The Poetry of Fishing

To everyone who has found their way here from my talk on February 24th for the Centre for Endangered Languages, Cultures and Ecosystems (CELCE, University of Leeds), to everyone who has come here via the 2021 FisherPoets Gathering (February 25th – 27th) – and to every other reader – a warm welcome!

The title of my talk for CELCE is ‘The Sea’s the Boss’, a quote from fisherman Charlie Douglas (1909-1995), who features in my poem ‘The Marks t’ Gan By’, and many other poems in The Lost Music (Bloodaxe Books, 1996). The talk is based on memories of a number of Northumbrian fishing families, particularly Charlie and the Douglases of Beadnell, Redford Armstrong (1919-2000) and his sister Cathy from Amble (both born in Newbiggin), and Bill Smailes of Craster (1920-2002). These people were my friends. I left the academic world in 1987 to live as a freelance writer in a Northumbrian fishing village, and all the people in my talk fully understood why I valued their way of life so highly and why I wanted to know so much. For the best part of a decade the rhythms of the fishing year were a way of life for me, too. It was never an academic study. I was closely involved with these families in a very practical way, taking turns to row the Douglas’s ‘townie’ (small boat) along the trouting nets, and helping to mend gear in their huts. My talk deals with the language spoken by their generation; how and why I have used it in my poetry; and above all why I believe that language and way of life encode important lessons for us all about sustainability.

Fisher Friends L-R: Charlie Douglas, Beadnell; Bill Smailes, Craster; Arthur, Cathy and Redford Armstrong, Amble; all c1990

I’m extremely grateful to Jon Lovett and Janet Watson at CELCE for making it possible for me to give this talk. It’s free and open to everyone, so please follow the Zoom link HERE on this page if you would like to join us live on Wednesday February 24th at 4pm (that’s 8am if you’re in the USA on PST). Of course, a short talk like this can only touch on points of interest. I still have much more work to do to write up the experiences of those precious years. In the meantime, for anyone interested in following up some of the themes of the talk, here are some further links.

For the Northumbrian Language generally, please see the two websites of the Northumbrian Language Society, HERE and HERE. The Society covers all forms of Northumbrian speech, from the rural dialects of Coquetdale and North Tyne to ‘Pitmatic’ and ‘Geordie’, and welcomes new members interested in preserving and using these local variations. Because of my long association with north Northumbrian coastal speech, I have the great honour of being their President.

For my own word-list gathered from fishing families from Holy Island to Amble 1990-96, please see Appendix 1 of Fishing and Folk by Bill Griffiths (Northumbria University Press, 2008), pp.217-246. Bill’s book contains an accessible yet scholarly account of the origins of some of the area’s coastal place names and words. His thesis suggests that the coastal language is broadly based on Anglo Saxon, but with a strong Scandinavian influence, perhaps indicating an ‘Anglo-Scandinavian’ culture with a large amount of intermingling. Bill was a polymath, scholar and poet, and Fishing and Folk, his final book, was the third in his ‘Wor Language’ trilogy.

Two different excerpts from my long poem in the fishing dialect, ‘The Wund an’ the Wetter’, accompanied by Chris Ormston on Northumbrian pipes, are available below on You Tube and HERE on the Northumbrian Language Society website. You can hear the whole poem via the audio of the eBook version of Two Countries (Bloodaxe Books, 2014). The full text appears in that book. The original IRON Press version, including a CD of a performance with Chris Ormston, is currently out of print, but may be available second hand in the usual places online.

I’ve often heard fishermen say that they find it difficult to make themselves heard by scientific advisers and policy-makers. I suspect that part of this difficulty might sometimes lie in the differences between the language used by the working community and those in policy-making positions. As a poet, involved primarily with the working community, but also coming into contact periodically with an academic audience, I have sometimes experienced something similar. It seems an important and rich exchange to try to communicate what is so very valuable in the experience of fishing families to a wider audience, in prose as well as poetry – hence my talk for CELCE, and the following earlier publications:

For more detail on the culture of fishing communities on the north Northumberland coast, including the fishermen’s visualization of the sea-floor, please see my paper Mapping the Human Landscape, for ENSUS, School of Marine Science and Technology, University of Newcastle 2005, reprinted in North East History, vol. 37, 2006, pp. 68-87.

