The North, on Element
Each of my poems take their impetus from elements of the periodic table, specifically the ‘transition metals’. The ‘transitions’ were a natural choice for a structure really, their name implying change, mutability. They seemed the section most ready to be viewed through a different lens, especially as their names have a wide variety of origins; from cities to stars, from Greek tragediennes to great loves, providing fertile ground for ideas.
I’ve found a large structure to work within helpful, which may well be the scientist in me wanting a framework to hang my theories (poems, in this case) from. However I do believe that for a poem to be successful, as with a scientific proof, it should be able to stand on its own. You shouldn’t need to know anything about iridium for example to engage with the poem that comes from it. At best I’m hoping that the nugget of science behind the poem - which in iridium’s case is that this element is what gives the wings of butterflies and other insects their shimmering effect - adds a little extra enjoyment.
For me each poem starts with research; when the element was discovered, where and by whom, its uses, the history of its nomenclature. This research will often spark a quite loose idea, a fascination with a certain idea or object, like the butterfly. Of course, the idea is only a small part, the emotional and technical execution of the poem are the ultimate driving force.
Pivotal in creating this sequence has been engaging with skill and variety; I turn to poets like Gillian Allnutt, Alice Oswald, Tomas Tranströmer, and increasingly Mexican poets to hear language sing in its barest but also most inventive register, with everything extraneous removed. Russian poetry, especially that of Blok and Akhmatova fascinates me. ‘Memorial at Norilsk’, in memory of those who died building the Nickel factory there, owes a lot to that period and style of Russian writing.
Where some links to the elements are first-order, other poems step off slightly further down the line. ‘Abandoned Airfield at Dunkeswell’ is dedicated with love to my father, who spent his working-life building aeroplanes and takes its inspiration from titantium, the lightweight element used to build them. Pellestrina is a quiet venetian island, sister to Murano, famous for its cobalt-blue glass. The element riddle I’ll leave you to work out for yourself!
Exeter, where I live, is home to the Codex Exoniensis, the largest known collection of Old English literature in existence containing over 90 riddles. As important as it is to look to the past, and read widely through the last few hundred years, I feel very strongly that poetry should also learn from science’s sense of projection. Engaging with contemporaries is vital. It’s from poets like those in this series and the work of numerous others; Fiona Benson, Matthew Dickman, Helen Mort, Carrie Etter, Ahren Warner to name a few, that I’ve learnt much from. To be a poet, one must be a poetry reader.
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