from A Conversation with Peter Munro

from A CONVERSATION WITH PETER MUNRO

Jan Heller Levi

Peter Munro was born in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1957. He was raised in small fishing towns, including Sitka, Alaska, which left him permanently afflicted with a love of fishing. Currently, he lives near Seattle, one of the world’s great fishing ports, with his wife and two sons. By day, he conducts research fishing in the Bering Sea, the Gulf of Alaska, and the Aleutian Islands, using the data to help estimate annual harvest levels of commercially important demersal fishes. When not at sea, he’s chained to a computer, analyzing data and failing to write papers. By night he makes and says poems. (website)

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Note: The following is excerpted from an 21-page interview.

GREEN: You grew up in Alaska, right?

 

MUNRO: A combination of Alaska and Washington—

 

GREEN: And is that what led you to being interested in the ocean and fish? 

 

MUNRO: I think I would have had that anyway—

 

GREEN: Even in Kansas?

 

MUNRO: Well, maybe, yeah, from the first time I even went trout fishing in a lake, I was intrigued. Actually, I don’t know, because my development as a child was always in the presence of water and maritime systems. In kindergarten through the 5th grade I lived in a town in Washington in the San Juan Islands called Anacortes. When I was five, they took us on a field trip to a low tide. They couldn’t pull me away from the beach; I was just fascinated by everything that was under the rocks and in the tide pools. My folks noticed my fascination, so we would do family outings that were built around the tide tables—so if there was a minus tide we’d go for a picnic on the beach, and I’d spend the day poking around tide pools. 

 

GREEN: Were they interested in that, too, or only for you?

 

MUNRO: I think they found it interesting to see me engaged, and they ended up learning some things about the intertidal zone, but mostly it was just being parents to me. They might have been there more for the barbeque further up the beach. [laughs]

 

GREEN: Did you think you were going to do this line of work from that point on?

 

MUNRO: Well, yes and no. I didn’t really know what fisheries was, but I was always fascinated, like many kids, by small animals. My particular fascination was reptiles and amphibians. Even though I’ve never lived in a place that’s famous for having a lot of either of those, I was taken with snakes and lizards and frogs. I remember in 1st or 2nd grade, starting to familiarize myself with the public library, checking out all the snake books, thinking my plan was to be a missionary in some tropical place, which would allow me to do my real passion, which was herpetology. And the missionary part is because my dad was a preacher and it was all I saw, professionally.

 

GREEN: So when did poetry enter this picture?

 

MUNRO: That’s kind of a more difficult discussion because it involves a certain amount of religiosity. I was a passionate believer in the standard Protestant Christian doctrine, and I still am, in fact. I don’t want to get all sectarian on you, but I was raised to believe, and I still believe, in having a calling. But I didn’t know what mine was. I grew up trained to listen for God’s calling. I believed I’d been given this life; I believed I’d been given a purpose. I needed to listen for what that purpose was, and then I needed to act on it. But I couldn’t hear God’s calling. I couldn’t recognize it.

 

Every week I’d go to church, and I’d sing hymns and be exposed to a certain kind of poetic sensibility in the words of the hymns, and I would hear the Bible read out loud. And then I’d hear my dad preach—his poetic sensibility wasn’t quite as thrilling as those others [both laugh], but I enjoyed the basic message that God loves me. So I listened to even my dad preaching. Because these exposures to wordcraft and word art were so everyday for me, I didn’t perceive them as art or beautiful or glorifying to God. I did not perceive words as a calling. Words were just air; they were just there. 

 

I also failed to recognize that my interest in sciences wasn’t interest in science itself. I was interested in the world. The beauty of the world. Loving frogs and snakes and lizards was a fascination with God’s creation. Despite this love, I still couldn’t recognize my calling. That was a source of a great deal of pain. I went through various difficulties in my life in which I basically gave up trying to listen. That decision felt like a death.

