## Investigating the intersection of math and poetry

A doctorate in mathematics might seem like an unusual credential for a poet, but JoAnne Growney argues math and poetry have a lot in common.

How the material is put on the page matters greatly in both math and poetry, the Silver Spring resident points out. Another similarity is the goal in both disciplines is to achieve the desired meaning in the most succinct way possible.

"For me, math is a language," says Growney.

Her first full poetry collection, "Red Had No Reason," explores emotion and relationships while incorporating some distinct mathematical ideas.

Growney thought she wanted to be a writer, but when Pennsylvania's Westminster College offered her a scholarship in science, she couldn't pass it up.

"I figured it was something you could do in your spare time," she says about writing.

Motherhood and a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Oklahoma ensued. She didn't resume writing until about 15 years ago, when she used it as a way to draw out what few memories she had of her father, who died when she was 9.

Since then, she has published three chapbooks of poetry and is the co-editor of the anthology "Strange Attractors: Poems of Love and Mathematics." In the interim, she taught math for 28 years at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, where she created "Mathematical Thinking," a course for art and literature students. She moved to Silver Spring in 2005 to be near three of her four children who live in the metropolitan area. Now she teaches a poetry workshop twice per month at the Silver Spring Drop-In Center, a facility for mental health clients.

The link between poetry and mathematics seems simple to Growney.

"I think the connection was that I liked both," she admits.

Perhaps the most mathematical elements appear in her poem "Some Squares," which relies on both counted syllables and squares, its six stanzas embedded in literal shadowboxes on the page. Each stanza has the same number of syllables per line as it has lines. The stanzas increase in length as the poem progresses.

Math deals with relationships, shapes, quantities and concise problem solving, Growney observes. Getting your words to match a certain form — whether that's a certain number of syllables per line, a rhyming scheme or some other structure — pushes the writer to think differently and better about a subject, she adds.

Her poem, "A Taste of Mathematics," uses facts about pi to show how math influences the narrator's worldview. Growney writes, "ratio of the circumference to width / of the yellow circle that parted the clouds / as she strolled down Commerce Street / to the Rio Rio Café for lunch and a beer."

In "Conditionals," Growney illustrates a conditional, a form frequently used in mathematical proofs. Conditionals generally state "if hypothesis happens, then conclusion follows," she explains. Each of the poem's four stanzas is a separate conditional. The first stanza reads "If you take a rose with petals curled / and put it in a vase beside the clock / that has no hands, someone you thought / was lost returns for morning tea."

In addition to the math in her poetry, Growney incorporates highly personal subject matter, including her own difficulties with her mother.

"She was a force to be reckoned with," says Growney, adding she wrote in an effort to determine why her mother had so much power over her.

Poetry uses concrete objects as a way to describe the intangible aspects of life, she says. The form can effectively describe states of being, such as fear.

"For me, I think poetry is a way to say what's not say-able otherwise," she says.

There is nothing in particular Growney wants her readers to glean from her poetry. Rather, she sees her writing as words she needed to say.

"My purpose in writing is to write my way into understanding."

bkenny@gazette.net

"Red Has No Reason" is available for purchase at www.plainviewpress.net and at major online booksellers.