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 ClimateResidency 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.
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.
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 pamphlets – Ten Poems aboutHistory 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.
‘I think as an ecologist. But I feel as a member of a great family – one that includes the elephant and the wheat stalk as well as the schoolteacher and the industrialist. This is not a mental condition, but a spiritual condition. Poetry is a product of our history, and our history is inseparable from the natural world. Now, of course, in the hives and dungeons of the cities, poetry cannot console, it carries no weight, for the pact between the natural world and the individual has been broken. There is no more working for harvest – only hunting, for profit. Lives are no longer exercises in pleasure and valor, but only the means to the amassment of worldly goods. If poetry is ever to become meaningful to such persons, they must take the first step – away from their materially bound and self-interested lives, toward the trees, and the waterfall. It is not poetry’s fault that it has so small an audience, so little effect upon the frightened, money-loving world. Poetry, after all, is not a miracle. It is an effort to formalize (ritualize) individual moments and the transcending effects of these moments into a music that all can use. It is the song of our species.’
A few wintry verses from this past year’s renga
Gwen carries her own placard
I don’t want to live
on a spaceship
what you give the forest
the forest gives you back
I plant eight buddleia
hoping for a summer
astonished by butterflies
defrosting the freezer
is today’s weather
all the little suns
on my glasses
more a question
of when not if
written in snow
and the planet’s on fire
wily coyote legs
a raw stillness
in the house
on the short day’s back
the long night
trailer load of logs –
alder, Matt says,
this will end
this will carry on
[Quotations from Eugenio Montale, Laurie Anderson, Moshe Feldenkrais, Octavia Butler, Henrik Blind.]
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.
When science starts to be interpretive It is more unscientific even than mysticism. To make self-preservation and self-protection the first law of existence Is about as scientific as making suicide the first law of existence, And amounts to very much the same thing.
A nightingale singing at the top of his voice Is neither hiding himself nor preserving himself nor propagating his species; He is giving himself away in every sense of the word; And obviously, it is the culminating point of his existence.
A tiger is striped and golden for his own glory. He would certainly be much more invisible if he were grey-green. And I don’t suppose the ichthyosaurus sparkled like the humming-bird, No doubt he was khaki-coloured with muddy protective colouration, So why didn’t he survive?
As a matter of fact, the only creatures that seem to survive Are those that give themselves away in flash and sparkle And gay flicker of joyful life; Those that go glittering abroad With a bit of splendour.
Even mice play quite beautifully at shadows, And some of them are brilliantly piebald.
I expect the dodo looked like a clod, A drab and dingy bird.
thanks to the poet Mark Nepo for pointing me in the direction of this poem
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.
‘We are all lichens; so we can be scraped off the rocks by the Furies, who still erupt to avenge crimes against the Earth. Alternatively, we can join in the metabolic transformations between and among rocks and critters for living and dying well.’
Donna Haraway, Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene (2016)
Last night was the final session of How to Start Writing the Climate, a course for ‘early career writers’ I’ve been facilitating as part of my Writing the Climate residency. Even though I tried to draw together the threads of what has been a fascinating few months with a wonderfully engaged group, I woke up this morning with all the things I wish I’d said bullet-pointing in my brain.
My default setting is SLOW (and getting slower) so l’esprit d’escalier is familiar to me. [‘Borrowed from French, the expression esprit de l’escalier, or esprit d’escalier, literally wit of (the) staircase, denotes a retort or remark that occurs to a person after the opportunity to make it has passed. It originally referred to a witty remark coming to mind on the stairs leading away from a social gathering.’*]
Like my faltering rural broadband, I always take at least a day to download significant emotions or get to the bottom of what I’ve read, heard or seen. Perhaps it’s a consequence of trying to live with in-the-moment judgement-free awareness. Staying open to Everything simply can’t happen all at once: perception and processing need to catch up with each other and come into some sort of alignment. This slow but not always sure rhythm is part of the way I try to make sense of the world and understand my place in it. That’s fine when it comes to simple day to day living but it’s more problematic when being congruent with the climate crisis demands more immediate, vigorous action. Now is not the time to leave things unsaid or your deepest values not acted upon.
