What is it like to be a poet or artist in residence?

Alyson Hallett, recent Poet in Residence in Geography on the Cornwall Campus and current Artist in Residence in the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences Pery Burge share their experiences.

What’s the longest time it has taken between you having a creative idea and finishing the work inspired by it?

Pery: About a month is the longest time.  I like to work quickly and move on to a new idea, or a new expression of the same idea. For me, each piece of work is another element within a long creative process.

Alyson: My book of short stories took nearly three years before I was finished with it.  Sometimes, with a poem, it can be even longer.  There is one particular poem that I’ve working on in one way or another for four years.  It never quite resolves.  And it’s not even that long!  My first book of poems was around seven years in the making.  Four years to write the poems, and then a further three years of waiting for publication after the manuscript had been accepted.  And by then I wanted to take a few out and put a few new ones in.

What makes you decide to call a halt and stop working on something; at what point is it definitely ‘finished’?

Pery: I work as a kind of catalyst for natural processes – when I feel these processes are revealed to their best advantage then it’s time to stop! In this type of work, less is usually more.

Alyson: There comes a point when I can’t do any more to the poem or a story.  And so I put it to one side, or send it out for publication.  However, I never really think of anything as finished.  I have been known to change poems in my books whilst I’m on the train on a way to a reading…. I guess none of my work will be definitely finished until I’m definitely finished too.

'New Blue Planet' by Pery Burge

'New Blue Planet' by Pery Burge

Does your creative work ever take you by surprise after it’s finished, or is it too familiar to you by then to do that?

Pery: It’s hard to be surprised by my own work because I have a consistency of style. Sometimes I look back over old images – some going back to college days – and can see that what I was aiming for then was pretty much in line with what I do now; there’s a continuous thread.

Alyson: I can work on a body of poems for a long time, which makes them very familiar, but there is always an element of surprise when they return to me in book form.  There’s something about seeing them in a different format, with a cover, looking very grown up, as if they come back to meet me with a new air of confidence and maturity.  I love seeing that – the change from a manuscript of scrubby sheets of A4 paper to a pristine book.

Do you have creative blocks? What do you do about them?

Pery: Go for a walk. Nature’s metaphors provide creative solutions every time.

Alyson: Sometimes I just don’t have anything to say.  So I stay quiet for a while and paint or play the piano instead.  And like Pery, walking is probably one of the most important things I do whether I’m engaged in a piece of writing or not.  As the Russian poet Tsvetseyeva once said, “I am not a poet I am a pedestrian.”

Does the Streatham campus inspire your creativity – if so, in what way?

Pery: I love the meandering paths, the glimpses of nature between the buildings, and all the water – the fountains, lakes and water sculptures. I’m hoping to do a photographic piece on the water – a kind of ‘water meander’ soon.

Alyson: I love the trees on this campus, and the buildings.  They inspire me as a person – and no doubt this will feed into my creativity at some point in the future.

When did you first become interested in science?

Pery: When I was small, my parents bought me Finding out magazine which had scientific articles and some great illustrations. One cover featured a picture of a crescent moon, but the whole dark shape of the moon was also just visible – that picture intrigued me!  Science at primary school was integrated with other subjects: we would take a theme – swifts nesting in the school roof, for example, and look at the biology, the maths, the artistic aspects – a great way to study. Science was part of the whole learning process and that approach later on influenced my artistic thinking.

Alyson: When I was eight or nine I went to Kilve Court in Somerset to do a course in ornithology. Finding an owl pellet and then taking it back to the laboratory to dissect it still remains one of the most exciting moments in my life.  There was something magical about being able to see things through a microscope, skulls and other bones, and being able to gain a deeper understanding of the world around me.

A view from 'Six Days in Iceland' by Alyson Hallett

A view from 'Six Days in Iceland'. Photograph by Sam Inglis

What kinds of science are you interested in now?

