The Garden of Earthly Delights

‘Lowp-the Dyke’ and Northumbrian dialect

April 15th should have seen the premier of ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, a new hour-long, 8-channel, surround-sound comic opera by composer Trevor Wishart, at the Royal Conservatory, Den Haag. I am so proud to be one of its three librettists, the others being Martin Riley and Trevor himself. The premier has, like so much else this year, been postponed due to the current health crisis. But we still have it to look forward to.

My brief from Trevor was to write a poem in Northumbrian dialect for ‘the Forest Path’ section of the Garden. Trevor’s idea for the opera, which he has composed over four years, was partly inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s painting of the same name, which Trevor explains he has re-imagined for the 21st century and for the medium of sound. In this Garden, Bosch’s simultaneous image is ‘replaced by the viewpoint of a wanderer through a maze, who stumbles upon different situations, to which she constantly returns, only to find that these situations have shifted in her absence.’ One of these is ‘the Forest Path’. ‘Garden’ is the final piece in Trevor’s series exploring the musical possibilities of human speech using processes of metamorphosis, and deals explicitly with narrative. Each of its seven threads, he writes in his ‘Official Guide’, presents a different narrative, and each has metamorphosed whenever we return to that thread. On the flyleaf, his words offer to guide you through the labyrinth, but warn: ‘unfortunately we cannot guarantee to find the exit.’


‘The path continues to climb until trees give way to open country…’

Before I began, Trevor described in some detail what he wanted for ‘the Forest Path’. ‘Cross the style and follow the path which enters the wood. After a short ascent cross a small stream. The path continues to climb until trees give way to open country and, finally, the summit is reached.’ The poem should be in broad, old-fashioned, at times almost incomprehensible, Northumbrian dialect. Playing on the interest we each have in the musical, expressive qualities of speech, many of the words would be lost in the setting, but that should not matter. The sounds of those words should lead the sense. The song should be positive, joyous, uplifting, celebrating the unity of nature, and should be folksong-like, with ancient echoes of Orpheus, ‘father of songs’, and of the first Northumbrian poet, Caedmon.

No pressure, then!

I began by playing around with some Northumbrian place names. I love the abstract sounds and playful references in farm names like ‘Biteabout’, ‘Sillywrae’, ‘Whaupweasel’ and ‘Whirleyshaa’s’. These became the first stanza of the song. Then I imagined myself into a specific hilly landscape which I know well, on the Northumberland-Scottish border at the end of the Pennine Way. Into it I wove some references to Orpheus. Some of these were so obscure only I would recognise them. For instance, I often work with another electronic composer, Peter Zinovieff, who wrote the libretto for Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s opera ‘The Mask of Orpheus’; so for Trevor’s ‘Garden’ I borrowed the idea of the Fourth Arch, which becomes the ‘hemmels’, or arched cow-byres, set alight by Border Reivers. More obviously, the refrain ‘Nivvor keek back’ means, in Northumbrian, ‘Never look back’, a reference to the Oracle’s instruction to Orpheus in the Underworld. Caedmon appears in the references to wild landscapes – the ‘jumm’ly-bed’ (boggy ground), ‘howps and howes’ (valleys and hollows) – and wild creatures, such as the ‘mowdie’ (mole), ‘linty’ (linnet), ‘laverock’ (skylark), ‘blackclock’ (black beetle) and ‘flee’ (fly). I wanted to suggest the unity of nature, its vulnerability (‘the ice a-thaw’), and our part in its ‘yen mash’ (one mesh). I have heard all the words and speech patterns in the song used by Northumbrian fishermen and shepherds in my lifetime. I’ll include a full glossary at the end of this post.

The title, ‘Lowp the Dyke’, refers to the Northumbrian folksong ‘Sair Fyel’d, Hinny’, in which an  old man laments to an oak tree that he can no longer jump (‘lowp’) the obstacles of his youth.


