Author Archives: thepoetsgarden

What We Talk About When We Talk About Climate

What we talk about when we talk about climate is pretty much Everything.  Which is what makes it so hard to talk about – and in particular to write about.  But rather than deter us, we could let that encourage us to be curious and inspire us to be creative, allowing our imaginations to wander, on and off the page.  

That’s what naturally happens, if you’re lucky, when you’re able to start writing freely and follow the thread of your intuitions.  In my experience it seems to require you to be as present as possible, rooted in your own body and its sensations and suggestions.  ‘Thinking about climate’ is just that – thinking, with the tendency to spin around in ever-widening circles of doom, catapulting you further and further away from where you are.  Come back…Don’t get lost!

Start where you are.

Use what you have.

Do what you can.

Arthur Ashe

Last week the excellent Ginkgo Prize for Ecopoetry published this year’s anthology and I’m happy to have a couple included.  One of them – ‘Stone Curlew’ – speaks to that impulse to lose touch with yourself and loop off anywhere but here.

Stone Curlew

I watch the way you want to reach the end

before you’ve begun. Here there is only this

egg and our sitting in shifts to keep it warm,
at the mercy of weather, another bird’s hunger.

Trust me, you must go to unknown places
and stay inside your body while you try. Look at me

being bird. Why is being human so hard?
I see you – fragile and fierce. What if every single day

were your only chance of incubating what wants
to be born and that was all you had to do – be there 

what you were made for, enough to make a stone sing? 

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You can read all the wonderful Gingko poems here.

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Having some sort of focus or structure is helpful as we face up to the challenges of living with climate collapse, ecological extinctions and an uncertain future so I very much welcome a new essay that’s starting to circulate, written by two medical ethicists calling for a new system of bioethics, taking the planet and all its species into account, and proposing six ‘Ethical Maxims for a Marginally Inhabitable Planet’.

According to Pierre Hadot (1995), who they quote:

when the time comes, they [maxims] can help us accept such [catastrophic] events, which are, after all, part of the course of nature; we will thus have these maxims and sentences ‘at hand’. What we need are persuasive formulae . . . which we can repeat to ourselves in difficult circumstances, so as to check movements of fear, anger, or sadness. The exercise of meditation [on maxims] is an attempt to control inner discourse, in an effort to render it coherent.

Aren’t poems a little like maxims, ‘persuasive formulae’, distilled experience, concentrated insight into what it is to be human that someone might carry around to help them see in the dark?

In essence, David Schenck and Larry Churchill’s Six Maxims are:

1. Work hard to grasp the immensity of the situation.

2. Cultivate radical hope.

3. Have a line in the sand.

4. Appreciate the astonishing opportunity of life at this time.

5. Train your body and mind.

6. Act for the future generations of all species.

This is important and immensely useful guidance, chiming beautifully with Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects and Chris Johnstone’s Active Hope Training. I’d definitely recommend you read the whole article here. If you find it at all helpful, please pass it around among your family, friends and colleagues.

As the authors say, from their long-time experience working in hospitals with patients in extremis, responding to unexpected transitions is a difficult ongoing process, involving the emotions and the body, as well as the mind – all of our selves that the climate and ecological emergencies (i.e. everything right now) is asking us to bring.  And the great thing is we don’t need to do it alone – we’re all in this together and can help each other simply by admitting how we feel, sharing our fears as well as our dreams, and listening – really listening – to each other.  That’s where radical hope lives – uncomfortable, urgent and open to action.

Which brings us back to the fundamental questions addressed by the maxims: what kind of person will you be, and what will you teach and model for your colleagues, your students, your families?

We ourselves find this list of maxims daunting. But this is how maxims work. Maxims have to do with how we do everything we do – a tone and style of living – as well as with the implementation of certain practices. Maxims are, in significant part, about keeping morality itself alive in a catastrophe. They demand of us that which we have difficulty demanding from ourselves.

Schenck & Churchill

What else to do but be there – like a bird on an egg

and start where you are.  

Begin now.  

And keep beginning over and over again.

Vitally, the human race is dying. It is like a great uprooted tree, with its roots in the air. We must plant ourselves again in the universe.

D.H. Lawrence

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Midsummer Phantoms

I don’t write prose very often and I read it in public even less but the coming Summer Solstice will see me joining Sean O’Brien and Gail-Nina Anderson for one of their legendary Ghost Story gatherings at Newcastle’s Lit and Phil. I’ll be reading a story I wrote some time ago called Cloud Island. The ghosts in it are all lurking between the lines, although everything is so frightening these days, it’s hard to know where true horror lies. Even the fact that here we are already, almost half way through the year, feels like some macabre trick.

