All posts by Johnbolland

It’s ALIVE… poetry festival

Coming up next week! The Wee Gatherin, an ‘in real life’ poetry mini-festival organised by The Poet’s Republic in venues around Stonehaven in the North East of Scotland.

Poets are coming in from Scotland, Ireland and England for an opportunity to read, share, laugh…and probably drink.

First event in the bill will be a world premiere reading of poems from the new collection, Pibroch, which will be published by Red Squirrel Press in September…but I can’t wait to share work I’ve been focussed on for the last 2 years.

Pibroch explores parallels between the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988 and the unfolding climate catastrophe driving the extreme weather events occuring with increasing frequence and fatal consequences. The title alludes to the pibroch Lament for the Children (Padraig Mor McCrimmon c1640).

The poems in Pibroch have been created as a mix of found poems and imaginative voicings based on :

  • The extant official enquiry and documentation associated with the disaster (e.g. the Cullen Report, Cabinet Papers, newspaper articles);
  • Interviews in the public domain from survivors and relatives;
  • Emotional, behavioural and scientific parallels between the disaster and the current climate crisis as documented in various intergovernmental reports and scientific papers.

As a former oil worker, a scientist and a climate activist, I feel the tensions between my responsibility for the situation, my empathy for the working men and women involved in the fossil fuels industry over the past century and my fears for the future of my children, grandchildren and the sustainability of most of the life on the planet.  It is widely recognised that swift action is needed to mitigate and adapt-to the evolving ecological crisis.  Pibroch is my attempt to engage with the lived experience of the last three generations in both the global North and South in promoting the need for a genuinely Just Transition.

For me, the parallels between the unfolding climate crisis and the events around the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster are striking. It’s a common place to say radical change demands a ‘burning platform’.  In Piper Alpha there is a well-documented concrete metaphor for the emerging catastrophe which requires critical reflection and vivid, accessible expression. On the night of 6th July,1988, 167 men died and 47 survived.  Two weeks ago, around 500 people died on the West Coast of North America. This week, over 150 lost their lives & livelihoods in extreme flooding in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Every year, thousands are forced to flee in the face of environmental degradation and the conflicts provoked by hunger, thirst and poverty arising from the climate emergency.

Perhaps the work can best be summarised by the poem Teach Your Child to Swim. One of a number which will be featured in the Wee Gatherin reading.

22.01

Thirty-three years ago a disaster occurred 120 miles North East of Aberdeen.  An Occidental oil & gas facility, Piper Alpha, was destroyed by explosion, fire and, ultimately, human negligence.  In the hours after 10 pm on 6th July, 167 men died.

I wasn’t there.

I knew men who were…some of whom survived.  I had, for a time, ‘moved South’ after the oil price slump of 1986.  I returned to Aberdeen in the aftermath of Piper Alpha and was involved, for a time, in the oil & gas industry’s response to the events of that night – ‘improved’ permit to work systems, drop down firewalls, emergency shutdown valves, safety cases and ‘STEP change’. Earnest endeavours to keep the fossil fuel industry intact in the face of an atrocious negligence arising out of arrogance and greed.

The Tory government, led by Margaret Thatcher, expressed sympathy whilst taking measures to limit trades union reaction and suppress calls for improved safety standards offshore.  Cabinet papers released in recent years reveal that these measures were encouraged by oil company representatives embedded in UK government and that Margaret Thatcher clearly had a great deal more sympathy and empathy with Armand Hammer, then president of Occidental, than with the families of those killed or injured as a consequence of Occidental’s negligence.

Over the last two years I have been working on a project – Pibroch – reflecting upon the events of that night – and their aftermath – as they parallel our current global situation in this time of Climate Emergency.  The parallels, for me, are stark and compelling.

“The Tory government, led by Boris Johnson, expresses sympathy whilst taking measures to limit societal reaction and suppress calls for improved environmental standards.  Cabinet papers will be released in future decades (if we’re lucky) revealing that these measures were encouraged by oil company representatives and their investors embedded in UK government and that Johnson clearly had a great deal more sympathy and empathy with fossil fuel interests than with the families of those killed or injured as a consequence of his negligence.”

Somewhere about 1998 I was offshore on one of BP’s Forties installations.  About 6.30 a.m., long before it was light, the platform shutdown and the flare lifted.  I, and others in the crew, waited in the dark of a portacabin on deck, awaiting instructions to go to muster, receiving no further instruction or update on the ‘situation’.  Waiting. Hoping.  And yes…complying, obeying.

Most of the men who died that night 33 years ago lost their lives following instructions and procedures, hoping rescue would come.  Some of them, I suspect, knew the installation was unsafe.  That was certainly what I was told by some of their colleagues in the years after.  But you’re on this platform together.  There is solidarity and a certain (misplaced) trust.

