Let's hear it for the canal laureate: Jo Bell fans whoop it up
Jo Bell is “a force of nature”, we were told at the Wenlock poetry festival on Saturday. “She keeps a cool head in a crisis on a narrowboat in a tunnel,” said Jonathan Davidson, chief executive of Writing West Midlands, as he introduced her to her fans.
You’d expect that the canal laureate would know what to do on the waterways, of course. And fans there certainly were. Bell took her turn in the spotlight to read from her new collection Kith to whoops and cheers. She said that “kith” were people “you choose to spend your time with … people who travel and live on narrowboats … people who share your artistic endeavours”.
Many of her kith were clearly in the audience, and had also been at an earlier event at the festival that day, when she and fellow members of the 52 group that she set up last year (“Write a poem a week. Start now. Keep going”) read from their anthology. In one of Bell’s poems at the later reading they joined in the chorus; in another, ‘Oiks’, a poem about ducks, they took part in the ruffians’ chant: “What do we want? / BREAD. / When do we want it? / NOW, and NOW, and NOW.”
Bell has her own poetry gang, and it is a big one. The question is, why is she such a crowd-pleaser? She tells it like it is, could be one answer. There are a number of “dirty, cynical” poems at the beginning of Kith, she told her audience: “There are lots of different kinds of love – but I usually write about this kind.” Accordingly, ‘Your Helens and my Jonathans’ begins: “After the kitchen table, sofa, stairwell and / (surprisingly) that photo booth in York, / we’ve made it to a bed. Just you and me / and everyone we’ve ever slept with.”
But Bell writes about other kinds of love as well. ‘My country’ “takes years to find me, comes by water / in its own sweet time, doesn’t mind much / if I lag or fall behind”. Her marvellous poem ‘LIfted’ describes the movement of water through a lock: “Open up the paddles, let it dam and pucker, / lift and with it, lift us like a bride, a kite // a wanted answer, breath no longer held, / or like a boat.”
'No Seafarer’ talks of “working up to Wolverhampton through the Twenty One / or drifting into Diglis, gagging for a cup of tea.” When the powers-that-be appointed her as canal laureate, could they have guessed that they had picked a poet who would sing of the boatyards, shallow channels and gongoozlers in such a voice? Words from one of her crafted and lyrical poems are carved into a lock gate at Huddersfield. Like the canal engineers and navvies before her, Jo Bell has created something remarkable, that will last.
She was preceded at the Saturday afternoon reading by fellow Nine Arches Press poet Robert Peake, an American currently living in the UK - an experience he described as “like living in a parallel universe”, as far as weather was concerned, at any rate. His poem ‘April’ spoke of “sap coursing through like amphetamine” and an “arms race toward the beating sun”. The beauties of Shropshire had made him decide to read a lot of nature poems, he said, even though – or maybe because – he had gone through “all four seasons” travelling up that morning from Hertfordshire. Greg Freeman