Dartington International Summer School 2018, Week 2, August 4-11th

Poetry of Place

It’s not often that you end a week as tutor on a residential writing course feeling completely energised. Much as I love working with other writers, giving everyone the individual attention they deserve can be tiring if you give it everything you have. It’s worth it, though. In the past I’ve co-led courses for the Arvon Foundation at Lumb Bank and at the Welsh Writers’ Centre at Ty Newydd, and always feel that I learn as much from participants as they do from me. This time was no different in that respect; but it was also an unusually invigorating experience in other ways. It was my first time at Dartington, the world-famous music summer school in Devon celebrating its 70th anniversary, under Artistic Director Joanna MacGregor.

Students come to play instruments, to sing in the choir, and to experience a wide range of world-class music in the fabulous medieval setting of Dartington Hall, with its glorious gardens, ancient trees, and wider parkland stretching down to the River Dart. I cannot recommend it highly enough. In keeping with the historic spirit of the place, under Joanna’s inspired leadership, literature and creative writing have now been added to the curriculum. Alongside James Runcie’s courses on ‘Historical Fiction’ and ‘Reading the Landscape’, I led a twice-daily writing course entitled ‘Poetry of Place’ which, over six days, involved 18 hours of close reading of published poems, writing exercises to take away, group reading of the results, and some individual tuition.

The participants in my group were quite various in their life and writing experience, but every single student proved insightful, generous, sensitive and supportive of the others. Whether that came from the legendary Dartington spirit of cooperation or from the experience which many had of communal singing, who can say. They were a joy to work with.

And when work was finished, there was lovely food, great company and a wealth of fabulous concerts to enjoy. Highlights for me were Joanna MacGregor’s transcendent piano concert, including Chopin, Ginastera and Beethoven’s Appassionata, recorded for Radio 3; Steven Devine’s brilliant renditions of CPE and WF (or, as he put it, WTF) Bach on the fortepiano; Trio Gaspard playing Schubert; James Runcie’s moving play, ‘Bach, Man and Myth’; Kate Semmens’ glorious early English songs; Robert Howarth on the harpsichord; and the extraordinarily powerful final night – Bach’s St Matthew Passion, conducted by Tom Seligman, with the role of the evangelist split between tenor Tom Randle and soprano Gillian Keith. The emotion of the piece was heightened for me by the intimate setting, the projection of the words in English, and the very personal connection with so many of my students and new friends sharing with us so movingly the experience of the deepest human failing and the redemptive power of love. I shall never forget it.

On the Sunday evening I was lucky enough to be invited to perform some of my own work in the Great Hall, alongside the brilliant folk fiddler Alexis Bennett. Alexis performed live, to an electronic soundtrack of new music which he had created for the performance entirely from sounds made by the fiddle. Various techniques were used, including recording some passages on a phone, and hitting an old fiddle with a spoon. A traditional Northumbrian pipe tune, “The Bonnie Pit Laddie”, was quoted. I read from old and new work about the Northumbrian fishing community, women’s lives and education, and the wider natural history of Northumberland, from the perspective of some of my recent science-based pieces. Our collaboration was well-received and we hope to be able to build on it for future performances.

On the last afternoon my group of writers gave a short presentation of their work to a select audience in the lovely oak-lined Solar. There were some very interesting pieces, including two sound-based works each for two voices, developed from listening to a recording of the sea; a multi-perspective sketch examining the Dartington buildings as a film-maker might, using close-up and wide-angle views; and a powerful short verse drama based on 19th century French melodrama.

Everyone’s work had been developed that week, and everyone had, to some extent, surprised themselves with something new. We gathered these texts together into a small anthology, which the hard-worked Summer School office staff printed for us.

I cannot thank everyone enough: my students for teaching me, James Runcie for his good humour and moral support, all the tutors, performers and students for their great music and spirit, the fantastic staff, both in the kitchens, the domestic arrangements and in the Summer School office: huge thanks to Emily Hoare, Rachel Wilkinson and – especially – all the volunteers, without whom none of it would be possible. Special thanks to Joanna MacGregor for inviting me – and, indeed, for asking me back next year. I greatly look forward to returning, to new adventures; and in the meantime, cherish the many wonderful memories I take away: walking across the courtyard in the morning to the swell of Bach’s choruses rising from the Great Hall; bathing my feet in the silky Dart one hot afternoon and catching a glimpse of a kingfisher through the oak trees; rehearsing poetry and fiddle music with Alexis; finding a couple of quiet hours in the summerhouse to improvise some words and music with brilliant composer and hurdy-gurdy virtuoso Stevie Wishart and the extraordinary vocalist and nyckelharpa player, Anna Tam. I hope that these connections may continue.

