I’ll be reading from ‘Sea Change’ and other poems from the Durham coast with Phoebe Power at the Charles Causley Festival online on Saturday 24th July 4.15-5.15pm.
I’ve always admired Causley’s work and was so excited that one of my first poetry readings on BBC radio, in 1998, was supposed to be an edition of ‘Fine Lines’ with him – sea poems from Cornwall and Northumberland. Sadly, Causley had to withdraw for health reasons. We had a couple of long, memorable telephone conversations about poetry, fishermen, school children and the sea. For this online event at the festival in his name, nearly 25 years later, Phoebe and I were asked to film our readings in advance. I took the opportunity to record mine at Easington and Horden on the Durham coast on the coldest June day for years. Tune in to hear me struggle against a North-easterly gale. I recorded most of the poems inside the Easington pit cage monument, to escape the blast. This event is free and we’ll appear live online to answer questions.
If you’d like to hear more about the Durham Coast and ‘Sea Change’, Phoebe Power, illustrator Rose Ferraby and I feature on the July 15th / 17th edition of ‘Open Country’ on BBC Radio 4, ‘Time and the Tides’, produced by the brilliant Sarah Blunt. It’s available HERE in perpetuity.
Singer-songwriter Sean Cooney chose our programme for ‘Pick of the Week’ on Radio 4 on Sunday 18th July. It’s available HERE until August 15th and our section starts at 27 mins 20 secs.
If you’d like to know more about my poetry, including my work on the Northumberland coast where I live, and my science poems, written for a musical collaboration with my much-missed friend, the composer, the late Peter Zinovieff, I talk about it for the Poesie App HERE.
Much of my work over the last three decades has focused on an area of the coast 50 miles north of the Durham area – north Northumberland, where I live. During the 1990s I was extremely fortunate to spend a great deal of time with some of the last of the traditional coble fishing community, whose culture and way of life stretched from Berwick on Tweed to the Humber. The fisher people I knew in the villages of north and central Northumberland spoke a very distinct language, rooted in Anglo Saxon. I talk about this in an edition of The Verb on BBC Radio 3, broadcast on July 9th. The programme is hosted by Ian McMillan and also features Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’, and linguist Dr Diane Nelson of Leeds University. It’s available HERE until 7th August.
The full version of the poem I read in this programme, ‘The Wund an’ the Wetter’, is published by Bloodaxe Books in ‘Two Countries’ . They also publish my other fishing poems in ‘The Lost Music’. Audio for ‘The Wund an’ the Wetter’ is available as part of the eBook edition of ‘Two Countries’. Copies of the original book and CD, with Northumbrian pipe music by Chris Ormston, are still available from IRON Press HERE.
My work on the culture and language of the Northumberland coble fishing community, and how this relates to a sustainable ecosystem, features in more detail in my recent talk for Leeds University Centre for Endangered Languages, Cultures and Ecosystems.
The coble fishermen from Berwick to the Humber fished in their youth as their grandfathers had – a way of life which had been sustainable over many centuries. The 21st century has much to learn from such traditional ways of life, and I’m keen that my poetry should help to encourage this idea. The Community Interest Company Food and Drink North East and GRUB Productions have produced this beautiful short film to promote the NE fishing tradition and sustainable fisheries, using my poem ‘Plenty Lang a Winter’ from ‘Two Countries’ (Bloodaxe Books 2014).
I am so very sorry to confirm news of the death of friend and collaborator Peter Zinovieff, composer, inventor, librettist, geologist, computer scientist and profoundly inspirational man. My heart goes out to his wife Jenny and to every one of his family and friends.
Over the last eleven years, Peter has enjoyed a fantastic late summer of creativity, made possible by Jenny. It has been the greatest honour to have been one of the artists to have worked with him. For those who have found their way to this post wanting to know more about Peter’s work, please check out his brilliant collaborations withLucy Railton and Aisha Orazbayeva. Peter and I made five multichannel pieces, Horse (2011), Edge (2013), Field (2015), Sun (2016) and Under the Ice (2021), together with The Long Line (2018), a small installation for computer and voice. We were always so eager to start the next project that little of this has made it onto the web. I do have Peter’s own stereo reductions of our pieces, and will try to make more available over the coming weeks.
