Arts Muse

Leeds Lit Fest: Writing the Landscape

Maya Bewley looks at how authors at the Leeds Literature Festival have responded to the pandemic through landscape writing.

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Image Credit: Vertebrate Publishing, 2020

With the gates of lockdown slowly opening and a few rays of sunshine nervously peeking through, an immersion in words from the outdoors couldn’t feel more prescient. Leeds Lit Festival’s Saturday supplement Writing the Landscape was the perfect answer to another afternoon online. Over the course of the one hour Zoom, authors Helen Mort, Anna Chilvers, Jason Allen-Paisant and John Whale discussed what it has been like to write in and about the landscape during such a tumultuous year.

First up was a reading from Sheffield award-winning poet, novelist and mountaineer Helen Mort. Taken from her most recent book, Never Leave the Dog Behind, Mort addresses an ode to Bell, a whippet who dragged her out of a phobia of dogs and along the sprawling hills of Ambleside and Easedale. The title, while asserting dogs’ ubiquity in our day-to-day lives,  paradoxically suggests a state of constantly catching up to them, following our four legged friends come rain or shine. Though she was already used to scaling the rugged heights of the Peak District, Mort admits that exploring with Bell forged a new outlook on the outside world. Dogs make you notice things. ‘All creatures change your habits’, she quips.  Although her book may be written in prose, it is clear that Mort is a poet at heart. Nostalgic anecdotes blend with vivid imagery and loaded phrases, all brilliantly uttered through the internet connection.

Following Mort was Jason Allen-Paisant, a Jamaican poet and academic at the University of Leeds, whose work has featured in Granta, the Poetry Review, and more. Reading from his forthcoming collection, Thinking With Trees, Allen-Paisant explores the environment, merging important themes of black identity and time. Aptly named, the poem Plague Walks watches those outdoors, while evoking the history of a sugar plantation in Jamaica. He continues with Right Now I’m standing, about reclaiming the present from a black perspective, about intentionally stopping to observe.  Poetry comes out of the struggle with description he mentions later. Yet each poem feels meticulous, carefully articulating his encounter with the landscape. The last visually rich poem, Daffodils (Speculations on Future Blackness), requests the listener to ‘hear a different sound’ from the word daffodil. ‘Try to imagine daffodils / in the hands of a black family / on a black walk / in spring’, he urges.

Anna Chilvers (writer, runner and teacher) sustained the stream of accomplished writing with a snippet from her latest novel East Coast Road.  Expressive and earnest, Chilvers guides us through a dusky meander along the beach with characters Wolf, Ethie and Jen. It’s unclear who the figures are, but they tenderly merge into each other in a dreamlike state. Clever attention is paid to the intimacy of leather and the hazy transition into sunset, all while the encompassing coastline seems to unravel across each sentence. Answering essential questions about representing disability in the environment, she notes that her novel’s protagonist struggles with mental illness. Chilvers’ vibrant language attempts to convey this particular lens as it gazes over the dynamic landscape.

A final reading came from academic John Whale, in the form of two diaristic musings on Spring and Summer. Described as ‘prose poems’, Whale’s writing isn’t swamped but absorbed in poetic technique, blooming with detail. Spring, the first ‘wayward observation’, is a profound devotion to the season’s accelerated growth and new life. Every phrase feels hyper-aware in capturing a subjective perception of the world. ‘The eye has a memory of its own’, he muses, inspired by reading Kathleen Jamie. Summer, the latter poem, is the result of viewing Nightjar birds hovering north of Leeds over a destroyed conifer plantation. Cloaked in the ‘strange-substance’ of half-light, Whale relays the strange fowl that swoops through the forgotten shrubs and clasps his imagination long after leaving.

Later, the discussion widens into a broader question and answer session. How has the landscape changed their writing habits over the past year? Helen Mort begins by recalling how watching her child learn to walk has impressed a much more ‘local way of noticing’ onto her artistry as the world moves slowly by.  Yet ‘dogs send you outwards in all directions’, and Anna Chilvers agrees. Chilvers later remarks that when you have a dog, you ‘don’t have an opportunity to say it’s too rainy or grey’ - a process that forces you to confront and absorb what’s outside. Are there any kind of writers that describe the urban landscape? Jason Allen-Paisant recommends Caleb Femi’s Poor, which he explains as through the ‘lens of growing up and forming a community that challenges the stereotypical view of a council estate’. Meanwhile John Whale praises Edgelands (Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts), for its take on post industrial sites being recolonised by greenery.

One sentiment that held lasting resonance with the current pandemic was the ability of nature writing to transport the landscape indoors. As suggested by John Whale, the triumph of poems like Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud is that they bring the daffodils to the portability of a page. Hopefully this tradition continues as we begin to cautiously emerge outside again.

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