The Human Cell Atlas: A Poetry Challenge

What do cells and words have in common? This winter, we’re asking you to find the connections between biology and poetry.

Computer generated image of some cells, with a blue wall and a yellow interior

The challenge: write a poem or poems inspired by the language of the Human Cell Atlas.

Find an Easy Read version of this challenge here.

 The Language of Cells – Poetic Science?  

Newcastle Centre for Literary Arts in partnership with the Human Cell Atlas

This challenge has been created in partnership with the Newcastle Centre for Literary Arts (NCLA) and the Human Cell Atlas.

Based at Newcastle University, NCLA promotes and cultivates poetry in education, media, and community organisations through live events and outreach programmes.

The Human Cell Atlas is a pioneering multidisciplinary global research project, which aims to identify and understand the function of all thirty-seven trillion cells in the human body. The project will help scientists to understand the way the body works and to treat diseases better. The project involves over one thousand researchers from over fifty countries around the world!

What is a cell? 

All living things are made of cells. Some living things are made up of one cell: they are called unicellular organisms. Many other living things are made up of large numbers of cells that form a plant or animal and are known as multicellular organisms.

Cells are the smallest living units that are capable of reproducing themselves. In fact, cells are so small they can only be seen through a microscope. Here’s a drawing of the cells in a slice of cork by the seventeenth-century scientist Robert Hooke. Using a hand-built microscope, he became the first human in history to see such cells for himself.

Black and white drawing of lots of interconnected cells on a microscope slide, next to another drawing of a microscope

The Language of Cells – Poetic Science?

As Hooke was exploring the world of living cells for the first time, he knew he had to find a name for the new forms he was discovering. They appeared to be made of highly regular structures, which reminded him of the tiny rooms in monasteries called ‘cells’. By naming these new structures ‘cells’, Hooke was essentially creating a metaphor. In Greek, ‘metaphor’ literally means ‘to carry across’. And here he was carrying across the name of one thing as the new name for another.

This is what poets do all the time of course – we describe one thing in terms of another thing, providing the reader with a rich web of associations, connecting things through language. And just as cells lock together to form an organism, language is made up of metaphors.

How are cells like poems?

Are there other ways in which poems and cells are alike? ‘Cell’, as in a monastic cell, or prison cell, means ‘little room’. Poems are filled with little rooms. Indeed, our word ‘stanza’ comes from the Italian for ‘room’. So you might think of the individual verses within a poem as rooms in a house, each with its own atmosphere, furniture and lighting, yet connected to the meaning of the overall poem and adding to it.

But if cells are ‘the smallest living units capable of reproducing themselves’, I think we have to go smaller than verses or stanzas to find a more accurate point of comparison. The smallest unit in a poem capable of reproducing itself isn’t a stanza, but a word.

Like cells, each word is a distinct entity; and, just like cells, each word contains a world in itself (when we get to the challenge, you’ll be able to explore for yourself just what I mean by this). Each word is limited to its own discreet meaning, just as each cell is limited by the cell wall. Yet just as each cell is designed to connect to other cells, each word is also designed to connect to other words, to be lifted and dropped into sentences at will. And it’s when you connect words with other words (or cells with other cells) that magic happens – a human body stands up and walks, a poem forms itself and lifts off the page.

Human ceek cells - flat with a nucleus, dyed blue
Human cheek cells by Joseph Elsbernd, via flickr

One word leads to another

Bodkin

by Vona Groarke

A word from a dream, or several, spiked on it
like old receipts. Something akin to a clavicle’s
bold airs; a measurement of antique land;
a keepsake brooch on a quilted silk bodice;
a firkin, filled to the brink with mead or milk;
a bobbin spinning like a back-road drunken bumpkin;
borrowed, half-baked prophesies in a foreign tongue;
a debunked uncle’s thin bloodline; a Balkan
fairy story, all broken bones poked inside out;
a bespoke book blacked in with Indian ink;
a bobolink in a buckeye or a bare-backed oak;
a barren spindle, choked ankle-high with lichen;
a fistful of ball bearings dropped on a bodhrán
Body skin. Kith and kin. Other buckled things.

Republished with the kind permission of the author and the publisher Gallery Books.

Vona Groarke’s ‘Bodkin’ is a strange poem. There are no main verbs, which means it isn’t even a complete sentence. This is because it is a list poem. What is it listing?

Well, if you look, and even more importantly, listen to it carefully, you can see it’s made up of associations conjured up by the word ‘bodkin’ (which means little dagger). Vona Groarke has written down associations linked to the sound of the word ‘bodkin’, rather than exploring what it means.

And so a single word sets the whole poem in motion, as one sound leads to another, and we set off with the poet on a journey of discovery to the most unexpected places – rather like Hooke with his microscope over three hundred years ago, or the Human Cell Atlas scientists today, finishing the work Hooke started by setting out, cell by cell, to map the entire human body.

The challenge

We would like you to create an associative word poem inspired by the language of the Human Cell Atlas. You can use any words linked to human cells.

First, choose a word. Here are some suggested words to get you going:

  • Genome
  • DNA
  • RNA
  • Mitochondrion
  • Cytoplasm
  • Organelle
  • Membrane
  • Oncogene
  • Centriole
  • Reticulum
  • Cilia
  • Golgi Apparatus
  • Ribosome
  • Mapping

But you can find even more words related to cells on the Human Cell Atlas website here.

