I’m looking forward to seeing many friends and readers at tomorrow night’s book launch!
Originally posted on P.S: Poetry & Science:
I’m looking forward to seeing many friends and readers at tomorrow night’s book launch!
Originally posted on P.S: Poetry & Science:
On Tuesday, I ran my annual poetry workshop for the Medical Humanities students at Imperial College London, led by Giskin Day. For part of the workshop, we applied the techniques used in Tom Phillips’ classic art book, ‘A Humument,’ to the Hippocratic Oath. I provided students with four versions of the Oath: a translation of the original, a version for nurses called the ‘Florence Nightingale Pledge,’ a modern version written in the 70s, and the ‘Affirmation’ that Imperial College London medical students will take once they graduate.
I’ve written previously (there and also here) about the amazing adaptability and resonance of applying ‘A Humument’ to Medical Humanities workshops. Students respond with an overwhelmingly positive level of enthusiasm to cutting out paper, marking up the texts, and teasing out words and phrases relevant to their experiences. They’ve given me permission to post their works below – and this was from about twenty minutes’ worth of ‘treatment’ time! I’ve selected some of the most colourful, but I want to thank all of the students for their marvellous contributions.
Tom Phillips would, I hope, be proud of the range of styles, and also the humour here:
Each student came up with her (or his) own metaphorical style and approach. The artwork some of them did in just a fifteen or twenty minutes!
It’s not only impressive, but incredibly heartening, to see which words students chose:
Neptune in your Pocket: Join the authors of Pocket Horizon and Neptune Blue for a reading of space-inspired poems, ranging from a servant’s wide-eyed view of a Grand Orrery to the disappointment of Pluto’s planetary demotion. Also get an intimate chance to see incredible objects from our astronomy collections that these poems touch on.
What could be better than hearing Lorraine Mariner read her poem about a Grand Orrery, but to do so whilst seeing one in motion? We’ll have objects from the Science Museum collections on display – so you can find out exactly what a Pocket Horizon is, and how it relates to our anthology…
Last Saturday, Dr Richard Barnett and I were honoured to be special guest speakers at a gala dinner at the Royal College of Physicians for the debut of the Global Clinical Scholars Research Training Program run by Harvard Medical School.
If this sounds like a lot to take on, we managed to fix on the metaphor ‘it’s like the UN, for doctors’.
And it is. 150 elite medics were gathered for a 3-day conference, from 8 in the morning until well into the night (the dinner ran until after 10pm,) plus homework, and almost everyone had jet-lag, having flown in for the conference from various exotic destinations around the globe. Taking all of this into consideration, it was impressive that they were such a lively audience!
The conference is one of three throughout the year, and the rest of the GCSRT programme takes place online (the whole course runs for one year).
The programme makes international connections, and brings the top people working in medicine, from biostatistics to clinical writing, to the best up-and-coming doctors. So, it was a great pleasure to be invited to be a co-special-guest-speaker alongside Richard, who shared his guest spot with me – rather than give an hour lecture, he spoke for 40 minutes on the global medical history of London, and I followed with a poetry reading, including ‘A Bedbug in Manhattan,’ which went down very well.
We were delighted to attend, the night before, the ‘speakers’ dinner,’ (where I learned what a Duck Press is,) and to meet the amazing team of doctors running the programme. It was one of those situations where you meet a person, have dinner with them (twice,) and they are utterly friendly, ‘normal,’ and welcoming, and you act as equals, and then the next day you hear them ‘announced’ at this grand dinner and realise they are the leading medic in (insert field of choice here) and have been for the last (longer than I’ve been alive).
I feel very fortunate to have made these connections, and to have been part of the launch of the GCSRT.
It was particularly fun when, after my reading, one medic (from Sweden, I think,) came up and told me she had my book Darwin’s Microscope. Someone had given it to her as a gift, thinking it was suitably scientific…What do you know!
Yesterday was one of those days that reminds me exactly why I love London. Having had the good fortune to learn about the last few days of an exhibition on ambergris by AVM Curiosities, founded in 2011 by food historian Tasha Marks and hosted by the Herrick Gallery, 1 French Place, E1, I hastily made an arrangement with Gallery owner Alice Herrick to see it (the exhibit closes today).
The substance ambergris has fascinated me since I studied Moby-Dick, first in my final year of my English BA, and the following summer when I completed an essay on the history of cetology in Moby-Dick and the writings of naturalists Scoresby, Bennet and Beale, as a student at the Munson Institute for Maritime Studies at the Mystic Seaport, CT.
So, literarily and historically, ambergris has intrigued me, but I’ve never had the chance to see it. ‘Ambergris,’ Tasha’s exhibit, allowed me to not only see it, but to smell and even taste it! (I haven’t actually tasted it yet because the ‘ambergris lozenges’ I bought, I’m saving to share with my poetry group, to whom I gave an impromptu lecture on ambergris some time ago. Happily the information I told them was confirmed accurate when I saw Tasha’s exhibit, so I’m glad I’ve got my marine biology straight.)