 

I was laboring joylessly in the sciences because my father, in addition to preaching the gospel, also preached pragmatism. The arts aren’t pragmatic, and he’s a good Scottish Presbyterian, and so you better do something that brings a paycheck or produces something in the world. So I went into the sciences. I had some ability, and I had a measure of genuine love for marine ecology. I remember thinking, in my late teens, then again, going into college, then again, going into graduate school, “Okay, I’ll do this until I finally hear what my real calling is.” That was what I thought when I shifted from grad school into the work I’m doing now, almost 30 years later.

 

I ended up in fisheries science because I finished my growing up in a fishing town, and I came of age watching people harvest fish, and deeply loved it. But I loved it for its engagement with the world. My love of reptiles and amphibians, my love of tide pools and the intertidal zone, had matured and expanded and fishing had come to be fulfilling in the same way. Sport fishing was how I got involved, as hooked by it as I’d been with my first encounter with a sculpin in a tide pool. However, I became just as smitten with professional fishing on all scales. Fishing was, in fact, what my heart was calling me to do in my late teens and early twenties. But in Southeast Alaska, in the late ’70s, fishing was a good way to lose your shirt. Nobody told me it was no big deal to lose your shirt at age eighteen.

 

I went into fisheries science instead, a profession that allowed me to stay close to fishing. My love for the field allowed me to receive a degree of nourishment from it. But it wasn’t enough in the long run. I got sadder and sadder and more and more immobilized by not being able to know what it was God really wanted me to do. Things got worse and worse, and I was in some big emotional trouble; I felt like I was dying and I was living self-destructively enough that that wasn’t an unreasonable conclusion. 

 

Then my mother died, which is central to this story in a very dysfunctional way. I had a very harmful relationship with her. And I think her death allowed me to consider living. Really living. 

 

GREEN: Wow. How so? If you don’t want to talk about it we can move on …

 

MUNRO: No … [long pause] Looking back now, my heart had been telling me my calling all through my life but I had refused to hear it. From infancy on, I’d made war on my heart and had tried to ignore my calling. Not-hearing was necessary to survive childhood with a suicidally depressed mother. My mother needed me for her own survival. My true self, an individuated being, threatened her dependency. She coerced me to subsume myself to her. She withheld her love and even seemed to take pleasure in my suffering. As a child, the threat that I would lose her to suicide was always with me. I knew none of this consciously, and certainly not in the beginning. But the weight of her lost self and the weight of my responsibility for her death or survival have been pressed upon me since infancy. 

 

Anything uniquely mine, whether joy or grief, triggered one of two responses from her: Either she felt threatened and punished me by withholding love, or she coveted what I had and would attempt to suck it from me. I learned to hide my truth from her. She was acutely, psychically attuned, though, as the broken-hearted often are. She seemed to know exactly what was in my head or heart. To be safe I had to hide my truth from myself because if I knew, so would she. I learned to live covertly, without even knowing that’s what I was doing. I learned to catch glimpses of myself in a tide pool. I thank my Maker for making tide pools. I thank my Maker for guiding the feet of me as a kindergartner down to those small waters. I am not sure I would have survived my mother’s darkness otherwise.

 

So salvation was a shoreline. Barnacles skinning the knees of a child in prayer, not knowing he was praying at the edge of a mussel bed. My calling had always been with me, but I was too sick and hurt to allow myself to hear it, much less answer it. My mother’s death broke me further. Into that lull slipped something I could not not-hear. 

 

GREEN: And how did you discover that was poetry? 

 

MUNRO: I’d been listening to National Public Radio, All Things Considered—Noah Adams used to host, and he’d interview poets, and they would read some of their poetry, and every time I heard a poet on the radio, I kind of liked it. And I thought, “That might even be fun to do …” I wasn’t thinking in terms of God’s calling.

 

GREEN: How long ago was this, when are we talking about?

