Poetic licence. (a SciArt blog)

In our poetry workshop Sam Illingworth covered a couple of poetic forms - the Nonet and the Haiku, and made some wider points about poetry and science, but also poetry and practice. The key points I took from the workshop were about the role of poetry in communication, and the importance of form in communicating the content of the poem. During the workshop Sam discussed his practice, and gave us the opportunity to both write and critique poetry – harking back to a previous session on the scientific method – and the importance of testing a hypothesis.

Sam discussed his project to turn the abstracts of science papers into poems – considering the importance of these in communicating the message of the research. This stems from an interest in the power of poetry as a communication device, but also from the idea that in creating poetry the scientific discovery can enter into society – and societal discourse more usefully (and arguably completely). That is to say that by engaging in an act of creation that forces reflection and ‘humanising’ of results, there is a more powerful connection between the distance of research, and the impact on ‘lived experience’.

In considering poetry as an aid to communication there is an interesting disconnect for me. As traditionally, in the literary canon poetry is often considered one of the more arcane or difficult branches of study; associated with layers of complexity and density of meaning – a fault perhaps of literary approaches to the forms as much as of the form in itself. Sam’s poetry – in its many forms, is performance poetry – he publishes written versions alongside recorded readings in his blog page, and the tradition of spoken word poetry is one that has for many years been outside the canon, but has come to the forefront over the last 50 years – moving from the beat poets of the 50s and 60s, through to influences on and from hip-hop, and the contemporary spoken word movement. (A good selection can be found in Poulin, A & Waters. 2001. M. Contemporary American Poetry. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company.)

At its heart, though, poetry is about economy of expression – saying the most in the most appropriate way. That is not to say that all poetry needs to be short – but the formal constraints can be an excellent way to process thought and ideas. Sam suggested that he likes to link the form of a poem to it's topic - as seen in his poem Going North for the Winter, where the decreasing form of the Nonet (a nine line poem, where the syllables decrease from 9 to 1 as the poem progresses) reflects the intention of the poem, which is:

"... inspired by research done at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which found that climate change is forcing the habitat of the snowshoe hare further north. With reduced snow cover meaning that it must shift its habitat in order to avoid lynx, coyotes and other predators." (Dr Sam Illingworth, @samillingworth, www.samillingworth.com).

This correlates to my own experience - especially in the thinking of Marxist literary and cultural theory, where the relation of form and content has been considered in terms of the relationship between base and superstructure in the work of Terry Eagleton (see Eagleton, T, 1982: Literary Theory an Introduction, Oxford, Blackwell for a useful beginning); and considered in a wider sense in relation to the cultural manifestation of Late Capitialism by Fredric Jameson, who considers that to understand postmodern culture we must read it as "allegory" - an allegory that is primarily spatial (pg51. Jameson, F. 1991. Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London, Verso.)  

fig 1. A page of my daily diabetes diary (DDD, or D3?). On the left I test before meals and two hours after, and then before bedtime to see how the insulin has affected me. On the right I record the number of carbs in a meal, alongside the units of insulin - this helps me record/work-out the a carb/insulin ratio (which fluctuates throughout the day, and changes over time). At the far right I record key events, or meals that help me refer back, or adapt subsequent doses.

fig 1. A page of my daily diabetes diary (DDD, or D3?). On the left I test before meals and two hours after, and then before bedtime to see how the insulin has affected me. On the right I record the number of carbs in a meal, alongside the units of insulin - this helps me record/work-out the a carb/insulin ratio (which fluctuates throughout the day, and changes over time). At the far right I record key events, or meals that help me refer back, or adapt subsequent doses.

My own dalliance in poetry has helped form the direction of my practice for SciArt. Initially I chose the idea of journaling my experience of being diagnosed with type 1 Diabetes, and my experience on a subsequent drug trial and illustrating this. I have found ‘journaling’ to be an unhelpful expression – especially as I don’t have a typical daily diary (Although I do record my blood levels, and carb to insulin ratios regularly throughout the day (fig 1)- which has a visual potential, but apart from references in images I haven't yet been able to develop further).

Moreover, 'journal' suggests a more structured consideration of the situation – one that doesn’t correspond with the way in which I feel it impacts on me. For while a key aspect of diabetes is the need to manage your life, the sense of a calm, and rational approach associated with the word “manage” is not how the experience feels.

