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Nancy Campbell is the Bard on the Barge

21 May 18 interview: Aly Stoneman
illustrations: Emmy Smith

One of Nancy Campbell’s first commissions as Britain’s new Canal Laureate is a poem celebrating Nottingham and Beeston Canal…

Congratulations on being appointed Britain's new Canal Laureate!
Thanks! My previous residencies have been mostly in icy Arctic environments, so it’s good to turn my attention closer to home: the 2,000 miles of waterways in the UK. It’s an honour to be appointed by The Poetry Society and the Canal & River Trust.

Your new poem, Elements, was first performed as part of Enchanted Water, a Light Night event showcasing the Nottingham and Beeston Canal...
I’d been thinking about canals as a locus of change – the world has changed loads over their 200 years of existence – and I was invited by CRT East Midlands to consider the canal’s past and present life. Chinese New Year celebrations suggested a structure for Elements based around the Wu Xing or Five Elements – fire, water, wood, earth, metal – and how they manifest in the canal’s story.

For Enchanted Water, Castle Wharf was illuminated by contemporary artworks, archive films and puppet performances as part of the Nottingham Narrowboat Project. I loved travelling along the canal with people who’d come to hear the poetry.

What are your plans for the year ahead?
I’m working on a poem about rain, which’ll be sprayed onto surfaces around the canal network using hydroponic paint, and in July I’m planning a cross-country kayak journey from Liverpool to Goole.

Any book recommendations?
I’d highly recommend Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s brilliant collection Swims. I’m currently reading Maggie Nelson’s Something Bright, Then Holes which poet Kaddy Benyon recommended; it includes a sequence, The Canal Diaries, observations of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal.

To discover more about the Nottingham and Beeston Canal, visit the Canalside Heritage Centre at Beeston Lock, or visit their website.  

Nancy Campbell

Travellers on this Wooden vessel, let me tell you a story of Fire and Water and finding Funds (by which I mean, finding Gold) and how these elements meet between two steep banks of Earth.

Money is both paper and metal // Paper the parliamentary act on which long ago my making was passed / and paper for the loans of investors / and yet more paper for their debts // And metal the chain slung across my waves by the toll keeper at Lenton / and the coins that changed hands there before barges could breach me / to ship iron ore along me, drawn by strong horses // And the jigs and cranes and pulleys clanking on city wharves so boaters’ backs would not be broken // and the salvage raised by kids who trawl with magnets for treasure, those who need treasure / and pennies thrown into the cut for luck by those who don’t // And metal the rails laid down with rivets and the wheels of the trains upon them / marking a new line across the land / and so turns my story...

For once I outshone the roads / the dust roads with their potholes, the drove roads, the pack roads / before rail overtook me // And land was the start of me / was here long before me / the earth sliced and shovelled and wheeled off in barrows / men’s energy spent on a long empty hollow // The Trent – my old rival – snakes away southwards // A river makes its own way, whereas I was surveyed / my purpose debated / planned / I was wanted // From Meadow Lane to Beeston Lock / I keep my course between these banks / you won’t find an oxbow eroding over ages here, rather a right angle that stays true / I’m on the map now, a landless landmark // And earth was my cargo too / I brought flint to the potteries / carried ceramics back / and rarely a vessel cracked // The clay from local pits made bricks that built my bridges // The city grew up / and held me in its red-brick hug...

And there was always fire, even so close to water / I was only a spark in Jessop’s eye, when the blasts in the pits were echoed by distant fusillades / and barely begun, when England declared war with France // I was designed for one world, but finished in a new one // Coal came by butty from Strelley and Billborough to fuel the factories / while fire fomented in workers’ hearts // And fire spreads fast // One day at Wilford Street wharf a laughing boatman passed a hot clinker from his own furnace to a boat loaded with gunpowder, thinking just to share a spark / the explosion made waves / sank boats / shook the streets to the market place / as if a dragon stirred in the caves // Warehouses crumbled / and were built again // and now it is Firefox and Flash Player that gleam behind the office windows...

And so to wood, and all that floats on water / I’ve learned to love the lighter hulls of fibreglass / to let pontoons and playboats float upon me / though my first boats were built from timber at Trevethick’s yard / strips of oak and iroko soaked and curved // the forests that once hid outlaws, now setting them free // trees understand my speed // I flow past yards stacked with willow planks for cricket bats // I slip through the wooden gates of Castle Lock / that govern like the hands of clocks / your time, my water level / and emerge where saplings shade the towpath and blackberries grow wild / and anglers cast invisible lines for fish / and dogs run after half-imagined sticks...

You can see my whole reach from the sky / as a plane descends or as a raindrop falls / the old maps told it so // my course shaped like a farmer’s crook / guiding old sheep to the market, new sheep from the lab // Or if you prefer, liken my line to a giant curving kirby grip from Boots / I still like to keep things in place // A sure shortcut, not a shallow distraction // A day turns and you note morning and evening / a year turns and you mark its beginning and ending / and all the time I travel / like a slackline walker I keep moving / without movement / is no progress // Sometimes sprightly / sometimes silty / sometimes sluggish / I flow on / from cock-crow to swan-song.

This poem was written for the Nottingham & Beeston Canal on Nottingham Light Night 2018. Many thanks to The Poetry Society and the Canal & River Trust for print permissions. To check out more poetry inspired by our Waterways, check out the Waterlines website.

The Poetry Society website

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