The Herrick Gallery is a small, beautiful space, and I had a lovely time chatting with the curator, Alice. I’m impressed by what they do with the space. For Tasha’s exhibit, the walls were painted a muted, elegant pale grey, displaying to perfection the centrepiece – a big chunk of ambergris in a tall glass jar. Guests were invited to lift the top off of and inhale the unique scent, which I did three or four times throughout my visit. This was called the ‘scenterpiece’ and the ambergris was on loan from an anonymous donor, whom I learned used to work in the perfume industry. This mysterious lump of organic matter, worth its weight in gold (or perhaps more) was going back to its owner shortly. Ambergris is a scent fixative: it makes scent stick to our skin – so it is used in the finest perfumes, hence its great value.
‘Ambergris’ the exhibit also displayed two beautiful prints of cephalopods, a pomander locket with ambergris inside, two wet specimens – one an octopus, one a squid – in glass jars, the suspended beak of a Humboldt squid in an antique model ship cabinet, and edible oceanic prints of antique etchings of cephalopods and cetaceans. Yes, it was all as magnificent as it sounds. The exhibit was small, but perfectly formed, all of the work created by Tasha, from the edible art to the prints to the specimens.
In case you’re still wondering just what ambergris is, I tend to explain it first with an analogy. You know how a pearl comes from a tiny piece of grit or sand that gets into the soft part of an oyster, and the irritation of this grit actually causes the oyster to throw over layer after layer of nacre to soften and ‘wrap’ the irritant? Or how gallstones form in the human stomach – not quite the same as a pearl, but similarly a hard ‘stone’ ‘growing’ inside the gut of an animal?
Ambergris is like the pearl of a whale, or the gallstone of a whale, and only a sperm whale at that. Why? Because sperm whales are the only cetaceans who will take on giant squid. The only hard part of a cephalopod (‘head’ = ‘cepha’ | ‘foot’ = ‘poda’) is the beak. Inside the long head, if you splayed out all the arms and tentacles (those aren’t the same thing, by the way,) you would find, at the centre of the beast, a beak much like a parrot’s, made of hard, hard keratin, the stuff our fingernails and hair is made from. Within the beak is a radula, a gyrating scraping tongue (like a cat’s, but more like a razor,) that grinds up the flesh of its prey (fish, mostly, but sometimes other squid). So, when a sperm whale ingests squid, it can’t happily digest the beak.
Tasha’s exhibition explained that a small proportion of sperm whales have an intestinal defect which causes a reaction to the squid beaks, and this is what throws layers of organic matter over the hard object to effectively ‘wrap’ it up. And this, my friends, is ambergris. I have no idea how anyone could know that it comes from an intestinal defect in a whale (‘I’m sorry, is this sandwich cephalopod-free?’) rather than just a normal whale…not to say she’s wrong, as she’s clearly done more research on this than I have. (I guess through dissecting dead whales and finding ambergris in whales with a noticeable defect.)
Ambergris, which is understandably extremely rare, is mostly found either washed up on the beach, or within a dead whale (back in the days of the whaling industry and probably, horribly, still in China,it would have been more actively sought – though I think most of the species of whale they are ‘collecting for scientific research’ in China wouldn’t be sperm whales).
All in all a fascinating hour, and I’m sorry the exhibit isn’t on for longer (or that I didn’t know about it sooner!). I’ll look forward to seeing more work from Tasha and from the Herrick Gallery.
After my ambergris-infused visit, I went up to Portobello Road for Sarah Westcott’s reading from her debut poetry pamphlet, ‘Inklings,’ produced beautifully by Flipped Eye Publishing. I’m really proud of Sarah, one of the Nevada Street Poets, and it was a pleasure to hear so many poems that had been thorough our workshop. ‘Inklings’ was a Venture Award Finalist, and is part of Flipped Eye’s ‘flap series’ (number 6). Sarah’s poems are rich with organic experience and exhibit a sensitivity down to the quiver of an eyelash, the pollen on a flower, or the electricity of bats in the air. I highly recommend it, and I know she’s planning more readings soon…
It’s a great pleasure to say that I’m going to be working with literary agent Will Francis at Janklow & Nesbit.
Will has been reading drafts of ‘The Naked Muse,’ my memoir about being an artists’ model, and he invited me to the office in Notting Hill this morning to ‘discuss my literary ambitions’.
I’m absolutely delighted that I’ll be working with Will on ‘The Naked Muse’. I trust what he has to say, and I’m really interested in where, together, we can take the book.
We drank peppermint tea and, surrounded by beautiful hardcover books that Will has sold to prestigious publishing houses, we discussed my writing – whose it is like, where it can go, how it might fit, who would want to buy it, publish it, read it.
I went home with a few copies of the lovely hardcover books (a perk that hadn’t occurred to me – your agent gives you books!) and with a great sense of having moved on to the next stage in my literary career.