Most of those who survived chose to abandon ‘business as usual’ and take responsibility for their own lives.  The parallels with the current Climate Emergency seem to me compelling.

Please reflect on that as we drift into an ever more hazardous climate.

Rolling…

Busy weeks and getting busier. 

Elsewhere to Be, a collection of creative writing – fiction and non-fiction – I’ve been editing for the WORD Centre at University of Aberdeen has (finally) gone to the printers.  The writing was inspired by the lives and experiences of landless families displaced by the effects of agricultural expansion in the early to mid-nineteenth century.  Together they reflect on experiences of displacement, loss and recovery, of living on the margins and striving for better things, using the personal experience and imagination of present-day writers to explore the lives of those who made Bennachie their home during this period.  Written in English, Polish and Scots and skillfully translated by Beata Tschirch, the project was a great experience.  More information on a launch and where to get your copy as soon as things firm up!

Privileged to have my three-poem sequence, Lament for the Children, published in NorthWords Now Issue 41 in such good company.  The poems were written as part of the Pibroch project and inspired by Padraig Mor MacCrimmon’s pìobaireachd – Cumha na Cloinne.  The pibroch, Lament for the Children, was, indeed, central to the development of the show and collection – both of which are structured around the four ‘movements’ of that piece – urlar, dithis, suibhal and taorluth.

Poetry @ Books and Beans: Thursday 27th May

In the meantime, I’m actively looking for venues for Pibroch starting from July this year – and hoping we’re not driven back into lock-down.  An abridged version will feature as part of The Gathering in Stonehaven 23rd-25th July and I’ll be sharing some of the poems online later this month at Poetry @ Books and Beans: Thursday 27th May at 6.30 pm UTC+01.  Free and online.  Check out the Poetry @ Books and Beans facebook page for more information and links.  Will be joined by Sheila Templeton reading from her new collection – Clyack – and the usual enthusiastic line-up for the Open Mic.

And in the meantime2 , there’s still time to register for the online launch of Pushing Out the Boat 16 on Sunday 16th. Writing from around the world though with a North East flavour and a fine line-up of readers.

Time to get this show back on the road…

Well, I’m sure it has been an extraordinary year for most of us, and for many of us a year of loss and sadness.  For me, it has been, mostly, a year of isolation – wait and see, restricted for much of it to my home due to my high vulnerability to COVID-19.  Unlike many of friends in the global South, I have had the benefit of vaccination and the support of a government (in Scotland, at least) somewhat more concerned with the lives and health of their population than others seem to have been in countries like Brazil and, until recently, the USA.

A year of isolation and retreat has, however, provided an opportunity to focus fairly on writing projects and some associated music and film-making ideas.  It has also provided the opportunity to provide some online mentoring and editorial support for other writers and projects.

So, as we come out of lock-down (again and at least temporarily), it’s time to get the show on the road again on so many levels.

The Asphalt City

Over the last 12 months, with the help and support, in particular, of Mary Armour, I’ve produced (and re-produced and finally produced) Threads, a novel set in Angola, Scotland, the USA and South Korea between 2005 and 2011.

It is the product of first-hand experience, deep research and, perhaps most challenging of all, a determined empathy for all its diverse characters.  

Working in Angolan oil & gas operations in 2005, I was struck by the fact that the ‘pilgrims’ depicted in Heart of Darkness (1899) were alive and well in the 21st Century.  But any reprise of Conrad’s novella of the present age, has to offer a polyphonous, multivalent account, giving voice, especially, to indigenous perspectives.  In Threads, Caliban’s much-maligned mother, Sycorax, confronts Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz with the consequences of his actions and demands a compensation greater than his death. 

Adopting terms from Portuguese, Kimbundu, Calão and Scots, the tale challenges reader-expectations as the point-of-view switches between colonised and colonist, woman and man, living and ‘dead’, unfolding in a shatter-zone of experience and memory.

I’ll be posting more thoughts on the development of this really challenging project over the next few weeks.

Remains of Piper Alpha 7th July 1988
Remains of Piper Alpha 7th July 1988

Also ready to roll is Pibroch – my spoken word show and poetry collection exploring parallels between the Climate Emergency and the Piper Alpha disaster which occurred in the North Sea in 1988.

Pibroch was originally conceived a one-person spoken word performance with accompanying music and visuals.  And it still is and can be!   The pressures of the last year have, however, driven the piece to be far more digital that might otherwise have been the case and it will be suitable for streaming as an installation as well as a performance.  This has been a great opportunity to learn new skills in film making and music production which have been integrated into my practice. 

There is a complementary collection currently in preparation. Publication of Pibroch by Red Squirrel Press is expected in 2021.

More information on some of the themes and practical issues with the development of Pibroch will be appearing on A View from the Long Grass over the next few weeks.  So watch this space!

