Physics + Literature = Poetry

USC Provost Fellow Elizabeth Cantwell, a Ph.D. student in the Creative Writing and Literature program at USC Dornsife, draws from the sciences in her dissertation on Renaissance literature.
Lauren Evashenk

Many Ph.D. students find the dissertation writing process taxing enough to inspire a break after graduation, but Elizabeth Cantwell hasn’t broken her stride. She’s already on her way to turning hers into a book.

A USC Provost Fellow and member of the Ph.D. in the Creative Writing and Literature program at the USC Dornsife, Cantwell in April will publish her first book of poetry, Nights I Let the Tiger Get You.

Cantwell credits USC Dornsife for helping to develop her talents and career.

“This is a unique program,” she said. “It’s not typical for a doctoral degree to combine the traditional study of literature with a creative component.”

The style of scholarship that brought Cantwell to USC is what sets her apart.

“My dissertation focuses on Renaissance literature and the idea of ‘the infinite,’ ” Cantwell said. “The telescope and microscope were invented during the early modern period, and these groundbreaking developments enabled people to look both out and in, forcing them to actually deal with infinity’s implications.”

Encouraged by the interdisciplinary links she found in Renaissance works, Cantwell began looking to the sciences for inspiration. She found the interdisciplinary work so compelling that the study of physics became a central piece of her dissertation — one of her dissertation committee members is a faculty member in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at USC Dornsife.

Although physics and poetry seem like an unlikely pair, Cantwell views the latter as a potent tool for interdisciplinary learning.

The former high school teacher and Yale University graduate hopes that writing creatively about scientific topics will help students to better understand the subjects, enjoy learning and feel accomplished for having completed a creative project.

Cantwell plans to continue her burgeoning writing career after she completes her doctoral studies and returns to teaching. Grey Book Press plans to publish Premonitions, her short collection of poems, later this year.