Poetry

The Science, Nature and Creativity of Slant Light. In Conversation with Sarah Westcott

We caught up with Sarah Westcott to discuss the interplay between science and creative writing and the various aspects of life and culture that enrich her poetry collection Slant Light.

As someone who has studied both biology and creative writing, do you think that scientific methods (e.g. observation and analysis) bear any similarity to poetic composition?

Yes and no in the sense that both involved sustained and careful observation of both the immediately visible and then the less obvious before any conclusions are drawn or ideas expressed.

But no in the sense that when I am writing early drafts of a poem I am drawing on parts of my mind that do not attempt objectivity. Objectivity is of course fundamental to scientific observation and analysis.

Both disciplines are also infused with the kind of curiosity that is unconscious and in-the-moment and then have parallels in the time afterwards when the mind works over and through what it has been looking at.

There is also a sense for me when editing that I must engage my rational, discerning, critical mind to excise and explain and this is very much a mind I recognise from looking down a microscope or under a stone and examining what is there.

In some of your poems, such as Bats and The Mariposa Trees, nature seems to speak for itself. How did you go about developing a voice and consciousness for different aspects of the natural world?

Thank you – that is something I am still working on. I think for me it is a question of immersing myself in the landscape and also spending time in the garden standing quietly as the bats flicker above me. Those immersive times which are wordless give me a taste of the language that might suit that species. So for the bats I went for a lot of consonantal, clicking sounding words which reflects the staccato nature of their flight and the echolocation they emit (which I can sometimes still hear).

So it’s a question of listening to (and feeling, as a fellow animal) what is already there and then trying to capture something of that essence in our language.

You also work as a journalist. Does this feed into your poetry in any way?

I have been a news reporter for almost twenty years now. In terms of writing, a lot of the news we report is quite complicated and has to be condensed into a few hundred words. So clarity is very important and I think the word-by-word editing skills of weighing up whether a word, phrase or even comma should be there is useful in both areas.

Likewise with rhythm – there is a beat or rhythm in the intros (the first paragraph) of most tabloid news stories  – this may sound fanciful but you do hear it in the sentence as you write it. There is also a degree of word-play.

The other parallel is an awareness of an audience which is strong when I’m writing a news story. We were long ago told to consider: “would this article/angle be of interest to Doris in Doncaster?” And when writing poetry, being able to step back and think “does this actually make sense in its own right” helps my poems hopefully become more understandable.

I have found in my job that you become immersed in all human life as a reporter – not only speaking to people but also sitting through the court cases and inquests, the weddings, the funerals and any occasions when there are crowds of people mourning or celebrating. It’s a kind of privilege to be able to be in those crowds and talk to people and understand why they are there. As a journalist people sometimes tell you quite intimate thoughts as well.  You’re also party to terrible cases of abuse and also the fragility of life. I think that can only help feed my poetry with a respect and even love for us “naked apes”.

You have previously cited Alice Oswald as an influence. What do you value most in her work? Do you have any other literary influences?

I love her use of language to describe the non-human – she manages to make us see creatures, and places almost in a heightened reality without in any way sentimentalising them. For example, writing of a rotted swan as “hurrying away from the plane-crash-mess of her wings” communicates the arched structure of the swan’s frame and also the rigidity and stillness of death and also the way swans ‘run up’ and take off into flight.

My literary influences are everywhere. I am a magpie. I like poems that stretch language to its limits and are not afraid to go beyond.

I really enjoy hybrid work at the moment – recent highlights are Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Feathers and also Solar Bones by Mick McCormack.

I am also fascinated by the sounds, music and meaning in registers of language we have at our disposal – particularly the specialist vocabulary you might find in science. At their best they give you a new way of seeing the world and also sound beautiful when defamiliarised.

Slant Light features several Anglo-Saxon charms and references to folklore. What is your process for transforming raw material such as this into poetry?

A lot of the charms came about when I was writer-in-residence at a nature reserve and I wanted to write about the properties of the plants growing there – many of them common weeds with medicinal properties.

That lead me into researching the charms which are these rich, song-like poems that seem to operate in the area between early Christianity and paganism. I find that hinterland really exciting. I moved between the old texts and my own new interpretations by translating word-by-word using an online dictionary and a bit of poetic license. A lot of the words are open to interpretation and a lot of them are direct translations. What is exciting is the rhythm of speech is already there in the originals which gave me a powerful sense of reaching into something real. They were, I think, performative and meant to be heard. In that sense, the form of the poems, like line breaks and pauses, fell naturally as breath.

 

About Sarah Westcott

Sarah Westcott’s debut pamphlet Inklings was the Poetry Book Society’s Pamphlet Choice for Winter 2013. Her poems have been published in journals including Poetry ReviewMagma and Poetry Wales and in anthologies including Best British Poetry 2014 (Salt). Sarah grew up in north Devon, on the edge of Exmoor, and has a keen interest in the natural world. She holds a science degree and an MA in poetry from Royal Holloway, University of London. Sarah lives on the London/Kent borders with her family and, after a spell teaching English abroad, works as a news journalist.

For more information on Slant Light and other titles in our Pavilion Poetry series, please visit our website.