In my thinking and writing about climate, I keep coming back to the concept of time – how we balance planning and preparing for an unknowable future and living well in the now, informed by the best lessons of the past (that largely didn’t know what it was doing either). We’ve made provision that the Course participants can continue meeting in a self-programming capacity. All hail to New Writing North for offering to support this. It is an excellent model, grass roots and empowering – it works for community and climate activism so I’m sure it will for assisting writers.
When one member of the group said it was a new beginning, not an ending, I felt very moved. I was saying goodbye but they would be carrying on, staying connected, developing their ideas and their work, which I could already see gaining power and focus as the four sessions progressed. Environmental activist Joanna Macy has said we don’t know if our task now is sitting with a planet in the throes of dying or as midwives at the birth of a new era. Another reason I struggled to say everything I wanted to in my concluding remarks is lately I’ve been living in more of a deathbed scene than a joyful birth. Carrying a lot of grief for the world, I’m often tender to the point of tears. There is no place for this in most human interactions, although I know it’s there just below the surface in whatever I say or do. And I see others carrying something they have no words for, or none they are able to share. And so we continue, with the most important things unspoken.
As a writer and a facilitator, I have a responsibility to be clear, active and, to a certain extent, upbeat. It’s been hard to stay positive and hopeful these past few months, witnessing the failure to act by governments and corporations across the world, while carbon emissions continue to rise and flora and fauna species to decline. We’ve all watched the alarming reports of the heat-related deaths in Canada and the Pacific North West of America. Isn’t this a sort of l’esprit d’escalier too – a pervasive reliance on hindsight, when it will be too late – all those words, just empty promises, and meanwhile everything carries on as *normal*?
The Suffragettes’ slogan was Deeds not Words. We need both. Words do not achieve the same effects as deeds but they can hold a ladder up to the moon, towards a more sustainable life founded on principles of fairness and kindness. This is what I set out to do as a teacher – help and encourage people to find their own way to their own moon, asking their own questions as they go, rather than offer the lie of easy formulas.
I know I’m not the only one to feel sadness, anger and despair at the state we’re in. If I’d been able to tell the group about my grief, it might have broken a spell of silence. North American poet and editor, Camille T. Dungy quotes that we need ‘tearleaders not cheerleaders to teach us how to mourn’. I’m not a politician or a rhetorician. I’m not always even capable of joined-up talking. The place I find my words is on the page. Reviewing my own work-in-progress, many of my recent poems are sparked by immense grief for the world, as I take note of the potential and actual loss of so much of our planet’s beauty and biodiversity. This earth is where we live, our home. It’s hard right now not to feel as if your house is crumbling around you. Words can make the future feel less shaky, keep you steady, but they’re not enough on their own and we need to act while we still can.
So, what should have been my parting shot? What can we do, as citizens and as writers? A useful strategy in writing workshops to get ideas started is to make a list. Here’s mine, a mixture of things I already do and things I need to remember to do:
Put your own house in order. Switch to green electricity, ethical banking, a meat-less, dairy-free or less-meat, less-dairy diet. Recycle paper. Buy secondhand books and pass them on. Manage with less.
Cultivate words and deeds. Match thought with action. Speak truth to power.
Find an environmental campaign you can engage with and support wholeheartedly.
When you come across something you don’t understand, do some research – not to confirm your own opinion, but to extend your knowledge.
Write from and with your body – the primary source of all perception, what we share as humans.
Write to connect, not to escape. Stay engaged with the world around you.
‘Bear witness. Hold uncertainty. Love the world.’ (Charlotte du Cann)
Read widely and inquisitively, critically. Balance the work of contemporary and classic writers, poetry and prose.
‘The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person.’ (Czeslaw Milosz)
Make space for a daily reflective practice – silent meditation, mindful walking, journalling, yoga etc. Pause and process your experience.
Appreciate what you have, not what you don’t have. Notice beauty and express wonder.
Connect with others – know you are not alone.
Attune to interdependence, reciprocity, the spirit of exchange, the gift economy.
