Working for his muse: R.T. Sedgwick bridges the worlds of science and poetry

In poetry, there are no rules for writing and questions don’t have to be answered.

Your background is quite a fascinating one for an aspiring poet. After emerging from rural Indiana during the Great Depression, you went into the military and served as a radio man in Cold War-era Europe. You then returned to the States, and rather than pursue a degree in the humanities, you became a mechanical engineer. After a brief stint conducting research at a space science laboratory, you moved to California and worked in the world of advanced technology, literally for decades. Your writing career didn’t even start until after you retired. What inspired you to put aside the quantitative world that you seemed to have mastered and explore the more qualitative aspects of your muse?

I was always a good writer, in part, due to my mother and a great high school English teacher who required that we write a two-page ‘Theme’ to be turned in each Friday on a subject of her choosing. All through high school, whenever we took aptitude tests I scored very high in Mathematics and it was always suggested I become an engineer.

I wasn’t ready to go to college right out of high school (1951) because I was about to be drafted and there were no college deferments back then. I lived at home and worked in a factory and carpooled 40 miles to the GE Small Motors Assembly Plant in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. I was drafted into the Army in 1954, and after a tour of duty in West Germany, I was stationed in Ft. Riley, Kansas. I took an extension course on base called Engineering Drawing 101. I loved the course, and the instructor, who said over and over, “Please do not go into drafting—it’s back-breaking. I want you all to become engineers.”

When I was discharged I was eligible for the G. I. Bill and enrolled at Tri-State Engineering College in Angola, Indiana, not really knowing exactly what engineering was. I remember in one of the early classes a professor saying, “Engineers apply the basic rules of physics in ways to advance society.” I liked that idea.

 

That’s worlds more inspiring than what they always told me: “Military engineers build weapons while other engineers build targets.” In what ways did you want to advance society back then?

The cold war was still on and the space race was heating up. I remember writing a term paper on the American Space Program based on periodical articles in the college library. I was excited about our efforts related to outer space. I remember turning in a term paper in 1957 that ended with: “By the end of this year, the United States will have launched the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth.” I went home for the weekend and the news came out Oct. 4, 1957, that the Russians had launched Sputnik! My paper was already obsolete! I remember the sinking feeling in my stomach; especially when I went out that night and watched it cross our skies with my naked eyes!

Nevertheless, I went on to get my master’s and Ph.D. degrees at Michigan State University. I lived in the Graduate Dorm where I always kept more poetry books on my shelf than technical books. I hung out with the Theater and Psych majors for fun, rather than the Engineers, who seemed to be “all work and no fun” types. That’s how I met my future wife, Cheryl, who came to MSU from Bowling Green, Ohio, to work on her master’s in Theater.

I loved my career in Research & Development. As fate turned out in 2001, my wife passed away (complications from breast cancer) and I retired at the same time. I felt as though the rug had been pulled out from under me! My two sisters, Virginia (a year and a half older, living in Claremont, California) and Sally (five years younger, living in San Dimas, California) had been involved in writing poetry and they came to my rescue by suggestion that we spend the summer of 2001 putting together a poetry book which we’d call “That Place Called Rome City,” and we’d each contribute one third of the poems about our childhood and give copies to all our extended family as Christmas presents. I had no such poems to contribute, but I wrote my remembered stories in long skinny columns so they looked like poems. I put the book together with a lot of clip art and it was a hit with the family!

 

R.T. and his sister, Virginia at ages 5 and 6 in front of the “Red House,” a building that lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. R.T.’s family moved from there when he was 6 years old. Photo via R.T. Sedgwick.

It sounds as if your mother left all of you with great literary gifts. If you don’t mind me asking, what were some of the specific memories you wrote about?

Rome City was a small town (pop. 1000) 4 blocks by 5 blocks that bordered Sylvan Lake. Our school (grades 1 – 12) was at the center, the singular block of stores was in the northeast corner of town and we lived in the southwest corner. There were two churches (Baptist & Methodist) in town and a Catholic church about a mile north of town on State Rd. 9. There were seven taverns. The ‘country’ started just across the gravel road from our house—Milner’s barn, The Catalpa Lane, Becker’s Hill, Brock’s Woods, Emerson’s Pond & the Monkey Tree. Our stories revolved around the life of our family within these environs.