Most of all, I came away from Dartington feeling supported, appreciated, energised and affirmed. That is a great gift to give to an artist of any kind. I don’t often think of myself in those terms but, by surrounding me with other artists, for a short time Dartington allowed me to do so. Thank you, Dartington. May I carry a little of your spirit with me to Northumberland, as I brought a glimpse of Northumberland to you.


Click on this link to find out more about Dartington International Summer School










The Imaginary Museum

What is a museum for? What sort of things might it contain? How do these things help to shape our perspective on time and change? These questions were the starting-place for some marvellous poems, written by children from Mrs McLeod’s class, Year 7, Tweedmouth Middle School, Berwick, working with me, Berwick Museum, and the Lit and Phil, Newcastle, as part of  The Imaginary Museum of the North.

Over time, even the most ordinary objects become important or interesting, because they represent a moment, a place, a person or group of people, and tell a story. So we began with a session in Berwick Museum, in which we were allowed to handle some exhibits, including everyday objects from the human past, such as an embossing stamp and a butter churn, together with much older natural history specimens of fossils and minerals.

But a museum is not just about old things. In the days before the internet, photography and easy travel, a museum such as that begun in the Lit and Phil, Newcastle, at the end of the 18th century might be the only place to encounter new discoveries, inventions and curiosities – things that evoke distant countries, other worlds. We looked at pictures of objects from the Lit and Phil’s early collection, including Egyptian mummies, outlandish inventions, and specimens of wombat and duck-billed platypus from New South Wales.

The children began to think about the contents of their Imaginary Museum.  They wrote lists, containing ordinary things from the present that they might want to save for the future; objects that are personally important to them in their daily life; things which represent the place or area where they live; interesting inventions from our own time; and, more excitingly, ideas for things that they would like to see invented, and exotic objects from far away, even from other worlds. The children came up with a stream of brilliant ideas, from ‘a model of the three Berwick bridges, the last one with a train going along it’, to ‘an endless notebook’, ‘a hurricane simulator’, ‘a machine to bring dodos and mammoths back to life’, ‘a space hotel’ and ‘another colour’. They sent postcards with these ideas to the Lit and Phil, where they are on display as part of the exhibition.


Poetry gives its writers and readers a structured way to explore a subject, and a heightened sense of emotional engagement with it. So in the second session at Berwick Museum, we worked on poems based on the children’s initial ideas. I asked them to choose two of their favourite things from their lists, and to imagine a conversation between them. We thought about how to find interesting words and sounds without using rhyme, and how to give more impact to words using short lines and careful line-breaks. As an alternative to rhyme we decided a structure for their poems using a simple repeated line or ‘refrain: ‘In the Museum of the Future…’

Next we imagined opening the door on a room from the past – perhaps an Egyptian mummy’s tomb; then opening a door on a room from today in the far future. What do the objects in it look like, sound like, how do they feel to touch? What might today’s commonplace objects say to children of the future about each of them, their home, and today’s world? Then the children thought about what a future invention might say to them, the children of tomorrow’s past. Again, I suggested that they structure their poem by repeating a refrain: ‘Open the windows, open the door’.

‘This is the feeling you have longed for,

It is called being free.

It is possible to get this,

But not behind a phone…’

                                                                               ‘…For they are old, quiet, irrelevant things,

                                                                                 And we are young, loud, relevant…

                                                                                 Open the windows, open the doors,

                                                                                  It is time to be heard

                                                                                  In these museum walls…’ 

The results speak for themselves. The children’s poems are original, mysterious, funny, striking, moving. Every single one has something I love about it. The creative inventions of scientists and artists all begin in the same place, the imagination, and these poems spring from that place – the thoughts and dreams of the scientists, artists, poets and inventors of tomorrow.

The Imaginary Museum of the North runs at the Lit and Phil, Newcastle, until September 8th.

Berwick Museum ‘Fragments’ exhibition, with work by potter Graham Taylor, photographer Jose Snook and poet Katrina Porteous, runs until September 30th.


Tongue and Talk: the Dialect Poets – Northumberland

BBC Radio 4

Sunday 27th May 16.30, repeated Saturday 2nd June 23.30

Available after first broadcast on i-player HERE

In the final episode of this three-part series, children’s author Kirsty Mckay investigates dialect poetry in Northumberland today. Kirsty’s programme focuses on the poetry of the Cheviot hills, where she meets poet and musician James Tait, the children of Harbottle School, and poet Allan Wood. Allan is a retired shepherd, and – together with shepherd and singer Graham Dick – I was lucky enough to travel with him to the Cowboy Poetry Festival in Elko Nevada in 1999, to investigate the origins of Western American folk traditions in those of Northumberland and the Scottish Borders. In her programme, Kirsty revisits Allan, who worked with her father on a remarkable series of films made by the Coquetdale community in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s.

