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)
On Sunday it was a joy to come together with the Brothers Gillespie and a room (not just any room – a room that could have been a ballroom in a Tolstoy novel…) full of lovely people for our Earthwords poetry and music event. I only realised just before we took the floor that it was the first time I’d done a live reading since February 2020. It took me a while to warm up, but I soon settled in and remembered why I do what I do – and love it.
Many of us are feeling such sorrow and grief, guilt and shame, loss and disappointment at the state of the world that it’s easy to feel broken and powerless. Coming together to listen and reflect in a space of music, sung and spoken, creates stillness enough to reconnect with our own agency and creativity, as well as with each other. The work of staying with the trouble, trying to be open to what the climate and ecological crisis is asking of us, is demanding and exhausting at whatever scale we choose to be involved. Even simple day-to-day living can put more pressure on us than we feel we can bear.
Sunday night was a chance for regeneration and reconnection via the traditional pleasures of poetry and song. There was a vivid sense of community and I had a feeling that everyone there together created a healthy mycelium network, intent on planetary survival and ecological well-being. This has the power to spread beyond Tolstoy’s ballroom – into all the nooks and crevices and conversations and exchanges of our lives.
For me, the event was an important celebration of work done so far – my own small efforts and what I witnessed in Glasgow. Although the final agreement was disappointing – needing to be much bolder and more urgent – progress was made. The powerful presence and persistence of the coalition of protesters percolated through the security barriers into the negotiations. Their demands, though not addressed, were at least acknowledged: that sort of energy and sheer numbers are impossible to ignore. The coordinated network of movements are intent upon keeping up the pressure between now and the next UNFCCC Summit in Egypt in 2022. We must all do whatever we can to support them – practically and financially. The climate emergency can’t be addressed by good intentions alone.
Listening to James and Sam’s beautiful music so rooted in the land I love affirmed my wish to do whatever is necessary to protect it from harm. Isn’t that what humans do? Why we take care of babies and young children – because we love them? Those stories of people who find remarkable strength and capacity inside themselves when faced with an emergency and someone needs saving – isn’t it that sort of wild buried energy that we need to tap into now?
A crisis is also an opportunity. Transformation is never easy – change and evolution involves pain and confusion. Aren’t we all familiar with that jangly energy that’s in the air all around us and inside us just now? I certainly am – especially after a couple of years of deep immersion in this radical process. Maybe we can try to breathe it in, not brace ourselves against it. This chaos is also part of us and part of a moving towards a new way of being that we’re having to learn – and can also find pleasure in.
At certain points on Sunday night I was reminded of the marches in Glasgow. On the Saturday Global Day of Action march and rally there were lots of wonderful musicians – brass bands, salsa bands and drummers. Their playing kept everyone moving forward in rhythm, warmed and encouraged by the vibrant sound. You could feel it in your whole body. Every now and again the bands would have to stop because people started dancing amid the crowds – a spontaneous, freeform, joyful surrender to the music, their companions and the crowds that was incredibly moving to witness. I watched from the sidelines but I was dancing inside.
Emma Goldman said ‘I’m not coming to the revolution unless there’s dancing’ – a quote I used as an epigraph for my first collection, Red, in 1992. Didn’t the soldiers in the trenches in WW1 sing together? Which reminds me of another quote, from Martin Luther King Junior: ‘Those who love peace need to learn to mobilise as effectively as those who love war.’ As we gird ourselves for the long haul that is facing transition, risk and chaos and supporting those in other parts of the world as they face greater suffering, we must remember what we love and what music we want playing while we love it and as we march, dig, plant, sign petitions, make banners, lobby parliament, write poetry, knit blankets or dance – whatever your body feels moved to do
There’s more to say about where poetry and music touch and maybe I’ll try to say it sometime. One of the places is silence – they both join opposites and make it possible to be more ourselves, capable of more than we sometimes think. Immense gratitude and appreciation to all the musicians who played for us in Glasgow and to the Brothers Gillespie for where they took us on Sunday night.
The Brothers Gillespie are currently crowdfunding for their third album The Merciful Road. If you would like to support them and be part of another healthy mycelium network, you can find the details here. There are lots of very affordable pledges offering the chance to be one of the first to receive a copy of the album, either downloadable, on CD or vinyl – or, for a little more, have your very own song written for you or a whole ceilidh band to play for a special occasion. Meanwhile you can hear more from them on their website.
Ecological awareness consists of infinite ongoing strands. These include close looking, close listening, close touching, close smelling, close tasting – close sensing between and beyond all the conventional senses familiar to human bodies. Close might also be slow or deep.