Spring forays gathering dandelion greens and wild Morel mushrooms. Work in our family vegetable garden. The rope swing hanging from a 2 x 4 braced between the two walnut trees in the front yard. My grandfather’s (Papa’s) at-home funeral and the long-stemmed dandelion bouquet I placed next to the mums and gladiolas near his casket.

Summer picnics, fishing and swimming in the lake, unannounced thunder and lightning storms, fireflies (we called them “lightning bugs”) we caught and kept in jars, neighborhood plays performed in our front yard with the porch light on.

Autumns of raking leaves, bonfires, gathering walnuts and hickory nuts, digging potatoes and picking apples for our fruit cellar, going hunting and trapping with my father.

Winters sliding down Becker’s hill on the homemade wooden sled stored in Milner’s barn, getting snowed in and cooking over the fire in the fireplace. Walking across the frozen lake. Shoveling snow and making snowmen and igloos.

It was year-round fun and games!

Our mother’s love, besides family, was words. The unabridged Funk & Wagnall dictionary was her favorite book, or maybe it tied with the Bible. She was a stickler for correct grammar and spelling. She loved word origins and worked crossword puzzles every moment of her spare time. She encouraged us kids to read and write and to write well.

So, right after we published “That Place Called Rome City,” I decided I’d better learn more about writing poetry. The local paper ran an article about a poetry workshop starting in Solana Beach, right next door. I joined that workshop and I am still in it. The moderator is Harry Griswold and we have a spring and fall term each year. That was my start in writing poetry, getting it critiqued and it led to other workshops and many summers at Idyllwild Poetry Week. I loved every minute of the poetry experience, reading, writing, critiquing, revising and performing readings. Yes, there was some demand for my scientific consulting work, but I decided to make a clean break and begin a new life, so I declined all consulting offers.

 

Is this because doing scientific consulting and creative endeavors would have demanded that you shift gears mentally whenever you went from one to the other? Or was your decision to concentrate on creative endeavors more a coping mechanism to deal with the loss of someone you deeply loved?

I saw how fast technology was changing, and that consulting would mean I would have to have access to a good technical library. Also, I probably would have needed security clearances to work on government contract projects. So, I think it was for those reasons that I decided not to do technical consulting. Creative writing was free of all that and I found it quite inspiring, and probably somewhat therapeutic to write about past memories, including times I spent with my wife, Cheryl. Also, I wasn’t restricted to writing in third person, past tense, which are the rules for scientific writing.

 

The audience, no doubt, was also different, given the radical change of genre between technical writing and poetry. In what ways did you observe that your perception of your audience changed? Who is your target audience now, compared to when you were writing scientific papers, and in what ways do you cater differently to them?

The rules for scientific research are well established as well as are the rules for describing scientific research in writing, so, if you follow those rules it is easy to convince the scientific reader that you have, indeed, accomplished what you had set out to do. Also, in scientific research, the researcher never asks questions that can’t be answered. Write-ups are more telling than showing.

In poetry, there are no rules for writing and questions don’t have to be answered, but a poem must show (not tell) through the use of syntax, alliteration, personification, imagery, metaphor and other such tropes, the main points which evoke emotional responses and need not be factual.

Also the audience in scientific research is other scientists working or studying that particular topic of interest, whereas in poetry, the audience is not necessarily related to the topic of a poem. The audience is anyone who reads or listens to poetry. The audience a particular poet attracts is those readers of poetry who happen to like that poet’s style.

 

The lower left hand window looks out from the room where R.T. entered 1st grade in autumn 1939. Image via R.T. Sedgwick.

