New Light for Old Horizons

There is no doubt that one of the best parts of my work as a freelance poet, writer, and teacher is the opportunity to meet and collaborate with people in the arts, museums, and education who love and believe in what they do, and most of all, who want to share that knowledge and access with others. On Tuesday, I returned to the imposing rooms of Blythe House, where Science Museum Curator Katie Maggs treated me and photographer Marcos Avlonitis to the chance to photograph not one but two ‘pocket,’ or ‘artificial’ horizons.

Photograph: Marcos Avlonitis. Object: Science Museum, Pocket Horizon.Gloved hand: Kelley Swain's.
Photograph: Marcos Avlonitis.
Object: Science Museum, Pocket Horizon.
(Artificial black glass horizon with fitted case, made by L.I. Casella, Hatton Garden, City of London 1865 – 1871.)
Gloved hand: my own!

We had the chance to actually dust off these enchanting objects for a photo shoot which will eventually become the cover of our poetry pamphlet, Pocket Horizon. While I talked with Katie about possibilities for readings at the Science Museum, Marcos snapped away, brimming with enthusiasm about the objects – ‘It is such an honour to get to photograph these, that people will get to see them when they otherwise would be hidden away,’ he said, and I was thrilled that everyone felt they were equally enriched by the experience, that it was far more an just a job to do.

Coincidentally, whilst coordinating Pocket Horizon – including our workshop with Don Paterson and the Nevada Street Poets, a second workshop at the Wellcome Club, liaising with Cassie Herschel-Shorland (who is doing the art for the pamphlet,) and communicating with Marcos & Katie to arrange our photo shoot, not to mention emailing with our lovely editor Jamie – my bedtime reading has been the fantastic romp of a book, Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon. Researching information about pocket horizons suddenly made me realise that my ‘reading for fun’ and latest project overlap in a very obvious way, reminding me that my ‘work’ and ‘pleasure’ are one and the same, as any lucky writer would have it.

There’s a good, basic website here about navigation and cartography. Regarding celestial navigation, it mentions: ‘In the Northern Hemisphere, latitude was determined by measuring the altitude or angle of the North Star, Polaris, from the horizon, with finely scaled brass instruments called octants orsextants. Determining the altitude of Polaris on land required another instrument called an artificial horizon since the true horizon is generally obscured.’ If your curiosity is piqued, you’ll be pleased to learn that we’ll have more information about pocket horizons in the book, which will be out this year.

Poetry & Medicine

I recently met with the Nevada Street Poets for ‘Part II’ of our science-object-inspired poetry workshop. Part I was with Don Paterson at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science back in January. Part II was in ‘Henry’s Club’ at the Wellcome Collection. We workshopped seven new pieces inspired by objects in the ‘Medicine Man‘ collection at the Wellcome. Pocket Horizon, a pamphlet of these poems with drawings by Cassie Herschel-Shorland and an introduction by Don Paterson, will be published this autumn by Valley Press.

Impressive: Humument-inspired medical artwork in a short amount of time!
Impressive: Humument-inspired medical artwork in a short amount of time!

This morning I ran a poetry & medicine workshop for Medical Humanities students at Imperial College London with Giskin Day. We broke the morning into three major parts: for the first part of the workshop, we took a fairly traditional approach to analysing and discussing a stunning pair of poems: ‘The Swing,’ by Don Paterson, and ‘On Clachan Bridge,’ by Robin Robertson. Though the two poems were not written with the intention of having similar themes, by putting them side-by-side, some powerful comparisons and contrasts emerge. We had a really good discussion, touching on theme, form, sound and structure.

We moved on to discuss a recent spread of poems by Hugo Williams. ‘From the Dialysis Ward’ was published in the 24 Jan issue of the London Review of Books, and offers a very interesting opportunity to consider structure, layout, order, and theme for a group of poems. In fact, the students had such good insights on this series of poems, they rather convinced me that I liked it, when I initially saw a lot of problems with it (despite choosing the piece for the workshop) – but like or dislike, there is a lot in there to talk about, particularly when one is discussing poetry and medicine around the theme of form.

Finally, we moved on to a really different style of art / poetry / wordplay / sculpture – A Humument is a unique book that I’ve written about before, and something I love sharing because I find it such fun (I will also confess to buying the book and the app, and recommend both). Students respond enthusiastically to this book, as it is an unusual piece, and not something they’ve often come across. We took a brilliantly written piece of creative non-fiction (the Diary piece by Gavin Francis, also from the 24 Jan LRB,) and ‘treated’ it, or ‘Humumentized it’. The group each had the opportunity to work and re-work a fine piece of writing on brain surgery, and the material offered up something new every time. I’d like to arrange a more formal art project using this idea and medically-related writing and materials. Possibly the best part of the exercise was the students’ integration of printouts from Gray’s Anatomy intermixed with the text, although it was a close call for best artwork with some talented freehand drawing.

To round off our busy morning, Giskin and I encouraged students to consider the call for contributions (talks or posters) for the 2013 Poetry & Medicine Symposium taking place this May at the Wellcome. The Symposium is not limited to academics (or to poets, for that matter,) so do have a look!