Guest post: Maths and Metaphor – Judy Brown

Judy Brown’s new collection Lairs was partly born out of a residency Exeter University’s Institute of Data Science and Artificial Intelligence. In this guest post she discusses the experience and how maths and poetry have more in common than you might think.

This cover shows a sci-fi inspired collage of a girl sitting in a field at dusk looking towards a black, star filled orb in the distance. Red mountains rise up behind it beneath a purple sky. The text reads: Lairs, Judy Brown.

Lairs brings together something primal and secret – the lair as haven for a wild or feral animal – with the poem framed as a mathematical equation. In these terms, the ‘lair’ is a kind of nest, a beautiful accumulation of dense detail. The poems are introspective, by turns mocking, fearful and analytical. Judy Brown’s use of language is innovative, while maintaining moments of vulnerability and moving self-awareness. In these exquisite poems, the lair is both the community at large and a dark and intricate interior space where something wild still survives.

Maths and Metaphor

Before this summer, if someone had told me maths could be as much fun as writing poems, it wouldn’t have been a long chat. Professor Beth Wingate, mathematician and poet, did say as much to me in July but by then it was too late: it had become obvious. Residencies teach you things – often not what you expected.

This was a summer of empty campus lawns, rain, whiteboards crammed with notation, hours spent looking up half-heard maths phrases on Wikipedia, metaphors I splashed everywhere and tried to hold onto to avoid panic, attempts not to look stupid, looking stupid despite everyone saying, kindly, ‘There are no stupid questions.’ And lots of questions, lists of them collected amongst my drawings and notes in a big A3 sketchbook – a necessary navigation aid in this slightly frightening, very exhilarating experience. This sort of messy process is how I write anyway, I just hadn’t ever been quite so at sea. 

Stacks of sketch books from Judy's residency. The pages are filled with notes, pictures and bright sketches.
Judy Brown’s residency sketchbooks

To backtrack a little: Arts and Culture University of Exeter has a programme that matches creative practitioners with research academics. The area under consideration can be quite sharply defined, the methodology and the outcome full of openness. I’d been attracted by the measured strangeness in the language used by Professor Peter Challenor, a statistician whose work involves producing approximations of what complex mathematical models (of the human heart, the ocean, the climate) would be likely to predict across a wide range of situations, together with exact assessments of how much you can rely on those predictions. The models themselves are often too expensive and slow to be run as many times as you’d like – just like the planet and the human body – so the techniques used by Peter’s team in the Institute of Data Science and Artificial Intelligence are of critical value, but also a little magical, seeming to create bricks out of straw. 

Peter had said in his brief ‘There is always a discrepancy,’ but I had no idea how many sorts of discrepancy existed. The team’s specialisation is called uncertainty quantification – and when didn’t a poet love a paradox?

I was lucky. Peter turned out to be interested in everything, a member of the Poetry Book Society, and an eloquent explainer who could shift in and out of maths notation and take up my hesitant and extravagant metaphors to talk to me in a language I knew. 

Judy Brown takes notes in her sketch book whilst Peter Challenor maps out an equation on a large whiteboard.
Judy Brown and Professor Peter Challenor. Photo credit: Steven Haywood

I had five weeks of great conversations – about writing on proper blackboards, machine learning, the problems of multidimensionality, different types of probability, heart surgery, whether a mathematical model is a metaphor, the importance of pattern and of deviations from it.  We talked about Jack Underwood’s essay ‘On Poetry and Uncertain Subjects’ (The Poetry Society) – how our kind of uncertainty made poems hospitable, how unacknowledged uncertainty for Peter made things dangerous.

I only have a maths GSCE but I wasn’t too worried. I quite like feeling a subject is full of things I don’t know and knew that the not-knowing would itself generate ideas that would lead to poems. In the end I felt I’d been allowed to walk further into another world than I anticipated, with tiny, occasional flavours of what it might be like to know how to move in those regions as of right. As with poetry, it turns out that even small amounts of maths are worth having.

I knew that metaphor is what I think with, and where many of my poems originate – it’s central, not decorative. The fact that I couldn’t think anything without it was demonstrated very clearly over these weeks when I kept asking ‘What is it like in there?’, ‘What kind of creature is it?’ That was our difference, maybe – the poet’s obsession with specificity where a small precise detail stands in for a big abstract thing. Or maybe it’s not so different, I still don’t know.