Reflecting on how ahead of his time Peter was, a reader has written in The Guardiancomments: ‘Hardly anyone today is thinking about practical links between music, metaphor, computing, and semantics in the ways he did.’ I completely agree. Music, metaphor, semantics, computing – andgeology. All of them sparking off each other in Peter’s work, from his early experiments in A.I. to The Mask of Orpheusto the work of his last ten years. What a mind. And how lightly he carried it. He had the imagination of a poet with the incisiveness of a scientist, and was endlessly generous in sharing those gifts with others. He inspired so many of us with his marvellous gift for life, and was simply so much fun to be around.
Beneath Antarctica’s frozen surface lie vast mountains, valleys, lakes and volcanoes, landscapes more difficult to visit than outer space. ‘Under the Ice’, my new 30-minute poetry performance with electronic music by Peter Zinovieff, is a collaboration between poet, composer and scientists from Northumbria University’s Cold and Palaeo-Environments team, which takes the listener on a journey to this unseen world.
Intended for the non-scientist, ‘Under the Ice’ explores the science team’s cutting-edge research: the ‘remote sensing’ techniques used to investigate this secret landscape and to discern the movement of glaciers – in particular Pine Island Glacier and Thwaites Glacier, crucial to the understanding of climate change.
Scientists studying glaciers observe Earth’s smallest and largest phenomena: microscopic clues in the bedrock provide evidence of the glacier’s advance and retreat over vast timescales; air bubbles in ice cores reveal the composition of the atmosphere over hundreds of thousands of years; radar and satellite data supply information about the dynamics of the glacier and the ice sheet which feeds it.
What You Will Hear
For those interested in the science or in the structure of ‘Under the Ice’, here’s a little more detail from the poet’s perspective. (Please forgive any mistakes — they are all mine!). Our piece is in six sections. Part 1, ‘Slip’, is music only. Part 2, ‘Crack’, begins with an overview of Antarctica, the processes by which its ice sheets ‘endlessly replenish’ themselves, and the hidden, ‘inaccessible underworld’ of the continent’s bedrock. The poem goes on to explore the nature and role of ice on Earth, and the role of Thwaites Glacier in particular as a precarious buttress to Antarctica’s Western ice shelf. This section ends by imagining Antarctica without its ice – a state which has existed in geological time but not (yet) on a human time scale. Sediment cores taken from the seabed near Pine Island glacier shows us that 90 million years ago the vast continent was ice-free and forested. Catastrophic climate change has happened many times in geological history. Scientists studying Antarctica’s ice sheets are trying to understand more about the processes involved. This rocky world, for so long hidden beneath ice sheets, can now be mapped and ‘made visible’ by means of remote sensing techniques.
Part 3, ‘Float’, introduces a number of those techniques. They include satellite imaging such as LANDSAT, aerial mapping by drone, ‘LIDAR’ (light imaging and ranging), and ice-penetrating radar used to map the bedrock. A ‘fifth eye’, the human one, interprets the information gathered by these methods.
Part 4, ‘Crunch’, begins with lines about Beryllium-10, a Cosmogenic Nuclide used in dating techniques to determine the rate of the ice sheet’s thinning and recession. Beryllium-10 forms as a result of bombardment of the rock’s surface by cosmic rays which originate from high-energy supernova explosions. It is used to measure the age of moraines and glacially-eroded bedrock surfaces, and the extent of past ice sheet cover. The poem then moves on to a section about the interaction of glacier and bedrock, called ‘Basal Shear’. Glaciers flow downhill in response to their driving stresses, which arise from the weight of the ice and gravity. ‘Strain’ is the deformation of glacial ice in response to this stress. Basal Shear is the stress which causes the ice to deform and the glacier to flow. Basal shear stress varies across the glacier bed because glaciers flow over highly uneven, variable surfaces.
This section ends with a short verse called ‘Invisible Mending’. This is a response to research by Dr Kate Winter, Baillet Latour Antarctic Fellow at Northumbria University, who was based at Princess Elisabeth Research Station in December 2018 and 2019. Kate’s research centres on 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. These help to reduce Carbon Dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. As ice sheets thin in response to climate change, sediment delivery and production could increase. It is really uplifting to hear this positive story amid so much bad news about the climate.
