A Literary Agent

You know how author photos are always about 20 years old? And then you meet the person and it's kind of odd? I'm trying to keep mine up to date.

It’s a great pleasure to say that I’m going to be working with literary agent Will Francis at Janklow & Nesbit.

Will has been reading drafts of ‘The Naked Muse,’ my memoir about being an artists’ model, and he invited me to the office in Notting Hill this morning to ‘discuss my literary ambitions’.

I’m absolutely delighted that I’ll be working with Will on ‘The Naked Muse’. I trust what he has to say, and I’m really interested in where, together, we can take the book.

We drank peppermint tea and, surrounded by beautiful hardcover books that Will has sold to prestigious publishing houses, we discussed my writing – whose it is like, where it can go, how it might fit, who would want to buy it, publish it, read it.

I went home with a few copies of the lovely hardcover books (a perk that hadn’t occurred to me – your agent gives you books!) and with a great sense of having moved on to the next stage in my literary career.

What a joy, and, it seems, the start of some very exciting things…

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.

Cambs 24 Interview

You know how author photos are always about 20 years old? And then you meet the person and it's kind of odd? I'm trying to keep mine up to date.
You know how author photos are always about 20 years old? And then you meet the person and it’s kind of odd? This is a recent photo for my Templar poetry pamphlet, Opera di Cera.

I was recently contacted by Leanne Moden, writer for Cambs 24.

Her blog focuses on ‘those passionate about poetry and fiction in the East Cambridgeshire Area,’ and some of my work has been based in Cambridge.

Leanne was enthusiastic about hearing details of all my latest projects, Cambridge-based or not, including poetry pamphlets Pocket Horizon  (forthcoming, Valley Press, 2013) and Opera di Cera (forthcoming, Templar Poetry, 2013).

It also turned out to be a rather sweeping tale of my work to date, and where all of this writing, teaching, and coordinating might be heading…

Read the interview here.

Happy 2013!

Sunrise over South London, 2 Jan 2013.

Happy Christmas and New Year to everyone! I hope you had a restful or fun holiday time, or both. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I could sleep until spring. This morning I was awoken by a glorious sunrise. I enjoyed it for a minute, and then went back to bed. Nonetheless, it felt like a serendipitous way to start the year.

It’s the first time I’ve spent the holidays in London, and I’ve enjoyed a most British Christmas: climbing St. Paul’s (where I saw graffiti older than the US of A,) having brunch at Roast overlooking Borough Market, touring my favourite place in Greenwich, the NMM & ROG, exploring the Science Museum, sharing good food, drink, and laughs with friends, seeing the latest Alan Bennett play ‘People,’ visiting familiar faces at the National Portrait Gallery, and wandering around London, my favourite city in the world.

I’m lucky to be able to spend this time like a proper at-home tourist. I’m also very pleased about what’s to come.

In January, a special project is going to host my poetry group, the Nevada Street Poets, in a Masterclass Workshop with Don Paterson, guest Poet in Residence at the Whipple Museum in Cambridge. This is very exciting, and as it develops, you shall hear more.

Work in progress by Nicola.

The Naked Muse, my in-progress memoir about my experiences as an artist’s model, has piqued interest from a few literary agents whom I was lucky to meet at Christmas parties, and I shall be arranging pages and a proposal to send to them for consideration in Jan and Feb. Happily, I cracked my goal to write 100 pages of TNM before Christmas, and wrote 105 pages.

My mentorship with Cinnamon Press will begin in January as well: Cinnamon’s editor Jan will consider my manuscript of Double The Stars (a historical fiction about astronomer Caroline Herschel) and we will work to edit it throughout the coming year.

I’ll also begin to consider edits on Atlantic, my poetry collection that will be published by Cinnamon Press in 2014.

Please stay tuned for updates on all of these projects and more throughout the coming year, and may you all enjoy a productive and peaceful 2013.

In front of Caroline Herschel’s ‘sweeping’ Newtonian Reflector at the Science Museum.

The Longest Nights

Sir Andrew Motion, and just how close we all were. Glad everyone was friendly!
Sir Andrew Motion, and just how close we all were. Glad everyone was friendly!

My goodness, this year is careening towards an end at breakneck speed. I’m hanging on. To be fair, I’ve spent this evening reading poetry in front of a log fire, eating popcorn, and knitting, so it isn’t all outrageous excitement.

Some of the things I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy:

Last week, I heard Andrew Motion read from his in-progress Selected Poems (for the US) at the Peirene Salon. Actually, I practically sat on him, because the room was insanely full. He was very good about it. Thank goodness there wasn’t a fire or we all would have died. I’m not very familiar with the recent Laureate’s work, so it was the perfect opportunity to hear a range of it – he has a lovely gentle voice, and I found myself closing my eyes to listen (and to allay the awkward nearness).

