Tag Archive: poetry reading


Lesley explaining the inspiration for her work.

One week ago I had the privilege of hosting poet Lesley Saunders for a reading at the Whipple Museum. In my previous post, I explained how we’d ended up crossing paths – thanks to Lesley getting in touch - and it was lovely to hear her read from her growing collection of science-inspired poems.

One of the amazing things we noticed was how certain objects had attracted our attention separately, such as the Sunshine Recorder and the Cloud Camera. Lesley has poems about each one, and I’ve particularly noticed those in the past, both at the Whipple Museum and at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, whilst carrying out research on the Herschels. Indeed, the Herschels were another topic we’d both been inspired by, and Lesley has a poem about Caroline Herschel – the heroine of my novel-in-progress. We’d both been amazed by the Dillon Weston glass fungi models; Lesley has a poem sparked by these, and I held the Fantastic Fungus Day at the Whipple because of the Weston models. Anatomical models also separately intrigued us, and my next poetry project is to do with the anatomical wax models at a museum in Florence, whilst Lesley has written about the Auzoux papier-mache anatomical models at the Whipple.

We held the reading in front of William Herschel's 10-ft telescope in the newly refurbished Main Gallery.

Why, we wondered, do some objects in the Museum capture the attention of poets? Or, to be fair, capture the attention – of anyone? Of course, many of Lesley’s poems were inspired by objects I hadn’t taken particular notice of, just as some of the Museum items I’ve been particularly interested in, such as astronomical compendia, haven’t come across Lesley’s path. But there was quite a lot of overlap. It is one of these circumstances where the artist side of me wants to be superstitious, and the scientist side of me wants to find a reason… In some cases, it seems the object itself captivates: the glass fungi or the compendium are pieces of art in their own right, and beautiful, and unusual enough so the function isn’t immediately evident. I might argue that the Herschel 10-ft telescope (in the photo on the right) is also a piece of art, but it’s also pretty clearly a telescope, and is important to me because of the story behind it.

After Lesley took us on a wonderful journey of words through the Museum’s collection, I read some new poems. There was, as one guest said, a complimentary contrast between our work. While Lesley’s selection for this reading were her Museum-inspired poems, my work this time is liminally ‘scientific’.

The poems I’ve been writing this past year are all to do with my family, specifically, with helping my grandparents at the end of their lives. I was home in the States for the autumn and Christmastime 2010 to help care for them; full-on, 24-7 care, and then home in February for my Grandmother’s funeral, and home in June/July for my Grandfather’s funeral. This has meant a seismic shift in my family dynamics, my family history, and my personal life, which is coming out in my writing. Because of my immersion in Herschel family research, most of these poems have astronomical and nautical metaphors, thus creating an unintentional but understandable link with both my novel and the Whipple Museum. It was the first time I shared the poems with a public audience and I’m very pleased at the warm response the work received.

Thank you to Lesley for her inspiring reading; thanks to everyone who attended the event; and thank you to Liba, Claire, and Allison at the Whipple. It was a wonderful afternoon.

Caroline Herschel's sweeper. Photo Credit: Science Museum, London.

I’m delighted to promote a poetry reading at The Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge, where I am writer-in-residence. The reading is at 3pm on Tuesday 26th July, free, and open to the public – please join us if you’re in the area! Phone ahead to book a (free) space: 012 2333 0906; ask for the Whipple Museum.

Some time ago, Lesley Saunders contacted me, sharing poems she’d written which were inspired by objects in the Whipple Museum. It was a fun surprise to realise we’d both been writing about Caroline Herschel – Lesley, through poems, and me, with my novel.

Lesley is an extremely talented, widely published poet. Her publications include The Dark Larder (Corridor Press, 1997); Christina the Astonishing, co-authored with Jane Draycott and illustrated by Peter Hay (Two Rivers Press, 1998); Her Leafy Eye, with images by Geoff Carr (Two Rivers Press, 2009); No Doves (Mulfran Press, 2010);  and a pamphlet Some Languages Are Hard to Dream In, with images by Christopher Hedley-Dent (also Mulfran Press, 2010). She has won several awards, including joint first prize for a portfolio of poems in the 2008 Manchester Poetry Competition.

