Jessy Randall’s research has her swimming in true-life stories of women in science. In our current issue [on sale now], her poem, “Hertha Ayrton,” gives us a taste of the stories in which she’s immersed. She took the time to tell us more about the larger project that this poem is a part of, which she describes as her way of sticking it to The Man.
Analog Editor: What is your history with Analog?
JR: I’ve been submitting stories and poems to Analog since 2002, but this is my first time appearing in the journal. (So, I’m pretty stoked!)
AE: What’s the story behind this piece?
JR: Hertha Ayrton was one of eight children raised by a single mother. She went to work at sixteen to help support the family, studied mathematics and electricity, and fought for women’s suffrage. She’s best known for inventing a device that could divide a line into equal segments. Sometimes the metaphors are just right there waiting to be plucked—you hardly have to do anything.
AE: Is this piece part of a greater universe of poems?
JR: Yes. I’m working on a series of poems about historical women in math and science. I hope it will be a book eventually, tentatively titled Mathematics for Ladies. When I was researching mathematician Nina Karlovna Bari, I learned that “mathematics for ladies” was a derogatory term for descriptive math, math that doesn’t focus on problem solving. The idea that there would be different math for women than for men struck me as hilarious and also, in a way, correct (in the sense of equal pay for equal work, for example). More about the project:
She’s best known for inventing a device that could divide a line into equal segments. Sometimes the metaphors are just right there waiting to be plucked—you hardly have to do anything.
AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the women in the series?
JR: When I was in third grade and powering through all the juvenile biographies in the library at Harris Hill Elementary School, I fell in love with Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in the United States to earn a medical degree. I can’t say I feel that we have a lot in common, but I admire her greatly. I turned to her for several school projects, such that it became a bit of a joke among my friends that any time I could make EB fit an assignment, I would. At one point in high school, for example, we were supposed to come up with a “research question” for AP American History, and I believe I tried to do something like “Was Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor, really the first woman doctor?” or something like that. Just typing it now is making me laugh.
AE: What is your process?
JR: For these poems, the research is about two-thirds of the work, I’d say. The project started when I attended a lecture by a Colorado College physics professor, Barbara Whitten, about the physicist Sarah Frances Whiting. One of the side-characters in that talk was astronomer Annie Jump Cannon. Professor Whitten showed an example of a photograph of a star, basically just a smear—I think she used the expression “the stars were smears.” And yet Cannon could recognize the smears as particular stars, even years after the original cataloging work she did. So, then I got kind of addicted to reading about women in science, because it’s a blast. I started with some big thick “biobibliographic sourcebooks” from the shelves of the library where I work, thinking I’d get one or two poems out of them, but soon I was swimming in fantastic true-life stories. One book led to another and another: kids’ books about inspirational women in STEM, novels about cancer researchers, a film about Jane Goodall . . . and then, just when I thought I was close to finished, I realized I should reach out to friends and acquaintances and even strangers and request suggestions for additional women subjects, and the list kept growing.
AE: How do you deal with writer’s block?
JR: This is a non-issue for me. If I’m not writing, I don’t worry that I’ve somehow dried up. Things are always percolating. Quietly growing, like mildew or a disgusting gelatinous kombucha scoby. That’s probably not very helpful (or appetizing), so I will say that if I feel a bit stuck, I’ll try making some sort of drawing, even though I can’t draw at all. I love Lynda Barry’s drawing exercises—she insists you let go of the idea of being “good” and just draw.
AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?
JR: This particular project is my way of sticking it to The Man, as much as working on poems can stick it to The Man (which isn’t much). Combining science and feminism seemed to me to be a good way to resist an anti-science president who bragged he was so famous he could get away with sexually assaulting women.
AE: What is the weirdest research rabbit-hole that working on a poem has led you down?
JR: At one point, I was working on a poem about Ellen H. Swallow Richards, and I thought I’d take a quick look at a digital version of her book The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning, first published in 1881, to see if there might be anything quotable there. I found myself retyping practically the entire book, starting with a sentence on page 3: “The present-day housewife is not afraid of chemical substances,” to the final line of the book, “The sticky fly papers do not kill but hold the insects, and they die from exhaustion.” I ended up with a fairly long poem, a back and forth between her published voice and my imagined version of a snarkier, inner voice for her.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
JR: I’ve been making visual poems of various kinds—poems made from diagrams in old library books, poetry comics, watercolor versions of social media acronyms like LOL, ripped-paper poems, stuff like that. And I’m collaborating with artist Briget Heidmous on ARTARIANICA, a text-image project with lots of long squid arms: http://briget-heidmous.com/artarianica.
AE: If you could choose one science fictional universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?
JR: I’ve been a Doctor Who nerd since I was about thirteen, when Tom Baker was playing the title role on TV. I was in a group of friends who watched the show together on Saturdays, and during the summer of 1983 we wrote and produced a short Doctor Who movie, “Inner Earth,” using a rented VHS camera (excerpt available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GrYrtkyeZAk&t=183s). Some of us joined the Doctor Who fan club, and, homemade dalek in tow, attended a Doctor Who convention in Rochester, New York (see photo). So I’d love to live in the Doctor Who universe, maybe as a companion on equal footing like Romanadvoratrelundar with Tom Baker or River Song with David Tennant.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
JR: Website: http://bit.ly/JessyRandall
Jessy Randall’s poems, stories, and other things have appeared in Asimov’s, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Poetry, and Strange Horizons. Her most recent book is How to Tell If You Are Human: Diagram Poems (Pleiades, 2018). She is the Curator of Special Collections at Colorado College, where she occasionally teaches a class in The History and Future of the Book.