The Academy of American Poets in partnership with the Housing Works Bookstore Café in New York City presents a free conversation series each fall exploring how different art forms engage with poetry. These conversations pair some of today’s most celebrated poets with accomplished artists from other disciplines. On January 23, 2019, the series featured distinguished and award-winning poet Kimiko Hahn and author and astrophysicist Janna Levin. Read Academy of American Poets Executive Director Jennifer Benka’s introduction and listen to an audio recording of the event.


Tonight we’re excited to present a poet—Kimiko Hahn— who has written frequently about science in her poems, and an astrophysicist— Janna Levin— who writes poetically.

The connections between poetry and science are multifarious, and both are in the DNA of the Academy of American Poets. Our founder, Marie Bullock, who launched our organization 85 years ago was also an astronomer. And when she retired from actively leading our organization, she turned from poetry to the heavens. She was involved with the Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan, and was a member of the British Astronomical Association and the visitors committee in the Department of Astronomy at Harvard.

It doesn’t seem surprising that one of our nation’s great champions of poetry was also a great champion of astronomy. 

Both are quests to understand life and death, the implication of time in-between, and our place in the universe.  

Both require imagination and precision. 

A poem is not flat, afterall. A poem is not a landscape of lines that trace to the horizon and then fall off. A poem orbits around an idea, grounds it in language. 

The poet meets the infinite possibilities of the blank page and the astronomer the sky, with an explorer’s ambition and thirst for discovery. 

How does science inspire the poet and poetry the scientist?

Kimiko Hahn is the author of nine collections of poetry, including Brain Fever, Toxic Flora, and The Unbearable Heart, which received an American Book Award.

In her recent work, she takes up scientific themes and subjects. As a critic in the Boston Review wrote about Brain Fever, “The objective language of scientific explanation gives way to subjective rumination, and intellectual fire is replaced by the warmth of kinship…. These poems glow with concentrated energy.”

Her poems also imagine an Asian American aesthetic that roots in form, historical identity, and a complicated relationship to language. 

Kimiko is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York Foundation for the Arts, among other awards. She is a Distinguished Professor in the English department at Queens College/CUNY.

Janna Levin is the author of Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space; How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space; and the novel A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, which won the PEN/Bingham Prize.

Black Hole Blues tells the story of how the physicists from different countries and institutions collaborated to prove that gravitational waves—produced when Black Holes collide and a part of Einstein’s theory of relativity— existed. 

About the book a critic in The Globe & Mail writes, “Levin is an accomplished and perceptive storyteller who brings to light the drives and desires behind the science...she does not shy away from the emotional currents that often run like hidden nerves through the intellectual meat of a science story.

A Guggenheim Fellow, Janna presented NOVA’s “Black Hole Apocalypse” on PBS— making her the first female presenter for NOVA in 35 years.

She is the Director of Sciences and Chair of the Science Studios at Pioneer Works and the Claire Tow Professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University. 

Please welcome, Kimiko and Janna.