Top Menu

The Universe and everything

I had never applied for Grants for the Arts funding, from the Arts Council England – until a year ago.

I had a crazy idea – and thanks to them, it is now a 45 minute performance –

It’s called e-x-p-a-n-d-i-n-g: The History of the Universe in 45 minutes. It involves an astrophysicist, two poets and a musician – and is held in a mobile planetarium dome, with 360 degree visuals


expanding 2 copy

We held a preview in Bridgnorth, Shropshire in September 2014 – and the reaction from the audience was, well, here a few of them …
Astonishingly well put together in that this is the ultimate ‘sensory’ experience. Clever. Disorientating. Insightful. Beautiful. As poetry should be              L.B.

Really enjoyed – a new experience of poetry and music   J.P.

I found that it was extremely interesting. There were many things I have never learnt and will look up much more T.H. (13 yrs)

Different to anything I have ever seen before (17 yrs)

Extraordinary and powerful experience J.B.

Remarkable – a complete immersion in another world/time/space L.K.

I came away buzzing.  W.G.

Fascinating ! and most enjoyable! To think how small the pod is – but how I felt like the only one in space in a vast area! J.W.

                       One person described the performance as:   all of time and space in a tent

Without Arts Council England funding we could never have spent the time necessary to research, write, work together, overcome a huge number of obstacles.
I am very pleased – that I seem to have a skill in putting the right people together:

expanding 6 copy

Professor Trevor Ponman an astrophysicist at The University of Birmingham: This man, whose first self-appointed task, when he became head of his department, was to commission a “cosmic corridor” within the University – was interested from the start. I knew we were lucky to have found him when in his first email he recommended Carcanet’s book  “A Responsibility to Awe” by Rebecca Elson – an astronomer herself, whose research involved dark matter. The first poem in the book echoes her journals in the back – which really struck a chord with me…

We Astronomers                                                                                                                                a poem the professor shared with me before our first meeting, by Rebecca Elson

We astronomers are nomads,
Merchants, circus people,
All the earth our tent.
We are industrious.
We breed enthusiasms,
Honour our responsibility to awe.
But the universe has moved a long way off.
Sometimes, I confess,
Starlight seems too sharp,
And like the moon
I bend my face to the ground,
To the small patch where each foot falls,
Before it falls,
And I forget to ask questions,
And only count things.

and from Rebecca Elson’s Journal :
“Science was also, of course, part of my formal education, though my memories of this are less pleasurable… For the most part school science was textbook learning: memorising names and arrangements of human organs or plant parts. Experiments were essentially like following recipes, trying to make the results come out the way you knew they were supposed to. The subject may have been science, but the process wasn’t.”

I have always felt that scientists and artists are very similar in many ways. And that mathematicians are the most imaginative people on the planet. When my idea for this project was in its seed stage I searched the internet looking for – I don’t quite know what – but I found an article by Ruth Padel in the guardian (Dec 2011) that says: Both poetry and science get at a universal insight or law through the particular. Both depend on metaphor, which is as crucial to scientific discovery as it is to lyric” which encouraged me to look further: An article in The New Scientist in 2007 describes a poetry and science event in which both Rigour and Metaphor are discussed as being equally important to scientists and poets

I asked Professor Ponman to write “mini-lectures” – and also, when he showed us a poem at our first meeting that he himself had written, I quickly asked him to write poems too. He divided the history of the Universe in to nine separate parts, and the poets and musicians used these as the backbone of the performance.