Kirsty also visits the Northumbrian coast to talk to me for her programme. Although I am not a Northumbrian native or a dialect speaker, I spent a great deal of time with dialect speakers of the Northumbrian coastal fishing community throughout the 1990s, and have written poetry which reflects that. I’ve never pretended to speak Northumbrian like a native, but I do find great expressive richness and vitality in the language. I really enjoyed our thought-provoking conversation, and very much look forward to hearing Kirsty’s programme. I’ll post some further thoughts on writing in the dialect on this blog in the next few days.

In the meantime, for those who are interested in the subject, here are some links.

Allan Wood’s voice and poetic scripts can be found in a remarkable series of 16mm films made by the Coquetdale community led by Dr Keith McKay, now available on DVD in the ‘Bygone Coquetdale’ series, HERE.

James Tait’s poetry and music is available HERE.

In the programme, Kirsty also talks to Kim Bibby Wilson, leading light of the Northumbrian Language Society. The NLS exists to promote, research, preserve and enjoy the Northumbrian Language through meetings, competitions and publications. For some years, I’ve enjoyed the great honour of being its President. You can find out more about it HERE.

Every year, the NLS celebrates the birthday of Northumberland’s most famous dialect poet, Fred Reed. Fred’s collected works can be found in ‘The Northumborman’ (Iron Press, 1999), available HERE.

My own long dialect poem The Wund an’ the Wetter, written for the launch of ‘The Northumborman’, is published in ‘Two Countries’ (Bloodaxe Books 2014), available both as print and as e-book with audio HERE.

The original publication with CD (with music by Northumbrian piper Chris Ormston) is available HERE.

You can hear me read an excerpt, with Chris on pipes, HERE.

My first collection, ‘The Lost Music’, which includes poems about Northumberland fishermen, many of which are at least partly in dialect, is available HERE.

You can hear me read some poems containing dialect from each collection, including Charlie Douglas, Plenty Lang a Winter, and excerpts from The Wund an’ the Wetter and Five Sea Songs at the Poetry Archive, HERE.

My full 30-page word-list of Northumbrian fisher dialect, collected over two decades, was used by Bill Griffiths as a major source for his last book, Fishing and Folk (Northumbria University Press, 2008), and is included in it as an appendix. Bill’s book is available HERE.

I’ll add some thoughts on writing poetry in Northumbrian dialect to this blog before the end of this month. Please listen to Kirsty’s programme — and please do watch this space!



The Cheviot Hills, Northumberland


Words on Walls

Here’s a tour of some sites where lines from my poems appear as visual collaborations or in public artworks around Northumberland and Durham…


Exhibition at Berwick Museum, Berwick Barracks, Berwick upon Tweed, TD15 1DG, until September 30th

This exhibition brings together work by potter Graham Taylor, photographer Jose Snook and volunteers from the HLF funded Peregrini Lindisfarne Landscape Partnership project, which involved a wide variety of conservation and engagement projects across Holy Island and the adjoining mainland.

Lines from my poem ‘The Refuge Box’ appear on three of Graham’s ceramic vessels. In addition, a series of new poems called ‘Many Hands’, which I wrote to accompany Jose’s portraits, also form part of the exhibition. These draw on volunteers’ responses to the landscape, as well as my own.

Refuge Box v.2



Barter Books, The Old Station, Wagon Way Rd, Alnwick NE66 2NP

Barter Books is open every day 9am-7pm and its Station Buffet serves delicious food and great coffee. I’m honoured that my poem, ‘If My Train Will Come’ (from ‘The Lost Music’, Bloodaxe Books) appears on the wall in the second room, above the ‘Fine Arts’ section:


I look forward to taking part in a live event with Gloucestershire poet Patrick Mackie in the bookshop in May. Here are the details:

England’s Motley

Place:  Barter Books, Wagon Way Rd, Alnwick, NE66 2NP

Date and Time:  Friday, May 18th, 7.30pm

Entrance:  £5  (Please book in advance in the shop or Telephone 01665 604888.)

