We’re thrilled to introduce the 2019 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients with individual features on our blog! Out-of-state judges spent several months evaluating the 400+ applications we received, and selected thirteen writers and two publishers to receive grants of $3,500 each.The 2020 OLF applications will be posted mid-May 2019, and the deadline to apply will be Friday, August 2, 2019.

2019 Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient
Karen Luper

Category
Nonfiction

Bio
Karen Luper writes about science, and likes to think about the assumptions that come before questions, the questions that come before answers, and the answers that become fact, and belief. She likes to think about the human need for certainty. And she loves to share, in reverence and mourning, her wonder for the beautiful world.

Q&A with Literary Arts
What are your sources of inspiration?
(Inspiration, since I do enjoy getting literal sometimes, is a medical term referring to that process – I like to think of it more as that exquisite moment when exhale becomes inhale, when nerves activate muscles, lungs expand…and so we draw breath.) I can think about this question in a couple of ways – what inspires me to live my life as I do, and what inspires the work – its sources, its necessity, the impetus behind it. They’re not separate – I might say that one contains the other. On a grand scale, then, the consciousness that humans have been making art for tens of thousands of years – that a hundred thousand years ago, in the Blombos Cave off the coast of South Africa, humans were making red paint – inspires me deeply. Closer to home and as another example, there is a bowl carved of rough stone, in the shape of a condor, in the Portland Art Museum, made by “pre-contact” Columbia River peoples – so exquisite in proportion and movement (this great bird, in flight) – that I never cease to be inspired both by the work (its beauty) and by the fact of its existence. So there’s the beauty of the art itself – the palpable attentiveness and reverence and ingenuity – and the fact that humans have felt this necessity for a very long time. It feels redemptive to me – and frankly includes much that people make of themselves: all the integrity and inventiveness and craftsmanship and care, all the generosity and playfulness and courage – all the music – these aspects of humanity that it can be easy to lose sight of, and that I try not to lose sight of. All the ways that humans have tried to connect with and honor the inexpressible, the magnificence and the horror (the very great horrors) of life. Sources of inspiration are everywhere, in abundance, and I can include a lifetime of reading that serves always to nourish and to mark the path.
My own work arises from the profoundest reverence for – photosynthesis, for example, for a seed in all its exquisite complexity, for the fact that a starfish can right itself after having been turned on its back…and from questions or intractable problems I must work out, wrestle with – that it is essential to the quality and fullness of my life that I work with to the utmost of my ability. Certain ideas, or shattering experiences that might only be approached through metaphor, or that there’s no language for, at first. There is great necessity to this work, for me – not doing it would constitute some kind of betrayal of my life.

How would you describe your creative process?
First of all, and following on the necessity of the work to my life – with that foundation, I am open to what arises, and I follow many threads, many entirely unexpected and seemingly unconnected, and I spare no effort in research and learning, which are a joy…I end up with a fine mess which it is also a joy and a struggle to put together. That struggle is at times more than I can bear, and I have to back out, replenish myself, and re-enter. I think I know what the work is about, and I’m often mistaken, and can be taken down paths that lead to appositions and insights very, very different from anything I’d originally had in mind. I have to give myself over to the work with a fantastic, breathtaking trust, and accept feeling lost a good deal of the time.
I don’t rush (“Haste denies all acts their dignity,” said Dante), but I do work every day, from early morning…and when I’ve worked, I’ll just say, nothing else that happens in the day can rock me – the foundation has been laid, and tended to. I say first thing but before that comes an hour or so, whatever is needed, of working out any knots that might keep me from settling into a deeper layer of my mind. The phone is turned off and in a drawer – banished! No distractions, no interruptions are allowed for a period of time, two or three hours at a minimum, and longer when it flows that way. The point is – a little every day is much better for me and for the work than longer times, infrequently (I’m like an ant that way, or a tortoise). Because then the work always with me – I have woken up in the middle of the night with solutions to problems I didn’t know I had, or hadn’t been able to put words to.
I would say, and I aim for this – that every aspect of the way I live is part of my process.

What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship?
I can hardly describe my surprise – the news was absolutely unexpected. So there’s that – disbelief, joy, elation! Fantastic gratitude…and then, of course, the recognition (when so much of this work, by its nature, is done in isolation) brings with it a delicious infusion of confidence and satisfaction…along with making the work tangible to people for whom it is mystifying and slightly unreal – that’s wonderful too.

