Q&A with Ursula Whitcher

Mathematician and poet Ursula Whitcher, whose “Ansibles” appears in our July/August issue [on sale now!], is ready to fight for the honor of being the second-most-famous SF author named Ursula. Below, she discusses the influence of the first-most-famous SF Ursula, other literary inspirations, the origins of “Ansibles,” and her poetic process.

Asimov’s Editor: The first line of your poem is, “I can’t explain gravity without using gravity.” Have you ever actually tried to explain gravity?

UW: I have! As well as being a poet, I’m a mathematician. My research is inspired by the physical theory of string theory, which offers one way to unify quantum physics and general relativity. I took more classical courses in general relativity as a graduate student, so I’ve spent quite a bit of energy working out equations for possible shapes of spacetime.

AE: Who is your poem dedicated to?

UW: “Ansibles” is for Adriana Salerno, a dear friend and mathematical collaborator. Adriana and I talk about math, science fiction, and what it’s like to pursue a career that sends you all over the world. Adriana is from Venezuela, but her grandmother grew up in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, an hour or so from the university where I earned tenure. When I was writing this poem, I was thinking both about my nieces, who are growing up in New York City, and about Adriana’s stories of her family in Caracas.

AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this poem?

UW: I met Marie Vibbert, a frequent Asimov’s contributor, when I was a college student doing a physics internship at Case Western Reserve University and she was a helpdesk worker mentoring the university’s budding medieval history club. We started talking about writing and knitting, and have been friends ever since. When I asked Marie about places to send speculative poetry, Asimov’s was near the top of her list.

AE: What is your process for constructing a poem?

UW: I usually start with one or two emotionally resonant images. When I begin committing words to the page, I pay attention to rhythm, sound, and the shape of the words on the page, and try to reinforce emerging structure. In this case, the beginning images were the marble rolling on a rubber sheet and the distant yellow sun. The uncomfortable “tugging” at the end of the first stanza guided the shape of the rest of the poem.

AE: What draws you to write poetry, as opposed to prose?

UW: I love the immediacy of poetry—the way a poem puts the reader in the middle of a situation and lets them figure things out—and the way poetry can balance ambiguous and mixed emotions. I do write short stories as well, and sometimes I test an idea as both poetry and fiction (or even interactive fiction!) to see what works best. But I keep coming back to poems.

I love the immediacy of poetry—the way a poem puts the reader in the middle of a situation and lets them figure things out—and the way poetry can balance ambiguous and mixed emotions.

AE: What’s the first poem you ever wrote?

UW: I remember writing a poem about a seagull when I was six or seven, and then being annoyed my mother didn’t find their flight as beautiful as I did. However, the first poem I can find in my childhood diary is about the historical popularity of different given names. (It rhymes “too” with the line “like a solid cup that’s been hewed.”) I guess I’ve been mixing math and poetry for a long time!

AE: What books are you reading right now?

UW: I’m reading John Chalcraft’s The Striking Cabbies of Cairo and Other Stories, which is about the history of labor in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Egypt, as writing research; I’m reading K.S. Villoso’s novel The Wolf of Oren-Yaro for discovery. I’m also dipping into re-reads of the Chanur and Aubrey-Maturin series for comfort.

AE: What poems have you been returning to lately?

UW: I’m thinking about Jericho Brown’s poem “Ganymede,” which confronts the bleakness in the myth of Aquarius and the bleakness in the myth of America. I’m thinking about Amy Lowell’s queer identity, and the way I imprinted on her historical fiction poem “Patterns” when I was thirteen or fourteen. And I’m thinking about the poetic strategies of Le Guin’s epigraph “The Creation of Éa,” and the ways I return to those strategies in my own writing.

AE: Ursula K. Le Guin also coined the word “ansible.” We’re not surprised to hear you list her as an influence! What’s your favorite Le Guin poem or story?

UW: The novella Fisherman of the Inland Sea.

AE: If you could fight any writer, dead or alive, who would you fight?

UW: I would duel Ursula Vernon for the right to be the second-most-famous science-fiction-writing Ursula. I’m betting each of us tried fencing a couple of times and then gave it up because philosophical questions about the bout were too distracting, so that should make it a fair fight.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

UW: I post interactive fiction at yarntheory.itch.io, I tweet about math, books, and poems as @superyarn, and I collect all my writing and other projects at yarntheory.net.

Ursula Whitcher is a mathematician and editor who reads Latin with some fluency and ancient Greek just well enough to get angry with Plato. Ursula’s poetry has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, sources including Asimov’s Science Fiction MagazineRosalind’s SiblingsThe Cascadia Subduction Zone, and Goblin Fruit, and is indexed (somewhat imperfectly) at yarntheory.net.

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