Ecological awareness is an art, a creative act, a commitment to being alive, and therefore dynamic, transformative.
Walk outdoors and after half an hour point to the place where you end and the weather begins.
Nowhere are any of us alone, nowhere are we not part of the biosphere, or abandoned by the imagination.
In our climate, why would you not begin each day checking your own internal weather and preparing for what the coming hours might bring?
What we call Nature is a fiction, a wild and muddy one that won’t stay flat or still. It will not be contained on a neatly labelled shelf in the bookshop.
Left to the wind, the dried pods of honesty (Lunaria annua) shed their skins and spread their seeds before glowing with the light of many moons, true to their word. Bring the night sky indoors to remember the year’s passing.
Being in Nature suggests you were sometime out of it, perhaps in that mythical place Away.
Not looking at the clock involves not looking at your phone, your computer, all those other contrivances that divide your attention and devour your time.
The art of ecological awareness asks you to let there be a space between things and sensing and language – and to choose to live in that space.
A day without a tree in it is no day at all.
Whitman asks you to come, speak; says if you are large, if you contain multitudes, you will contradict yourself: will you prove already too late?
The space outside our walls is ready to give us what we have been waiting for; whatever time of day or night, a special kind of light.
Thinking with Timothy Morton and Ian Hamilton Finlay.
Just past the Autumn Equinox and there’s that beginning of term feeling in the air, a quickening as the seasons slip down and along, a new coolness in the air. It’s been a strange not-quite-there summer with more work in it than play. But the fruits are ripening with a number of events connected with my Writing the Climate residency coming up I hope you might have time, space and inclination to check out.
At Durham Book Festival on October 12th at 7pm you’ll be able to tune into Dawn Chorus, this year’s collective poem project I’ve curated and orchestrated with artist and film-maker Christo Wallers. 115 people from all over the world sent in their audio clips in response to our open call and we’ve gathered all of them together in a very special collaboration that captures the spirit of the birds’ waking up to renew our commitment to positive climate action, however that may play out in our individual and collective lives. You can find the details here – and there’ll also be an essay available soon about the making of the piece. I look forward to hearing how you find it in the comments box in the online space on the night – especially all those who contributed. Thank you for your inspiring words.
Straight after the premiere of Dawn Chorus, you’ll be able to stay and watch a conversation between myself and Kate Simpson, editor extraordinaire of the powerful new anthology Out of Time – Poems from the Climate Emergency(Valley Press, 2021). We’ve called it Beginning Again and, as well as discussing Dawn Chorus, we’ll be putting our heads together to think about what poetry can bring to a climate crisis that it’s hard to find the right words for Full Stop. You can see all the details here. Both events are free, and a link will be available soon.
Once Dawn Chorus is launched, our podcast series In Our Element will also start airing. As well as being broadcast on Resonance FM and several other local radio stations nationwide, two episodes will be released on New Writing North’s sound platform every week leading up to the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November. Produced by Sonderbug, there are ten altogether and each one focuses on a particular element as a way of exploring different perspectives on the climate and ecological crisis. I’ll write more about this and all our wonderful contributors in more detail later, but for now I just wanted to let you know it’s on its way.
There’s also a chance for the over-50s to take part in an online reflective writing workshop, offered on Friday October 8th (1 – 2.30pm), as one strand of the Older and Greener initiative from Newcastle Elders Council, Newcastle City Council and Equal Arts. It’s called Waking Up to Climate and you can find out more about it here. Again this event is free, but booking is required as numbers are limited.
I’d also like to say thank you to the Journal Culture Awards for voting me Writer of the Year. It was strange and very moving to back among the region’s cultural community for the first time in 18 months at the prize-giving event in Durham Cathedral. A bat flying between the pillars all night was a memorable highlight. Congratulations to all the shortlisted artists, performers and organisations.
This sounds like enough to be going on with – but do join me for one or all of these various events, nicely timed for the growing dark and this beautiful wild time of year.
A new month always feels like a clean page, full of promise and possibility. The start of February coincides with Imbolc and Candlemas and is all about new beginnings. Halfway between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, this traditional Celtic festival marks the beginning of spring and asks us to celebrate Brigid (‘the goddess whom poets adored’) with fire, food, candles and song. The snowdrops are in bloom and no other flower embodies the sense of hope more than these flowers, usually the first to appear in our gardens and woodlands, lighting the way at the end of a long dark winter. In our current situation, kept close to home, peering out at an uncertain future, we feel the need to welcome the light more than ever.