I’m looking forward to this unusual Solstice gathering and hearing Sean and Gail-Nina’s stories – and to seeing those of you who can make it along to what I’m sure will be a skin-tingling evening. Click on the link below to book.

Tuesday 21st June 7pm

Midsummer Phantoms at the Phil | Sean O’Brien, Gail-Nina Anderson & Linda France

Live | £5/3

Join Gail-Nina Anderson, Sean O’Brien and Linda France as they bring a ghostly chill to Midsummer’s Eve. Savour three new ghost stories before the nights start drawing in…..

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Stop Press

This week – a reading and a workshop – do come if you can!

L

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LAUNCH PARTY!

Wednesday 18th of May, 7pm – Smokestack Books Showcase

Poets Linda France and Paul Summers read from their new collections, The Knucklebone Floor and billy casper’s tears.

Linda France has published eight full collections, including RedThe Gentleness of the Very Tall, book of days (also published by Smokestack), You are Her and Reading the Flowers. She won the National Poetry Competition in 2013 and received a Cholmondley Award for her contribution to poetry in 2020. She curated the collective poems Murmuration (with Kate Sweeney) and Dawn Chorus (with Christo Wallers) as part of her Writing the Climate Residency with New Writing North and Newcastle University.

Paul Summers was born in Northumberland. A founding editor of the magazines Billy Liar and Liar Republic, he has written extensively for TV, film, radio and the theatre. His books include Cunawabi, The Rat’s Mirror, The Last Bus, Vermeer’s Dark Parlour, Big Bella’s Dirty Café and Three Men on the Metro (with Andy Croft and Bill Herbert). His most recent books are union, primitive cartography and straya (all published by Smokestack) and arise! He lives in North Shields.

And on Thursday at the Great North Museum…

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Graphite and Rainbow

With my new book The Knucklebone Floor just out, I’ve been signing copies people have kindly bought. When they see me reaching for my pencil, many offer me a pen, as if I didn’t have one at hand, implying pencil is somehow inferior, regrettably contingent. It’s reminded me that a few years ago I was asked to write something about stationery. Here it is – in neither pen or pencil – I hope you might enjoy.

Happening upon this very short text again, I was glad also to be reminded of the excellent Lady Mary Montagu and The Toast of the Kit-Cat Club – poetic grandmother to The Knucklebone Floor: both biographies of bold women in verse, unauthorised, experimental. All, of course, written in the shadow of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando – probably my favourite book of all time.

Graphite and Rainbow

1.

Nature, who has played so many queer tricks upon us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case, often of the most incongruous, for the poet has a butcher’s face and the butcher a poet’s…

Virginia Woolf knew the importance of stationery and the complicated conditions that must be fine-tuned to enable a woman to write.  When not sitting at her desk, she engineered an arrangement with a plywood board across an armchair, where she could sit comfortably and write and smoke.

…the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind…

2.

Postmarked June 2003, an airmail letter lands from Canada with my name and address on the pale blue envelope written in pencil.  I imagine silver feathers, wings of graphite, propellers.  The letter (a spidery hand, also in pencil) is about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.  The points are sharp, proxy for that brave soul who crossed the Alps in a basket, the first woman to travel beyond Christendom and write home of all the wonders she witnessed. 

3.

I become a convert to pencil, evangelical.  All my favourite ink pens dry up as I trawl the tiered stands of pencils in stationery shops, choosing my favourites (Staedtler HB, Papermate Non-Stop – good quality, nothing fancy, built-in erasers).  I start carrying a Swiss Army knife to sharpen them on the hoof.  Around this time, I give up smoking my beloved roll-ups and nimbly replace one ritual with another.  

4.

I’m reluctant to become dependent on certain conditions in order to be able to write but some things do help.  Familiarity.  Preparation.  Space.  Comfort.  Pleasure.

5.

Artists I collaborate with use pencil to sign their names on drawings and prints, adding a title here, an edition number there – grey less intrusive and distracting than black.  The silvery lead seems to hold some of their images’ lightness.  It lifts the words into an acknowledgement – a celebration even – of impermanence, always vulnerable to erasure, open to smudge or fade.  

6.

