Quatrain Questions with Paul Pearson

Paul Pearson reflects on the process of writing his debut collection, Lunatic Engine.

  • 1. The year 2020 has brought with it significant social upheaval on a global scale. Where do you see your collection’s discussion of science and religion fitting in with the larger social narratives that are currently taking place?

    There's this crazy internet theory that on April 29, 2016 the earth was shunted in to a parallel universe - and a terrible one at that. On that fateful Friday, a weasel got into the Large Hadron Collider and caused a short circuit: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36173247https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36173247. A friend of mine regularly talks about how we are now on the worst possible timeline and what we need to do is chuck another weasel into the particle accelerator because any other universe we get thrown into has to be better than this.

    I'm writing this in late July, 2020 in the middle of the debates about whether or not masks should be mandatory in public spaces. The anti-maskers are borrowing panic and rhetoric from the anti-vaxxers. The Black Lives Matter movement continues rightfully unabated but the anti-Black Lives Matter bigots and bots continue to clog social media with hate. Trump continues to try out-Trump himself while Fox news and the Fundamentalists keep cheering him on.

    Both science and religion are being used for evil. It seems like fewer and fewer people are actually taking the time to slow down and read what books actually say. Public discourse and thoughtful dialogue appear to have degraded down to everyone just shouting at each other on the internet. It is quite distressing.

    Lunatic Engine started off as a deeply personal exploration, a search for patterns, almost a meditation in places. Releasing it into the world now, I hope the book also serves as another small voice in the growing chorus of people calling for calm, consideration, empathy. We are all in this together. We have to figure out how to get along. There is no plan B. We are all going to die. What are you going to do before you get there?

  • 2. Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with Galileo? What is it about his life that inspires you?

    I once again have to thank Dava Sobel for writing Galileo's Daughter. Like you, I had a passing knowledge of Galileo's contributions to science and his troubles with the Church. My secondary school science education had highlighted his major achievements and simplified the Inquisition. Galileo's Daughter is an example of the very best of Biography. It prioritizes the narrative of Galileo's life above listing his achievements. It humanizes him.

    Galileo was not perfect. But he was intensely curious, and, more importantly, open. He had an imagination and wasn't afraid to use it in unconventional ways. I think he also had a great deal of humility. He walked an incredibly fine line with the Inquisition. Things could have gone very badly for him and though I think he knew very well that the dogma of the Church was doomed to eventually change in the face of facts, he did not throw it into anyone's face.

    He trusted his data and the way he found it. He knew that writing it down, that sharing the way he came to his conclusions, was what he needed to do. And that is what I think really inspired me while writing this book: get the information down on paper, share your methods with others, encourage them to test the methods, the data, let everyone draw their own conclusions.
  • 3. Lunatic Engine explores the systems of knowledge that help us cope with the human experience, including the experience of becoming a parent. After writing this collection, what are some of the valuable insights you think are important to share with your children (especially going forward into a post-pandemic future)?

    I would give much to read the letters Galileo sent to his daughter. Unfortunately we only have one side of that lifelong conversation. The letters he sent to her were most certainly immediately recycled, put to good use in the poverty of the convent. What would he have said to her? Life in the convent was hard. They were very poor. They were undernourished. They were isolated. They got sick and died at an alarming rate. They were serving God by doing this. What would he have said to her to comfort her?

    What I want to say to my kids, and what I hope Lunatic Engine is saying, is that they're not alone. They are not the first to go through what they are going to go through. Whatever series of belief systems, coping mechanisms, professions, and vocations they end up pursuing, the only thing that is going to make life bearable in the end is caring for each other.
  • 4. What do you see as the next step for your poetry?

    With each passing year I become even more painfully aware of my own privilege. The world has belonged to cis-gender white men for so long and look where it has gotten us: to the brink of collapse. The last thing we need as a species is more airtime for people who look like me.

    I spend a lot of my time professionally, and in my spare time as a volunteer for various literary groups, trying to make room for other voices. This has been something I have had a number of long conversations with other poets and writers in my cohort about over the past decade at least.

    However, if there is one thing that the pandemic and the surging tide of the Black Lives Matter movement and decolonization has made even more clear to me is that it is not enough for those in power to sit idly by. It is not enough to be just "not a racist." One must be an anti-racist.

    Also, I could no more not write as I could not breathe. So there's that. I've got a good start on a new manuscript that I'm currently calling "Tarzan and the Robot Gods at the End of Time." There are two main voices in the book with a third voice emerging as a kind of frame. The first voice is Tarzan, who finds himself alone, the last living thing, in an endless winter city, kept running by machines that are finally starting to break down. Tarzan, an ultimate symbol of colonialism, now lives in a world devoid of all natural life. And alone. The titles of his poems are the titles of the original Tarzan novels.

    The second voice is that of the Robot Gods: the God of One and Zeroes, the God of Machine Learning et cetera. And now famous figures from the various Surrealists art movements are making themselves known in the book. Many of them were creating at the same time Burroughs was publishing the Tarzan novels. The Surrealists are not happy.