Interview - Kelley Swain – poet, writer and educator

Kelley Swain first came to my attention as writer-in-residence at the Whipple History of Science Museum, in Cambridge. Kelley is a fantastic poet and author, whose writing is inspired by research in the sciences, and whose prolific output is matched only by the high quality of her work. Since moving to London from Rhode Island in 2007, Kelley has been involved in numerous projects, all of which combine her twin passions of scientific research and creative writing. I caught up with Kelley to ask her about her recent work. Here's what she had to say:

As a writer, my main interest is the crossover of creative writing and science – namely, poetry and science. In 2009, Flambard Press published my first collection of poetry, Darwin’s Microscope. This book grew out of my final year at university. I completed a BA in English at a Liberal Arts school, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, and was equally encouraged to study science. So, in 2007, my final year of completing an English degree, I also took courses in zoology, biology, animal behaviour, evolution, and geology.

I’ve always loved science, but I had the chance to work in a lab one summer as a teenager (we were testing octopene dehydrogenase levels in sea scallops for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, since you ask,) and knew I didn’t want to be ‘that’ kind of scientist. It was too redundant to keep my interest.

Since university, I’ve also been an artist’s model. Last summer I had the opportunity to model at an Atelier for a month in Bruges, and began to write about it, and other experiences I’ve had as a model, which is taking shape as a memoir, The Naked Muse. I model regularly in London, and was contacted out of the blue by a lady in Bruges – I couldn’t say no to living in such a beautiful place for a month! Modelling began as a curiosity – both about art and about the experience of being a nude model. I’m amazed at how much I’ve learnt about people’s perceptions of me and of themselves, and I’m trying to write it all down in a cohesive way, as ‘art from the point of view of the object’.

In the first few years of living in London, I began attending a science and literature reading group in Cambridge, and had the opportunity to meet the Curator of the Whipple Museum of the History of Science. This launched a long-term ‘poet in residence’ affiliation, where I was able to spend time in the Museum, writing, and helping to coordinate and run workshops and engagement events for the Cambridge Festival of Ideas and the Cambridge Science Festival. The events and projects I’ve run in the Museum are always based around or inspired by objects in the collection. I love walking into the Main Gallery: it’s a wondrous space.

A major outcome of my affiliation with the Whipple Museum was their publication of an art book, which I devised and edited. The Rules of Form: Sonnets and Slide Rules is a beautiful book with essays, poems, and artwork, all responding creatively to the Whipple Museum’s mathematical instrument collection. It is available to buy from the Museum for only £6!

The latest opportunity - and the highlight of my time at the Whipple – was meeting Don Paterson, who was installed in the Museum for a separate residency, called ‘Thresholds’. Don was kind enough to host a Masterclass Workshop for my poetry group, the Nevada Street Poets. Each of us is writing a poem in response to an object in the Whipple Museum and another poem in response to an object in the Wellcome Collection. We’re calling the pamphlet Pocket Horizon, after a navigational instrument. Don is writing an introduction for us, and we’ll have illustrations by Cassie Herschel-Shorland. Pocket Horizon will be published this year by Valley Press.

Rather by coincidence, my major writing projects have ended up having connections to the Whipple Museum, even if they didn’t begin there. There is one of Charles Darwin’s microscopes in the Museum collection. My historical novel in progress, Double the Stars: The Life and Adventures of Miss Caroline Herschel, is about the astronomer Caroline Herschel and her brother William. The Whipple holds one of the telescopes made by Sir William Herschel. The Museum also has some wax models, and my poetry play, Opera di Cera, is about the anatomical wax models of Museo La Specola in Florence. Opera di Cera won the 2013 Templar ‘Iota Shots’ awards, and is being published as a poetry pamphlet this year.

I was inspired to write Double the Stars when I moved to Greenwich, London, and first heard about Caroline Herschel. She discovered eight comets in her lifetime and edited Flamsteed’s Star Catalogue, which was a major effort, and aid to astronomical research. I spent a few years researching the book, and have since written many drafts. I’m currently working on a revision under a mentorship programme with Cinnamon Press. I love Caroline’s perseverance and adaptability, and the world of discovery and natural philosophy in which she moved.

A similarly obscure reference to an eighteenth century assistant at the Museum in Florence, La Specola, sparked my interest in the wax models. I was fortunate to meet Dr Anna Maerker, who shared her research on the Museum. I spent about a year researching the history of wax models. I knew the story I wanted to tell – a tragedy inspired by a combination of Pygmalion and Frankenstein – and though I tried to write it as a novel, it would only come out as poetry. Fortunately, this seems to be the right form for it! Opera di Cera is a forty-poem verse drama written in the voices of four characters, three of whom are based on real historical figures in La Specola. Templar will publish a pamphlet of sixteen poems from the drama.

I spend a lot of time in libraries – the Caird Library at the Royal Observatory Greenwich for astronomical research, the Wellcome Library for medical research like anatomical models; the British Library to research the history of the nude in art. I also seek out first-hand, if not hands-on, experience, for example, visiting the Herschel Museum in Bath or going to La Specola in Florence. So, I seek both books and objects. The crucial third component of my research is people: experts, like Dr Maerker, or people with an historical connection. I was fortunate to befriend the marvellously generous Herschel family in the course of my research on Caroline, and was invited to Norfolk to the home of John Herschel-Shorland where he showed me piles of primary material – it was incredible. It’s also led to a friendship with John’s daughter Cassie Herschel-Shorland, an artist who has since collaborated with me on some of my books, including The Rules of Form and Pocket Horizon.

These experiences, with one foot in poetry and one in science, have informed my teaching at Imperial College London. Last year I began teaching Medical Humanities for Global Health students. My students are Year 4 Medical Students, and I’ve been running lectures and workshops on topics like tuberculosis in opera, disability and sculpture, Philip Roth’s novel Nemesis, which is about Polio, and how John Snow mapped a cholera outbreak in London. In each teaching session, I try to draw links between a particular type of art and a particular illness, and encourage the students to discuss a modern relevance if the topics are historical. Medical Humanities has the ability to encourage students in the medical field to think laterally and empathically. It also encourages communication in many directions, among students and patients, doctors and patients, carers, families – it is a truly humane and human field of study, looking through the ‘lens’ of the arts.

I’ve already learnt a great deal from teaching at Imperial, and hope to teach more regularly – I’m currently looking into completing an MSc in Medical Humanities. It’s very encouraging to see the fairly new field taking shape, as it truly is a ‘crossover’ field, which was not particularly encouraged in UK education in the past.

With the poetry pamphlets Pocket Horizon and Opera di Cera both coming out this year, I hope to be busy with book launches and readings!

Poetry in particular seems to me a vital, empathic form of science communication, and a way to weave between ‘science’ and ‘poetry,’ showing that these subjects aren’t, in fact, ‘two cultures’ at all. I’m especially inspired by the eighteenth century, when musicians were astronomers, and each profession informed the other – people were natural philosophers, not ‘scientists,’ and boundaries weren’t nearly so delineated as they are now. I’m very fortunate – being a writer allows me to pass through these boundaries and meet experts in whatever subject inspires me.

For more information on any of Kelley's current projects, please visit her website.

posted on 26 February 2013 18:19 byLeanne Moden


Literary Ely

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