There is something wabi sabi about writing in pencil (a Japanese aesthetic that suggests immense care, work-always-in-progress, constantly flowing, as life does).  It recognises doubt, the tentative; freedom to change your mind; a belief in something before and after words on a page – the forever they so briefly interrupt.  Although just as human, intimate as a fingertip, it is the opposite of a tattoo, more forgiving than ink, less likely to be regretted.  Far from being noncommittal, pencil and writer become one, all their attention poured into the ongoing moment. 

7.

A pencil is child’s play, encouraging un-self-conscious abandon, a glorious antidote to unretractable digitalia.  A poet’s drafts are made for graphite, allowing a fluid evolution of scribble, crossings through, underlining and furious rubbing out.  We know not what comes next, or what follows after.  The whole swirling chaotic mess might slowly coalesce into some sort of order, almost geological – subtle shades of lead, gunmetal, ash settling into lines on the white page that, when you get it right, and know when to leave them alone, might, just might, shimmer with the colours of the rainbow.

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A Year of Two Books

There hasn’t been much activity here lately because I’ve been so very busy elsewhere, online and IRL.  Not long back from co-leading a retreat in the Trossachs, by Loch Voil, at Dhanakosa – a perfect place to step out of the hurtle of the digital and into moment-by-moment presence, with spring unfolding before our eyes.  I love spending time up there and it was wonderful to be back after three years’ absence.  You can find out more about their retreat programme here, if you’re interested.

As well as work continuing on my Writing the Climate Residency and various groups meeting regularly, I have a new book to celebrate.  The Knucklebone Floor is the story of Allen Banks and Susan Davidson, the Victorian widow who helped shape the landscape there with her wilderness walks, a tarn, bridges and summerhouses.  This is the sequence of poems I wrote as part of my PhD Women on the Edge of Landscape and it’s very exciting to see it about to spring out into the world.  Many thanks to Andy Croft at Smokestack for suggesting he publish it. And much appreciation to Matilda Bevan for the section of her Study of a Stream gracing the cover.

The first reading from The Knucklebone Floor will take place at this year’s Newcastle Poetry Festival on Friday 6th May, at 2.30pm.  I’ll be joined by Anne Ryland and Dave Spittle, who’ll also be reading from their new collections (Unruled Journal and Rubbles).  The day before I’m chairing a panel on Climate at the Emergency-themed Symposium (NCLA in conjunction with the Poetry Book Society) – with Jason Allen-Paisant, Polly Atkin and Sylvia Legris, whose new books I’ve really enjoyed:  Thinking with Trees, Much With Body and Garden Physic, respectively.  There’ll be plenty to talk about.  You can see the Symposium and Festival programme here – lots of unmissable events,  and I’m really looking forward to the chance for us all to gather as a community again.

More Knucklebone Floor events follow this opening splash – at Hexham Library, with Matthew Kelly, launching his book The Women Who Saved the English Countryside, as part of Local History Month, on May 12th, 7pm.  Then at Inpress‘s pop-up shop in Ouseburn, Newcastle (8 Riverside Walk, between the Cluny and the Tyne Bar) on May 18th, 7pm, with Paul Summers (reading from his new book billy casper’s tears, also from Smokestack).  I’ll also be at Allendale’s Forge in July and Ripon Poetry Festival in September – more of those nearer the time.

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In the midst of all this fizz, I’m currently editing another book, to be published in the Autumn, when my Residency winds down, and launched at Durham Book Festival.  This one’s called Startling and is an attempt to capture some sense of the vulnerability many of us feel in the face of our climate and ecological emergencies.  As Margaret Atwood has said: it’s not Climate Change, it’s Everything Change.   

Spring speeds everything up, like a time-lapse film and here we all are trying our best to find our place among it all and a way through, helping each other where we can.  A deeply challenging, unpredictable time but I’m with Leonard Cohen, hoping that the cracks will let the light shine through.

…we are always in free fall.  It’s not like we will find some moral high ground where we are finally stable and can catch all those falling around us.  It’s more like we are all falling above the infinite groundlessness of life, and we learn to become stable in flight, and to support others to become free of the fear that arises from feeling unmoored.  The final resting place is not the ground at all but rather the freedom that arises from knowing there will never be a ground, and yet here we are, together, navigating the boundless space of life, not attached, yet intimate.

Roshi Joan Halifax

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Easter, a stone rolled away

The note of hope is the only note that can help us or save us from falling to the bottom of the heap of evolution, because, largely, about all a human being is, anyway, is just a hoping machine.

Woody Guthrie

…I want to propose an existential creativity. How do I define it? It is the creativity wherein nothing should be wasted. As a writer, it means everything I write should be directed to the immediate end of drawing attention to the dire position we are in as a species. It means that the writing must have no frills. It should speak only truth. In it, the truth must be also beauty. It calls for the highest economy. It means that everything I do must have a singular purpose. 

