Ken Hunt’s writing has appeared in Penteract, The Blasted Tree, No Press, Freefall, Matrix Magazine, and in the anthology The Calgary Renaissance. His first book of poetry, Space Administration, was published in 2014 by the LUMA Foundation. Ken has two books of poetry forthcoming from BookThug: The Lost Cosmonauts (in 2018) and The Odyssey (in 2019). Ken also has a book of poetry forthcoming in 2020, from The University of Calgary Press, entitled The Manhattan Project. For three years, Ken served as managing editor of NōD Magazine, and for one year, he served as poetry editor of filling Station. In 2014, Ken founded Spacecraft Press, an online publication venue for experimental writing inspired by science and technology. Ken holds an MA in English from Concordia University, and is a PhD candidate at Western University in London, Ontario.
His poems “UNCLASSIFIED,” “The Autokinetic Effect,” “Sleep Paralysis” and “The Klass Curse” appear in the nineteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “UNCLASSIFIED,” “The Autokinetic Effect,” “Sleep Paralysis” and “The Klass Curse.”
A: These four poems are excerpted from my current poetry manuscript-in-progress, Project Blue Book. The book investigates the UFO phenomenon, its surrounding subcultures, its related conspiracy theories, and its status as a kind of ‘modern mythology’.
The drop poem “UNCLASSIFIED” refers to conspiracy theories that claim NASA has withheld information about its space programs and missions from the public. Some claim that this withheld information deals with extraterrestrial encounters. Others claim, infamously, that this withheld information would prove that one or more of the Apollo space missions were hoaxes designed to act as pro-American Cold War propaganda.
The title of the poem “The Autokinetic Effect” refers to a hallucinatory phenomenon often experienced by fighter pilots, where stationary dots of light outside the aircraft appear to move. This phenomenon is often cited as an explanation for UFO sightings reported by fighter pilots.
The title of the poem “Sleep Paralysis” refers to a common explanation for abduction experiences. Each line in this poem is lifted, verbatim, from abduction narratives written by abductees. In particular, only lines beginning with “they” were selected.
Finally, “The Klass Curse” is a condemnation of the stubbornness and gullibility of UFO conspiracy theorists, made by the late journalist and skeptic Philip J. Klass, which I have repurposed, verbatim, as a found poem.
Q: How do these poems fit in with some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: These poems incarnate my continuing interest in writing poetry that responds to the sciences. I suppose the poems (or rather Project Blue Book as a whole) are similar to my forthcoming manuscripts (The Lost Cosmonauts, The Odyssey, and The Manhattan Project), in that each book represents a link in a kind of chain of texts that I’m in the process of producing. In addition to pursuing a PhD thesis that investigates examples of related works of poetry from the latter half of the 20th century to the present, I find myself compelled to add my own works to the canon as well, in order to address subjects that haven’t yet received the level of poetic attention that I think their continuing sociocultural impact warrants.
Out of the poetry published each year, and out of the catalogue of poetry written over the course of the past few decades, relatively few books have engaged in significant ways with scientific language, events, and ideas. Books that have done so have largely gone unnoticed, relative to books of poetry that have engaged with other subjects.
Like the stereotypical group of nerds inventing intricate D&D narratives in a dim room, I get the sense that many poets with an interest in responding to the sciences with their work (whether they are part of a group of likeminded peers or not), end up ostracized, or perhaps ostracize themselves intentionally in response to an all-too-familiar expectation that little to no understanding, let alone attention, will come their way, despite their best efforts.
I want not only to bring academic attention to the bridges being built (rather than burned) between poetry and science in our politically divisive environment, but also to bring together poets writing about these subjects, in order to create a stronger, more coherent community. Many of us are reticent to share our interests (what poet isn't?) until we feel we have a common space in which to do so.
I think that poets whose work engages with the sciences (whether by way of ‘cosmic mysticism’, ‘ecocriticism’, ‘the necropastoral’, the ‘abyssal sublime’, or some other critical perspective), have a great deal to offer the sciences, not only in terms of how poetry might critique the often problematic practices of the science-focused industries, but also in terms of how poetry has the power to draw positive attention to scientific breakthroughs and ideas that have the potential to greatly enrich the human experience, combat poverty, offer us greater agency over our biology, and restore parts of the environment that industrial practices have damaged.
Although my own work can wax apocalyptic and favour the strange, the mysterious, the unknown, the horrific, the tragic, and the sublime, the vast majority of the science-inspired poetry that I read tackles science from a myriad of tonal, thematic, and narrative approaches. I’m constantly amazed by the new and different ways in which poets are approaching scientific subject matter, and I hope that this eclectic community continues to experiment and innovate.
Q: I’m always fascinated by poets who engage with science, although I’ve become less convinced over the years that the combination is as unusual as popular thought might suggest. What is it about the blending of poetry and science that still manages to maintain, in your view, such a stigma of rarity?
A: C.P Snow’s 1959 lecture The Two Cultures (later published as a short text) describes what the author perceives as a growing rift between the humanities and the sciences. Snow argues that the ‘culture’ of each department has tended to perceive the other as oddly off-kilter in linguistic, philosophical, and moral terms at best and, at worst, in outright opposition to their ‘core values’ (to skirt orthodoxical terms). Snow points out that this rift was not always so pronounced, but rather it seems to have widened sharply over the course of the 20th century.
While increased support for multidisciplinary endeavors has done significant work to productively ‘entangle’ the academic realms of the humanities and the sciences, I think that this perceived rift in academia still reflects a larger perceived rift in culture, a rift between two elements of a false binary consisting of conveniently-constructed actors of two types: those who are generally more skeptical of scientific practices and those who are generally more supportive of them.