An exciting evening of poetry from Patrick Mackie and Katrina Porteous. While their two voices are very different, they share a common fascination with local, English, and global identities, and the desire to carry the legacy of Edward Thomas into new fields…



Northumberland Seafood Centre, Amble Harbour Village, Leazes St, Amble, NE65 0AL

This is a great place, where you can buy all kinds of seafood sourced directly from local fishermen. It’s a real honour that my poem ‘Cathy’ (from ‘Two Countries’ Bloodaxe Books) appears on the wall. It’s about a fisherman’s wife and mother, and the importance of women to the traditional fishing industry:


Amble Town Square also includes some circular pavement plaques with lines from my poem ‘The Sea Inside’ (From ‘The Lost Music’).


Hadrian’s Wall, near Bardon Mill

The new YHA lounge and dining room area at The Sill (Hadrian’s Wall Landscape Discovery Centre) includes excerpts from several poets, including my poem ‘This Far and No Further’ (from ‘Two Countries’):

RS Sill Jan 2018

The next two sites are NOT open to the public, but I’ll include them anyway…

Newcastle upon Tyne

Dept of Mathematics, Ellison Building, Northumbria University

Poems from Imagining the Sun 2016 appear as wall posters, alongside artwork by Helen Schell.



Castletown Primary School

Catrin Jones’ stained glass panels from 1996 included lines from my poems ‘The Sea Inside’ and ‘Wrecked Creeves’ (both from ‘The Lost Music’). The panels, which beautifully depicted sea scenes, were acid-etched on coloured glass. The children commented: ‘We liked the colours and the way it was done, especially the patterns on the glass that really look like the sea. We also liked the verses, but found them a bit hard to understand…’

Catrin Jones stained glass Sunderland


Seaham, Co Durham

Michael Johnson’s award-winning ‘Timeline’ pavement plaques, and two of his bronze and stainless steel sculptures, including the large outline of St Mary’s Church in the Seaham Hall Beach car park, contain lines from my poems for ‘Turning the Tide’, in ‘Two Countries’.



Easington Colliery, Co Durham

Easington Colliery Memorial Garden at the bottom of Seaside Lane (where it turns south), opened on 29th May 2001 in memory of those who worked and served at Easington Colliery from 1899 to 1993. The date was 50 years to the day of the pit explosion in 1951 that killed 81 men and boy miners from the village and two of those involved in the rescue. Queen Elizabeth II visited the garden in the year of her Golden Jubilee on 8th May 2002. I was commissioned by Easington Colliery Parish Council to write the pavement inscription:


Out of the dark

         Came heat and light.


How far, how deep

          Are the workings that made us?


          As deep as remembering.

          As far as tomorrow.





Free Thinking for Schools

School Radio-Poetry Workshops for the Poetry Society at the BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival, Sage Gateshead, 6-8 March 2018

This week I was fortunate to be invited by The Poetry Society to run a series of hour-long school workshops in partnership with a BBC Radio 3 production team as part of the 2018 Free Thinking Festival at Sage Gateshead. The idea was that the students should write poetry on the Festival theme of ‘The One and the Many’, as content for a short programme which each group would go on to present and produce as part of their half-day radio experience.

I’ve previously taken part in the Free Thinking Festival as a panellist on discussion shows, as a radio reviewer, and as a poet and performer (in ‘The Verb’, 2010, and in ‘Horse’ for ‘Between the Ears’, 2011). I also have many years’ experience of writing poetry for radio. How does a ‘radio poem’ differ from one you might find in a book? And how is any poem different from a news report? These were questions I hoped to explore with the students.

Over two days I worked with Thorp Academy, Ryton (32 KS 7 students), Farringdon Community Academy, Sunderland (15 KS 8-9) and Nunnykirk Centre for Dyslexia, Northumberland (9 KS 8-9).

The Festival theme was ‘The One and the Many’, so I planned my workshop around the idea of the Sun: our one ‘special’ star among many, and a star which has many ‘faces’ in one. The session was adapted from a successful template which I’ve recently devised with scientists at Northumbria University’s NUSTEM for the project ‘Imagining the Sun’.

In my adapted version I introduced the idea of our Sun as our ‘special’ star, and asked the students to tell me what they knew about it and how they perceived it from Earth (reminding them that we must never look at the Sun directly!). I showed them a series of real photographs of the Sun’s surface and corona, taken in different wavelengths or temperatures, revealing that the Sun has many ‘secrets’ that we cannot ‘see’ with our normal senses. We watched a video of a solar flare, and discussed the science. Then we read my poem ‘Observatory’ about the interrogation of the Sun’s many faces. We looked closely at how language works in that poem.