For a general picture of life in a north Northumbrian fishing community in the late 19th to mid 20th centuries, please see my oral history, The Bonny Fisher Lad (The People’s History, 2003). Although it is now out of print, copies are usually available HERE second-hand.

For the argument about the long continuities within the Northumbrian fishing tradition – and the sustainability which this represents – please see my paper, co-authored with Dr Adrian Osler,Bednelfysch and Iseland Fish: continuity in the pre-industrial sea fishery of North Northumberland, 1300-1950‘, in Mariner’s Mirror, vol. 96, no. 1, 2010, pp. 11-25.

These days, there is not much fishing from my village – just a little potting for crabs and lobsters. The salmon fishing was finally banned in 2019, and the trouting ended with it. The last coble left the harbour over a year ago. But there is still a small active fishing community at Seahouses, and a larger one at Amble. It has been a pleasure in the last year to connect with a younger generation of the families I knew there 30 years ago, and to see the development of the Northumberland Seafood Centre and award-winning restaurants valuing sustainable locally-caught seafood. I still write poetry about fishing, too, including one about the complexities of Brexit and another about a rare encounter with a British female trawler skipper at North Shields, published in Tyne Anew, edited by Keith Armstrong and Peter Dixon, (Northern Voices Community Projects 2019). Most recently, the wonderful Mary Garvey, FisherPoet and singer from Washington state, USA, prompted me to write a new poem about Northumbrian herring lasses in the early 20th century for her forthcoming CD. More on that soon.

Above: Performing with some of the FisherPoets, Astoria, Oregon, 2014 (photo: Julian May)

One thing about fishing communities remains true: daily exposure to the sea leaves you forever aware that it’s Nature that is in control, not us. Fisher people the world over recognise one another in this knowledge. I feel especially privileged to be part of that worldwide community, and to be celebrating it again – this time via Zoom – with the FisherPoets, that fantastic brother-and-sisterhood of fishermen and women from the USA who gather every year in the Cannery town of Astoria on the Columbia River. Among them are the unforgettable Jon Broderick, Jay Speakman, Moe Bowstern, Dave Densmore, Rich King, and so many more — warmest greetings one and all! You can read and hear more about them if you follow the links from my previous blog posts, Sea Change and FisherPoets (see sidebar).

Oregon timing is not kind to a British audience, but do please join us if you can. Live performances from the FisherPoets Gathering are accessible via the links on their website. The Saturday 27th performances start at 6pm PST (2am UK time). The line-up for the final event with Holly Hughes as MC includes: Henry Hughes, Monmouth OR; Melanie Brown, Juneau AK; Maggie Bursch, Anchorage AK; Doug Rhodes, Craig AK; Katrina Peavy, Craig AK; Alana Kansaku-Sarmiento, Portland OR; Josh Wisniewski, Sitka AK; Gary Keister, Port Hadlock WA; Brad Warren, Seattle WA; Meghan Gervais, Homer AK; Joel Miller, Portland OR; Clem Starck, Dallas OR; Toby Sullivan, Kodiak AK; Katrina Porteous, Northumberland, England; Holly Hughes, Indianola WA.

It’s on Saturday Feb 27th starting at 8pm PST (4am Sunday 28th UK time), and you can live stream it HERE.

Sea Change

Wishing everyone who has found their way to this page all the very best for the New Year. Here are some poetry events to look forward to. Birds and the sea feature strongly…

Songs of Place and Time

Birdsong and the Dawn Chorus in Natural History and the Arts

Edited by Mike Collier, Bennett Hogg and John Strachan

This glorious book is a celebration of what it is to be alive and share our much more-than-human world with birds in their sheer exuberance of life at the dawn of the day. It includes photographs, essays, artwork and poems by 37 contemporary natural historians, writers, artists, poets, academics and musicians. I’m honoured that my work is represented here, by an essay and the script of my 2006 radio piece, ‘Late Blackbird’, which was based on unusually early memories of the acquisition of language. You can preview it here:

Hard copies will be available from Gaia Project Press, Manchester, in the spring.