Much of Lesley’s recent work is inspired by specific places and associations: Her Leafy Eye was set in the 18th century landscaped gardens at Rousham in north Oxfordshire;  and in 2009 Lesley was visiting scholar and poet-in-residence at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, creating a poetry project around the college gardens.  Last year she had a residency at Acton Court, an atmospheric Tudor house and gardens near Bristol that was built for Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn; now she is working on a collection of poems with scientific and medical connotations, sparked off by a visit to the Whipple Museum last autumn.

If familiar with my work, you’ll see that Lesley and I are indeed kindred spirits! Her Whipple-inspired poems epitomize the inspiration which can be gained from science, revealing the art in the material.

Lesley and I will each read from new work and talk about just what scientific forms our muses take.

Poetry reading at Oliver’s

Wednesday 9 June saw the 3rd ‘Days of Roses at Oliver’s Music Bar’ poetry event, which ended up being one of those somewhat quirky, chaotic evenings where, in some cases, people who were supposed to show up didn’t, and at least one gap needed filling — which meant, lucky me for living in the neighbourhood — I got to fly home and grab some poems to do an impromptu reading.

This was incredibly helpful because I read some completely new, raw material and it gave me a good feeling for the direction it might go.

Creative interpretation by Kat Austen.

The official line-up for the evening, which made for a varied and very entertaining time, were Todd Swift, Jon Stone, and Luke Heeley. Christopher Horton ran this and the previous two Olivers/Roses events, which had great turnouts. He’ll be co-hosting Days of Roses readings at The Book Club in Shoreditch with Declan Ryan.

Also, happily, I met Kat Austen, a polymath indeed — it was her New Scientist review I posted last time, and this time I’m posting her cool artwork which she made while I was reading my poems. She incorporates major imagery from my poem ‘An Ambivalence of Ladybirds,’ as well as imagery from the Human Genre Project’s ‘Jargon,’ and some of my new work on life modelling.

Kat is going to be the resident artist for the Shoreditch Days of Roses events, so keep an eye out. You should also check out her website. Thanks, Kat, for sharing your drawing!

Flambard Press turns 20 this year, and was championed last night by a reading at the Troubadour by eight of its poets: Wanda Barford, Nancy Mattson, SJ Litherland, Anna McKerrow, Cynthia Fuller, Rebecca Goss, Ellen Phethean, and me.

Yes, that’s an all-female line-up, which was by chance, but helps illustrate how supportive Flambard Press is of female writers.

The lovely Anne-Marie Fyfe, coffee-house poetry organizer, generously introduced Flambard, and then our delightful Managing Editor Will Mackie introduced the poets. I was lucky to get my anxiety over with early on, as I was first to read, and then relaxed and thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the poets, none of whom I’d had the pleasure to hear before.

And an excellent, varied evening it was — a real demonstration of the breadth of Flambard’s creative talent. From science to sex, seasides to ice fishing, lust, love, and loss — from history to health, home, hearts, and husbands. It was a delight to be part of celebrating Flambard Press, and a delight to read at the famous Troubadour.  Thank you to everyone who came out to support the event. Please do check out Flambard Press and buy a book — particularly by any of the eight poets above  – in celebration of 20  years of excellent publishing!

Dani and I spent a delightful Valentine’s weekend surrounded by stunning views in the Lake District. We took the Sleeper Train to Carlisle, where Dani’s friend Dave generously picked us up at 5am to drive us to his home in Caldbeck, where everyone went back to sleep for a few hours. Then, Dave and his wife led us on a 5 mile ‘walk’ up Ullock Pike. The driving sleet and ‘mild’ (30-40mph) winds were a bit of a shock but certainly drove the sleep-deprivation-cobwebs away!

By the lake shore in Keswick.

