Book Launch

The Book Launch for Darwin’s Microscope happened Wednesday night at the fascinating Victorian-style Grant Museum of Zoology, which is part of UCL.

Beforehand, Dani and I met his parents for a yummy dinner at Hummus Bros, which I highly recommend!

Ani & Kelley @ Hummus Bros
Ani & Kelley @ Hummus Bros

Thanks to Ani and Ilia for the absolutely beautiful flowers, and to Ilia for the photography!

We then carried on to the Grant Museum where I met Melanie, Will and Jack. Melanie is my good friend and also, among her myriad titles, co-organizer for the Cambridge Science and Literature Reading Group. Jack is part of the Grant Museum and Will is my editor from Flambard Press. Special thanks to all three for their organization, contributions and opening words.

Melanie & Kelley preparing beforehand.
Melanie & Kelley preparing beforehand.
Will gives a thoughtful introduction.
Will gives a thoughtful introduction.

The Grant Museum was the perfect place for the launch of Darwin’s Microscope, and in his comments, Jack explained why. For one, the Museum is housed in the Darwin Building, named so because it is the same site as where Charles himself used to live when he lived in London.  

Another great connection to Charles is that the Grant Museum is named after Robert Edmond Grant, who was one of Charles’s early tutors and introduced the enthusiastic young beachcomber to ideas of evolution. Finally, the Museum houses Thomas Henry Huxley’s collection of specimens, and we all know Huxley was one of Darwin’s great proponents. (I wonder though, if he was called ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ not only because of his defensiveness of Darwin but also because he looked a bit like one?)

Melanie talks about the book.
Melanie talks about the book.
Jack explains the venue's relevance.
Jack explains the venue's relevance.

The museum being full of zoological specimens is also relevant to my book not only for the Darwin connections, but also because it is much like the zoology laboratory in which I studied (though of course the museum has a much more extensive collection,) and this is the very sort of atmosphere which inspired most of the poems in the book. 

The space prompted me to read part of the longest poem in the book, ‘In the Lab,’ which I almost never read as I feel it works better on the page. However, part I of the poem was a perfect way to ‘set the scene’ for the rest of the reading.

Kelley reads.
Kelley reads.

 

 

In The Lab

I. Survey


Embryos of chicken and pig,

necks folded at obtuse angles,

yellow in jars. Humming

vent swallows fumes; cool

musk permeates, mixes

with mothball, formalin, dust.


reading
reading...

Jaws, scales, fur, and feathers,

all stiffened. Iridescent shingles

on purple Lepidoptera.

Trilobite fossils from Utah,

thumbnail-sized.

 

Parrot, eagle, old penguin

crusty with dandruff.

Wood duck wire-stiffened

into permanent flight.

Empty, peeling box-tortoise shell.

Snakes spiraled into glass

with faded labels, withered egg-cases.

Eyeless snapping turtles,

rusty-pink, rotting, stuffed, tagged,

boxed, jarred, examined.

 

Guests listen.
Guests listen.

 

 

The reading went quite well; many people said they enjoyed it and the two Museum employees there gave me generous compliments, in stark contrast to their extreme disappointment at some other ‘Darwin-inspired’ readings elsewhere. I liked this venue for the intimate space and fantastic collection, as well as the Darwin connections, and I’m really pleased the launch was at the Grant.

The reading went well!
The reading went well!

 

Afterwards, everyone enjoyed wine provided by Flambard Press, and got a chance to really appreciate the Museum specimens– hopefully in a new light! 

Iain and Chris contemplate the specimens.
Iain and Chris contemplate the specimens.

I especially appreciate the support and love from my family on this side of the Atlantic.

I do wish my family and friends from the US could have been there, but I also can look forward to the Stateside book launch in Virginia in April, and subsequent visits to family and friends!

I also always appreciate hearing people’s thoughts on the book, and was happy to talk to various people, some of whom I knew and some new faces. There seems to be a special appreciation of blending the science and literature which really gives me joy, as that is exactly what I’m trying to do– and not getting too caught up in being too extreme on either the art or science side. 

Dani & Ani in the museum.
Dani & Ani in the museum.
Enjoying wine and conversation.
Enjoying wine and conversation.

My next event is Monday 9th March in the Lloyd Room of Christ’s College, Cambridge, at 7:30pm. It is in conjunction with Boris Jardine giving a talk on his research on Darwin’s actual microscopy, and the Science & Literature Reading Group is hosting. It’s a ‘Darwin 200‘ event for Cambridge. 

Everyone is welcome, so if you missed the launch, try to come!

Chatting about whaling.
Chatting about whaling.
The wonderful Grant Museum.
The wonderful Grant Museum.