Beware of righteousness or too much humility. You are neither better nor worse than anyone else.
Be kind. ‘What will survive of us is love’. (Larkin)
Stay open to new ways of writing and living. Listen to what’s in the air and catch only what is helpful and authentic. Live a creative rather than a reactive life.
‘Be the change you want to see.’ (Mahatma Gandhi)
Argue with this list. Make your own manifesto.
The American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82) used the expression in English Traits (Boston, 1856):
A slow temperament makes them less rapid and ready than other countrymen, and has given occasion to the observation, that English wit comes afterwards, — which the French denote as esprit d’escalier. This dullness makes their attachment to home, and their adherence in all foreign countries to home habits. The Englishman who visits Mount Etna, will carry his teakettle to the top.
American dramatist and screenwriter Lillian Hellman (1905-84) gave a variation on the phrase, recollecting what she failed to say to the House Committee on Un-American Activities: ‘ Ah, the bravery you tell yourself was possible when it’s all over, the bravery of the staircase’.
Some thoughts arising from past Climate Writing workshops and thinking about more on the horizon… You can apply for a free mini-course ‘How to Start Writing about Climate’ here. There’s also a Creative Saturday at NCLA on ‘Writing Like Weather’ here. And a chance to come together and write in ‘The Writing Hour’ here.
Writing about Climate, keeping ecological balance in mind, alongside others is a way of bringing our relationship with the powerful time we are living through into greater awareness. It helps to articulate half-buried thoughts and feelings and propel us into further research that will deepen our knowledge, which we can then share or use in more politically active ways to move towards establishing more sustainable and equitable systems. The accumulated effect on us is wholesome and energising – on the side of life and active strong-rooted hope.
It sounds a bit like an advertising slogan but if writing is good for you, it can be good for the planet too.
…staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.
If we don’t act until we feel the crisis that we rather curiously call ‘environmental’ – as if the destruction of our planet were merely a context – everyone will be committed to solving a problem that can no longer be solved.
Jonathan Safran Foer
The process and techniques of writing poetry in particular help cultivate qualities that keep us in balance, moving forward in a positive direction. I came up with this figuring of causes and effects (– formatting a bit wayward, but hopefully you’ll be able to get the gist). You might be able to think of more things you’d include – and I’d be delighted to hear about them. It’s all work in progress.
THE POETICS OF PRESENCE & RESILIENCE
Writing as an Ecological Attitude
Taking space to write, cultivating A sense of commitment,
a practice, honouring the process . . . discipline & self-care
Truth-telling, managing register . . . Authenticity, a common humanity
Taking reader into account . . . Connectedness, empathy, solidarity
Having something to say, breaking . . . Courage, speaking out
Making choices about place/character/ . . . Gaining perspective, looking beyond
details/flora/fauna etc – based on close yourself, orientation
Playing with language & sound – rhyme . . . Delight, pleasure, staying fresh, positive,
rhythm, voice, tense, lexicon etc awake
One obvious thing writing poetry does is to make you stop. Stopping is a radical act. Even in lockdown, we are all trying to do too much, overstimulating our bodies and minds at a time when there is so much to process. Done in a calm way, with no goal in mind, writing can touch you in similar ways to meditation, offering a space for in-the-moment, judgement-free presence and enquiry. Yes, we need action on Climate, but action arising from clear thinking and a careful consideration of the consequences.
I may have posted this quote from Cistercian monk Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) before – but every year/month/week/day it seems to become more and more relevant:
There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.
To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.
The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.
After over ten months of thinking, reading and writing, my Climate Residency has officially come to an end. In the spirit of honouring endings to make space for new beginnings, I wanted to spend some time here reflecting on where I’ve been with it. Some of this you’ll know already – pandemic, lockdown, pandemic, lockdown: a jagged rhythm we probably haven’t seen the last of. It changed the form and energy of the way I had to work early enough in the Residency that I can’t quite imagine what it would have been like under pre-Covid conditions. I was glad I managed to squeeze in a couple of Climate-related gatherings right at the start – one with North East Culture Partnership in Sunderland and one with Julie’s Bicycle in London. Both were wonderfully sociable events, packed with stimulating and provoking ideas about the role and potential of culture in response to the Climate Crisis. Ironic, that culture-as-we-knew-it came to an abrupt halt just a few weeks later when the first lockdown was announced.