The experience also underlined the importance of play for writing, and for problem-solving. At school I always wanted a structure to put what I learned in – that’s often what a teacher gives you – a particular shaped bucket, and you fill it. Here I had no time to get even a small bucket; there were only the structures I already had – metaphor, language, question, answer, and sometimes just the process of sitting and drawing.

Close up picture of notes from one of Judy's sketchbooks. The word language stands out in bold black letters.
Close up of one of Judy’s sketchbooks

This was semi-feral learning in the sense that when people told me about their work I was able to choose the questions and Peter’s team worked to give me answers that might make sense in the language of the asking. I also tried to learn as much of their talk as I could – even a few equations. It felt amazing for someone middle-aged to be learning in this essentially childlike way, like a car wash for the brain. It felt just like writing.

I’ve written quite a few poems from this – now on the Arts and Culture website and in issue 2 of Finished Creatures magazine, and migrating into the manuscript of my next collection Lairs. I have lots more drafts and ideas. While the maths is not always apparent, I couldn’t have written them without that huge new space in my head. I’m slowly reading a book about calculus and watching the odd MIT lecture or Isaac Newton Institute seminar on probability or uncertainty quantification. It still feels flukey, strange, to be treasured.

Judy Brown

Read Judy’s maths-inspired poem ‘Some Security Questions’ on the Exter Arts and Culture website.

‘Uncertain Rigours’, a short film by Steve Haywood about the residency, can be viewed on the Exter University Arts and Culture website.

This article was first published by The Poetry Society in their Winter 2019 edition of Poetry News.

Lairs is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Friday Poem – ‘Fish. Oh. Fish’ by Judy Brown

This week’s Friday Poem is ‘Fish. Oh. Fish’ by Judy Brown from her forthcoming collection Lairs.

This cover shows a collage of a woman sitting in a field at twilight starting at a giant black orb, in the distance, filled with stars. Red mountains stretch out behind it. The text reads Lairs Judy Brown.

Lairs brings together something primal and secret – the lair as haven for a wild or feral animal – with the poem framed as a mathematical equation. In these terms, the ‘lair’ is a kind of nest, a beautiful accumulation of dense detail. The poems are introspective, by turns mocking, fearful and analytical. Judy Brown’s use of language is innovative, while maintaining moments of vulnerability and moving self-awareness. In these exquisite poems, the lair is both the community at large and a dark and intricate interior space where something wild still survives.

Fish. Oh. Fish
‘Even snakes lie together’ – D.H. Lawrence (‘Fish’)
Your egg eye is open and you look worried.
You’re the scaly junior lawyer at midnight
f
alling short on her target of a year’s billable hours.
Corporate fish, you’re bright as pain, sliced up.
You share the water with a spill of inky stripes.
Y
our kind blaze colours fine as banknotes.
Oh, fish, you have whisked up a clever curve
defining the future as it draws itself into a fist.
Then the e
vening comes on, pistachio and blue.
You breathe and flex between bars of dark.
A clerk could still walk into the hot, open night
lea
ving a jacket on the back of her office chair.
A lit anglepoise floats above the papery desk.
There’s a deep anglerfish clocking the hours.
No one m
ust turn off your light while you are gone
or there’ll be nothing to swim back to
but a scrunchie of kelp, uncounted on dry sand.
Little fish,
everything that matters happens here.

Lairs is available to pre-order on the Seren website: £9.99

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Friday Poem – ‘Just About Now’ by Judy Brown

This week’s Friday Poem is ‘Just About Now’ by Judy Brown from her collection Crowd Sensations.

Judy is joining us at virtual First Thursday next week to read alongside Katrina Naomi. Find the full details here.

Elterwater Rain Crowd Sensations Judy BrownCrowd Sensations, Judy Brown’s second collection, was shortlisted for the Ledbury Forte Prize. She is a poet of dazzling contrasts, of thoughtful paradox, intimate confidences and precise evocations. Her titles and first lines both draw you right into a poem and then quite often surprise you with a narrative that you hadn’t expected. Her work is fired as much by intelligence and philosophical speculation, as it is by the emotion stirred up by experience and relationships.

