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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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