A man with a way with words

Imperial’s Poet in Residence Dan Simpson brings the worlds of art and science together.

Imperial's Poet in Residence, Dan Simpson, outside the College main entrance on Exhibition Road

Words: Megan Welford / Photography: Angela Moore

Poet and spoken-word artist Dan Simpson isn’t scared of looking silly. Indeed, he’s equally at home wearing a sandwich board – which he did at an Imperial Lates event just before lockdown – as he is performing and writing.

“I’ve always loved maths and science,” he says, “and I have a natural curiosity.  I’m all about starting conversations about science with lots of different people in a  way that is inclusive and allows for two-way dialogue.”

As Imperial’s Poet in Residence, Simpson has been collaborating with researchers and the public to experiment with words. A recent speed-writing challenge saw him write haiku over Twitter (@ImperialSpark) in response to whatever science topic academics, students and the public sent his way – from synthetic chemistry to static electricity. Here’s one on scientific theories: “Sometimes physicists/ Make quantumly complex jokes/ They then must disprove.”

Imperial's Poet in Residence, Dan Simpson
Lend him your ears: Dan Simpson, Imperial’s Poet in Residence, is a seasoned performer with a passion for maths and science.

An experienced and engaging performer – he’s a Glastonbury veteran – Simpson hosted a recent live-streamed Poetry Slam featuring an impressive line-up of spoken word performers as part of Imperial Lates Online. But, for him, it’s as much about getting everyone else to take part as it is about making his own work. In fact, his latest spoken word composition for Imperial – Back to Nature – was entirely crowdsourced and inspired by conversations with Dr Ans Vercammenat the Centre for Environmental Policy.

The public were asked to respond to prompts from those conversations, and Dan crafted the contributions into a poetic meditation on our place in the natural world. He then went on to collaborate with Vercammen on an original poem. “I challenged her to jot down her feelings. Her interests are in mental health, scuba diving and blue space, and it flowed from there. It was a lovely collaboration.

“People are often nervous about poetry but  in the original oral, campfire tradition it was just  a way of telling people things. It was only when we started writing it down that it became thought of as a textual medium, rather than a spoken one – but there is a lot of overlap between the two.” Once reassured, people are eager to get involved, he says. “I’ll say, ‘Don’t focus on a poem; just think about three words to describe something’. They find it rewarding to see or hear their words. That’s all a poem is; it’s not mystical or magic.”

Symbiotic smile clownfish and anemones art and science touch."

An original haiku from Dan Simpson reflecting his Imperial residency.

Inspiration has come from Imperial researchers’ liveliness and creativity. “Science itself is a creative act. You reinterpret, question and challenge. You expect that from both artists and scientists. We are all human, trying to understand the  world and communicate it; there’s an overlap.”

Following residencies at Waterloo Station and the National Trust, alongside his ongoing work with primary schools, Simpson says coming to Imperial feels timely. 

“Science is dominating the headlines. For tragic reasons, we have become more engaged, but I hope our interest grows around a wide range of areas of science. We’re interested in climate change, in our mental health, in how cities are organised. The more we can talk about research in lots of different ways, the more everyone  can connect with research and researchers.

“So now is a great opportunity for public engagement with research, and what I particularly like is hearing about researchers’ passion for something they’ve devoted their whole lives to. Enthusiasm makes me enthusiastic.”