Sylvia Byrne Pollack has always been a writer.
The Seattle poet and scientist knows the stuff that poetry is made of: an adventurous, multifaceted life. When National Poetry Month begins April 1, her new book, “Risking It,” will be released by Red Mountain Press. It’s the 80-year-old’s first published book.
“This world is experienced in so many different ways and there’s not one right way,” Pollack says as we speak over Zoom on a sunny spring afternoon. “There’s not one way to be in the world and there’s not one way to write about the world.”
Pollack was raised in Batavia, New York, about 30 miles inland from Lake Ontario, between Buffalo and Rochester. Her father was a nationally renowned high school chemistry teacher and musician, and Sylvia was inspired by both subjects.
Her poetry, and Pollack’s life’s work, reflect an embrace of science and art together.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology from Syracuse University, a doctorate in developmental biology from the University of Pennsylvania, and at the age of 26, she moved to Seattle, where she earned her master’s in psychology from Antioch University Seattle. After a long career in cancer research, she was named research professor emeritus at the University of Washington.
“Like many people, I loved to write when I was little. I read a lot, so I wrote,” Pollack says. Much of her early written work was journalism; she was the editor of her high school paper and a stringer for the local newspaper. Her varied careers didn’t involve a lot of creative writing over the years, “but always in the back of my mind, I wanted to write,” she says.
Through it all, Pollack experienced her own cancer, mental illness and hearing loss, as well as extensive travel, motherhood and love. But it was in 2007, when she and her wife took a trip to Antarctica, that poetry resurfaced more strongly into her life.
In Antarctica, they were on a ship that got caught in a hurricane. The experience appears in poetry form in “Risking It.”
“During the hurricane, I made a vow to myself to do a number of things, one of which was to start writing again,” Pollack says.
Upon returning to Seattle, she joined a writing group with local writer Peggy Sturdivant, and began to help build, and be folded into, the local poetry community — a community that Pollack calls invaluable. In 2019, Pollack was named a Jack Straw Writer, and she began to work on her manuscript in earnest while in the writing program.
Pollack’s poems are beautifully evocative of place and emotion. They’re tinged with humor, and they include characters, or personas, through which she explores mental illness and hearing loss.
Letitia, one of Pollack’s characters, who has bipolar disorder, and The Deaf Woman, a character who has hearing loss, serve as engaging figures of semi-autobiographical stories. “The persona is a wonderful way in which you can project and present a lot of things,” Pollack says. “It gives you the freedom of a novelist, to make up a character and give them all kinds of things — some of which may be from your life, and some which may not be.”
In a poem titled “Silence,” Pollack writes, “From silence everything.” The idea of silence and nonverbal communication is a strong theme that frames what it means to exist in a world — internally and externally — where language is both vital and limiting.
“One of the experiences I had that has always really stuck with me,” Pollack says, “was when a good friend said, ‘Let’s go take a walk on the beach.’” Usually they talked when they walked, but that day, Pollack recounts, “She said, ‘Let’s not talk today.’ And it was such a powerful bonding moment, that afternoon of walking in silence. It taught me something important: that I didn’t have to be filling in the silence all the time. That silence is important, and things will come out of it.
“Part of the magic of poetry is that, when you write the words, you’re a writer,” Pollack continues. “And once you put them down, they’re not really yours anymore. The reader has to do the other half of the work.”
Pollack says that’s part of why she’s so enamored by poetry.
“I suppose this is true with poetry particularly, because it’s much more compressed. You need to spend time with it and let the words soak in. I think many poets have had the experience of writing something, and only later do you realize that it has layers you didn’t even recognize. So that’s one of the things I love about poetry, is that it’s so multilayered.”
The title of the collection, “Risking It,” lays its lush layer over the poems within it. Risk is a part of every moment in life, something that Pollack thinks about a lot.
“This idea of risk and reinvention is very important to me,” she says. “I admire people who take risks, who make things happen and who are willing to explore. I have certainly had to, for one reason or another, reinvent myself many times in these eight decades.”
As for what’s next? “I’m not running out of material,” Pollack says. She plans to write more about her father, and her travels abroad. Her curiosity and reverence for this flawed world is palpable, both in her poetry and in her presence.
“I don’t know if I’ve thought about my identity as a poet, so much as I have that there are things that I want to say and share,” Pollack says. “I don’t think of myself as a little old lady poet, and I don’t think of myself necessarily as a lesbian poet, although that certainly informs my work because that’s who I am. And I’m not just a grandmother poet, although that’s who I am, too.
“So maybe I think of myself more as a crazy quilt poet — a lot of different patches.”