Trevor explained how he would use my words. In his introduction to ‘the Forest Path’, he writes: ‘The narrative concept involved a walker in a wood who sings to herself, to which the forest responds’. He had quite a precise requirement for line and verse length, as well as linguistic tone, which led to considerable rewriting, expanding, rearranging. Some months later, he sent me a simple setting of my words. It’s a beautiful, lyrical, traditional melody. Trevor explained that he wanted an ‘irregular’ interpretation, unlike that of a professional singer. Would I sing it for him? I’m not a singer, so my rendering would certainly be ‘irregular’. With the help of a pianist friend, I had a go. Then in January last year, I visited Trevor’s home studio in York to record it. Although we had originally discussed recording in the actual Borders landscape to which much of the song refers, its remoteness and upland windiness made this impractical.


The version Trevor wanted was deliberately rough and breathless. I had to practise over-breathing and even singing some notes off-key, ‘as if singing while concentrating on effortful walking’. For the finished piece, Trevor exaggerated these effects in the studio. As he suggested, many of the words of the song are lost in pure sound. I’ve reproduced them here in full for those who are interested. In his introduction to ‘Garden’ Trevor explains some of the sound-processing tools he has developed for each section. For ‘the Forest Path’ he mixed my processed voice with natural sounds: footsteps over earth, reedy grass and gravel, and the sound of a stream recorded on Ilkley Moor; footsteps over tumbling rocks recorded at abandoned mine workings in the Lake District; birdsong recorded by David Lumsdaine in the Australian bush. I have heard a stereo mix of the result, and it’s thrilling. I can’t wait for the full 8-channel experience, and to hear ‘the Forest Path’ in the context of the whole ‘Garden’.


ablow – below; bent­ – tied; bigg – build; blackclock ­– black beetle; bleeze – blaze; boolin’ – bowling; born – stream; brunt – burnt; cleugh – ravine; cruttly – crumbly; dean – deep, wooded valley; dyke – wall; ee – eye; flacker – flutter; flee – fly; floo’er – flower; hemmels – cattle shed with arched entrance; heugh – cliff; howes – hollows; howk – dig; howp – small valley; inbye – close by; jumm’ly-bed – peat bog; keek – peep; laverock – skylark; linty – linnet; lowes – flames; lowp – leap; mash – mesh; mow’die – mole; o’er-smaa’ – too small; ootbye – further off; pickadeedle – sandpiper; reed – red; reek – smoke; sike – ditch; slack – hollow; speel’in’ – climbing; spink – spark; stell – circular enclosure for animals; stoor dust; styen – stone; swaller – swallow; tath – soft grass; thrussel – thistle; tummellin’ – tumbling; wetter – water; wicket – small gate; yen – one.


Lay me doon under the jumm’ly bed an’ tummellin’ sky…

For more information about Northumbrian dialect words and their usage, please follow this link to The Northumbrian Language Society.


Thwaites’ Glacier in western Antarctica is reported to be melting more quickly than previously thought, with profound implications for sea level rise across the planet.

Among the ice scientists currently undertaking cutting-edge research in Antarctica are Professor John Woodward and Dr Kate Winter of Northumbria University. This year I shall be working with each of them, and with NUSTEM’s STFC-funded ‘Exploring Extreme Environments’ project, to create a 30 minute poetry and electronic music performance piece with composer Peter Zinovieff, which will explore the science used to expose the secrets underneath the ice. As in our previous performances, poetry, music and visuals will be used to convey this astonishing science to a wide public.

Our piece, provisionally entitled ‘Ice’, will premiere early in 2021, and a scaled-down version will then tour, with performances in poetry and music venues, to Women’s Institutes and other social groups. Please contact me via this site if you are interested in hosting a performance.

Meanwhile, some of my initial work with the scientists has already been widely used by NUSTEM staff with Year 5 students in primary schools in North East England to engage and educate children, and inspire them to learn about science through the arts.

Here’s an example, my first poem for the project, ‘Ice Core’:

IMG_5732Deep ice cores drilled from Antarctica contain bubbles of air 800,000 years old, a record of Earth’s atmosphere and climate change over eight ice ages and at least one mass extinction. I learnt about this from talking to Dr Kate Winter, Baillet Latour Antarctic Fellow at Northumbria University. Although Kate’s own research does not directly involve ice cores, she uses ice penetrating radar and remotely sensed imagery to map the sub-glacial environment and flow dynamics of Antarctic ice streams. Her work helps other scientists to decide where to drill for ice cores.