Fallen Stock – Poetry for life not just for Xmas.

Still a few copies of my first poetry collection – Fallen Stock – available.  Signed copies can be bought direct from the Shop here or visit Red Squirrel Press for a wide range of great titles.

So, if someone in your life (or you) fancy a wee bit of “mixing the absurd with the sublime” (Maria Apichella) or “reality in all of its rough complexity.” (Katie Ailes) or even “blue collar muscularity”(Martin Malone)…or all three! 

Look no further.

 

 

September…

Was a busy month. I haven’t been as attentive to this blog as I ‘should’ be…but, at my age, perhaps ‘should’ is a threadbare verb.

I’ve been very busy progressing two on-going projects.

Bass: a novel I started 12 years ago and, thanks to generous critical support from Martin Walsh, Mandy Haggith, Rae Cowie, Ashley Milne and especially Mary Armour, seems to be progressing towards a final-final draft.

Pibroch : a spoken word performance/ poetry collection for which I should acknowledge the support of Imogen Stirling, Hamish Napier, Aileen Ackland and Elizabeth Rimmer.

This has been a weird year (I am sure for all of us) but the opportunity to focus, at this point in my writing journey, on large and (I hope) important projects has been a blessing. As has the continuing support of such as rich and insightful variety of correspondents and critical friends.

Yes: perhaps these close ties would not have been forged in these unusual circumstances. But the power of these artistic friendships at this time has been invaluable.

Thank you all!

Some of the elements of Pibroch got their first ‘outing’ as part of the Geological Societies ‘Geopoetry 2020’ event this month. My thanks to Patrick Corbett, Norrie Bissell and all the other organisers. Sneak preview on @geolsoc YouTube channel 1hr 45m. Comments very welcome.

Return of WORD festival on the way.

Next week sees the return to the North East calendar of a dedicated literary festival with a great programme including some of my favourite contemporary writers including Eimear McBride, Leila Aboulela and Lemn Sissay.

Eimear McBride
Lemn Sissay

wayWORD runs from Wednesday 23rd September till Sunday, 27th, the new festival solves must of my ‘what will I do at the weekend?’ problems.

The festival has been devised and developed by students at Aberdeen University with support from festival director, Helen Lynch, but events are open to all, mirroring the style and emphasis of the annual WORD festivals hosted by the University until 2011. Great too to see the involvement of great local talent such as Mae Diansangu, Shane Strachan and Sheena Blackhall and space given to creative writing from across the region including work featured in Pushing Out the Boat and Leopard Arts.

Of course, in these times, most events are online so geography or lock-down status should be no issue. Register your interest in events at the site above and get it in your diary. Look forward to seeing you there.

P.S. Yes: I am reading in the Leopard Arts – Pushing Out the Boat event on Sunday evening.

May PodFest from Aberdeen University

Spread the word! University of Aberdeen’s May Festival couldn’t go ahead this year because…well, you know!
But fortunately there’s… PodFest – launching today. Don’t miss it! Kicking off with podcast by art/music/poetry combo Pete Stollery, Martin Malone & Bryan Angus. Full programme and access details below. Enjoy.

Thanks to Helen Lynch and the rest of the crew for keeping the show on the road.

Granite Noir 2020 – Locals in the Limelight

Space to read an excerpt of my novel-in-progress – Enchantment – as part of 2020 Granite Noir . The Locals in the Limelight strand in Granite Noir’s programming, steered by Lee Randall , provides an opportunity for emerging writers to share a stage (if only briefly) with writers like Anne Holt, Denise Mina, Sarah Paretsky & Ian Rankin. Book and poetry festivals everywhere should pick up on the tip…offering an encouraging platform for new writers and great experience. Thanks to all involved in developing and delivering the programme and to Alex Clark for hosting.

Photo Credit – Granite Noir 2020

Climate Science & Climate Change Poetry

Thwaites Glacier – West Antarctica, 28th Dec. 2019 – NASA Earth Observatory

Tomorrow night – 11th February 2020 – sees the inaugural event in STEM Poets programme of workshops and readings aimed at developing a coherent and effective body of poetry and other writing which can engage with and influence the outcomes of the ongoing Climate Emergency.

STEM Poets as a group was initiated by Eveline Pye in 2019 engaging a range of poets with a background, or special interest in Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics. They support STEAM, a global initiative to introduce the arts within STEM education in order to encourage creativity and break down barriers between the arts and sciences. STEM poets believe it is important that readers are presented with factually correct and truthful STEM knowledge in works of imagination, specifically poems and short fiction, and wish to promote informed writing on climate change. They want to encourage more people to write about STEM subjects and will offer support and review of STEM content.  I am very pleased to count myself as one of their number.

