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.

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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.

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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.

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Dealing with Doubt: After Midnight

Between belief and disbelief, certainty and uncertainty, trust and distrust lies doubt. Doubt can be deliberate questioning or a state of indecision, resulting in a reassessment of what reality means or a paralyzing suspension between contradictory propositions. An uncomfortable condition, as Voltaire observed, but preferable to certainty, which is inherently absurd. Or some surprising gap stretching intellect and emotion, resulting in delight. Join us in this intriguing gray area as we prepare our Winter 2013 Doubt issue.

Dewy Defeats Truman

Harry Truman holds up a copy of the Chicago Tribune at Union Station in St. Louis, Missouri on November 3, 1948. It was a foregone conclusion that he would lose, so the Tribune ran the infamously incorrect headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.” (Photo: Byron Rollins, AP)

During the summer of 1987, when I was 19, I lived by myself in a furnished studio apartment in New Port Richey, Florida. I had come from Illinois for a newspaper internship after my sophomore year in college. I had a blast at work but spent most of my free time alone.

I’m one of six kids from a raucous Irish-Catholic family, so the solitary life was novel and enjoyable. Throughout that internship, the only time that I actually felt alone–the only time that it might have been a comfort to have my brothers nearby–was the night that I awoke in terror. I’d been thinking about a story I’d written that day when a thought drifted into my drowsy mind: I might have spelled Tom Weightman’s name incorrectly.

Weightman was the county school superintendent. I didn’t remember checking the spelling. My stomach churned. What spelling did I use? I called the main newsroom in St. Petersburg in hope of…what? That the paper hadn’t been put to bed? That I could correct the mistake? I wasn’t even sure that it was a mistake. It was late, and the paper had gone to press. My panic escalated. But the only thing worse than self-doubt was self-deception. I had to know. I got in my car and zoomed through the humid night. I unlocked the empty newsroom’s back door and got to my desk. I don’t remember how I checked my story, but I did. I had spelled it correctly. Or maybe an editor had made it right. It didn’t matter.

Journalists are taught to get it right. Getting it wrong means that you have made a factual error, and factual errors require correction. No one likes to make mistakes, and people with life-and-death jobs–doctors, cops, firefighters–probably think that a potentially misspelled name is a poor reason to have a panic attack and make a midnight run through Pasco County. But fellow journalists will empathize. We all feel the white-hot shame when an error creeps in. If my brothers had been there that awful night, I still would have felt alone. They wouldn’t have been able to help. They weren’t journalists.

The first big mistake that I made was at my college paper. I covered a faculty member’s memorial service and, inexplicably, listed the wrong day. The editor-in-chief tacked a copy onto the newsroom bulletin board with the mistake circled. Even in that bustling newsroom, I felt completely alone. And knew that I never wanted to feel that way again.

But, of course, I did. I was a prolific reporter in college, during internships and in my professional career. When you write that much, you inevitably make mistakes. I printed the wrong telephone number for a social services program. I wrote that a man accused of sexually abusing a child had made incriminating statements to police; he hadn’t. I misread a Department of Transportation document so badly that I said that a controversial road project had been brought back up for consideration. That was a doozy: not just an error in a story, but an entire story in error.

No matter what the reason was for the slip, the resulting misery was always the same. Eventually, I arrived at a strategy to stave off madness: I beat myself up for a day, then moved on. The newspaper policy of printing corrections on the front page was perversely helpful. The stronger my public humiliation was, the less I needed to beat myself up.

Given the cruel dimensions of this occupational hazard, it shouldn’t have been surprising that when salvation–in the form of the Internet and the resulting online newspapers–finally did arrive in the early 2000s, it was wrapped in treacherous packaging.

I work at the Ocala Star-Banner, which publishes both in print and online. The latter has a crucial advantage: stories can be adjusted moments, hours, even years after they’re posted. I can quickly correct a spelling, a date, a dollar amount. I can even unpublish an entire story. Transparent corrections–noting when and where adjustments are made–don’t sting like their print cousins. If anything, online corrections are admirable evidence of a reporter perpetually at work. The errant reporter’s shame need last only a moment.

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An example of an online corrections page, appropriately from January 6, 2013 (Epiphany)

The flexible Internet also helps prevents errors from seeping into inflexible print. Since stories usually post online before the print deadline, readers and colleagues can spot problems and contact me. Both the print and online stories can be corrected long before the presses roll.