Reading from Where Rockets Burn Through.
Reading from Where Rockets Burn Through.

The poetry group of which I’m proud to comprise one-sixth, Nevada Street Poets, read for the first time together in public at Made In Greenwich, a wonderful little gallery that is hosting a series of readings into next year by local groups.

In related news, Lorraine Mariner, Sarah Westcott, Malene Engelund and I (all Nevada Street,) have had poems recently published in the gorgeous anthology Where Rockets Burn Through: Contemporary Science Fiction Poems from the UK. (Purely by chance, the other two poets in Nevada Street are also the men in our group – Mick Delap and Dominic McLaughlin.)

I had the opportunity to give a second poetry reading this week at the launch of the anthology, along with Sue Guiney and the delightful Simon Barraclough, who kindly gave me a copy of his book Los Alamos Mon Amour, because one of my poems (‘Celestial Navigation’) shares a title with one of his. (I pointed out, upon reading Los Alamos, that we share not one but two titles, also both having a poem called ‘Apologia’. Great minds, and all that.) I’m really looking forward to reading his Neptune Blue and the fabulously-entitled Bonjour Tetris!

It was tasty, really. Chocolate and raspberry!

That’s two poetry readings and one book launch – and I went to another book launch this week, too, in one of my favourite spaces in London: The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret. The launch was for the Halloween-esque-ly named, The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones, and the launch came complete with a 3-piece band with an appropriately creaky, haunting tone, an oversized heart cake, and a cravat-wearing, charmingly enthusiastic author. I love London.

Last night was my friend Cassie’s birthday party (happy birthday, Cassie!) and I was delighted to catch up with her brother, William Herschel-Shorland, and meet his wife, Sarah, and be inspired by their enthusiasm for my progress on the novel about their ancestor, Caroline Herschel, which was incredibly encouraging – not least because I was able to share the exciting news that Cinnamon Press recently accepted my manuscript of Double the Stars for their mentorship scheme, and so I’ll be working with the Press in the coming year to edit the novel! I’m really looking forward to the new things I’ll learn from the mentoring.

Meanwhile, I’m cracking on with The Naked Muse, and spent Friday in the British Library reading about painting technique and pigments, especially fugitive colours – I think I’m going to use ‘Fugitive Colours’ as a title for my next book…

The Rules of Form update

1 of only 100 copies!

Grand news:

Due to demand, The Whipple Museum is printing 50 more copies of The Rules of Form: Sonnets and Slide Rules.

Our limited-edition book had an initial print run of 50 copies, and now there will be 100 books in total in existence.

Please contact me or the Whipple if you are interested in buying a copy (for £6) of this unique combination of creative, academic, and literary work.

The Rules of Form: Sonnets and Slide Rules

Here I’m attempting to show off the unusual size of the book…but I’m also really pleased!

I’m absolutely thrilled to announce that my latest project as the Poet-in-Residence at Cambridge’s Whipple Museum of the History of Science is printed and available!

I am proud to be Editor of The Rules of Form: Sonnets and Slide Rules, a book which demonstrates that ‘a proposition of geometry is a fair and luminous parallel for a work of art’.

This art book has been a long-running project, and it is now available to purchase from me, or from the Whipple Museum  (contact: hps-whipple-museum@lists dot cam dot ac dot uk) for £6, an accessible price for the quality and unique contents of the book, if I may say so.

There are only FIFTY copies – it is a limited edition object! (It’s also a real book, as in, it has an ISBN, and will therefore go into the British Library.) If you have an interest in sonnets, slide rules, calculating monkeys, or art books in general, do buy one.

A spread from our collaboration between poet Lesley Saunders and artist Cassie Herschel-Shorland.

Our contributions include poems written for the project by Lesley Saunders, artist Cassie Herschel-Shorland’s response to the Museum’s Maths Cabinet and to Lesley’s poems, illustrator Badaude’s take on the theme (she gives us a taster of her contribution here,) an essay on Consul the Calculating Monkey by Dr Caitlin Wylie, and a brilliant piece on poetry, the Gothic, and constraints, by Dr Joseph Crawford. Original artwork, exclusive to the book, and other pictures are in colour throughout.

Ever since learning about poets and artists collaborating to produce a book, I wanted to create a small, beautiful ‘art book’ – and I’m pleased to consider The Rules of Form: Sonnets and Slide Rules a very special art book.

The form and contents of the object are equally important, and everything in the book was inspired by the Whipple Museum’s collection of mathematical instruments.

A London-based launch is in progress.

Almost pocket-sized, definitely purse-sized, The Rules of Form is perfect for the train…

‘Dream Cabinet’ & Art Book update

Following on my last post, I’m very sorry to say that the ‘Dream Cabinet’ event at the Whipple Museum has been cancelled. If you were planning on attending, thank you, and I’m sorry!

