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Clare Crossman and Dr Deborah Talmi discover the similarities in their work and in the quest for universal truths.

At an event on 26 October this year, eight Poet-Scientist pairs will deliver a poem they’ve created, based on their own scientific research and crafted with a poet’s creative skill. The Connections event, held at Lucy Cavendish College, is open to the public and will attract a diverse variety of people including scientists, creatives, college members, students and local school children.

Clare Crossman, one of the poets from the project, talks about the ‘connections’ between her work and that of her project partner Dr Deborah Talmi.

‘But memory’s a snowstorm in a globe

A cavern measureless to man,

Where the wind might wail for a demon lover almost human’‘

Gillian Clarke from Hafod

In this poem Gillian Clarke imagines standing where Coleridge might have stood in 1794 at Hafod Y Lan in the Snowdonian mountains, once a place boasting a fine house and now a nature reserve. She concludes in this poem, ‘Ystwyth’s sun glittering waters’ are ‘a stream conjured by poetry.’ The poetry collection, Zoology is divided into six sections; the first full of poems of memory and about remembering ‘now’ and deeply felt emotion: ‘everyone here is here again’ (ghosts). When I began reading the poems over the summer I did not know that I was going to be invited to meet Dr Deborah Talmi at Lucy Cavendish College for the Connections collaborative project: Science, poetry and the brain. Maybe it was serendipitous, such is the mind which we still need to know so much more about.

Dr Talmi is a neuroscientist, and a psychologist interested in emotional cognition and memory. When we met my focus was on getting to know about, and understanding her research into emotional cognition: the scientific phrase used to describe her research into memory and how feeling influences it. As a poet feeling is what drives me: association, intuition, memory. At lunch we fell to talking about ourselves and I explained how difficult I found my critical study of English literature. At a young age I felt I was taking literature apart and somehow dismantling its beauty and later on in my life realising that I was primarily a maker. This led to us talking about how science is often seen as an unmaking. In her experiments Deborah breaks down an emotional experience to sub-components to be controlled and analysed; she uses jargon such as ‘valence’ and ‘arousal’ to describe the positivity, negativity and intensity of feelings, and then comes up with statistical and mathematical models to describe what of their experience comes to mind as people recall the artificial experiences they were presented with at the lab.

In the garden of Lucy Cavendish we remembered that often the process of taking something apart gives us a deeper understanding and that humanity evolved within nature. We learn from dendrochronology (trees rings) about trees age and environmental history. What is seen, can never be unseen; a child who learned the meaning of tree rings will never see them as mere shades of brown again, and the tree instantaneously becomes a creature with a past and future. This caused me to reflect that I may write and want to be a maker but I needed to be honest with myself that I also dissect. I draft and redraft, I change words, I tear up and throw away pieces of paper when nothing seems to be working. I read the work of other people and inevitable find fault, am frequently amazed, I underline, reframe, experiment. I look for precision and detail, all because I want to understand and express in a precise and particular way. What I write I have to prove to myself. So, maybe in this way there isn’t very much difference between the artistic and scientific process.  It is just that we have as Dr Talmi says ‘different yardsticks’.  An artist wants something to be intuitively true where a scientist has to test the truth of their hypotheses and even though their interpretation may end up being quite counter intuitive, the quest for universal truths is common across the human experience, as is the search for transformation and the development of ideas.

In the general debate about Art and Science it might be more helpful if we saw both processes as a voyage of discovery with different methodologies. Or perhaps it is more a difficulty of language and I am lucky in that I know a bit of biology and always felt that the ecological and environmental narrative echoed our human story. I hope I can make as interesting and compelling poem as Deborah’s research on emotional cognition and memory. But I know the poem has been sparked from these ideas of convergence. Deborah says that she studied creative writing and wrote a couple of stories which she never published. She also played the piano as a young person as well as studying biology, maths and literature during her first degree. And as she wrote: ‘Both in doing art and science there is a striving to do it ‘right’ with an ear attuned to an internal truth which could cut across the many other differences between these occupations.

(Zoology Poems Gillian Clarke (2017) published by Carcarnet Press)

POSTSCRIPT. Dr Deborah Talmi.

My field of experimental psychology finds objective and systematic ways to test ideas about the operation of what was once called the subconscious and the way it becomes conscious. My job is to define a specific feeling, such as the intensity of a pain sensation, and discover its causes even when those are not known to the individual reporting the intensity of the pain they feel. This actually reminds me of a poem by Yona Volach, one of my favourite poets, which I’ll translate here from my native language, Hebrew:

תַּת הַכָּרָה נִפְתַּחַת כְּמוֹ מְנִיפָה

עֲדַיִן הִיא סוּס כֵּהֶה עֲדַיִן לֹא לְבָנָה

הַמֹּחַ צָף בִּי כְּמוֹ עַל מַיִם, שׁוֹשַׁנָּה לְבָנָה

The subconscious opens up like a fan

She is still a dark horse, not yet white

The brain floats in me as if on water, a white lily…


About the authors:

Clare Crossman (McPhee)

Clare has been a playwright and a creative writing teacher in Newcastle; in Cambridge, she’s served on the South Cambs District Council Arts Service, and has had several positions as writer-in-residence. Now a poet with an interest in the natural world, she’s been published in anthologies, and recently published Winter Flowers, a biography on artist Lorna Grave. Clare has published four collections of poetry, most recently The Blue Hour published by Shoestring Press.

Dr Deborah Talmi

Deborah is a lecturer at the department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge and a director of studies in Psychology and Fellow at Lucy Cavendish College. She’s a cognitive neuroscientist, interested in emotional cognition - the effect that emotional value has on our cognitive system.