My poem was photographed (above) by Jonathan Sanderson of NUSTEM in Dr Kate Winter’s office at Northumbria University. The images on the wall include a map of radar lines plotting ice thickness in Antarctica.

My second poem, ‘Invisible Mending’, draws directly on Kate’s own research.


Iron-rich sediments, carried by glaciers from inland areas of the Antarctic to the Southern Ocean, are thought to encourage the growth of microscopic phytoplankton, which help to reduce Carbon Dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. As ice sheets thin in response to climate change, sediment delivery and production could increase. A nunatak is a piece of rock jutting above ice or snow.


Again, my poem was photographed (above) by Jonathan Sanderson of NUSTEM, alongside Dr Kate Winter’s Antarctic sediment samples in the Geography Lab at Northumbria University. The photo shows sediment samples from different Antarctic rock types and locations drying under the fume hood and displayed on the lab bench. They are waiting to be examined for their iron content.

This poem was first published in Planet In Peril (ed. Isabelle Kenyon, Fly On the Wall Press, 2019).

‘Ice’ is my second collaboration with NUSTEM and scientists from Northumbria University, and my fourth with Peter Zinovieff translating the work of research scientists to a non-scientific audience. You can read more science poetry from my earlier projects in my recent Bloodaxe collection, Edge, reviewed HERE in The Guardian.

I’ll be reading from Edge and talking about science and poetry for EXPLORE Lifelong Learning in Newcastle on Friday 31st January, 11.30am – 1.30pm. You can find out more and book HERE.


Christmas Spirit

Christmas Spirit

Ten Poems to Warm the Heart

The latest collection from the lovely Candlestick Press ‘Instead of a Card’ series. Seasonal poems specially commissioned from ten leading poets, with a beautiful cover by Louise Slater. Includes my new poem from Northumberland, The Mizzletow.

£4-95 from Candlestick Press HERE


The People’s Landscape: Poems from the Durham Coast

Earlier this year, together with poet Phoebe Power, I undertook a short writing residency on the Durham Coast as part of the National Trust People’s Landscape project. The residency was supported by New Writing North for the Durham Book Festival. You can read the resulting poems HERE.

You can also read a blog post I wrote about the residency HERE.



Words Weekend 2019

Sage Gateshead, Barbour Room, Sunday Dec 8th, 11am

Poems from the Edge of Extinction

With Chris McCabe

A recent report states that dialects will disappear over the next 50 years. With this in mind, join three UK poets who write in the language of their region. Hosted by Chris McCabe, editor of Poems from the Edge of Extinction: An Anthology of Poetry In Endangered Languages, who will also read poems in his native Scouse tongue. I’ll read from my work in Northumbrian dialect, and Scots poet Peter McCarey will presents poems from The Syllabary, his ongoing project to write a poem for every syllable in the English language. You’ll have the chance to ask us questions about our work in a discussion focused around poetry in dialect and what the art form can do to activate engagement with language.

Tickets £8-20. Book HERE


An Evening with Two Poets: Katrina Porteous and Don Paterson

Barter Books, Alnwick

Monday, Dec 9th, 7.30pm

Tickets £10 – please book in advance 01665 604999

Don Paterson is one of our great poets. Born in Dundee, Scotland, he is Professor of Poetry at the University of St Andrews, and since 1996 has been poetry editor at Picador MacMillan. He is the author of seven books of poetry, including Selected Poems and 40 Sonnets (both from Faber). An eighth, Zonal, is eagerly-awaited and will be published in March 2020. Paterson has won many awards, including the Whitbread/Costa Poetry Prize, the T S Eliot Prize, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, all three Forward Prizes, and a Cholmondeley Award. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, the English Association, and The Royal Society of Edinburgh. He received the OBE in 2008 and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2010. As if all this weren’t enough, he also works as a guitarist and composer.

I’ll be reading from my brand new Bloodaxe collection, Edge. This contains three poem sequences which extend my previous work on nature, place and time beyond the human sphere to the macro workings of our local star, the potential for primitive life elsewhere in the solar system, and finally to the development of complex consciousness on our own planet. All three pieces were written in collaboration with research scientists for performance in the Life Science Centre Planetarium, Newcastle, with real space photographs and electronic music by Peter Zinovieff. In this event I’ll perform and discuss a stripped-down excerpt from each piece.