It appears you grew up reading poetry, listing the books you liked the most as a child as “101 Famous Poems” (1924), “Aesop’s Fables”, and Robert Lewis Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses” (1885), all classics in their genre. When you drifted toward producing your own poetry, the two leading influences you cited were Elizabeth Bishop and T. S. Eliot, both of whom shared one interesting thing in common – their fathers were in the building industry, much like your own. Was this coincidental, or was there in fact something of substance to this correlation?

I would have to say it was coincidental. My father wanted me to be a sport hero in any sport, a hunter, trapper and fisherman, and to take over his construction company. Although I tried to please him, my heart was not into any of those “manly” things. I can say he was proud of my intelligence, but I disappointed him it what he thought were the “manly” arts, and I had no desire to take over his construction company.

 

You went into a branch of engineering that was considerably more intricate than designing or overseeing the construction of buildings, yes?

Yes! My Ph.D. thesis involved looking at material behavior on the microscopic level and my work in industry involved developing computational techniques for predicting the dynamic behavior of materials. Many of my efforts were at the forefront of computing using large mainframe (room-size) computers of the day, such as CDC 6600’s.

 

The CDC 6600 would have been a precursor to the Cray supercomputer, right? How different was it working on one of those compared to the personal computers of today?

The supercomputers, of course are more powerful, but they need a staff to run and upkeep them. The users develop their own programs, input and output formats, etc. and results need to be analyzed for accuracy, so the process of solving scientific problems is somewhat iterative.

Personal computers use programs and apps (applications) pre-made to perform certain tasks that are simple enough for a single user—perfect for poets composing poetry as they revise, revise and re-revise their writings, saving all versions up to the ‘finished’ poem. They also provide a simple filing system for working poets. I have files titled: New poems, Needs work, Ready for Critique, Poetic Fragments, Next Book, etc. and each folder contains quite a few poems.

 

That’s quite a useful reminder for keeping your two worlds – science and poetry – in perspective. Of course, materials science is quite an extensive subject to study. Do you think your understanding of material behavior has had any effect on the way you describe things in poetic verse?

Probably not in the way I describe things in my poems, but quite often, my knowledge of science helps me peripherally in poetic writing if I decide to make references to some of the simpler  concepts in astronomy, quantum mechanics, string theory, etc.

 

The other influences you listed included poets Matthew Dickman, George Bilgere, Bob Hicok, and Library of Congress laureate Ted Kooser. Could you explain a little about why these poets are inspirational to you, and what sort of things they do that you either admire or perhaps even emulate?

The poets I admire seem to be able to apply poetic tropes to make common everyday situations come alive in ways that inspire and shed new light on humanity and nature. Their poems help me to think about our universe in new and different ways.

 

Anything more specific, like how Dickman’s poetic tributes to his deceased brother might have affected your own sense of how to express loss, or maybe how Bilgere’s free verse exploration of the everyday world, Hicok’s sense of humor or Kooser’s use of uncomplicated language to express what inspires him might have influenced your own writing style? It’s interesting to trace the lineage of writing styles through the study of their influences.

I admire Dickman’s and other’s poems about the death of loved ones, but when it comes to writing about my experience and grief related to my wife’s death, I don’t try to emulate other poets, maybe because the experience for me was so personal and unique.

What I like about Dickman’s poems is his unusual choice of words. In one of his poems he used the phrase “the Haiku and honey” which I read many times before it occurred to me this could mean ‘short and sweet’. I like Bilgere’s poems where he lets his imagination go wild and lives an entire life with a pretty woman ahead of him in the checkout line or similarly, a neighbor lady as he walks home late at night and sees her profile in a lighted window.  Hicok’s poems are unique because he jumps wildly from topic to topic, which if not done with skill, would be pure trash. Kooser’s style just makes me feel at home where I grew up in small town Indiana.

 

Ultimately, what would you want your creative endeavors to achieve? Do you have a goal in mind for your poetry?

I am always hoping that each poem will be the best one I’ve ever written and that it will inspire, at least a few others. I am honored if anyone takes the time to read any of my poems, although I know in my heart, that it is I, the poet, who benefits most from the creative processes involved.