An Interview with Katrina Porteous
Katrina Porteous’s recent collection of poems, Two Countries, from Bloodaxe is the fruit of ten years work. The book is a work of some significance to the contemporary cultures of landscape and place, turning an inventive and sensitised ear to her coastal Northumbrian borderland and asking some important questions about contemporary rural life a long way from Westminster. Many of the poems collected have been commissioned for radio and have a musical quality that weaves together a range of intriguing oral traditions, producing a powerful and memorable voice. We talked to her about some of the forms she draws on and about the themes that run through the collection such as the foot and mouth epidemic, modern attitudes to the local, and the public role of the poet.
Jos Smith: These seem to be poems with a sense of their role in the social life of the region, both as commissions written for radio and in the way they draw attention to marginalised histories and voices. How do you understand your work as a poet in relation to the places and communities you work with?
Katrina Porteous: For me, poetry begins and ends in listening. When I write about a place I need to spend time there, walking, observing, absorbing the sensory experience of being there, losing myself in it as much as possible and, particularly, listening to the people who know it best. This often involves approaching strangers, either for formal interviews or just in conversation. I always make notes as I go. Sometimes I also take recordings which I later transcribe. There is a direct link between the conversations, the note-taking and the poem. Fragments of the voices of the people who speak to me frequently end up in the poem unedited, and often provide not only the subject-matter but a formal starting-place, in the way that a spoken phrase can determine the tune of a song. So, for example, in This Far and No Further, one elderly lady gave me the line: ‘Butter and eggs kept the house, and the wool paid the rent’. The ballad-like rhythm of this direct quotation determined the musical shape of that particular section of the poem.
I’ve been using quotation in this way in my poetry since the late 1980s. I studied History at University, not English, and have long been interested in recording the memories of older people. In 1989 I worked on a local history publication, which led me to talk to older members of the fishing community in the Northumberland village where I live. That gave me a window into an exceptionally rich, still-living local culture, and I immersed myself in its stories, skills, language and traditions for a decade until most of the people with whom I was closely connected were gone. That period gave rise to many of the poems in my first collection, The Lost Music (1996), which I regarded as a conversation between my voice and those of members of the fishing community. Later, when many of them had died, I wrote The Wund an’ the Wetter (1999) in response to the loss of a language and way of life that died with them.
I live in an area famous for its anonymous ballad tradition, and when I began to learn more about the Border Ballads and traditional music through collaborations with folk musicians such as Chris Ormston and Alistair Anderson, I felt a strong connection with that tradition. It’s a way of working which I’ve evolved by accident rather than by design. I think that it is well-suited to radio, because radio serves a particular, similarly ancient, purpose; as a collective but intimate experience of listening. It also enables me to incorporate other, non-human ‘voices’ into a poem, which would be more difficult in pure performance.
JS: The ‘two warring countries’ of the collection’s title refer historically to Scotland and England, but there are times when other fractious divisions suggest tensions at work within England itself as well, between country and city, and between centre and periphery. Do you see contemporary England as a nation divided?
KP: I do. The historical animosity between England and Scotland referred to in the title poem and elsewhere in the book is a metaphor for a complex manifold of divisions within England itself – and indeed beyond. That is why I called my collection Two Countries.
Certainly there are divisions between ‘rural’ and ‘urban’. The smoking pyres of the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic became a dreadful image for the total separation of parts of rural England and Scotland from the bureaucrats of Westminster. That’s the situation to which the title poem refers. I feel that the poems of the first section stand, not just for their own place and moment, but more broadly for our times. The issues which they address have not gone away.