Part 5, ‘Fall’, begins with a poem about ice cores. Deep 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. According to the British Antarctic Survey, these ice cores show that atmospheric CO2 levels are 40% higher than before the Industrial Revolution, and that the magnitude and rate of this increase is almost certainly unprecedented over 800,000 years.
This section of the poem moves on to reflect on wave-forms on vastly different scales, from the immense planetary ‘waves’ of glaciation, to the tiny radio waves which humans use to penetrate the ice and map its bedrock. It is only in the intermission between geological waves of glaciation that conscious life has been able to develop on Earth. A section about the interpretation of data and the algorithms used in Numerical Ice Sheet Modelling is followed by a final reflection on planetary forces, such as atmospheric and oceanic currents which connect the smallest and largest phenomena. Warm ocean currents ‘hauled south’ undercut Thwaites Glacier, weakening it, with potentially disastrous consequences for the Western ice sheet. The closing lines of the poem return to remote sensing and information-gathering techniques, reflecting again in awe and wonder that human consciousness is able to gather and interpret this information. Where ice is ‘ubiquitous’ in the Universe, the ability to understand it seems vanishingly rare – possibly unique.
The final section of our piece, Part 6, ‘Melt’, is music only. Here’s a screenshot of Peter’s music for ‘Under the Ice’:
Music for ‘Under the Ice’
Peter Zinovieff’s music for ‘Under the Ice’ is intended for multi-channel live performance. Covid has postponed that possibility. In our Zoom webinar premiere, kindly hosted by the Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere, I will perform live to a stereo reduction of Peter’s music; so what you will hear will be a very different version of our piece. ‘Under the Ice’ was written during lockdown in 2020-2021, and all our collaborative work has been done remotely. While it could not be foreseen that its creation and premiere would be entirely remote and machine-mediated, it seems oddly fitting. The science, after all, focuses on ‘remote-sensing’ techniques in an inhuman environment. Everything about this piece is ‘remote’.
Neither Peter nor I has ever been to Antarctica, but Peter’s music for ‘Under the Ice’ is all derived from real sounds sampled from Antarctic glaciers by those who have. These include Kate Winter’s own recordings, as well as samples kindly contributed by sound artist Chris Watson and by Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow, Philip Samartzis (RMIT University, Melbourne). Many thanks to all three for their contributions.
‘Under the Ice’ is the 5th live performance piece Peter and I have made together. Our previous pieces include ‘Horse’, ‘Edge’, ‘Field’ and ‘Sun’, the last three written for Life Science Centre planetarium, Newcastle. We also made ‘The Long Line’, an installation with fisherman and singer John Dixon and other members of the Northumbrian fishing community, for Historic England’s ‘Immortalised’ exhibition in 2018.
My performance on 23rd will be accompanied by a selection of satellite and aerial images of Antarctica, which I have compiled with support from NUSTEM. These images are courtesy of NASA, ESA (ISS), EUMETSAT, Imagens CBERS-4 / DSR-OBT-INPE.
‘Under the Ice’ premieres on 23rd June, 7.30pm, as part of an online event hosted by the Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere. The event also includes an ‘open mic’ on the theme of science. Tickets are £5, with five free tickets available to those experiencing financial hardship.Please click HERE to book.
Science, Imagination and Poetry
A panel discussion for York Festival of Ideas.
How can science, poetry and imagination combine to enrich each community’s ideas?
Expert speakers include poet-priest Malcolm Guite; violinist and composer Anna Phoebe; poet and historian Katrina Porteous; and internationally-recognised expert in interdisciplinary studies, Sam Illingworth of Edinburgh Napier University. The event is chaired by Tom McLeish, a physicist, interdisciplinary leader and writer from the University of York.
Very many thanks to the Society of Authors and to committee members Moniza Alvi, Drew Milne, Grace Nichols and Deryn Rees-Jones, for selecting me, in the illustrious company of Susan Wicks, Paula Claire, Maurice Riordan and Kei Miller, for one of this year’s Cholmondeley Awards.
This year has been such a tough one for everyone. Just getting through can sometimes mean losing sight of the creative life so essential to wellbeing. My feelings about being shortlisted at this particular moment are therefore especially acute.
