"Dung Beetles Navigate By Starlight" - a conversation with Dr Sarah Watkinson on poetry inspired by science

On 1 February, Dr Sarah Watkinson, an Emeritus Research Fellow in Fungal Biology, published a collection of poetry with Cinnamon Press titled ‘Dung Beetles Navigate by Starlight.’ Last week we had the opportunity to ask Sarah a few questions about the process of putting together this collection.


Have you always considered yourself a poet?

Not really, since the age of about 12. Then when A-level choices had to be made I said goodbye to writing in favour of Chemistry and Physics, but occasionally I have thought up poems and found it a satisfying way of crystallising an experience or an idea, so I took courses on poetry writing after I retired in 2009.


What was the inspiration for this collection of poetry? Does your research have a direct influence on your creative writing?

At first, I thought poetry had to be full of intimate personal revelation – a daunting thought! - but then I found that even writing about parasitic fungi does acquire a sort of indirect personal flavour, and I had the most success in competitions and magazine publication with poems that made use of scientific language.


What was the process of this collection coming together?

My tutor, Jenny Lewis, of The Poet's House Oxford, advised me on which of my poems were up to standard for a collection. Then I put some together for a pamphlet competition, in an order that seemed roughly to link ideas together - and it won! The collection begins with a set of five fungus poems.


Where did the title of this collection come from?

My very first success was when Jenny told her pupils to write a Petrarchan sonnet. I could not think of a subject until I found a wonderful paper by Dacke et al in Current Biology 2013, about African scarabs using the Milky Way for orientation. My effort was picked out in a competition by the famous poet George Szirtes.


You said you never saw yourself publishing after retiring - what prompted you to take the step in publishing this work?

I did a Diploma in Creative Writing at the Department of Continuing Education, hoping to write a novel. That is still on the stocks. However, on the course, I discovered I had a more of a gift for short form.


Has this inspired any future writing projects?

More poetry, the novel. . . .and an annual event at St Hilda's, SciPo, on writing scientific poetry. It is on 10th June this year - details to follow . . .


Congratulations, Sarah! We look forward to hearing about your future writing, publishing, and scientific endeavours!

You can purchase a copy of Sarah’s poetry collection here follow her on Twitter here.

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