Ask the Author: Christopher Phelps

Christopher Phelps brings his unique style to the October issue and talks to us about the formations of an ouroboros, his background and its influence on his writing, recent purchases from snakes and more.

1. What  inanimate objects  would you like to see form an ouroboros?

For reasons besides an attraction to pantheism, I’m not sure I believe in inanimate objects. Even electrons make choices. That sounds whackjob but it’s basically right. You could also call those choices fundamental indeterminacies, the more conservative choice of name. But the point (and the math) is the same: no things are really just there and dead; they’re mostly neither-here-nor-there and at the same time predictable in their spread of choices. Like people, really.

Isn’t that annoying? You used inanimate objects to contrast with the animate subjects I addressed in “An Ouroboros,” and I, with a crooked smile, spoke to a claim implicit in your question. Philosophy did this to me. (See question 3.)

You could also call it a tactic, to delay while I think of objects I’d possibly want configured in an ouroboros. I could tell you some I don’t want. The opening sequence to Unwrapped, a half-hour show on The Food Network hosted by Marc Summers, features a fast-blasting, still-photographic (semi-stop-motion) montage of snack foods arranged in ouroboroi. Name it—Skittles, Twinkies, potato sticks—they’re there, unwrapped in a circle of consumption we watch and want. But I don’t want to eat any of them unless I’ve been drinking maybe.

I could also lean on Stonehenge. It’s more or less an ouroboros (each component feeding on the other in mutual mystery / clunky calendaricity), and I have Celtic roots on my dad’s side.

Oh! I thought of some actually inanimate objects (as mathematicians tend to think of them) that form a pretty sweet ouroboros: the roots of unity: the solutions to the equation xn = 1, for various parameters n. The solutions all inscribe the unit circle in the complex plane, is one way to think of it. For n = 3, you get an equilateral triangle, for n = 4 a square, for n = 5 a pentagon, and for general n an n-gon. And it’s a real ouroboros: these n values of x (these vertices of the n-gon) hook up, like the parts of an ouroboros should. They rotate one into the other. If x6 is the sixth vertex of the decagon solving x10 = 1, x7 is the very next, counterclockwise, vertex. So, multiply a value of x by itself and you get the next value of x; self-multiply twice and you get the value / vertex two away, and so on. So these numbers are all eating one another’s tails: self (multiplication) becomes other (value). In algebra it’s said they form a cyclic group of order n.

2. Why did you come back to  Florida  after escaping it?

I smile at that keen word, escape. How do I answer—prosaically, poetically, prose-poetically? I guess I’ll just be honest. After college, while discovering that I loved poetry more than I thought I did, I worked a couple of research jobs in Boston and didn’t love (or like) them. Nor was I in the mood for more school. My parents asked me to come home and help them in their workshop and bring my partner with me, so I did. He and I have a little bungalow with a little pond in the back and migratory ibis around the pond. It’s not my parents’ bungalow. They’re in another bungalow.

3. How does your philosophy and physics training influence your poetry?

I was trained to mince. I segued from mincing numbers (and arguments) to mincing words. To the contrary of mincing (though quite a mincer himself), William James said, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” Curious, the way that statement applies to itself. Applying-to-self is not far from applying oneself. Does that sound plausible, in the light of unity’s roots? (See Question 1.) It might work better with German syntax, but I don’t know German. There’s a point here. And it’s that I like ta(l)king things apart, putting things together, making jokes until nobody’s laughing any longer, and then giving them a stodgy lecture finally. (Is that what you wanted???)

I could also say, truthfully, that issues attendant to philosophy and physics have for fifteen years been my favorite issues and continue to be. Poetry is a nice space (with so many poetics!) to explore them. Iris Murdoch suggested that a work of art is in some sense a limited whole. I think of a constellation or a cloud or a love: something we pretend whole: something we pretend to be smaller and more bounded than it is, because without the pretending it would just be lost in the wash. Once you see Orion as Orion, it’s really hard to go back to seeing the night sky without alighting on this absurd, backstoried, fascinating bit of human film laid upon it.

But I haven’t really answered your question. Nor would answering it really answer it. (An attempt: My threads are too loose for those disciplines—which pulled them loose—to tie them. Poetry is an interesting place to try tying.)

4. What has a snake sold you lately?

Besides ibis, we have snakebirds in and around the back pond. These are also called Anhinga, a name I’ll capitalize because it’s a genus. Anhinga is Tupi for devil / snake bird. Snakebirds have feathers that are extravagantly understated, I think. But here’s the deal with snakebirds. Their feathers aren’t waterproof. This means at least three things. Waterlogging well, they dive underwater for long periods and hunt fish (Native Americans would tie strings to them, and use them as fishing poles); they spend a long time drying their wings in the sun (being so waterlogged); and they have no oil for themselves (not from uropygial glands, anyway) and consequently none to sell.

5. Who would play the protagonist in the made for DVD movie  Ouroboros  on a Plane?

Jeff Goldblum or bust. Wait, featuring the ouroboros from “An Ouroboros”? That’s probably already been made somewhere in Eastern Europe or South America, with look-alike Zac Efrons and James Francos and whatnots. I’m not complaining exactly.

6. What number would you want to abolish?

This is my favorite question of the six, so if I said six, I’d be abolishing my favorite question. So not six. I’ve never really liked Avogadro’s number (what with its experimental decimals and bloat), but I wouldn’t abolish it. It’s pretty important for a scaling factor. Some people think we could do without transfinite numbers probably mainly because, although they arise from a real question in Real Analysis, Cantor raveled theological speculation into them while he was inventing / discovering them. But that’s another thing: I have to slash between invention and discovery since there’s no consensus on whether they exist in the same sense the integers or even the real numbers or even the quaternions do. These latter are all finite creatures and Cantor’s transfinite numbers are infinite collections that behave like numbers in a number of respects. I like to think they exist if any numbers do, because their numberplay is exquisite. David Hilbert said (I’m paraphrasing) that Cantor’s detractors can suck it since we’re already in his paradise a little late for eviction. We should have used that logic in Eden.

OK, but to the reason this is my favorite question of the six. I’m now fascinated by what it would mean to abolish a number. We can’t send one away because it’s not in space and so can’t be sent. We could excommunicate one, literally; put it outside our communication and thought, but that wouldn’t abolish it in any strict sense. Numbers—and this is one of the things that drives people madly in love with them—can have their names taken away and be perfectly fine with it. Not everyone believes that, but many do. Meanwhile Kronecker said, “God made the integers; the rest is the work of Man,” but that sounds wrong on both ends, like he had his head up his ass. Which is what but another ouroboros, one we’ve all been (had)?