Tag Archive: residency


As part of our growing series of literature-and-science events at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, last Thursday evening Dr. John Holmes from the University of Reading gave an excellent talk on his recently published book, ‘Darwin’s Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution.

John Holmes - Darwin's Bards

Dr. Holmes speaking in the main Whipple Gallery.

John is a bard of bards– he does not claim to be a poet himself, but he reads the work of his subjects with all the zest and verve of a true Romantic. He is always an enthusiastic and illuminating speaker, and the guests who came to hear his talk were engaged, had questions, and genuinely enjoyed the evening.

A comment from my former supervisor, Dr. Doug Shedd, on John’s book:

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In discussion with one of the guests.

“John Holmes’s coverage of the relationship between science and poetry in Darwin’s Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution is remarkably complete. He has a scientist’s grasp of evolutionary theory and a thorough understanding of the controversies the theory has engendered. He also understands the difficulty many have had in finding meaning in an existence framed by Darwinism. Holmes’s investigation of how poetry addresses these problems is unique, and he is correct in thinking that, “poems can even change how we think about Darwinism itself.” Evolutionary science provides many of the details for understanding why the world is the way it is, but we need “Darwin’s Bards” to help us interpret these details, incorporate them into our collective consciousness, and fully understand what it means to live in a Darwinian world.” — Douglas Shedd, Thoresen Professor of Biology, Randolph College

Thanks to Melanie for being our photographer!

22/10/09

An interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed that falls somewhere along the spectrum from ‘myself-as-poet-in-residence-with-whom-museum-guests-enjoy-an-interesting-chat,’ to, ‘myself-as-mistaken-docent-whom-people-ask-questions-relating-to-musem-objects-which-to-my-surprise-I-have-actually-been-able-to-answer,’ to— ‘myself-as-somehow-a-museum-object-or-specimen’!

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Installation art?

Person enters Parlour and possibly notices my sign. Ah, person thinks, ‘poet in the parlour,’ looking over at me, sat in the little brown velvet Victorian chair, reading or writing, or typing on my not-so-Victorian-laptop. Person moves on to consider globes, stereoscopes, and other various objects.

And so I become one of the many things in the museum to, impersonally and silently, consider. Does this make me installation art? Is my presence in the museum still useful—is my very sitting here, in this scientific space, silently writing, bringing attention to ‘science and literature’? Even if we don’t talk to each other, am I encouraging museum guests to think of creative writing in relation to the history of science? Am I failing if this is not the case?

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Herschelian telescope

It is my last day ‘in residence’ at the Whipple, and I have enjoyed the residency immensely. We are planning more events, so I will certainly be back, but I do hope to return in the ‘residency’ capacity. Having a few days or a week together of working from the Museum has allowed me to explore ideas of actually being in residence that would not have arisen otherwise—and it has helped my work, as well. I have written a good chunk of the novel, and, today, a new poem, which is a thrill as one hasn’t come for some time. I really have been ‘poet in the parlour,’ then.

I had a fantastic discussion with a guest who was visiting, and who bought a copy of my book, and recommended some great reading materials about optics and lenses (which have to do with a different book I recently finished). I love the somewhat random but definitely intellectual variety of the people coming through here.

Thank you to everyone who has helped me to take part in this residency, especially Melanie, Sarah, Josh, and Liba.

An Copernican armillary sphere from the collection.

An Copernican armillary sphere from the collection. (photo: Whipple)

Whipple Museum of the History of Science, 19/10/09

I attended the Cabinet of Natural History at 1pm today, at which PhD student Ruth Horry gave a fascinating talk on air ships and the attempt to capture plant spores over one trans-Atlantic voyage. It made for a sometimes amusing, sometimes tragic, always interesting story.

Then on to the Victorian Parlour, to begin my residency!

About twenty people came through the Parlour and a handful looked at the books I’ve brought in, including:

Dark Matter: Poems of Space, a few copies of Darwin’s Microscope, Human Cartography by James Gurley, River Turning Tidal by Mick Delap, and a copy of a favourite which I’m currently reading, Angels & Insects by A.S. Byatt. All but the latter are poetry books, but I also have a copy of The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, an amazing non-fiction book, so there is variety.

Not wishing to accost people, I read and wrote, but realised that most people assume I am a docent and had a few questions about museum items.

I did have an excellent discussion, for twenty or thirty minutes, with a lady and a young man, probably her son, who was about my age—they were delightful; she a science fiction writer and he an actor! I should have asked their names and wish I had. They’d read about the ‘Poet in the Parlour’ on the Whipple website, so it’s good to know that is helping get the word out.

We had a great discussion about what it means to be a ‘Renaissance’ man or woman, the ‘two cultures’ divide, science and literature in general, agents and publishing…I told them a little about my projects…it was delightful and they were so pleasant.

I’ve decided that tomorrow I will put up a small sign saying ‘The Poet is in the Parlour: come have a chat about literature & science, browse the books or ask questions.’ I need a bit of an ice-breaker. I’m here to be informative, and hopefully approachable, hopefully adding an interesting new element to the parlour, but I don’t want to rush up to museum guests with my book.

One thing I love about museums, especially small ones like the Whipple, is the serene, thought-provoking space they offer. Talking sometimes disturbs that, so I want to talk if guests are interested, but I don’t want to disturb them if they don’t. It is a pleasant mix for me—I enjoy a good conversation and I spend a lot of time in (what I hope is) productive contemplation.

If only the heating worked, this would be quite a cozy little Victorian Parlour. Fortunately they’re working on fixing that problem…

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