The poetry is part of me, I couldn’t do without it. It’s been with me all my life. It’s a sort of compulsion! It’s a basic human connection, we all play with the sound of words when we’re children. I find art very mysterious. If you’re a writer, artist, musician or film maker, in the end what makes it work? You can’t teach it, you can’t explain it, it’s something mysterious. There’s something magic about it.
When were you first interested in poetry and who were your influences? Songwriters like Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen and Patti Smith were really important when I was in my teens. Film was also influential, especially the 1982 cult film Koyaanisqatsi, with a soundtrack by Philip Glass. There were shots of wideopen American landscape. A lot was in timelapse so the film was speeded up then slowed down. It cut between close up microscopic to wide angle shots, it was playing with perspective and time. That was really influential on my way of seeing things.
Poets who influenced me included Geoffrey Hill, who I met when I was 18. Northern Arts paid for a 3 day course in Ambleside, that was 1979. In the early ‘80s I travelled around the west coast of America and saw the wide landscapes of the Arizona desert which were just beautiful. American poets like Robert Pinsky influenced me at that time, and the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who taught at Harvard.
What is your background? I studied History at Cambridge University and then gained a Harkness fellowship to the USA, where I studied in California then Boston. In 1989 I won an Eric Gregory Award for poetry from the Society of Authors. It was £6,000, I’ve been very lucky. That started me on the road to working freelance.
You have written a number of local history books. How does that fit with your poetry? I’ve lived on the Northumberland coast for over 30 years in the village where my Grandparents used to live. I wanted to write about the sea so the best way was to talk to the local fishermen. They were a huge influence on me, some of them were in their 80s. They knew so much and there was a sense that fishing was coming to an end. It was very difficult to earn a living and young people weren’t coming through.
All their stories, skill, knowledge, even their dialect was all going, so I spent many years spending as much time as I could with them, going to sea, in the huts talking to them. This was very formative to my poetry.
A whole series of work came from it. My first two poetry books with Bloodaxe and a series of local history books featuring Seahouses and Beadnell. I still have a load of material that I got from the fishermen, there’s still a lot of writing to do there. I feel as though I could be doing this work for the rest of my life. And you come across some great names, like fishermen called Geordie Birdy, Bill Cloggy, Dobbin and Kelpy Jack (laughs). I’m more driven to write poetry though. The local history informs the poetry, it gives me a subject.
In 1999 I was asked to write something in the Northumberland dialect and with me talking to the fishermen and writing down the phrases of their everyday speech, I tried to put them all in one poem. I worked with musician Chris Ormston which resulted in a CD called The Wund an’ the Wetter. With it being 20 years old we are performing it soon at the Iron Press Festival. Chris plays the small pipes and he is one of my longest standing music collaborators.
Do you perform your poetry at many live events? We play various folk and poetry festivals around the country, church halls, schools and women’s institutes. I’m really interested in spoken word, perhaps even more than poetry in books. Although I have produced books, I have written a lot for BBC Radio 3 and 4.
How did work on the radio come about? I’ve had work on the radio for about 20 years now and it first came about through my publisher Bloodaxe. Radio producers are looking around for poems about certain subjects. Sometimes they get in touch with book publishers, tell them what they are after and they get in touch with poets. It can be very competitive. But worth working on because you can bring other sounds to your work. It’s a lovely way of experimenting with sound.
Think of it as a piece of music. I wrote a half hour poem for Radio 3 about Holy Island where I worked with producer Julian May. We brought in sea sounds, the wind, all the different birds and the sound of the seals. Then you can layer the voices and make it more abstract, hearing sounds rather than words.
Artists are always looking to perform to a wider audience…Poets are quite happy with 6! (laughs). I’ve travelled to Festivals with musician Chris Ormston where we played to 6 people in one place and 10 at another. But asking about reading to a wider audience is a serious point because I like to have my work in books, but there is a limited amount of people who will pick up a poetry book. But like music, poetry is for everyone and I would read my work to a general audience rather than just a poetry audience. I’ll read my work anywhere and working with musicians makes it more accessible to people.
I also work with electronic composer Peter Zinovieff. We’ve made 5 pieces and are going to be making another one next year. Peter was one of the first people in the world to have a computer in a private house. He was making music with a computer from the mid ‘60s in his EMS studio in London, where he designed the VCS3 synthesiser. This was one of the first commercially available synthesisers and used by all sorts of bands like Pink Floyd, The Who, Tangerine Dream and Roxy Music’s Brian Eno. At the same time, classical composers such as Harrison Birtwistle were working in Peter’s studio.
Where did you meet Zinovieff? I met him in the mid ‘80s in Cambridge when I was studying there. The first piece we made was for Radio 3 in 2011, then we made a few pieces for Life Science Centre planetarium here in Newcastle. They were about astronomy and physics, the large and small, thinking about scale and perspective. The text for those pieces is coming out in a book from Bloodaxe later this year called Edge. They are big performance pieces with visuals and made for surround sound but I’ve also got stereo recordings so can perform them anywhere.
We are working on another science based piece with music and poetry with the NUSTEM Exploring Extreme Environments project at Northumbria University. That will be around ice and glaciers and using some of the recordings the scientists have made in Antarctica. Peter will create a soundscape from that. We’ll have that ready next year.
What else have you got planned for this year? On 24th May I’m going to be working with folk fiddler Alexis Bennett at a gig on The Cutty Sark in Greenwich, London. So really looking forward to that. Also the Iron Press Festival on 22nd June at St George’s Church, Cullercoats.
Contact Katrina on her website http://www.katrinaporteous.co.uk/
Interview by Gary Alikivi April 2019.