A Selection of Recent Anthologies in which I have poems  

Click on the titles below for details and orders

Prose cover 4d.indd

The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry, ed. Anne Caldwell and Oz Hardwick, £10-99 +p&p


Planet in Peril, an anthology for our time, ed. Isabelle Kenyon, fly on the wall press, £15-19 +p&p


Tyne Anew, celebrating public art in North Tyneside, ed Keith Armstrong and Peter Dixon, £9 +p&p

Spring of the Muses, poetry of music, art and dance, ed. Deborah Gaye, Avalanche Books, £9-95 +p&p

Further Than it Looks, poems about mountains, ed. Joy Howard, Grey Hen, £5 + p&p



Writing Nature

I’m just back from the 11th Nature Matters event in St Peter’s School, York, still buoyed by its wave of energy. The theme this year was Time for Nature, spanning several thousand years, from the ancient past to the present. There were many highlights, from fascinating archaeologists and paleo-archaeologists Terry O’Connor, Paul Pettitt and Suzi Richer, to incredible female activists: wildlife crime documentary maker Ruth Peacey; ClientEarth lawyer Hatti Owens; environmental poet Sally Goldsmith, involved in saving Sheffield’s street trees; and Isla Hodgson, applying conflict resolution skills to disputes between wildlife and game interests in the Scottish Uplands. Ever since writer Mark Cocker, one of its founder members, introduced me to New Networks for Nature 10 years ago, it has been an important source of inspiration and solidarity for me. New Networks celebrates the absolute centrality of the natural world as it inspires and informs human culture — and it welcomes new people every year. In my own life it occupies and develops a place first identified in the 1970s by Sue Clifford, Angela King, Richard Mabey and others in an earlier influential organisation, Common Ground.

This year Nature Matters was organised by the brilliant Amy-Jane Beer and Ben Hoare. It was extremely encouraging to hear more female voices; to see a younger, more diverse range of people taking part; and, above all, to hear from speakers as different from each other as Feargal Sharkey and Sir John Lister-Kaye, talking about real, grass-roots positive environmental action taking place against the background of species loss and acute ecological emergency.


ATM Street Art’s fabulous Tansy Beetle mural, the Jewel of York

(commissioned by New Networks for Nature)

One of the panel discussions during the two days of talks was entitled New Directions for Nature Writing. The panellists, who included Katharine Norbury, Anita Sethi, Richard Smyth and Zakiya Mckenzie, chaired by Richard Kerridge, discussed the current preoccupation of much British ‘nature writing’ with the personal, and suggested that it needs to open up more to other cultures, and to develop new forms and new styles. This made me think about the place of poetry and song in ‘nature writing’. While the publishing industry is concerned with ‘genres’, poetry – relatively uncommercial – perhaps remains more open to experiment and, in every sense, more ‘free’.

On the first night of Nature Matters, I was honoured to perform alongside writer Nicola Chester, historian Jeremy Mynott and storyteller Malcolm Green, as part of the opening concert by the electrifying folk singer Sam Lee and his band. I adore Sam’s work, his connection with the people from whom he has learnt the songs and with the natural world he celebrates. English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish folk songs, often rooted in the particularity of place, are full of trees, plants, animals and birds, and of fluid shape-shifting ‘supernatural’ transitions between the human and the natural – transitions which are of course universal, as familiar to African, Asian, Arctic or other folk tales as to our own. I’ve always felt a strong connection to folk traditions in my own work, not least because of their anonymity, the communality of song passed down the generations. That is an excellent antidote to the dangers of solipsism, identified in some contemporary ‘nature writing’.


Sam Lee and friends at New Networks for Nature’s ‘Nature Matters’ gathering 2019

My own third poetry collection, Edge, was published by Bloodaxe Books last week. The book is made up of three poem sequences which stretch the definition of ‘Nature in Time’ as far as possible. Their theme is cosmology and astrophysics. All three sequences were written as collaborations. I worked, on the one hand, alongside university scientists researching in those fields and, on the other, alongside the brilliant inventor and electronic composer, Peter Zinovieff, who wrote the multi-channel music for them. A third element of collaboration was provided by Life Science Centre planetarium in Newcastle, who hosted the premier of each piece, with fantastic full-dome planetarium visuals selected from real space photographs.

