Liner Notes: Talking Nuclear Power, Research Writing, and Curie’s Radioactive Child with Sophia Holtz

Marie Curie to Radium

Once the cast-off, once the runt,
when nobody knew what to do with you
I dreamt you real, a missing element,
and called you up into radium salts, called you up
from the mines. I am the one who made you real,
little child, I made you solid, tangible: pulled you out
from under our microscopes, pulled you from particle and gas—
burned my body making you, but my body
was blistered proof when they wouldn’t believe
a woman could make such a thing come to life.
You were my first born, little candle.
Little poison. You lived in my blood,
made brittle my bones, murdered
my husband— but your light was new,
a promise. I had never held anything so warm.
In the days before I died, I kept you in a vial
by my bedside. Do you remember?
I used to call you my child.

Sophia Holtz grew up in New York and lives in Somerville, MA. She graduated from Hampshire College in 2011, where she first became interested in performing poetry, and has featured throughout the Northeast. She is currently working on expanding her thesis: a collection of poems about nuclear weapons testing, radioactivity, and atomic kitsch.

What follows is the first in a new series called  Liner Notes.  This collection of interviews digs for the roots of a piece of writing, the politics at play in a given piece, and the writer’s ideas about craft.


What made you want to write this poem?

I started writing this poem last year, 2011, during my thesis at Hampshire College where I was trying writing a manuscript on nuclear weapons testing and radiation. I was reading The Making of The Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes.  It’s a very comprehensive history of how they got to the Manhattan project, what led to making the bomb. It goes all the way back to the discovery of radiation.

How did Curie fit into that history?

She discovered radium by distilling pitch blend, which is a uranium byproduct that they thought was completely useless. And then she found that it was more radioactive than uranium and spent years trying to make into a tangible thing because people didn’t believe her, that it was in existence.

Did the book explain why she wasn’t taken seriously? Was it a problem with scientific credibility, or was it her gender?

Making The Bomb didn’t explain that particular part of her story, but I read a biography, and I also read a graphic novel last year called Radioactive, which is beautiful and glows in the dark, and that book was more about her relationship with Pierre Curie, her husband who was also a scientist.  Nobody believed her.  People didn’t want to give her the Nobel Prize.  She was pretty constantly under attack, even after her husband died.  She was struggling her whole life for credibility. She was one of the first women doing what she was doing and that came with obvious challenges.

from  Radioactive , by Lauren Redniss

from Radioactive, by Lauren Redniss

What is the difference between the current form of the poem and your original conception?

The first incarnation of “Marie Curie To Radium” was a lot longer.  I’d read all these biographies and I wanted to include all that information.  It was one of a few poems from that thesis project that I knew I would come back to later.

Did you leave the poem alone for a long time after you first wrote it?

I left it alone for a really long time.  In December, I was writing in a cafe, which I like because you can just focus on the task in front of you.  I opened up the document for the first time in awhile.  I wasn’t consciously thinking let’s rewrite this.  I copied and pasted the poem in a new document and completely refigured it.  It was extremely different before.  A lot more all over the place.

When you started reorganizing, what was the driving force in your impulse to rewrite?

I think I found the anger in the poem. Before it was more explanatory, because I felt like people should know about this.  The poem is Curie talking, and I don’t think she would’ve talked like this.  She was a very reserved person.  But it serves the story.  The amount of crap she was dealing with…I don’t think I thought “I need to find the anger in this poem,” but…

But the anger found you.

I reorganized it and adjusted the flow, for lack of a better word, of the sentence structure.  It was a lot more stiff. I think it got more fiery.

Do you find research to be a help or a hindrance to your writing process?

I think the problem with research is that you can get too caught up and it’s important to remember you’re not writing an essay and that not everything needs to go in.  What I used to do is, I would over-research and get all the information I could before I write the poem.  Now, I take a more bare bones approach and fact check after I’ve written the poem.  You can’t let the research stifle the poem, but you have to do the information justice.  I don’t know how to put this…you have to have control of the story because it is your poem, but you can’t appropriate the story.  At least you shouldn’t.  You have to be conscious of what you’re writing about.  You need to have the knowledge in the back of your head even if you don’t have exact testimony.

Is research more of a collaborative experience for you now than when you first started writing from historical accounts?

Yes, whereas before the research is what I was holding onto.  You need to be able to move more freely, at least with poetry.  You’re trying to get at the story, what people will connect to, without doing the human interest, bad newspaper thing.  There has to be a balance.

I remember a poem of yours about radiation, maybe one of the first, about the community surrounding Chernobyl being evacuated.  Was that the poem that led to your interest in writing about nuclear power?

I wrote that long before I started my thesis.  The summer after that Prypiat poem, I was researching the Shackleton expedition to the Antarctic.  I knew I wanted to write about history.

In trying to parse how Holtz ended up writing about nuclear weapons testing when she’d originally been researching a famous story of endurance, she and I derailed a bit, talking about how changing directions sometimes happens by accident.  She entered college with the intention of being pre-med, but got involved almost immediately in the Hampshire Slam Collective, a now-defunct campus organization that held weekly open mics with featured poets, workshopping sessions, and field trips to Massachusetts and New Hampshire poetry readings.

