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Collaborative Project Explores ‘The Poetry of Science’
It’s difficult to imagine more disparate vocations than the scientist and the poet. But on Friday night, nine scientists and nine local poets shared with the public the fruits of their collaborations at “The Poetry of Science” event, after each of the poets met and interviewed a scientist about their work and wrote a poem inspired by that research.
The collaborative project is the brainchild of the city’s poet laureate, David Starkey, who said he was inspired to try a collective project after hearing about the scientists’ organization, the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, on a radio program.
The center, in downtown Santa Barbara but is affiliated with UCSB, has hosted more than 4,000 scientists since it began in 1995, conducts cross-disciplinary research and boasts more than 430 projects in ecology and other science fields. One of the center’s missions is to make science more accessible to the public, which prompted Starkey to contact the scientists serving residencies at the centers.
“I was blown away by the fact that there was this think-tank in downtown Santa Barbara in the Balboa Building that I was unaware of,” he said, which piqued his interest and prompted him to reach out to the organization.
“I connect everything with poetry, so I thought we would try it,” he said. A nearly full Fé Bland Forum at SBCC was proof of the event’s success.
The evening started with former Santa Barbara poet laureate Perie Longo and scientist Ben Halpern taking the stage. Halpern introduced himself as a scientist who studies maps and pictures of the oceans to better manage the ocean and its resources, for conservation and protection. Longo then read her poem, which she began writing the day of the Jesusita Fire after interviewing Halpern.
“Oh, blessed marine layer, come to rescue us again from fire’s claws pushing against the crimson winds, like gauze it hides the mountain wounds ... ,” she read. “What would it be like to dive, the marine biologist’s dream, into the last pristine place? Drift between sway of untouched kelp, leaves bright with health, view unpolluted seamounts and fjords, sink to where ancient coral walls are undamaged by anchor gouge, fishing trawl harvesting for souvenirs until all the fish have disappeared.”
“The poet and the scientist are doing much the same thing. ... Both may hope to produce a thing that will last,” poet John Ridland said before reading a poem he wrote after the Coyote Fire, which he decided to bring back after interviewing Jennifer Balch, who studies the global fire cycle.
Although the similarities between poet and scientist were extolled throughout the evening, several chose to poke fun. Poet Barry Spacks read from one of his poems, called “My Scientist.” He wrote it for scientist Sadie Ryan, who studies the transmission of diseases in elephants and primates.
“Mostly she likes to count, to fill spreadsheets, to sample populations, invent software,” he read, garnering laughs from the audience, including Ryan, who stood on stage with him. “Oh, scientists so like to count! And foremost to get it right! While we slovenly poets need wild elixir for our work ... .”
After the event, Starkey, who read a poem he wrote for scientist Jai Ranganathan, said he was thrilled with the turnout of the event and hopes it will turn into an annual tradition.
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