What if There Were No ( x )?

For my first poetry session at the Mullard Space Science Lab, I thought discussing some poems by the astronomer/writer Rebecca Elson would create a kind of 'singularity' of relevance. What could be more pertinent to us, collectively, than a professional astronomer who also published poetry that was frequently about astronomy?

I first encountered the work of Rebecca Elson in 2001 when a friend suggested we go to see a memorial reading of poems from her Carcanet collection A Responsibility to Awe (1999) at The Troubadour in Earl's Court.

I couldn't resist the lure of an astronomer poet but 'a memorial reading'? How sad to hear of a new poet and their early death (at 39) at the same moment. The evening was revelatory and moving, and I've been reading and teaching Elson's poems ever since.

For the space lab 'seminar', I sent out half a dozen poems to the members of MSSL a week ahead of time. I went for some of the more obvious titles: 'We Astronomers', 'Dark Matter', 'Explaining Relativity' and 'What if There Were No Moon?' and invited anybody interested to join me in the common room. I had no idea if I would be left sitting on my own, or swamped by eager poetry fans.

Earlier in the day, in the same common room, I attended a seminar by Spiro Antiochos of NASA, an internationally recognised authority on solar and plasma physics. I also shared a car with him that morning but had no idea who he was till later. The theme of Spiro's presentation was 'The Role of Magnetic Reconnection in Solar Eruptions' and some of the best minds in solar physics were in attendance to hear his thoughts on the formation of solar filaments (also known as prominences) and the forces involved in their eruption.

The hard science, and the maths, were pitched way over the head of this poet, but as I understand it magnetic reconnection describes the way in which energy stored in a magnetic field is converted, sometimes explosively, into heat and kinetic release. It's fabulously more complex than this, of course.

Giant_prominence_on_the_sun_erupted (1024x576).jpg

In any case, it was thrilling to be on the periphery of the discussion and to hear new (to me) terms and concepts like magnetic islands, plasmoids, magnetic null points and bipolar arcades. If nothing else, as a writer, I took away a lot of suggestive and intriguing language.

It took a certain amount of courage (or plain front) to sit among the scientists at Spiro's seminar and try to look like I was meant to be there. I was also a little intimidated by the thought that just a few hours later I would be hosting a meeting in the very same space about Rebecca Elson's poetry.

But I realised that perhaps it would also be tricky for some of the staff and students to attend my poetry meeting and I did receive a few concerned enquiries about being compelled to read poetry aloud or being put on the spot to offer opinions and analyses of poems.

The aim of the session was to create a friendly, inclusive atmosphere in which we could simply read and reflect upon the poems, paying attention to Elson's choice of subject matter, titles, word choices, layout, rhythm, punctuation, etc: anything that struck us as noteworthy, whether good or not so good. Contributions were welcome but so was sitting quietly, listening, and thinking.

About a dozen staff and students showed up and over the course of 50 minutes we looked at four of Elson's poems, each of which prompted fascinating discussions about symbolism, ambiguity, how the layout of a poem reflects its ostensible 'subject', how certain immediate 'meanings' were undercut by a second reading, and what the poems implied about the role of scientists and astronomers.

In 'We Astronomers', Elson begins:

We astronomers are nomads,

Merchants, circus people,

All the earth our tent.


We are industrious.

We breed enthusiasms,

Honour our responsibility to awe.

and while the 'we' refers to all people (maybe all sentient beings), discussing the poem in the context of MSSL threw up many interesting discussions about the demands on astronomers to travel, to teach, to move from institution to institution, often in pursuit of funding. And all the time needing to honour their responsibility to awe. Is this responsibility a simple thing, a natural thing, or can it become a burden, an excuse for others not to honour their responsibility?

