What this is all about

Based on the WMRA show "The Spark", hosted by Martha Woodroof, this project looks at the creative passions of college students in the Shenandoah Valley area.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Max Chapnick, Physicist and Poet

          I drove down to Lexington a few weeks ago to meet with Max Chapnick at Washington and Lee University. He is from White Plains, New York, so he’s probably used to our recent snowy weather. We sat down in the WLUR recording studio and talked about poetry.
In Tel Aviv, Israel
           Max started out at W&L as a Physics major, but quickly added on English as a double major. “I felt like I didn’t have enough literature in my life,” he says, “so I took an English class and I loved it.”
          Max then tacked on a creative writing minor and started taking some poetry courses, which is how he met Leslie Wheeler, a professor at W&L. She was working for Shenandoah, an online literary magazine run by the University, to create a special feature on New Zealand demonstrating the huge variety of poetry from the country. Over 100 poets submitted samples of their work. Max and another student, Drew Martin, were picked to help select twenty-five for publication. For some this was their first time being published.
            “Working on this project was a lot of responsibility and pressure, like nothing I’d experienced before,” Max says. “We met twice a week, like a class, and sometimes it was just like we would hang out and discuss poetry.”
           So much time reading poetry inspired Max to work on his own portfolio. He prefers formal poetry styles and, although it would take a tremendous amount of work, he aspires to write a verse play.
           “For me, poetry is a very mechanical thing. Even if there’s no line or meter there is a certain sense of craft, and it’s the same with physics. You’re trying to describe the universe, and that’s a less emotional thing, but in the end it is emotional in that you’re on this quest to discover what the universe is, and using the power of your intellect to do it. So that inspires me – the combination of human element and the intellectual element.”
In the Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity house
           His love of physics inspires much of his work. It is a unique combination, this mixture of science and the arts, but he is not the first to try and unite the two. The book Are Angels Ok?: The Parallel Universe of New Zealand Writers and Scientists, edited by Bill Manhire and Paul Callaghan, blends science with philosophy and literature.
           “It was a really cool book,” Max says. “It was all of these writers writing about physics, so it was my two passions, especially the poetry. That sort of inspired me to write a few poems about physics.”
           When I spoke with Max he was waiting to hear back on his Fulbright proposal. He plans to go to New Zealand and work on a master’s in Creative Writing at the Institute of Modern Letters in Wellington. Just this past week he received the news. Max will be spending the 2013-2014 academic year in New Zealand, to continue combining his love of poetry with his passion for science. He was kind enough to share one of his poems with us, titled “Quantum Physics Love Song.”

Quantum Physics Love Song

We carry our shells with us as we stroll
along the sand. Generally, Hermitians
are tricky to recognize. I ponder

whether the wind is a normalized distribution,
you whether I am cold. We exist both discretely and
together. The approaching tide releases

wave packets, sloshing randomly, which you meet
with evaluative sighs. Let us commute
into the sea of possibilities, each

of us an uncertain operator. But shhh,
boundaries require maneuvering. Truth,
the coarsest measurement, might collapse our shells.

So do not tell me where you stand and I
will not tell you how fast I’m going.

           Until then, Max is enjoying what is left of his time at W&L. He has a lot to do before graduation this spring. A play he wrote for one of his classes was picked up by a student acting group. It will be performed May 10th, 11th, and 12th at the Lenfest Center at W&L, directed by senior theater major Mary Rodriguez. His work with the Shenandoah may be done, but he has only just begun writing his own poetry.

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