The Sea’s the Boss

A talk by Katrina Porteous

Wednesday February 24th 4pm

Centre for Endangered Languages, Cultures and Ecosystems

University of Leeds

The language spoken by the Northumbrian ‘coble’ fishing community in the late 20th century contained clues to that community’s historical development and to its understanding of place and nature. In this talk, touching on the language of fishing practices and species caught, place names, navigation and visualisation of the seabed, taboo words and beliefs, I will argue that elements of this way of life remained little changed since medieval times, and that recent developments in fishing technology, reflected in its language, have profoundly altered the relation between people and place. With illustrations from my poems, I will show that an intrinsic understanding of ‘sustainability’ lay at the heart of the coble fishing way of life, and explore the human cost at which this was achieved.

Free online via Zoom. Please register in advance. Zoom link HERE

The Northumbrian Language Society

Still on the subject of language, the Northumbrian Language Society, of which I’m very honoured to be President, has a new website. It’s under development, but already contains lots of new information and links, including audio of speakers of the language from different parts of the county. Please click HERE.

The FisherPoets Gathering 2021

February 25th, 26th & 27th

A celebration of the commercial fishing industry in poetry, prose and song, the FisherPoets Gathering has attracted fisherpoets and their many fans to Astoria, Oregon USA for the last weekend of February since 1998. In 2014, I was lucky enough to travel to Astoria to take part in the Gathering, and to record a programme for BBC Radio 4, which you can still hear HERE.

This year, because of Covid, the Gathering will take place online. As a result, I’m thrilled to be able to join up with old friends once again to read a poem or two. The schedule is not yet decided, but look out for an event on one of these three nights. Please remember, UK time is 8 hours ahead of Oregon, so if the event begins at 8pm, that means 4am UK time – a proper hour for a fisherpoet!

Click HERE for more information.

Sea Change by Phoebe Power and Katrina Porteous, with Rose Ferraby

Guillemot Press Book Launch

Thursday April 22nd 7pm

‘Sea Change’ is the provisional title of this beautiful collection of work by Phoebe Power and Katrina Porteous, illustrated by Rose Ferraby, exploring the coast path of East Durham, a place in continual transition. Published by the wonderful Guillemot Press, the book also contains a new ‘conversation’ between Phoebe and Katrina, discussing what the project means to each of them.

In 2019, as part of the National Trust’s ‘People’s Landscape’ celebrations, New Writing North and Durham Book Festival invited writers to apply for a residency on Durham’s ‘radical coast’. This dramatic 11-mile coastal stretch from Seaham to Hartlepool, now designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, including rare Magnesian Limestone grasslands, wildflower meadows and ancient wooded denes, was once the site of several of Durham’s last deep coal mines. Notorious for its ‘black beaches’ and perhaps the worst-polluted landscape in Europe, in the late 1990s it underwent an immense transformation, with the removal of 1.3 million tonnes of colliery spoil in a multi-agency clean-up, ‘Turning the Tide’. That transformation is still underway, particularly within the coastal communities, some of England’s most economically-deprived, the ‘Billy Elliot’ country of the 1984-5 miners’ strike and subsequent pit closures. The two poets’ work responds to the commission’s invitation ‘to look beyond’ that recent history, and imagine future prospects for the area, within the context of its natural history…

Free online via Zoom.

Please register HERE in advance.

Poets of Christmas Past

Candlestick Press, producer of the delightfully illustrated ‘instead of a card’ series of poetry pamphlets,  are holding a free online festive event in partnership with the equally wonderful Five Leaves Bookshop, 7-9 pm on Saturday, December 5th.

Over 35 contemporary poets, including Fleur Adcock, Moniza Alvi, Alison Brackenbury, Nancy Campbell, Joolz Denby, Ian Duhig, Martin Figura, W.N. Herbert, Paula Meehan, Kim Moore, Helen Mort, Jacob Polley, George Szirtes and many others will be reading poems they have written specially for Candlestick’s Christmas collections in recent years. My own offering, ‘The Mizzletow’, refers to an old Northumbrian tradition and uses some local dialect. It appeared in last year’s pamphlet, Christmas Spirit’, available HERE for £4.95 + P&P.