What do you think changed for you that made you want to write?

I stopped seeing it as something that I liked to do and it became something I could do with a group of people.

So community was important to your conception of being a writer?

Had it not been for the slam community I was a part of in college, I don’t think I would’ve thought of it as more than a hobby.  I started writing by just jotting down phrases on the subway.  I’d be coming home from high school and just jot down phrases on the train. Everything was very situational.  It had to be sparked by something.  I don’t write on the train anymore, at least not as much as I used to.  Coming home from work is a very different experience from coming from school. Coming home from school it’s like, “I need to leave, I’m really idealistic, I’m going to do all this weird hippie shit.”  Coming home from work, I just want to take a nap.

Does any part of your job inspire your writing?

Mostly my job is my job.  It’s so specific. So, no, not really.  I find, often, when I’m not working I read one of the Israeli papers, Haaretz, which is like the Israeli equivalent of the New York Times. I also read a blog called 972 magazine.  I try to keep tangentially aware, at least.

Do you do a lot of writing about Israel?

Not as much as I used to.  When I was first writing in college, I was coming into conflict with how I felt about the Israeli-Palestinian tensions in ways I had not prior to coming outside an all-Jewish community.

Do you think that made you think about the world differently?

It definitely changed things. We weren’t just culturally Jewish; I went to a Jewish day school.  It’s not that I’d never had to present my views on Israel and Jewish culture to non-Jews before. I had.  My last years of high school I was in a class on coexistence.  We had a partnership with a Muslim school in Queens.  We’d have these dialogues.  Having to present my views there was very different for me.  The same thing happened in college.  I suddenly encountered people who had no opinion at all.  And then there were other people who had very strong opinions on all sides of the issue.

When was the last time you wrote about your views on Israel?

I was going to Jerusalem for the first time in several years and wrote this very political poem, a rant, image heavy, but still a rant.  I don’t think I wrote it because I needed to have an opinions, but having people asking my opinion all the time was abrasive.  I look at that poem now and see it for what it is.

In your work, there’s always an undercurrent of political awareness.  But you never argue for the sake of arguing.  There’s a deep humanity to how you approach your subjects.  You walk around things in your poems, examine things from many sides.

That’s how I approach politics. I get angry, but I have a lot of trouble staying angry for an entire poem.  It’s exhausting.  I’m more interested in observation.

Do you find it comforting to dig through the history and find the humanity beneath the horrors?

It’s all humanity, but that’s not always a positive thing.  There’s a lot of fear; everyone’s really afraid.  Look at the first Bikini test–they detonated that bomb because they were afraid there was going to be a war with Russia immediately following the return of our soldiers from WW II.  I have a very concise opinion about nuclear weapons testing: it’s completely unnecessary.  Nuclear power, I have more complicated opinions about.  With what happened recently in Fukushima especially.  But I need to do more research on what is going in Japan.  I was trying to keep track when it happened, because the event coincided with the end of my thesis work.  I can’t engage with the history without engaging with the modern.  The history influenced what’s happening now.  I started by looking at Marie Curie but what was happening in the news really influenced the course my work took.  There was this article in the news about the bomb photographers in the Times, which prompted me to take out a book from the library.  And that inspired a number of poems.

So it was ekphrastic writing as well as research writing?

Yes. I’d look at photos from the tests and videos of the tests and write about that because I wasn’t quite sure where else to begin.

Did you interact with popular portrayals of nuclear weapons testing during your research?

I’ve been working on some poems that deal with B movies and nuclear kitsch.  That’s how the public deals with it.  They’re representations of fear.  The mushroom cloud has its own associations, but it’s hard to fathom how much damage these weapons do.  So we make up these monsters.  The idea of weapons of mass destruction is something we came of age with because of the language of the Bush administration.  But we’re desensitized to what that phrase actually means.  You see footage and photographs from these weapons in action; seeing, it’s incredible but it’s horrifying.  There’s some footage from these drills where they were trying to get soldiers used to the idea of charging out of trenches after the bomb has been dropped.  After the cloud has cleared, you see them going willingly into the affected area.  The army went into these islands and said, “Hey for the good of the world we need to test our weapons here so you need to leave.” And they still haven’t been able to return. You can’t eat the coconuts.  They had people come back at one point and people kept eating coconuts because they’re a staple food and then they realized that the coconuts were full of radiation.  Really horrible things.  When I perform these poems, people ask me a lot about nuclear power.  I don’t know a lot about nuclear power plants.  I don’t think it’s somewhere the poems are going.  I’m interested in the way culture reacts to the knowledge of radiation. So many action movies center around stopping the villain from detonating a nuclear weapon.  It’s something’s people were legitimately afraid of, especially during the Cold War on both sides. There’s a nuclear presence in our lives and there has been since the first test but we don’t realize the extent of the damage. Once you start looking for it, you realize the effect that nuclear power has on our lives. It’s in everything.