I’m joyous because this award is completely unexpected. I’m always honoured when anyone takes the time to read my work. The fact that this recognition comes from other poets is especially important. Some of my poetry is intended for the local community that inspires it; some (like ‘Under the Ice’) to ‘translate’ the work of a science community to a non-scientific audience; some to conjure the ‘voices’ of a place to a radio audience, perhaps washing dishes or driving down the motorway. I studied History, not English Literature, at university, and since then I’ve mostly remained outside a ‘literary’ or academic setting. So this endorsement is a tremendous boost to confidence.
I’m simultaneously reflective because, as poets, we share a responsibility. Many things we once took for granted now feel uncertain: the quest for truth, for example; our delicate relations with one another; our precious, precarious ecology and place on Earth. This award from the Society of Authors strengthens my resolve to meet those responsibilities with every tool in a poet’s shed, as part of an invisible community. Thank you!
What would we have done in the last year without Zoom? I’m indebted to the platform for making possible the following live and recorded events.
Upcoming Live Events
York Festival of Ideas
Science, Imagination and Poetry
Monday 14th June 2021, 1pm to 2.15pm BST
Free admission, booking required
How can science, poetry and imagination combine to enrich each community’s ideas?
Expert speakers include poet-priest Malcolm Guite; violinist and composer Anna Phoebe; poet Katrina Porteous; and internationally-recognised expert in interdisciplinary studies, Sam Illingworth of Edinburgh Napier University.
The event is chaired by Tom McLeish, a physicist, interdisciplinary leader and writer from the University of York.
Wordsworth Grasmere: An Evening with Katrina Porteous
Online poetry event
Wed, 23rd June 2021
19:30 – 21:00 BST
Featuring the World Premiere of ‘Under the Ice’
‘Under the Ice’, poetry by Katrina Porteous and electronic music by Peter Zinovieff, is the World Premiere of an immersive half hour performance, which takes the listener on a journey to the unseen world beneath Antarctica’s ice: gigantic mountains, valleys, lakes and volcanoes, more difficult to visit than outer space. Intended for the non-scientist, the piece explores the ‘remote sensing’ techniques used to investigate this secret landscape and to measure the movement of glaciers — in particular Thwaite’s Glacier, crucial to the understanding of climate change.
Scientists studying Thwaite’s observe Earth’s smallest and largest phenomena: microscopic clues in the bedrock provide evidence of the glacier’s advance and retreat over vast timescales; air bubbles in ice cores reveal the composition of the atmosphere over a million years; radar and satellite data supply information about the dynamics of the glacier and the ice sheet which feeds it. More information about the piece will follow in my June blog post.
Peter Zinovieff’s music is derived from real sound sampled from Antarctic glaciers, by Northumbria University scientist Dr Kate Winter, and audio artists Chris Watson and Philip Samartzis.
On April 23rd I recorded a live question and answer session with Ben Bregman for his excellent Poesie App, which had featured some of my work from Edge a few weeks earlier. The discussion was unscripted and wide-ranging, and has now been edited to a 30-minute version. It begins with an overview of my work, including the possibly perplexing question of why I write about both inshore fishing traditions and contemporary science. That’s followed by a question about the current state of fishing in Northumberland, then a tough one about how I engage with my responsibility to the values of sustainability and local ecology. There’s a reading of “Various Uncertainties: II” from Edge about midway at 17:48, then a further question about how I reconcile the vast difference in magnitude between my work on fishing traditions and my work on astrophysics. Towards the end there are questions about what it was like to work at the intersection of arts and sciences while writing the three planetarium pieces in Edge, and one about how I ended up at my current home in Northumberland. The interview ends with a poem from Edge, “Aurora”.
Poesie is an app-based, online poetry book club, which features different poets every week. It’s currently available on Apple devices only. Subscribers read and discuss a selection of each poet’s work. It has thousands of members from around the world, and is a labour of love for its creator. I can recommend it. Download from the App Store HERE.
On February 24th I gave an illustrated talk for CELCE about the life and language of the Northumbrian ‘coble’ fishing community in the late 20th century, and its understanding of place and nature. In the talk, touching on the language of fishing practices and species caught, place names, navigation and visualisation of the seabed, taboo words and beliefs, I argue that elements of the coble fishing 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 try to 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. This talk is 60 minutes long, and now available on YouTube. It’s introduced by Prof Jon Lovett of the University of Leeds.
