Tag Archives: Newcastle

In the Classroom of Trees

At the weekend I read poems about trees in the sweet company of Matilda Bevan‘s Nootka cypress (Cupressus nootkatensis) at her gorgeous exhibition The Common Language of Green in Healey Church.  On Bonfire Night and around Samhain it felt right to turn our minds and hearts to trees as we enter the dark time of year – and now COP27 just beginning in Egypt, reminding us how intertwined we humans are with all life on the planet.

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If you’d like to spend more time delving into where we find ourselves just now in the biosphere and locate your own place in the mycorrhizal web, there are two events in Newcastle this week you might like to come along to.

On Thursday night (10th November) at 7pm I’ll be reading with Poets of the Climate Crisis at Culture Lab, Newcastle University, alongside Mina Gorji and Togara Muzanenhamo, and in conversation with Jake Polley, as part of this term’s NCLA programme.

It will be a fascinating evening – free to attend and you can find out more and book here.

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Any excuse to return to the Villa Borghese Gardens

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Then on Saturday (12th November) I’m facilitating a day’s workshop (10-4) called The Classroom of Trees (a title I took from Jason Allen-Paisant’s wonderful Thinking with Trees (Carcanet 2021).  

This is the sort of thing we’ll be thinking and writing about:

Why are there so many poems written about trees?  And under trees?  What more is there to say about trees?  What do they teach us about the world and about ourselves?  In this generative workshop we will be ‘thinking with trees’ (Jason Allen-Paisant):  ‘Trying to be part of the forest, to learn their names by breathing.’ 

No specific arboreal knowledge is necessary – simply a willingness to explore the ‘tawny grammar’ (Thoreau) and ‘mother-wit’ (Snyder) of our deep connection with these venerable plants that hold the key for a more culturally-rooted sustainable future.

There are still places available and everyone is very welcome.  I can’t think of a much better way to spend a Saturday in November – in the company of trees and fellow writers open to exploring what deep changes can happen (in our writing and our lives) when we take time for ‘thinking with trees’. Here’s more information and how to book.

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And as a small forward-looking postscript, a cheer of appreciation to Candlestick Press for their new pamphlet of Christmas poems – Christmas Stories (a perfect postable present). When they asked me to contribute, I wasn’t sure what ‘story’ I might be able to tell, but, as often happens, it was trees that showed me the way.

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Arboreal

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My father – a mischievous man with delusions 

of grandeur and Neapolitan charisma,

given to stories – told me his grandparents’ names 

were Mary and Joseph.  Only nine at the time, 

I pencilled them in on our scant family tree

before catching the twinkle in his merry eye.

After that, every Christmas, not knowing 

where I belonged, I’d gaze at the nativity, 

away in the manger – pastoral, beatific –

wanting the holy family’s story to be mine.

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My mother, down to earth, no nonsense, preferred

to blend into the background, almost invisible – 

but at Christmas what made her happy was a tree.

Every year we’d trek deep in the wilderness

beyond the railway line, her swinging the big saw 

as if it were a handbag.  Under cover of dusk, 

Mam at one end and me at the other, we’d carry 

the chosen one home.  Our trees were pine, not bought 

spruce – long-needled, rangy, poached – hung 

with mottled post-war baubles, paper lanterns.

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Short of any other narrative to make sense 

of the world we find ourselves in and to venerate

our lost ancestors – émigrés, survivors – 

I tell my sons these stories in the dark of winter: 

our origin myths, borrowed and stolen, a forest

of rootless, ungovernable evergreen trees.

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Learn the Flowers

stay together

learn the flowers

go light

Gary Snyder

From Habit, Ability! at the NewBridge Project in Shieldfield, Newcastle – a neighbourhood I have a soft spot for as my father was born and went to school there.

In the final moments when only the most meaningful strands of life remain,

it’s really our human connections that rise to the top.

That’s the clarity that we get at the end of life.