What are you currently working on?
It would be like dragging a hard green fruit off a branch to talk about the new work before its time, so I won’t, just now – suffice it to say that the work represents another essential question that I need deeper understanding of, and after many months of thinking and more than a thousand pages of handwritten notes, I have a first page, and the beginnings of elements and shape. I look forward, in all fascination, to seeing where it leads. For now I have to live it, let it inhabit and become me.
I am also focused on the book I’ve recently completed, a collection of essays that explore and appose science and history, science and philosophy, science and the “immaterial” soul, as I put it, and for which I am searching out a path to publication.

What advice do you have for future applicants?
First, recognize that there is immense value in the process of doing the best job you possibly can on the application, regardless of your “chances” of receiving a fellowship. (Ignore those.) The process itself has the potential to deepen your own ability to describe your work and explore your commitment to it. That said – give the application all the time it deserves, make it worthy of yourself and of your work.
And for emerging writers – don’t be discouraged. I’ve been dedicated to this work for a very long time, but with only one publication to my name (an essay on the Magnet, in Kenyon Review’s special issue on the Poetics of Science), and rejections piled up. Don’t be discouraged by those, either! I had no expectation whatsoever of receiving a fellowship – you do these applications, learn from the doing, and put them away, satisfied with the best effort you can make. If you believe in your work, you’ll believe in it more after going through the process of thinking about it in this way (which is quite different from doing the work itself – it involves other layers of the mind, and seemingly different language, and it’s good to exercise those!) – absolutely independent of the outcome. What you get from the process is a wonderful outcome in itself. And…you never know what other outcomes there might be.

Comments by judge, Maya Sonenberg
“Karen Luper’s essays are smart, so smart, traveling impressively through science, literature, history, and the history of science, but they’re also lyrical and personal and expansive. Her essay on magnets spins through time, introducing us to ancient and contemporary conceptions of magnetism, atoms, and the void, and then like a gong ringing or a sudden electrical shock, she introduces music and breaking hearts, the souls of plants and animals, dreams. These essays inform, delight, and surprise in equal measure, inviting us to consider difficult concepts and rewarding us with moments of poetry.”

Excerpt from Evolution and Forgetting
Though all the beasts
Hang their heads from horizontal backbones
And study the earth
Beneath their feet, Prometheus
Upended man into the vertical –
So to comprehend balance.
Then tipped up his chin
So to widen his outlook on heaven. – Ovid, Creation

I.
In 1953, a scientist named Stanley Miller conducted an experiment in which he showed that complex molecules could be formed by shooting jolts of electricity through a mixture of methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water vapor. This result led one prominent biologist of the time to declare what goes unquestioned today, that “there is no longer any fundamental difficulty in explaining, on the basis of chemical and physical laws, the origin of life from inanimate matter.”

II.

Dante seems to have been mistaken in attributing to Democritus the idea that matter is formed “by chance” (thereby consigning him to the first circle of Hell) – on the contrary, Democritus was the first to elaborate and to insist upon the purely materialist, purely physical view of causes and effects (all causes and all effects the result of inevitable natural processes, which he called Necessity, occurring among atoms and void), and to emphatically deny the immortality of the soul.

There are many kinds of necessity.

Democritus recognized two of them: one, the fundamental necessity of physical laws, of atoms and void, and the other – of the learning that is necessary for survival, and that gives rise to speech, for example, and to the mechanical arts. This kind of learning, he believed, reconfigured the soul-atoms and, in effect, re-formed human nature. Chance, inasmuch as it could exist, did not exist outside of the physical necessities of atoms and void, but only represented causes that were beyond the range of human perception and human thought.

(The meaninglessness of chance, the injustice – the horror and fear of it. Confusion and chaos, intolerable vulnerability. And “sense” so pleasing to humans as to have become a necessity in itself. Sense not as sensation but as economy, reason, order. The necessity of sense related to the necessity of learning, making sense a kind of creation.)

Darwin made sense of the non-sense of chance.

Here’s how he did it.

“What you get from the process is a wonderful outcome in itself.” 2019 Fellow, Karen Luper