A Poet, A Neuroscientist, and a Witch Walks Into Bar. . .

Bartender puts down a single napkin and asks her, What can I get you?

Get it?

The title isn’t a grammatical error, the subject and verb agree, because the poet who walks into the bar  –I picture someone badass like Natalie Scenters-Zapico, confident, meeting up with other poets for dinner and drinks during AWP—is also the scientist and the witch. 

Maybe in some ways, or like the poet Andrés Montoya used to tease me for saying, on some levels all poets are scientists and practice magick (why a k?). 

Poets are like scientists (on some level they are scientists) because they have a curiosity about how things work, especially the brain-mind, what motivates people, how they feel, see, taste and connect ideas in meaningful ways. The best poets seem to soak their feet into the intellectual waters of sundry subjects. Toni Morrison dipped into the Nag Hammadi, which are beautifully creative texts reinforcing the gnostic point of view of God and Reality. Poe studied physics. Borges studied Kabbalah. Pizarnik studied philosophy.

Poets are neuroscientists.

Poets are witches.

But first, let me define what I mean by “Poet.”

I remember having a conversation with my colleague, the poet and translator Rosa Alcalá. 

She told me it irritates her when people write emails addressing “poets and writers.”  

Rosa is a working-class Latina from Paterson, New Jersey, and when she’s defending a position she sometimes switches into street mode, the don’t-fuck-with-me nod of the head. 

She tells me, Are they saying I’m not a writer? How are poets not writers?

I agree, and ever since our conversation I rarely make the distinction between poets and writers.

We are one.

By poet I don’t mean only those who write verse. I mean all creative writers.

Everyone knows that there was a time in our human story when narratives were told only in verse, and verse was used only to tell stories, but somewhere along the plot-line of humanity, what God had put together –the storyteller and the poet — were torn asunder. 

It was not a natural or inevitable split, so it makes sense that by poets we can mean all creative writers, poets, fiction writers, memoirists.

We’re all poets. All creative writers, all genres. Poets.

(By the way, what is the collective noun for poets?? You have a murder of crows, an army of ants, perhaps a star of poets?)

So a poet is a writer. 

The term neuroscientist, as it appears in the joke, refers to scientists in general, to the methods and the value system, especially those sciences involved in the quest to unite all of reality, such as physics and studies of the mind-brain duality. 

Scientists seek to unite, to offer one elegant equation about reality, the universe, the way things work.  

They say that the holy grail of physics is how Quantum mechanics, the study of the subatomic world of electrons and strange quarks can have the same laws as the theories of relativity, spacetime and the planets and the universe. 

The two areas of science don’t agree, and if someone can come up with a ToE, something Einstein tried but failed at most of his adult life, they will know the thoughts of god.

That’s one of the most famous quotes in all physics, Einstein saying, I want to know the thoughts of God. Everything else is detail.

The scientist who walks into this bar, who is also a poet, is the kind of scientist that believes reality can be explained through math, i.e. language, using the most elegant equation. A haiku of reality such as

E=MC2

Ever since Galileo math has been the language of science, and if it cannot be expressed in math, it is not science, it’s philosophy, metaphysics. What makes neuroscience fun to follow is how math is being used to explain consciousness, our behavior, our unpredictability, the mystery of our experiences. 

A book I highly recommend, readable for nonscientists like me is The Forgetting Machine by Rodrigo Quian Quíroga. 

He created a mathematical model of neuronal activity and can pinpoint with precision how neurons fire when a concept is brought up in the mind, like Jennifer Aniston. 

He found that there is a Jennifer Aniston neuron in your brain, and it serves only to represent her and what she means to you, and every time it fires, he can chart — again with mathematical precision — what other neurons will fire as a result. 

He’s from Argentina, Buenos Aires, having studied physics, but like a lot of neuroscientists today, he became interested in the brain. 

Since his emphasis is memory, he has found a connection with Borges and has written a book about him and memory, which I’ve yet to read, but I’ve ordered it and will get back to you on what I think.

So a poet is a neuroscientist.

What about the witch?

Why are poets witches?

In a nutshell:

When we follow language into imaginary places and possibilities, we travel outside of our bodies, like soul travel. We often enter into the zone, where matter and spacetime disappear. This is well known among writers. 

In other language, we enter into the astral plain, where we’re met with guides (voices) and demons (rhythms and incantation) and we are shown entirely new worlds in which anything can happen.  

Poets travel the various levels of reality in our imagination, and the more we are willing to allow language to lead us into alternate universes, the more we are able to see beyond the ordinary. This is why some fundamental Christian sects claim that free writing is evil, because you’re channeling demons, or more accurately daemons. Muses. Duende.

Do you know how long it could take practitioners of esoteric knowledge to enter into some of the realms that poets have visited?

Poets are witches.

Anton’s Syndrome For Creative Writers

Anton’s Syndrome is a form of brain damage in the occipital lobe, wherein someone suffers blindness but does not know it. They believe they can see, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are blind. 

Say your uncle Willie suffered this condition, and you take him into a field, and in the middle of the field, there is an adult elephant, African, with big ears, eating leaves off a tree. You could ask Willie what he sees, and to cover his blindness, he might say, Not much. Just the road.

And even if you tell him that you’re in a field looking at an elephant, he would find someway to cover the truth about his blindness, say something like, Well obviously the elephant’s there. I didn’t think it was worth mentioning.

Of course this is a gross simplification, but there is evidence that the person who suffers from Anton’s Syndrome may not be lying to you about what they see. They may really be convinced that is what they see, convinced that they are not blind.

What a metaphor for bad writing!

Let’s apply this to fiction writers, someone like me, for example, although it would equally apply to poets. 

Let’s say I write a story, and I think it’s good, best story ever written. I submit it to journals and cannot believe I get rejections. What is wrong with these editors?

(When we were new writers, every time I got a rejection for a story, Andrés Montoya would say, They’re stupid!)

After about a year of sending the story out and receiving only rejections, and as I’m working on other stories, I forget about it, and then one day I’m wandering through the document graveyard on my computer and see the forgotten story. I open it, read it and think, What a shitty story! The worst story ever written.

This has happened to me from the time that I was a beginning writer and would crank out story after story thinking each one belonged in The New Yorker to me as a writer today. 

I’ve written stories that give me chills for their brilliance, only to read them later and get chills of how blind I was to think it was worth something.

If you’re a writer, sometimes the stories are going to come easy, sometimes a little harder, but often, when you’re in the “zone” and you’re writing, nothing else exists but that which you create, a reality bubble in an imaginary world. 

Everything is new and exciting, so of course you’re going to think it’s great.

What I’m saying is we can have a version of Anton’s Syndrome as writers, not seeing reality as it is, because we are only seeing from the inside of the creative process, not from the outside, and when we’re in there, things are sacred. Everything is brilliant.

But eventually we have to step outside of the reality of language and imagination and see what the story might be saying or how it might be read by others.  That’s where the craft comes in.

This isn’t an exact parallel. I mean, I’m using Anton’s Syndrome as metaphor, but I think it translates. 

But here’s the thing, unlike someone who unfortunately suffers from that disorder, writers who are committed to their work eventually see the truth of the piece they once thought was perfect, or they see more aspects of the truth, because the brilliance they saw before really was there.

Even if only one image from the entire story lasts, even if nothing from the story lasts, the glow of having been in that landscape is permanent and positive.

But it may not make good writing.

It’s possible that later on, in a week or month or year, I may see this post and ask myself, Why did I include this in my blog? It’s shit!

Sorry. The idea sounded good when it first occurred to me.

And frankly I just followed the language, and this is where it ended up.