 

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History, Uncategorized

Classical sculpture and the modern world – an interview with Elizabeth Bartman

Author of the newly released catalogue The Ince Blundell Collection of Classical Sculpture, Elizabeth Bartman, discusses the history of the collection, sculptural restoration and how the qualities of the collection transcend into modern life with Chrissy Partheni of the World Museum, Liverpool.

You have described yourself as an archaeologist of the storeroom, can you explain what that means?

Unlike most archaeologists who literally dig beneath the ground to find the remains of now-dead people, I explore museum basements and galleries, studying works of art for previously overlooked evidence of the past.

When and how did you become interested in Henry Blundell’s collections?

Almost 20 years ago I met Jane Fejfer, a wonderful Danish archaeologist who had been working on Blundell’s ancient statues; there were quite a lot of them and she suggested that I might also want to study them.  One trip to Liverpool convinced me that the collection was a treasure, largely forgotten by scholars.

What three words sum up Henry Blundell’s collections of classical sculpture?

Under-appreciated, immense, encyclopaedic

How do Blundell’s collections relate to other 18th century collectors of antiquities and practices of restoration?

Blundell’s ancient statues represent a cross-section of what was being excavated and collected in the 18th century by English gentlemen making a “Grand Tour” to Italy: they are Roman works made to decorate houses, villas, and public spaces in the first centuries CE and so represent mainly gods, goddesses, and mythical heroes.  Many of them would have been found in a damaged state, but because Blundell and contemporaries wanted them as works of art to ennoble their own houses, they were restored into complete figures by skilled Italian sculptors before being sent home to England. Blundell was not as wealthy as some of the collectors with whom he competed for works, so he may not have been able to afford some of the most famous finds of the period.  But he does seem to have had a passion for the antique that not all of his peers shared—he returned to Italy multiple times and continued to add to the collection over 30 years.  Ultimately he ended up with some pieces that today we would consider rare masterpieces.

In your book the descriptions and personal appreciation of different busts or statues reflect the process of your research. Can you talk about the stages and processes involved with researching the collections? Where has the research taken you, were there any particular highlights?

When I began this project nearly 20 years ago, I thought it would be a straightforward catalogue of about 100 ancient Roman statues that examined their date, style, and meaning.  Some other scholars, mainly Italian, had recently made great strides in discovering where statues like Blundell’s had been found in the 18th century, and the possibility of contextualizing these works was very exciting.  However, at the same time, I realized that although these statues had started life as Roman works, the restoration they had undergone had given them a second life and that they were as much artworks of the 18th century as of antiquity.  So then I wondered what meanings they had had for Blundell and his contemporaries: how did these statues relate to what was then known about antiquity from reading ancient Latin and Greek texts or modern books like Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire?  Seen from this perspective, “Grand Tour” marbles such as Blundell’s document the way that people of the period thought about the past, something which in turn has affected how we today think about the past.

How do you think your book will help further research into classical sculpture and the particular collections?

By publicizing Blundell’s marbles with new photographs, my book will make accessible works that have been largely forgotten; it will be exciting to see others incorporate them into their own research. I hope also that my book will encourage the recognition that most statues belonging to what we might call the “old European collections” have been restored—here I mean not just the English country house collections like Blundell’s but also those of the Louvre, Vatican, and other museums formed prior to the 19th century.  Sometimes the restoration is so subtle as to be barely detectible, but failing to recognize it leads us to a false interpretation of the antiquity we naively believe it represents.

How do you think general visitors can engage with Henry Blundell’s collections?

Those who know something of classical mythology will recognize familiar subjects like Jupiter and Diana.  Those who don’t may appreciate the skill of the ancient sculptor who has carved figures who seem alive and poised to move out of still, “dead” marble.  Not all of the statues depict serious subjects; in fact some like the satyr wrestling with a beautiful hermaphrodite are quite playful and help bridge the centuries that separate us from the ancients.

Your work and previous role with the Archaeological Institute of America supports and encourages young researchers. What do your think are the challenges classical studies and archaeology face today?

Training to become a professional archaeologist typically requires years of education that can be long and expensive.   Although the general public has an enormous interest in archaeology, funding can be problematic, especially for those at the initial stages of their careers.  And of course the future for foreign archaeologists to work abroad in war-torn areas such as Libya or Syria is very uncertain.  As in all fields of the humanities, archaeologists need to fight increasing specialization to focus on the big issues.

Is there a particular contribution classical studies and training can make to society today?

I firmly believe that the great works of classical literature and art tackle issues that transcend the society that created them and remain as relevant today as they were centuries ago.  We may need a bit of guidance in studying them, but understanding where we as human beings come from is critical to understanding where we are today.

What is the next project/publication you are working on?

I am now working on a book about the sculptural restoration of ancient statuary.  I intend this to be a wide-ranging study that looks at the history, philosophy, and techniques of restoration from the Renaissance through the early 19th century.  It will focus on Rome, which naturally excelled in giving new life to the thousands of statues found in its soil, and will make use of some exciting new technologies such as 3-D digital modelling.

For more on the Ince Blundell Sculpture Collection visit the Liverpool World Museum website or read the blog post by Chrissy Partheni Curator of Classical Antiquities at National Museums Liverpool online.

Find The Ince Blundell Collection of Classical Sculpture on our website

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