The event is free, and promises to be ‘an enticing smorgasbord of poetry offering comfort and joy…and the occasional surprise!’

If you feel in need of some good cheer to brighten your Saturday night on December 5th, please join us and register:

You may have read recently about the acquisition by Pembroke College, Cambridge, of a ‘unique archive’ of unseen manuscripts by Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, and their friend, the expressionist painter Barrie Cooke, with whom they shared fishing expeditions.

I was incredibly fortunate to know Seamus Heaney in the early 1980s. I met him, first, at a poetry conference in California, where he stayed up late teaching his students to sing Irish folk ballads; then I studied with him one-to-one for a year at Harvard. I knew about his friendship with Hughes, but I didn’t know about the fishing connection. On returning from America to Northumberland I immersed myself in my own local village world of shellfish and salmon, unaware that, decades later, this current would carry me back to my poetic heroes.

This time last year I was lucky enough to take part in ‘Owned by Everyone’, a two-day international conference about ‘the plight, poetry and science of the salmon’, hosted by Pembroke College in partnership with Cambridge Conservation Initiative. My paper at that conference, entitled ‘Naen Skyells’, explored the salmon netting tradition on the Northumberland coast. It is about to be published online in a new magazine, ‘Wild Fish’, produced by the Owned by Everyone team in partnership with Salmon and Trout Conservation. When ‘Wild Fish’ magazine is published, a link will appear HERE.

There will be no human handling of wild fish in that publication, but here is an image from an earlier time:

John Percy Douglas with a mighty Beadnell salmon, 1930s

Some other good things hover on the horizon for the New Year. ‘Under the Ice’, my Antarctic ice science collaboration with composer Peter Zinovieff for NUSTEM, is due for an online premier in the first half of the year – details to be announced. Keep an eye on this blog and on the NUSTEM pages.

The Amble ‘Bord Waalk’ (Bird Walk) is also due to be launched in the spring, and will include an App with a series of six short podcasts of new poetry (by me) and soundscape (by Geoff Sample). You can hear more about it in this recent edition of BBC Radio 4’s Open Country. Listen HERE.

In April, the excellent Guillemot Press are publishing a collection of the poems which Phoebe Power and I wrote for the National Trust’s People’s Landscape project on the Durham Coast. The book is themed around regeneration and will include a new conversation between Phoebe and me, discussing our separate approaches to the project and to wider considerations of the environment. I have a particular attachment to the Durham coast, as my grandfather on my mother’s side was an East Durham pitman. With artwork by the fabulous Rose Ferraby, exploring the local geology and strange oxide and sulphate residues of mining, it will be a thing of beauty. Look out for it HERE.

How many Guillemot Press poets can you name?

Meanwhile, for anyone interested in the poetry of science, you can hear me discuss my latest Bloodaxe collection Edge with Robin Houghton in a new interview on the Planet Poetry Podcast, episode 3: ‘Close-Up’, also featuring Sarah Salway. Listen HERE.

I was delighted to have the chance to talk with Robin. She asked me about exploring things much too small and too large to see, and to read several poems from the book. Our discussion lasts 20 minutes or so.

An earlier interview about Edge was broadcast on Radio 4’s Front Row in November last year. That programme is still available on BBC Sounds, with a performance excerpt at the beginning and the interview from 18.08. You can listen to it HERE.

A wonderful new review of Edge by applied mathematician and poet Marian Christie appeared in November’s Amethyst Review. You can read that HERE.

Other reviews may be found by clicking on the following links:

The High Window

READ (Research in English at Durham)

The North

The Guardian

Finally, if you’re thinking of adding a science poetry book to your Christmas shopping list — thank you! Edge is available HERE.

Thank you for reading. Please stay safe, and keep others safe too, in the run-up to Christmas and beyond.