The plan was to carry on up Skiddaw, but the weather closed in as we reached the top of Ullock, and they decided to be kind to me. The views in the Lake District are phenomenal, except when the weather is poor, and that is frequent. I think we were pretty fortunate with the weather on our trip– a bit of sun, a bit of snow, a bit of rain, but for February, not too cold.

We had a good lunch and a mini-tour of Keswick (it’s too small for anything else!) and then relaxed back at Dave and Claire’s, enjoying a crackling fire, the company of our hosts and their three gregarious children, and a hearty dinner.

Saturday Dave gave us a lift to Grasmere, former home of William and Dorothy Wordsworth and now the Wordsworth Trust. It’s a delightful, tiny village– you can walk from the Swan Inn at one end, through town and to the Trust in about 15 minutes. We stayed at Grasmere Buthyarlp (‘Butterlip’) Howe.

At the Trust, Andrew Forster, Literature Officer and a fellow Flambard Press poet, met us and we had a really interesting tour by one of the delightful interns, through Dove Cottage where Wordsworth used to live (usually with about 10 other people, from friends to family).

Cumbrian light shining on the poet's heads.

Then, Andrew showed us around the reading room in the new Jerwood Centre, and we had a peek at some of the treasures in the Collection, including a first edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Before the event, Andrew hosted lunch at the Trust’s on-site restaurant, Villa Colombina, with Flambard’s editor, Will Mackie, poet Brian Johnstone, the editor of Arc Publications Tony Ward, and other associated friends and colleagues.

We carried on to the Reading Room, where Andrew introduced, to an audience of about fifteen people, the final event in the Inpress Series, ‘Resolution and Independence.’ Will talked about the history of Flambard Press, which was particularly interesting as I had not heard a lot of it before, and then I read from Darwin’s Microscope.

Dear Wordsworth, may I please live here?

Then Tony spoke about Arc, and Brian read from his collection, The Book of Belongings. Tony himself began Arc 40 years ago, so it has a long and fascinating–and entertaining!–history. Brian has been organizing the famous Stanza Poetry Festival in Scotland for 30 years, so he too has much experience in the literary world. It was really interesting to meet them both.

Dani and I met up with Will later for dinner, and stumbled upon some live music at a local pub that turned out to be really enjoyable.

The next day we headed out early to climb ‘the Lion and the Lamb,’ as locals call it, or ‘Helm Crag.’ We made it back pretty early– most walkers were heading out as we headed in– but were glad, as we had some brilliant views for about an hour before the clouds moved in and the rain/snow began. (Whether it was rain or snow depended, of course, on how high up you were.) I completed the walk by going off the track slightly and stepping into a bog– scary for a second! You sink right in and don’t know how deep you’re going to fall. Dani pulled me out. It was all very romantic–and on Valentine’s day, too.

On the panel with Brian, Will and Tony.

We enjoyed a rather massive lunch at a local tea shop, and then read until it was time to enjoy a remarkable 4-course dinner at the Grasmere Hotel. One of the things I love about hillwalking is that eating like this really is justifiable.

I love the hillwalking itself, too, of course– at least when I’m not wondering what the hell I’m doing on a windy peak with ice blowing in my face and why exactly Brits call it ‘walking’ when it’s really mountaineering and maybe I need crampons because it’s getting awfully icy and I’m not going to tell my mom about what I’m doing until after and why in God’s name do people like doing this??? But most of the time, I love it.

As a final note, we have fallen in love with Grasmere Gingerbread. At first bite, it was rather a ‘hmm, I’m not sure if I like this,’ surprise. Harder and chewier than I expected, but after a moment’s consideration, absolutely delicious. I’m afraid we didn’t buy enough!

At the top of the Lion (or the Lamb?)

Dani being all mountaineer-y.

Chatting with Andrew after the event.

Excited to find myself in the bus stop.

Zooming in...

It's me!

Wordsworth Trust event

Dove Cottage at the Wordsworth Trust.

The Wordsworth Trust and Inpress Books are hosting a series of events, ‘resolution and independence,’ about independent publishing.