 

MUNRO: 1983. My mom died around Thanksgiving of 1983. My first wife and I were sitting in the airport the Christmas after she died. We were going back up to Sitka to spend Christmas with our families. I was in a world of hurt. We had a couple of hours to wait. I don’t know why, but I thought, “Well, I’ll just try to write a poem. What could it hurt?” It took about fifteen minutes to write a five-line stanza—I wouldn’t want to share it with anybody now, but I could tell in doing it that I really was able to do this. The light went on in that fifteen minutes; I realized this is my calling. 

 

I knew that if I would pursue it my life would change, and in ways that were scary to me. So I paused for a minute—I never doubted that I would go on with it—but I paused for a minute to acknowledge that my life was going to change. And then I plunged on, and wrote the next verse, which … sucked. [both laugh] I mean, the first verse was embarrassing in its sentimentality and its earnestness, but it actually has some wordcraft in it that is pretty sophisticated. The second verse was just horrible in every possible way, and I knew it. And actually being able to recognize it wasn’t working, I wasn’t trashing myself, it was just, “Holy cow, there are a whole bunch of problems here that have to be solved”—actually that told me more about being able to do this, that this was my calling. I could see that the second verse reeked and I still loved the making of it. I was excited about how to fix its problems (which turned out to be unfixable). I didn’t yet know how to do this particular thing, I had to figure it out, but by golly, I could see the problems. So in a way the awful second verse was as revealing as the first fifteen minutes, and it changed my life tremendously. 

 

GREEN: You said that it changed in scary ways. How were they scary? 

 

MUNRO: Because if I embraced poetry, I would have to be a growing person, oriented toward being alive in God’s Creation. The structures of my life would not be able to take my own growth, they would break, and I sensed that from the moment I discerned poetry as my calling. I finished that first stanza and savored the joy of it and immediately had the realization that my marriage would not survive. That was very scary. I was in a marriage that required me to stunt myself. I sensed that already-breaking union would break all the way, which is what eventually happened. The prospect of divorce was frightening to the first born son of a Presbyterian preacher; in that culture, death was preferable to divorce. There were numerous other structures in my life that I thought I needed for survival, structures and myths. The things I used to cope with the spiritual sickness I’d contracted from my mother. I sensed those structures were on the line. The decision to take up my calling felt like I was putting myself at existential risk. Scary.

 

I think I understood that pursuing poetry would force me to be more honest than I had been, in a deep-down way. I was using a lot of false myths to keep myself going, glorifications of aspects of my family and upbringing that I had contorted or fabricated to convince myself that I was loveable. At the time I encountered the poem inside me, I was dying of the labor of sustaining these myths. But I also thought I would die without them. None of this was a conscious realization, only analysis after the fact. At the time, right along with the joy of discovering my calling, I felt fear. A lot of fear.

 

I wanted to write beautiful poems that glorified the Creator, and I couldn’t do that from a place of dishonesty. And still to this day—how many years, 32 years later?—my biggest problems are still dishonesty. The bullshit meter in making a poem is more unforgiving than any other area of my life. The poem just won’t work if I’m not being honest. And I won’t even recognize the dishonesty problem for a while, I just know that I’m really wrestling with this line or this image or this rhyme, this form. A lot of times when that happens, I’m trying to coerce the poem down a different path than the one on which I have to face myself, face some truth I’ve struggled to hide from myself.

 

GREEN: Do you think that’s what poetry is, that the central aspect is bringing truth out? Would you put it that way? 

 

MUNRO: I don’t know about that; I think anything can be marshalled toward that purpose. At least anything in which humans communicate with each other or form relationships with each other, whether it’s through the arts or something else. Poetry has served that purpose for me, though. In my case, poetry happens to be the tool. That doesn’t mean it’s the only tool or the right tool. 

 

GREEN: I was going to ask about growing up with a preacher as a father, and if that comes into conflict with science in any way. Because you wrote that you were “broken by Darwin’s wisdom.” Is there a negotiation between faith and science? 