FisherPoets Gathering 2021
There are not many good things to say about the way Covid-19 has affected the arts in the last year. But one tiny ray of light for me has been the chance to hear again some of my great friends from another time zone at the annual FisherPoets Gathering, based in Astoria, Oregon. All the poets’ and songwriters’ short performances are now available online in three fantastic sessions, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. My own contribution can be heard near the end of the Saturday session hosted by Holly Hughes, at around 2.46.50 – 2.54.00 – but please do listen all the way through from the beginning (not to mention the other two nights). With contributions from Alana Kansaku-Sarmiento, Meghan Gervais, Max Broderick, Toby Sullivan, Doug Rhodes and Mary Garvey, to name just a few, it’s all there – that ancient story-telling tradition from people who have lived the experiences they write about, touching some of the deepest human themes. And it’s so much fun. Thanks to my friends Jon Broderick and Jay Speakman for putting it all together.
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
‘…Perhaps if human beings could be quiet and really listen to avian beings, we might realise that the Earth is not ours alone – we share it with all other communities of life…’
‘At a majestic 354 pages, this handsome hardback features the writings and art of 29 contributors working across many interconnected fields – from ornithology to poetry, ecology to field recording, cultural history to photography, musicology to environmental policy, and much more.’ I’m extremely honoured to be among the contributors to this magnificent book, with a short essay and the text of my 2006 audio-poem, Late Blackbird.
Look what turned up in this month’s edition of The Oldie! Here’s an old poem I’ve only ever published in a small anthology, that has never yet made it into one of my own collections, with a strange publication record. It popped up a few years ago on an Irish national exam-board paper. Now here it is again, alongside an essay by John McEwen about this beautiful bird, and a lovely print by my friend Carry Akroyd. Thank you, Carry and John, for bringing this poem to a wider audience on the pages of this excellent magazine.
Grey Hen Press
Speaking of ‘oldies’ — as one myself — Grey Hen Press is a small, independent press which publishes poetry by older women. My poems have been included in many of Grey Hen’s excellent anthologies, most recently these two, edited by Joy Howard.
Reflected Light Poems in response to the creative arts. £10
Thank you for reading this far. Last but absolutely not least, please don’t forget my latest collaboration — this lovely book, Sea Change, created with Phoebe Power, illustrator Rose Ferraby and the fabulous Guillemot Press, about the regeneration of the Durham Coast.
A new book is always exciting. This one, Sea Change, is extra special, because it’s a collaboration between four artists. Here is prose and poetry by Forward Prize winning Phoebe Power, poems from me, richly-coloured geological collages by illustrator, archaeologist and cultural geologist Rose Ferraby, and design and production by writer, poet, editor, lecturer and creator of beautiful, tactile books, Luke Thompson, who, together with Sarah Cave, runs Guillemot Press in Cornwall.
Founded in 2016, Guillemot celebrates ‘the simple, thoughtful and beautiful’, a love of edges and what is hidden beneath the surface. Now here’s a bit of personal history. Luke Thompson was a founder editor of The Clearing, an online journal publishing extraordinary new writing about place and landscape. The very first issue of The Clearing, in August 2013, featured excerpts from my radio poem, The Refuge Box(now published in Two Countries, Bloodaxe Books 2014). The print on that page from The Clearing is by Olivia Lomenech Gill. The Clearing is published by Little Toller Books, based in West Dorset, and Little Toller inherited work from Common Ground, the environmental and cultural charity which first coined the idea of ‘local distinctiveness’. Common Ground were a great influence on my own work and thinking from their foundation in the early 1980s, and I contributed to their encyclopaedia,England in Particular.So the vines and tendrils of my association with Guillemot Press stretch back a very long way.
Sea Change came about following an invitation from Luke Thompson and David Woolley to read at Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival in September 2019. Phoebe Power was reading at the same event, and the two of us had just completed a short residency on the Durham Coast for New Writing North and the National Trust. This was part of the National Trust’s ‘People’s Landscape’ celebrations, and involved a commission to respond to the 11-mile coastal stretch from Seaham to Hartlepool, now designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, but once the site of several of Durham’s last deep coal mines. Notorious in the past 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’, for which I was writer in residence. Phoebe and my sequences responded to the commission’s invitation ‘to look beyond’ that recent history, and imagine future prospects for the area. That work became the text of Sea Change.