The good news is that our art book, The Rules of Form: Sonnets and Slide Rules, is going to print next week, so I should shortly have it in my hands (whereupon I shall post photos). This is the Whipple Museum’s first art book, and I’m proud to have conceived of it and edited it. The book includes original artwork, original poetry, and two very different, very interesting essays – all of the contents is on the subject of, or inspired by, the Whipple Museum’s mathematical instruments. Contributors include artist Badaude, artist Cassie Herschel-Shorland, poet Lesley Saunders, and academics Joseph Crawford and Caitlin Wylie.

I’m looking into arranging a London-based book launch, so please stay tuned…

‘Dream Cabinet’ at the Whipple & art book launch 27 October

As part of our art book, ‘The Rules of Form: Sonnets & Slide Rules,’ poet Lesley Saunders and artist Cassie Herschel-Shorland were invited to interpret historic calculating instruments in the Whipple Museum’s collection. The result is a ‘dream cabinet’ of poetry and watercolour. I will chair a discussion between Lesley and Cassie talking about their collaboration, at the launch of the ‘Rules of Form’ art-book.

I’m proud to say that this is the first ‘art book’ the Whipple Museum has ever produced, and I’m delighted to have been encouraged to fulfil this ambition, having proposed the idea, compiled contributions, and edited the book with help from the Museum. I’ve wanted to create a book that is a blend of poetry, writing, and artwork for a long time, and surprisingly, the Whipple Museum’s cabinet of mathematical instruments offered this opportunity.

The event, in which we’ll discuss the creation of a particular section of the book, will be from 6 -7 pm on Saturday 27 October in the Whipple Museum. The ‘Dream Cabinet’ discussion is part of the 2012 Cambridge Festival of Ideas ‘Dreams & Nightmares’ season. It is free, but please contact the museum to put your name on the guest list! Email hps-whipple-museum@lists.cam.ac (dot) uk to sign up.

‘The Rules of Form: Sonnets & Slide Rules’ art book includes essays from Cambridge academics Dr Caitlin Wylie and Dr Joseph Crawford, artwork from Cassie Herschel-Shorland and Badaude, and poetry from Lesley Saunders. It is a creative compendium of responses to the somewhat retiring mathematics cabinet in the Whipple Museum, helping shed new and creative light on calculators and slide rules that have lain relatively silent for years.

The book will be available from the Whipple Museum: further details forthcoming. It will also be available at our event!

16th biannual conference of the European Association of Museums of the History of Medical Sciences, Berlin

‘The Ruin,’ with a picture of how it looked before it was bombed.

I’ve just returned from my first trip to Berlin, a place everyone who has been will say is wonderful. I wholeheartedly agree. The trip was to attend the best conference I’ve ever been to – it was well-organised, warmly hosted, and included an engaging mixture of enthusiastic discussion, tours of museums, a cruise along the River Spree, and a marvellous mix of venues. The main home of the conference was in the Charite Museum of Medicine, in ‘The Ruin‘:

‘The ruin of the former Rudolf Virchow Lecture Hall, with its historic charm, presents a unique event location that has made for an unforgettable experience for guests from all over the world. The lecture hall of the pathological museum was destroyed toward the end of World War II by bombings. After the war, the building was barely refitted and almost forgotten. Since the middle of the 1990s the “preserved” ruin has been used for formal events, social get-togethers and scientific exchange.’

The conference kicked off with tours of the medical history museum, which has both permanent exhibits as well as special exhibits. The current special exhibit is called ‘Stone,’ (‘STEINE’) and brings together stones from various parts of the world – most especially human gallstones and bladder stones. A fascinating display of these is exhibited in such a way as to make a work of modern art, bringing to mind lentils/pulses/beans, scouring a pebble beach: any number of things before one realises that all of these widely coloured, geometrical objects have actually come from within human bodies.

Stones from within people!

‘Hidden Stories: What do medical objects tell and how can we make them speak?’ This theme struck my interest because of the various object-based workshops I’ve run at the Whipple Museum and elsewhere, such as the Erasmus Darwin House. It also interested me because I am telling one version of a story with ‘Venus Heart,’ my poetry play about anatomical wax models.

It didn’t disappoint. There were hot debates about the very nature of the metaphor ‘do objects speak’? (Well, no, they don’t literally. That’s not the point. That’s why it’s a metaphor.) There were concerns about losing focus on the materiality of an object (a terrible phrase, ‘the thingness of a thing,’ which says nothing – let’s say ‘the materiality of a thing’). Let’s focus on the touch/feel/smell of an object. But what if one (as is most frequently the case) can’t do that? What if we are told not to, not allowed to, or kept apart from the object, and can only look? I begin object-based workshops by simply asking the participants to describe the object in a sensory way – even if they can only look at it. Colour, shape, texture, can all be interpreted through the eyes.

