I have been thinking a lot about this word ever since I came across it researching fen-words. John Clare uses it in several poems of the sound of the wind in birds’ wings, but I think of it in more general terms for the sound of the wind in the Fens, in the tops or through the rushes. I first came across it on this site, which is the most incredible treasure trove of Fen ‘land-words’. The site isn’t updated any more, but it has been a touchstone for me when I am looking at the fen landscape and writing my own poetry.
It’s a word I was thinking about on my most recent walk with Iona and Meg, this time to Wicken Fen, exploring Bakers And Adventurers Fen.
It was so cold our fingers could not have worked to sketch or write or type, and I went home and spent the next few days in bed with flu. When the wind blew it was bitter; one of those special gifts of Fen wind! The sound in the rushes and reeds was worth it though.
Iona and I were discussing how our different preoccupations draw us to different things in the landscape. She, for example, had not specially noticed the noise of the wind, and I don’t tend to see people! Iona is drawn to the detail on the horizon and the human interest, whereas I look at the ground. Birders look at the Fens in a different way. Hadn’t realised all the editing I do, and it’s good to try a different focus.
We are preparing for an exhibition in March 2018 at Cambridge Contemporary Art: Iona’s exhibition really but it should reflect our collaboration and conversation over the last several months, and I hope to do a reading. By then we will have been out together in the Fens in every season. I am beginning to see the precise times of year more clearly in Iona’s extraordinary work.
I’m also looking forward to the John Clare Society Festival in Helpston on 13-15th July 2018. I’ve been invited along to present the school poetry competition prize and I am looking forward to meeting other Clare enthusiasts.
I’ve been thinking about this R. S. Thomas poem on my recent walks, as October and November have given us more colour and warmth and variety than I expected from this time of year.
I’ve become a bit obsessed with the marks made by sewing and ploughing in the fields round the village. I’ve been walking with Iona, trying to put into practice some of the ideas suggested to us in the workshop on collaboration at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival with Polly Binns and Pam Johnson. We thought we might try stopping and working together on the road, and to talk a bit more about what we notice (Iona, horizon, me, the ground). I suppose we are wondering what we might make together when the ‘lit bush’ for me is something else for her. Meanwhile we are attended by the kind of patience you get from a completely delightful teenaged poodle.
This is my current view. If you look closely, you might be able to make out my feet. It’s actually not totally black, just dusky, and shaded by black-out blinds and thick curtains. The sound I can hear is the fan, but below that is a white noise cd of moving water, called ‘babbling brook’.
This set-up is oriented to the needs of my baby daughter, not quite four months old, but it has become my favourite head space of the day. In winter it was much darker, and at a certain time of day she just yearned to be in that dark space, with nothing but my body, and milk, and the water noise to help her into a longer sleep. It became my space for reading or writing poetry, and I cling to it even on these lighter nights.
There are no ideal conditions for writing poetry but ever since my baby gave me this gift of inertia and darkness I have noticed how writers have often sought out these bits of the day. Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion asks her father for the hours before dawn to write. (You might want to use the dark of the cinema to write if you go to see that film, it is looong, or it feels long). Similarly, Sylvia Plath allegedly wrote between 4-6am before her babies woke. I literally cannot imagine getting myself up in the middle of the night to write poetry or indeed for anything that isn’t a child who is crying but that’s what makes SP an actual writer. And didn’t Keats write at dawn, naked, before his window? Good for him. He didn’t have to worry about babies at all.
Even if you don’t have a baby, or a paid job, or social media, or even 5 whole serieses of Orange is the New Black to binge watch, it seems that the absence of the light of the day helps you find the handle to that door in your mind that you need to go through to be with your non-thoughts; those friends of your lived experience which flare up as poetry. Sometimes.
In that room I am trying to find if my lit life can speak to me.
One of my hopes for this year as Fenland Poet Laureate is to collaborate with a fenland artist whose work I love, the esteemed Fine Art Printmaker Iona Howard. From the moment I saw her work I was given a new way to articulate my feelings about the place I was living in. Those massive, stark, uncompromising, beautiful landscapes have haunted me ever since. I recall the (problematic) distinction that Edmund Burke drew between the beautiful and the sublime.
I was delighted when I discovered that Iona was inspired by the same fenland landscape as I am, that is, the one closest to us. It’s the space in which she walks her dog and I (used to!) run. It makes me wonder; what is it about a familiar landscape that calls our attention? Is it knowing a place through different seasons? Is it the repetition that allows us to lose ourselves in thought? Is the rhythm of movement an anchor which holds the ship of the mind in place long enough to notice? Can you become overfamiliar with a place?
Iona and I have started seeking out new places together. We’ve been walking in Kingfishers Bridge nature reserve and seeing what that corner of the Fen has to offer. So far I can’t say I’ve had an epiphany but I did get a powerful electric shock! Here are some images Iona took on the ‘mountain’.
I’ve been following #NaPoWriMo this month and it’s brought me a lot of joy. Although I will only come out with a small handful of poems, rather than 30, I will have bankrupted myself on books by authors introduced to me by the interview series. Every word of the Kay Ryan, former US Poet Laureate interview was hilarious and illuminating. Like her assertion, when she was asked if she liked giving readings, that she liked reading her poems, but did not like listening to other people reading theirs. Or that, famed as she is for writing ‘short, skinny’ poems she once wrote a ‘two hundred line poem, just for myself. It was pure shit.’ This struck me too:
Thinking takes place in language, and it’s hard to say whether the language is creating the thinking or the thinking is creating the language. If I don’t write in poetry, in the profoundest way, I have no way to think.
Ocean Vuong was another great find. He has some really interesting thoughts about the way text speak has shaped language, and about the closeness of the ampersand to the real sense of ‘and’, especially in poetic language. another memorable interview was that with Li-Young Lee, who describes the three selves he wakes up with each morning; the self which apprehends the world as entirely ‘saturated with meaning and presence’, the self which can’t deal with that level of meaning and resists it, and the self which is trying to hear the poem that comes out of those conditions. I love that.
The prompt on Day 24 was to write an ekphrastic poem, based on a medieval manuscript illustration. I found this an interesting challenge, thinking as I have been about Ely Cathedral and the wool-churches and angel ceilings of the Fens. So here is my poem, perhaps I will give it more attention some day. It’s based on a medieval Psalter found in St John’s College library here. And then the poet for Day 26, Melissa Range, has written an entire book about the process of monastic bookmaking Scriptorium, so that’s another one for the Amazon basket.
I am starting to think about a collaborating I am planning with an artist, so it was interesting to attempt an ekphrastic poem. But that’s a post for another time.
This is me in the middle of a state of complete shock at having won the title of Fenland Poet Laureate 2017. My hair is slightly purple, which was not a tribute to Jenny Joseph. It was a mistake at the hairdressers.