It was lovely to return to my first place of UK study, the University of Reading, to speak with sculptor Eleanor Crook on hybrids, chimeras, and the concept of monstrosity.
It was the University’s first annual lecture for Health Humanities, and an honour to be invited to speak on topics which I’ve studied and written on from various angles, including in my Master’s dissertation a few years ago at KCL, and in my book Opera di Cera.
Meanwhile, autumn in Oxford is stunning: crisp and leafy, mild and sunny. I continue to work part-time at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, which is offering numerous fascinating opportunities, including outreach and access,
I’ve coauthored a chapter in an academic book on Health Humanities with my collaborators at Duke University – happily, this will be published by Oxford University Press next year – more details once we have a date.
And, most happily, I’m writing, continuing to contribute to the various Lancet journals, and working on a new novel. Some very exciting new collaborations have sprung up, as well as ongoing projects with a longer reach, so watch this space for 2018 and beyond!
Thanks to a well-knit network of Medical Humanities and artist contacts, I had the marvellous opportunity to enjoy a behind-the-scenes tour of the Cole Collection – including the Museum & Library – on Tuesday, at the University of Reading.
It’s especially strange that I studied abroad at the University of Reading – my first home in England – and not once did I hear of this collection (it would be the following year that I’d really get up to my elbows in zoology). Fortunately, that’s been remedied, and there’s a chance I’ll be spending much more time with it.
Francis J. Cole was a Victorian collector of curiosities, and Professor of Zoology at Reading from 1907 – 1939. There is, currently, a small and beautiful Zoology Museum in the centre of campus (nevertheless remarkably difficult to find,) and even more atmospheric zoology teaching rooms which stretch out from this Museum.
Thanks to Andrew Mangham, who co-directs the Health Humanities research group at Reading, we were able to meet with Curator Amanda Callaghan, who showed us some of the collection highlights, and told us about the forthcoming plans for the whole building to be torn down and an entirely new Zoology Museum and teaching spaces to be set up, over the next three years. It is a particular pity to know that the tall glass ceilings and long wooden tables marked at intervals with microscopes will be wiped out and replaced with something shiny, new, and I anticipate, relatively soulless. The current teaching lab has, no doubt, inspired many a natural historian, and could continue to inspire many more.
We were joined for the day by Eleanor Crook, whom I take any chance to collaborate with – she is, to my knowledge, the best sculptor in the UK and probably beyond; wax-modelling craftswoman extraordinaire and also wood-carver, etcher, printmaker… Eleanor specialises in the medical, pathological, and often macabre, and we wanted to spend the day thinking of how she, Andrew, and I might make best use of the Cole Collection (which includes human as well as animal remains) for public engagement and research.
It was particularly thrilling, then, to be welcomed into the Cole Library by archivist Erika Delbecque, and to be with Eleanor when we were invited to pour over (including turning the pages ourselves,) Hooke’s Micrographia, and a first edition of Vesalius’ de Corpora.
A first edition of Vesalius. From 1543.
This was so overwhelming, important, and exciting, along with all the rest we’d already seen in the Zoology stores (especially the wet specimens,) that we had to regroup with coffee and biscuits, but not before I was also able to hold a first edition, first print run of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
Needless to say that Andrew, Eleanor and I have a lot of ideas brewing about all of this, and more news will certainly be forthcoming.
2017 has seen me move to Oxford, where I’m working on another book, this time with a literary agent who is challenging me in all the right ways. I’m continuing to write reviews for The Lancet journals, including a monthly column on colours for The Lancet Psychiatry.
On 12th December, we launched Guests of Time in the gorgeous Victorian hall of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Read about the year-long residency, or go to the Valley Press website for a limited-edition hardcover copy of the gorgeous anthology, made entirely in the UK. Listen to me, John Barnie, and Steven Matthews read our poems on Soundcloud, and enjoy videos of select poems on Youtube.
Special thanks to Ellena Smith, Scott Billings, and John Holmes, for their generosity and enthusiasm throughout this residency, which has been a highlight of my poetry-and-science career, and a mark of 10 years of work at these crossroads, as 10 years ago (come spring 2017) I completed my BA in English, the dissertation of which was a final draft of what would become my first book of poetry, Darwin’s Microscope.
For the first two weeks of November, I attended my first artists’ residency, at the amazing Virginia Center for Creative Arts, where I enjoyed true fellowship with a wonderful group of writers, composers, and visual artists. There’s no doubt that – like a group of people stranded on a desert island after their ship has sunk – in sharing the night of the 2016 election, we all became closer than we might have otherwise.