But it was my parents who taught me from the earliest age

that we don’t have to wait until the end of life

in order to recognize and act on the power of connection.

Dr. Vivek Murthy, US Surgeon General under Barack Obama

Thinking just now about patient urgency and/or urgent patience. Yes?

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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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Writing the Climate

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Last week my new post as Climate Writer with New Writing North and Newcastle University was officially announced and I have been very touched by all the warm messages and gestures of encouragement and support I’ve received.  I am often taken by surprise to be reminded of the invisible strands of connection between us when it looks like nothing is happening.  Living in a culture of appearances casts mists over all our eyes.

It seems to me one of the difficulties of tackling Climate Change (both in the world and on the page) arises because here in the UK we can’t properly see it.  Those people badly affected by the floods of recent years have had to shift into survival mode, without the luxury of any distance to consider the influence and implications of Climate Change on their wrecked homes and lost and ruined possessions.  [Clare Shaw’s Flood (Bloodaxe 2018) is a powerful book of poems on the subject of floods in the world and floods in the psyche. See also Brian and Mary Talbot’s fascinating graphic novel Rain (Cape 2019).]  If we can’t see a thing (or hear, touch, smell or taste it), it’s hard to know what we’re faced with and how to respond.  Because we can’t quite pin it down, the words for it elude us and because the words elude us, we can’t quite pin it down.  A vicious circle.

The fact that Climate Change is being ignored by governments capable of introducing new initiatives and renewable systems, that already exist, in order to address our runaway carbon emissions adds to the sense of unreality.  Climate Change can feel like a collective dream, the way Cocteau thought of cinema.  Like a dream, the meaning is hard to interpret – things aren’t what they seem, there are many layers, characters and objects often symbolic rather than actual. There are those who say that everyone in a dream is some aspect of ourselves.  And so it is with Climate Change – we are each (and together) the protagonist of this story, and we are also the antagonist, our own worst enemy.  It’s no good waiting to be rescued for we are our own saviours too.  This hall of mirrors makes the subject even more tricky to write about.  The language itself is not designed to cross the subject-object divide, let alone accommodate the disruption of verb tense to triangulate time and allow past, present and future to co-exist.

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These are some of the first principles – the origin myth of Climate Change, if you like – I’ve been trying to get back to in these initial weeks of acclimatisation.  My head a little dizzy with all the reading and thinking and puzzling, I’ve felt a bit like Sisyphus doomed to keep rolling an enormous rock up a hill over and over again when it’s always tumbling back down.  In an effort to create some physical boundaries and foundations for my work, and a sense of progress, I’ve created a dedicated space in my little hut some friends kindly passed on to me a few years ago.  Always declared an academia-free zone and my very own medicine hut, I used it to regather and recharge while I was working on my PhD.  Now it can come into its own to accommodate (literally) my musings on the elusive, unwieldly subject of Climate Change.  As if it always knew this was going to be its purpose in life, its manufacturer’s mark has gained new significance.  I’m hoping my hut will carry the weight of this work so I don’t need to.  Better Atlas than Sisyphus.

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Apart from establishing a conducive physical space, I’ve also been experimenting with a virtual container for my process.  Like most people, I have a love-hate relationship with digital platforms and the only social media space I feel remotely comfortable in is Instagram.  I appreciate the focus on visual images and lack of clutter, its capacity to connect and inform.  Since the beginning of the year I have been posting daily images and short texts arising from an awareness of the natural world and climate issues.  The form I am following is an adaptation of the ‘year renga’ I used (in a notebook, privately, never intended for publication) that ended up becoming book of days (Smokestack 2009).  Renga is an old Japanese collaborative form I’ve been working with for the past two decades, alongside others and alone.  I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this but as a daily practice it keeps the subject at the front of my mind and every day is another door, a chance to refocus and begin again.  Which is perhaps another first principle for tackling Climate Change, living with it and writing about it.

