Catalytic Poetry in West Norwood

The UK's third CATALYTIC POEM was brought to West Norwood by PoetrySlabs on 30 October 2017.

Not only is it a poem – it is also a solution to the air pollution plaguing our streets.

The magical Titania, Queen of the Wood, has coated the poster in a mystical potion which silently, invisibly converts the poison from exhaust fumes into harmless H20 – aka water.

Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy kindly granted us permission to use the poem "A Rare Bee" from her book The Bees, published by Picador. The idea of catalytic poetry was invented by poet Simon Armitage and scientist Tony Ryan. Design, production, and installation of the West Norwood banner was undertaken by James Pack (Pureti UK), Andy Kelly and Liam Norman (Gardners), Industrial Abseiling, and local maker, mover and shaker Robin Thomson. The project was supported by friends of PoetrySlabs (see below).

Janet and John Haney

Work in progress at the banner manufacturer; getting set to spray the 'magic potion'

So we're thrilled to announce that, having already placed two lines from Alfred Lord Tennyson's enchanting 'The Gardener's Daughter' – executed on high-design tiles – on a wall at Norwood Bus Garage in 2016, we've now scaled up by posting a complete poem – Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy's remarkable 'A Rare Bee' – at another location on the garage perimeter, at the corner of Ernest Avenue and Knight's Hill. What makes the second installation radically different from the first is that the poem is printed on a large rectangular banner (20ft by 10ft) that's been coated with a fabulous magical spray (more accurately, a catalytic molecular substrate). The nano-technology coating the banner is invisible to the eye, and the magic gets going when light hits the banner's surface. Any kind of light. Not only sunlight, but street lights as well. The catalytic process transforms noxious exhaust fumes into water, which then sheets, streak free, across the surface of the banner and falls gently onto the plants in the Bzz Garage garden at its base. The medium now becomes part of the message!

The Bus Garage making like a beehive on a hot summer's evening, 2017

The first catalytic poem in the country ('In Praise of Air') resulted from a collaboration between Tony Ryan OBE (Professor of Physical Chemistry at Sheffield University) and Simon Armitage (Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford and at the University of Leeds). It was suspended from an enormous wall close to a very busy road in Sheffield. A second catalytic poem, written by Hollie McNish, was installed at a roundabout in Cambridge. Ours, designed by Robin Thomson, is the third catalytic poem in the country – and the first in London, where poor air quality is a major concern. (See below for links to sites outlining the technology and its history.)

Before … surveying the site

After … ta-dah!

The idea for a catalytic installation gradually came together in the wake of the Tennyson venture, for which local artist Robert Dawson of Aesthetic Sabotage acted as designer. Neighbourhood semi-guerrilla gardeners Wayne Trevor – guiding light of the Norwood Bzz Garage and Open Orchard volunteer projects – and Kat Lochmann, one of his partners in planting, had opened up the way for us when we met them at a West Norwood FEAST in October 2015. Their community-led gardening activities had already given them a good connection to the managers at the bus garage, who, in turn, were to prove highly receptive to our ideas for poetry installations at the garage. The 'Rare Bee' project sprang directly from the Tennyson initiative, and we were thrilled to get permission from Carol Ann Duffy to put one of her poems on a West Norwood wall.

We hit a few obstacles, however, in trying to figure out exactly how this could be achieved – how to get thirty lines up on the wall using something other than tiles. It was at this point that Wayne Trevor provided yet another spark of inspiration. He shared a link on FaceBook to a report about Simon Armitage and Tony Ryan's catalytic poetry in Sheffield – which effectively solved the problem in one fell swoop.

'BINGO!' we thought to ourselves. A banner bearing poetry that also eliminates noxious nitrogen dioxide!

© Carol Ann Duffy. Carol Ann Duffy's 'A Rare Bee'is reproduced by permission of the author c/o Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN


Links to more information and other Catalytic Poetry projects:

Information about the first project: 'In Praise of Air'

Report by Joanna Gavins, Professor in English Language and Literature, University of Sheffield

Information from Sheffield University, including time-lapse video of the installation of Simon Armitage's 'In Praise of Air'

BBC radio show about scientists' proposals to reduce air pollution, featuring Professor Tony Ryan and others.

Holly McNish's catalytic poem was put up for the Women of the World Festival, Cambridge, March 2015

And, finally, thanks so much to everyone who chipped in to our Catalytic Poetry project: Kate Reardon, Wayne Trevor, Sunil de Sayrah, Tim Stephens, Emily Jordan, Kat Jones, David Jenkins, Georgina Lewis, Maria Athini, Jane Pickard, Jo Rostron, Rachel Alcock, Victoria Brookman, Julia McKenzie, Helen Hayes, and Janet and John Haney.