The following piece is written by Abi Palmer, writer, critic and visual artist. In it, she discusses the relationship between physical health and scientific experimentation in her most recent project, Alchemy.
ALCHEMY is an interactive poetry experience, responding to a conflict between classical alchemy and early modern science.
In 1661, Robert Boyle, ‘The Founder of Modern Chemistry’ published ‘The Sceptical Chymist’ a text which (amongst other revelations) challenges Aristotle’s theory that the world consists of four fundamental elements – Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Boyle argued that this idea lacked empirical evidence: only through rigorous testing and observation of the interactions between elements could we discover the true chemical properties of the universe. In doing so, he helped to form the basis of the Periodic Table we use today.
Last year, in The Alchemist’s Chest, I created a live performance which responded to Boyle’s challenge, representing the four classical elements through poetic and physical forms. I wanted to provide audience members with the opportunity to play the early modern chemist, experimenting with reactions to different elements: the smell of a lit flame merging with the sound of air, or a murky soil combined with the sensation of running water. By playing the observer, I wanted my listeners to become part of the experiment – which combinations created positive reactions? Did certain variations lead to more emotional responses? Did conflicting elements (Fire vs. Water, for instance) trigger a different response to more harmonious combinations (Fire meeting Air)?
For me this feels like a natural progression of poetry: interesting reactions happen in language when you combine unexpected combinations of words – juxtapositions or harmonies which create connections that might not have existed before. Sometimes, when I hear or read a piece of language that creates a new connection, I can feel tiny little explosions happening in my brain and my body that make me want to cry out, or pull my hair, or jump up and down and wiggle my fingers and shake. Helen Mort often refers to the relationship between language and the body, the “constant dance between the two,” and the impact that her own physical experience of climbing and running have on her own poetry writing process, on the rhythm of the language, and the ambush of a poem that needs to be written as she travels and moves.
As a person with chronic illness, I too think a lot about the relationship between the body and the writing and reading process. When I was younger and healthier, I worked as a paper delivery girl, waking early each day to cycle from door to door with a heavy stack of newspapers. During that slow, steady cycle, I would often have to halt to pull out a notebook and capture the rhythmic poems and phrases that would repeat themselves over and over again in my mind as the sun came out and the morning grew. I think I learned the most about the craft of poetry writing and editing over those paper-heavy years.
As I grow into an adult, it is harder and harder for my body to move in this way. I can’t cycle anymore, and walking more than a few feet leaves me with a series of painful injuries that keep me awake in the small hours. Even holding a pen and typing comes at a price (tomorrow my arms and fingers will be in agony from writing up this little post). My approach to language has changed. Poetry doesn’t just force itself into my head as often anymore, because I’m rarely moving, and my head is full of pain. And if I am travelling, I’m rarely alone. I’m often accompanied by a carer, or a wheelchair-pusher, or at the very least in a taxi. Writing can no longer be divided from physical sensations – little shots of pain through my wrists or the tight grip of a compression glove around a finger. In her lecture ‘My Body Is a Prison of Pain so I Want to Leave It Like a Mystic But I Also Love It and Want it to Matter Politically,’ Johanna Hedva invited non-disabled people to empathise with this experience by placing a rock in their shoes whilst they listened to her speak.
At this point, it feels like a natural progression to want to include more physical experiences into the poetry process – to inflict physical sensations upon my audience, not just through the rhythmic language which enter one’s body passively, but through external limitations and changes. In my earlier project, Mineralogy Jukebox, I inflicted less comfortable experiences as I read – the sensation of salt melting on one’s tongue (shown following), or sucking upon an incredibly sour sweet. I was amazed by the reception to these ‘micro-immersive’ experiences: not only did strangers listen, but they listened differently. They wanted to feel what I had to say. The Alchemist’s Chest tends to veer to more soothing experiences, but requires a more intense level of physical contact: hands upon hands as soil is rubbed into your palms, or water and ink dripped over your fingers.
The downside so far has been that each of these projects have relied upon my being strong enough to perform the interactions with my listeners, in a public, physical space. At any one event, the same experiment may be repeated 30-60 times. Think about how hoarse your throat would becomes after reading those same words over and over again. During an outing of The Alchemist at CONTROL ROOM (part of Nottingham’s GameCity festival with Abigail Parry, Jon Stone and Harry Mann), fellow interactive poets talked often about the increased workload and time that an interactive literary experience requires to produce. Whereas on the page or a normal stage, one poem can perform the same function repeatedly, interactive projects contain so many more options which need writing: one poem could have sixteen or six hundred variables. The possibilities are endless, the workload extreme.
In the case of my Alchemy poem, the setup is as a faux-science experiment, but my role in this also creates an unconscious bias: if I am always a factor in the interaction, the results which occur may be manipulated by my own relationship with the listener: I can seduce or repulse them, or anger or alienate them, depending on how our dynamic evolves (if they look sceptical before I begin, do I try harder to win them over in my performance, or do I lose confidence and lack in my delivery?). Although the flaw of presenting poetry project within the framework of a ‘Science’ experiment is consciously absurd, I still felt like it would be worthwhile to increase my own data pool. Why limit the experimental interactions to the number my own body is capable of creating? What happens when other listeners to lead the interactive poetry experience? I created a boxset version of the Alchemy project to overcome both of these obstacles: a physical poetry reading and listening experience for readers and listeners to experiment with and perform for themselves at home.
Early modern scientists in the 17th century made a point of separating themselves from classical philosophy and literature, through the rejection of ‘flowery’ language and ‘rhetorick,’ in favour of empirical experience: physical experiments with repeatable results. In doing so, a vast chasm between literary and ‘scientific’ language and practices unfolded. To me, Alchemy is the poetic equivalent of opening your first childhood chemistry set: a humble attempt at bridging the divide.
Abi’s poem following engages with some of the physiological experience of her condition:
Image Credit: Abi Palmer