Working with scientists has always been an inspiration. These days, it’s social science researchers at the front-line of the drive towards a sustainable future and global justice. The Global Studies department at Sussex University, where I’m an associate researcher, is home to an international community addressing the most pressing issues of our time: climate and environmental change, health and finance crises, global inequalities, intolerance and discrimination. It’s a privilege to work with them, using creative means to communicate their world-class research.
This inspiration has always fed into my writing. My short collection, Eclipse, was written while I was a DPhil student at Sussex, studying dark matter as part of a chapter on Gertrude Stein (the connections seemed obvious at the time). One day, I realised how stupid it was to be researching physics in the library when there was a department of scientists actually doing the research across campus. So I sent a few emails, not expecting much response. Sometimes, as writers, we forget how much specialists can relish talking to lay people— even poets who might run the risk of skewing their well-judged findings. I had plenty of responses. And went on to enjoy conversations about the matter that makes up around 96% of the universe, but is invisible and not entirely knowable.
I was wary of plundering the science for my own ends while writing Eclipse. Which, of course, I did. My brain works metaphorically, it’s how I (try) to understand the world, and inevitably in the translation from science to poetry, my imagination intervened.
These issues were also at the heart of the Motion in Poetry project I led with scientists in the Design and Engineering department. We used poetry to help teach engineers the Navier Stokes equations, a complicated set of calculations for modelling and understanding fluid motion. Part of the process was to get poets and engineers working together, talking about shared territory. Is an equation like a poem? Yes, in the way it uses mathematical language to describe natural forces— a poem might use figurative language, and rhythm, and the guttural thump of alliteration to do the same. Yes, in the elegance of thought and expression that can be found in both. No, in the way that equations are seen as referring to definable, fixed, processes whereas a poem creates gaps for imagination to play. When I asked one engineer to think of a metaphor or simile for inertia he told me, it’s inertia, that’s what it is, it’s not anything else. Which is true. Though he did explain it to me by saying, it’s like seeing a girl you really like and not going to speak to her.
There’s bound to be some slippage between the knowing of science and the conjuring of poetry. I think it’s that combination that appeals to me. I’m not a scientist, and am reminded of this every day (at school I sat with my friends at the back of the physics lab playing charades, and yes, I do regret it now). I still can’t explain off the top of my head how tides work, or why the sky is blue, not with any precision. But the fact that there are people dedicated to understanding these things makes me happy.
In the end, the astronomers and the engineers agreed, what we have in common is curiosity. The desire to look at the workings of the universe, and find a way to speak about what we see (or can’t see but might imagine…)
You talk for hours about such things,
eyes dark with mathematics,
fingers twisting the ends of sugar sachets
as if the speed of light might be opened like a fact,
sprinkled into black coffee-
which is merely the dark water of hydrogen,
oxygen. life as it was in the rock pools of a spinning planet
long before us, long after the bang that hangs around here,
charging the atmosphere as we flick from channel to channel.
from Eclipse, Iota Shot Pamphlet published by Templar Poetry.
Read more from Eclipse.