Poetry, Patterns and Human Connection

Poet in the City specialise in large-scale live events aimed at new audiences for poetry. Founded in 2006, the organisation brings poetry to life beyond books, producing classic and contemporary poetry performances, experiences and conversations taking on major ideas, issues and people. The group showcase biopics, use poetry to animate cultural moments and to peer into ideas past and present, and create dramatic poetry experiences in major arts venues and unusual spaces. They also support young people to become poetry producers and work with many volunteers, who all help to make a thriving arts community. For the ‘Deconstructing Patterns’ project, The Francis Crick Institute worked alongside Poet in the City to commission work by Sarah Howe and Chu-Li Shewring.

Richard Bright: What is the focus of your work and what are its aims?

Isobel Colchester: Poet in the City produces poetry events and commissions taking on major ideas, issues and people. Our purpose is to increase the popularity of poetry in performance or ‘out loud’, from the ancient world to all styles of contemporary poetry. We celebrate great dead poets, create platforms for the best contemporary poets, run a festival of Poetry & Lyrics and commission poets and other artists to create new work to break down barriers to challenging ideas and places. Poetry is an essential medium to addressing some of the biggest communications barriers of our time, and we love creating work which is at once entertaining, horizon-broadening and which brings us into dialogue with the most challenging issues in contemporary society. To date our work has primarily been in London, and we are about to go national through a big libraries collaborative project this year. In addition to being a producer, we are also supporting the next generation to develop skills and interest in poetry producing in order to secure the place of live poetry into the future, and to provide a platform for young people’s ideas.

RB: Can you say something about your work on the Deconstructing Patterns exhibition/project and what it involves?

Isobel Colchester: We developed a relationship with the Crick through the Knowledge Quarter, a consortium of local organisations designed to encourage collaboration and skills sharing across disciplines at a local level. We first came in to talk to the public engagement team about how we might use poetry commissioning to create an interesting dialogue with the scientific work of the institution. We were given the brief of patterns in DNA and sequencing, and so commissioned the poet Sarah Howe, who had a long-standing interest in identity and was keen to work in science, and the sound-artist Chu-Li Shewring to create a collaborative piece in consultation with a number of scientists at the Crick. The curator Bryony Benge-Abbott had the brilliant vision to house the poetry commission in some sort of listening pod, and the result are these amazing arial jellyfish-like structures which you can beneath and hear the work, quite literally standing inside the patterns created by poetry, sound and science. The commissions jointly address the idea of the search for patterns, and the streaks of light which emerge from the darkness as solutions, identities and experiences become clear – this relates to both the act of scientific discovery as patterns are discovered in genome sequencing and scientists finding their voice within the vastness of DNA research, and the experiences of the artists in terms of how sounds stand out within the hum of everyday experience and as Sarah notes, the ‘elegance of form’ and how this emerges as distinct.

RB: How do you think poetry helps in the dialogue and understanding between the arts and sciences?

Isobel Colchester: Poetry in my opinion provides us with a unique ability to reimagine the world around us, and to utterly reconstruct it in a bid to understand, to seek new dialogue in making sense (or nonsense!) of the world past and present. Scientific research could be said to have a similar quality, so there are parallels in practice here, but perhaps poetry by nature is better at seeking an audience and can be seen as a communication tool, whereas scientific research needs to be brought into the public eye through other methods. Poetry helps with this – I say this all the time, but I think that poetry provides a human layer between the complexities of the world, communicating an individual experience to provide others with a way in or access to an experience or idea which might otherwise have been out of reach to the public – it helps to create better connections. Scientific research is immensely complex, and developing at such a rate that most of us can’t possibly think to grapple with – it is also written in a language which isn’t common parlance, so hopefully collaborations between artists and scientists can help to bring this exciting work to more people, and in a way which shows both its ‘use’ as well as its beauty.

RB: In terms of ‘ways of seeing’ what do regard as the main meeting points between artists and scientists? And what are the differences?

Isobel Colchester: We have worked on two scientific commissions this year and on both occasions the poets have expressed interest in the way in which scientists describe their work and practice, and how similar this is to the process of writing poetry and creating poetic form. In our other commission, the poet identifies the connection between how science constantly builds on the past to move forward and the parallels to her own practice by drawing on the form and inspiration of her poetic forbearers to create work, while in this commission Sarah draws links between the idea of scientific experiment and the poetic endeavour, and the constant necessity to question in a bid to create new knowledge and ideas.

RB: Collaboration between the arts and sciences has the potential to create new knowledge, ideas and processes beneficial to both fields. Do you agree with this statement?

Isobel Colchester: Absolutely. These commissions are not a one-way street where the artists simply translate the scientists work – they represent deep collaboration, providing all parties with new opportunities to understand their work. Also for the other scientists involved in the organisation, hopefully this sort of work can inspire them to consider how their science is conceptualised by the public and to continue to place humans at the centre of their practice.


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