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Poet’s works ponder the link between man and machine

Alumna Barbara Duffey wants science to influence her message

Barbara Duffey, poetry,
Poetry is a galaxy of imagery, form and atmosphere for Barbara Duffey. (Sculpture/Susan Beatrice)

Longer than she can quite remember, writer Barbara Duffey ’02 has been mesmerized by machines: both the gears and levers sort, as well as the mortal, warm-blooded kind.

Duffey knows that the working parts of most coordinated systems —inanimate or flesh — are not as different as one might first suspect. Like that of a scientist sifting through a set of complex variables, her body of work casts a wide search, gathering clues about our interconnectedness, particularly that symbiotic relationship between man and machine.

The things that tend to inspire me often come from science.

Barbara Duffey

“The things that tend to inspire me often come from science,” she explained, “and I want it to be not only the topic of my poetry, but I want it to influence my message.”

Message and method

Both message and method nudged Duffey, now assistant professor of English at Dakota Wesleyan University, down a potentially rich, albeit far-afield creative path.

To her surprise, that choice recently yielded an important confirmation: She was the 2014 recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts’ Creative Writing Fellowship. The honor, she said, “is … like a dream come true.”

A graduate of the Department of English at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Duffey studied with professor and former California Poet Laureate Carol Muske-Dukes, an experience she characterizes as transformative: “It was the best apprenticeship a young writer could have.”

She began to grasp that poetry was a galaxy of imagery, form and atmosphere.

You can use simple words and … people will have a transporting experience.

Barbara Duffey

“I learned that poetry can be beautiful at the sonic level. You can use simple words and put them in the right order and it will be beautiful, and people will have a transporting experience.”

Duffey’s work explores both the universe of the body and the larger cosmos through which we move. It acknowledges the vastness and, consequently, the implicit mysteries of both spheres. Her essays and poetry — collages of associative thought or meditations trekking deep into the territory of scientific or philosophical inquiry — have been a way both to pose and to explore incisive questions on life.

Collect and contemplate

Over the last decade, her work has appeared in several literary magazines and chapbooks. Her first collection, I Might Be Mistaken, will be published by Word Poetry (an imprint of WordTech Communications) in July.

“I’m getting away from the engineering and physics and more toward biology,” she explained. Still, the sciences — the broad spectrum of them — are the filter through which she collects and then contemplates data, refining her findings in poetry or prose.

That inquiry might enlist her own body as guinea pig — not only in the metaphoric sense but as a literal site of investigation. Or it may manifest as a “collaboration” with an online dictionary — as in the poem “The Frankfurt Kitchen.”

First, man had a
kitchen. For a
long time, it was
the only room.
It was bachelor
balm, it was stick-
stick-stock, it was
a family
sugar summer,
all nigh as God
when there are
just four walls. /

“Simple Machines” — a work in progress she will be “deeply revising” during her fellowship — is a scientific analysis in poetry form. Its inspiration is rooted in Duffey’s struggle with her own body’s limitations.

“I was diagnosed with diminished ovarian reserve and so I had been trying for two years to have a baby,” she said. “I’d been reading all these books about what to do. You put in this input and you get this output. You measure your basal body temperature and you have sex on these particular days and then you will get pregnant. It seemed like the way you would watch a machine.”

Yet she was confounded most about what was missing: “There was nothing in the manual about what to do if it went wrong.”

The experience unearthed a vivid touchstone.

When [my body] didn’t work like a machine — like I expected it to — I was really frustrated and sad.

Barbara Duffey

“I had a book when I was a child called [something like] A Look Inside the Body Machine. It was about how your body works. It used all of these machine metaphors to explain the body processes to children. I realized … part of my thinking about how my body worked was [based on] this book. So when [my body] didn’t work like a machine — like I expected it to — I was really frustrated and sad, trying to figure out is this metaphor wrong or is it just that I’m a bad machine? Like I’m broken.”

‘What if?’

Duffey was spared the dire outcome: A year and a half later, she delivered a healthy son. But her thoughts about her body — and the multiple outcomes — set her brain spinning. That “what if?” spurred the next inquiry, the next book.

“I want to use some of the fellowship time to start my new project. I have a germ of the idea,” she said. “Right now, I imagine that it is going to be called Cultivar. A cultivar is a particular species of plant that exists only in cultivation. It doesn’t grow wild. So I’m using that as a kind of a metaphor for my son. I had this son in cultivation, instead of in the wild. So it’s largely about my imaginations of all the things that can go wrong with my son and trying to control my imagination.”

To limit possibility would seem to be a paradox for any poet. Thus for Duffey, the page becomes the laboratory to explore an inner conflict and look squarely at probability, cause and effect. As always, Duffey’s pragmatist shares close space with the poet.

“Even in what I imagine will be the first poem for the book, I talk about how maybe there are all of those different universes out there — you know, the quantum mechanics idea of the multiverse,” she said. “But that poem is sort of a poem of thanksgiving. I am thankful I lived in this version of the world — the one in which I get the baby.”

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Poet’s works ponder the link between man and machine

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