Radio

BBC Radio 4 Open Country – Amble Bord Waalk

Thursday October 29, 3pm

Saturday October 31, 6.07am

Afterwards HERE on BBC Sounds

Amble lies at the mouth of the River Coquet on the Northumberland coast. Today it’s a lively port with a harbour village, a lobster hatchery, sandy beaches and boat trips to Coquet Island, where the UK’s only colony of roseate terns is protected by the RSPB. In the last 30 years the town has seen a transformation from its coal mining past. I’ve written in an earlier post, ‘The Bird Roads’, about the latest project, the ‘Bord Waalk’ sculpture trail, for which wildlife sound recordist Geoff Sample and I are creating a series of audio downloads for a phone app. I was interviewed about this for the next edition of BBC Radio 4’s Open Country, produced by Sarah Blunt. The programme also includes archaeologist Clive Waddington discussing the 7,000 year old human footprints discovered in peat on the shore at Low Hauxley, RSPB Warden Paul Morrison, Amble lobster hatchery manager Andrew Gooding, and Frances Anderson, one of the artists creating a sculpture for the trail, who is inspired by starling murmurations on nearby reedbeds.

Presenter: Helen Mark. Producer: Sarah Blunt.

Open Country is a great series, and I’ve taken part in a number of programmes in the past. You can still hear one from 2010 at Dunstanburgh Castle with Matt Baker (below). Listen HERE.

I took part in one with Helen Mark at Tuggal Mill in 2017. Listen HERE.

Also available on BBC Sounds – but only until November 2nd – is my 2004 radio-poem about Dunstanburgh Castle, produced by Julian May and selected by Daljit Nagra for Poetry Extra. Listen HERE until November 2nd.

You can hear me talk about Dunstanburgh Castle’s acoustic properties in Adam Fowler’s 2018 Radio 4 documentary Fence me In. Listen HERE.

Finally, here’s a documentary I made for Radio 4 in 2014 about the wonderful American poet William Stafford, also produced by Julian May. Listen HERE.

If you enjoy audio poetry, please don’t forget that the eBook of my Bloodaxe collection Two Countries includes recordings of many of my landscape poems. Dunstanburgh is among them. It’s available HERE:

My first Bloodaxe collection, The Lost Music, and my most recent one, Edge, are available HERE.

FisherPoets

ALASKA WORLD ARTS FESTIVAL – VIRTUAL EVENT

Saturday September 19th, 7pm Alaska time

(Sunday September 20th, 4am UK time!)

FisherPoets
FisherPoets is a creative celebration of the commercial fishing industry in poetry, prose, storytelling and song. FisherPoets from the US coasts east and west to Alaska include Jon Broderick, Jay Speakman, John van Amerongen, Jon Campbell, Katrina Porteous, Geno Leech, Meghan Gervais, Steve Schoonmaker, Meezie Hermansen, Clark Whitney, Pat Dixon, and Mary Garvey. Join these artists from the annual FisherPoets Gathering in Astoria, Oregon, some of whom have attracted the enthusiastic attention of national and international media.
WHERE IS THIS EVENT?  YOU’LL RECEIVE LOGIN INFO BY EMAIL AFTER YOU’RE REGISTERED.
$10 / Free with All-Festival Art Pass

Register HERE

The FisherPoets began in 1998 with a small gathering of far-flung friends, all fishermen and women, meeting in a pub in the former cannery town of Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River, to share their poetry and songs. This get-together became an annual event, organised every February, when the fishing is quiet, by fishermen Jon Broderick and his friend Jay Speakman and others. It’s attended by fisher poets from all over America – Florida, Maine, Chesapeake Bay and Alaska. Hundreds listen: there are sessions in bars and readings all over town, workshops, exhibitions, and the community radio station broadcasts proceedings live. Occasionally, some of the fisher poets get together at other times to perform. This event, part of the Alaska World Arts Festival, based in Homer, Alaska, is such an occasion.

At the trouting nets with Jack Douglas, c.1995

A few years ago, in 2014, I had the privilege of taking part in the FisherPoets’ Gathering. This was made possible by BBC Radio 4, for whom I presented a documentary covering the event, produced by Julian May. I heard astonishing work: from Dave Densmore, on his boat Cold Stream; from Moe Bowstern, an extraordinarily prolific writer about the lives of fisher women; from Richard King who fishes in Alaska, and farms in Hawaii; and from Lloyd Montgomery, an Aleut fisher poet. Wherever they were from, I found, fisher poets share concerns over sustainability – of fish stocks, of their communities, and of their way of life. You can still hear my documentary HERE.