A July 2012 Newsweek cover story asked, “Is the Web Driving Us Mad?” It cited research on how prolonged Internet exposure makes people more lonely and more depressed, less connected and less focused. Perhaps it does. But as a journalist who is a maniac about getting things right, my newspaper’s Web operation makes me less lonely and less prone to depression, more connected and more focused. The digital world brings more people to the process early on, when there’s still a chance get it right. I’ll always doubt myself a little, but now I have an ally in the previously debilitating battle against time.

The treacherous side of this salvation is that the Internet poses a business challenge for newspapers. Readers are shifting from print to digital, but the majority of revenue still comes from print advertising and circulation. Unless the news business figures how to get ad dollars to follow eyeballs, traditional news organizations will continue to struggle.

I want the best of both worlds: maintaining accuracy but writing with a digital safety net, keeping print products financially viable but allowing the more forgiving online world to flourish, practicing journalism vigorously but relegating those panic attacks to the past.

As I reconcile these two worlds as a writer and editor, I also do so as a part-time journalism instructor. I teach JOU 3101-Reporting one night a week at the University of Florida. The course has tough grading standards, including 50 points off for factual errors. Many of the students have never received less than a B in their lives, but it’s not uncommon for them to flunk the first few assignments.

Most of the class time is dedicated to writing a deadline news story. I provide data sheets larded with land mines: inconsistent spellings, incorrect addresses, fuzzy facts. Terrified of making a mistake, my students check and cross-check every word and confer in panicked voices. Emotionally exhausted, they hand me their stories just before the 10 pm deadline as if offering steak to a lion. I receive late-night emails, the cyber-equivalent of my midnight run, begging forgiveness for a mistake they have–or think they have–made.

It doesn’t need to be this way. The landscape has changed considerably since my stressful college days. Today’s students will work in a digital world where accuracy is vital but errors can be quickly corrected. Perhaps the lethal grading system, where one factual error equals failure, should be ditched in favor of a more modern one: factual errors cost points, but not a fatal number. This certainly would improve morale.

Then again, nostalgia and habit aren’t the only reasons to stick with old standards. With new technology, doctors can save patients who a generation ago were doomed. But med schools would never go easy on students who couldn’t handle the basics, even though initial errors can be corrected with advanced medicines and procedures. Judges can check case law on courtroom computers. But law schools would never excuse students who couldn’t prepare a properly cited legal brief. For journalists, getting it right is as important now as in the days of hot type. Technology can eliminate crazy midnight drives but can’t teach what the panic can: this is serious and I never want to feel like this again.

The Internet, with its fast and flexible beauty, has loosened time’s unforgiving grip on me. But the midnight run through Pasco County hardened me into the kind of journalist who doesn’t need too much saving in the first place. My students will inhabit the digital world. But they will arrive there with memories, never far beneath the surface, of those panicked nights in my classroom when all they wanted in the world was just to get the story right.

Online Editor’s Notes:

  • I doubt that there’s a soul with a publishing and/or research background (and a conscience) who won’t cringe a bit while reading Jim’s piece. And while the Internet has made it easier for us online types in many ways, it’s actually made it more gut-wrenching in others. I feel slightly sick each time I push the LPR blog’s Publish button because I know that what I post will be instantly available for the world to see, not just for a single county once the presses stop rolling. And while I love being able to fix facts–not to mention those awfully awkward sentences–anytime that I please, I can’t in all cases. Our valued subscribers, who receive the posts in their electronic inboxes in near-real time, are irrevocably exposed to each “soft” launch.
  • A propos Jim’s discussion of the mixed blessings brought by the Internet, it’s worth mentioning that Newsweek merged with the news and opinion website The Daily Beast in November 2010, forming The Newsweek Daily Beast Company. In October 2012, it was announced that Newsweek would cease print publication with the December 31, 2012 issue and transition to an all-digital format, Newsweek Global.
  • A writer for Forbes took issue with the Newsweek piece as well, stating, “I’ve been spending a lot of time on the internet, you see. And it’s making me crazy. Specifically, I’ve been spending time on the Daily Beast’s website, reading a Newsweek covery story titled ‘Is The Web Driving Us Mad?’ And I can answer resoundingly in the affirmative. The web—at least this particular corner of it—is indeed making me quite mad. Lazy, alarmist pop science writing usually does.” Doubt is a reliable antidote.