It might be a cliché but age is really just a number, digits that should not limit your ambition or act as a barrier that stops you pursuing your dream and Sylvia Byrne Pollack is an example of this statement.
The American poet and scientist believes that poetry is made of: an adventurous, multifaceted life. When National Poetry Month began on the 1st of April, her new book, “Risking It,” was released by Red Mountain Press. It’s the 80-year-old’s first published book.
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.
In Antarctica, Pollack was 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 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 evocative of place and emotion. They’re tinged with humour, 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.
“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.
“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.”