The ‘Two Countries’ of the book are also, as you say, ‘periphery’ and ‘centre’. Leaving aside the question of Scottish independence, there are many ‘countries’ within England, too, which feel unrepresented, disengaged from the centre of power and unable to speak its language. The area that this book covers, between the Scottish source of the River Tweed to the north west and the Durham Coast to the south east, contains the geographical and social areas I know best. These boundaries form my ancestral compass, the places my father and mothers’ families originate from. I was born further north in Scotland, to English parents from Newcastle and East Durham respectively. My background was a mixture of professional privilege and working class culture. I grew up on a steep hill between the red dust of Consett iron works and the deep green Derwent valley, a Scottish child in an English primary school, and those divisions – of nationality, locality, class, and the industrial and the rural – imprinted themselves on me from an early age.
These are the divisions I explore in the book, not by means of any informed political argument, but simply from a sense of how things feel. I collected these particular poems together because I felt that, in some ragged way, they bear witness to what it has been like to live in rural parts of the far North East of England at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st.
When I travel south in England, I feel that I am in a different country – much more so than when I step over the Border into Scotland. Why is that? It is partly a greater pressure of population further south, certainly greater ethnic and racial diversity, often (in the ‘Home Counties’) greater affluence. But it also has to do with outlook: connectedness, to Europe and beyond, to a sense of possibility, of entitlement. It is easier to travel from London to Paris or Brussels than to Northumberland. The reasons for this extend beyond geography. The Anglo Saxon kingdom of Northumbria which, at its height in the 8th century stretched from the Firth of Forth to the Humber, left a deep linguistic and cultural legacy. The northern part of that kingdom, Bernicia, was probably preceded by an even older tribal unit. I sense that those ancient fault-lines still endure. To the north of the present Border, discussions of Scottish national identity appeal as much to a Scots language rooted in Anglo Saxon as to Gaelic. To the south, the dominant English culture – ‘establishment’ and ‘authority’ – is still indelibly stamped by the effects of the Norman Conquest of 1066. The England I live in does not easily connect with that culture. The fishing families and hill farmers I know, the former mining families, all of whom I’ve written for and about in these poems, speak a different language, metaphorically as well as literally.
JS: Two Countries is a book very carefully located and attentive to place but also rife with wider tensions. Some have argued that recent cultural interest in place and the local is at odds with the wider political life. In a nation so globally connected by trade and technology now, what does the local mean to you?
KP: I am often described as a ‘local poet’. I am equally proud of that designation and irritated by it. I belong to a place in time, and express some of the things that are particular and different about that place to other places and times. But that sentence itself gives away that it is not enough to me to be local; or, rather, that to be consciously local implies familiarity with a wider scale.
I have never belonged to a political party. I am too interested in hearing many sides to a story.What matters to me is to be true to what I find around me, and to relate that more widely. I don’t have a polemic, only a dissident instinct to distrust entrenched institutional and economic power, and to question everything – authority, ideology – from the bottom up. For me, that means starting with the local. It was at Cambridge, regarded by many as an emblem of entrenched authority, that I learnt to question. I am profoundly grateful for that. Rather than remaining in an academic environment, I took what I learnt back into Northumberland, not to change the world, but to bear witness to what might otherwise be overlooked. I believe that it is by starting from the grass roots, at a microcosmic level, that the macrocosmic can best be understood and affected.
I often encounter the argument that to write about nature is ‘escapist’, ‘avoidance’, and that to pursue beauty is to shun ‘the truth’. I find these anthropocentric arguments narrow and one-sided. I have never thought of myself as a ‘nature writer’. I write about people and nature in relation to each other, about ‘place’ rather than ‘nature’. I’m the daughter of a pathologist, and when I was a child my father brought home slides to show me under the microscope. ‘Nature’ to me means the pathogens which live within us, which could kill us, as much as a beautiful sunset or the flight of a swallow.
