Audio

Paul Tran Reads “Scientific Method”

April 2, 2018

Don Share: This is the Poetry Magazine Podcast for the week of April 2nd, 2018. I'm Don Share editor of Poetry magazine.

 

 

Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh, consulting editor for the magazine.

 

Lindsay Garbutt: And I'm Lindsay Garbutt, assistant editor for the magazine. On the Poetry Magazine Podcast, we listened to a few poems in the current issue.

 

Don Share: Paul Tran is the poetry editor of the online literary magazine The Offing. Their the first Asian American since 1993 to win the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe Grand Slam.

 

Lindsay Garbutt: In the 198s, Tran’s family immigrated from a poor fishing village in Vietnam and settled in San Diego. Tran said their mother worked three jobs to support herself and Tran after Tran’s father left.

Don Share: Last year, their mother happened to see Tran’s instagram account, and while she knew they were queer and transgender, the images came as a shock.

 

Paul Tran: We had this really difficult conversation on the phone about how I’m not who she dreamt I would be, and how she blames herself for me being who I am based on who she was in a past life, and how she feels the imperative to redeem herself in order for me to move through what she believes is this phase of who I am, this curse of who I am.

 

Don Share: This encounter got Tran thinking about the relationship between mothers and children. They read about a controversial scientific experiment in the 1950s where psychologist Henry Harlow separated baby monkeys from their mothers, replacing the mothers with dolls made of either terry cloth or wire. He wanted to see if the babies would develop emotional attachments.

 

Lindsay Garbutt: Tran saw themself in the abandoned baby monkeys. They told us that having been molested as a child, the abuse left them isolated from their own mother.


Paul Tran: I wondered if they knew in doing what they did that they would isolate me from her, because of the shame I felt, the guilt I felt, because of people around me telling me it was my fault, and me retreating into myself, into my own private world as a means for persistence or endurance. I felt like that caged beast in Harlow’s laboratory.


Lindsay Garbutt: Here’s Paul Tran reading “Scientific Method”.

 

Paul Tran:

Of course I chose the terry cloth surrogate. Milkless

artifice. False idol. Everyone, I’m told, has a mother,

 

but Master bred me in a laboratory, his colony

of orphans. Rhesus macaque. Macaca mulatta. Old

World monkeys, my matriarchs ruled the grasslands

 

and forests long before white men like him weaned

their whiteness and maleness from our chromosomes,

 

slashed and burned our home, what they once called

The Orient. French Indochina. Việt Nam. Master,

like a good despot, besotted and dumbstruck, dying

 

to discern the genesis of allegiance, the science of love

and loss, nature versus nurture, segregated me at birth

 

from my maker, pelt sopping with placental blood.

In a chamber where he kept track of me, his pupils

recorded my every movement, my every utterance,

 

hoping I might evince to them a part of themselves.

But I wasn’t stupid. I knew famine and emaciation,

 

and nevertheless I picked that lifeless piece of shit

because it was soft to hold. Who wouldn’t want that?

Though it couldn’t hold me, I clung to the yellow-face

 

devil as though it was my true mother and I grasped

the function of motherhood: witness to my suffering,

 

companion in hell. Unlike infants with wire mothers

I didn’t hurl myself on the floor in terror or tantrum,

rocking back and forth, colder than a corpse. I had

 

what Master believed to be a psychological base

of operations. Emotional attachment. Autonomy.

 

Everything he denied and did to me, his ceaseless

cruelty concealed as inquisition, unthinkable until

it was thought, I endured by keeping for myself

 

the wisdom he yearned to discover and take credit

for. Love, like me, is a beast no master can maim,

 

no dungeon can discipline. Love is at once master

and dungeon. So don’t underestimate me. Simple-

minded and subservient as I might appear to be,

 

I gathered more about Master than he did

about me, which, I guess, is a kind of fidelity

 

conceived not from fondness but fear magnified

by fascination. Master made me his terry cloth

surrogate, his red-clawed god, nursing his id

 

on my tits, and for that, I pitied him. All this time

he was the animal. All this time he belonged to me.