All my research and networking shifted online and I’ve lost count of all the webinars, gatherings and talks I’ve attended on various platforms. I’ve absorbed an enormous amount of information, and no doubt forgotten just as much. I’ve filled five notebooks with notes that started quite neatly but have become more and more erratic, teetering on the illegible. I tell myself that I’m in revolt after the strictures of the PhD process, but I’m still not entirely sure what it’s ‘useful’ to keep a record of, never knowing where my own writing will come from. Sometimes the origin of a poem is traceable, sometimes it stays hidden in the tangle of accumulated thoughts. I probably need to be aware that in my notebooks I’m writing notes to my future self and I could try to make it a little clearer for her sake. My process has always been gloriously messy, arcane, archive-unfriendly, untranslatable, and I can’t see that changing at this late stage.
I’ve missed the regular face-to-face human interactions that used to form the backdrop and compost of my writing, but feel even more deeply enmeshed in my patch of scruffy, windswept land held fast between the River and the Wall. Although I’m thankful that I do still seem able to write, I don’t find writing ‘about’ Climate any easier. Every single time I return to the blank page I have to start all over again trying to say something truthful, vaguely original, worth saying, possibly helpful. I spoke a little about the process and read some of the poems in progress for Newcastle University’s Inside Writing Festival in the summer. The poems are accruing slowly and all being well there’ll be enough of them to form a collection at some point. I’ve noticed I’m using the ‘I’ voice more than I expected, needing the ballast of close subjective observation (Goethe’s ‘tender empiricism’) to help cast them off into the vastness of the troposphere. There seem to be quite a few poems about trees and unsurprisingly the weather comes up a lot, the consolations of place in the face of grief, sadness and longing. I’m interested in the poetics of ethical dilemmas and solutions, energy and power, the confounding tangle of it all.
Alongside working on my own writing, I enjoyed curating the collective Murmuration project, and collaborating with Kate Sweeney on the film for Durham Book Festival. It was extremely heartening to hear so many positive responses filling the social void. The Residency has been beautifully managed and supported by Anna Disley at New Writing North, who’s been a helpful and encouraging presence throughout. Our Climate Book Group (open to all) read five books and has proved a satisfying, strong way to stay connected. We’re hoping that these will continue in the New Year – there’s already a growing list of potential novels, poetry books and non-fiction titles. This was one place where proper conversations could happen. I had others in various online forums or one-to-one in the open air, but mostly, it has to be said, with myself. Overarching themes which recurred in these conversations include:
I talked about my preoccupation with Time on the Inside Writing podcast. It’s key to the subject of Climate in multiple ways, not least the pressure of the fast-approaching deadlines for reaching carbon zero. The concept of Time encapsulates the conundrum that the only moment we can actually change is this one now. Albert Camus resolved it, saying ‘Real generosity to the future lies in giving all to the present’. The blessing (and the curse) of Covid has been to remind us to stay in the moment – the future even more uncertain and contingent than usual. Uncertainty is a fact of nature and, like death, one our culture would prefer us to deny or ignore. Beginning afresh over and over again, staying present, staying patient, is something we must learn, like circus skills, tightrope walking or juggling. If it has to be so, we may as well make it exhilarating, entertaining.
When the Residency started I was concerned the burden of focussing so thoroughly on the Climate Crisis might be too much to bear. You have to become slightly obsessed with a subject, immersed in it, to write about it at all. Is that what I wanted to spend all my time thinking about? I doubted my capacity for scientific information, my resilience, my energy levels, my ability to transform what I learned into poetry. It’s been a stretch, tiring and boggling, but, eleven months on, I’m feeling more hopeful about our potential for radical transformation. Because of my reading and all the online gatherings I’ve attended, I’m now much better informed. Knowledge brings power and hope. The story portrayed in the media tends to be on the dark side because that is the language of the ‘news’, however it’s clear that we have all the resources we need to take us into a carbon zero society. What we are lacking is unambiguous backing from governments and legal systems to keep the fossil fuel industry in check. The steady work of countless inspiring individuals and projects goes unreported in the mainstream news. We have heard about the US election result and that has brought more hope, an immense relief after months of fearing the worst.
