Mass: Formulae

Formulae is the theme I chose for last weekend’s edition of VERSO, Amsterdam’s live literary journal. In my role as guest editor, I got to choose the line-up and present my own editorial. For those of you who couldn’t make it, here it is (now cleaned up for publication).

Household Gods

household gods
God with 4 Faces, Angkor, Cambodia at Rijksmuseum. Photo credit: Karen Kao

When I was a kid, math and science were our household gods. My mother was a math teacher. My father was an engineer. Both of my brothers grew up to become engineers. For a long time, I thought that would be my path, too.

Math is a way of knowing the world. To measure. To define. And thus control. If A + B = C, it stands to reason that A also equals C – B. You can call both algebraic formulae or incantations, depending on how safe you feel in a world of numbers.

We live in a world of formulae. Birth rates, earning power, life expectancy. The power load that the electricity network can sustain so that this microphone will keep on working for the duration of this show. The process by which my typing fingers input words onto this page.

How long will it take Johnny to walk 0.6 kilometers to school if it takes him 15 minutes to walk 1 kilometer? Johnny may not be doing the math but he knows the answer in his bones.

Formulae render the unknown knowable.


But what do I know? I’m just a wordsmith. I use words to parse the world. I suspect that a lot of you out there do, too. But that’s not to say there are no formulae in words.

I know what you’re thinking: formulaic writing. The kind that produces pulp fiction and Pixar pics. Did you know there’s such a thing as a beat calculator for writing film scripts? Just input how long you want your film to last and the calculator will tell you when to introduce your protagonist, the inciting event, the rock bottom and the triumphant end. The snarky film critic of The New Yorker might call that

the cinematic equivalent of irresistibly processed food, with a ramped-up and carefully calibrated dosing of the emotional versions of salt, sugar, and fat.

Richard Brody, “The Problem with Processed Storytelling” in The New Yorker, 12 Mar 2013

Formulae can tell us how to write. They can also dictate to us what to read, which films to stream, the podcast you should queue up next. Those formulae are called algorithms, like those squiggly symbols you see on the screen behind me. Algorithms tell us that, if you liked this, you’ll like that. They curate the world around us so that we never have to be confronted by a thought, a tune or words we don’t like.

Formulae & filming by Mark Verhagen

The Golden Mean

Is that all formulae are good for? I don’t think so. When the ancient Greeks discovered the golden mean, they weren’t trying to limit our definition of beauty. It was a point of departure. A way into the design for a temple to Apollo and not an end in and of itself.

poetic formulae
Renga for Obama. Image source: Twitter

Think about the sestina with its six stanzas of six lines and a final triplet, each stanza having the same six words at the line end using six different sequences. Or what about the renga, that form of collaborative Japanese poetry. You supply the first three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. I give you the last two lines of seven syllables each.

I don’t want to geek out here on poetic forms, but you see my point? There’s math in poetry and poetry in math. It’s time to clear off a space at the family altar to add a little burnt offering to the god of numbers.


Tonight, we’re talking about numbers and letters and squiggly symbols. We’re looking at mass in the physics sense of that word and through the prism of formulae. Remember the old saw about Isaac Newton sitting under the apple tree? Plonk and out roll his rules on gravity. Turns out that’s probably just urban myth. The dude worked long and hard to come up with his three laws of motion.

Newton’s Second Law of Motion gives us the formula: force equals mass times acceleration. Or, to put it another way, mass is a measure of how much force we need to apply to move a given object. The greater the mass, the more force we need.

Me on stage at Mass: formulae. Photo credit: Ari Snow

The formula for mass will also give us a way to calculate inertia. If I cannot summon up sufficient force to move you, then we say you are inert. Or that I am weak.

Inertia is the state of our society today. We sit here, lumpen, waiting for some great force to sweep us away. The more of us there are waiting, inert, the harder it will be to move any single one of us. We cling together like atoms bound by a single electrical force. That force may be fear. It could be ignorance. It might even be love.

Let’s see how much force we need to move you tonight.

The Line-Up

Mass: Formulae featured a panoply of performers from all walks of life. I won’t give you my full-on introduction for each, just a tantalizing taste.

