Citing the Coelacanth: How Research Feeds the Poetic Process

Whitney Gratton

Whitney Gratton

At some point or another, most writers have heard the phrase “write what you know.” Lately, I’ve found another inspiring mantra to be “know what you write.” In other words, look at the act of writing as an investigation, whether its into a topic, idea, event, person, or worldview. The end result may not be certainty—to me, the unknown and uncertain have an important place in both the reading and writing of poetry. But the act of immersing myself in a subject has become a useful and delightful part of my writing process.

My sestina “Mother,” which relates a story of an octopus’ reproductive cycle, is the first in what would become a series of poems focused on sea creatures. One of my motivations in writing this poem was that I had recently come across a science article describing the surprising reproductive habits of the female octopus, and I felt compelled to share what I felt was a rather remarkable story of how the mother cares for and ultimately dies for her offspring.

Because communicating this fact-based story was a main goal of the poem, I prepared for writing by gathering all the information I could about the octopus’s life cycle from online journals and articles, podcasts, and videos. In doing so, I realized to my delight that not only was doing all this background research personally fascinating but researching a subject provided a useful framework within which to find inspiration and enter the state of wonder and continued contemplation that helps propel poems into being.

I once heard Margaret Atwood describe the process of writing poetry in a way that has stuck with me. She said that poets spend a lot of time doing what looks like absolutely nothing. But what they’re actually doing is creating a space inside themselves into which the poem can come. I’ve started looking at research as a way to intentionally contribute to this incubation process and invite the poem to come, like leaving out a trail of breadcrumbs to coax a shy animal closer. For instance, for my poem “Coelacanth,” I was initially captivated by the idea that this species of fish could live for millions of years unbeknownst to scientists and decided to try to write a poem about it. I began reading what I could find about it—its discovery, habitat, and behavior—in an attempt to simulate the often-haphazard process of incubating various facts and ideas in the back of the mind.


The coelacanth.

Incubation aside, this background research serves a few more straightforward purposes. One happy result is that it tends to turn up new or unexpected language that might not find its way into my work otherwise. The term “Lazarus taxon,” used to describe a species like the coelacanth that is rediscovered or reappears in the fossil record after seeming to have died out, ended up being an important element in the resulting poem.

Perhaps the word I spent the longest trying to find was in the line “If he sees me at all, I’ll be the lantern fish’s / last sight.” I knew I wanted to highlight the coelacanth’s seeming invisibility and the idea of seen vs. unseen using an organism that it would prey on.  Originally I had chosen “amphipod,” an order of small crustaceans, as a general and scientific-sounding example of the unfortunate prey. Eventually, I thought perhaps it distracted from the language of the rest of the poem, and I looked for alternate options. Fortunately for me, the coelacanth is an opportunistic eater, feeding on whatever it can find as it drifts, including the more linguistically approachable lantern fish, which ultimately won the place of honor.

Though the envisioning of the coelacanth’s perspective is imaginative, I wanted the details of the poem to be accurate and serve the subject by being true to the reality of the species and the events of its discovery. In this way, background research served both as a source of inspiration for the poem’s content and as a sort of fact checking at various points along the way in the poem’s evolution. I admit I feel a little uneasy even calling what I do “research,” as it’s a somewhat informal and unofficial process. The main rule I have for myself is that each important fact I include needs to be verifiable by at least two different sources – preferably, ones with established credibility like news outlets, museums, and science journals or magazines.


Stamp commemorating the coelacanth’s 1938 discovery by Western scientists.

In some cases my initial knowledge gathering has taken the form of library books—from a popular science book on the biology and social history of eels to an image-rich coffee table tome showcasing little-known creatures of the deep. A more immediate method—and admittedly the most common for me—is meandering through the Internet, always evaluating the sources as I go. Although I lean most heavily on sites by well-recognized authorities, I enjoy the occasions on which I end up on a site with no apparent attachment to an organization that appears to have been created and maintained solely out of an individual’s passion for a sometimes very specific and obscure subject. One such page that I came across while delving into the coelacanth was part of an entire site dedicated to postage stamps from around the globe featuring this particular fish.  Another I kept coming back to contained a wealth of information on all aspects of the coelacanth, but I was unable to track down much about the site owner aside from his first and last name.  Expertise aside, the thoroughness and diligent passion he displayed for the fish only compelled me to read on with increased fascination.

I was thinking again about research as I read about photographer John Yoder’s experience capturing the night sky at the world’s largest astronomical project in the Atacama Desert. He says, “Do we photographers go witness such things to take pictures, or do we take pictures in order to experience such things?” I’m beginning to think that as important as research can be in informing a poem, there may be even more value in the poem’s potential to give my ongoing explorations meaning and serve as a way in which they can be shared.  I can only hope that one of my poems will move the reader to continue—or begin—his or her own exploration.

One thought on “Citing the Coelacanth: How Research Feeds the Poetic Process

  1. Marlena Chertock (@Mchertock)

    This is a fabulous description of writing process, or the process before writing even begins. I, too, find myself researching and reading up on topics for poems. Whitney Gratton really captures the fascination and exhilarating thrill of conducting research for poems. Thanks for sharing your process!


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