Kelley Swain, Poet-in-Residence in Oxford: “I will never become bored with writing poetry about natural history”

During 2016, Kelley Swain has been one of three poets in residence at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. “It’s a safe bet that poets will be interested in being ‘in residence’ at your institution,” she says. 

The residency has been a part of the Visions of Nature year and included three established UK poets who are known for their publications of science-themed or science-inspired poetry: Kelley Swain, John Barnie and Steven Matthews. The poets have been working alongside the museum staff, exploring the collections, meeting visitors and writing articles about their work and experiences, for example in the blog More than a Dodo. Through a number of events, they have presented their work and interacted with their audience. At the end of the year, their new poetry was collected in the anthology “Guests of Time”.

Kelley’s blog about the residency


Hi, Kelley. Tell us a little about yourself, your background and what themes you explore as a writer.

“My poetry and other writing delves into ideas of transformation, metamorphosis, and lenses”

I grew up in Rhode Island, immersed in books and the (fairly tame) natural world. My mother taught science to schoolchildren, and my grandfather travelled on fishing trips all over the world, so those were big influences on my interest in biology. I wrote my first poem when I was seven, and went on to take a BA in English from a liberal arts college (Randolph-Macon Woman’s College) – My supervisors also allowed me to take courses in biology, evolution, animal behavior, zoology and geology, which led to my first collection of poetry, Darwin’s Microscope, inspired by Darwin and the natural world.

I’ve always written about science: my first novel, Double the Stars, is based on the life of the astronomer Caroline Herschel, and my verse drama, Opera di Cera, is about anatomical wax models in Renaissance Florence.

My poetry and other writing delves into ideas of transformation, metamorphosis, and lenses: microscopes, telescopes, and prisms. As a science poet, I feel equal parts responsibility (to study the science of these ideas, to understand where they’re coming from,) and freedom (to creatively make use of these ideas, often through metaphor or connotation).

How come you were given the assignment of becoming a Poet-in-Residence in Oxford?
Professor John Holmes, who spearheaded the project, has known my work since before it was published – he was one of my first tutors in the UK when I studied here as an undergraduate, and we’ve become colleagues through the British Society of Literature and Science.

What is the general purpose of the Poet-in-Residence program?

The Poetry residency for 2016 was part of the Museum’s programme, Visions of Nature, a year-long showcase of the arts meeting the science in the museum. This included two shows of visual art as well as the poetry residency, which culminated in the launch of our anthology, Guests of Time.

To quote from the anthology: ‘Inspired by their time delving into the museum’s drawers and cabinets, the poets’ new work viewed the collections with fresh eyes. Their poems are presented here alongside 19th-century poetry from writers linked with the early days of the museum. Together, the poems in this anthology are a tribute to the Pre-Raphaelite origins of the Oxford University Museum, and a rejuvenation of its artistic legacy.’

The entire Museum, inside and out (architecturally as well as in its collections and archives,) is a celebration of the natural world. We were invited to carry on that Victorian conversation, where the arts and sciences were not firmly divided, where ‘scientists’ were called ‘natural historians,’ and where close observation and lucid description – as in both poetry and science – is the most important skill.

What are the three most important things you’ve learnt from the program, being a person who’s committing her life to poetry?

“There are endless forms in poetry and science”

1. I met many scientists who had no or little exposure to poetry (I befriended many Earth Scientists, including paleologists, geologists, zoologists,) and were surprised at how similar my creative process was to theirs – e.g. sitting, looking, observing, thinking, note-taking…and often fretting about grant proposals!

2. In a non-poetry context, like a science museum, we discovered it was best to engage the public through tactics of ‘guerilla’ style poetry – e.g., they come upon it unexpectedly, through drop-in sessions or self-guided ‘poetry trails.’ The public is not as likely to sign up for pre-planned poetry events in a science museum because they are not going there looking for poetry. But they are usually open to being surprised by it!

3. This residency reinforced that I will never become bored with writing poetry about natural history. It is just ten years since writing my manuscript that became my first collection, Darwin’s Microscope, and the commission to write poems for Guests of Time was joyful and inspiring. There are endless forms in poetry and science.

What impact do you think you and your colleagues have made on the visitors, the activities and the culture of Oxford Museum of Nat Hi?.

Many people were surprised and delighted to learn of poets-in-residence at the Museum. I think the greatest outcome of the residency was the beautiful anthology, Guests of Time, which links the Pre-Raphaelite history of the museum with our new poems from the residency. Rather than revolutionize a Museum which had not known the arts, I feel we contributed to a Museum already steeped in the arts, from its very brickwork upwards.

Which has been the best moment of the residency?

• Two favourites (of many) – handling the Orchid Mantis several times throughout her life, as she moulted, and writing a poem about her. (And being invited to name her – I chose ‘Daphne’.)
• And reading the proofs of the anthology: to see my bio follow on Lizzie Siddal’s made me cry. I’m very happy about it.

Give three practical pieces of advice to a science organization (university, museum etc) who wants to pursue a Poet-in-Residence program!

1. Have at least the framework of a plan, with some funding in place (the OUMNH did, and I think that was one of the strengths of this residency). We were invited to be ‘in residence’ for the year, which meant we were welcome any time, but fitted visits around our other work schedules (for me, it amounted to a long weekend visit each month from London, and an entire month-and-a-half in Oxford in the autumn).

Know what you can offer: it is better to commission to pay poets for, say, six new poems each, transport, accommodation, and a few months of residency than to have a big unwieldy time-frame but little structure. Also, do offer a fee: in the UK, I recommend looking at Society of Author’s fee guidelines (make sure they are up-to-date.) This may be negotiable, but poets, musicians, and artists are asked to do too much for free, and all organisations should work together to support the arts.

2. Have a tangible outcome: a book, reading, exhibition, videos, audio, etc. Don’t try to do everything, but make sure you create something that can be archived / last / create a legacy. I am old-fashioned and still favour hard-copy books.

3. It’s a safe bet that poets will be interested in being ‘in residence’ at your institution! Put the word out; invite conversations or applications. You can come up with something that works for everyone. It often seems that people on both sides are too shy, when in fact everyone will benefit, including the public.

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