Wilkinson’s perfect cocktail: science and poetry

Dan Wilkinson is not unlike a bear in appearance. Tall, broad-shouldered and bearded, at 28 he is planning on graduating from JSC in December 2017 with a degree in biology with secondary education licensure. He’s a man with many interests, from the science he studies to card and board games to poetry. His obsession, however, is with words.

“I was taught to read, write and appreciate language very young,” said Wilkinson. “My mom had this deal with us [my brother and me] when we were younger where she would read to us from a book, and we would fold laundry. We did that from the time we were 4 and 6 to about 18. We got through a lot of fantasy books that way. Mostly Robert Jordan, actually. We went through that entire series, and it’s a 14-book series with all 800-page books.”

“We had an unabridged dictionary at the house, so it’s this massive book,” he added. “It was probably 8 inches in depth. It was like 20 pounds… Whenever we would ask the meaning of a word she [my mom] would say, ‘Go look it up.’ And then we’d have to take out this huge book and look through the pages that are like [bible-thin] until we found this word, and then we would know what it meant. It was funny because sometimes we would know what it meant contextually because our facility was good enough, but we would still have to look it up to know what the actual meaning was because we would ask with purpose. Sometimes our folding was interrupted by the dictionary. So lots of words in my youth.”

While his mother read fantasy to Wilkinson since his youth, his love of poetry came later, when his younger brother, Ed, went to a poetry reading as a senior in high school and piqued Wilkinson’s interest. He attended these regular poetry readings for about a year in Manchester, New Hampshire, where he grew up, before he began working as a doorman for these events. That lasted five years.

“I’m fortunate in that all of my favorite authors are living and that I know them,” he said. “It’s a very interesting art experience to have when you can experience someone’s art and then interact with them personally afterward, even if you don’t talk about their art. Just to get to know them as a person and the person behind the art they produce, because sometimes it’s different. Sometimes the image of the person that gets projected to the public is different than the person that you know, so that’s interesting.”

Wilkinson cited his brother as one of his favorite poets. “I don’t know if he would call himself a poet, but he is,” he said. He also named Khary Jackson, Simone Beaubien, Mckendy Fils-Aimé, April Ranger and Adam Stone, unable to choose just one.

“Recently, my favorite poem has been “Under a Certain Little Star” by Wislawa Szymborska,” he said. “I think it is a vital piece of art in that it captures the essence of what many poets and authors are trying to deliver to an audience, and it does this by concisely and eloquently stating human failings as apologies.”

Wilkinson is a poet himself, but he hasn’t been writing recently. “I used to write a lot more,” he said. “When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I used to write whenever I had time to sit down with a pen, but now I don’t get the opportunity to sit down, and I just don’t [write]. When I do write, it’s often really late at night, and I can’t sleep or something.”

“I often can’t write at home either,” he explained further. “There was this diner near my house that was open 24/7. It was a 5 to 10-minute walk, and I would go there, and I could just have coffee all night if I really wanted to. I did that sometimes. That was my favorite place to write. It’s not 24/7 anymore, so I can’t do that.”

And there certainly isn’t any place like that in Johnson. After graduation, however, he hopes to write more frequently.

Poetry specifically attracts him because it’s quick to read and to create, allowing for the potential for more reading and more writing. He also likes the flexibility of interpretation. “Because the way poetry is structured, I think that the multitude of meanings is increased,” he said. “There doesn’t necessarily have to be any of the elements that make a story a story in poetry. There doesn’t have to be any time scale or any plot or any of that. So you’re putting your impressions on the page. And then, once it’s done, anyone who reads it has some sort of possession over it.”

“I’m very caught up in what things mean, and I’m very caught up in what’s behind the things people say,” he said. “In that way, I’m obsessed with language.”

For him, this is exemplified by the thought he put into just the word home.

“Home is a weird word,” he said. “Different definitions. The rest your head one. Home is where you rest your head. And then home where you grew up. Home where you spend your free time. These are all definitions of home that people have. Home where you sleep at night. All definitions of home, but none of them are quite accurate necessarily. If you apply one, the other isn’t necessarily accurate. Yes, Manchester is home in that I grew up there, that’s where people I love still live, but I don’t live there and it’s not where I’m invested right now, really.”

He has made similar distinctions before with definitions of other words and phrases, like “best friend” and “truth,” and he feels that it’s important to be accurate when speaking. He often contends other people’s word choices.

“I posted something on facebook a while ago about how language influences thought and thought influences language,” Wilkinson said. “So if you say things like ‘I need a drink’ or ‘she forced it on me,’ therefore—‘forced’ means you can’t say no, and ‘I need a drink’ means I would die without it. Then eventually, you’ll believe that. That will become a true thing. That’s the problem I have with people’s word choice sometimes—is that they create habits, and they create schemas in their head for things that aren’t true but then become true because of what they’re saying.”

Although he is obsessed with language, he’s studying biology, and he’s part of the Serious About Science club, which does a lot of fundraising for a dinner at the beginning of the fall semester. The club also performs some experiments as demonstrations for visiting high school students.

“I’m a big fan of crushing cans,” he said of his favorite experiment. “The way you do this is: you put a small amount of water in the bottom of the can, put it on a hot plate, then let the water boil. What happens is that, as the water boils, [water vapor] fills up the can, because water vapor is denser than air. Then, after about 10 minutes, the water vapor has replaced most of the water in the can. You take some tongs, you grab the can, and you flip it over real quick so the top is in ice water. All of the water vapor that’s in the can condenses and creates a vacuum, which crushes the can. That’s a neat demonstration.”

Wilkinson notes that his interests in science and in language are related. Just as a good poem can get to the meaning of our experiences, to the essence of what it is to be human, the same can apply to the study of science and biology in particular. “The reason why I chose to study biology and life in general is a bigger question about the meaning of life, essentially,” he said. “Can you get to the meaning of life if you don’t understand how life works?”

His mother brought him into both worlds. “She’s also a nurse and that’s how I got into science stuff, too,” he said. “I would ask about how things work, and she was good because she would ask me what I knew about a prior subject. I would ask about—I don’t know—I can’t think of an example right now, but she would start with something that was prior to it educationally speaking, something that was more base knowledge, and then she would explain from there.”

Just as he likes to know the meanings behind words and the intentions with which they’re said, Wilkinson likes to know what’s behind the physical world. “I love knowing how the world works,” he said. “That’s why I study science. Because knowing and understanding are two different things, and once you get into it you can not only see the outward shape of a thing but know what’s going on inside it. That’s really cool… The specificity in science lends itself to facility with words.”

Teaching is yet another passion of his. He wants to work in a middle to high school level and doesn’t care whether he teaches biology, physics or chemistry—he just wants to teach science to people while they’re still young and developing who they want to be.

“Teachers do more than just teach,” he said. “Yes, education is important, and I would tell you that all day long, but not all the needs students have are met by education. They need role models and counselors and parents and all of these roles. I think that, along with being an educator, I can fill some of those roles.”

Wilkinson plans to spend a few months earning money after he graduates, and then in the summer of 2018 he intends to drive to Alaska, do some sight-seeing there, and eventually work in Peru to become fluent in Spanish, where he can apply his obsession with words to a totally different language.