In my experiences, reaching across disciplines offers new ways of looking at the same subjects and offers new ideas that one can interpret through a familiar framework. Last year, I took “Literature and Science: the Anatomy Lab,” a course that allowed me to explore a range of topics. From 500-year old anatomical medical texts to working with cadavers in the gross anatomy lab, I gained a new understanding and appreciation for the sciences and sheer mechanics surrounding the bodies that carry us around each day. I also expanded my vocabulary, finding the satisfying rhythm of words like flexion and extension, tracing the etymology of the word sacrum to sacred, being able to identify with a freshly sharpened specificity an area of the human skeleton and musculature. That’s my cervical spine. There’s the maxilla, and there’s the mandible, moving as I speak. I thought differently about the world around me; I saw my body beyond the aesthetic outline, and these words and ideas showed up in my writing. In my poetry, my fiction, and my academic essays, I was able to more clearly articulate otherwise-vague feelings surrounding my body and to contextualize my experiences using a wider sociological viewpoint.
My poetry professor once said all poets want to be able to use physics in their poetry, and it’s true that something like the simple concept of a body in motion, staying in motion, much like a story or a scene, is compelling. The downside to this type of cross-disciplinary work is that sometimes crossing metaphors simply doesn’t work. I read an argument in a global studies class which argued that when discussing economic disruptions, using the language of epidemics and epidemiology to refer to them as contagions was a misnomer and even harmful. It’s necessary to be cautious in your craft to avoid unintended implications. I’ve also seen writers and artists use science or refer to facts that simply aren’t true, aren’t founded on any real basis, or are repeating a common myth about something rather than stemming from in-depth research into a particular field of study. For example, years ago I read a viral poem which referenced the idea that Van Gogh ate yellow paint in order to make himself happy and turned the color yellow into a symbol of trying to create happiness. The reality of the matter is that Van Gogh possibly did eat a variety of toxic and harmful things in order to poison himself, as a measure of purposeful self-harm. While there’s obviously a right to poetic license, this type of misinformation can make the writing feel lazier and cheaper, and it doesn’t yield the same sense of reward that text which seriously engages with a topic on both an intellectual and artistic level. What feels most rewarding to me is works that reveal more layers of nuance and complexity the more deeply I understand the subject they are drawing from for metaphor or allusion.
I would love to learn how to make clothes. I already have some very elementary sewing knowledge, but textiles and fashion both really fascinate me. So much work goes into a single article of clothing, and I think crafting a garment by hand would give me an entirely new appreciation for that work. There’s a practical element to it, as being able to mend rips and holes is valuable knowledge which further creates sustainable practices surrounding clothing consumption. The fast fashion industry creates large portions of worldwide non-biodegradable waste and any effort to slow that accumulation is worthwhile to me. So this particular creative skill set to me reflects an empathy and care for oneself, one’s community, and one’s world. This type of empathy is exactly what Baldwin always returned to in his writing, and what drew me to it.