I can think of three distinct situations relevant to my practice. First, when I am simply overcome by the need to write, I will do that wherever I am, usually by typing notes into my smartphone. I then email these to myself, and they form the basis of future poems or essays. Sometimes it feels more fitting to write on paper, so I’ll grab whatever notebook or paper I have at hand and write what’s bubbling up.
The second situation is when I am out walking and camping, spending hours or days out in the hills. Mentally, walking helps me to let go of everyday or domestic thoughts. I use the physical practice of placing one foot in front of the other, and closely observing what’s around me, to tune my mind into the place, and to dwell in each present moment. If I want to respond creatively to a walk, it’s very important not to be distracted by conversations with others, and I like walking alone. In my practice with Rob, we’re fortunate in that we can be alone together: he respects my need for quiet and knows when to leave me be! I often bring meditation into my writing practice: physically and mentally slowing down and tuning into place can be quite powerful. The words that arise after periods of meditation—always in this case written in pencil, into a notebook—often feed into poems.
In a busier situation where I know I will be writing about what’s happening—this could be in a farmyard, at an auction, among conservationists or foresters, on a river survey, or even at a conference—the key to setting up is to listen. Logistics include making sure my smartphone is fully charged. I’m fortunate that I can write very fast on it and capture both what is being said around me and the thoughts that go through my head.
The final location for writing is the space I use to pull notes together and compose, refine or edit poems that have been seeded outside. This becomes a sort of a ritual as I set up my space and bring my mind to the moment. I have to have the room to myself. Then I choose the right kind of music, have a bar of chocolate at hand, and use big sheets of paper (sometimes up to five meters long) so that I can spread words out, shift perspective, and play. I often use different colored pens for this stage; then for pulling together poetry, I use a particular ink pen.
At university (1989-1992) I studied Indian society, religions and languages, with a focus on Buddhist philosophy through a degree in Comparative Religion. My first job following this, one that lasted five years, was as one of four writers of the Rough Guide to India. That wasn’t a bad way to start out a career as a writer! When I became pregnant at the age of 27, I had to rein in my travels, and my work turned to editing and press-related travel writing for a while. Then I became involved with an integrated healthcare practice in London, and for ten years wrote patient information and articles on women’s healthcare, infant development, and the birth of a family. It was a very rich period of learning, as I worked alongside pediatricians, obstetricians, psychotherapists, acupuncturists, healers, and other complementary therapists, and lots of expectant parents and babies. During this time, I was living in the countryside, and traveling to London once or twice a month; eventually my desire to be outside and to write about being outside took over—plus my own two children had grown and my attention shifted. Meeting Rob was a huge turning point: we instantly made a solid team, pairing our shared love of the outdoors with a way of seeing that was visual, poetic, curious, and driven. The practice I now have is underpinned by the energy we share and the way we can support one another, reflect on what we’re doing, and allow ideas to grow.
The early days of my career took me on a deep journey through the human psyche and the nature of relationships, the power of pausing and of gentle and close observation of people and place, and, perhaps most importantly, listening. More recently, I’ve been learning from ecologists and environmental scientists, farmers, and others who work close to the land. My practice now, centered in the outdoors and the way humans relate to “natural” environments, is a product of all these things.
I think developing an approach is a combination of what you learn through life, the impulse to be creative, the intention you have for your work, and a big dose of effort; that is to say, it doesn’t just come automatically, it’s something that has to be worked at. My own creative spark has been around for as long as I remember, always nudging me and inclining me to write. But it is only recently, in the last ten-to-twelve years, that I have really tended to this inner drive. In 2015 to2017, after twenty years out of college, I made the decision to study again, and undertook an MPhil in Creative Writing with Glasgow University. In the UK system, an MPhil (Master of Philosophy) is an autonomous course of study, rather than a taught masters with a series of modules, etc. For me, the key reason for doing the MPhil was to develop my approach to poetry—my voice, my style, and the presentation of my work on the page and in the landscape. Prior to this study, the majority of my writing had been prose and documentary.
I remember struggling for a considerable time, not knowing if I had “found my voice” or if I was on the “right” path. My supervisor repeatedly reminded me to be patient and recommended lots of trial and error. To keep writing, and to keep reading, were both vital. And to stick with the discomfort of knowing something isn’t quite right. Eventually I came to a point where the poetry I was writing had a consistent sense that it was “my” poetry. And, more importantly, what I was writing was intrinsically bound up with my practice of walking, of immersion in place, and of inviting landscape and natural elements into the poetic work; these things can’t be separated. I know my work will continue to evolve (wouldn’t it be dull if it stayed the same!) but that was a crucial developmental time.
It doesn’t always help to keep banging away at something when you don’t feel like it, or when inspiration has dried up. The more I practice as a writer, the gentler I can be with myself during the fallow periods, whether these last for hours or for days. I’ll invariably go outside, probably to walk, and, except for the winter, to potter, dig, weed, or plant in the garden. I’m not the kind of person who tidies the house much, but I do like washing up and staring out of the window by the kitchen sink to empty my mind. Getting out with friends and doing something that completely takes my mind away from what I thought I needed to get on with is also really useful. The mind can do a lot of subconscious work, and free itself up, when you take your focus away from it.