Edge is an unusual book, not just because of its collaborative origin. For one thing, the poems contain almost no people. I want to explore the landscapes of other worlds against the almost unimaginable scales of nature: to remind myself and my readers that our planet is 4.5 billion years old; that life has existed on it for possibly as much as four billion years; that it has witnessed six mass extinctions; and that, depending on how you define them, human beings have been around for only half a million to a million of those years. Hardly anything at all. Our planet does not need us. I want to create a poetry that reminds us of these things – not to belittle humans, but to recalibrate our place in nature, in order to celebrate more powerfully the wonder, the true value, the extraordinary miracle of conscious life.

A literature student in the audience at Nature Matters, who heard me read from Edge at Sam Lee’s concert, asked whether I consider myself an ‘eco-poet’. Apparently that is a genre now. I’m suspicious of any commercial or academic categorisation. But how can any of us, striving, as poets must, to be true to the time and place in which we live, not be eco-poets? In that sense, the poems which I wrote in the 1990s  about the old, sustainable traditions of the Northumbrian inshore fishing community, were ‘eco-poems’. My friends at Common Ground recognised this, because they were poems about the relations between human beings, our culture and language, place, and the natural world. ‘The sea’s the boss,’ fisherman Charlie Douglas would say, meaning that nature is always ultimately in charge of our lives. Similarly, when I wrote poems about the reclamation of former industrial land for the National Garden Festival in Gateshead in 1990, those were ‘eco-poems’. Again, when I wrote for Turning the Tide, about the project to clean pit waste from the Durham beaches in the late 1990s, those too were poems exploring our relationship to our environment, particularly to fossil fuels.

Most of the poems I’ve written in the last 20 years, including many of those in my second collection, Two Countries, draw on a variety of ‘voices’, imagined and real. My radio poem, Dunstanburgh, for example, is made up of the voices of that place – kittiwakes, skylarks, swallows, the wind – and scraps of local speech, like fragments of folk ballads. Sometimes two or more voices speak simultaneously in the poem, to abstract them and anonymise them further, so that they flow almost into pure music or wild sound. The Refuge Box, similarly written for radio, contains the voices of grey seals, geese, drowned travellers, old fishermen, chants and incantations, scraps of memory, history, myth and speech. All those voices are imagined or reassembled or conducted by me, but none of them is me.

Sometimes nature writing is accused of ‘escapism’, of turning its back on the social, political and ‘identity’ issues of our times. This can undoubtedly be a real problem with the genre. But I would argue that, at its best, nature writing is the opposite of escapism: that it can and should be a vital reminder of our place in the greater web of nature, which we forget at our peril. Our relations with place and nature lie at the very heart of our politics, because they determine what it means to be human. To elevate anthropocentric social and political issues above our relation to our environment is dangerous. The truth is, I don’t particularly want readers to listen to ‘my’ individual voice. I do want them to listen to the multiple and often conflicting voices I present to them or conduct for them – which are of course inevitably mine too, but also, in a complex variety of ways, not mine; and I hope that those voices might help readers to listen to nature directly themselves, and perhaps lead towards less narrowly ‘individualistic’, less ‘anthropocentric’, interpretations of the natural world.

Like those long landscape poems made up of many voices, the poems in Edge are not lyric poems. They use a variety of voices to sing the miraculous — the nature of a reality which we are only beginning to understand. We sit, like the inhabitants of Plato’s cave, looking out through a tiny window at that reality. Our place in our own planet’s history is minuscule, yet our impact is enormous. Our hope lies in our consciousness of these matters, and in our ability to imagine — to ask questions and find solutions. Poetry and science share a common root in these endeavours. I hope that the poems in Edge might encourage readers to imagine; that they might offer a different perspective on nature — and indeed on ‘nature writing’; and that they might – as nature writing always has – sing the miracle and beauty of being alive and conscious in the Universe, here and now.


Chairing ‘Nature in Deep Time’ at ‘Nature Matters’ with archaeologists Prof Terry O’Connor (centre), Dr Suzi Richer (right) and Prof Paul Pettitt (out of shot).