This cross-quarter day feels an auspicious beginning for the next phase of Writing the Climate, an extension to my Climate Residency with New Writing North and Newcastle University. I am delighted (and relieved) to have been awarded an Arts Council Heritage Lottery Grant to help support another two years of work in the community and on my own writing. Last year we initiated various heartwarming and fruitful projects, laying the foundations for more ways to connect around writing about the Climate Crisis and telling the truth about where we find ourselves. This year, all being well, the postponed COP 26 meeting will be held in Glasgow in November, providing us all with an opportunity to raise awareness of the pressing need to keep climate adaptation and mitigation on the agenda, at the front of our hearts and minds.
Soon after my Residency began last January I was invited to read at a Festival in Casablanca. Despite my intention not to fly that year, I found it very difficult to say no. Like so many of us, I love to travel and longed to spend some time in that fabled city. It was hard to live with my own torn feelings of ambivalence and guilt. As it’s turned out, the pandemic has helped me keep my compact not to fly and has tainted its appeal in all sorts of ways. Still, it’s strange to think there are some places I may never now see or return to in my lifetime.
I wrote about my flight shame – the Swedish term Flygskam, perhaps better translated as flight conscience – in one of the first poems I wrote while thinking about how to approach writing about Climate. Whether we choose to fly or not, most of us in the West are deeply implicated in damaging and escalating fossil-fuel related carbon emissions.
At the bottom of my itinerary it says
FLIGHT(S) CALCULATED AVERAGE CO2 EMISSIONS
IS 546.44 KG/PERSON.
I am that PERSON
and I don’t know what 546.44 KG AVERAGE CO2 EMISSIONS are.
I envisage them as a toxic cloud, speckled with charcoal dust,
sense the sky-wide weight of it on my back.
I carry the burden of Atlas, hero, victim, martyr.
If I touched it, it would be cold,
smelling faintly of gas, as if I’d forgotten to turn the cooker off
after boiling milk for my morning coffee.
The milk spills.
The blue flame gutters and goes out.
The gas leaks.
The coffee’s travelled from South America.
I sit and drink it in my kitchen in Northumberland.
The gas is syphoned from a tank in my garden
I’m trying to disguise by growing a hedge of hawthorn
and willow, the grass in front frilled with snowdrops.
Three times a year a tanker comes to fill it up.
The pipe makes a sound between humming and hissing,
a long black poisonous snake
slithering through the gate across the lawn.
A few weeks later I get a bill for more than I can afford.
It’s February. The old stone house is freezing
with the heating turned off.
I sip my coffee, read my flight itinerary and look it up:
546.44kg of CO2 is more than half of all the emissions
the worker on a coffee plantation in Colombia
would produce in a year.
A white winged thing thrashes
through the cloud in my chest,
struggles to fly free.
I’m still thinking about how to approach writing about climate. I’m not sure I’ll ever come up with any definitive answers – writing about climate is writing about the very fact of life itself – but the work is in the doing, the living, and watching it all unfold. Active hope plays an important part – what poet Adrienne Rich called the ‘art of the possible’. Tomorrow, for Imbolc, I’m leading a workshop for Hexham Book Festival – Writing into the Light – where we’ll be exploring how to make hope realistic but bright in our poetry. There may still be a few places left if that’s something you like the sound of.
Creative imagination’s promise is that resilience is always available. We turn toward poems in loss or despair, toward their writing or their reading, because even poems that face darkness carry the beauty and resilience of original seeing. A good poem is possibility’s presence made visible. That restoration of faith in continuance is something we need.
Jane Hirshfield, Interview in Columbia Journal, March 2020
In Paris in 1968 protesters held up placards saying
Forget everything you’ve been taught. Start by dreaming.
Imagination is not a luxury!
Be realistic, demand the impossible.
In the wintriest winter for many years, February begins with a real sense of possibility – as I write this the light is streaming in through the window and that always helps. I feel very encouraged by a mood in the air that people have had enough, they know change is necessary and are ready for it. The page is not exactly ‘clean’ but we can write over it and make a new stratigraphy, a palimpsest (like artist Edmund de Waal in his library of exileand on Radio 4’s Front Row).
All our intentions and voices together will help create the tipping point, the critical mass we need to make the future more sustainable. This is the spirit of Murmuration, the collective poem project I initiated as part of my Residency last year – so happy to see it highlighted by Maria Popova on her always illuminating Brainpickingssite. Kate Sweeney’s beautiful animated filmpoem has already had over four and a half thousand views on YouTube and that’s apart from those who’ve watched it via Durham Book Festival, and now on Maria’s ‘inventory of the meaningful life’ and shares on Facebook. There are many more than we can count. Poetry, like hope, is contagious – it flies long distances. I’m looking forward to seeing what this year’s flocking brings.