mailout science and poetry 18
EVOLVING WORDS a poetic route to evolution
Darwin. Skulls and stuffed birds. DNA and kiwi fruit. Ladybirds and STIs. Experiments. Eugenics. Evil Genes. The Dating Game. Biodiversity. Individual significance and everything in between. Ingredients to inspire and provoke as young poets explore the impact of Evolution on our lives 150 years after the publication of &#x2018;On the Origin of the Species&#x2019; by Natural Selection.
Elizabeth Lynch produces work with artists and young people
&#x201C;It is impossible not to see the many links
and art, between the work of a
naturalist and that of a poet &#x2013; curiosity,
language ripe with possibility and poetry.&#x201D;
Evolving Words was commissioned by the Wellcome Trust as part of Darwin200 a year long programme celebrating the impact that Darwin&#x2019;s ideas continue to have on our lives. Evolving Words brought together teenagers, young adults, poets and science specialists in six UK cities to create poetry to perform, film and publish online.
between the arts and science is a
well documented one, so it is rare that an
opportunity arises to combine both.&#x201D;
Anna, 20 Cambridge
It wasn&#x2019;t difficult to gather the partners who were excited and intrigued by the challenge the project offered. As part of the programme we brought the poets and scientists together for a two-day residential to share knowledge and approaches to working with young people. The experience was mutually motivating and inspiring, with the poets and scientists debating language, theories and the nature of scientific and artistic enquiry.
Darwin&#x2019;s great great-grandson Randal Keynes joined us on day one. He reminded us that the young Darwin was labelled a failure by his father, dropped out of medical school and went off on an `extended gap year&#x2019; on The Beagle.
&#x201C;You initially think about
scientists in their lab coats, all
business, no fun to it, but now I know
it&#x2019;s different! They were all great.&#x201D;
Steve Rafferty, 17, Newcastle
The poets we recruited needed to have an interest in or specific curiosity about science. Valerie Laws has a degree in Maths and Physics, Anita Govan&#x2019;s bedside reading was about string theory. Shirley May from her stance as a Christian artist was curious about the project, would it disprove or enhance her faith? Polarbear&#x2019;s professional name is inspired by his hero David Attenborough:
&#x201C;I&#x2019;m a scientist at heart. I never intended to become an artist. The plan was to pursue a career in research in developmental psychology and anthropology. Then there was an accident involving gamma rays and a stage and I turned into a spoken word artist.&#x201D; Polarbear
I was delighted and impressed with the passion and commitment of the scientists and museum curators. Some of the poet/science pairings were particularly effective. The individuals involved are all committed to increasing public engagement with science. When I first approached Greg Hurst, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at University of Liverpool, I expected him to suggest a junior research fellow, not himself. All became clear as each week he attended the writing workshops at World Liverpool Museum, and it emerged that he also writes poetry. Since the project ended, Greg says, &#x201C;I occasionally dribble a poem into my lectures.&#x201D; After working with him, the Liverpool group know more than they might have imagined about the promiscuous sex-life of ladybirds and koala bears!
A wonderful cast of scholarly museum curators (aka National Treasures!) fired enthusiasm across the board. Access to their expertise was a seminal experience for the Liverpool young writers and the lead poet, Dinesh Allirajah, &#x201C;The museum provided a fantastic laboratory for our learning, discussion and writing.&#x201D;
Young Identity poets were initially sceptical about the project, but became hooked after experiencing
Zoology Curator Henry McGhie&#x2019;s contagious passion for birds and access to hidden collections `behind the scenes&#x2019; at the Manchester Museum. Possessed with an equally infectious enthusiasm for his subject, David McClay, Curator of the John Murray Archive (National Library of Scotland) realised, &#x201C;If you take the time to discuss science in a detailed, creative and personalised way you can get anyone interested in it&#x201D;. With Anita Govan, the group, who meet to develop their literacy skills at North Edinburgh Arts, considered Darwin&#x2019;s personal links with the city. They visited places Darwin went, discussed his ideas, viewed the collection and made meaning &#x2013; and poetry from their experiences in relation to their own life.
The Centre for Life led a lively lab session on DNA involving kiwi fruit and fruit flies. Djuke Veldhuis from the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies in Cambridge was described by Polarbear as &#x2018;his scientific goddess&#x2019;. As a science educator, she feels that Evolving Words has helped her to present her work in a more approachable manner and to embrace greater flexibility, &#x2018;letting things flow more&#x2019;.
When promoting this project, we were aware that the added ingredient, Darwin and Evolution might not be the prime attraction. Marketing emphasised the opportunities to work with a professional poet and be part of a high profile and topical national programme. The diverse cohort of 14- 30 year olds was drawn chiefly by word of mouth and 73% of these stayed the course of the project. Their
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