The Dancer

dance formulae
Lily Kiara dancing at Mass: Formulae. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Stillness & Equality sit at the center of Lily Kiara‘s current dance project, Field of Disappearance. Because Lily improvises, all I knew was that she wanted to start unannounced.

As the audience continued to mingle, Lily came out to dance. She moved through the crowd, creeping and crawling or just staring into space. Lily was able to move the audience in the most literal sense just by being still.

You could say that Lily is working with the opposite of mass and inertia. To use space and the aliveness of stillness, to summon up the movement that comes from stillness. Movement needs mass because it forms through the dancing body. How can movement and stillness work together to reveal the aliveness inside, to create experience from inertia?

Karen Kao, Introduction for Lily Kiara at Mass: Formulae, 13 Apr 2019

the Poet

Megin Jiménez is a self-identified mongrel. She was born in Venezuela and raised both there and in the United States. She’s fluent in Spanish, French, and English. Megin says:

Megin Jimenez poet
Megin Jimenez. Image source: VERSO / Mass: Formulae

I never really felt like I was from or at home in any one particular place or language, always kind of living in an in-between zone, which was really hard when I was younger, but feels like a superpower now.

Megin Jiménez

That superpower enables Megin to work as a poet, editor, and translator. It has also fueled her debut poetry collection – Mongrel Tongue – which will appear later this year from 1913 Press. Megin read from that collection as well as formulae experiments written especially for our event.

The Change Agent

Kirk Wornum change agent
Kirk Wornum. Image source: VERSO / Mass: Formulae

Kirk Wornum is a change agent, the kind of guy who helps people like us get their shit together. Kirk has plenty of experience with change. From finding himself the only black child at an all-white school in Boston to emigrating to the Netherlands in 2010, Kirk has done battle with enemies large and small.

A little less than a year ago, Kirk met a force that knocked his socks off: Guillain-Barre Syndrome. It’s a rare disease in which the immune system attacks the nerves. Weakness, tingling in the extremities and paralysis follow. Kirk is one of the lucky ones. He’s recovering but the process is a slow one. Despite the fact that some of his facial muscles remain frozen, Kirk has chosen public speaking as his formula for recovery.

Needless to say, Kirk blew people away with the story of his journey. He has no magical formulae. Just his powers of observation and a whole lot of courage.

The Novelist

novelist formulae
Caoilinn Hughes. Photo credit: Danijel Mihajlović

Caoilinn Hughes is a poet. Her debut collection Gathering Evidence was published in 2014. It promptly won the Irish Times Shine/Strong Award and was named finalist for four other prizes.

Annoyingly, Caoilinn is also an excellent novelist. Her debut, Orchid and the Wasp, is a novel of ideas. It hits topics as far-ranging as orchestral conducting, economic theory, and art dealing. And all this, set against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crash and the Occupy Movement.

She read to us from a scene in the novel that showed four of her characters at their very worst. Caoilinn is not a novelist eager to produce likable characters (whatever that may be). This is life.

The Astronomer

Daniel Michalik was the odd man out that night, being the only scientist in our line-up. By day, Daniel works as an astronomer with the European Space Agency. His particular area of expertise is astrometry, the branch of astronomy that measures the positions and movements of stars and other celestial bodies.

Astronomical formulae
Daniel Michalik. Image source: VERSO: Mass / Formulae

In his free time, Daniel explores. He’s wandered across all seven continents and almost made it to the North Pole. From January to November 2017, Daniel was locked into the ice station that maintains the South Pole Telescope in Antarctica. There, he collected data, some of which contributed toward that very first image of a black hole that we all saw earlier this week.

Daniel gave us a fly-on-the-wall insight into life at the South Pole Telescope, a lightning lesson on some of the science done there, and lots of gorgeous pictures of the Southern Lights.

The Organizers

None of this would have been possible without the hard work of Anna Arov who kindly yet firmly herded us cats. Not to speak of the long years of devotion founder Megan Garr has given to this child. Thank you both for this opportunity.

Mass: formulae performers
From left to right: Lily Kiara, Caoilinn Hughes, Megin Jimenez, me, Kirk Wornum and Daniel Michalik. Photo credit: Ari Snow