My solution has been to consider the journal in the form of the ‘free-verse’ of ‘beat poetry’. Whilst a definite form or structure to the work of the ‘beat poets’ is difficult to lay down, there are certain features that enable expression of ideas: the format is jazz inspired – looking for hooks and links, but being free-form, and encouraging improvisation; a syncopation of the rhythm – encouraged by line breaks; and a ‘playfulness’ with the form and spelling of words and use of rhyme. For me the syncopation of the form reflects the tension between the scientific rigor of ‘managing’ diabetes and the emotional exhaustion and frustration of the condition (there have been links made between diabetes and mental health issues Beyond Type 1, https://beyondtype1.org/lifestyles/mental-health/, 11:25, 30/1/17).

As covered in my last blog, the process of writing poetry has been developed by a process of drawing as interpretation – mind-mapping thoughts, and drawing responses in an overlapping process that both reveals images to inspire poetry, and in turn those poems produce images to develop. This dialectic of poetry and art works around my understanding of my diabetes both through lived experience, but also through my research into both the disease in general, but also immunology in more depth. In my last blog the poem "Life as a Test Tube" I focused in on the experience in relation to the process and the science of Type 1 Diabetes, whilst developing the images, and contemplating this blog I started to piece together snap-shots, building as sense of the narrative thrust, still using the free-verse/beat form/aesthetic, but adding as sense of dramatic rhetoric (and the title is very much working...):


Diabetic beginning.


I start with a



Present thirst,

                  and it        




So I drink - craving




                                                      And Pee

                  and pee

                                    and pee (and itch).


                                    Thunder over the mountains,

                  quick sketches – snapshot

                                                      and I snap,


                  Stop! Stop?


[GP] – poke, prick, piss, weigh

                                                      diastolic over systolic equals A&E.

Blood -    

                  Taken, shaken, spun and wrung

                                                      numbers float to the top.




                  Does this mean? Does this mean? Not sure…





                                                                        Testing further

                                    more blood, laying on my back – a sprawling cephalopod

                                                      reaching across limbs and heart

                                                                        waxing legs and chest…


                                                      (Oh shit)

A talk

                  A swirling of thoughts, flying debris of knowledge spinning from nowhere

Appointments –

                  Come back when? Then?



                  A breath – back in the room…

‘s okay,

                  ‘s okay – ‘cos now I know,

                                                      now I know            

                                                                        and knowledge is… is… nice?

Blood – again



type 1/type 2/type 2/type1… type 1



Manage it

                  (Manage – a word that has inside

 a way of life to


                                    and thrive, but

                                                      for me holds nothing but the thought,

                                                                        that this philosophy is


                                                                                                            anathema to me –

                  strategies with blue-sky thinking,



                                    as though all inspiration can

                                                                        be quantified – and imagination denied.),

manage it –

                  needles, strips, lancets, testing kit, basel, bolus, glargine, insulin, ketoid, ketosis (ketoacidosis)                                                                      hyperglycaemic,

                                                                                          hypoglycaemic –



manage it –

                  diet, carbs not sugar – unless too low, insulin adjustment, split doses,

                                                      counting, calculating,

                                    good carbs, low carbs, no carbs

                                                                                          sugar when,

alcohol when,

                                    and don’t forget to divide by…




                                                                                          and everyone is different…

                                    “Carbs and Cals”(without the cals) – book and app;

reading labels in the supermarket – phone checking,

narrowing down

                                    low, lower, lowest –

                                                      conjugating taste into numbers – experience to data.

                  Rebellion – I will eat!

                  Challenge accepted – spices, herbs, pulses –

weighing, weighing – times, then divide

                                    (One pot – one equation)

                                                      walking, thinking, testing.

Pin prick, finger prick – you’re a….

                                    check - test, record,

                                                      write it down,


                                                      sort – think it through, work

                                                                        it out – hypothesise,

apply – inject – suck it up,

                  make a note,

                                    save for later,

look back on,

                  compare with…

                                    see how trends develop

                                                      trial and error

                                                                        error and trial.


Find a routine, find a rhythm,

                                                      find a way to fit it in.