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)

 

Sea, Sky, Stars

Cutty Sark

I’m just back from a wonderful event on board the sailing clipper Cutty Sark in Greenwich. The evening was called From the Coble Coast to Bantry Bay and took place in the intimate pop-up theatre in the ship’s hold, to celebrate her 150th anniversary. With the support of the London Irish Centre, Greenwich-based poet and sailor Mick Delap organised the event, which featured his exuberant sound piece, Bantry Bay. This fascinating piece tells the story of the Bantry Bay longboat from the attempted French and Irish landing of 1796 to the present day. It’s published in Mick’s second collection, Opening Time. The parts were read by Mick, radio and voice artist Doireann Ni Bhriain, and two leading Irish poets, Theo Dorgan and Paddy Bushe, with music by the wonderful Greenwich folk fiddler, Alexis Bennett.

I loved meeting the Irish visitors, and was privileged to contribute the ‘coble’ element to the evening, reading poems about the traditional Northumbrian boat from The Blue Lonnen (including from my two Bloodaxe collections, The Lost Music and Two Countries). Throughout the performance, Alexis played live and electronically-processed fiddle music — both his own composition and traditional tunes. I’m very grateful to Mick, Alexis and the Irish poets for making it possible. It was a powerful feeling, to summon the memory of my Northumbrian fisher friends, Charlie Douglas, Cathy and Redford Armstrong and many others, within the iron frames and elm planks of that magnificent ship. I think they would have loved it.

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Alexis and I met at Dartington International Summer School last year. You can hear Sea, Sky, Stars, our 10-minute radio piece developed from our Dartington performance, HERE. We filmed From the Coble Coast to Bantry Bay, so I hope to put some of our performance onto my You Tube channel soon. We’d love to perform The Blue Lonnen again, so do please contact us via this site if you’re interested in a booking. Meanwhile, we’ll be performing a new set in August at the event below.

 

Dartington International Summer School and Festival

Dartington Great Hall, Totnes, Devon, TQ9 6EL

Sunday 4th August 2019, 5.15pm

£10 (students 50%)

You can hear me with Alexis Bennett in this lovely setting, in a new concert of Northumbrian landscape-based poetry and fiddle music. I’ll also be performing a short excerpt from Horse, a very different piece, about the 3,000 year old Uffington chalk figure, with music by the electronic composer and inventor, Peter Zinovieff.

Book HERE.

For more information about my writing course at Dartington on the poetry of place, click HERE.

 

The Fourth IRON Press Festival of Words and Music

St George’s Church, Cullercoats, NE30 4NS

Saturday 22nd June, 7.30pm (doors open 7.15)               

£7

I’m appearing with my old associate, the brilliant Northumbrian piper Chris Ormston, in The Wund an’ the Wetter, our Northumbrian dialect collaboration, as part of The Fourth IRON Press Festival of Words and Music We’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of The Wund an’ the Wetter this year, and we’ll perform it together with other music and new poems about the North East fishing community and the sea. 

Book HERE.

 

Deranged Poetesses: Space / Exploration

ARC Theatre, Stockton Arts Centre, TS18 1LL

Saturday 20th July, 7-9pm

Free but ticketed.

July 20th marks the 50th anniversary of the first humans to land on the Moon. Alongside Keisha Thompson, Isabelle Kenyon, Hannah Lasagne, Lisa Louise Lovebucket and Katie Greenbrown, I’ll be taking to the stage to celebrate the wonders of space and exploration. I’ll deliver a 13-minute extract from a longer piece, Field, an astonishing performance of poetry, music (by Peter Zinovieff), science and space photographs, that explores the strange quantum worlds created at the Big Bang.

The event is organised by Apples and Snakes and is free but ticketed.

Book HERE.

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From the Coble Coast to Bantry Bay, Cutty Sark, May 24th 2019

Katrina Porteous, Doireann Ni Bhriain, Theo Dorgan and Paddy Bushe

(photo by Mick Delap)