A cappella singing, a lone rower in the Pacific Ocean, fungal spores, clairvoyance and a baby’s cries…what could possibly tie these things together? The surprising answer is breath and poetry.
It was standing room only in the Oxford Retreat pub for an evening exploring breathing and breathlessness through poetry and song. Entitled 'To breathe ourselves into some other lungs', the purpose of the evening was to provoke deeper thought and discussion around the lived experience of breathing.
The session started with a choral ensemble led by writer and music therapist Kate Binnie. 'Breaths', originally recorded by the a cappella group Sweet Honey on the Rocks, is based on a poem about ancestors by Senegalese poet Birago Diop.
Then award-winning travel writer Elsa Hammond drew everyone into her experiences of her solo rowing trip across the Pacific Ocean, describing how often she only had her breath to accompany her.
Poet Gregory Leadbetter read from his new book 'The Fetch', in which breath is a recurring motif. In ‘Dendrites and Axons’, a poem about his father’s death, he poignantly realises 'I will not breathe with you again when I leave'.
Scientist turned poet Sarah Watkinson shared her experiences of living with asthma. ‘Rescue Medication’ was a humorous hymn to the tetrad of drugs that help to keep her asthma at bay.
The floor was opened up and audience members shared their choice of poems including ‘Oxygen’ by Mary Oliver, ‘Vanishing Lung Syndrome’ by Miroslav Holub and the lyrics to ‘Breathing’ by Kate Bush.
To finish the evening Kate Binnie played her moving soundscape 'First and Last Breath' which is a compilation of breath sounds recorded at various life stages from a baby to her own father’s final days.
The event was organised by Breathe Oxford, a research group led by Kyle Pattinson within the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences. The group teamed up with Life of Breath, based at the Universities of Bristol and Durham.
The inspiring and thought-provoking evening began a conversation about breathing and breathlessness that both Breathe Oxford and Life of Breath are keen to continue.