Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 27, 2013

Writing Verse about History and Science

In the way poetry often begins – is this eureka-ish or just another day? — last spring a few people from history bumped against another in my mind, which set off other mini collisions about the ways we might understand plants, rocks, and stars. History and science seem like good subjects for verse narratives, for paring down the bulk of history can make it more intimate, and peeling off some of the complexities of science can show its spare beauty to a wider group. As I read about the lives of three girls who began their careers by age thirteen, themes such as supportive fathers, circles, and long, close looking started to overlap and mesh. I’m thinking of the book I’m now calling A Bouquet of Caterpillars as a sort of Borrowed Names, but with science, instead of mothers and daughters, as the connecting thread.

This summer I didn’t exactly throw myself into research, but I collected books and dipped, keeping an eye open for essential parts of character, key moments leading to recognition, and any bright detail that might later wiggle or swell into metaphor. Research sounds like a heavy word, but I was just hauling books into the hammock, holding a net lightly while keeping an eye out for images from the lore of astronomy, geology, and biology, though I don’t use those words, partly because two of them weren’t used during my time period. I twirled rather than gripped an imaginary net, and looked past the pages often enough. I wanted information, but only what sprung out. Along with collecting facts, I asked what some called to mind and what would someone who didn’t know much science (me) or about the era need to understand? As I mulled about what repeated images might be trying to tell me, some turned into metaphors.

By the end of summer, I had files for each of my three subjects, divided into headings about work, family, friends, and inner struggles. Each holds facts as well as a few lines of poems, stanzas, even occasional whole poems ready to revise. The biggest file for each girl is a hodgepodge just called Notes, which I’m now breaking up and organizing, while still tossing in new things as I bend chronology into plot. While I like to fuss with language, I wave my arms to remind myself of story and action. What should I take out to build suspense?

Questions are often more powerful than answers. The spare biographies have been handed down, but of course my subjects didn’t know how things would turn out, either in their personal lives or within a great body of knowledge. For instance, my biologist lived before pollination was defined, but she observed the yellow dust on the feet of bees and wondered.

Now I’m looking deeper into my notes about these three girls. The more I look, the more I see, and the more they engage me. This really is a labor of love. Will I sell A Bouquet of Caterpillars? There’s no way to know. But I’m thinking of some girls and their mothers who liked reading Girls Who Looked Under Rocks, and I want to write this for them, and anyone who encounters  fascinating worlds I often miss from my desk.

For more Poetry Friday, please visit Amy at The Poem Farm.



  1. “Fascinating worlds I often miss from my desk” sounds like the title of your next book! It’s very clear you’re enjoying this journey, your labor of love.

    • Yes, I am enjoying! Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. I love hearing about your process, Jeannine. You make it sound like a love affair, slow, affectionate, quick passion sometimes, but always discoveries. I didn’t know about your earlier book, about Girls Who Looked Under Rocks. We do so much nature work and journaling at my school that it should be in our library. So glad to learn about it!

    • Thanks for reading, Linda. Wonderful you do so much nature work at your school, as well as writing. The naturalists in Girls Who Looked Under Rocks all also wrote, or drew, or both.

  3. Hi Jeannine, thank you for sharing your creative journeys with us and how you twirled and toyed with inspiration. 🙂

    • How kind of you to read and comment. Best wishes for all your creative processes — I expect lots of twirling, too.

  4. I am fascinated by your process, Jeannine – the metamorphosis if your ideas and the way each strand builds and develops. It is not the way I imagined creating a story, but the way you describe it…it seems so natural. i am imagining, now, your folders, your notes, and the way the ideas seep together and intertwine, and the moment when it all comes together for you – what “A Bouquet of Caterpillars” will be. Thank you for sharing this glimpse into a writer’s life.

    • Oh, metamorphosis — that’s a theme. Thanks for being such a great and encouraging reader, Tara. As you know, every writer’s process is different, and it’s good to be inspired by the ways each of ours sometimes overlap, sometimes diverge.

  5. Jeannine – I was fascinated to read about your process, especially how the repeated images turned into metaphors. Very interesting!

    • Thank you, B.J. I hope you bump into a metaphor or two — or find them in your own particular way — this week!

  6. This sounds WONDERFUL, Jeannine! And as a writer of narrative nonfiction, I very much appreciate the phrase “bend chronology into plot.” Your book will find eager readers here!

    • Oh, Amy, so nice to know you get what I’m about.The past few months have been full of — this is kind of interesting, but will the whole thing work? Now I’m at the happier stage of hearing, every day or two, a little click-click, some signal that things are indeed falling into place. I’ll be back to the bigger questioning at some point, and will help to know there’s an eager reader at your home. Thank you!

  7. Even the title. Wow! So beautiful, Jeannine. My husband Mark is a science teacher, and I love watching his relationship with the children, seeing our daughters with snakes wound ’round their fingers, rolling over every log in sight. I can’t wait for this one, and as always am another one who loves reading about your writing process. On another note, thank you for the recommendation of HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN. I am enjoying it so. Happy Poetry Sunday!

    • I didn’t realize you were married to a science teacher, though I’ve certainly gotten the sense of your children at home with all sorts of creatures over at the home behind the Poetry Farm. So wonderful. I’m glad you are enjoying HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN. Pat Schneider is such an inspiration!

  8. “The more I look, the more I see…” Yes, oh yes! I see exactly what you mean.

    I’m trying to loosen my grip, too, as I reexamine some of my pages. Twirling my whole self ’round and ’round, not just the butterfly net! More pirouettes, fewer frenzied circles…It’s How the Light Gets In.

    I am so looking forward to A Bouquet of Caterpillars–your other writing projects, too! xoxo

  9. Love your butterfly dances, and the inspiration you’re finding with Nancy Drew magnifying glass and in so many other places!

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