With fisherman Dave Densmore, Astoria, Oregon 2014

Now, due to the strange conditions of 2020, I have an opportunity to catch up with the FisherPoets and to perform with them again – this time as part of a virtual event. The 7pm start is Alaska time, so it’s an unsociably early hour (or a late one!) if you live in the UK. Still, fishermen are used to getting up at 4am. The event will last up to 2 hours.

If you’re wondering about my credentials as a FisherPoet, here’s my background. I live in a fishing village in Northumberland and have written about local fishing traditions since 1990. Throughout the early 1990s, I was very closely involved in the community’s working life, going off to the potting with Charlie Douglas aboard his coble in his last year, taking turns to row the Douglas’s trouting boat, and working with gear in their huts, ‘putting on’ nets and mending creeves. I haven’t done much hands-on fishing for a long time now, but I’m still closely involved in what remains of our fishing year.

Charlie Douglas and I preparing salmon nets, 1993

Sad to say, 2019 was the first year salmon fishing was banned altogether on this coast, and this year, 2020, boats have not fished for sea trout either in our bay. The reasons are complicated: declining salmon stocks have led to ever-greater restrictions imposed by the government’s Environment Agency, while the Atlantic Salmon Trust has bought out most of the remaining netting licences. I gave a talk about this to an international conference, ‘Owned by Everyone: the plight, poetry and science of the salmon’ in Cambridge last December. The proceedings of that gathering are due to be published later this year, and you can read more about that HERE. The conference focused on the poetry of Ted Hughes, who I think would have had sympathy for the traditional netsmen’s plight. I very much wished that some of my fellow FisherPoets could have been there.

One of the things that fascinated me about the FisherPoets’ tradition was the number of female fishers on the West Coast of the USA. I haven’t come across many British female fishers, but I did meet one inspirational woman skipper volunteering for the North Shields Fishermen’s Heritage Project last year. Here’s a recent song-lyric, Low Light, loosely based on what she told me. It’s published alongside a photo of Ray Lonsdale’s memorial to fishermen lost at sea, ‘Fiddler’s Green’, in the book Tyne Anew: celebrating public art in North Tyneside (Northern Voices Community Projects).

At the Alaska World Arts Festival event, I’ll read a poem from The Lost Music, and probably one from Two Countries, too. They’re available HERE. Do join the FisherPoets if you can for a life-affirming and truly international event of fishing-related poetry and song on the night of September 19th (or morning of Sunday September 20th!).

The Bird Roads 

What do birds mean to you? Do they matter? How would you feel if they disappeared? Some years ago I was lucky enough to lead some ‘nature writing’ workshops with the naturalist Mark Cocker, author of the magnificent ‘Birds and People’. Mark helped me to understand how deeply birds are enmeshed in our cultural and emotional lives, in the very language and metaphors we use to explain ourselves. In particular, we use their flight as an image for some of the most elusive things we wish to express, the movement of the mind, spirit or imagination. Some of us still use them in a more practical sense, too, as calendars, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the first swallow in April or, here on the Northumberland coast, marking the beginning of autumn with the departure of the Arctic terns (in my sketch below).

KP 21

Birds have been important to me throughout my life. I’ve written and spoken elsewhere about what the song of the blackbird has meant to me, from my earliest memory of lying in my pram before I could talk. The patterning of sound in those short phrases of blackbird song or in a skylark’s lengthy improvisations is fascinating to a poet. The brevity of an individual bird’s song, and the fragility of its life, contrast with the apparent timelessness and ubiquity of that song. Countless folk songs and poems, from Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ to the spellbinding work of folk singer and conservationist Sam Lee, capture a shared emotional response to sounds still just about familiar to most of us.

On the coast where I live birds are culturally meaningful in other ways. Fishermen I knew who were born before World War One used certain birds as weather ‘signs’. It was as if the birds’ sensitivity to atmospheric conditions gave them ‘knowledge’ of the future. The fishermen’s bird lore reminded me of how, in ancient cultures, birds were used for divine augury. For many of us, birds still carry a sense of mystery. Where do the migrant species go? How do they know when it is time to leave and how do they navigate over such vast distances? Birds shrink the planet for us, and seem to possess an insight that we do not. No wonder people in so many cultures have thought of birds as ‘go betweens’, messengers from elsewhere.