Crowd Sensations is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Friday Poem – ‘The Post Box in the Wall’, Judy Brown

Our Friday Poem this week is ‘The Post Box in the Wall’ from Crowd Sensations by Judy Brown.

Elterwater Rain Crowd Sensations Judy BrownCrowd Sensations is Judy’s latest collection, and was shortlisted for the Ledbury Forte Prize. Judy is a poet of dazzling contrasts, of thoughtful paradox, intimate confidences and precise evocations. Her titles and first lines both draw you right into a poem and then quite often surprise you with a narrative that you hadn’t quite expected. This is true of ‘The Post Box in the Wall’, which takes this mundane object and paints it as ‘absolution’, as ‘that mouth’, as a place to deposit snakes and curses.
Hear Judy talk to Julia Copus about changing career from lawyer to poet, writers’ residencies, and how certain places can live on in the mind long after they’ve been left in this interview, newly released on the Royal Literary Fund website.

 

Judy Brown The Post Box in the Wall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crowd Sensations is available from the Seren website: £9.99

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Friday Poem- ‘The Madonna of Oxfam’, Judy Brown

Judy Brown Friday Poem Madonna of Oxfam

Our Friday Poem this week is ‘The Madonna of Oxfam’ by Judy Brown, from her latest collection,Crowd Sensations.

The Madonna of Oxfam Crowd Sensations Judy Brown‘The Madonna of Oxfam’ performs a surprisingly elaborate and intimate study of the act of charity shop browsing, as the poet’s thoughts turn to strangers’ lives and memories.
Like many of Judy Brown’s poems, the title and first lines draw you right in, and then surprise you with a narrative you hadn’t quite expected.
Judy has lived in London and Hong Kong and, having experienced both life in the city and countryside, she is able to portray an original and uncharacteristically unnerving portrayal of both landscapes. Crowd Sensations, much like its author, is an exploration of dazzling contrasts, of thoughtful paradox, intimate confidences and precise evocations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crowd Sensations is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Friday Poem – ‘The Things She Burned That Year’ , Judy Brown

It’s almost time to ring in the New Year, and in keeping with the theme of leaving the past behind, our Friday Poem is ‘The Things She Burned That Year’ by Judy Brown, from her Poetry Book Society recommended collection, Crowd Sensations.

Elterwater Rain Crowd Sensations Judy BrownCrowd Sensations is a worthy follow-up to Judy Brown’s Forward-prize nominated debut, Loudness.
Brown is a poet of dazzling contrasts, of thoughtful paradox, intimate confidences and precise evocations. Her titles and first lines both draw you right into a poem and then quite often surprise you with a narrative that you hadn’t quite expected.

 

 

The Things She Burned That Year

Whole nights claimed her on sooty knees,
worshipping the heat of a first open fire.
She tended it with the caution of a mistress,

offered her past and part of her future.
She kindled her half-filled diary; each curling
page exposed the inky, unburned next.

All afternoon it read itself to the blaze,
settled down at dusk to a soft grey bed.
She was watching someone she knew grow old.

Then she’d fed the fire a banquet of porn
that she no longer had an attic to store.
The printed bodies, the breasts and cocks

were nibbled off by a bright green flame
before the paper charred in the usual way.
And the final text that lanterned out

in the beige-tiled fireplace flared so fast
that the thing she wanted to erase
was lost: even its capsicum name is dust.

 

Crowd Sensations is available from the Seren website: £9.99

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Enter our poetry books giveaway to win two new collections

We are celebrating the launch of two fantastic new books, Crowd Sensations by Judy Brown and Masculine Happiness by David Foster-Morgan, by giving you the chance to win a copy of each! All you have to do is sign up to our newsletter here before 1st May 2016 and you’ll be entered into the prize draw.

Read below to find out more about the book launch as well as the books themselves…

newsletter giveaway April-1.jpg

Join Judy Brown and David Foster-Morgan at The Yorkshire Grey for a dual poetry book launch, celebrating the release of both Judy’s Crowd Sensations and David’s Masculine Happiness. Both poets will be reading from their new collections, and there will be opportunities to ask questions and request signed copies of the books. The event will take place between 19:00 and 21:00 on Tuesday 19th April, 2016 at The Yorkshire Grey in London. You can find more details on our website.

