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).

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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

 

 

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.

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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’.

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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.

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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:

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Edge

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. 

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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)

 

Edge

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.

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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

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