Those who locate ‘truth’ in global economic forces argue that to concentrate on ‘traditional’ ways of life is sentimental nostalgia, and that instead one should explore the ‘realities’ of recent capital investment: Coca Cola’s new water-bottling plant in Northumberland, for example. Some also favour the ‘reality’ of urban environments, as if there was some moral failure involved in my choice to live and write about the rural. I feel that these criticisms miss the point. When I write about what it meant to be born female in a fishing family before the War, that is not nostalgia but a comment on the hardship of the time and the choices that we have now. When I write about a hill farmer confronted by meaningless bureaucracy, that is as much about the realities of economic power as any factory. It is a question of perspective. Much about modern urban life is insulated from the ‘realities’ of nature. I would argue that to look to older ways of life that were closer to the natural world can be paradoxically radical, giving insights into the most pressing social issues: climate change and global hunger. I believe that the lives about which I write embody skills, values and lessons which have urgent contemporary ‘relevance’, to use that horrible word.
For quarter of a century I have written about the fishing industry in one small, local place. I have done so because what I’ve witnessed is a microcosm of something important about our species and our relation to our ecosystem. Broadly speaking, in the course of one human lifespan in the 20th century, fishermen became too technologically successful, and in some areas destroyed the thing that once sustained them. The fishermen I knew locally, born in a pre-industrial age, were conscious of the sustainability of their small-scale way of life, and saw the danger ahead. There are many complexities hidden within that statement: the poems, I hope, unravel some of them.
That duality of human creation and destruction underlies much of Two Countries. It’s apparent in the Sea Roads and Coal Roads sections, and especially in the final section. The last poem in the book, The Refuge Box [first published in The Clearing in 2013 here], ends in a post-human landscape, with ‘nature’ – birds and marine invertebrates – picking over the wreckage. I would argue that the very localism of the book is what allows me complexity of perspective. It is a localism grounded in overlapping timescales, one of which is geological, pre and post-dating the human. The local makes possible that sense of scale, and that sense of scale gives the local its value.
JS: I was struck by how varied and complex your use of literary forms is in these poems, especially in some of the longer poems. The use of refrains throughout does seem to gesture toward certain poetic conventions but they often seem the more vernacular conventions such as the ballad, the folk tale, or the folk song. Is there a reason you draw on these rather than other literary styles?
KP: I am not particularly conscious of literary tradition when I write. That is not where I feel the poetry comes from, or goes to. Poetic form comes to me from life, from a wide variety of sources, human and natural. But you’re right that I often use refrain. It’s just one aspect of repeated pattern. Rhyme is another, metre and motif others still. Refrain is a sort of patterning which seems natural to long structures – the chorus of a song, certain forms of litany and chant in religious ritual. Dance, ceremony, drama, even film make use of it. I think of it as similar to pattern in knitting. I like the feeling in a poem that a refrain invites participation, communality. It can suggest community, too – a source in something old, like a proverb or a saying. It’s also generative, in that its very limitations suggest variation, subversion, new directions for a poem to take.
The repetitions of nature suggest refrains. When I write about landscape, walking through that place is crucial to the form of the poem: the process is mimetic, following the line and rhythm of the land. So This Far and No Further mimics the long, high line of the Whin Sill, with its abrupt edges, and the march of the Roman Wall. Tweed is a linear poem because it follows the flow of a long river, braiding conflicting currents. Dunstanburgh is about time, so its form is seasonal. Centuries of echoes are contained within the rhythm of one year. In The Refuge Box the structure is at once diurnal, seasonal and tidal. Many of my poems imitate sea or weather patterns. There are also human rhythms of walking, pulse and breath. Listening for these rhythms and structures, and for the repetitions and variations within them, is central to the act of writing. Natural forms like these are more interesting to me than strictly ‘literary’ form.
Speech, especially dialect and its patterns, provides a particular formal influence. Northumbrian dialect often falls into a three-beat rhythm, especially in heightened emotion: ‘Howway doon t’ the chorchyard an’ ask the aa’d men.’ It fascinated me to find that, when Northumbrian dialect speakers were remembering, their speech often fell naturally into ballad rhythm: ‘Yon fields wheer aa’ them hooses are, Aah’ve seen ‘em set wi’ corn.’ So while you are right to identify the ballad convention within my poems, it might be that, rather than deriving from the ballad, this comes instead from a common source in local speech and sayings. Additionally, many of my dialect speakers – most of whom left school at 14 – were familiar with both Robert Burns and the Border Ballads, and often quoted from them. Their other texts were Moody and Sankey hymns and the Authorized Bible. These sources were part of their oral tradition and have made their way into my work via them.