Although there is occasion for hope, many obstacles remain and much work still needs to be done to fundamentally rethink how we live in the world and create a new ecological civilisation. Reducing emissions will help stabilise the impact of mass migration, resulting from drought, floods, poor crop yields and political instability. Even a 2 degree rise in global temperatures will create around 30 million migrants each year; if it rises by 4 degrees, that figure will increase to around 150 million. Open up any topic that needs political attention and Climate is an inextricable strand in the tangle – energy, ‘the environment’, transport, housing, finance. Although attention has been, understandably, diverted towards the challenges of the pandemic (itself adding considerably to plastic waste, a downturn in public transport and adversely affecting people’s mental health and well-being), Climate Crisis is still the biggest existential threat on the planet, as Greta Thunberg so valiantly keeps reminding us. The story needs changing to help us replace all coal-fired power stations with renewable energy. The law and human pressure can make this happen, if we open our hearts and minds to the damage we’ve caused, feel the grief of it and step beyond it into the practicalities of what needs to be done.
Black Lives Matter has shown us deep-rooted change starts with ourselves if we don’t want to be complicit in systems that perpetuate racism and injustice, intolerance for all diversities and the destruction of nonhuman species and habitats. This is a personal as well as a political dialogue. To do any deep work, we need to be capable of concentration, not constantly distracted by the digital world. I’m fiercely dedicated to my practice and process as a way of harnessing my own power in relation to Climate action, staying in tune with my responsibilities as a citizen of my small republic in the North and of the world. This finds expression in my work as a writer, inseparable from my commitment to an engaged Buddhist perspective on the ethics and ecology of what is real. Thai Forest Tradition teacher Ajahn Sucitto, in his book Buddha Nature, Human Nature (available for free distribution), says we can ‘choose not to look away, keep our eyes open so we can make clearer choices about what to eat, buy, who to associate with, how to occupy ourselves and who to vote for. Meet and share and help each other and participate in a positive spiral.’ We can choose to stay informed and make small adjustments every day. Seamus Heaney always used to say it’s what you do, how you live, in between the poems you write that matters. That is where all the potential lies.
A stray entry found in my orange notebook, undated but from earlier in the year, provoked by some (now forgotten) brick wall of joylessness:
Why is joy a dirty word? Why does it make most of us cringe? Do we think we don’t deserve it? Are we superstitious, imagining we might jinx it if we say it out loud? Is it just not British? Not polite? Or modest?
For a while in this work I kept on safe territory talking about hope (encouraged by Rebecca Solnit), while privately thinking about faith and my own idiosyncratic relationship with my ‘spiritual practice’ (too grand a term – basically how I consciously choose to live my life). The collision of idealism and imperfection has given me many opportunities to unlock a felt sense of compassion (another more dangerous word might be love). At the bottom of that, and on top of it too, is a palpable awareness of joy. I can’t live or love, do anything without it. It’s the positive energy I need to get out of bed in the morning and stay in touch with myself and have faith in my own creative fire. This is what Christiana Figueres calls ‘stubborn optimism’ – the rebellion or resistance in staying true to your deepest values – not giving way to the doomsayers, the whirl of the world where everyone talks and no one listens. There is joy in listening, as there’s joy in sometimes turning the volume not just down but off.
Sometimes there is an implication in environmental messages that human beings are the problem – the best solution stripping right back to zero, eradicating our footprint, our actions, our basic wayward energies. This is an anti-life philosophy, promulgating old burdens of guilt and despair, associated with systemic ideas about dominance, violence and the myth of perpetual growth. It is capitalism’s shadow played out in materialistic skin-deep environmentalism. The truth is we are part of nature too. We have a place among everything else on this planet. All of us.
Stay with the ragged joy of ordinary living and dying.