The Nonfiction editors, Rappahannock Review: “Flame Test” is written in intense chemical terminology often foreign to literary reader. How would you describe determining your jargon in the essay when trying to balance the scientific and the literary?
Rochelle Harris: The essay started with key visual memories—the marbles, the white dunes, the icy road—and just a few key terms that lingered in memory, like “flame test,” “qualitative analysis,” and “Barchan dune.” I definitely approached this essayistically and lyrically first—rendering memories and drafting deep descriptions of those visual touchstones while paying attention to sonic qualities and connections. Then, I dove into the research—geologic history, qualitative chemistry, neurophysiology, scores of brain and neuron diagrams—and wrote page after page of notes. Then, it was a matter of moving back and forth, back and forth between the scenes, the information, and the emerging connections. I’ll admit, that balance took a while. My long-time peer-responder, Christine Stewart, a poet and essayist in South Dakota, once said about an early draft, “Turkeys, sand, and qualitative analysis? Those won’t work in the same essay!” She inspired me because I knew if I could get her to love the imagery that I was instinctively bringing together, then this essay would be in a good place (she eventually did love it—that was a good day!). The neurochemical layer came last when I kept mulling over why I wanted all that sand stuff with yoga bits alongside a chem class and turkey-infested roads. I’m always writing about memory in some way, and I thought, maybe it has to do with how memory connects regardless of chronology or content. When I brought in long-term potentiation (and wow, did I go back and forth on the format of those parentheticals), I saw the links. That let me strip out unneeded imagery or terms and really lean this down to how the science could be metaphorical and how the experiences led back to the science. I tried to keep only the jargon that had a “lift,” so to speak—that got me (and hopefully the reader) to re-see the ordinary while simultaneously filling the dry, technical term with vivid specifics.
RR: One of the most thrilling aspects of ‘Flame Test’ is its eloquence and beauty in juxtaposing chemistry and nature. What parallels do you draw between science and art?
RH: Science just has some of the most compelling terms, like “angle of repose.” Don’t you just see a decadent woman lying on a chaise lounge with a martini glass in 1940s France? Except, it’s not even close to that at all! So, using a term like that means I get the bonus of its literal connotations, its scientific denotations, and the metaphoric liberties I take with it. I also like how science has so many terms for so many discrete objects, processes, and moments. Art, in some form, is trying to narrate those objects, processes, and moments. Both science and art are involved in the work of theory—how and why things mean, how we story the world around us—which means they’re epistemological, too. They show us how we know what we know. It was only when I dug up old chem textbooks to re-learn qualitative analysis that I started to understand why my teenage self was so fascinated that she broke rules and endangered herself to be part of the chemical reaction; she tried her best to climb inside it. An essay like this helps me understand that I approach the world on this liminal line that moves between science and aesthetics. We are all of us interdisciplinary, I believe; these just happen to be mine.
RR: What led you to present “Flame Test” in a more literary manner as opposed to a more scientific lens?
RH: I like small moments; those are often the basis of my essays—an ordinary regret, a split-second decision, a tiny event. For me, surrounding and sculpting those small moments with language, scene, reflection, and rhetoric is the way to understand whatever pains or joys were involved—as well as how and why I’ve storied those pains and joys the way I have. This kind of lyrical move means genuinely studying the people, situations, and elements involved, which creates empathy for them, too. That’s how I teach essayistic writing and how I approach it in my own pieces. In this essay, I was able to re-think that chuckle from Kev (a snicker that had stung for years). Those tourists on the dunes were so noisy, so heavy-footed, but the essay let me consider: we all have different responses to immensity, to beauty. The science, then, helped me deepen those understandings and discover a metaphoric language to convey these memories. And, I ended up in a complicated set of arrangements to negotiate (my favorite kind of writing puzzle)—the ‘plot’ of each remembered moment, the different sciences I evoked, the metaphors, and my reflections and learning. Figuring out how to organize all of that in the essay with breaks, spaces, shifts, and length was one of the best parts about revising this piece. This essay was about ordinary moments that refused to fade and somehow got connected in my thinking; science helped sculpt the meaning, but the literary techniques and tensions were the best vehicles to study those connections and meanings.
RR: Your bio reveals that many parts of your life are now writing-focused. To what extent, if any, do you grapple with chemistry or science in your daily life now?
RH: Oddly enough, chemistry is rising in importance in my daily existence. My partner, Bill, and I are starting a vineyard, and I’ve also been doing sustainable gardening for a few years now. Bill does more of the actual wine chemistry; I’m more on the viticulture and horticulture side of things. I work more and more regularly with soil chemistries—debating fertilizers, interpreting soils tests, trying to figure out the best microclimates for our tomatoes or our Riesling. I’m pretty sure there’s a vineyard-chemistry-mountain essay somewhere in my future…
RR: What are you reading these days?
RH: As a teacher and a writer, I tend to read in layers: pleasure reading, pedagogy, poetry, nonfiction, and place/history/science. I always have about multiple books going at any one time: one on the desk, one in my office, one on the bedside table, one in my bag, one in the living room … you get the idea. So, some of the books I’m in the middle of right now are Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven King and Patricia McKillip’s Kingfisher (lovely contemporary fantasy and magical realism); Anne Radcliff’s The Italian and Jean Rhyss’s Wide Sargasso Sea (prep for a Gothic Lit class); Adam King’s Etowah and some paleoethnobotanical articles on ancient horticulture (for a project with a local historic site); J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments (I just got those!); and Mary Oliver’s and Joy Harjo’s poetry (I’m always reading those—get to the end of one and pick another of their books). After trawling secondhand bookstores for years and dodging moving shelves in university libraries, I’ve also recently rediscovered the joys of the local library with its adult coloring clubs and endcaps full of recommended books! I’m having a lot of fun coming back to the library.
Flame Test appears in Issue 4.2 of Rappahannock Review
Rochelle L. Harris is from Northwest Georgia where she currently teaches writing, rhetoric, and literature at Kennesaw State University. Her essays and poetry have appeared in such journals as Pedagogy, symplokē, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Writing on the Edge, Crab Orchard Review, and Fourth Genre. She lives on a smallish mountain in the foothills of the Appalachians with four cats, a big garden, and a fledgling vineyard.