It also means that I must write now as if these are the last things I will write, that any of us will write. If you knew you were at the last days of the human story, what would you write? How would you write? What would your aesthetics be? Would you use more words than necessary? What form would poetry truly take? And what would happen to humour? Would we be able to laugh, with the sense of the last days on us?

Sometimes I think we must be able to imagine the end of things, so that we can imagine how we will come through that which we imagine. Of the things that trouble me most, the human inability to imagine its end ranks very high. It means that there is something in the human makeup resistant to terminal contemplation. How else can one explain the refusal of ordinary, good-hearted citizens to face the realities of climate change? If we don’t face them, we won’t change them. And if we don’t change them, we will not put things in motion that would prevent them. And so our refusal to face them will make happen the very thing we don’t want to happen.

We have to find a new art and a new psychology to penetrate the apathy and the denial that are preventing us making the changes that are inevitable if our world is to survive. We need a new art to waken people both to the enormity of what is looming and the fact that we can still do something about it.

We can only make a future from the depth of the truth we face now.

Ben Okri

staying in the blood beat

of the don’t know

faciebat

(I am still making)

Scourings from an old notebook

April 2022

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Listening to Jorie Graham Listening to the Earth

Broomlee Lough, Northumberland

In the end, non-hierarchical, the earth speaks beseechingly and her listening, although accidental, is hearing – a quality like hot or cold, incontrovertible – sensation first, then words – spoken intimately, as if directly to the ear.  

A list of instructions:  create the future, cultivate morality, responsibility, presence.  A list for more listening: time is just so – hear time differently, breathe in through the ears and out into necessary emptiness, listen for what is asked.  

The recurring background sound of darkness – the same silence where presence lives, always broken by the perfectly imperfect, changes in the weather.  An inkling not to be detached – exchange shoes – reassemble what has been broken, made separate.  

Her slow cadences – listening as lament – tell how much has been shattered and yet her breath doesn’t forget, pays attention, keeps on putting itself back together again, ourselves and the good earth – before going home to silence, the beginning of things.

After Jorie Graham’s ‘Poem’ in Runaway (Carcanet 2020)

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I am because you are

Please Call Me By My True Names





Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —

even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving

to be a bud on a Spring branch,

to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,

learning to sing in my new nest,

to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,

to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,

to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death

of all that is alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing

on the surface of the river.

And I am the bird

that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily

in the clear water of a pond.

And I am the grass-snake

that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,

my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.

And I am the arms merchant,

selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,

refugee on a small boat,

who throws herself into the ocean

after being raped by a sea pirate.

And I am the pirate,

my heart not yet capable

of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,

with plenty of power in my hands.

And I am the man who has to pay

his ‘debt of blood’ to my people

dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm

it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.

My pain is like a river of tears,

so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,

so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,

so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,

so I can wake up,

and so the door of my heart

can be left open,

the door of compassion.

Thich Nhat Hanh

The image is of the Earth Flag proposed by EarthFlag Foundation to symbolise global unity – one peace, one planet.

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Some Things You Might Like To Know About

Tonight we’re having our very first podcast discussion group Listening to the Climate. Everyone is very welcome to come along. We’ll be reading and discussing the poems in my podcast series In Our Element – a poet’s inquiry into climate change. The introduction in the first episode includes Jorie Graham’s Why and my sestina, Elementary. You can listen again to the podcasts here and also find transcripts of the poems and the conversations.

If you’re interested in the discussion group (which I envisage as a sort of book group for the ears), you can register for a free place via Eventbrite. Look forward to seeing those of you who can make it at 6 – 7.30pm (Tuesday 8th February 2022). We’ll be meeting on the second Tuesday of each month at the same time, talking about each subsequent episode and the poems therein. I also hope people might point us all in the direction of climate and ecology related podcasts they’ve found interesting or helpful.

Our monthly Writing Hour will continue – on the last Tuesday of each month, between 1 and 2pm. All are welcome for a dedicated session of shared writing time. These seem to have become inspiring touchstones for a lot of people – in this country and all over the world. The next one coming up is on Tuesday 22nd February 1 – 2 pm.

Tomorrow night at 7pm (Wednesday 9th February) you have a chance to join the online launch of Candlestick Press’s new pamphletsTen Poems about History and Ten Poems about Roses. The event will be hosted by the Lit & Phil and readers include Sean O’Brien, David Constantine, Catriona O’Reilly, Kathy Towers, Tamar Yoseloff and myself. There’s also an open mike slot. You can find more details and book your free place here.

