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Exploring the poetry of mathematics

11 April 2019

Four members of the School of Mathematics are taking part in an innovative cross-disciplinary project sponsored by the Brigstow Institute.

Hosted by Dr Mimi Thebo, Director of the Arts Faculty Creative Writing Research Cluster, the maths poetry project is supported by Professor Richard Pettigrew, Dr Rebecca Kosick and the Bristol Poetry Institute, and Johanna Darque of Small Press.

Through a series of workshops, participants are exploring how mathematical concepts, symbols, forms and ideas can be used to express ideas more often found in poetry, finding new connections between the two fields.

Mathematicians Dr Florian Bouyer, Dominic Verdon, Dr Mauro Fazion Filho and Dr Tyler Helmuth are learning different poetic structures, including haiku and pantoums, from four emerging and established poets: Jack Thacker, Miranda Barnes, Holly Corfield Carr, and Rowan Evans.

From fractal poems to the representation of infinity and isomorphism to theorems, the group discusses the boundaries of language and mathematical formulae before sharing and analysing each other’s work.

Prompts for consideration have included the famous abc conjecture, negative space, and what it’s like to study something with which you can have no interaction.

Dr Bouyer said: “While seeming to be two worlds apart, various forms of poems follows patterns and mathematics is the art of spotting patterns. This project allows me to try and explain abstract concepts in a medium that brings out an emotional response, which is often not associated with maths.”

Dr Thebo said: “Our poets have gone further in their own practice because of the passion and engagement of our mathematicians, and the mathematicians have a space to play.

“When a theorem is written in a poetic form, suddenly I can understand it – something I never would have attempted with an equation. It’s made me more confident about approaching an area of intellectual life I thought was closed off to me.”

Dr Kosick said: “Poetry and maths might seem completely separate but they have so much in common, including an interest in abstraction, and how we can account for the material world in symbols. We’re using creative practice as a path to research.”

Johanna Darque added: “We didn’t know what was going to come out of the workshops – it’s a very horizontal, collaborative process driven by both the mathematicians and the poets. It’s such an exciting project to be involved in."

At the end of the project, a selection of poems will be collated in a chapbook published by Small Press Books – more information about this launch will be available in the coming months.

Further information

Find out more about the Brigstow Institute.  

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