You can find audio and / or audio-visual versions of some of the poem sequences from Edge, with Peter Zinovieff’s multi-channel music rendered for stereo, by clicking on these two links:



You can hear me perform different aspects of my work at a number of forthcoming events, including:

Launch: The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry

Saturday 16th November, 2pm, Scottish Poetry Library, Edinburgh

Although prose poetry is not my usual form, I have a poem — a lyric poem! — in this lovely collection, and will also give a short reading from Edge alongside other poets in the anthology, including editors Anne Caldwell and Oz Hardwick.


The Sun: Late

Wednesday 27th November, 7pm, Science and Industry Museum, Manchester

I’ll perform a full version of Sun with stereo music and flat screen visuals as part of this event.


Words Weekend – Poems from the Edge of Extinction with Chris McCabe

Sunday, 8th December, 11am, Sage Gateshead

I’ll perform Northumbrian dialect poetry as part of this event about poetry in endangered languages. Also reading are Peter McCarey in Scots and Chris McCabe in Scouse. 


An image from ‘Sun’ (credit: NASA SDO)

You can find my previously-unpublished poem Invisible Mending in this new, beautifully-illustrated anthology from Fly on the Wall Press, Planet in Peril, available HERE.





Berwick Literary Festival

Holy Trinity Parish Centre, Berwick-upon-Tweed

Sunday, October 20th, 2pm – 3pm, £6

Tickets HERE

I greatly look forward to my third visit to this fantastic Festival, following appearances in 2016 and 17 with fabulous Northumbrian piper Alice Robinson. Those performances concentrated on poems about the landscape and people of Northumberland and the Borders. Sunday’s performance will be very different. I’ll be launching my new Bloodaxe collection, Edge, which contains three poem sequences written for the Planetarium in Life Science Centre, Newcastle.

EGsar-bWsAEMJMZ(Photo by Explore Lifelong Learning, Newcastle) 

These poems take us from the micro quantum worlds underlying the whole Universe to the workings of the Sun, our local star, and the origins of life on this planet and perhaps on other moons of our solar system. The poems are based on conversations with research scientists, and are intended to translate their work to a wider public. They were written in collaboration with the distinguished computer pioneer and composer Peter Zinovieff, who wrote accompanying music based on space data. I’ll talk in Berwick about the process of writing them. My performance will be accompanied by stereo mixes of Peter’s music and by real space photographs. Coincidentally, Peter also wrote the libretto for Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s masterpiece, his opera The Mask of Orpheus, which is revived this week at ENO for the first time in over 30 years.

The scope of Edge, moving from the Big Bang to the origins of conscious life, is an attempt to open up questions  about the place of human life – so vanishingly tiny, so miraculously complex – in time and space. Time will also be the theme of the 11th Nature Matters symposium, at St Peter’s School, York, October 31st – November 3rd. On the Saturday morning I’ll chair a fascinating set of presentations called ‘Nature in Deep Time’, by Professor Terry O’Connor, Professor Paul Pettitt and Dr Suzi Richer. On the Friday evening, Halloween, I’m honoured to be performing some of my own work, in the company of poets and writers Zakiya McKenzie, Nicola Chester, Jeremy Mynott and Malcolm Green, alongside another of my heroes, the astonishing talented singer-songwriter Sam Lee. Here’s a poster for the event:Sam Lee and FriendsThat’s the great thing about having a new book out. It gets you out to meet readers and other poets and artists — and, if you’re lucky, to complete the circle of exchange, from the people and places who inspire you, back to that source. In the last three weeks I’ve read at the excellent Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival in Cornwall with acclaimed Irish poet John F. Deane, and at Durham Book Festival with Forward Prize winner Phoebe Power. I shared a residency with Phoebe for Durham Book Festival and the National Trust’s People’s Landscape project in East Durham. I’d really love to read the new poems from that residency in Easington Colliery and Horden, the places that inspired them.

I’ve also run my first poetry seminar for Explore Lifelong Learning in Newcastle, with a wonderfully warm and enthusiastic group of adult students. I found that session particularly rewarding, and hope to return early next year. The photograph at the top of this post, celebrating the launch of Edge, was taken there.


