Math & Poetry: A Conversation with Tom Snarsky

Tom Snarsky introduces himself laconically on his website: "a math teacher who writes poetry." But that can miss the hundred and one other ways he introduces himself.

Math & Poetry: A Conversation with Tom Snarsky

Tom Snarsky introduces himself laconically on his website: "a math teacher who writes poetry." But that can miss the hundred and one other ways he introduces himself. Tom’s Twitter is indispensable reading for those of us interested in literary things. A vast number of poems I’ve written on have been retweeted or introduced to the web by him. His own poetry invites readers to bring their full emotions to his work. A photographic series of found poems makes me wonder about travel, if not life, as a giant poem. And I haven't even mentioned his book yet, Light-Up Swan.

I’m very grateful he made time to answer my questions about literature, teaching, and the relation between math and poetry. —Perhaps not surprisingly, we end up talking about video games.—

Tom Snarsky (photo credit: Kristi Snarsky)

AK: I want to start with something you said in another interview that struck me as absolutely perfect:

"[I]n high school I spent lots of time on internet forums where everybody wanted to prove everybody else wrong, and literature felt like this strange isthmus where people really believed there was always more to the story, always some new angle or mysterious vantage point that could make a piece of writing cohere and tell us something new about what it means to be human."

Again, I feel this is perfect. We're in this world "where everybody want[s] to prove everybody else wrong," and it seems ironic I encountered you on Twitter, where the art of the "dunk" is out of control. Screenshot or quote-tweet something embarrassing that was said, then add "um, I don't know about this one" and watch your engagement numbers soar.

I'd like to start this interview by asking more about "this strange isthmus," "literature." I imagine you've got a story or two about how a poem opened your eyes in a way you completely weren't expecting.

TS: Yes! I’m so glad that resonated with you. It makes me think of a story that maybe doesn’t paint me in the best light, but perhaps it’s all the more worth sharing for that: by way of quick background, I came to poetry as a kind of microcosm of certain strains of How To Read Literature Like A Professor-style hermeneutics, where everything had a secret meaning that was sometimes as simple as identifying a (Biblical, canonical, &c.) referent. So in high school I had a literature class where I thought I’d pull one over on the teacher by claiming, baselessly, that this song I really liked (“With Twilight As My Guide” by The Mars Volta) was based on the book we were reading at the time, Richard Wright’s amazing Native Son. & he was such a kind guy + thoughtful teacher, he let me bring the text of the song in so we could talk about it alongside the book. Now I’m embarrassed by this story because it bears all the hallmarks of shallow, arrogant reading on my part — I wanted to find fake guideposts connecting the two texts, and I argued they were there by pure fiat, because that’s half what I thought literary criticism was — but I share it here because even in all of the spuriousness of the setup, my (incredibly patient) teacher still managed to facilitate a productive discussion that brought out parts of the book and the song lyrics that I hadn’t ever considered before (plus other texts — James Weldon Johnson’s “The White Witch” made an appearance that stunned my presumptuous self into silence). Even from a position of extreme uncharity from me, literature still had something to offer, to teach. Since then I’ve been continuously stunned by the kinds of generosity literary critics can bring to their texts, especially in granular treatments like Susan Howe’s in My Emily Dickinson or the brilliant readings Carl Phillips gives of several poets I greatly admire in his essay “Muscularity and Eros: On Syntax”. In some ways this feels like a parallel between poetry and math, which is one of my other great loves: I’m moved by this kind of feeling poets and mathematicians seem to share of love for the details of their language, for their ways of talking precisely about the several objects of their art.

AK: That is quite the story. As you say, "[e]ven from a position of extreme uncharity... literature still had something to offer, to teach."

I'm thinking about my earlier experiences. The moment I can't shake is from 10th grade American Literature, when we read Pound's "In a Station of the Metro." The reading the class arrives at is fantastic: a student offers that "Petals on a wet, black bough" could be a blurry mess. Maybe the poem evokes motion, the sensation of being on a train, looking out while passing everyone else by. I was just stunned that such a small set of words could have so much meaning. That Pound's imagist lyric worked.

Obviously that moment stuck with me, but it's complicated. The teacher who led the discussion wasn't always treated respectfully, not even by her own colleagues. A few of us eventually did more with literature—I know one from that classroom who became an incredible teacher of writing and rhetoric—but only a few. I know for myself that incredible moments in the classroom (heck, incredible classes) aren't always recognized by other teachers or scholars.

To continue with this theme another way, I'd like to hear more about math! It too is difficult to teach and its best teachers can be terribly neglected. I feel like what math teachers are really teaching is how to see and articulate a problem. To understand the tools you have, what you can solve or prove. Still, I'm just spitballing—this is your expertise.

TS: I’m really glad you noted that, about great classes sometimes going unremarked in ways that don’t conform to the celebration we might expect upon, say, the event of acceptance or publication of a poem. Sometimes I’ve left my classroom at the end of a day and, even if I know in my bones that my students did some amazing thinking and learned some math together, I might have nothing to “show” for it besides my feeling that it went well and the students’ feelings that they’ve learned something. This is certainly not nothing — in some sense I’d argue it’s the whole goal of teaching! — but it’s interesting how these feelings exist alongside most forms of external validation, and are so infrequently their object.