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Here are my renga verses for January.  You can see the images on IG @lindafrancebooksandplants (also via my website).  You can also read more about my post on the New Writing North website.

January

Weather forecast –

new * things *

under * the * sun

 

black coal and butterfly wings

both out of their element

 

bearded lichen

knows where time lives

and grows there

 

less knowledge

more attention

 

using my car

as a salt lick, the sheep

make a monograph

 

high water

Leith

 

raindrops on the windowpane –

the lamp stays lit

all day

 

January’s muses

Beauty, Prudence and Folly

 

five hundred years old

the Spanish chestnut tree

still bearing fruit

 

of earthly joy

            thou art my choice

 

keepsake –

something hidden

inside something else

 

clouds and crocodiles

a three-umbrella day

 

before we leave:

peace

to this place

 

crossing the border

windmills! windmills! windmills!

 

white pencil points

of snowdrops

about to write their name

 

the room is full

of all the lost creatures

 

on the windowsill

a bowl

of borrowed time

 

I resort to poetry

            like I resort to tears

 

four of us

not quite on top of the world

but nearly

 

walking into

the wind’s sighs

 

the unknown becomes known

the outcasts come inside

the strange becomes ordinary

 

our molehills

are mountains

 

we need new words

for what we don’t know

honest and kind

 

invisible birds singing

dusksongs in the birches

 

year of the rat

new moon – second chance

at starting over

 

Sunday morning

a tangle of light and dark

 

in the corner of the room

a shopping trolley

a very British rebellion

 

her black cat called Maya

watches my every move

 

a head-scratching sort of day –

out among other people’s voices

to hear my own better

 

my car still proud

to be European

 

one day gone missing –

next month

come find me

 

 

One of the things I want to do with this work is to connect with others and find ways for writers to come together and discover what they might be able to do to help find the words we need to see our way into what this time is asking of us.  So please do chip in here with comments, suggestions and anything at all you think I should be looking at.  The post is only part-time but I’m keen to cover as much ground as possible over the year.

Many thanks.

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SWEET ANTICIPATION

Untitled-1967-gouash-on-paperBanner.pngSean Scully, Untitled, 1967

Like many of us, I’m looking forward to this year’s Newcastle Poetry Festival, Crossings 2nd – 5th May.  A sweet little taster came in the form of an interview with Sasha Dugdale on the Festival blog.  She will be chairing a session at the Translation-themed Symposium at the Sage (3rdMay) and also give the Royal Literary Fund Lecture on Pushkin at Northern Stage (Saturday 5thMay).  It will be an exciting few days with lots to think about.  Do come along to listen and enjoy – and spread the word to folk who may be interested.

Further excitement in the Translation Dept – the cover of my new Selected Poems from Bulgaria – blue and beautiful.  For those of you whose Bulgarian is a touch rusty, it is called Simultaneous Dress and translated by the wonderful poet Nadya Radulova.  The book is now published but I have yet to hold a copy in my hands.  They are itching.

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When I stayed in Sofia a couple of years ago I wrote several new poems.  This is one of them – seen from the balcony of my apartment on Kyril and Methodii Street.

The Screaming Party

Every evening they come darting across

the skyline     dots and dashes of high-pitched morse.

Who knows what they’re screaming for    static

in their throats     white noise plucked from the day’s havoc

and flung back into blank air.     Hypnotic drifts.

As if auditioning for Hitchcock     these swifts

carry the contraband pressure we must

scatter     before we can capitulate

to the dark tucked inside us     and sleep.     Strident

cries     industrious wings     are hooks to rest

our shadows on     watch them soar     our own fall

mouths agape.     Each burst of piercing calls

silvers a key     to unfasten the doors

to dreams     so     greet    greet     our night visitors.

 

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Tenderness

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The American poet Galway Kinnell wrote: The secret title of every good poem might be ‘Tenderness’.

And so begins Jane Hirshfield’s ‘Late Prayer’ –

Tenderness does not choose its own uses.