Most importantly, we spent 20-30 minutes of each session on writing. I asked the students to contrast their own experience of the Sun from Earth with different ‘faces’ of the Sun which they had seen in the video. What might these different ‘moods’ or ‘faces’ say to each other? What questions would they, the students, ask the Sun? Each group was small enough for me to be able to support each student individually to develop their ideas and language, with particular emphasis on sounds and action words – verbs – for their radio broadcast.

Farringdon 1

Writing radio poems about the Sun, with students 


The students’ poems were fantastic. Here are a few lines from one, KS 7:

‘It’s hiding, but in plain sight:

When you see it, it is like being shown

Your greatest nightmare and your best dream.’

‘I seem quiet, but my soul is the same as yours.

Look at me: my fire bridges,

The fountains beyond your imagination…’

Thorp 12

Over the second hour, the students worked in teams to present and produce a five-minute radio ‘news-and-chat-show’ in the special Radio 3 glass pop-up studio. They worked from a script, which – in theory, at least – allowed time for them to read a line or two from some of their poems. This did not happen as much as I’d have liked, due to the time constraints of the format. But the students still came up with great programmes, some discussed a poetry slam event, and some were able to record their poems in the studio afterwards.

This was a highly successful and enjoyable project. All the students seemed to have a wonderful time, all produced excellent, thoughtful and lively poems, and all worked together well in their radio studio teams. Even if their poetry didn’t always make it into their radio programme, everyone worked hard, and every student had an enjoyable and rewarding educational experience, which I’m sure they will remember for the rest of their lives.

Thope 7Students record their poems in the BBC Radio 3 pop-up studio, Sage Gateshead.


It’s fantastic that Radio 3 is able to offer young people this kind of opportunity to write and produce their own broadcast. Radio is such a great medium for poetry. It’s also important, not just for the students, but for a national broadcaster to build such links with places and communities. I really hope that this kind of work can continue in the future.

With thanks to all the schools, the Poetry Society and BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking.



Diversifly Podcast

Listen HERE to a new 40-minute podcast recorded last summer. It’s based on a conversation with the wonderful Nadia Kingsley of Fair Acre Press, in which we discuss the writing process, my interests – including the Northumbrian fishing village where I live – and my collaborative projects. In the course of this I read seven poems, old and new.

The podcast is part of a series with poets who write about nature and place, including David Morley, Alison Brackenbury — and others to follow soon. It’s produced by, with original music composed and played by, Giancarlo Facchinetti.

Diversifly is part of Fair Acre Press’ Urban Birds project, which you can read about HERE.

As another part of that project, there’s also a fantastic new illustrated book, Diversifly, edited by Nadia Kingsley, containing poetry and art on Britain’s urban birds, available HERE.


Poetry of Place at Dartington International Summer School and Festival

4-11 August

I’m thrilled to be leading a week-long writing course as part of the 70th Dartington Summer School this year, in a glorious setting, alongside some of the world’s most celebrated musicians, writers and thinkers. Among the many (mostly music) courses that week are several on folk music. My course will loosely relate to those. We’ll connect to the physicality of landscape through sound, and explore the voices – natural and human – which lead us towards ‘a sense of place’.

Sunday 5th August, 5.15 – 6pm: I’ll be performing poetry in the Great Hall, Dartington with the amazing folk fiddler Alexis Bennett.

Book for these events HERE


Imagining the Sun at the Lit and Phil

On January 17th Year 9 and 10 students from Cramlington Learning Village took part in a half-day workshop at Newcastle’s Lit and Phil, led by research scientists from Northumbria University’s solar physics research group, NUSTEM – and me.

The workshop, with the unusual aim of combining solar physics and poetry, was part of the legacy of Imagining the Sun.

The project challenged public and schools audiences to explore how approaches from art and science can complement and inform each other.


The students’ poems are fantastic. I was so impressed by them, I asked Kay Easson, Head Librarian at the Lit and Phil, if we might put them on display, and she has kindly allowed us to do this. They are now on display in the library until mid-March. If you’re passing the Lit and Phil, 23 Westgate Road, Newcastle, please do drop in to see them.

A free booklet about Imagining the Sun featuring solar science, some of my poems and fabulous artwork from the project by Helen Schell, is available from the Information Desk.


Word Sharing on World Book Night

23rd April, Lakeside Room, Van Mildert College, Durham University, from 7pm

Van Mildert College will be hosting an evening poetry event to celebrate World Book Night, featuring English and German poets from the Durham – Tuebingen cultural exchange programme. More details to follow. The event will include readings from the recent Word Sharing anthology, by its English editor Dr Keith Armstrong, and contributing poets such as Paul Summers, Katrina Porteous and others, including students from Durham University.