Tomorrow night’s event will involve a discussion between Eveline and Colin Will, exploring some of the ideas and issues around Climate Change poetry, many of which have been outlined in Eveline’s recent essay published by Glasgow Review of Books.

The issues around STEM poetry and climate are, at even a cursory exploration, complex and fascinating.  How is the complexity of biophysical processes communicated clearly and coherently in ‘verse’ – as opposed to their natural vernacular of algebra and algorithms?  How do we as poets and scientists avoid bowdlerising reality in order to get an essentially political point across?

Eveline’s essay explores guidance of ‘effective communication’ on Climate Change from a number of government and academic sources which, in summary, propose that effective climate change poetry ‘should’:

i) be clear, relevant and coherent avoiding references which are unlikely to be understood by the general public;

ii) not rely on evoking fear either for the reader or the next generation but should evoke positive emotions which support people’s internal sense of agency – the feeling that their actions are meaningful;

iii) not be overly strident as this increases the likelihood that the message will be discounted or ignored, and should avoid highlighting the difference between the reader’s attitude and actions since this is more likely to change their attitude than their actions;

iv) focus on past loss and the restoration of what has been lost, near-term benefits and opportunities to avoid future losses rather than apocalyptic scenarios;

v) help overcome negative associations and poverty attributions associated with actions we want to encourage such as buying second-hand furniture and clothes, drinking tap water and using public transport.

Talk about squaring the circle!

Having been active and interested in this area over the last decade, I find these criteria challenging in the extreme in the context of a single poem or even collection.

How to express the complexity – and often counter-intuitive nature – of processes avoiding references ‘unlikely to be understood’?

How to avoid frightening or shaming individuals into apathy or denial?

How to avoid advocacy in a literature which is, no matter your perspective – whether a denier, a mitigator or an adaptor –  partial and political?

And how to present positive inducements in a situation which, ‘scientifically’, seems to forecast few upsides for human societies or the majority of other critters currently on the planet?

In this context, this project does not need individual poets but a community of poets – with diverse (precise but necessarily limited) STEM knowledge and a range of  political and aesthetic perspectives on this process.  There are those who see rewilding as a ‘good’…others, perhaps, the preservation of a material ‘civilisation’ (for some) at great cost to other creatures and fellow-human beings.  Some, in workshops and discussions, have been sanguine and of the view that a world without people would be a ‘good thing’…bring on the next mass extinction!  Let us start again.  The planet will recover…and it will (whatever that means?). (And who are ‘we’ in that ambition?)

All of the above are essentially political perspectives – not scientific – and should be expressed and explored clearly and coherently in an accessible literature – doing what poetry and fiction do best – exploring alternative personal perspectives and trajectories – but staying close to the topic.  That the climate IS changing and will have many complex ramifications for all living things and their social connection.

One of the areas I am working on, at the moment, concerns the Thwaites Glacier, part of the West Antarctic Ice Shelf which extends ‘into’ the Amundsen Sea.  Thwaites Glacier is melting AND calving at an accelerating pace due to complex hydrological and physical processes which, though perfectly ‘logical’ confound the simple notion that ‘ice melts’. 

https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146247/thwaites-glacier-transformed

Essentially, studies suggest, warm water (well… 1.5 degC) is being hosed towards the grounding line of the ice shelf by canyons in the seabed (themselves relics of earlier glaciation).  The warm water (Circumpolar Deep Water), which ‘flows’ out of the Northern hemisphere, undercuts and destabilises the ice, which is NOT floating but grounded on the sea bed hundreds, sometimes thousands of metres down.  Melting from below and subject to bending stresses it calves, releasing fragments to the open ocean which float north (and melt).

So…make a poem out of that (working on it!)  The episode highlights the gap between school-child physics (ice melts at 0 degC in some slow dripping process – like an ice-cube in a glass – as the global temperature inches up through 1.5 degC to 3 degC above pre-industrial levels) and the complexity of geophysical processes in the ‘real world’.  In fact, local geophysical processes are directing jets of warm water at the grounding line and the thinning ice is collapsing.  Think of a high-powered water jet rather than dripping meltwater.

It is estimated that Thwaites Glacier could account for 0.4m of mean sea-level rise.

So,

  1. What does 0.4m sea level rise mean?  And when might that happen?
  2. How do I have agency in addressing this issue – reduce my GHG footprint? Throw up sea-defences? Both?

Does the poet addresses the consequences or the process – a nostalgic grieving over things I’ve never seen or experienced but are about to be ‘lost’?

I am drawn back to one of my creative touch-stones in this, advice attributed to the Chinese Song Dynasty poet and scholar, Wei T’ai.

‘Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing but reticent about the feeling. ‘

I am very much looking forward to tomorrow night’s event at the CCA in Glasgow and an ongoing collaboration with fellow writers and artists in this vital area.  Hope to see you there.