From Geoffrey Hill to Patti Smith

Last week I spent an enjoyable couple of hours in Newcastle with Tyneside documentary film-maker Gary Alikivi, whose blog features interviews with a great variety of North East musicians, as well as artists and writers. Gary’s own work covers a wide range of Tyneside themes, including Irish, Russian and other international Tyneside connections, such as the writer Yevgeny Zamyatin, South Shields born Eileen O’ Shaughnessy, wife of George Orwell, and writer and artist Baron Avro Manhattan.

Gary skilfully compressed two hours of chat into a blog interview, ‘Some Kind of Magic’, which you can read HERE. He asked me about my early influences. There wasn’t time to go into great detail, but I did tell him about a few. Poetry – or playing with words as all children do – has been important to me all my life, and became more so in my teens. I had fantastic encouragement from my first English teacher at Durham High School, Mrs Wood. She was a great role model to me. Her son, the novelist and critic James Wood, has written about her in his New Yorker essay, ‘Lessons from My Mother’.

In the months between my university entrance exams and my first term at Cambridge in September 1979, I was still living with my parents, near Consett, where I grew up. In April 1979, Northern Arts paid for my place on a weekend ‘writer’s workshop’ in the Lake District. One of the tutors was the distinguished poet Geoffrey Hill. I was the youngest student there, shy, intense, writing awful, archaic, highly formal verse about unrequited love and feeling lonely in Consett. I’d never met any writers before. The heady mix of students and tutors was fantastic – I was discovering for the first time that there were other people out there with a compulsion to write.

Geoffrey Hill was immensely encouraging; gentle, paternal and patient. He read my awful poems and found things of value in them. He took me almost as seriously as I took myself. When he heard that I was preparing to read History at university rather than English he approved, although he added: ‘Better if it was quantum physics’. He told me that I was ‘much too thin-skinned’ to go into theatre, which I was considering; and, understanding my commitment to poetry, gave me the wisest advice of all: ‘Don’t teach!’ On the last night of the course he read from Mercian Hymns and his finest work, King Log, during a mighty thunderstorm. It was like listening to Zeus. Hill was an enormous influence on me at a very impressionable age, and we remained in touch for several years afterwards. I’ll always be grateful to him.

Around the same time I earned some spare cash shifting scenery, running errands and acting as an usher for the RSC during their first visits to Newcastle, at the Gulbenkian Studio in what is now Northern Stage. It wasn’t all Shakespeare. There were plays by Brecht, Edward Bond, David Edgar and Pam Gems, and I met many well-known actors, including Ian McKellen and Judy Dench, and others, like Ruby Wax, who later became famous names. The pay packet was tiny; but can you imagine an 18-year-old today being paid to run errands for a prestigious theatre company? There seemed to be more money for the arts in those days.

In August 1979 I had another errand-running job, on a summer school course for American students visiting Edinburgh Festival. I was given free board and lodgings in return for showing people how to get around the city, and standing in endless queues to buy show tickets for them. For me, the highlight of the whole Festival was hearing Patti Smith read from her poetry collection Babel, then being among a small group of girls who hung out with her briefly before her evening gig. Babel couldn’t have been much further from King Log¸ or Patti from Geoffrey Hill, if they had inhabited different planets; but they each represented something vital to me. Here I am, aged 18 and star-struck:


It’s striking to me, looking back, how few of the ‘big names’ who inspired me were women. Plenty of women and girls studied poetry and wrote it. Few, it seemed, qualified as ‘leading poets’ in those days — whatever ‘leading poets’ might mean. The late ‘70s and early ‘80s were a very different time for young women. Patti Smith was therefore particularly important to me. From her album Horses onward she was one of my favourite poets — and she rocked.

Gary Alikivi brings all this together in his interview. He also touches on my two years in America, during which I encountered several other inspirational poets. At Berkeley I studied Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts with Thom Gunn and was taught poetry by the wonderful Robert Pinsky, whose ear for music helped me tune my own.

Then in the summer of 1983 in California I met Seamus Heaney, who became my tutor on the East Coast at Harvard in 1983-4. Boundlessly generous with his time and attention, Seamus read and commented on my still-awful poems with enormous care. It was at this time, aged 23, that I wrote the earliest poem in The Lost Music, If My Train Will Come’. Seamus recognised it as ‘one of those poems that comes as a gift, from nowhere’. At the end of my time in the States, when I was trying to decide my future, his advice to me was formative: ‘I think if you go home you might write the Northumbrian Under Milk Wood’.

I didn’t manage anything so ground-breaking or grand; but I did gravitate towards the fishermen and women’s dialect voices, and the authentic speech patterns of my chosen place. Thinking about all this, I feel extremely lucky to have received university education at a time when it was free, and to have travelled and encountered so many gifted poets, thanks first to Northern Arts, then to the Commonwealth Fund which supported my Harkness Fellowship, and to the Society of Authors, which funded my later Eric Gregory Award. I’ve had a great deal of support over the years, without which I would not have been able to develop my work.

Katrina Porteous, Lucy Brennan, Seamus Heaney, Amy Bartlett0002

          Coffee with Seamus Heaney and students, including poet Amy Bartlett (right), Harvard Square 1984

Gary brings the story up to date at the end of his interview, by asking about my upcoming gigs. One I’m particularly looking forward to with fiddler Alexis Bennett takes place on board the 150-year-old clipper ship Cutty Sark at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich on Friday May 24th. It’s calledFrom the Coble Coast to Bantry Bay: the poetry and music of the Sea’, and you can book tickets HERE.

Cutty Sark

Cutty Sark, where I’m performing with Alexis Bennett, Mick Delap and others on May 24th

Do please look at Gary Alikivi’s site. It contains some great interviews. And do please read ‘Some Kind of Magic’. Thanks, Gary, for giving me the space and the opportunity to think about some of the people who’ve been important to me along the way.