Below: sand martins nest in burrows above a 7,000 year old layer of peat at Hauxley.

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In my lifetime, scientists have made vast progress investigating many bird species’ behaviour. Geolocators fitted to an Arctic Tern from the National Trust’s Farne Islands reserve recently recorded that the distance of its annual migration to and from Antarctica was the equivalent of twice around the circumference of the globe in one year. Even tiny birds like the goldcrest – five grams of feathers, a vivid eye and a rapid heartbeat – travel vast distances. Why? For how long have they done this? Instinct, now backed by science, suggests that birds are much older than the human species. Their lineage is Mesozoic, their evolution from a group of dinosaurs (theropods) evident from the fossil record, with clues visible from close observation: just look at their skeletons, their scaly feet. Perhaps we sense in their long evolution some clue to survival.

At the same time, we have become increasingly aware of the declining numbers of many species and the pressure of human activity on their lives. Where are all the urban house sparrows? The ‘peewits’ (lapwings) I remember from my childhood have almost disappeared from the fields. Meanwhile, other species, like grey herons, have proliferated on this coast. Certain charismatic species, such as the puffins, eider ducks and roseate terns which breed on the RSPB sanctuary of Coquet Island, are better protected than they ever were. Old industrial workings have been reclaimed and now flourish as nature reserves, as at the old Hauxley colliery site, reborn as the wonderful Hauxley Wildlife Discovery Centre.

 

These changes will be on my mind this autumn, as I write new poems for ‘The Bird Roads’, an audio collaboration with wildlife sound recordist Geoff Sample. Our collaboration will be part of ‘Amble Bord Waalk’ (Bird Walk), a project commissioned by Amble Development Trust, to develop ‘a bird-themed sculpture trail of national significance’, with physical and virtual-reality models, from Druridge Bay to Warkworth, aligned with the new England Coast Path. My poems will draw on my own observations along the walk, Geoff’s field recordings from the sites, fragments of local speech and comments, and observations by the sculptors on their artworks. Our six short audio pieces will be realised through an app which will accompany the Walk, and our intention is to lead listeners into connecting more deeply with the landscape and its wildlife.

The ‘Bord Waalk’ is partly aimed at creating jobs in tourism, as part of Amble’s very successful regeneration. I want my poems to be as much for local people as for visitors. Amble holds a special place in my affections. Thirty years ago I spent two weeks as ‘poet in residence’ in a number of Amble schools, including Edwin Street First School and what is now James Calvert Spence College. That was my first ever ‘residency’, and I shared it with a more experienced writer, Peter Mortimer, author of ‘Last of the Hunters’. My aim was to get the children writing their own poems, and for inspiration I took them to the harbour, to talk to retired members of the fishing community (see the picture below). The friendships I made at that time were the start of a relationship with the town and its fishing families which has shaped my work for three decades.

The journey begins - Katrina's notebook and photos from Amble 1990

You can find my poems from that time in my first Bloodaxe collection, ‘The Lost Music’ and later Amble poems in ‘Two Countries’. Lines from my poem ‘The Sea Inside’ are carved into two roundels in the pavement of Amble Town Square (below):

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Now the Amble ‘Bord Waalk’ brings me back to this lovely part of the coast. The birds we live alongside, whose calls accompany us, are a window into our wider relationship with our environment. They are indeed ‘go betweens’. I hope that the new Amble sculpture trail will make everyone, not only visitors, reflect on the importance of birds in particular, and of biodiversity in general. These things are immensely important in themselves, and we must do everything we can to protect them, whether that means reducing plastic waste or carbon dioxide emissions, energy or water use, or understanding more about our impact on climate change. They are also important to our sense of who we are. Perhaps the Ancients were right, and birds are auguries of our future. They are so enmeshed in our cultural lives that, as we lose our biodiversity, we also lose part of ourselves. By encouraging the interpretation of place through its bird life, I hope that the Amble ‘Bird Waalk’ will remind us all of this vital connection.

