Aubergines in Acton’ by London poet Sophie Fenella has won a national poetry competition to explore ideas about naturalness in debates about science and technology. The competition was organised by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, renowned for stimulating debate in bioethics, in partnership with leading performance poetry organisation Apples and Snakes.

We were unanimous in selecting ‘Aubergines in Acton’ as the winning poem,” said judge Maria Ferguson of Apples and Snakes. “The poem was well written, using everyday familiar things to conjure images and retain the reader’s interest to the end. It was original, compelling and memorable. The poem dealt with a range of ideas about naturalness in a sensitive way, including how ideas about naturalness change over time, and the moral position of the natural world.”

Winner Sophie Fenella said: “I approached the theme of 'naturalness' from an aesthetic perspective. For me, eating pre-peeled carrots cut into circles, from a plastic packet, ruins the enjoyment one finds in eating a fresh carrot that still has its leaves. I find beauty in organic shapes, smells, textures, and believe a potato covered in soil is more beautiful than a frozen chip, because it looks more natural.

Alongside the competition, the Council commissioned a series of new poetry by dynamic poet Kayo Chingonyi. Kayo’s final pieces that explore ideas about naturalness are published today. Kayo said “'Working with the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has been fascinating and generative. The focus of their work on naturalness has led me in all sorts of directions in my creative responses (from the biography of a fictional scientist, to a poem exploring doubles, a detour through the politics of black hair, and a poem looking at ideas of citizenship and naturalness). I'm sure my time as commissioned poet for the council will continue to nourish my work for years to come'.

Kayo was one of four judges for the (un)natural poetry competition, alongside Maria Ferguson and two members of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics: medical sociologist Tom Shakespeare and theologian Mona Siddiqui.

Sharing Bodies’ by Laila Sumpton and ‘Walking in the Park on a Saturday Afternoon’ by Jessica Harneyford were two runners up in the competition. All three women will present their poems at a discussion and performance event tonight at the Rich Mix in London.

When people describe science, technology or medicine as natural or unnatural, they can be making moral claims about it being good or bad, or right or wrong. The Council wanted to delve deeper into what people really mean when they talk about naturalness and sought insights from poets to help it explore creatively the language of naturalness.

A report of the findings of the Council’s project on naturalness is published today, along with a short summary booklet that features extracts from the winning poems and Kayo Chingonyi’s work. The report and booklet set out five understandings of naturalness that show the different ways in which the terms natural and unnatural are used:
  • Neutral: a neutral/sceptical view that does not equate naturalness with goodness

  • Wisdom of nature: the idea that nature has found the correct or best ways of doing things and should not be ‘tampered’ with

  • Natural purpose: the idea that living things have natural purpose, essence or functions which is linked to what is good for them and which science shouldn’t seek to change

  • Disgust and monstrosity: a response of disgust, revulsion or fear prompted by novel technologies

  • God and religion: the idea that certain technologies distort God’s creation or go against the will of God

The report shows how, with these different meanings, we are often as risk of talking at cross-purposes in discussions about new science and technology. The Council makes recommendations about how the media, policy makers and advertisers should be cautious about using the terms natural and unnatural and make clear what meanings are being conveyed.



Winner - Sophia Fenella

Aubergines in Acton

I eat strawberries in November,
ripened by a lamp in my kitchen
brighter than the sun. I turn the night on
when the moon is sick, and bite apples
bigger than their grandmother.
I hear apples will keep me from fading
into my father’s shaking ribs, I hear ribs
grow in metal drawers, locked by men
in white coats.

I eat salad to teach the boy who thinks chicken
is KFC batter, about William Blake’s garden,
how he lived naked to feel the grass on his skin.
The boy only knows fields as fictional motifs,
he doesn’t know carrots have leaves.

The city breeds shopping lists tapped on screens,
grows passion fruits in Sainsbury’s basements,
sells orange juice that is really white powder,
but is sweeter than the Guatemalan man’s stall.

There is no need to bring grapes to the sick
when grapes are pills burst from aluminium foil,
but I always smell melons just to know
they are still living, and the earth is not a factory
pushing out hyper-purple plums, one by one.

Runner-up - Laila Sumpton

Sharing bodies

I am watching my husband write again-
he is dead but he is writing,
flesh morphing from grey to warm
as capillaries pulse new life back in.

His finger prints live on,
phantom limb revived
in a surgery séance
for the patchwork man
Mary Shelley predicted,
but this is not monstrous.
More the delicious agony
of a last letter arriving
a month after he went,
or a backdated cheque
unburdening as his flesh
is accepted, converted
into a new currency-
integrating your gestures.

Maybe you will find yourself
strumming air,
writing with his curve,
or punching the sky
when the other team wins
or developing a taste
for biting nails again-
as if ingesting him
will make him yours.

My husband never learnt
to type fast, and I worry
your new right hand man
will slow you down-
and will be found
clenching drift wood in meetings
longing to whittle
when he should be carving contracts.

You will have to train my husband’s hand.
You flex him, you reach out to take mine
and for a moment we are back at the bed
where he faded away.

They say that the boundary line
between his flesh and yours will blur
and I wonder if his mottles will hold.
If the black hair dusting his fingers
will tinge into chestnut over time-
if in a year, I won’t see
my husbands’ hand in yours.

We are sharing bodies
trading parts for our conscience
for legacy
to keep the human jigsaw

Runner-up - Jessica Harneyford

Walking in the Park on a Saturday Afternoon

They’d been walking so long that the lake had whitened with pedalos.
‘Let’s sit here’ she said, pointing to a gnarly oak stump, weathered by natural erosion,
or perhaps it was fashioned by somebody skilled with a chisel.

As they sat side by side, quiet enough to hear the willows weeping,
Still enough to feel the warmth of russet autumn leaves,
A couple on roller-skis raced past on their phones.

‘Sometimes’ he said ‘I feel it’s all going too fast.
We shouldn’t mess with laws of Nature or worship at the altar of technology.
We’ve lost our way.’

‘We’ve lost our way?’ she said.
She shook her head, the mantra of her childhood ringing in her mind:
‘Mother Nature is cruel. She needs to be met with compassion.’

And she smiled to herself,
Grateful that his parents had been able to conceive a son
Though some had called it unnatural.
The technique was the brainchild of a passionate human mind.

Kayo Chingonyi (commissioned by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics)

Ode to Natural Hair

The year waves came in, when we sang
you’re sweet like chocolate, boy
without shame, everyone had a method
for taming even the most rebellious head
of pepper grains into slick, crazy-paved,
deference to R ‘n’ B stars who loomed
large from hoardings, pasted into diaries
and exercise books, their lyrics written
out on the backs of hands. We wanted
to be wanted like that, so we slept with
our mothers’ head wraps tight round
our heads to keep the façade in place.

Some learned the grace of clippers,
the better to keep their edges in check,
others would get the barber to shape
them up with a razor blade so the skin
stung and the stubble stayed hidden.
But for all we tried to hide our natural
hair it came back, rising unbidden
from our scalps, as if each follicle
knew that soon we would covet shaved
lines in sideburns, eyebrows, anything
to set ourselves apart, betray our roots.