26’s historian, Justina Hart, took her writing to Australia for two weeks this year, thanks to a grant from Arts Council England and the British Council. She explains more about the project.
It’s 39 degrees outside and I’m at a conference at the University of New England in Sydney. I have shared a stage with the New Zealand poet laureate, Selina Tusitala Marsh, and given a PowerPoint presentation to Commonwealth literature scholars about my long poem, Doggerland Rising, set in now-submerged islands off the English coast and its relevance to contemporary climate change. It’s the first time I’ve performed my poetry to an international audience or delivered a paper at an academic conference.
This evening I’m in the audience as Tusitala Marsh, in conversation, explains the meaning behind the laureate’s Māori walking stick, Matua Tokotoko. She invites us all to touch it – laureates normally keep the walking stick in a case but Tusitala Marsh has vowed to have thousands handle it as she brings poetry to the ‘un-poeted’. In her hair she’s tucked a blue quill pen embossed with ‘Lichfield Cathedral’, a gift I gave her.
After the conference I have numerous meetings planned with other Sydney-based writers and literature professionals and more quill pens to give out. I’m then flying to Melbourne to stay with a British-Australian playwright and to give another performance, this time to an environmental humanities group. The aims of my project are to bring my climate change writing to Australia; to network with Australian and South Pacific writers with a view to generating new collaborations; and to discover fresh approaches to, and audiences for, this type of writing.
So how did the project come about? In 2016 I was commissioned by Durham University, Free Word, and eco/arts charity TippingPoint to write a six-part climate change poem, Doggerland Rising. The poem was launched with other commissioned eco writing at Free Word and published in a free Weatherfronts ebook. After performing extracts at the Hay, Birmingham, and Durham literature festivals, I received one of those serendipitous emails. Would I be interested in a conference about disappearing islands and polar regions?
The connection with my poem seemed perfect: the only catch was that the conference was 11,000 miles away. With little expectation of being there in person but keen to have the structure of a broader project, I applied to the Artists’ International Development Fund*, which gives grants for artists to develop new markets for their work. I was delighted to be awarded the full grant, which allowed for a second artist to accompany me to record the project and create a related exhibition.
The project has involved 14-hour days before and during the trip – plus trekking in scorching heat with video, audio and camera equipment, questionnaires, business cards, personalised, bookmarks, quill pens and postcards from my home town Lichfield, sunhat, sunglasses, and UV umbrella – but I read with wonderful writers, such as Tusitala Marsh, Australian poet, Mark Tredinnick, and novelist, Célestine Hitiura Vaite, and make friends with scholars from places as far flung as Tahiti and Taiwan.
And, when the technical equipment I’ve so carefully set up for the backing track fails, I even get to sing one of my own songs a cappella live to an international audience.