This makes me think (and I swear this will circle back to your question about math!) of how poems themselves occupy a very similar kind of place to these classes: certainly there are ways that poems earn accolades (& should! — I write this only a few days after so many of us cheered for Diane Seuss’s deeply deserved Pulitzer), but the experience of the poem itself is crucially independent of any of these accolades. That’s why I can read the most disappointing poem in the world in a hardcover book put out by a major publisher, and I can read an absolutely phenomenal poem by a poet who almost no one reads at all. The spirit of poetry is this anonymous angel who seems just as content visiting the unknown as the known, and I think we can all point to a moment when we’ve met them, or at least seen the trail of breadcrumbs they’ve left for us in someone else’s work.

Like poetry, I think math revels in the being-in; the act of writing a poem and the act of solving a problem are eerily similar in the way they are full of false starts, lightning bolts of perfect sense followed by long thunders of confusion, and a finished product that can be genuinely surprising even to the person who guided the process along the whole way through. I like your framing of the math teacher’s work, “how to see and articulate a problem” — I think the thing I spend the most time thinking about as I try to teach math is how to make a(n historically “solved”) math problem into a (currently) living problem for the actual human children that come to my class each day. Although I absolutely don’t always succeed — just like only a small fraction of the poems I write are any good — when it happens and students are deeply engaged in something that foments real learning, that’s about as good as anything my best poem could ever do. (I think here about Ada Lovelace, famous as one of humanity’s first computer programmers, saying that she just as easily could have been a poet instead of a mathematician — the experiences hew so close to one another, I really do believe that! & it’s all over the comments mathematicians have famously made about poets, both laudatory [Weierstrass] & vaguely snide [Hilbert]). Lastly, it feels worth noting here that there’s a certain beauty that exists in math & poetry’s shared methodological minimalism — you don’t need any experimental tools or art supplies to do either, just some paper or a notebook and a little imagination. After that the holes dig themselves.

If you like what you're reading, please do subscribe. Even free subscriptions are a tremendous help.

AK: I really like what you said, "[t]he spirit of poetry is this anonymous angel who seems just as content visiting the unknown as the known." That leads me to wonder: while all of us who write are trying to achieve various things, are there a few things you especially hope readers will get from your poems?

TS: To turn the mirror back on the mirror, here, I think about all that the poets I really love have done for me: the word permission comes most readily to mind, though maybe it's not even so much permission (I'm sure most poets would laugh at the idea that they have the power to give anybody any sort of permission to do anything) as it is, to stick with the math thread, an existence proof. When you read a poem you are seeing the traces of possibility, that someone saw it as possible to write & publish that thing you're reading, no matter how oblique or inscrutable or rarefied a feeling that may have gone into it. And I kind of hope my poems do something like that for a reader -- that they give someone a thing to point to when somebody else says you can't put Audiosurf in a poem, though hopefully no one would ever say that in 2022. I'm holding as I type this Ben Mirov's great 2016 book ghost machines, not to be confused with his equally great 2010 book Ghost Machine, and I'm looking at the line on page 47 that reads "Missile Command until 3:00 AM"; I still remember hearing Ben read this series, and being like, yes, exactly, Missile Command until 3:00 AM. It's almost too easy to draw this comparison but the lines "I played Dr. Mario all night / And now my hands are tired" from Light-Up Swan are certainly ripped, not only from Ben's poem, but from the very idea (which I likely wouldn't have had otherwise) that all-nighters with old comfort games are poemworthy experiences.

AK: Now you've got me thinking, at 3 AM, that I should fire up Skyrim and roll a new character. This has been a fantastic conversation: lots to think about teaching and learning, the links between math and poetry. I'd like to hear about what you're reading and working on. What projects from you do we have to look forward to?

TS: Thank you so much for talking with me about poetry (and math)! I'm definitely reading more than I'm working on right now; on the desk beside me as I type this is Ashley C. Ford's memoir Somebody's Daughter, Alice Notley's Grave of Light, Alli Warren's Sundial, and a book called Coaching Teacher-Writers by Hicks, Whitney, Fredricksen, and Zuidema; the latter is to prepare for helping to edit a journal for & by teachers, called Kaleidoscope and published by the Knowles Teacher Initiative -- an exciting new chapter in my writing identity that pushes outside the confines of poetry, although if I have anything to do with it I'm sure poetry will be involved! Speaking of teachers, my pamphlet Complete Sentences (of poems related in some way to teaching) will be out soon with Broken Sleep Books, which I'm tremendously excited about. There are other things in the works, including another separate project with Broken Sleep, but I'm so far behind on it (and in life!) that I won't jinx it by saying any more about it here. And eventually maybe another book will emerge out of the little eddies of the recent poems, their whirlpooling.