I also encourage people to visit the Grant Museum. It is a wonderful little space, chocker-block full of amazing specimens. I could happily spend hours and days in there if I got the chance! Of course, an interest in zoology helps, but hopefully my book of poetry is encouraging people to think in and interdisciplinary way.

 

Me & my uber-supportive other half!
Me & my uber-supportive other half!
And of course, the books!
And of course, the books!

 

 

I shall add a none-too-subtle point; many people are asking ‘when can they get the book.’

Well, it is out and available, so any time you’d like, whether you are in the US or the UK.

So order yours today at http://www.flambardpress.co.uk, and ask me to sign it for you when you see me!

Aberdeen (Part II) – The Reading Bus

I must admit that, as well as being excited, I was a bit apprehensive about the day on the Reading Bus. I just had no idea what to expect. 90 11-year olds? (Not all at once, of course! 3 classes arrived at different times throughout the day and we split each into two groups of about 15 students each.)

The Reading Bus
The Reading Bus

I hadn’t really had a point of reference for an 11 year old for quite some time. I certainly haven’t ‘hung out with’ that many 11-year-olds since was 11. I had nothing to worry about: they were great. Very excited and interested; they came up with some really creative ideas!

Ian McKay with some of his lovely racing pigeons.
Ian McKay with some of his lovely racing pigeons.

After Marie, the Director of the Natural History Centre at the Zoology Museum building (part of the U of Aberdeen campus,) introduced us, the lesson began.

To kick off each ‘session,’ our ‘Pigeon man,’ Ian McKay, president of the Aberdeen Federation of Racing Pigeon Societies, took out three gorgeous and very different-looking pigeons to display for the students. This was to show that Darwin collected and bred pigeons, and was very interested in the variation among the birds.

Then Iain brought out the fourth and ‘star’ pigeon, who was a gift from Her Majesty the Queen. This pigeon famously was entered into Iain’s One Loft pigeon race, against 40 pigeons from his own loft– and the Queen’s pigeon won! 

A very special thing about these pigeons is their ID bracelet on their legs. The Queen’s pigeon had an ‘ER’ to identify the pigeon. Ian showed the students this, and some of the braver children got to stroke the pigeon.

The Queen's Pigeon: 'ER'
The Queen's Pigeon: 'ER'

Moving on from the excitement of the pigeons, I got to go on the Reading Bus with Director Jenny Watson. The Bus, a converted coach, is a very fun space, brightly painted on the outside and with seats and, of course, a lot of books inside. There is also a handy big screen, where we displayed a few of my poems. 

After I talked briefly about how I studied things just like what the children saw in the Zoology Museum, I read the poem, “Shadows in Chalk,” which is also the first poem in the book. 

 

Shadows in Chalk

            at the White Cliffs of Dover

 

Silken outlines on a wall with scars and scrapes,

crystallized and hidden places.

 

Shadows leaning hard against a white cliff face

above a channel, splitting continents.

 

Silhouettes in sediment, of a hundred thousand years,

sea creatures crushed to dust, soaked with rain and blood.

 

Shapes unchanging only while the sun remains,

immortalized in chalk, lines we scrape and wipe away.

On the Reading Bus.
On the Reading Bus.

 

We especially focused on chalk. Since their teachers use chalk every day in the classroom, I wanted the children to think about what chalk actually is and where it came from. Chalk actually is lots and lots of crushed dead sea creatures, technically. In fact, much of it is the picture on my book cover– radiolarians. Then we began to talk about the relationship of chalk and coal, which is a very different thing, but also an ‘everyday’ object (on the barbecue,) and also made of lots of crushed dead things. 

 

The second poem we looked at was ‘Bones,’ which inevitably raised giggles from some of the boys…well, we carried on…

 

 

 

 

Bones

Bones in the rock

in the ice

in the dirt

in the water.

 

An island made of bones.

 

A planet made of bones,

bones of ancestors

fallen   from wars,

            from predators

            from disease,

 

fallen

from never having stood.

 

Bones sinking

            into mud

            into earth

            into lava

into sea floor,

 

bones compressed

            to chalk

            to coal

 

            which we use to heat our bones.

 

The inspirational sea turtle shell.
The inspirational sea turtle shell.

With ‘Bones,’ I wanted the children to think of chalk and coal, and also of pattern, or how the poem is laid out and what I do with the words and the lines. We passed around a sea turtle skull and shell as well as a chunk of coal, and brought out blackboard tablets and chalk for the children to write their own ideas on. We focused on description and sensory experience– how does it feel? What colours and textures do you see? Does it make you think of anything? 

This got us into metaphor, and there were some really good ones! The skull was ‘like a pair of binoculars looking into the past,’ and the sea turtle shell (the hit) was ‘like a suit of armour,’ ‘like a sledge,’ ‘like a boat,’ ‘like a leaf in autumn.’ 