I must say – I was a little worried that there would be too much information in his lectures for the audience to take in, or want to take in. When I was reading and researching for my own poems – I would be absolutely amazed by the information right up to the point when my brain felt like it was going to explode… I managed to last about three hours of intensive reading, before I had to give up for the day – and do some gardening , washing, anything that wasn’t using my brain for the rest of the day ! If I hadn’t had Arts Council England funding, I know I would have given up on the reading very quicky as just too big an ask for my brain cells to cope with – and I am so grateful that I was “obliged” to continue with my research!
Anyway my concerns about his lectures vanished when I read what the audience thought of them:
I’ve learnt a lot . Proper astrophysicist – v. important as it authenticates the experience L.B.          Yes – a proper astrophysicist is essential! Like proper poets!  L.L.                                                       Excellent. Clear. Concise P.F.                                                                                                             I am interested in astrophysics etc anyway and think that I knew most of the information but it did not feel like one was being lectured. I must start going to the astronomy association club again! V.C.                                                                                                                                          Lectures – and prof’s own poems – were the main “backbone” to the experience. clear yet thought-provoking K.C.                                                                                                                              Understandable, well spoken and interesting (T.H. 13 yrs)
Very clever and informative. I want to learn more. It felt very authoritive. J.B.
Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes – A bonus having a ‘proper’ astrophysicist – my flippant side is tempted to add – as opposed to an ‘improper’ one ! B.C.
Yes : easy to take in and brain ‘primed’ by knowing they were scientifically accurate. easy to take in even for non-scientist – would definitely like to learn more. L.K.
I had no difficulty at all with the lectures; they were clear and understandable and if they left anything out it was to tantalise me into learning more. That reminds me: I must look up quasars. I would say that the fact that the lecture part was delivered by a real astrophysicist was important but really I think it was that the mix was there. Real lecture by real astrophysicist, real poetry by real poets. It needed the lot and it used them all. W.G.

expanding 15 copy

I asked Giancarlo Facchinetti to be our musician. ( I know his work well and am always impressed with his imagination and dedication. He plays numerous instruments – he picks them up, and finds the notes on them, that are already playing in his head. He plays electronica to acoustic folk, and has written several murder ballads. I knew, also, that he is a keen astronomer – has his own telescope, and even reads books about quantum physics for fun !
As it turned out – he excelled even my expectations – the audience, in September 2014, were equally impressed…

It’s Aphex Twin meets Flaming Lips and it compliments the words. The balance, for me, is great L.B.
Music is beautiful L.L.
Music was especially effective! K.C.
Fantastic! T.W.
The music was very effective and carried the spoken word well throughout N.P.
– quite mesmeric. L.N.
Very impressive. Important enhancement to know the sounds were sampled from actual sounds of the Universe. J.B.

expanding 14 copy

Emma Purshouse – a wonderful poet, slam champion, workshop leader, published author, and performer around the country; with a degree in English and an M.A. in Creative Writing – was rather taken aback when I asked her to be part of the project. She was very keen to point out how little she knew about any kind of science, let alone astrophysics. I explained that that was the point – we all have different roles – Professor Ponman as the expert, Giancarlo as an amateur astronomer, me with my understanding of scientific language ….  she then decided to inhabit the role of “the fool”.     I also already had this by Emma Purshouse :

In 1796 Edward Jenner tested an idea that being infected by cowpox would protect against catching small pox. He used his gardener’s eight year old son, James Phipps, to experiment. You have to wonder how Jenner got the family to agree.

Phipps the Gardner instructs his wife in the science of immunology                     by Emma Purshouse

He’s going to be late for tea is Jim,
Jenner’s got a job for him.
Now, what did the good doctor say?
Oh Yeah, he’s infecting him with variola vaccinae!

Now, my lovely, keep your calm,
He assures me Jim won’t come to harm.
It’ll just be a couple of little jabs
Into which he’ll rub the milkmaid’s scabs!

Then in two weeks if Jim’s not in pain
He’s going to variolate him again,
Two more scratches on his skin
And then a deadly disease goes in.

Now, wife, the plan is that Jim survives
Thus proving that he is immunised.
With all this small pox being rife
The doctor thinks it might save Jim’s life

Although he may get the shivers and swollen glands
I still believe our boy is in safe hands
So chin up love, you should be cheery,
It’s not everyone’s lad gets to test a theory.

No. I don’t know why he hasn’t used their son
But I’m sure his reason is a very good one.
Perhaps he’ll tell me over an ale or three.
Well, he’s promised to get the beers in, see.

and so I knew that she had it in her – to make the science understandable AND entertaining.