The poems in Edge mark a shift of emphasis in my work. But I have not moved away from writing about the North East of England. Some people understood the title of my last collection, Two Countries, as a reference to England and Scotland, but that was only partly true. Although, coincidentally, that book was published in the month of the 2014 Scottish independence vote, examining the nature of the Borderland was only a small part of its theme. I felt that it was more about other divisions, within England itself: between North and South, country and town or – still more acutely – between those London-dominated or University-educated voices which are represented in places of power and some of those voices which are not. I am of course University-educated myself; the complexity of all of this I hope informs the poems. However you interpret the ‘Two Countries’ of the title, I think that the divisions explored in that book have been borne out in the events of the last three years. The result of the Brexit referendum, I’d argue, are every bit as much about those internal divisions as they are about our relations to Europe.

Still more urgently, my recent commission on the Durham coast has brought home to me once again the tremendous environmental and social costs of our dependence on fossil fuels. I’ve always considered my place-based work, particularly that concentrating on the Northumberland fishing communities, to be about ‘ecology’ in the broadest sense. To me, the highly particular, ‘local’ work in my first two Bloodaxe collections is deeply linked to the universal principles which I explore in Edge.Shippersea Bay, Easington - photo K. PorteousShippersea Bay, Easington Colliery, Co Durham. (Photo K. Porteous)



September is one of my favourite months. Perhaps with an echo of distant schooldays, it feels like the beginning of something. On the Northumberland and Durham coast, swallows, house martins and large flocks of finches are on the move, preparing to migrate. The garden is overgrown, sweet and abundant.

I have a new book to celebrate: Edge  This one is quite different from my previous two collections from Bloodaxe. It’s not about landscape or the culture or history of North East England but about science — how astonishing it is, and how miraculous it is to be human.

‘Who’s it for’? my father asked of my last collection. The answer, for this one, as I hope for all my poetry, is that it’s for everyone.


Edge contains three poem sequences, Field, Sun and the title sequence, and they all deal, at different scales, with cosmology and astrophysics. All three pieces began as collaborations, commissioned for performance in Life Science Centre Planetarium, Newcastle between 2013 and 2016, with computer music by Peter Zinovieff. They take the reader from the micro quantum worlds underlying the whole universe, to the macro workings of our local star, the potential for primitive life elsewhere in the solar system on moons such as Enceladus, and finally to the development of complex consciousness on our own planet. As scientific inquiry reveals the beauty and poetry of the universe, Edge celebrates the astonishing local circumstances which enable us to begin to understand it.

How does Edge relate to my earlier work? I don’t think of it as being substantially different, although I expect others might disagree. I write about nature, place and time – often beyond the human scale. This work is an attempt to place our small planet, teeming with life, in the context of the physical processes of the universe as we understand them. I began knowing very little about science, and still know far, far less than I should. But I learnt through writing these poems, and from working with research scientists to try to ‘translate’ their findings to a wider audience. This has been a transformative experience, and I would love to take readers on a similar journey.

Please come and celebrate with me at one of these events:

Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival

Berwick Literary Festival

On another transformative theme, I’m also taking part in an event with award-winning poet Phoebe Power at Durham Book Festival on Saturday October 12th. This is part of a commission from Durham Book Festival and the National Trust to celebrate ‘The People’s Landscape’ of the Durham coast from Seaham to Crimdon. This was the coast I wrote about 20 years ago in Turning the Tide (published in Two Countries), a sequence about the massive millennium project to clean up millions of tons of colliery waste from the beaches. How have the landscape and people of Easington and Horden fared since? Whether you live there, like to walk there, or just love poetry, please join us for some new writing and lively discussion!

Durham Book Festival


‘The People’s Landscape’. Eden Dene mouth, Horden beach. Photo by Katrina Porteous 2019


Back in 2003-4, the brilliant BBC radio producer Julian May and I made a half-hour poem for BBC Radio 4 called Dunstanburgh Castle: a secret as old as the stones. I’ve always loved Dunstanburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast. It’s a ruin; not grand and inhabited like Bamburgh or Alnwick castle, but somehow in spring and summer – its cliffs populated by boisterous kittiwakes, its towers teeming with swallows and its acres of grassland blooming with wildflowers and moths – it is more alive than any human habitation. It is not accessible by road; you reach it by a half hour hike over fields or, from the north, across the sandy sweep of Embleton Bay. And it’s a mysterious place. A ruin on a high, black, basalt cliff, it stands alone, windswept, visible for miles around, the sea breaking at its foot. What is it doing there, so far from any settlement?