We had the children transfer all of their great ideas from their chalk tablets onto a sheet of paper which I gave them, outlining some ideas and tips for writing a poem. I hope and am pretty certain the teachers were planning to carry on with the poem-writing back in the classroom! I will post this worksheet separately and teachers (or anyone!) are welcome to use it, though I’d love to know if you do.

Picture for the local paper, though I don't think it made it in...
Picture for the local paper, though I don't think it made it in...

Back in the Natural History Centre, where the fantastic Marie, Sandra, Gillian and Yashka had spent the other half of the time showing students human and ape skeletons, beetle and butterfly collections, and stick insects, among many other cool critters, we presented each class with a Darwin Birthday Cake (made by Gillian’s friend at http://www.heatherscakes.com). Well, that drew applause!

It was a very rewarding day and I only hope everyone else enjoyed it as much as I did. Thanks again to everyone!

My buddy the leopard gecko.
My buddy the leopard gecko.

 

I should add that I returned to the Natural History Centre on Friday before my flight home, and got to spend more time enjoying the fantastic critters, both dead and alive, that they have there. The Centre plus the Zoology Museum literally down the hall are a wonderful combination. I was particularly smitten with the Leopard Gecko who was docile and squishy and licked my bracelet. The stick insects were also awesome– the Centre had two very different species; there are apparently hundreds.

'Black Beaut
'Black Beauty'stick insects: not for handling, as they spray noxious fumes when agitated.

 

 

Common Stick Insect, which, when agitated, sways and bobs like a twig in the breeze.
Common Stick Insect, which, when agitated, sways and bobs like a twig in the breeze.

Aberdeen-(Part I) Cafe Sci

My first trip to Aberdeen– and the first events on the Darwin’s Microscope book tour agenda– were all excellent. I feel spoilt in a most wonderful way. I must thank Ken Skeldon from the University of Aberdeen for arranging everything, the team at Waterstone’s Cafe Scientifique for the invitation to read, the hospitality, the cake(!) and the lovely book on Old Aberdeen they gave me as a thank-you.

A Darwin Birthday Cake
A Darwin Birthday Cake

Congratulations to Gillian’s friend Heather for making the five excellent ‘Darwin’ birthday cakes! I believe she makes cakes for all occassions at http://www.heatherscakes.com, based out of Edinburgh.

Thank you to Marie, Yashka, Gillian, and Sandra at the University of Aberdeen Natural History Centre, to Jenny from the Reading Bus, and to Iain, the man with the racing pigeons. Also thanks to Sue & Jenny Downes from the University, and thank you to the Aberdeen Geological Society for their invitation to a lovely dinner after an excellent lecture by Lyell Anderson, who is working on Darwin’s geology collection at Cambridge’s Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences.

Thank you to Kevin Mackenzie, from the U of Aberdeen Microscopy & Imaging Facility, for an absolutely breath-taking crash course on Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM, like the image on DM’s book cover,) and other microscopy. 

Everyone was kind, welcoming, intelligent and wonderfully generous with their time and help. I will be returning to Aberdeen for the Sunday events of the Word Festival and I am looking forward to it immensely!

I arrived in Aberdeen on Wednesday afternoon to be greeted by Ken and Sue, who whisked me on the senic (beachside) route to my lovely little boutique hotel, the Carmelite. It is very chic and has excellent food and service- you may notice that ‘excellent’ is actually the ideal word to describe the entire trip. The breakfasts were massive (far too big, in fact,) and amazing. The first day I had a massive omlette (which I simply could not finish) and the second, eggs balmoral, fluffy scrambled eggs topped with, of course, smoked salmon. Amazing.

 

In the Hotel Carmelite
In the Hotel Carmelite

Fortunately, I had time to unwind from the flight and prepare for my reading that night at Waterstone’s. I also had time to fret about the suddenly heavy snowfall!

 

A sudden fall of snow!
A sudden fall of snow!

Ken (Skeldon, from the U of Aberdeen, coordinator for all of the science outreach and education events), told me that he was hoping for about 40 people– that would be a good turnout, especially in the snow, and it was about  how many people attended the last Cafe Sci (which was the first of this season). 

Seventy-two people attended. 72!~ Of course we were all thrilled. I had no idea until afterwards, when the Waterstone’s staff counted & let me know. Fantastique! Thanks to Waterstone’s and their friendly staff for hosting the Cafe Sci. It is a wonderful event and more bookstores should do something of the kind.

I must thank Michael for posting photos of the reading. Amidst all the activity I didn’t get to take any photos with my camera! Please have a look at Michael’s photos.

The evening began with me reading for about 20 minutes from DM. Then there was a nice little break for coffee, drinks, and more Darwin Birthday Cake! Some people bought the book and I was able to sign copies and chat with some very lovely and enthusiastic people.