 

MUNRO: I think there are many functional ways of looking at the world. Seeing it as the consequence of Creation is one of those ways. I’m happy with that view, personally. And I don’t care beyond that. [laughs] I’m culturally Presbyterian, but if you want to actually label a Christian doctrine that I adhere to, it would be Protestant Reform, in the lineage of John Calvin—so salvation by grace, just purely that God loves you, and you don’t have to know any more than that. God loves you, and that’s the point. But it’s pretty mainline.

 

Wait a minute. Are you asking about evolution vs. creationism, and those types of conflicting doctrines? 

 

GREEN: Yeah, because there are a lot of conflicting doctrines, right? 

 

MUNRO: Totally. I love that shit. Conflicting understandings are where the Creator lives, if you ask me. I think about this a lot. As far as there being a life of faith, without naming a particular dogma or doctrine, I think all human beings are stuck with living by faith. And after that we sort out what it is that we have faith in. I love evolutionary psychology. I love advances that people are making in terms of behavior, animal behavior and especially the human species, and the fitness value of, for example, loving each other. How love glues a group together, and that’s essential for survival, because the individual won’t survive without a small group to be part of. Not a huge group, but a family, a defined group of, say, ten people. Our instincts and our emotions are intertwined, and they conspire without us consciously trying to have to bind ourselves together. And we happen to survive more when we do that. Totally Darwinian.

 

But fitness value is always at the individual level, so it’s my genes that I want to have replicated, it’s not the group genes. So there’s this conflict between the individual need for individual genetic replication and the need of the individual for the group to survive, because if I don’t survive, my genes aren’t going to replicate. So I like it when Richard Dawkins talks about the gene machine, that the whole genetic self-replicating chemical reaction is what’s the deal, and we happen to be servants to it. I love all that; I really love all that. But that doesn’t put me in conflict with the idea that we’re created. That genetic chemical reaction is all rooted on probability processes, and I can easily see a Creator saying, “Yeah, atoms are going to knock together and molecules are going to knock together according to these principles”—all the noise after that is just me fretting about how can this work; a fretting which doesn’t really matter. 

 

Created? Survival of the fittest? It doesn’t matter because everybody still has to live by faith. That’s the piece that interests me. Every scientist has to live by faith—maybe scientists more than anybody else, because the one thing that we’re certain of in the sciences is that we don’t know. We’re constantly positing models as explanations of how things work, and we’re saying, “This is our current best guess. This theorem is what we’re going to lay our money on. There may be observations coming as our instrumentation improves, or as the body of knowledge grows; we may be able to assemble a new theory to replace the one we’re currently betting on, but for now, this is where we lay our bets.” Nobody gets to know things with certainty; what we do is bet. Everything’s a bet; everything’s by faith. The good scientist is intimate with this awareness.

 

But doctrine? Systems of belief? Religiosity? These are subsets of faith. I love them too. I have inside of me, in my heart, an experience that I am moved to explain. Not just how, as large primates, we depend on the group to survive and therefore we generate emotional connections with each other—I also feel something in my heart, something like joy. And sure, maybe it’s just instinct, and maybe the physics of joy are no more than subroutines of a self-replicating chemical reaction.  Yet my experience of joy feels like it encompasses that chemistry and goes beyond. I expect that infinite understanding of the endocrine system would still not serve to explain away joy or a Bach partita. When I give the name “God” to the font of this joy, and live as faithfully to it as I can, that joy seems to propagate in the core of me. I do not prescribe this practice to other children of this planet, but neither has Dawkins dissuaded me from my passion for the Maker.

 

GREEN: You compare faith to a bet, do you think it’s really like a bet—isn’t a faith something that you know? 

 

MUNRO: Everything’s just a bet. …

 

from Rattle #49, Fall 2015
Tribute to Scientists