Elterwater Rain Crowd Sensations Judy Brown
Crowd Sensations
, Judy Brown
Poet Judy Brown’s new collection is a worthy follow-up to her Forward Prize-nominated debut, Loudness. Brown is a poet of dazzling contrasts, of thoughtful paradox, intimate confidences and precise evocations.
Read more

 

Masculine happiness
Masculine Happiness
, David Foster-Morgan
The provocative debut poetry collection this Cardiff-based poet. Born and based in Wales, Foster-Morgan has long been a presence in the poetry world, having had poems published widely in magazines and with appearances at workshops, festivals, and events.
Read more

 

One lucky winner will be chosen at random from all our subscribers on 1st May 2016, so if you would like a copy of each of these lovely poetry collections in your bookcase then hurry and sign up for our newsletter before the end of the month.

 

Friday Poem – Elterwater Rain

Elterwater rain friday poem Judy Brown

This week our Friday Poem is taken from the brand new, beautiful Crowd Sensations by Judy Brown. A Poetry Book Society Recommendation, Crowd Sensations is the worthy follow-up to Judy’s Forward Prize-nominated debut, Loudness.

Elterwater Rain Crowd Sensations Judy BrownJudy Brown is a poet of vivid contrasts, of thoughtful paradox, intimate confidences and precise evocations. Her titles and first lines draw readers into a poem then often surprise with an unexpected narrative. A key theme in this new collection is the contrast between living in the city and the countryside; her take on landscape is original and characteristically unnerving: ‘Elterwater Rain’, ‘Dove Cottage Ferns’ and ‘One of the Summer People’ reflect on nature and the place of the traveller, the incomer, the tourist.

 

Elterwater Rain

When I came to write of it there was no rain,
just the last of its ectoplasm shivering
in a pool on the terrace’s lowest slate.

No sky winks in the left-behind liquid,
only the garden table’s black metal underside –
all is prediction, absence, an oracle’s glum vigil –

whilst the air, hyperactive, holds more weather:
weather folded in weather, the rest of the day
remains to be dealt like a deck of wet cards.

Town rain splits and skids but this land accepts
what is given. Foliage moves against foliage;
water drains down the conifers’ inner ladders.

Something thirsts for each substance spilled
but this liquid is neighbourly, a local’s drink.
Outside Ambleside’s tourist shops, dog-bowls

brim with downpour. Here the last shower
hangs about too, old drops slung like bats
from the bird-feeder and the patio chairs.

 

Buy your copy now.

 

 

Friday Poem – Letter to my Optician

Loudness Judy Brown

This Friday’s poem, Letter to My Optician, comes from Judy Brown’s 2011 Forward shortlisted debut collection, Loudness. A straightforward manner and a gift for ironic humour belie the artful complexities and the exacting observations evident in her work.

Letter to My Optician

Dear Tom
I will soon feel you tightening the frames
from which you add or subtract lenses, hear
your breath as you peruse my aqueous humour through fluorescein. It was Christmas
morning when I started to yearn. Just then
the neighbours were galloping in inflatable horse-suits on Red Post Hill. I felt like crying
at the mum’s face when the three returned,
their novelty equines starting to deflate. I love
the way you look on the bright side, never mention my minus 14 vision, saying the backs of my eyes
are marvellous despite it all. I fell asleep
to my parents’ two televisions and the house’s sound effects – silvery CFCs chuckling
in a fridge, the kettle’s huff and click, thunder troubling the far side of the Rio Grande.
That night I dreamed, and I believe it malefic,
that the Autobank dispensed a Hong Kong
dollar note in substitution for a crisp twenty.
But I want to talk about food, how I added grated onion and garlic to the packet Paxo, the huge sweetbready joy of the Holland & Barrett
chocolate brazils, how we compared two
types of Stilton and ate the better oatcakes.
I could go on, but I’ll see you soon, and
your ziggurat of dwindling capitals, your machine for testing if parts of the retina have started
to flunk. I hope I have not fallen farther
into the red, and that things will be different
from how they have been for some time.

Judy will be reading  at The Continental in Preston tonight at 7:30pm. Tickets are  £4.00 on the door with proceeds going to Cancer Research UK. The Continental, South Meadow Lane, Preston, Lancashire PR1 8JP // Tel: 01772 499425 for reservations and event tickets.