25th Trillium Award

On Writing, with Matthew Tierney

Share |
Matthew Tierney

Matthew Tierney talks to Open Book about the relationship between science and poetry, his plans for when "they find the Higgs boson and science is wrapped up" and his latest book, The Hayflick Limit (Coach House Books).

Matthew Tierney will be reading with Matt Rader as part of the Poetry London Reading Series on Wednesday, January 25 at 7:30 p.m. See Open Book's Events Page for details.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, The Hayflick Limit.

Matthew Tierney:

Poems of and about limits. There’s a quote from Poincaré that goes something like, “To study the universe shows how small our bodies and how large our minds.” For a few years that was taped to my corkboard until I found a pin. It became the book’s Blarney Stone.

The poems in Hayflick roam freely from the cosmic to the quantum, but also touch on psychological limits (e.g. phobias) and intellectual limits (e.g. the Theory of Everything) and bodily limits (e.g. pain, aging). As a whole, it’s like one of those undergraduate science courses for humanities students — only the really interesting stuff, none of the math, and the promise of a bell-curved grade.


What is the relationship between science and poetry?


Friends, with benefits.

Science and poetry are said to get along poorly. Science appeals to our rational selves, poetry to our emotional ones. So the thinking goes.

It’s true that science is concerned with certainty, with verifiable observations, and has within its epistemological model checks and balances to keep its truths objective. (Of course we need our philosophers to tell us what “objective” ultimately means.) Poetry finds value in uncertainty; in being two things at once; in metaphor. Its truths are subjectively verifiable — i.e. they’re true for me.

However, the larger perspective is that both poetry and science are ways of knowing of the world. Experience is neither wholly objective nor wholly subjective but somewhere in between. We need both science and poetry for a full understanding, and we need them on friendly, non-committal terms, able to pursue their separate paths but also able to hook up now and then.


Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?


In many ways I’m still in the throes of becoming.

There were no early, definitive experiences. I did some travelling in my early 20s and looking back now I see that as a start, somehow. It jarred me awake — knocking about in cultures that weren’t terribly different than mine but enough to throw the world askew. The poetry I was reading then, mostly the Romantics, evoked the same ache of displacement and distance we all feel away from home.

This early travel led to two things: more travel and poems about travel. My first book was a collection of poems set in Japan and Russia, Mongolia and Ireland. Once they find the Higgs boson and science is wrapped up, I might get back to writing more such poems.


What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?


Mary Ruefle’s Selected Poems from Wave Books. I’m always embarrassed to discover shockingly good contemporary poets in selected form. She’s strange and vibrant and funny, like a cool aunt who lives in the city and picks you up at the train station in a punch buggy.


What are you working on now?


My third book is coming out in the fall. I’m making my wayward way through the first round of edits. These poems consider the science and philosophy of time from the point of view of someone who thinks a poem is a viable time machine. Not someone terribly smart, I’ve since learned, but likable enough in a “Look Ma, no hands!” kinda way.

Matthew Tierney is the author of one previous book of poetry, Full speed through the morning dark. He has been published in journals and magazines across Canada. In 2005, he won first and second place in This Magazine’s Great Canadian Literary Hunt. In 2006, he was a recipient of a K. M. Hunter Award. His most recent book, The Hayflick Limit, was shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry. In 2012, Coach House will publish his new collection, Probably Inevitable. He lives in Toronto.

For more information about The Hayflick Limit please visit the Coach House Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Are you a high school student who loves to write? Check out Write Across Ontario, a creative writing contest for Ontario high school students from IFOA Ontario and Open Book: Ontario. You can find the full details at http://www.litontour.com/write-across-ontario.

Post new comment

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Advanced Search