We discussed 'Dark Matter', a brief 14 word poem of 22 syllables:

Above a pond,

An unseen filament

Of spider's floss

Suspends a slowly

Spinning leaf.

and how its layout on the page (basically the top left-hand, leaving the vast majority of the page blank) said as much about the 'subject' of the poem as the words did. Elson studied dark matter as an astronomer but the title clearly alludes to things beyond the scope of her research. 

Why this pond? We asked. To give the poem some kind of scale, or backdrop: to create suspense, a ground of meaning over which this ambiguous leaf can spin.

We talked of the poem's sound patterns: all those 'O's and all those 'S' sounds that make this particular poem such a silent experience in comparison to the explosive opening of 'Explaining Relativity':

Forget the clatter of ballistics,

The monologue of falling stones,

The sharp vectors

And the stiff numbered grids.

So, in Spiro's seminar we discussed filaments and explosive force, and in the afternoon we discussed very similar things in relation to poetry. I was lucky enough to take the car and the train back to London with Spiro: my day was bookended by him.

At the end of the session, I set an assignment to write a new piece, after one of the poems we looked at, called 'What if There Were No (x)?',  where the x is a concept or object chosen by the poet. So far I've received some interesting drafts replacing the x with 'Contact', 'Stars', 'No Clear Skies', and others. I might write one myself called What if There Were No 'No'.





Tromsø and Sø Øn

In January, as part of my Sunspots research, I travelled to Tromsø in Norway to experience a week without the Sun. The follow-up article I wrote has just been published online in Pages Of magazine. Among other things it deals with northern lights-envy, knitwear, poetry, polar bears and beer halls.

Some pictures from the space lab

The Mullard Space Science Lab is crammed with all manner of space paraphernalia and technical equipment, and nitrogen tanks, and bits of rocket, as you might expect. But I wanted to share some photos of the building and the grounds and the other day it happened to stop raining for a while.

So this entry is more of a gallery than a blog. Click on a picture to see the next one.

Someone left the space lab cake out in the rain...

So far, each time I've been to the Mullard Space Science Lab it has been pouring down with rain and there has been cake. Scientists, engineers, and PhD students are partial to tea and cake around 3 p.m. it seems.

On Wednesday January 29th, myself and Lucie Green launched our 'poet in residence' project. Staff and students at the lab number around 160 and they're often away on teaching and research assignments, so we were delighted to see around 50 of them in the common room. The lure of cake and, of course, poetry, is strong. And it's good to be indoors in this rainy part of Surrey.

Lucie and I spoke about our aims and intentions for the year and I read my poem Saturn on Seventh, which was the first 'astronomical' poem I ever published, but it was the conversations which followed that really excited me.

While it was all a bit of a blur, with lots of new faces and names from many different departments and parts of the world (the lab is a vibrantly international place to work and study), many fascinating themes emerged from the proximity of science and poetry.

Do terms like 'dark matter' and 'dark energy' have a subliminally melancholic effect on those studying them? Would we be a little happier if we used different, 'lighter' terms?

Isn't it interesting how, when trying to get to grips with extraterrestrial phenomena, we use terrestrial metaphors, like 'Sunquakes' and plasma 'islands'? What would it mean to create extraterrestrial terms and metaphors?

What would happen to the content, style, and meaning of a scientific paper if we rewrote it as a Shakespearean sonnet? Would it be a wrecked and useless hull or a new work of art with something unexpected to offer?

What kinds of poems could we create by performing 'cut-ups' on scientific articles, or redacting words and passages to see the poetry peeping beneath?

We'll be exploring these ideas and methods over the course of the year starting with a discussion group on the poetry of astronomer Rebecca Elson. More on that later.

One of the most amusing chats I had was with an astrophysicist who teased me about my focus on Sunspots: that it's too limited, that the Sun is just a tiny speck in the whole cosmos and I should write about all these other things instead.

Of course he's right, but the great thing about about the Sun is that it enables you to write about anything and everything if you take the right approach.

