In 2016 I was commissioned by Durham University, Free Word, and eco/arts charity TippingPoint to write a new six-part poem, Doggerland Rising. The commission arose out of an exciting conference called Weatherfronts, which brought together scientists and writers with the aim of generating new climate change writing.
Thanks to a chance meeting at dinner, I discovered Doggerland. Once a vast landmass off the east coast of England which connected Britain to mainland Europe, it was submerged by rising sea levels and now lies under the North Sea. I was fascinated and set out to write a long poem in the voices of our Mesolithic ancestors as their land became more inhospitable. The poem would investigate parallels between what they faced and what we’re dealing with today.
The project was life-changing. I collaborated with palaeo-scientists at Durham University – face-to-face interviews informed the poem’s context – and revelled in working in the university context. I had not thought of myself as writing ‘eco’ poetry, but realised with a jolt that some of my other work could be seen through this lens. The project also pushed my writing forwards: Doggerland Rising became my first long poem.
Doggerland Rising was launched at Free Word in London in January 2017, along with the other commissioned work in different genres. I showcased it and performed extracts at a panel event at the Durham Book Festival, at the Hay Festival in May 2017, and at the Birmingham Literature Festival. It was published on the Free Word website and in a free e-book by Cambria Press.
In 2018 I’m bringing Doggerland Rising to Australia … In another chance moment, my friend, Tamara Braunstein, sent me a link to The SPACLALS Two Canaries of Climate Change – Island and Polar Places conference in Sydney. It seemed that Doggerland Rising would fit right in, so I sent in an abstract for a paper I could present, which was accepted. With more than 800 islands of its own, Australia is deeply concerned about rising sea levels.
I then applied for funding from the Arts Council England and the British Councils’ Artists’ International Development Fund to attend the conference in person, and do a broader project in Sydney and Australia. This consists of:
- presenting a paper at the conference
- performing the poem and related work in Sydney and Melbourne
- networking with Australian writers to develop new collaborations and readers
I am indebted to the British Council and Arts Council England for funding, to Dr Gillian Dooley and SPACLALS for acting as my project host, and to numerous other organisations and individuals.
Read my poem in this FREE Realistic Utopias: Writing for Change anthology (PDF)
Follow me at #JHartACEinOz
Read Doggerland Rising in this FREE Realistic Utopias: Writing for Change anthology (PDF)
British writer lands in Sydney thanks to the British Council
Doggerland Rising. An Extract.
Float above the North Sea,
part its thick skin, peer through.
On the bed: flint blades, ancient seeds,
rotted wood carved as a hull.
Imagine voices. Listen for voices.
Laughter, shouts. A splash!
A man hallooing as if to himself
paddles through shallow waters.
He looks ahead, squinting;
he can almost see you, you him.
You dabble your hand in wavelets,
clink the cockles piled in his boat
dip fingers in his brain, pull him alive.
Set 9500 to 9000 years ago before Doggerland was inundated – the Mesolithic tribes would have been migrating away for centuries because of steady engulfment by sea. The poems focus on one of the last remaining small Doggerland tribes in the days before they leave for good.
I hadn’t heard of Doggerland until I went to something called the Weatherfronts conference – an event that gathered writers and climate change scientists together – and happened to sit next to scientist Dr Louise Callard at dinner. The name Dogger was familiar from the Radio 4 shipping forecast but I couldn’t have said where it was in the North Sea; nor that Doggerland was once a vast, fertile, forested and low-lying landmass off the east coast of England linking Britain to continental Europe.
Louise’s enthusiasm for her work in reconstructing past environmental change was infectious. She introduced me to the concept of the Storegga tsunami which finally wiped Doggerland out. Some inhabitants might have survived, we hypothesised, by walking across shallow seas from the Dogger Hills (the last remaining island) at low tide. I left dinner, my head filled with ghostly figures drowning in prehistoric lands, pathos for their plight and a desire to reimagine this lost world.
My proposal coalesced on the train on the way home – I planned to create a poem sequence ‘told in the voices of the ancient people of Doggerland as they witness and respond to rapid climate change’. In the period in which the poems are set, our Mesolithic ancestors would have witnessed their landscape changing in their own lifetimes, as we are seeing now.
The poem would ask and answer questions such as: What do these people dream of and believe in? What do they think is happening as the sea reclaims their land and as conditions become more extreme? How do they adapt? What would they whisper to us down the centuries if they could? Might they have things to teach us? I was keen not to project our own beliefs and fears onto them but to see what they had to say – to channel them, in effect.
The sequence is amazing. So many beautiful sounds, evocative clear details and beautiful phrasing (wonderful poetry).Sarah James
Beautifully lyrical and expertly pulls the reader along to its haunting and yet inevitable conclusion.Sophie Wardell, Free Word
The poem is a real achievement – a step forward.Myra Schneider
Are you a writer in Sydney or Melbourne and looking to collaborate? Or were you at the conference and wish to get in touch?
Sign up and I’ll send you occasional news, tips and inspiration.