Pery: Like Alyson, I’m fascinated by physics. I love Jim Al-Khalili’s TV programmes on the atom, the universe, chaos theory, chemistry and electricity. Sometimes I see connections between the theory explained in these programmes, and things which I’ve observed – for example in the rules defining pattern formation. I’ve also been watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series, where he makes unexpected connections of every kind between large and small events in our universe.

Alyson: I love to read about physics – even when I can’t understand what’s being written about.  Anything to do with energy, dark matter and other dimensions fascinates me.  I’m also really interested in geology and geography, the sciences that help me to expand my vision of the universe and my sense of awe.  All this in turn contributes to my writing and helps me to keep my vocabulary alive and resonant.

How does a piece of work begin?

Pery: Usually from experimentation – setting things in motion, like putting ink in water in a certain way, or arranging for light to fall on glass in a particular way, and then just watching what happens when nature takes over.

Alyson: I usually hear something, a few words or a line.  Then I get myself to a piece of paper and start writing.  I like to see where the words will take me, in the same way that the artist Paul Klee liked to take a line for a walk.  It’s a process of discovery, and I never quite know what’s going to happen.

What is an artist’s residency and what’s the point of being resident in a science department?

Pery: For me, my current residency, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, is a unique chance for me to share my work with others and to experiment in new areas. I’m able to try out new ideas on specialized equipment, and to talk to scientists about old and new projects. Having worked at home on my own for quite a while, it’s a great pleasure to chat to scientists and everyone else in the department and elsewhere in the University.  I can make use of the scientific aspects of the machinery (e.g. precisely controlled water flow speed) in order to give me better artistic results.  Nothing new in this idea – most artists use some knowledge of science to help them develop reliable techniques.  Beyond that, one of the big attractions is to use the fluids lab equipment in a different way – to produce artistic visualizations from machines which were specifically built for scientific investigation. The results of my experiments so far can be seen at my journal at my website www.chronoscapes.com

Alyson: I was a poet-in-residence in the University of Exeter’s department of geography in Cornwall for a year (2010-11).  This residency was funded by the Leverhulme Trust who specifically support this kind of cross-disciplinary work.  I was in the department for two days a week, and during this time I ran a creative writing group, went on field-trips, attended lectures and wrote poems that I then posted on walls and windows in the department and the library.  I also went on a residential field-trip to Iceland with Professor Chris Caseldine and a group of second year students.  As a result of this we produced a book, Six Days in Iceland, which is a mixture of poetry, photography and scientific text.  In many ways the book encapsulates the aim of the residency, which was to enable conversations to happen between our different disciplines.

What does art and science have in common?

Pery: In a way they have everything in common because they are just different sides of the same coin. The labels of ‘art’ and ‘science’ are useful, but they are only labels. A drop of water doesn’t consider itself to be artistic or scientific; it’s just itself.

Alyson: Scientists and artists are interested in observing the world and learning about it.  We are passionate about what we do, we just happen to record our findings in different ways.  It’s only a fairly recent phenomenon to split science away from art, making it seem as if they have nothing to do with one another.  Consider the work of Leonardo da Vinci – artist, engineer, draughtsman.  We’ve still got a long way to go before we really bridge the divide that’s been created, but these residencies help to engender creative working relationships and an environment where we can share our interests.

Swimming Pool, Reykjavik, 1st April

At a temperature of one degree

we see our breath in air

steam rises from geothermal pools

the water sees its breath too

From ‘Six Days in Iceland’ by Alyson Hallett

Pery Burge is a Cornish artist, living and working in Ottery St. Mary, Devon. She is Artist in Residence in the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences this year, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. See her weekly journal at www.chronoscapes.com, and visit her in the Fluids lab, Harrison Building, on a Monday or Wednesday to have a chat and see her work.

Alyson Hallett was the country’s first Poet in Residence in the University of Exeter’s Geography Department, on the Tremough Campus in Cornwall (2010 – 2011). This residency was also funded by the Leverhulme Trust.  The book that arose from this residency, Six Days in Iceland, can be bought from Amazon.  Alyson is currently working as an RLF Fellow on the Streatham Campus.  More details about her work can be found at www.thestonelibrary.com

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