This way of working has grown naturally out of my practice as an oral historian, and was probably more influenced by documentary photographers and film-makers than by any poetic tradition. I’m embarrassed by my ignorance of so much of English Literature. I wasn’t aware of any particular literary precedent, or of models such as Charles Parker, Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl’s Radio Ballads, until I had already been working in this way for several years. I evolved my working practice instinctively, out of a strong desire for authenticity: a desire to record things that were vanishing, in a way that would give them some kind of continued presence in daily life beyond the museum; an urge to negotiate what we mean by social or historical ‘truth’ (often by using multiple voices); and a documentary urge to let voices be heard which might otherwise go unheard.
There is a tension here between the spoken word as testimony, and its abstract qualities as pure sound. On one level, the sounds of speech and of nature influence me in similar ways. Birdsong is particularly important to me. My earliest memory is of lying in my pram in the garden listening to birds before I could speak. The patterning and complexity of particular birds’ song fascinates me. Blackbirds’ phrasing, repetition and variation, their silences and antiphonal call and response; skylarks’ long jazz improvisations; starlings’ exceptional eclecticism and mimicry: all inform my work. I have no musical training, but I’m aware of picking up fragments of abstract sound – natural and human – and imitating them, playing with them, to see what resonates with what. Out of these sonic connections whole poems grow.
JS: I’m intrigued by your suggestion that we, or that you as a writer, endeavour to ‘negotiate what we mean by social or historical ‘truth’’. This seems especially resonant when thinking about place and the local. I wonder if you could elaborate on why you put truth in inverted commas here and why it is a process of ‘negotiation’.
KP: Historians and journalists are often urged to be ‘objective’. But how can we be? Language does not allow it. All time and space are relative, so reality itself does not allow it. If there is some objective ‘truth’, we cannot access it. In the ordinary world what we have instead is perspective, starting-place, a movement towards or away from; metaphor; multiple conversations; communality; one conversation or argument in relation to another. This is as close as we get to ‘truth’, or ‘truths’, and why the word needs inverted commas. Perhaps ‘authenticity’ is a better word. My poems explore some of these perspectives, angles and multiplicities, and that is what I mean by a process of negotiation.
My poetry has been strongly shaped by certain genres of historical writing; particularly, as I say, by oral history, popular in America when I lived there in the early 1980s; and secondly by ‘micro-history’, of the kind exemplified by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s 1975 study of a Languedoc village, Montaillou. I was very affected by reading this complex, multi-layered study of one small peasant community, and by the struggle to reconstruct some kind of ‘truth’ from the oral testimony of detailed interrogation records. That striving for a complete and complex picture of something local and personal resonated strongly with me around 1980. Not long afterwards, I read Richard Mabey’s The Common Ground, through which I came upon the environmental organisation of the same name, which became important to me, confirming and helping focus my feeling for large issues at work in the local and particular.
The urge to be ‘true’ or authentic is the strongest urge for me in poetry. Trying to be true is an active process. Paradoxically, it requires not words but the stripping away of language. When I work with students – which I do rarely – I ask them to pick up a natural object, something very small; to slow down, and to examine that object in minute detail with each of their senses in turn. They must look, and look again, concentrating on what they observe, touch, hear, taste and smell, without thinking about words. Only when they have spent a long time doing so should they translate that experience back into sound – not, at first, into words, but into rhythm and expressive noises, as if they were learning to speak. That simple but demanding practice imitates what happens to me when I write. It echoes my relation to the close and the local, and seems in part an exercise in the surrender of the conscious, controlling part of the self.
Two Countries was published late last year by Bloodaxe Books. You can find out more about it here, and you can find out more about Katrina Porteous, her work, and forthcoming events on her website here.