My idea was to write a history of the castle, human and natural. I wanted to write about it over the course of a year, tracing the seasonal changes in its wildlife and weather – things which would have been much the same when it was built in 1313. The idea was to summon ‘voices’ from its past, from the years when it offered shelter to local people from Scots raiders, or stood as an advertisement for the ‘good lordship’ of its creator, Thomas of Lancaster. It seems that Thomas built Dunstanburgh at least partly as visual propaganda – as an advertisement for his ability to provide justice and protection in a lawless country close to the Border, in rivalry to an ineffectual King. Surrounded by man-made ‘meres’, the castle referenced King Arthur’s Camelot – a subversive suggestion of entitlement to the throne within sight of the royal castle at Bamburgh.

Last month I revisited Dunstanburgh with another fantastic radio producer, Adam Fowler. Adam was making a programme called Fence Me In, in which he investigates how the acoustics of a space affect artists’ creativity. We talked about the varied spaces within and outside the ruin – from the imposing drum towers to tiny garderobes, to the 30-metre high basalt cliff on the castle’s north side – and about how I tried to evoke those spaces in the sound of words.

I wrote Dunstanburgh over the course of a year, during which I made many hours of audio recordings. Those recordings were often the starting-point for particular parts of the poem. Bursts of swallow-song in the drum towers gave rhythm and colour to one section. The pulse of seas breaking in a rocky inlet called the Egyncleugh punctuated another. Line-length, stanza form and rhythm were strongly shaped by the enclosed or open acoustics of spaces.

When Julian May and I recorded the poem on location, together with actor Trevor Fox, on a sleety February day in 2004, we tried to realise this mimesis by performing the poem in the actual spaces which had shaped it. So Trevor read the Egyncleugh section down among the rocks where the sea was breaking. It was reassuring to discover that the section I had written six months earlier still faithfully imitated the rhythm of the sea’s pulse. When I revisited the site with Adam Fowler more than 15 years later, that was still the case.

One thread that runs through the half hour poem is a chant, which alludes to the local folkloric story of Sir Guy the Seeker. Sir Guy arrives at the castle one stormy night, to be led down a staircase where he is shown the figure of a girl trapped inside a crystal. To release her, he must make a choice between a sword and a bugle. Sir Guy makes the wrong choice. I conflated this story with other folklore about the ghost of a child haunting the cliff, and wrote a chant which evokes the otherworldly, echoing sound of the city of kittiwakes on the ancient, shadowy basalt cliff beneath the castle. Julian May and I then recorded children from Seahouses First School reading that chant, and merged their voices with those of real kittiwakes recorded at the castle. The result both evokes that particular place in space and time, and paradoxically also gives a sense of timelessness.

I think of writing poetry as an act of listening. It can feel as if one is trying to translate an emotional resonance into actual physical sound architecture – as if one could turn an emotion into a place, something that could be revisited at any time. In the case of Dunstanburgh, I thought of it as a synaesthetic attempt to translate a place which spoke to all my senses into sound, both on the level of words, and as actual sound in the radio poem. Julian May and I worked together to weave the sounds I had collected over the year back into the recorded poem in the studio. You can hear the result as part of the eBook version of my Bloodaxe poetry collection, Two Countries, available HERE.

The full text of Dunstanburgh is published in Two Countries (Bloodaxe Books, 2014), available HERE.

Adam Fowler’s programme, Fence Me In, about the affects of the acoustics of a space on creativity, also features musicians Anna Clock and Ailbhe Nic Oireachtaigh, director Catherine Alexander of Complicité Theatre Company, and Chris Chafe of Stanford University. It is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday August 4th at 13.30, and afterwards on BBC Sounds. You can read about it — and listen after broadcast — HERE.

For news of my forthcoming poetry collection from Bloodaxe, Edge, published in October, please click HERE.

For Katrina Porteous and Alexis Bennett in Dartington Great Hall 2019, please click HERE.

To hear Sea, Sky, Stars, a recording developed from a performance with Alexis Bennett in Dartington Great Hall, 2018, please click HERE. Continue reading