The Amble ‘Bord Waalk’ is funded by the Coastal Communities Fund, and will be unveiled in Spring 2021.

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Memorial

Memorials, and especially statues, are a highly sensitive subject. Who should we memorialise and why? How should they be remembered? Historic England has long been concerned with these questions. Two years ago, in 2018, they held an exhibition on the subject in Lambeth, called ‘Immortalised’. As part of this, they held a Design Competition to ask: What does the future of memorialisation look like? They invited artists, architects and designers from across the country to suggest a memorial that they felt was currently missing. From these proposals they selected ten designs and the artists were asked to develop their concept for display in the exhibition. I was incredibly honoured that my design for an audio memorial to the women and men of the Northumbrian fishing community was one of those chosen.

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Other winners included two strikingly imaginative responses to controversial existing memorials. I was moved by each of these. Each seemed an intelligent way of challenging and subverting past orthodoxies, without obliterating them altogether. The first, ‘Contextualising Colston’ by MSMR Architects, responded to Bristol’s contentious statue of Edward Colston, which was dumped in the river earlier this month by protesters. It placed Colston on board the outline of a ship, in which the source of much of his wealth – enslaved African people – were represented, each as the outline of an individual with dignity. In this open, contemplative space, Colston’s problematic philanthropy was acknowledged in its true historical context.

The second, ‘A Long Shadow Over London’ by Studio MASH, gave General Robert Clive’s statue in Whitehall a ‘shadow’, etched into paving material, that contains details of the contested history of his involvement in India, representing the suffering of Bengali people during his leadership of the East India Company. In each of these designs, a contentious historical figure was opened up to debate, rather than closing down discussion by obliterating their memory. You can find out more about these memorial designs HERE.

My own prize-winning design was far less controversial. ‘The Long Line’, a five minute audio collaboration with Peter Zinovieff, commemorates the traditional coble fishing communities of the Northumberland coast. It includes archive recordings of women and men involved in fishing, and a Northumbrian song sung by retired fisherman John Dixon. Peter’s electronic soundtrack derives instrumental sounds from John’s singing.

I hope that our piece creates a different kind of memorial, made not of bronze to aggrandize a single individual but from many local voices, women’s as much as men’s, to remember a whole community of inshore fisher people who contributed so much to this country, but who have been largely forgotten. I hope that it raises important questions about sustainability, industrialisation and our relation to the natural environment. Long line fishing involved an intimate, sustainable relation to nature, but came at a terrible cost, especially to women, whose unpaid job it was to bait 1,400 hooks a day. The first engines, introduced into sailing cobles in 1918, marked the beginning of mechanisation, which eventually freed women, but which also had wider, ultimately unsustainable, consequences.

You can hear ‘The Long Line’ HERE.

Kate Douglas Baiting lines, Beadnell

Women’s unpaid work: Kate Douglas baiting a Long Line,

Beadnell, Northumberland, c1910

This year, I’m working again with Peter Zinovieff, on a very different project. We are creating a second piece with NUSTEM and Northumbria University research scientists, this time on the STFC-funded ‘Exploring Extreme Environments’ project.  Our new poetry and music collaboration explores Antarctic Ice Science. You can hear me read a short poem, ‘Invisible Mending’, as part of Fly On the Wall’s Planet In Peril publication, HERE.

This poem was inspired by research by Dr Kate Winter, Baillet Latour Antarctic Fellow at Northumbria University. Kate is investigating iron-rich sediments, carried by glaciers from inland areas of the Antarctic to the Southern Ocean, which are thought to encourage the growth of microscopic phytoplankton, which help to reduce Carbon Dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere.

My poems from three of my previous audio collaborations with Peter Zinovieff are published in ‘Edge’, available from Bloodaxe Books. You can read reviews of this book if you click on the following links:

The High Window, Summer 2020

Research in English at Durham

The Guardian

A You Tube version of ‘Sun’, my earlier collaboration with Peter Zinovieff, NUSTEM and Northumbria University research scientists, is available HERE.

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.’

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‘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.

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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.

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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’.

Glossary

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.

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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.

Ice

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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

EVENTS

 

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

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

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

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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