Sierra Nelson Guest Poet Post: “Bioluminescent Properties in Squid and Poetry”

Every Thursday, Ooligan Press invites a poet whose work is included in Alive at the Center, our anthology of poetry from Pacific Northwest writers, to blog for us. This week, we are pleased to feature Sierra Nelson, a poet from Seattle, WA. Please enjoy her post!

Bioluminescent Properties in Squid and Poetry

Thinking about the name of this anthology, Alive at the Center, I started to wonder: how can we tell if a poem is alive—especially if it behaves differently from other poetic organisms we may be more used to observing? I’ll admit that my poem in this collection, “Not Towards a Real, Towards Another,” is probably one of these stranger species. Taxonomy isn’t everything, but it can be helpful. This poem doesn’t unfold via narrative, character, or one explored thought; it doesn’t use rhyme, meter, or syllabic count to form its exo- or endoskeleton. It does create a distinct visual silhouette on the page, though it’s a more abstract shape than traditional concrete poems. There are lyric images and attention to sound throughout, but neither seems the defining self-locomotion of the poem. If metaphors are at work, they are operating at a submerged level.

So, is this poem alive? Does it feel satisfying as a poem, and not just (the worst charge, to my mind) a “random” collection of words and pieces, without anything ultimately holding it together as an entity, with no heartbeat or brainwave, no energy absorbed or released?
I hope that is not the case—that it does feel alive and satisfying. I know I felt something compelling in it at its completion, and I’m happy to know some trusted readers and editors have responded similarly. (Enough to have it included in this anthology, and in such amazing company.)
And it’s also true that just because a poem expertly executes a traditional form or perhaps more neatly resembles a “poem” to our ear or eye—that’s not necessarily proof that it is alive either. It needs something more, to differentiate itself from a stuffed thing in a museum or an inert (if cunning) replica. We need to feel it move, breathe, make something in us respond, surprise us.

Robert Frost

Robert Frost


Poet Robert Frost, master of form, developed a theory of sentence sounds that speaks in part to what I’m struggling to articulate here. In a letter to John Bartlett (Feb. 22, 1914) he wrote:
To judge a poem or piece of prose you go the same way to work—apply the one test—greatest test. You listen for the sentence sounds. If you find some of those not bookish, caught fresh from the mouths of people, some of them striking, all of them definite and recognizable, so recognizable that with a little trouble you can place them and even name them, you know…
And in a later letter he adds, “…the tones of voice must be caught fresh and fresh from life. Poetry is a fresh look and a fresh listen. The actor’s gift is to execute the vocal image at the mouth. The writer’s is to implicate the vocal image in a sentence and fasten it printed to the page” (Letter to John Freeman, Nov. 5, 1925).
When writing “Not Towards a Real, Towards Another,” I took Frost’s idea of sentence sounds to heart and made an honest effort to catch “tones of voice…fresh from life.” The poem was written as I was finishing graduate school in Seattle and taking buses a lot—in the poem you’ll find fragments of overheard conversations from people on the bus, excerpts of half-finished letters to friends begun at bus-stops, phrases inspired by books I was reading at the time (insect behavior, philosophy), orphaned lines and notes from my notebook. I’d recently learned about madstones—a miraculous cure or a weighted madness in itself, found in an animal’s guts—and in that went. The song fragment You’re gonna lose a good thing was sung to me by a very drunk man in a cafe one night, biding time (he told me) until a certain boat from Alaska came in that he was sure would turn his luck around. His advice, and his sentence sounds, hit me hard.
There was a particular bleakness and urgency to that time in my life that I hope helps underscore all the disparate pieces and voices of this poem—what ended up in my notebook, what spoke to me from books and the observable world. It was a time of adventure and no adventure, of death and missing pieces. If the unspoken question in the poem is: “Am I / Are we all going to be OK?”—I’m not sure exactly what the answer is. But I think, in the end, the poem is hopeful. The bravery of the blossom beetles seems a vote of confidence anyway—at least that we might be OK enough to carry (or to be carried) on.
Bioluminescent Squid

Bioluminescent Squid


So where do the squid come in, you might ask? I’m a bit obsessed with cephalopods, and I recently learned about a phenomenon called “quorum sensing”—a system of stimulus and response in which individuals sense the presence of others like themselves, informing individual and collective behavior. For example, some social insects use quorum sensing to determine where to nest, and some species of bacteria use it to coordinate gene expression. One of the most awesome examples of this phenomenon is that the bacteria living inside certain kinds of squid, allowing them to create bioluminescence, operate via quorum sensing. Basically, these bacteria co-exist peacefully and boringly inside the squid, not doing much—except in certain circumstances when the bacteria sense the increased presence of one another, and literally start to glow! Scientists are still researching the how and why, but the squid must be able to encourage the bacteria to do this, working with the bacteria inside them to express and emote. Amazing!
quorum sensing diagram

Quorum Sensing


Whatever else is happening in a poem to make it alive, as a reader and writer of poetry, I think I’m really looking for the bioluminescence. What makes the words sense each other in such a way that they suddenly start to behave by glowing (a delight and a wonder, even on that word/phrase/line/microscopic level) while also expressing something (mysterious, stunning, patterned) for the larger organism: the poem? More research, of course, is still needed on all of this. But I hope for at least some of you, something in my poem is glimmering through to you in the dark. And I’m looking forward to encountering more of your creatures—writhing, shining, gleaming—in these waters.


Sierra Nelson has been writing, teaching, and performing in Seattle for more than fourteen years. Her books include lyrical choose-your-own-adventure I Take Back the Sponge Cake made in collaboration with visual artist Loren Erdrich (Rose Metal Press, 2012) and her poems have appeared in journals such as Poetry Northwest, Crazyhorse, and Tin House, among others. Nelson earned her MFA in Poetry from the University of Washington and is a MacDowell Colony fellow and 2011 Hackney National Literary Award winner for poetry. Nelson is also co-founder of the innovative literary performance art groups The Typing Explosion and the Vis-à-Vis Society.
Sierra’s poem “Not towards a real, towards another,” poem is featured in the complete Alive at the Center anthology as well as the Seattle edition. Both books are currently available from your favorite local bookshop or online retailer.