Next week I’ll be reading some poems at the Sonic Valentine gathering at the Queen’s Hall in Hexham 12 – 1.30 pm (Monday 14th February). Expect gongs, Tibetan singing bowls, music and poetry. A drop-in sound lounge for the healing of the world. See you there!

I’m a little late posting these various news items – lots of things suddenly emerging after the quiet dark of winter. Already nearly two hours more daylight since the Winter Solstice. And more to come.

May your sap gently rise.

L

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2/2/22: Trees and Time

I used to live on the edge of woodland but now I live in the middle of agricultural land, pasture for sheep, sometimes cattle, and increasingly used by pheasant shooters.  A little house not on the prairie, but a wind-blasted field.  An ideal spot for a poet, who needs solitude and spaciousness to think and write.  It is by both accident and design that the trees have disappeared: a wholesale felling in 2018, that felt like an invasion of absence, an amputation; and successive storm damage, particularly evident ever since Storm Desmond in 2015/16 and, at the end of 2021, Arwen’s devastation, which left me, like many others, without power or water for seven days. 

Fortunately, there are still trees marking the garden’s loose, uncertain perimeter – holly, yew, rowan, laburnum, cypress, birch.  I couldn’t live here without them.  They are my companions, kinfolk, fellow conspirators in the arts of living on a damaged planet.  Their assembled company softens the sense of bare exposure and the force of the wind. They also act as its instruments, roaring like the sea on more days than not, a leafy ocean, audible on the other side of my thick stone walls.  The chimney is the wind’s chanter, funnelling great breaths into the room where I sit and listen, half-listen, try not to listen.  It sounds like sobbing, the heave and fall of someone’s heart breaking.  I pretend it isn’t mine.

Who am I kidding?  Why would I rather not admit it?  This pain and loss that shakes the ground under my feet and slams doors shut, always a cold draught at the back of my neck.  It’s hard to find the words, stand upright, walk around with all that grief inside.

On this high ground where I live we have lost many trees since Arwen and Malik – conifers, hardwoods, immature and venerable.  Their limbs have been torn off, root plates up-ended, forced out of the soil by the trees’ crashing descent.  All the roadsides and hedgerows are scattered with their broken branches.  On my daily walks I bring some home for firewood, carrying them in my arms like a loved one I must prepare for consignment to the flames. 

And it’s not only single trees that have left an empty space behind them – although I’ll sorely miss the Scots pine behind my house and the two enormous oaks I’d pass by the farm gate – the whole landscape is affected: the old horizons, contours and pathways, their special character, the habitat for wildlife, the shelter they provide.  It’ll take many years before we regain a sense of lushness and canopy and can experience the benefits of the mature trees’ capacity for carbon capture, the development of their complex interspecies relationships, above and below ground. In mourning for the trees, we also mourn for the loss of everything in the trees’ ecosystem – which is our own.  Whenever we lose anything or anyone, we lose part of ourselves.

Imbolc or Candlemas is associated with the slow stirrings, still mostly beneath the ground, of Spring.  It’ll stay cold, and probably get even colder, until we reach the Equinox later in March.  Some days it requires a leap of the imagination to believe in sap rising and the earth greening.  This ancient fire festival has always been a pivot point between life and death – a tender and powerful threshold between the fierce Cailleach and sweet Brigid, mother Demeter and daughter Persephone.  

Our tears show we care, that we suffer with the world.  We water the earth with our tears and, beyond the scope of our understanding, it will do what it will in its own good time.  This Imbolc, it is raining here and the sky is heavy and full while we collect our seeds, actual and intentional, and prepare for sowing.  What will you plant?

As we give our attention to the old-growth forest and the beloved backyard shade tree, we recognise that paying attention to trees is only the beginning.  Attention generates wonder, which generates more attention and more joy.  Paying attention to the more-than-human world doesn’t lead only to amazement; it leads also to acknowledgement of pain.  Open and attentive, we see and feel equally the beauty and the wounds, the old growth and the clear-cut, the mountain and the mine.  Paying attention to suffering sharpens our ability to respond.  To be responsible.  This, too, is a gift, for when we fall in love with the living world, we cannot be bystanders to its destruction.  Attention becomes intention, which coalesces itself to action.

Robin Wall Kimmerer

Foreword to Old Growth (The best writing about trees from Orion magazine), 2021

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