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Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

EGN Conference 2013 - Poetry in Residence

by Samantha Walton - Genomics Forum Poet in Residence

While dedicated bloggers across the Genomics Network were providing detailed accounts of arguments raised and research outlined in panels and plenary sessions at the EGN Conference 2013 , the TTAGGG poetry sequence began to be mapped. In her welcoming address, Catherine Lyall introduced delegates to the sequence and to the presence of a poet at the conference as an ‘experiment’, a term which I thought summarised the project with particular accuracy. In my own description of the sequence in the conference programme, I had urged delegates to get involved in the following (I hoped, persuasive) way:

TTAGGG is an open source poetry sequence generated through contributions from EGN 13 delegates. Contributions may be segments of verse borrowed (or hacked) from existing poems or prose, or they may be individual words or fragments of ‘found’ text snipped from the conference programme or heard in presentations and discussions. You might write your own poetic responses to ideas generated throughout the conference, or to the poem itself as it is built and modified online. An experiment in artificial evolution in the creative commons, the TTAGGG sequence will store complex information, respond to its environment and be a thing of strange beauty, open to modification, enhancement, repetition and mutation.

While the poetry I had been writing ‘in residence’ at the Forum was mostly concerned with epigenetics, I saw the TTAGGG sequence as a way of testing the notion of the poem as a mode of recording personal emotion expression. This was in part an attempt to move away from the kind of anecdotal lyricism that is often the obvious poetic response to ‘difficult’ issues in medicine and science: it seemed there were far more interesting and relevant ways of considering how developments in the life sciences could be discussed in poetry than imagining how they might make a single poetic speaker feel. I’ve been interested in the representation of medicine in literature for some time, and I wanted to produce something quite different from the kind of first-person poetry that frequently comes out of such interchanges – a frustrated and often powerless voice, an ‘I’ trying to understand how developments may affect my understanding of my body, myself. It wasn’t that I found such personal insight insignificant, rather it seemed that to do justice to the unique interface between the life sciences and social sciences achieved throughout the run of the Genomics Network, an approach which incorporated a range of perspectives and modes of address needed to be attempted. By eliciting contributions from delegates, and by trying to depersonalise my own contributions to the sequence by using found text, snippets of conversations and presentations, I hoped to sidestep the responsibility of providing a subjective account of such a diverse programme and try to achieve the kind of plurality, performative objectivity and variation of thought and insight that these complex issues deserved.
           Getting policy makers, social scientists, philosophers of bioethics and life science researchers to write poetry, even in little bits, proved, at first, to be a challenge. There’s something about poetry … for a start, people think they can’t do it (make words sound nice etc.), or they feel embarrassed about the image of Romantic swaggering and detached pondering that the word ‘poetry’ summons up. Also, in the midst of the EGN conference, when so much demanding critical, sociological, ethical, scientific, political and philosophical thought is taking place, I suspect that for some delegates it seemed like too much of a mental shift to start thinking ‘poetically’, as if thinking poetically could lead you astray from the serious topics under consideration. I think these reservations, this division of mental labour, suggests that poetry is often perceived to something other than critical public discourse. I haven’t conducted my research yet, but I’d like to postulate that a survey of public attitudes would return the conclusions that the best poetry consists of moving responses to grand themes like love and loss, making it something readers withdraw to help clarify or find voiced their own private troubles and joys. Poetry is often treated like this – an imaginative and aesthetic escape from public life and social realities, providing an affective insight into a kind of subjective territory somewhere between lifeworld and the public sphere. Like much of the ‘health’ themed poetry I read through the medical humanities, the poetic response to genomics, confirming to this idea of poetry, might just have to stop at bittersweet and aggrieved responses to difficult questions and controversial innovations: “Yes, science may say ‘I’ am my genes, but I know better, I can appreciate beauty and feel love, you can’t quantify that.”
Although I don’t doubt that science (even qualitative analysis) can’t process many of the concerns that are central to various poetic traditions (beauty and love included) I can’t help but feel that in poetry’s wider readership, the idea that poetry provides a unique medium not only for responding to, subverting, translating or resisting important and complex new ideas, but actually working through those ideas, testing them, and even contributing to their development, seems to have been, if not forgotten, then perhaps sidelined. This perception seems to run counter to the many ways that poets have written of and using specialised discourses of political thought and scientific enquiry: an incredibly general account might allude to Dante’s interrogations of political practice and faith, Elizabethan discussions of the body politic, Metaphysical poets’ yoking of love and religion to scientific and geographic discoveries, the Romantics’ testing of associationism and the profound engagements with science – from theories of relativity to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Mendelian genetics to Habermasian theory – found in Modernist and contemporary late-Modernist verse. As such, the premise of the TTAGGG Sequence was not just to provide a counter account of the day’s discussions and events – although one delegate did tell me that following the development of the sequence on Twitter provided something of a disruptive echo to the more formal discussions taking place in sessions. Instead, I hoped the fragments, commentaries and contributions might contain questions, provocations and alternative accounts which could feed into a serious discussion of the main issues of the conference. A contemporary poet I admire, Sean Bonney, has spoken of the possibilities of poetry in this way: “there’s certain poems that give me an information, an account of a social reality, that other types of writing don’t. It’s something to do with the speed of connections through the work, the intensity of the communication: conjunctions and intensities that put information across in a way that I don’t find anywhere else.”
I don’t know if the TTAGGG Sequence achieved this, but part of its ‘experimental’ nature was the acceptance that failure might lead to a better understanding of how to frame the question, or what the problem might be. Of the definite successes of the project, I count highly the enthusiastic and intrigued responses I got from many conference delegates. It was refreshing for me to explain how my project tried to participate in the debates of the conference, and to find that though I was coming from a different epistemological position, there was some common ground, and much openness for engagement. The actual poetic contributions I got were delightfully various. Some followed tradition verse structures (the clipped form of the Haiku appealed to many) while others concentrated on the rhetoric of social science and policy communication – the repetitions, freewheeling metaphors, strangeness and contradictions of the language employed in this supposedly objective discipline. In my own contributions, I was surprised by how quickly I fell into an imperative register and how the demands of writing on the spot led me to use the present tense, often utterly eschewing pronouns and prepositions. While anonymity was guaranteed for delegates who wrote their contributions on cards and posted them in the ‘TTAGGG Sequencer’ (my gratitude to Steph Wright for helping me build this complex machine!), additions from private Twitter accounts constituted more of a public statement, and I’m grateful to those who spoke out in this way. I don’t think anyone used my password and took up the offer to sign in to the TTAGGG Twitter account and tweet impersonally from there, which gives an interesting insight into possible concerns about invasions of privacy and the dangers of open access in a field where large data sets and their possible uses is a major point of ethical and legal discussion.
The TTAGGG Sequence will remain on Twitter and can be found at #egn13poetry. However, I am currently working on a number of different ways to manipulate the sequence. In a nod to a purely scientific approach, I am ordering it in simple chronological order (fig. A). In honour of traditional poetic formal constraints, I’m using a programme that organises individual lines into rhyming couplets (and only removing auto-rhymed lines) (fig. B). Finally, I am asserting the troublesome aesthetic and subjective authority of the poet by organising the text into what seems (to me at least) a coherent poem (fig.C). I hope to perform some of it at Syndicate, a new media poetry series I co-host held at Inspace in Edinburgh, on 21st May.
What the opportunity to act as Poet in Residence at the EGN Conference 2013 and the Genomics Forum through April gave me was the invaluable space to write and also to reflect on the possible modes of communication between poetry, science and social study. I’ve always been interested in the critical potential of poetry, so the insights I have gained ways of approaching and understanding public ethics, cultural differences and social impact within the social sciences have encouraged me to reflect on my own practice as a poet and researcher. I am incredibly grateful for the welcoming and generous response I received at the Forum. I hope the exciting interactions between art and life science studies fostered here will continue in many forms in the future.