 

Christina Pugh: It’s a very sophisticated voice in the poem, just the diction that this speaking monkey figure has, phrases like psychological base of operations, nature vs nurutre, segregated me at birth and so on. What’s fascinating to me is that with that doubling and that substitution at the end where the so called master becomes the speaker’s animal, it seems throughout the speaker also has taken on the diction and the voice and in a sense the discourse of the master figure as well. In a way it’s trying to make separations and talking about how things like racism really founded on making these kinds of strict separations for example;

 

Paul Tran:

long before white men like him weaned

their whiteness and maleness from our chromosomes

 

Christina Pugh: At the same time, you see the master figure trying to see himself in the figure of the speaking monkey. It’s kind of a commentary on how there’s this desire to rid oneself of what one feels doesn’t belong to oneself, at the same time an attraction to it. The master actually wants to be separate and yet keeps looking for himself. It seems like that’s a kind of egotism too, part of the master.

 

Don Share: The poem is called “Scientific Method”, you’ve described that. And also needless to say evokes or invokes other traditions such as the ones we have in literature so where the canonical works like Frankenstein or Emily Dickinson’s master poems are sort of there somewhere too. The question arises about what constitutes love and subjugation and where freedom fits into those things. Toward the end of the poem it says,

 

Paul Tran:

Love, like me, is a beast no master can maim,

 

no dungeon can discipline. Love is at once master

and dungeon.

 

Don Share: It’s evoking and situating itself within this tradition of thinking about these questions, but not thinking about them within the Western canon of scientific experiment or literary experiment either, though those things are unavoidable and maybe even imprisoning.

 

Lindsay Garbutt: I remember reading actually about this experiment in a psychology class in college. Of course the text book talks about it in very objective language, like this is an entirely natural experiment in order to learn about affect and attachment. What I love about this poem is that it reminds us that scientific knowledge is inevitably biased and flawed, and not as objective as it makes itself out to be. What I remember most from that textbook is not the text but actually the image of that monkey clinging to this terry cloth mother. My favourite moment in this poem among many is:

 

Paul Tran:

I picked that lifeless piece of shit

because it was soft to hold. Who wouldn’t want that?

Though it couldn’t hold me, I clung to the yellow-face

 

devil as though it was my true mother

 

Lindsay Garbutt: You were talking about diction and vocabulary Christina, and I think that moment where the speaker says in really callous turns of course I clung to this thing, that is not this high and mighty metaphor for attachment but because it was simply soft and I wanted it and I knew what I was doing. I think this poem displays how art and writing can be their own form of knowledge that illuminates something about scientific knowledge that we tend to disregard.

Christina Pugh: I think the kind of upset and trauma really that the poet has clearly gone through is being worked on here, but in a non-sentimental way, in a way that also uses science to look back on itself. I found that fascinating.


Don Share: And the political implications are vast. Even in our recent history, ongoing events, now these questions of subjugation and desperation are unavoidable and the connections the poem makes for us between the way science and even our culture underwrite the political, which we often think of as sort of in it’s own realm, is sobering and tragic. When we do this and articulate certain things, dark things come out of them. I think when you read them, you don’t obsess over the darkness, it seems natural. You kind of have to question things but the overwhelming feeling is not tragic and negative either. I feel very hopeful from poems like this, they make me excited for people imagining different ways to do things.

 

Lindsay Garbutt: I see what you mean though, I feel like since the first time I read that poem I felt punched in the gut. Talking about it, I have to live in that punch for a much longer period of time. I’m dwelling in that sadness.


Don Share: Because the poem really is about overcoming, throwing off the shackles. That’s an energetic, bright, exciting thing.

 

Christina Pugh: The speaker is a lot smarter than the scientist.

 

Don Share: Yeah, it seethes with that intelligence too.


Christina Pugh: That’s hopeful.

 

Don Share: It is. You can read “Scientific Method” by Paul Tran in the April 2018 issue of Poetry Magazine or online at poetrymagazine.org.

Lindsay Garbutt: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all four April episodes all at once in the full length episode on SoundCloud.

 

Christina Pugh: Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at podcast@poetryfoundation.org, and please link to the podcast on social media.


Don Share: The Poetry Magazine Podcast is recorded by Ed Herman and produced by Curtis Fox and Catherine Fenelosa.

 

Lindsay Garbutt: The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Lindsay Garbutt.

 

Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh.

 

Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.

 

 

The editors discuss Paul Tran’s poem “Scientific Method” from the April 2018 issue of Poetry.

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