The Color of Money: Grady Seasons

Scorsese's hugely underrated 'The Color of Money' is on BBC One right now. I'm reminded of when my friend Beril challenged me and Luke Heeley to write poems about the sleazy bit-part hustler Grady Seasons, who's on screen for a few minutes only but leaves a memorable smear. Our prize was dinner at Beril's. This is my poem, published in my book, Neptune Blue.


Grady Seasons

It’s grady season,

the night snakes into sheer bri-nylon,

static sparks from pits, and nipples

redden from the friction.


It’s grady season,

the day wriggles into tight tan slacks,

gets sweaty round the crotch,

makes a buckle of the Sun.


It’s grady season,

the rain slants down like pool cues

or the cues slant down like rain,

in any case


it’s grady season,

and wood bees pollinate

a million billiard orchids

with blue chalk dust


as the gods rack up

a diamond of misfortune

for you to cut your teeth upon

during grady season,


season of fists and sallow hopelessness,

close-fitting bosoms

round the ring-stained tables

and the cue tip-ripped-up-baize.


It’s grady season.

If you didn’t sink your nine-ball

as you breached your mother’s

birth wall you’re rolling


round the small towns,

the pool halls, the cheap highs,

the comedowns, the dives

of grady season,


the three score years and ten

of it before the axis tips you

in the ditch, life’s a bitch,

the balls roll funny for everyone, sonny.


It’s like a nightmare, isn’t it?

The halls decay, the halls decay and fall

and that’s not all, it’s grady season:

on the snap, go for broke, don’t choke.


The Color of Money on IMDb


New residency at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory

I have just begun a one-year stint as poet in residence at UCL's Surrey-based Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL for short). This is my first big new (ad)venture in a while and I'm tinglier than 'Space Dust Alka-Seltzer', if there were such a thing.

It all began in March 2013 when I read at The Purcell Room as part of 'Notes from the Universe' along with Public Astronomer Marek Kukula and the artist Honor Harger.

Actually, it began a lot longer ago than that.

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Hiroshima & Nagasaki & Tsutomu Yamaguchi

August 6th and August 9th: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tsutomu Yamaguchi was caught up in both horrific events. In Hiroshima on business on the 6th, he returned to Nagasaki for the 9th, already carrying injuries from the first bomb. A remarkable tale and a remarkable man. In January 2010, BBC 3's 'The Verb' programme commissioned me to write about Tsutomu.  

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It's Me, O Lord

...standing in the need of prayer. Well it felt that way in the warm-up room of Jacques Samuel Pianos on Edgware Road. I was there last Tuesday afternoon for a jazz trumpet exam. It's been a very musical week, starting with 'Simoraine' and ending on my music teacher's recital at The Guildhall School of Music. But in-between, my music exam lay in wait, like one of the crocodiles in Live and Let Die.

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Byron's 'Darkness' and the Summer of No Sun

[Given the Sun's reluctance to appear this year, I thought it was a good time to revive a piece I wrote for Birkbeck College's splendid Writer's Hub. This article first appeared there in June 2012.]

Among other things, I’m writing 121 poems about the Sun, and Byron’s pitch-black meditation feels like the reverse of my star struck project. Or perhaps its inky lining. I've struggled a little with Byron over the years but this poem, this dark matter, immediately gripped me.

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Remembering 'Simoraine'

Every Father's Day I think about funeral music, a theme that's played through my mind ever since October 1997, when I heard the pieces that my musician father, Clive Barraclough, had selected for his final 'appearance'.

That bright and brittle day a water main burst in the centre of Huddersfield and the funeral cars were diverted through the vertiginous village of Scapegoat Hill. Unplanned, we drove past dad's first home, first school, and the practice rooms of his first brass band. Dad joined Scapegoat Hill Brass Band as a small but precocious nine-year-old, already good enough to play baritone horn with the grownups.

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New blog

A few years ago I had a blog called 'Fallout'. We fell out. This is going to be the new blog. Life, literature, culture, my struggles playing the trumpet, which I took up last summer.