What a joy, and, it seems, the start of some very exciting things…
This summer I’m pleased to be part of the extension of courses at City Lit reaching into the field of science. City Lit is London’s centre for adult learning, offering part-time and short courses in a huge range of fields.
In July, I’ll be leading an exploration into ‘London’s Curiosity Cabinets’ as well as offering a Medical Humanities course.
These courses are for anyone, though I would especially encourage those in the medical profession to take a look at the Medical Humanities course.
I’m also pleased to note that the Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, Dr Marek Kukula, is going to be running a summer course on astronomy, and Wellcome Trust Public Engagement Fellow, medical historian Dr Richard Barnett, will be giving guided walks & lectures on the history of medicine in London. Go to City Lit Courses and click on the ‘Science and Nature’ section for more.
I’d like to flag up a rewarding outcome of recent Medical Humanities teaching: For the third year in a row, I was invited by Giskin Day, course co-ordinator for Imperial College London’s Medical Humanities, to give a workshop on poetry and medicine to medical students. For part of the afternoon, I introduced them to the marvellous, unique book – what I would call an art book - A Humument, by Tom Phillips. There is an excellent review of it here: ‘Double Act’ by Adam Smyth, LRB Oct 2012.
So far, I’ve found students really enjoy being introduced to and creating projects using the idea of A Humument; my Global Health students also responded enthusiastically to it this year. In fact, it’s become a verb: we ‘Humumentize’ a piece of writing that is medically relevant, combining the art of Phillips’s ‘Humumentizing’ his selected novel (A Human Document, from whence the title ‘Humument’ comes,) with the medicine of a medical text. With Giskin’s class, we used extracts from Gray’s Anatomy, including images.
A group of students from the class then decided to take pieces from The Francis Inquiry (an essential and harrowing report on the failing of care in the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust – I recommend the video on the above link,) to create ‘Carers or Criminals? The Francis Inquiry in Humuments,’ which they presented as a poster at the 2013 International Symposium on Poetry & Medicine.
They said that by focussing closely on selected elements of the text, and ‘pulling out’ (or ‘excavating,’ as Phillips says, like a geologist or sculptor,) fragments of text that stood out to them, they were able to interpret the writing in a way that they hoped brought out the essence, or most important, or most poignant parts, of it. I pointed out how this act – shaving away all the words they felt were not absolutely necessary – was a type of poetry, and one of the students called it ‘found poetry’.
The students also mis-interpreted something in a very positive way: referencing the original title of Phillips’s treated novel (A Human Document,) these Medical Humanities students felt they were ‘discovering’ the ‘human documents’ within the Francis Inquiry: the human stories, and stories of humanity, that otherwise might have been lost amidst a sea of mistakes and pain in danger of blending into one anonymous voice of discontent.
This is a rewarding outcome and encouraging early experience in my teaching, and I’m proud of the students for their creative thinking and work. It is important to remember that any text we take up and ‘treat’ must be respected and that its original intent not be lost, but I think that ‘Humumentizing’ a work can allow all of us to shed new and important light on something that might be dense, technical, or difficult to approach in the traditional manner. It is also creative and fun, and these aren’t elements to be cast aside lightly – the students working on this project will always think of The Francis Inquiry in a uniquely critical way. Well done.
A pocket horizon is an instrument used for navigation: a small, smooth, darkened glass providing a reflective surface from which to take bearings with a sextant, when one’s view at sea is shrouded in fog or mist, or when the true horizon cannot be seen. In Pocket Horizon, an array of objects drawn from the collections of the Whipple Museum in Cambridge and Wellcome Collection in London serve as points of navigation for the Nevada Street Poets. Pieces from a Masterclass with leading poet Don Paterson developed into the poems collected here.
Along the way, we glimpse stories and histories of models varied as horses’ teeth and a clockwork orrery depicting the universe. There are fragile, hand-made glass fungi, and the glass prism used by Newton in his ‘Crucial Experiment’. A parade of amputees marches the reader past a case full of artificial limbs, as one of the first clocks in Britain tolls the hour. A wave machine immerses us in the currents of human love, and votive models murmur questions from the past. Each poem is paired with artwork by Cassie Herschel-Shorland. Pocket Horizon is a book of excursions into the human mind and body, and the story of the world we feel compelled to map.
I was recently contacted by Leanne Moden, writer for Cambs 24.
Her blog focuses on ‘those passionate about poetry and fiction in the East Cambridgeshire Area,’ and some of my work has been based in Cambridge.
Leanne was enthusiastic about hearing details of all my latest projects, Cambridge-based or not, including poetry pamphlets Pocket Horizon (forthcoming, Valley Press, 2013) and Opera di Cera (forthcoming, Templar Poetry, 2013).
It also turned out to be a rather sweeping tale of my work to date, and where all of this writing, teaching, and coordinating might be heading…