Next, write down as many words that sound like your chosen word as you can. They can be as random as you like. For instance, ‘genome’ might make you think of ‘garden gnome’ or ‘jeans’. Does the sound of the word conjure any feelings, or even memories? Write down as much as you can. This process can take days, if you like – Vona Groarke says:

Carry it around in your head, finding other words in the world that seem to connect with some part of the sound it makes. Consonantal sounds will be easier to work with than vowel sounds because they’re more definite. And remember, the connection can be quite loose, it certainly doesn’t have to be full rhyme, but even slight or glancing connections will help create a good kind of skeletal support to build the poem around.

Then, once you’ve got as many associated sounds as you can think of, expand on those. Make the details specific, like Vona Groarke does. If you have ‘jeans’, maybe you’ll change this to ‘my favourite ripped blue jeans’. Use your other senses – can you evoke textures, smells and heat through your descriptions? Notice the sounds you are using. Try to keep to the same soundscape as the original word – maybe you’d like to bring out the hissing ‘s’ sound and the lilting ‘l’ of ‘cilia’, for example.

Finally, it’s time to put those phrases in order. What’s the most exciting phrase to start with? Which phrase would make a good ending? You could try and create a loose narrative structure, but this isn’t necessary – this challenge is asking you to follow the sounds, not necessarily the sense.

Computer generated imgae of a purple cell with a translucent wall

This is a challenge about science. But it is also a challenge about language. Ultimately, we are asking, what do these words mean for you? What do they sound like? What other words might they contain? What other words might they lead to? What worlds might they conjure up – rich, quirky, personal to you as your own DNA? Go on. Show us.

More about the Human Cell Atlas

Human Cell Atlas logo (a blue sphere made up with mosaic parts)

This challenge is part of a joint project between the NCLA and the Human Cell Atlas, funded by the Wellcome Trust. One cell at a time: Bringing together communities, patients and researchers to build the Human Cell Atlas is an ambitious programme of public engagement activities that will be delivered across the UK throughout 2021 as part of the Human Cell Atlas project. Its aim is to improve the value and trust people place in the pioneering scientific research of the Human Cell Atlas by creating opportunities for collaborations between art and science. It will involve multidisciplinary artists, Human Cell Atlas researchers and diverse communities across the UK and beyond – including you, Young Poets Networkers!

One cell at a time will explore fundamental questions embedded within the Human Cell Atlas’s research such as ‘What does it mean to be normal?’ and ‘What influences people’s value and trust in research involving tissue donation and open access data?’ Bridging art and science, the project is already inspiring new thinking, knowledge and ways of working between artists, scientists and communities. More information about the Human Cell Atlas can be found here.

Prizes

This challenge will be judged by a panel of poets and scientists, including poets Sinéad Morrissey and Theresa Muñoz, academic and curator Suzy O’Hara, and Newcastle University scientist and Human Cell Atlas public engagement lead Muzz Haniffa.

Selected poets will be published on Young Poets Network, and sent an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook, poetry books and other goodies. In addition, we are especially excited to offer a one-to-one mentoring session with an NCLA poet for all winning and commending poets, to give feedback on poems, answer any poetry-questions and offer guidance for what to do with your writing next. The first, second and third prize-winners will also receive £50, £30 and £20 book tokens respectively.

Winners will also be published in the Human Cell Atlas zine, presented as part of the One cell at a time final touring exhibition and will have a chance to read their poems at a future NCLA event.

How to enter

This challenge is for writers aged 25 and younger, based anywhere in the world. It’s free to enter and you can send as many poems as you like. The deadline is midnight, Sunday 31 January 2021. You can send a poem written down, or a recording as a video or as an audio file. If you are sending a written version of your poem, please type it into the body of your email. If you are sending a video or audio file, please attach it to the email (making sure it’s no bigger than 4MB or it won’t come through) or send us a link to where we can see/hear it.

Send your poem(s) to educationadmin@poetrysociety.org.uk with the subject line ‘Human Cell Atlas challenge’, along with your name, date of birth/age, gender, the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country) you live in, and how you found out about this challenge (e.g. YPN email/Twitter/Instagram/through a teacher/through a friend etc.). This data is used for statistical purposes and to help us reach as wide an audience as possible. To assist with Newcastle Centre for Literary Arts’ reporting, we will follow up with an optional survey asking you about your experience responding to this challenge.

If you are aged 12 or younger on Sunday 31 January 2021, you will need to ask a parent/guardian to complete this permission form; otherwise, unfortunately we cannot consider your entry due to data protection laws.

We welcome entries from schools and groups. Use this class entry form to enter students from your class or group.

If you would like us to add you to the Young Poets Network mailing list, include ‘add me to the mailing list’ in the subject line of the email. If you would like us to confirm that we’ve received your entry, include ‘confirm receipt’ in the subject line. You may refuse to provide information about yourself.

By entering, you give permission for Young Poets Network, The Poetry Society, the Human Cell Atlas and Newcastle Centre for Literary Arts to reproduce your poem in print and online in perpetuity, though copyright remains with you. Please do be sure to check through the general Terms and Conditions for YPN challenges as well.

If you require this information in an alternative format (such as Easy Read, Braille, Large Print or screenreader friendly formats), or need any assistance with your entry, please contact us at educationadmin@poetrysociety.org.uk.

Published November 2020

6 thoughts on “The Human Cell Atlas: A Poetry Challenge

    1. Hi Noelle,

      Thanks for your comment! You can send them either way. It is slightly easier for us to administrate your entries if they are all sent in the body of one email, but it won’t affect your chances if you want to send them separately.

      Best of luck,

      Young Poets Network

  1. Thanks for answering! I have another question, do we put our name and age and the other info in the subject line of the email, or in the body of the email.

    Thanks

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