It goes out to everything equally,

Circling rabbit and hawk.

Look: in the iron bucket,

A single nail, a single ruby –

All the heavens and hells.

They rattle in the heart and make one sound.

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In ‘Ars Poetica?’ the Polish poet Czeslow Milosz wrote:

The purpose of poetry is to remind us

How difficult it is to remain just one person,

For our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,

And invisible guests come in and out at will,

(trans. Czeslaw Milosz and Lillian Vallee)

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On yet another snowy day, I have been enjoying sitting by my fire and re-reading Jane Hirshfield’s wonderful essay ‘Writing and the Threshold Life’, from Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1998).  These quotes come from that book and the images are from The Heart of the Matter at Great North Museum: Hancock, an exhibition by Sofie Layton et al. ‘Heartland’ is my own contribution.

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By Heart

ED91D044-9969-4B54-BCC6-54563CF93619.jpegI went to one of Sofie Layton’s wonderful workshops around this work and ended up contributing a poem to the exhibition.  This is not it…but a sideways take I found during my research.

His Heart

The earth is suffocating. Swear to make them cut me open, so that I won’t be buried alive.

Chopin on his death bed, 1849

 

Smuggled by his sister

back into his homeland

past Russian guards

sealed in a jar of cognac

interred in a Warsaw crypt

conferred on an SS officer

who admired his music

returned to the Holy Cross

examined for cause of death:

pericarditis, chronic tuberculosis.

 

 

 

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New Work

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Microscopic image of skin cells

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Ben Freeth’s sound and light installation

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Ahren Warner’s scrolling prosimetrum

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Tom Schofield’s interactive ‘skin-covered’ construction

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Kate Sweeney’s photographic Still Life

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My new prose poem bound as a book

(an extract on the left hand side of the first image here)

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Not a handful of earth

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For when the traveller returns from the mountain slopes into the valley,

he brings, not a handful of earth, unsayable to others but instead

some word he has gained, some pure word, the yellow and blue

gentian.  Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,

bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window –

at most: column, tower?…but to say them you must understand,

oh to say them more intensely than the things themselves 

ever dreamed of existing.

From Rilke’s 9th Elegy

It’s over a week ago that the garden at Moorbank closed its gates and I’ve hesitated to write about it, unable to find the words.  The place was still being ransacked even as we held our final fling amidst it all.

IMG_7116I felt as if I was at a funeral, the funeral of someone I loved, my legs hollow and shaky, stomach fluttery and taut.  I still can’t quite believe we won’t be able to go back but whatever happens, depending on the course the Freemen decide to take, it will never be the same.

IMG_7109I’m pleased I have so many full notebooks and photographs to return to and summon the garden, its plants and trees, from a mixture of memory and imagination, what I’ve managed to salvage from close observation and what I hope is a reliable, authentic notation.

IMG_7113The Director of Moorbank, Dr Anne Borland, made a wonderful speech celebrating the Garden’s significant legacy.  Here’s a small but striking extract, highlighting the University’s shortsightedness in deciding to cut such a valuable resource:

Moorbank has been an important resource for Plant Science research at the University since 1923. Trevor Walker amassed a unique collection of tropical ferns and the discovery of a new pathway of photosynthesis in the 1950s by Drs Ranson and Thomas relied on plant material raised and maintained at Moorbank.  Whilst the number of plant scientists employed at Newcastle has declined over the years, Moorbank has continued to support the work of postgraduate students from countries as far apart as Thailand and Nigeria as well as undergraduate project students on a whole range of topics from bird behaviour to plant genetics, important research on Alzheimers (the work of Elaine Perry) and on a personal level Moorbank has been home to my collection of the tropical trees of Clusia, probably the most diverse collection of the genus in Europe, a genus which is now at the centre of a $15 million dollar research program funded by the US-DOE to improve drought tolerance in tree species used for biofuel production.

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