Then came probably the most interesting part of the evening, where a number of people asked questions and I did my best to answer them, and there was also some discussion among the people gathered there. Many people were curious about integrating creativity and more artistic measures into their science work, which was wonderful to hear. I believe the use of descriptive words is a big part of this– many people complain of ‘dry scientific writing,’ but poets and scientists both have to look very closely at things. ‘Into the Light of Things,’ I believe Wordsworth said. 

Many people also appreciated the accessibility  of the poetry. It is interesting, taking two things which can sometimes be very intimidating (poetry and science,) but putting them together in such a way where both become more accessible or welcoming or interesting. 

The evening was certainly a success. I do hope those who attended enjoyed it as much as I did.

Next: the Reading Bus & Natural History Centre on the 12th,  the 200th anniversary of the birthday of Charles Darwin! Poetry & Pigeons (and more cake)…

‘The State of the Art’ with Charles Simic

Yesterday evening I attended the Poetry Society Annual Lecture at the Bishopsgate Institute. The guest lecturer was (last year’s) US Poet Laureate Charles Simic, who was born in Serbia, spent his childhood in Nazi-occupied Belgrade, and immigrated to America with his family when he was 15. He now lives and teaches in New Hampshire.

Charles Simic
Charles Simic

 Humans always try to find similarities with someone they admire. I enjoyed that Simic is, in a way, a New Englander, but that his accent is more like that of my (Bulgarian) father-in-law. Most of all, I empathized with his comments on “feeling like an outsider, or being considered ‘weird,’ even to [his] closest friends,” and how, even as a young boy, he loved just sitting and looking at things.

“Americans are regional poets,” Simic says. “They write for their climate and thus have trouble appreciating each other.”

Simic, who is 71, has lived through such movements as The Beats, and talked about changes he has seen in the landscape of American poetry.

Despite- or perhaps because of- a childhood in bombed-out Europe, Simic is surprisingly mellow and cheerful. Even though he admits to some broody poetry, he says he often writes when he is happiest, in the kitchen, “with something nice cooking on the stove.”

When a fired-up Russian woman stood up to speak about poets in her own and other European countries being hanged for their words, to ask what his thoughts were on that, Simic seemed unperturbed and rambled a bit about, again, American poetry.

It is entirely understandable that someone who spent his life becoming immersed in his adopted culture should speak solely on that, but there was also a mild air of disappointment that Simic spoke almost entirely on “The State of the Art” (of poetry) in America, when surely a British audience would have liked to hear a bit more about, well, the rest of the world…especially, well, Britain.

Signed copy.
Signed copy.

He has a cute, quiet sense of humour, and drew a number of chuckles from the audience. “I’m not a confessional  poet,” he says in a discernibly American-mixed-with-eastern-European accent, “it goes back to my days when I was a liar.”  

(This refers to his extreme distaste for school as a child; he skipped as often as he could, simply because he found it terribly boring. Later, he would go on to put himself through college at night, working days.)

At the end of the talk, another question arose (based on a comment earlier)- a young woman asked, “Is suffering necessary for the creation of great art?”

Simic chuckled and replied promptly: “No.”

After the talk, I bought his Selected Poems and spoke with him briefly, giving him a copy of Darwin’s Microscope. The man is inundated with poetry, so who knows if he’ll read it, but how often do I have the chance to give the first copy of my first book of poetry to the Poet Laureate?

Hooray, my book is in my hands!

It's here & tangible!
It's here & tangible!

I am so, so happy.

My only slight wish is that I had more living creatures to celebrate this moment with than my cat (though I do love my cat).

But no worries. Because my books are here! Copies of Darwin’s Microscope, in my hands! They are all glossy and straight and smell freshly of ink and paper…ow, I think I just papercut my nose…

Just kidding. Kind of. I mean first book euphoria! You really must forgive it.

The books are here in time for the first events on my book tour. On the 11th, I head to Aberdeen for their Cafe Scientifique. This is  held at the Waterstone’s in Aberdeen, and we’ll be talking about Darwin, poetry, zoology, and whatever else the tres scientifique guests wish to discuss…This event is open to the public, so maybe I will see you there!

The following day, on the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin, I’ll be parked in front of the Zoology museum on the Reading Bus. I’ll play host for the day to about 90 schoolchildren in all (ages 11-12,) and we’ll be looking at cool objects from the Zoology Museum, like turtle shells and skulls, a platypus, seashells, beetles, butterflies, and who knows what else!

Book bundles from the printer.
Book bundles from the printer.
I’ll read a few of my poems for them that relate to these objects and then get the students to share some of their poetic ideas with me. I hear there’s going to be a Darwin birthday cake and a release of homing pigeons, one of which used to belong to the Queen!
It’s set to be a great couple of days in Aberdeen. I just hope snow doesn’t change my plans…