One of the Fellows was photographer Martirene Alcantara, and I’m honoured to be part of her ‘artists’ series. I’m also grateful to composer Steve Landis for encouraging me to bust out of my more formal poetry style into a Beat-improv(ish) evening…video to follow…watch this space.
“It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings. “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naïvete,” the Bulgarian writer Maria Popova recently remarked.”
I have the great fortune to be a Fellow at the VCCA for twelve days at the beginning of November. This is only 14 miles from Randolph College, my alma mater, but I’ve never been to the VCCA. So, I’m particularly happy to be back in Virginia, surrounded by amazing autumn foliage, expressly for dedicated writing time.
Perhaps it is because I laid the foundations of my writing career in this very setting – the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains – but it is both familiar and sweet to be sitting out in the morning sunlight with my laptop (fortunately, not the same laptop,) breathing fresh mountain air and the smells of dry, sun-baked grass.
The colours here astonish me. I’ve just come from Bath, that oat-biscuit-coloured city of seamless beauty. But to drive through fall leaves in every colour of the spice cupboard – paprika, saffron, cumin, turmeric, nutmeg, cinnamon – brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges – makes me feel at home. Even the birds are bright: when I first drove up the winding road towards the VCCA, the flash of a red cardinal, and, moments later, a clamorous blue jay, startled me. Everything is bright, even the browns, so it is fitting that I’m here to work on a writing project that has to do with colours.
The Naked Muse is well-launched into the world, after an amazing wave of publicity churned up by Ana McLaughlin of Sarah Harrison PR. (Thank you, Ana + Valley Press!)
Not only do reporters and radio stations need to hear about a book, they have to find it interesting enough to discuss, and I am enormously grateful to have been able to talk about The Naked Muse on ten (10!) radio stations across the UK + Northern Ireland. There have already been some lovely reviews, including on The Monocle, and thorough write-ups in i and in The Glasgow Herald. Read (or listen!) here.
Last week, The Peckham Pelican hosted us for the book launch, where I was able to thank friends and contributors, (present as well as abroad,) and enjoy a vivid opening reading from the talented poet
David Nash, and enjoy a wonderful time.
Furthest-travelled guests included Henrike Scholten, Dutch friend & artist, who helped edit the book, and Daniele Iozzia, one of the painters I’ve worked most closely with, from Sicily, who painted the chapel frieze for which I modelled.
I’ll be speaking on BBC Radio 4 Start the Week with Grayson Perry, Emma Rice, Alice Coote, and Mary Ann Sieghart – about identity, bodies, gender, and being clothed – and unclothed – for various roles.
I’m continuing to write essays and reviews for The Lancet, The Lancet Psychiatry, and The Lancet Oncology whilst working for The Lancet journals.
It’s an honour to have been invited to help launch the new Health Humanities Laboratory this November at Duke University. I’ll be an artist-in-residence, leading a multi-day workshop based on my previous Humanities in Global Health work at Imperial College London, and giving a speech at the opening of the Lab.
Health humanities represents an innovative interdisciplinary approach to advancing the health of populations worldwide through scholarship and practice grounded in histories, languages, and cultures. Combining humanities and interpretive social science scholarship with clinical medicine and public health, the field of health humanities seeks to improve communication in the clinical encounter, enhance the salience and sustainability of health systems in the clinic and beyond, and strengthen existing familial, cultural, and collective resilience. Dialogue and outreach on the continuum of social relationships to health and healing offers novel ways of reflecting on what it truly means to be “well.”
Do take a look at the new tab on my website, ‘Oxford Poet-in-Residence’, which I will update regularly after each visit to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. I’m one of three poets-in-residence for the Museum’s ‘Visions of Nature’ season, which means each poet is welcome to explore the Museum’s archives and collections to his or her heart’s content, and write new poems about these treasures. We get to enjoy this for much of the year, and will round off the residency with public engagement activities in the autumn, and the launch of a new anthology of poetry towards the end of the year.
Keep an eye on the ‘essays’ tab on my website, which I update every time I have a new piece of writing published in The Lancet or elsewhere, including book, museum, and exhibition reviews.
I’m delighted to have secured a new job, in addition to continuing to write freelance pieces for The Lancet journals: This month (February 2016,) I’m going to begin a full-time office role as a production assistant for The Lancet! I’m absolutely delighted to become part of The Lancet team, and to formally contribute to the success of the best medical journal in the world.