Before and also during this residency I was uncertain about the whole idea of ‘poetry of place’. I’m not sure, for instance, that a poem can ‘capture’ a locale, or relive a culture. Even if land changes fairly slowly, culture and language are changing all the time – they exist because of real human beings who don’t stay still. You cannot remove these slippery forces from a poem.
So I’ve been feeling wary of any poem that works around a fixed idea of place. I’m also suspicious of ‘tourist’ poems that take one or two elements of a place visited briefly and transpose them into a poem for prettification, exoticism, showing off, etc. It’s a shallow engagement with another culture. That’s fine, if that is recognised and played upon by the poet in an interesting way, but often token cultures or places are used unthinkingly to give a poem its edge and that doesn’t always work well for me as a reader.
The whole idea of poetry of place, you could say, is a fallacy. As I say, language and culture are not fixed and eternal, but also we as human beings are never actually inhabiting just one place. The poet moves around and through space. Place and the poet are both very unfixed and moving, intermingling briefly, bringing other baggage into the mix, associations, memories and preoccupations taken along for the ride. I read recently that poetry could be a heterotopia – “a concept in human geography, elaborated by philosopher Michel Foucault to describe places and spaces that function in non-hegemonic conditions. These are spaces of otherness, which are neither here nor there, that are simultaneously physical and mental, such as the space of a phone call or the moment when you see yourself in the mirror.” (Wikipedia quote, I’m afraid!)
So how could I then engage with Shingle Street on an engaged level and not end up writing a nice neat painting of a place I have only spent a week in? How to give something back to Shingle Street that is not a straight reflection of itself? How to recognise in language the ‘being here’ as a heterotopia? Well, I thought, possibly one way of doing this is by following the contradictions and chaos of place and perhaps surrendering completely to one moment of fixed observation only to let it go completely and go off on a tangent. That tangent is still very rough in the poem but I don’t want to neaten it up too much. I don’t want it to capture anything.
I discussed this reservation in a more detail – from a slightly different angle – with Amy Key in our recorded conversation about place and tourism in poetry.
The fact that this following poem was also written on Remembrance Sunday may also have something to do with a feeling of rebelliousness against a fixed idea of place. Because to believe in the essentially pure, immutable nature of a place is in some ways similar to a fixed, pure, idea of nation, and nations go into wars in their own name. People die and are killed in the name of Nations. Someone raised a huge Union Jack outside the coastguard cottages we were staying in on that day and Shingle Street is situated in quite a militarised area – but it is also quite wild, peaceful. The young offenders institute and ‘youth custody centre’ is very close. Orford Ness is visible and on a clear day we could see the ‘pagodas’ where Britain tested its nuclear weapons. So there is the institutional and military in this place – a sense of extreme control – but also something open and free. On one day I actually ran through the Colony – HMP Hollesly Bay – and the prisoners said ‘Hello Miss…’ (it’s a category D – minimum security prison). Nature is still quite wild, sublime, the weather a huge uncontrollable force. The sea is still the boss – as the coastguard knows. Do these contradictions make Shingle Street some kind of heterotopia? Is this the heterotopia I’m trying to navigate in my poem or am I bringing too much of a tourist’s eye into it?
‘People on the beach’ poem notes – taken in one observation
some people push right out to the edge of loneliness and remain crouched on the earth
mustard yellow knot weed around wrists back to sea cluster of coincidental looking – back to the borstal – renamed youth custody centre – aka The Colony. Gets up to stone lob crusts at the gulls. Many-layered, dogless, bleak dwelling figure by the edge of the shingle where it meets variously unpalatable sea. Man demonstrates violent throwing technique number two, I thought a light ring of stones around them and then he clusters together with another figure.
‘People on the beach’ poem draft / advanced notes
there’s supposed to be a river, he said,
one of those people, knot-weed around the wrists,
they look like lonelinesses on the strand like that,
the individually welded gulls
they throw back the light, to the borstal
they renamed colony. Sea variously
unpalatable, a seal also tied slackly to the earth.
How to remember the dead people
without throwing more into the pot?
I don’t know, they cluster together
in a militarized zone like this, test weaponry.
To keep you safe, keep you safe and ticking.
Shuffling on the selvedge reaches
makes ready the foul-sky-look,
where’s the river gone?
There was no river
this is a shingle spit and the tide is out.
There’s supposed to be a river.
There’s supposed to be a river
and the looped wind loves you,
a man with a map and a whole lotta self-assurance
another day out for our boys.
I don’t know. I didn’t last long at Guides,
never attended sunday school,
can throw a little way, read a map though
didn’t learn that at Guides,
know how to dress out of doors and roughly to not
sail a dinghy into a brick wall.
There is such a way that voices breath through
an ear and small waves veer off the land, on
the stones, geology sans language,
I take to the heel of the dog that wags,
the candle-stick tail dog, a
spine that tells you leaping is free.
Nia Davies was born in Sheffield and studied English at the University of Sussex. Then Spree – her first pamphlet of poems – came out from Salt in 2012. As well as her work with Literature Across Frontiers and Wales Literature Exchange, her current projects include collaborations with other poets and artists and co-editing the online journal Poems in Which and Solidarity Park Poetry – poems for #ResisTurkey. In 2014 she will take over the editorship of the quarterly magazine Poetry Wales.