A captive audience?

We heard excellent papers which ranged from discussing the above ideas to hearing individual object stories. The top of a skull told more of a story from being mostly a hole – a tumor had eaten away most of the bone itself. The story was one more of negative space – what we couldn’t see – than what we could.

We enjoyed guided tours of the Anatomical Teaching Collection and listened to lectures in the Institute of Anatomy lecture hall, a grand, creaky wooden amphitheatre with cases lining the back of the room, appropriately filled with skulls.

We were greeted back at ‘The Ruin’ with glasses of champagne, and debate and conversation continued throughout dinner, complete with a musical quartet who played Mozart and Kreisler. The most special part of all was this: as part of our tour of the museum, our lovely guide, Tom, took us through the workshop of his colleague, Navena, who makes waxwork pathologies.

I was very keen to come back and have a longer look, so at the end of dinner (at about 11pm) I introduced myself to Navena and said how much I’d like to see her office again if we had the chance. She said, ‘Why don’t we go now.’ So three of us (one of whom was Joanna Ebenstein of the Morbid Anatomy blog) got to go along for a special, late-night tour…

Some of the workshop inhabitants.

Navena’s office is a wunderkammer of taxidermied animals, pickled foetuses, dried insects, and wax models. She makes waxworks for present-day teaching of medical students, and she makes waxworks for forensic investigation and teaching, such as creating (from the real thing, or from photos,) waxes of suicide cases or murder by hanging, throat-cutting, or gun. She showed us some things which I won’t go into detail over, but suffice to say it was a surreal experience, being in this anatomical theatre, a space which actually is an old dissection room, with marble tables (high-lipped, with drains at the end,) rather tipsy on champagne & wine, being shown these remarkable pieces of craftsmanship and human decay, and indeed, of human dismay.

In the modern anatomical theatre.

Navena opened a through-door and took us into the present-day anatomical theatre, all stainless-steel and halogen lights. Navena herself, I should say, is a beautiful, lean and muscular lady with bottle-bright red hair, who falls into that age group of ‘I have no idea how old she is’ (30s, I’d guess,) with a charming little gap between her front teeth and colourful tattoo on her left bicep. She’s a mixture of shy and sweet and ‘don’t mess with this woman, she could take you down and stuff you’. I asked her how she began making wax models, and she said she learned from an old woman – not many people know the craft now. When we leaned over a plastinated placenta on one of the dissecting tables and asked if it was real, she chirped, ‘Yes – it’s mine!’

I think our nighttime tour was the most special part of the whole trip, and one I’m glad I have photos, because otherwise, I’d have thought it a dream borne of the conference, the champagne, and immersing myself in anatomical models. I’m amazed (though not altogether surprised) that there are still places ‘like this’ (wunderkammer) – but not just ‘cabinets of curiosity’ – actual working spaces – like La Specola’s workshop, small-scale. I might be ringing Navena for the ‘receipt’ (recipe) she was talking about – to make waxworks…

The lovely Navena with her own plastinated placenta. Super!

The following day was a packed with more of the same level of intriguing discussion, also laid out for us in text in a bound book of abstracts. There was a whole panel of talks on wax models, to my delight, including one on the ‘Christus anatomicus,’ or ‘waxwork Christ,’ which had particular relevance to the ‘wax Venus’. I was interested in Shelley McKellar’s discussion of teaching her students in Canada – running workshops using objects – as she mostly teaches medical students, and I’m preparing teaching sessions for Imperial med students, starting next week. I may adopt some of her ideas for the future.

We were treated to guided tours of the Natural History Museum, which houses the world’s largest complete skeleton of a Brachiosaurus, called ‘Oskar,’ and the best-preserved specimen of an archaeopteryx.  In the afternoon, there were two fascinating and unsettling talks about asylums, both old and new, which helped us consider objects in a more broad sense – beyond gallstones and wax models, to bathtubs and beds.

A cruise along the Spree with the obligatory beers and schnitzel (or for those of us who were a wee bit unlucky – they ran out of schnitzel! got pasta instead. Ah well) wrapped up the evening perfectly.

A late-night walk past the Brandenburg Gate.

The conference ended after a morning of talks and thank-yous, and we were free to explore Berlin. As with any good conference, there’s much to process, and I am certain that I’ll be coming back to this material as my writing and teaching progresses. Tom, Navena, their colleagues, and especially Thomas Schnalke, who oversaw the conference and is going to be the next EAMHMS President, should be extremely proud of hosting such a marvellous conference.

Oh yes, and the next EAMHMS conference, in 2014, is almost certainly going to be hosted by the Science Museum in London!