Cuts from the TTAGGG Sequence

Fig A.  Chronological

opening provocation: promise/ peril         
what is ... what ... um it's ... a hard question         the people legacy
borrowed from the network
globalisation of the subjects we address
challenges around life s/ on the brink/ of major scale
these bugs/ can eat their own waste!
ignore these/ listen to them/ pull out the science, hold it up/ an heroic vision in messy places
messy like democracy/ sounds like science, golden age/ speaking truth to power
dossier of compromise/ science disappears/ elite compromise vs. idealised advice/ pure & removed: the science dictates

Fig. B.  Rhyming Sequence

Transcription is not fit matter for poesy
TTAGGG poetry sequence is under citizens enquiry
Replication is serious flattery
The enlightenment is not the enemy
Become knowledge, circulate freely
From cutting paper, to CAD molecule, a filmmaker's journey
The deficit model is bankrupt, but has so much currency

If someone mutated my DNA would this then lead my soul astray
Climate change fury, decimation of mankind, fascinating, play

Please capture my core, decorate your DNA for your children
My sweetheart took his burnt toast & departed with his cellular automaton. 

Infinitesimal paper & scissors that should play with hierarchies
Public & private together in this space, between plate & lip
millions of wells reading sequences
Of shrug biologists who say PUBLIC but face but a sacral population's
extended phenotypic structure fluffed to rubric lattices

Fig. C. Poet as Structuring Process

We start with an opening provocation,
under the sign of Watt & ether
shouting out to find a common ground
There weren't too many rules, only
you have to lock people together
for days to get them to understand one another
     's vocabulary
Converting jargon into something
people can understand, that's the knack
Feedback loops between consumers & providers are fraught
with the sheer density & complexity
           of poetry refusing to cooperate
ignore these, listen to them
pull out the science, hold it up: an heroic vision in messy places
 (messy like democracy)
this is sounding like science speaking truth to power
public understanding is itself a metaphor

I liked the people
but I have just one question    a critical remark
 really
What … what would NA12878 do?
what is ... what ... um it's ... a hard question        
it’s a hard thing, being a critical friend: waxing or waning,
meeting for breakfast etc., having a life
talking through issues
etcetera.

Imagining the genome
retro futures under review
the myth of science lives on
a new golden age a newly acceptable Enlightenment continuing
between Adam Smith's tomb at Canongate Kirk
& the cone on David Hume's head
Fluid networks permeate the life science web
philosophers of the future rebound
reflecting on the sound of glitchy data
For philosophies read textual
error: ask a stem cell what it is, res public collaboration shaving words off acronyms
           the TTAGGG Cloud: impossibly linear Wordle!
Perfect distribution of emphasis cut with rigour & balance!
nothing in life expresses ©  like an MOU/kou/□/xxx
we don't yet have a language that doesn't begin
with an assumption of separateness

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