Flambard Press books are distributed under the Inpress Books banner.

So I’m heading up to the Lake District, and on Saturday my Editor Will Mackie will speak about Flambard Press, and I will read from Darwin’s Microscope.

Then, Tony Ward of Arc Publications will present Brian Johnstone, who will read from his new collection, The Book of Belongings.

It’s an honour to be invited to read at this event, and a pleasure to head up to Dove Cottage for the first time.

Poetry at the Whipple: Darwin’s Microscope

Thursday 23 July, 2-3pm, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Cambridge.

Free and open to the public.

Kelley Swain is working in collaboration with The Whipple Museum of the History of Science as writer-in-residence to promote science literature through a series of readings, lectures, and writing workshops. On 23 July, Kelley will read from her first book of poetry, Darwin’s Microscope, (Flambard Press,) inspired by her research on Charles Darwin as well as her own studies in biology, from rhododendron to mangroves, sea scallops to cetaceans. The reading will be held in the gallery where Darwin’s own microscope is currently on display as part of a new exhibition.

Kelley is the Secretary of the British Society for Literature and Science. She holds a BA in English from Randolph College and is a graduate of the Munson Institute for Maritime Studies. Her current work is on Caroline Herschel, sister of the famous astronomer William Herschel.

‘Darwin’s Microscope is a rich and personal engagement with Darwin and his science – both helping to bring the feeling of his lived experience into the mind of the reader and connecting our time – and our experiences – with those of the celebrated Victorian man of science.’ –Dr John van Wyhe, Director, The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online, University of Cambridge.

Playfair Library Poetry Reading

I’d like to thank Tom Bristow, from The Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment – UK (ASLE-UK), and Lilias Fraser, from The Scottish Poetry Library, who coordinated the poetry reading.
Playfair Library, Old College, Edinburgh
Playfair Library, Old College, Edinburgh

On Thursday 10 July, I took a train from London, King’s Cross, to Edinburgh Waverly.

It was a gorgeous ride, much along the sparkling coast, and a good deal of which was taken up by listening to the kindly chatterings of a 75-year-old lady on her way to Inverness to see her daughter and grandchildren (twins).

I hope I can remember more of what she told me- showing slight symptoms of dementia, she repeated herself more than once, so you’d think I would remember…This is one story:

Mother used to feed us goat’s milk, straight into our cups. …When the war came, Mother decided she had to sell the goats: Nancy, a brown goat, and Betsy, a black goat. The next day, Mother heard about the bombing of the particular town where the goats had been taken, and was overcome with worry and grief for the fate of her poor goats.

(Again, I wish I remembered, for example, where the lady herself was from – somewhere in southern Scotland- and where the town was that the goats had likely met their fate…)

Anyway, that evening I arrived at the ASLE-UK conference to attend as a delegate, present a paper on Melville’s Cetology (the study of whales) in Moby-Dick, and, most immediately, read poems from my forthcoming book, Darwin’s Microscope.

Dome of Old College

Old College, Edinburgh

I was privileged to be one of three poets to read that evening in the magnificent Playfair Library of Old College, Edinburgh.

My first and only poetry reading before this was for the presentation of my final year honours poetry project at University in 2007 (Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in VA). I read in the Martin Science building, adamant to physically represent the combination of poetry and science that I feel my poems embody, by reading the poetry in the Science building.

The two other poets who also presented their work included the enthusiastic Helen Moore and Jerry Loose, who made it in the nick of time! I think the reading was a great way to kick off the conference, which comprised an intensely academic few days- having that bit of creativity mixed with the academics, as well as a great series of short films called ‘Eco-Eye,’ was refreshing and as a ‘Study of Literature (and the Environment!)’ should be. Oh, and the University is actually paying me for the poetry reading- my first gig where I make money as a poet, hooray!

On a final note, this conference made my second trip to Edinburgh and I must go back to spend more time there…it is a gorgeous and accessible city, practically empty once you’ve lived in London for almost a year, and I hope to return, perhaps to give more poetry readings!

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