Monday, 16 June 2014

Letter to Alice

Two poems have influenced my project Sharing at the Shoreline in particular. Alice Oswald’s poem Dart presents a sound-map of the river Dart based on the language of people who live and work on along it. On our journey from source to mouth we meet a walker, a fisherman and bailiff, a waternymph, a dreamer, a stonewaller, a ferryman, a sealwatcher. What excites me in this booklong poem is the way Oswald creates a rich experiential image of the river by letting many different people – and mythical figures - speak.

The second poem is Solway by Kenneth Steven, published in his collection Iona. In this poem, ‘The sailors climb aboard the land / The voices rise and fall along the road’ while ‘Long across the bay is England / Lying still at anchor, far and blue’. It is a poem I often return to for the different kind of experience it offers, it contains a perspective I had not thought of myself.

To create a similar dialogue and to open myself up to perspectives I would not otherwise think of, I have held a number of poetry workshops and walks. During the workshop in the Tolbooth Museum in Stonehaven a fisherman told me that what drew him to the sea was the challenge. During the walk at Forvie we spoke about seals and one participant wrote about a seal's feelings and thoughts when a person approached her: ‘What do you want, what will you do?’. During the workshop with the Stonehaven Writing Group a participant spoke about his experiences of the coast as an RAF pilot whilst other participants wrote about lighthouse-high waves and put on a seal skin of to become a sea mermaid.

Gradually, I have come to realise that my poems reveal my dialogue with the landscape and and my responses to what I read, see and hear about the Aberdeenshire coast. In Johnshaven, for example, I was struck by the symbolism of a collection of anchors lying in front of the disused lifeboat station. When I started my walk I read a newspaper story about a sea angler who had drowned. The week before I had been watching a sea angler whilst a seagull on a rock on the opposite site of the cove was angling for the same fish. The article put this image in perspective. Likewise, a chance viewing of a film at the Aberdeen Maritime Museum about coastal salmon fishing around Forvie provided the storyline for the salmon nets I had passed between Aberdeen and Newburgh.

A form of poetry that I feel particularly attracted to is dramatic monologue. Spoken, and addressed to someone else, I value the opportunity it provides to construct an argument by letting the speaker respond to (implied) actions and reactions from the addressee. A letter can be seen as a specific form of dramatic monologue. In my poem Letter to Alice I have juxtaposed my own experiences of the coast as a walker against those of a salmon fisherman.
Letter to Alice
What is sand and salt water to
The bodies of a walker, a fisherman, a bird?
I have been asking myself this question ever since
I started walking the coastline north.
The knife I spoke about is blunt,
Its edge softened by sand and salt.
My feet not cut
But massaged by sand, rasping and raw.
You walked the riverbanks, heard the currents gather stories.
I walk in the turbulence where your stories
Meet horizons that won’t alter
Until I face the afternoon sun past Fraserburgh.
Sand and salt water are in my step
But never will I return to the same grain of sand,
The same rock pool, the same gully.

How different sand and salt water are to
The salmon fisherman whose path I crossed this morning!
He knows the movements of the moon, the waves, the wind.
His feet tell him about the depths of the sea,
The shapes of sandbanks, the pull of currents. He can
Read the tides from the sway
Of his nets between the poles he staked.
Like your path, my path follows the edge of the water,
The salmon fisherman crosses the beach
And enters. The water pulls
Around his ankles, his calves, his knees, his waist – deeper still
To check his nets for migrating salmon.
My gaze cuts out a narrow path between land and sea, but
The eyes of a salmon fisherman
Cannot affirm a safe pathway.

What is sand and salt water to
The bodies of a walker, a fisherman, a bird?
I am learning, Alice.

Copyright text, image and poem Petra Vergunst

Tuesday, 3 June 2014


The crofting history of Bennachie is fascinating and over the summer I will use this as inspiration for a string quartet and poetry to go alongside this string quartet. Funded by The Hope Scott Trust, Forestry Commission Scotland and sound, and as part of of surround-sound, the works will have their first performance by The Dee String Quartet at the visitor centre of Bennachie on Saturday 13 September.

For me, the project Whispers in the Woods is an excellent opportunity to explore how music composition and poetry can sit alongside each other creatively and how this can be presented in new ways. Rather than giving a pre-concert talk, I hope to take the audience on a preconcert poetry walk to share some of the history and places that have inspired the string quartet.

The Bailies of Bannachie have worked closely with Forestry Commission Scotland and archaeologist and anthropologists from the University of Aberdeen to explore the hill’s crofting history. I have been fortunate to follow their work for several years now and the wooded slopes have gradually transformed into a place in which people lived and made a living. My poem Pottery and Claypipe was originally inspired by some of the findings at one of the archaeological digs at Bennachie last summer.

Bennachie not only has a very rich social history, it has also inspired several folk tales. As part of surround-sound, Forestry Commission Scotland will also premiere the opera The Maiden Stone composed by Joe Stollery and with a libretto Catriona Yule which will be performed on the hill on 5 and 6 September. It is exciting to present my work next to this opera as it reveals the rich repertoire of stories related to the hill and different ways in which music and words can reinforce each other. Thus far I have made good progress with the composition of the string quartet and will soon start looking for ways in which the storyline of the string quartet can be presented through poetry and may well end up using dramatic monologue to do so.
Copyright words and image Petra Vergunst