As part of our Visions of Nature programme, we will be joined by three poets in residence: John Barnie, Steven Matthews, and Kelley Swain. They will work alongside staff in our collections and out in the Museum itself to gain inspiration for their writing.
As the poets begin exploring the possibilities of their residency, we’ve asked them each to introduce themselves. Here we meet Kelley Swain, a poet, writer and editor, particularly in art-science crossover genres.
My first collection of poetry grew out of spending my final year of university in the zoology and biology laboratories – even though I was completing a degree in English. Darwin’s Microscope was published by Flambard Press in 2009, two years after I graduated, and I was fortunate to take part in many ‘Darwin 200’ celebrations, events and readings.
This led me to fashion a niche as a ‘science poet’, and I spent four years volunteering as Poet-in-Residence at Cambridge University’s Whipple Museum of the History of Science, running public engagement events for the Cambridge Festival of Ideas and Cambridge Science Festival each year. Being affiliated with the Whipple also contributed to my first novel, Double the Stars (Cinnamon Press, 2014) about the Georgian astronomer Caroline Herschel.
For my next book, I immersed myself in the science of human anatomy, writing a verse drama, Opera di Cera, about the famous, life-sized anatomical wax Venus in the Florentine Museum of Physics and Natural History. The Museum opened in 1775, and the Venus, along with hundreds of other anatomical waxworks, are still in situ today, used as training tools for medical students, and serving as marvellous examples of artistic sculpture and the history of medicine. Opera di Cera won the Templar Poetry Prize in 2013, and was published in full by Valley Press in 2014. A long-term aim is for it to become a real opera, and I’ve met a marvellous composer who is keen to make this happen.
It was particularly significant to be invited as one of the Poets-in-Residence for Visions of Nature. I feel no more at home than in a Museum of Natural History, and after my time at Cambridge, it felt very special to be invited to get to know Oxford University better. The unique smells of the Museum’s Spirit Stores and specimen cabinets are – perhaps oddly – incredibly comforting and familiar, whispering of care, of travel, and of old knowledge patiently waiting to be unwrapped.
A good natural history museum is a microcosm of the world itself, and like Darwin preparing to set sail on the Beagle, I’m excited about the year ahead – what treasures will I find in the ship of this Museum of Natural History, and who will I meet along the way? I’m especially interested in botany, geology, cetaceans and cephalopods, but open to inspiration from any perspective. Let’s set sail!