Phoebe’s sequence Once More the Sea, in her own words, ‘journeys along the coastline via community centres and colliery waste, pebbles and plastic, Byron and beach-cleans, starfish and sea-glass.’ It was in part developed from conversations with local groups, including young people and ex-miners, and moves fluently between verse and prose, narrative and lyric. A generation older than Phoebe, with a life-long connection to that part of Durham, my response is quite different; but in the course of our collaboration we found much to share, not least our environmental concerns. As the book developed it was beautifully and sensitively fused together by Rose Ferraby’s glorious illustrations which, in her words, ‘echo the rich layers of human voices and geological matter found in the poems…and in the landscape of the Durham Coast. The collages gather fragments of material, texture and form, using the colour palette of the coast.’ Rose is an exceptionally generous and responsive illustrator, who has worked with Luke, Sarah and a number of Guillemot Press poets over several years, and we can’t wait for Covid restrictions to lift so we can all meet properly. In the meantime, with the lovely design, materials and production values of Guillemot Press, we all feel that Sea Change is a really special book.
For me, both ‘Turning the Tide’ and this new commission were also personal. I don’t often write autobiographically, but here is part of a conversational piece which I wrote in connection with Sea Change:
My grandfather was a miner in East Durham and my mother’s family still lived there when I was a child. My memories are of a deeply conflicted landscape, still largely agricultural: the windswept beauty of the Magnesian Limestone grassland, ancient lanes deep in hawthorn, old farms and secret, garlic-smelling wooded denes, contrasted with towering pit-head gear, blue heaps and soot blackened red brick rows of impenetrable villages. The coast itself was a hellish no-man’s-land of black slurry dumped from endless overhead conveyors. The landscape seemed brutalised. The people I knew there were conflicted, too: proud to belong to a mining community, but determined that their sons should work elsewhere.
We used to visit my widowed Nan, and my mother’s sister, who married a miner and had a daughter a little older than I. We played on the black cinder path which ran between two villages, the miners’ pigeons wheeling overhead. I remember feeling very loved and safe there. What I didn’t know was that the Council had designated many of the villages ‘Category D’, which meant that they were actively encouraged to die as the coal ran out. The impact that had on people’s lives was tremendous. In my mother’s family that was especially true for the women. My mother and her sister had qualified for grammar school but, as girls, could not go. Nevertheless, my mother moved away; travelled all of eight miles into a different world, to Durham; became a nurse, married a doctor. I grew up with more advantages and became the first person in my mother’s family to go to university. I felt an unbridgeable gulf between my own experiences and a community that I viscerally loved, and that depended on an industry whose effects on people and landscapes I loathed. At the same time, there was for me a suffocating intimacy in the close-knit mining village. Here was another tangle of contradictions. We do not talk much about class these days, but it is deeply written in the DNA of this country.
As writer in residence for ‘Turning the Tide, I spent time in the villages of Easington Colliery and Horden 20 years ago. That residency, unlike this short one, spanned two years, and involved collecting stories and quotations from local residents, providing research for information panels, writing lines for Michael Johnson’s sculptures at Seaham and for Easington Colliery memorial garden, and creating poems for an exhibition and book. Some of that work forms the ‘Coal Roads’ section of Two Countries. Here’s a poem from ‘Turning the Tide’, with a photograph from Seaham by Keith Pattison:
Our aim for Sea Change was different. We were looking ahead, and sought out young people for their views. I visited a Youth Centre with Phoebe, and later a heritage project, a community fair and a primary school. I wanted to explore what a new generation carries forward from a strong cultural identity when the industry at its very heart is gone. That East Durham landscape is charged for me with love, with the human and environmental cost of unequal economic prosperity, and above all with the restorative powers of nature. A microcosm of where we all come from, it bears the worst scars of 20th century fossil fuel dependence, and opens out on long horizons, edges, promises – our messy, partially-successful struggles to move towards a greener, more sustainable future.
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.
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 ofFishing 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.
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.
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 accessiblevia 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 27thstarting at 8pm PST (4am Sunday 28th UK time), and you can live stream it HERE.
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:
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.
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 recorda 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!
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…
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:
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:
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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!).