, I dreamed of being a research mathematician and a poet, like Omar Khayyám. However, perhaps because my high school preparation was only modest when I got there (though I studied on my own in the summers), or because I was a girl, I couldn’t find a mentor or a path. So I decided to study the history and philosophy of mathematics, and first ended up in the seventeenth century, where the great philosophers (Descartes and Leibniz) are also great mathematicians (and accomplished physicists). I studied their mathematical works as closely as their epistemological works, alongside Galileo, Huygens, and Newton, where the intersections of mathematics and physics are especially fascinating. At the University of Chicago, I wrote my senior thesis on “four master tropes” (thanks to Kenneth Burke) in poetry and mathematics, tracking metaphor, synecdoche, metonymy and irony through Renaissance sonnet sequences and my algebraic topology textbook. I was also inspired by the Great Books program, a legacy of Robert Maynard Hutchins and Richard McKeon, which in one sense was a modern development of the late classical/medieval curriculum, the Trivium (poetry) and the Quadrivium (mathematics), as I learned from reading Scott Buchanan’s Poetry and Mathematics, as well as Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where the terrifying Chairman is McKeon himself. Grammar, rhetoric and logic on the one hand, and arithmetic, geometry, music, and cosmology on the other: the music of the spheres!
I argued that we find the same habits of mind in creative mathematics as in great poetry: metaphor to set up the field of discourse, synecdoche to offer useful reductions within that discourse, metonymy to develop the correspondences, and irony to complicate and disrupt it, to open the gate to other fields. My illustrations were the development of topology under the influence of group theory, and the development of love poetry in the sonnet sequences of Sydney, Spenser, and Shakespeare. I’ve been thinking about . . .
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