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Chemical Poetry: an interview with Simon Barraclough

Chemical Poetry: The Periodic Table & Poetry‘ will use the famous periodic table of elements as a springboard and playground for new writing. Fizz, explode, react and toxicate: we spoke to Simon Barraclough about what happens when poetry and chemistry meet.

Hi Simon! What’s ‘Philandrium’?

SB: Philandrium is a brand new element discovered and analysed by poet Isobel Dixon while taking an earlier version of this class. In fact, she has this to say about it: “‘O Philandrium’ came completely from left field – Simon had set some exercises and I wasn’t particularly fired up, till I started to think about his suggestion of writing a poem based on an element you’d made up. The word ‘Philandrium’ just popped into my head, and I immediately began to think of a character who fizzed with charm and had all kinds of attractive yet highly unstable properties. And the poem just flowed from there.”

Tell us a little more about your course – what do you have planned?

SB: Part of me tends to see the Universe as something to be exploited for the creation of poetry. The beautiful periodic table of the elements contains everything that we know (so far) makes up this Universe. So the two things come together neatly for an entertaining, informative, and productive romp through the elements and that make up the reality we live in.

During the course, we will focus on plenty of the more interesting, vital, or controversial elements (gold, uranium, polonium, arsenic, carbon, silicon all spring to mind immediately) and the stories behind them. We will also investigate some of the scientific pioneers and unsung heroes (often, lamentably, women who made astonishing contributions to the field but were overlooked in their time for the usual depressing reasons).

There will also be the chance to imagine new elements (I found a troubling element called Treblinkium a couple of years ago), to combine poetic elements to make compounds, and we will investigate concepts like ‘value’ and ‘toxicity’.

There are lots more things I’d like to look at, such as the career of the brilliant Lise Meitner, the weirdness of electrons, and perhaps we might even dabble in the mysterious waters of quantum theory. But I don’t want to put anyone off: I’m no chemist or physicist and I don’t expect you to be. If you are, then fabulous! I’ve had chemists take this class before and they have been wonderful sources of insight and knowledge. As we go, we will read and analyse published poems that touch on the field, and we will write and workshop new work together. The periodic table of elements will be our playground, our springboard, our laboratory.

As Poet in Residence at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, are you a chemist posing as a poet? What’s your relationship to science?

SB: Actually, I’ve just finished my year-long stint at the lab, although I’m obviously going to keep in touch. I’m certainly no scientist but who among us isn’t fascinated by the sciences: natural, cosmological, theoretical, and even the science-fictional? 

What have you been up to during your residency?

SB: My main role at the space lab was to bring people together by disseminating and generating poetry. To this end I ran regular poetry meetings where we discussed the likes of Rebecca Elson, Edwin Morgan, Samuel Beckett, Alison Hawthorne Deming and many others. We collaborated on work about the lab, its environs, and the activities of staff and students.

In the summer I ran a public reading with Liane Strauss (who has a brilliant new book about the Moon out right now called All the Ways You Still Remind Me of the Moon) and I set automatic writing exercises and various types of homework throughout the year. It was hard but rewarding work and the results have been wonderful. One of the outputs is the 100-page anthology Laboratorio, which is due out from Sidekick Books any day now.

Could you explain a little about your project Sunspots – what forms does it take? I know that it’s a multi-medium project…

SB: The heart of Sunspots is the book itself, which has just come out from Penned in the Margins. This is a book-length sequence inspired by or ‘about’ the Sun, which takes the reader on a wild and twisting journey from the Sun’s birth to its eventual death.

Immediately after finishing my second book Neptune Blue, I found myself in the grip of an all-consuming obsession with the Sun and in the end I wrote over 120 poems on the theme. About 80 of them made it into the book.The book also comes with a show, which we’re currently developing and will be touring in the autumn. This features songs and films along with spoken word elements. It’s the first time I’ve written music (in collaboration with Oli Barrett of Petrels) and the whole project is pushing and pulling me in new directions.

You often work across platforms. What do you think are the benefits of combining visual media with poetry?

SB: All multi-media work complicates matters for the author but mixing platforms can be wonderful for finding new audiences and making your work more accessible. In terms of Sunspots, the visual nature of the subject lent itself rather naturally to expanding into film and music and playing with light. I’ve worked with Jack Wake-Walker (film) and Oli Barrett (music) on a couple of previous projects, and I wanted to see how far we could go this time. It’s a lovely coincidence that this year happens to be the International Year of Light. I had no idea when I started writing Sunspots in 2011!

Sunspots follows on from your previous collection Neptune Blue, which also considers the sun and the solar system – will you be developing these themes again in your next project?

SB: There’s only one poem about the Sun in Neptune Blue (the last in the book and the last one I wrote for that collection) but it propelled me into Sunspots with great force! I think my next project will be very different. It might not even be poetry. But I have a feeling that I will remain close to the Sun, astronomy, and science for the rest of my life.

Do you think there are specific elements to good poetry? Could there be a formula for writing a good poem? 

SB: I do think there are elements that are essential to good poetry. But the thing is they mutate and decay and combine and react in ways which aren’t so easy to predict or isolate.

We will consider these kinds of things in our discussions. I’d be a rich man if I knew the formula. Actually, it probably still wouldn’t make me rich.

If you’d like to write from the point of view of a randomly chosen element, compose a ‘Self-portrait as Einsteinium’ and invent new elements for your own poetic imagination, you can book your place on ‘Chemical Poetry: The Periodic Table & Poetry’ online or by calling us at the office on 0207 582 1679.

On Thursday 30 April, join Simon for the launch of Sunspots at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, with film-maker Jack Wake-Walker, and solar astrophysicist and TV presenter Dr Lucie Green. A panel discussion on collaborations between artists and scientists will be followed by poetry readings from Sunspots, interspersed with original film inspired by the poems and produced by Jack.

Simon Barraclough is originally from Yorkshire and has lived in London since 1997. His debut collection, Los Alamos Mon Amour was a Forward Prize finalist in 2008. In 2010 he published a pamphlet of commissioned poems, Bonjour Tetris (Penned in the Margins) and his second full collection Neptune Blue (Salt Publishing) followed in 2011. Sunspots, Simon's most recent collection ''is a love letter from the third planet to it's parent star.'' (Dr Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer, Royal Observatory Greenwich).

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