Given the oversimplification performed by the aforementioned binary, Snow’s dialectic approach becomes less useful when tackling the question of how such spheres are overlapping today. I think that “The Two Cultures” is most useful in the sense that it encapsulates an oppositional view of science and poetry, a view that many of the poets I am interested in have been working to deconstruct.
Stereotypically speaking, poets are often seen as slaves to passion, while scientists are seen as slaves to reason. I think that these stereotypes contribute to science-inspired poetry’s “stigma of rarity,” as you put it. If one has been exposed repeatedly to these stereotypical characterizations of poets and scientists, one finds it harder to imagine the two working together or drawing from one another’s ideas; criticism is easier to imagine than synthesis.
There is a significant amount of science-inspired poetry being produced, far more than this “stigma of rarity” suggests. Ironically, Snow, in attempting to draw attention to a rift, ends up propping it open in a way by lending attention to the aforementioned false binary, to the burning of bridges rather than the building of them.
Peter Middleton’s book Physics Envy does some important work in terms of highlighting instances of overlap and idea-sharing between science and poetry in America. As recently as the mid-2010s, scholars such as Peter Middleton, Mary Migdley, Joyelle McSweeney, and others have begun to elucidate the complex relationship between science and poetry. Their work does a great deal to dispel the myth that both poetically-inclined scientists and experimental poets are few and far between.
Q: What made you approach exploring these questions and relations through poetry, as opposed to working in more traditional critical forms, such as through academic writing?
A: I appreciate the potential brevity and flexibility of poetry relative to other forms of writing. For me, creative prose and the academic essay, respectively, rely on more rigid formal scaffolding to wedge themselves into their definitions. In contrast, I see poetry as paradoxically both far less constrained by default and yet far more open to the application of customized constraints. For others, prose and the academic essay can offer the same flexibility as poetry does for me (Louis Bury’s PhD thesis Exercises in Criticism, for example, is a series of essays written according to the constraints of the texts they examine.)
Oddly enough and, I suppose, in contradiction to the previous paragraph, I have recently found myself moving towards a kind of prose-poetry in my creative work. I still strive for a certain ‘density of music’ as I’ll call it, but structurally, I've been more and more inclined to emphasize narrative in a given book, both within poems and between them. I've found that maintaining narrative in poetry offers a constraint of its own that has proven productive for me.
Speaking of forms of writing, my PhD thesis at Western will also discuss the relationship between science and poetry, giving me ample opportunity to explore the topic more thoroughly through academic writing.
Q: You’ve mentioned a couple of names and specific works so far, but have you any other models for this kind of work? What works or writers are in your head when you’re writing?
A: I have a kind of ‘critical mass’ model of writing, if you like. I gather and read through materials until I feel like I have a massive enough pile of notes for a book-length project, and then I dive into it, surfacing when necessary to fill in any gaps.
On a side-note, I also make it a priority to contribute to the design of my work; Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typography, a kind of ‘book design bible’, has been tremendously valuable to me since I bought it as an undergraduate. Christian Bök’s books of poetry, all of which he has had a hand in designing, have also served as valuable references for me over the years.
In terms of composition, if my poetry had a mother and father, so-to-speak, its mother would be Gwendolyn MacEwen and its father would be Christian Bök. When I prepare to write, I usually have both of their respective works in mind to some degree. MacEwen is also one of Christian’s favourite poets, so in a way, both he and I owe a deep debt to her. I re-read Christian’s Crystallography and MacEwen’s The Armies of the Moon every so often, but I use these texts more as launchpads than as blueprints. They warm me up by revivifying my appreciation for what poetry is capable of.
When I write, I draw from a variety of sources at once. I take a lot of notes when I read, look at, or watch relevant media, and then I go through those notes when I write. I record impressions from any media I’m exposed to, whenever something catches my eye. For example, because much of my recent work has depended upon digging through historical narratives, I’ve read through various historical texts to get a more broad sense of my subject matter.
Most recently, I’ve immersed myself in the odd and esoteric texts of the ‘UFO subculture’ in order to establish a sense of its most significant figures and events. In my current writing endeavour, Project Blue Book, I’m approaching the subjects of UFOs, alien abductions, etc. as 'modern mythologies' of sorts. I'm currently reading Carl Jung’s book Flying Saucers: a Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky, along with various books written by purported witnesses to events involving UFOs and extraterrestrials. Scholar Susan A. Clancy also has a book called Abducted, printed by Harvard University Press, wherein she studies abductee experiences.
Q: You reference working in terms of book-length project. What brought you to this point in your work? How did you decide that the full-length manuscript, over, say, the individual poem, would be your unit of composition?
A: Having the goal of producing a thematically coherent set of poems motivates me to write by giving me a goal to work towards. Creating a kind of conceptual scaffold that wants to be filled with poems and then struggling to fill it makes the process of writing more generative for me. This way I can also respond to material that interests me in a more detailed and complete way by making that material the subject of a book of poetry.
Q: Finally, with a small handful of poetry collections and chapbooks either in print or forthcoming, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: I can’t be certain about where I’m headed, but you could say I’m cautiously optimistic in general. So far, my chapbooks have received a fair amount of positive attention. Most importantly, these publications have put me in touch with some brilliant contemporary poets and independent publishers (Anthony Etherin and his Penteract Press, Kyle Flemmer and his The Blasted Tree, derek beaulieu and his No Press, Christian Bök and his Chronium Dioxide [Cr02] press, etc.) Given my forthcoming books, I hope that what I've written will both satisfy those already familiar with my work and also intrigue new readers.
My practice has changed significantly since I started writing seriously, in ways I’ve elaborated on earlier in this interview. I could see myself shifting into writing prose some time in future but, for the next four years, I’ll be focused on academic essays when I’m not chipping away at Project Blue Book.