If you’d like a copy of my new pamphlet Letters to Katlia, it’s now available from the British Library’s site here.
This feels like a bridge for me from one year into the next, while I try to discover what wants to unfold after my Writing the Climate residency – you can read New Writing North’s ‘3.5 per cent’ blog post on our work over the past three years here.
January, February, March are good months for hibernation and dreaming. May we all rest well and emerge renewed.
Thrilled that The Knucklebone Floor has been shortlisted for this year’s Laurel Prize. You can learn more about the shortlist and details of the Prize here. If you’re in the vicinity of Birmingham or Yorkshire Sculpture Park on 9th or 16th September, do come along and join in the celebrations.
I dug out a postcard from a few years ago of an earlier version of one of the poems in the collection.
And looking up recently, I discovered a wasp’s nest in the roof of my little shed’s porch – a small beautiful construction – apparently what taught the Chinese how to make paper. Paper – the magical element that so binds and absorbs us.
‘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.
Next week on Thursday 4th November I’ll be joining fellow-Northumbrian poets Katrina Porteous and Anne Ryland for an online reading dedicated to the spirit of place. It’s a free event, hosted by Northumberland Libraries, 7 – 8 pm – everyone is welcome and you can register here.
Episodes 5 & 6 of In Our Element are available now – Air and Wood. Do listen in and if you like what you hear, please spread the word. Apparently that’s how podcasts tend to find their audience – through word of mouth. We made the series to air in the run-up to COP26 but the scope of all our conversations extends well beyond whatever happens in Glasgow over the coming weeks.
The Air and Wood episodes include poetry from Colette Bryce and Pascale Petit and a tour of a wind farm with wind engineer Anabel Gammidge and a spot of wood-bathing with woodland conservationist Sian Atkinson. That was my favourite part of making these podcasts – when we were able to record outdoors and actually be in the elements we were talking about.
As we move through the fire of Samhain into the dark months before the shortest day, take good care and send your thoughts to all those gathering in Glasgow intent on calling a halt to climate recklessness and working towards regeneration and justice. Like ecologist Timothy Morton, we might be aware of ‘pessimism of the intellect’, but we can act from ‘optimism of the will’.
There are still a few places left on my Writing Workshop – out in the field and at the Sill – next Saturday 10th August – looking at lichen. Bring botanical lenses and magnifying glasses! And cross fingers for fine weather.
Iain’s photographs are stunning. They beautifully capture these strange life forms that do so well in Northumberland – a testament to our clean air and fresh elements. We’ll be moving between the real thing and samples of his images to write our own poems and short pieces in appreciation of lichen. Even the word itself is mysterious and exciting – whichever way you say it – lichen!
As part of Bywell Arts Festival, a group of us gathered in St Andrew’s Churchyard on Saturday evening (22nd June) to make a Midsummer Renga. A Churches Conservation Trust Church, it was the perfect setting for some quiet contemplation and gentle celebration of the solstice’s turning. Bywell is named from the Old English meaning ‘a spring at the bend’ and that gave us our opening verse, the hokku. Small fairy midges were dancing but our citronella spells seemed to keep them at bay.
field garlic, brookweed, sea campion, beaked parsley,
water plantain, knotted trefoil, tufted centaury.
Pluck them where they hide on whin or dune to take
home (imagine crossing the sea-soaked causeway
by horse-drawn carriage) then paint – purple and white,
yellow and pink, the common language of green.
Not scented or seductive, each one’s a modest plant,
at risk from slipshod steps, or simple disregard.
Conjure the woman in a watercolour mirror
of flowers as tenderly as if from her own bones
sealed in a box; her secrets – thank god – encrypted.
Heed the silence, most eloquent against the tide.
In 1874, Margaret Rebecca Dickinson made seven watercolours of plants found on Lindisfarne, many rare and endangered. These images are among the 468 botanical paintings in the Margaret Rebecca Dickinson Archive in the Natural History Society of Northumbria’s Library at the Great North Museum, Newcastle. 2018 marks the centenary of her death, aged 98, at Norham on Tweed. To our knowledge, no portrait of her exists.
I wrote this poem for Newcastle Poetry Festival’s Waves & Bones project, based on Lindisfarne, tying it in with my PhD research. In my critical essay, I’m connecting various threads and Margaret Rebecca Dickinson is one of them.
One flower she didn’t paint is the Lindisfarne Helleborine, which I’m going in search of next month. Also a good chance to see the 650 sweet peas coming into bloom they’d just finished planting in Gertrude Jekyll’s garden last time I was there.
You’re always more unreal to yourself than other people are.
Marguerite Duras, ‘Practicalities’ (1990)
This is the epigraph to Deborah Levy’s new book, The Cost of Living (Hamish Hamilton 2018), the second instalment of her ‘living autobiography’. It’s a compelling account of her attempt to create a new life for herself and her daughters outside the strictures of a long (middle-class) marriage. Her reflections are multivalent – practical (the value of an electric bike), philosophical (re-reading Simone de Beauvoir) and psychological (grief at the loss of her mother around the same time). The writing is unpredictable, playful and ultra-cool.
Just as when I read Things I Don’t Want to Know (her first memoir/instalment), my breath came in little bursts as I recognised so many things I felt about female experience but hadn’t quite been able to articulate. This doesn’t happen for me very much these days and I am grateful for it – one of the deep delights of reading, helping clarify thoughts and grow a little. It felt like one of those books that keep you pointing in the right direction, not not-saying.
I’m very lucky to have been chosen as one of the Featured Poets in Issue Six of The Compass Magazine. It is a fine online space for poetry, sensitively edited by Lindsey Holland and Andrew Forster. There are two fascinating interviews – with Sinéad Morrissey and Pascale Petit – as well as lots of exciting new work by a wide selection of poets.
I had the chance to include poems here that were written since my last collection was published (two years ago) and before I embarked on my new PhD project. With hindsight I can see it is the place I sprang off from (somewhere along the Whin Sill). A sequence called ‘Soil’ looks at the small patch of Northumberland where I live through the battles it’s become known for and shaped by. The more time I spend looking at the past, the more things seem to have stayed the same. Military intervention, power struggles, righteousness, xenophobia – these offer no sort of compass.
Two shorter poems, Her Voice and Tattoo, look at the whole business of trying to speak the truth, finding the right words and knowing what’s worth writing about. There’s another page (‘Poetics’) where I attempt to review my position as a writer. I could write a different piece on this subject every week – it turns with the world and the light. It seems to be changing apace as the PhD process rolls on – doing strange things to one’s sense of ‘audience’ – mostly walking in the dark.
But the last words here are Deborah Levy’s last words:
When a woman has to find a new way of living and breaks from the societal story that has erased her name, she is expected to be viciously self-hating, crazed with suffering, tearful with remorse. These are jewels reserved for her in the patriarchy’s crown, always there for the taking. There are plenty of tears, but it is better to walk through the black and bluish darkness than reach for those worthless jewels.
The writing you are reading now is made from the cost of living and it is made with digital ink.