The audience feedback agreed…

I liked the playful poems – they offset the science. gave permission not to understand everything L.L.
I liked them – especially the one about the three bears V.C.
I liked a lot of them especially the goldilocks poem. (T.H. 13 yrs)
yes fantastic! I particularly enjoyed the west-midlander accented poem about thinking of astrophysics last Sunday C.V.

and when we all got together it was Emma who was asking the most spot-on questions to the Professor. None of us could quite have envisaged at the start of the project, how, on our collaborative days we would end up having free tutorials with an astrophysicist! And how much we would enjoy it ! He checked all our poems and was quick to highlight when we had misunderstood something or got the order wrong. It was exhilarating.. and very hard work – to try and impress ! Rigour. Metaphor. These have been with all of us in abundance over the past year.

expanding 13 copy


And myself? Nadia Kingsley. Well, that’s the beauty of coming up with an idea and project managing it – I got to choose me, as part of the project. I have a scientific background and am always keen to research round a subject – that’s part of the reason for writing for me. I have written poems about butterflies, plants and animals, slipping facts in without losing the poetic. I have been published in magazines and anthologies, and have won or been placed in poetry, flash fiction and short story competitions. Also – I am extremely interested in presenting poetry to an audience in new ways (when David Calcutt and I read from Road Kill or Through the Woods we do it in a very collaborative way – and the audience tells us they find it much easier to concentrate throughout, because of this – as well as being transported by the musicality) However I hadn’t realised quite how foreign and untouchable  space and its mathematics are – and I found it a challenge, not to be able to observe any of it really close-up. Exhiliarating too … the poems finally came together – and the audience seemed to approve..
There is a lovely balance between wit and form as there is a big difference in ’tone’ and style. I like the differing interpretations – the experiment with form – its unexpected and clever L.B                         I enjoyed the mix of styles. When I twigged that Nadia’s would all be quite straight and Emma’s all quite funny, I wondered if I would find them predictable. Cue the funny bit, cue the serious. But there is enough humour in Nadia’s and enough serious intent in Emma’s that I forgot this as soon as I thought it. I did delight in Emma’s one about a particle. W.G.                                                       I loved the poetry serious and comic. J.W.                                                                                  Good. I liked the range of voices and styles. Mnemonic poems – good made you feel like you’re learning and they were clever. I enjoyed them all. I would enjoy a second exposure to the experience J.B.                                                                                                                            Poems – good, fitted well into the overall experience B.C.                                                               Loved them, and the balance was right L.K.

One of my poems – that didn’t make it into the final show – because of timing issues is this:

My diary                                                      by Nadia Kingsley

Went to a party
Hosted by a geologist
His house was made of Wenlock stone
Saw tiny fossils in its walls

Encouraged by my questions
he showed me all his other fossils
sounded breathless as he said
This animal was born

four hundred million years ago
I would have been impressed
but I’ve been reading
all about
the history of the Universe
his numbers were too small


ExpandingDome 2
And the dome? And the lying down with headphones on? And the sound quality? And the visuals?
Our first audience responded with:

I loved the dome! It offers ‘trepidation’, suspense – you wonder what’s going to happen. As soon as you enter you know you’re off on a journey. L.B                                                                           Brilliant – different to anything else (17 yrs)

Really engaging and pushing into ones own experience making it more absorbing J.H.
I really liked the use of silent disco earphones – it kind of took you into your own bubble and made it feel more immersive C.V.
I think the headphones is a great touch as it personalises what is essentially a group experience. teenagers/ school kids will like this a LOT L.B.
Music and sound balance/ mix excellent K.C.
I want a pair T.W.


Very good visuals- meditative almost. They’re just right as it allows the words centre – stage L.B.
Loved them including transitions P.F.
Visuals were spot on – interesting and professional J.P.
Yes, super K.C.



Thank you Arts Council England ! We have all gained so much from this collaborative experience and we are now very much looking forward to sharing it with audiences.


We are available for festivals in 2015. Contact Nadia at if you would like to know more…

, , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.