But sometimes of course I just have to write and get on with it, and if I’m not in the right headspace, this is where effort is important. In Buddhist thought “right effort” is considered to be one of eight fundamentals of the “eight-fold path”. I’ve always understood this to be the act of bringing focus to the moment, gathering tools, and committing to a task—in terms of writing, this is the logistic and mental preparation you asked about before. Sometimes I need to walk. Or I’ll need more chocolate than I suspected! Or I need to find better music, or I need to write quite a lot of rubbish before the good stuff comes; but, putting pen to paper and making the effort to stick with it is vital.
When the work isn’t working, I accept that it’s not quite there, step away and do something different, then come back to it with fresh eyes. Interrogating what’s going on is really helpful. Why isn’t it working? What’s missing? Was the intention or question wrong in the first place? Is it a practical problem? Or is it just a case of needing a subtle shift?
If my work doesn’t change, something’s not right. Having said that, it’s not always easy to notice change when you’re in the middle of a process; it’s something someone else may point out, or something you’ll see with hindsight.
One of the biggest changes in my work in the last five years has been the development of “Open Fell Poetry” and the integration of concrete poetry into land art. If you’re curious, there’s a bit more about that on this page here: http://www.somewhere-nowhere.com/projects/landart.
I think ideas arrive; I’m not sure I look for them. In my collaborative work with Rob, ideas surface in our conversations. When I’m walking, ideas seem to settle in my mind as if they come from the ground or the air. Almost exclusively I write from present experience, so the ideas are born from what’s going on around me. While my collaborative practice with Rob takes the natural world as its focus, in my wider poetry practice I may respond to what’s happening in the news or a current topical issue. Right now, COVID-19 is creeping into my thoughts all the time, the way we individually and collectively are affected by and respond to this crisis. Before COVID-19 the crisis of climate change and declining biodiversity felt like a constant backdrop always nudging at my thoughts and my writing; this continues.
I can’t separate my creative practice from the local—what I’m dwelling in and frequently write about—and the global, which is always connected to what I experience either directly or indirectly. One of the main projects that Rob and I are currently working on, Sense of Here, emphasizes the overlap between, and the entwining of, local and global. My writing for this project over the past year weaves in multiple perspectives.
Research is key. I suppose you could say it happens on three levels. The first is ‘active research’ which is my own act of being outside or immersing myself in particular situations, in order to write about and from these places. The second is research through conversation—meeting people who know a place well, and conducting formal interviews with people whose views on specific places or landscape knowledge and practice deepen my understanding. In the last seven years I’ve probably carried out more than 200 interviews. It’s hugely important to continue learning from other people. Thirdly, I read as widely as I can to learn from others through articles and books: it is crucial to have this wider context. The three methods are complementary.
Rob and I are members of cultural networks, and environmental-art related groups. We tap into meetings, listen to others’ presentations or read their articles, and contribute our own. I am a member of a couple of poetry groups where we offer constructive criticism to one another. It’s extremely useful. When it comes to poetry, reading out loud is essential. Any poem finds a life when it’s spoken, and you can tell quickly what’s not working. Then it’s back to writing and rewriting. On the page, I use a pen and I do a lot of scrawling and arrows and asterisks as I move things around. On the computer, I often do several drafts. There are different stages for different poems. Sometimes I cut the whole thing up and scatter it on the floor; putting it back together can be the process that allows something quite beautiful to emerge. Open mic nights are good as well—in terms of being part of a community and also hearing other people’s work.
There are stages to every project: catching hold of ideas; refining ideas; mapping ideas; finding the main strands. This is followed by doing the work: the research and continuing to refine ideas and ask questions; getting logistics in place (funding, marketing, exhibition venues, etc.); and, finally, editing and polishing the work for final sharing. Working on Land Keepers with Rob was the first significant joint project we did together and sharing the poem “Michael” in public was a key point for me. The feedback, which included a request to publish it, was what I needed to know that it was worth carrying on with poetry. In 2016, as part of my MPhil, I experimented with roaming poetry (stitching poems to the backs of sheep, adding poems to rosettes at a show, and creating poem-cakes that were eaten by farmers). This was the jumping-off point for a massive shift in the work Rob and I do, placing poetry outdoors and allowing the elements, and other people, to take part in its expression. Back in 2017, our creation of three permanent sculptures (link here: http://www.somewhere-nowhere.com/projects/treefolds) which carry a poem through the land, and also encircle new trees, marked a further evolution of our practice, and we’d love to do more permanent sculptures. Last year, in 2019, being listed as a runner up in a major landscape art prize felt pretty good: Rob and I had created a wooden piece, inscribed with a short verse and a GPS-tracked route of a seven-day walk between seven trees, represented by seven wood types. We were very proud of it.