Bringing poetry back to centre stage: thoughts on a creative journey

by Jenny Ridge on 19 August 2019

At an event on 26 October this year, eight Poet-Scientist pairs will deliver a poem they’ve created, based on their own scientific research and crafted with a poet’s creative skill. The Connections event, held at Lucy Cavendish College, is open to the public and will attract a diverse variety of people including scientists, creatives, college members, students and local school children.


Khairani Barokka (Okka), Poet-in-Residence, Modern Poetry in Translation, is one of the poets from the project. She tell us:

“I’m so grateful to everyone involved in the Connections project, particularly Dr Joanne Limburg for suggesting me as one of the participating poets—not only did it afford me my first trip to Cambridge, but our meeting over the weekend in July at Lucy Cavendish College was wonderful, for many reasons. It was an opportunity to meet some of the other poets and researchers, and learn about their work in conversation, and I thoroughly enjoyed discussing Dr Peter Jones’ research with him. Professor of Psychiatry and an epidemiologist focusing on young people’s mental health, I was pleased that my own past experiences with mental healthcare when younger were so mutually affirming with Dr Jones’ work. His initiatives on mindfulness training for mental health intervention, as well as on better public health structuring for young people’s mental health, are so important. I look forward to mutual feedback and collaboration, and to creating a poetic work that highlights key findings from Dr Jones’ research for the public. I’ve never been paired with a scientist before with the specific aim of creating poetry. As a poet, it’s a terrific challenge, and as a teacher, I already feel as though what I’m learning will better my ability to advocate for students’ welfare. It’s a pleasure to learn more about providing mental healthcare for young people from Dr Jones, and to produce this collaborative work—I hope it will be generative, empathetic, and spark real conversation in Cambridge and beyond.”

Professor Peter Jones, School of Clinical Medicine and Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, is Okka’s partner on the project. He adds:

“Cambridge is full of surprises. Long ago and far away, English literature O level introduced me to Poems of the Sixties and a long-lasting fondness for the precision of poetry. In truth, though, my relationship with poetry has waned; only once or twice a year do I now spend quality time with it.

Quite out of the blue 2019 has brought poetry back to my centre stage. First, an academic colleague suggested we use Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott as an allegorical basis of an editorial on the follies of psychiatric diagnosis and the self-serving persistence of an error-strewn approach. I’ve never done anything like that before and had to think afresh as we honed the argument and I came to understand my colleague’s wit. What’s more, the piece was accepted for publication – the only request from the journal being to cite some of the editor’s own work; back with a bump to scientific realpolitik. More intriguing was the unexpected invitation from Jane Greatorix and Lucy Cavendish to take part in the Connections project. I hope I had an open mind meeting my fellow brain-related scientists and our poets last month, but was sure I was pleased to be involved as the afternoon unfolded, I got to chat in depth to Okka and, subsequently, dip into her published work. She told me that The Lady of Shalott features in Anne of Green Gables – I never knew that despite being familiar with the former for some months and the latter since a boy. I’m not sure I’ve helped Okka’s creative process other than by putting some themes on the table but I’m eager to see, hear, feel the results of her work. Roll on any further exchanges we have over the summer and our performance in October.”

To book a place at the event on 26th October click here

About the authors:

Khairani Barokka

Okka is a writer, poet and artist in London. Among her honours, she was an NYU Tisch Departmental Fellow, and the Emerging Writers Festival’s Inaugural International Writer-In-Residence (2013). She’s now Modern Poetry in Translation’s Poet-in-Residence. She’s a performer and producer of poetry/art shows, and was one of Indonesia’s “Inspirational Young Leaders Driving Social Change" (UNFPA), for prolific, pioneering international work in inclusive, accessible arts.

Professor Peter Jones

Peter is a Group Leader in the Cambridge Department of Psychiatry. He uses epidemiological techniques to find causes of mental illness, particularly for cohort studies and psychotic disorders. He also researches service configurations to identify and treat mental illnesses early and effectively. Population prediction and early intervention in psychosis are his clinical interests.

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