I was asked to lead an informal discussion group at ESOF: Why Send A Poem To Mars?
This was a part of a week long series at the ESOF conference with the theme of taking a train, and starting a discussion with the passengers. The passengers were the first dozen scientists and students willing to take a chair (and microphone) in front of the rest in attendance. The simple premise was that the student intern runs to catch a train, and as she breathlessly seats herself among those in front comments that she had heard that NASA sent a poem to Mars — “Imagine that: Poetry to little green men!” — and as the conversation begins, I reveal that it was my haiku in orbit of Mars. Made to defend the meaning and significance of having a poem sent to another planet was literally a defining experience. To debate such sharp, scientific minds, disadvantaged only by the requirement they speak in English (and pretend they were riding on a train), was like a confidence instilling parlor game for me.
At the close of festivities, Professor Jean-Patrick Chaminade took me out for a glass of wine and proceeded to get me drunk on high-proof anecdotal storytelling that provided a complete historical background of the event, and its setting chosen this year in the town of the troubadours, and a limitless source of academic revelations. He outlined what he believed to be a currently burgeoning movement in poetry.
“We live in such a technological world, that any art which ignores technology and science is less alive, less vital, because it is out of touch with our full reality,”
He sees science poetry happening worldwide. With it comes a return to form, especially the sonnet, which is such a logical form. He sees a return from the edge of experimentation where poetry has broken meaning down into its essentials and gone beyond that into the meaningless, and with that return an acknowledgement of our technological world. “We live in such a technological world, that any art which ignores technology and science is less alive, less vital, because it is out of touch with our full reality,” believes Professor Chaminade.
It was not the single glass of wine that set my head reeling. Here was an erudite professor confirming my suspicions about the value of what I do, at the same time he was welcoming me into an international and inclusive enclave of laboring science poets striving toward a common goal — education through feeling.
However there was little time for immediate further consideration. As we exited out onto the street (still wearing our conference badges) the bus driver, spotting our ESOF tags, asked if we were boarding the last bus for the dinner. Professor Chaminade had a previous engagement for dinner, so we quickly parted ways as I boarded a very plush chartered vehicle that whisked us through Occitania to an enormous campus like complex of auditoriums and patios with busy servers, bustling about in preparation, all in the formal French chef attire, by rank, where even the folds in the toque have a meaning.
First, however, we were led to an auditorium with multiple drink and hors d’oeuvre stations. Early on, it went about as you might expect from a bunch of scientists from different specialties trying to mingle — some in solar system cliques, others like rogue planets on the edge of visibility — but eventually a certain level of alcohol saturation was reached and then the speeches began.
By the end of the thankfully short soliloquies, the food stations had been assembled in the courtyard, overlooking the river, and there was a non-ending supply of gourmet faire, tweaked with an unusual science twist — such as the three cold soups served in test tubes and the equations in sauce on the plates. Everyone had become festive, talkative and welcoming. Everyone had fascinating and memorable stories to tell.
To accommodate the tram schedule, the party had to end so the bus could return in time for those, like myself, who still had to maneuver to their hotels.
With my head still swimming from liberation, libation and celebration, I returned to my hotel to prepare for the main event the next day at the historic Hotel Assézat.