Jo Bell is a unique force in British poetry, bringing a large personality and boundless energy to both writing and promoting it. She is a poet and performer with a blog, a website and a newly reissued book. She runs an immensely successful web-based project called 52 and declares that her main work is ‘connecting other poets’. Her various projects include collaborative work, poems for public spaces, and workshops for all kinds of groups of people, and her poems have been published in a wide variety of magazines and anthologies. Bell is also well-known as the former director of the UK’s National Poetry Day and is the first-ever Canal Laureate of the UK, appointed by the Poetry Society and the Canal & River Trust.
The UK's first-ever Canal Laureate lives on a narrow boat in the Midlands of England and uses her blog and her Facebook page to post news of her (and her boat's) travels along the canals. Bell's poetry also travels – between page and stage, and from YouTube to radio to the web. One poem is even engraved on a canal lock. Bell herself moves between manifold roles: her website describes her as 'a performer, playwright, project manager, programmer, promoter, producer and a few things that don't begin with P . . . the former director of the UK's National Poetry Day, sometime programmer for Ledbury Poetry Festival and others . . . if it involves poetry she does it'.
Her poems are full of landscape and scenery, the apparent stuff of 'country' poetry. One poem about the canals, 'Channelled', begins: 'A two-kingfisher day, with sparrowhawks thrown in . . .' But in the next line, human industrial life arrives to break the spell:
Water won't be told, she said, you never learn.
We settled to the first of nineteen locks.
In this poem, the second stanza brings out the balancing act of 'nature' and human work and effort. In this poem, nature is itself the thing to be grappled with, as both the lock and the people working it share the canal with everything else that lives there:
its greening beams that spoke
an older argument, the slow negotiations
of meadowsweet and pondweed.
Life on the canals is all about work; the canals themselves are the relics of hard work – literally, they are machinery, even in the midst of a picturesque landscape. Bell's poems are full of this work, both the people who do it and the traditions it often represents. A particularly joyous example of this, 'Springtime at the Boatyard', appeared in The Guardian:
in the sound of angle-grinders,
brazen as a mating call across the yard
It's a common truism – whether true or not – that writing happy poetry is impossible. Certainly much poetry can tend to be on the downbeat side, only occasionally sidestepping this with humour. And many funny poems are about very dark subjects indeed. But Bell's work does indeed convey joy – and even hope and optimism. A poem called 'Blessing for Molly' (which appeared in her first collection, Navigation) – written 'with help from friends who texted their reply to my question "what would you wish for a baby?"' – becomes a litany, almost, for a young child, of the life she's going to have:
beside a river, or the motorway. There might be beer
in paper cups, and people throwing frisbees in the park.
You might come cold and tired from work, to find
that someone's run a bath. You might see hawthorn
in an English hedgerow; catch an urban dawn
or go to bed quite drunk, with arms around you . . .
There will be unpleasantness, the poem seems to say – though as it is a 'blessing', none of it is utterly calamitous – but amid the disasters of life, there is always some compensation. This is the optimistic view, and it is as beguiling for the adult as it is necessary for the child.
Elsewhere, a slight cloud creeps over in the Accident & Emergency department of Derby Hospital, in one of a series of poems written there:
with a bucket on the top, my bus stop
with its icy puddle. And the bicycles,
the endless bicycles; the ones that braked
or broke a bone and fell like wobbling coins.
Did you lose consciousness at all? No, worse:
I lost my grip. This is my wake-up call . . .
Bell's work has been published in dozens of magazines and anthologies, and there are many videos her reading her work online. Her first full collection, Navigation, was published in 2008 and has recently been reissued in its third edition by Moormaid Press. Reducing Everything to Love, a limited-edition pamphlet with photographs by Alastair Cook, followed in 2013.
The poems in Reducing Everything to Love take as their titles quotes from the Scottish naturalist John Muir, and they were written in a form Bell calls her 'decimal sonnets' – each with ten lines, to give even greater compression, although the stanza break can fall anywhere. She wrote in an email, 'For the project we invented them for, the idea was that each poem represents a meeting of two things (like a double exposure image).' Here is one of these in full:
Come quickly, one foot to the grass and then the other;
hurry from your clock-filled room towards the sea, the air
that bowls along the bramble-ragged lanes
to chivvy yellow flowers, exulting in the oceans
of itself, wind-whipped and piny as a forester.
You'll feel the salt scales building on your skin,
uncivilised at last and clean as mussel shells. The shore
lays out a mass of bladderwrack, a skimming stone
for every pocket. Come fast across the wind-played sand
to harvest these; the sea, the sky, my shaking hand.
Elsewhere in her work, Bell has written poems based on and in response to other forms; her work is full of allusions to and lines from a variety of poets, from Hopkins to Larkin and beyond. Her poem 'Things Which Are: A nocturne on St Lucy's Day, after John Donne' takes the shortest day of the year, on which Donne writes, and makes it a hymn to 'the longest night of yes', using the form of Donne's original. (The sexy also has a place in Bell's work, as in her poem 'Coming', which 'er . . . does what it says on the tin', according to her website. Another poem appears in a book called The Poetry of Sex (Penguin, 2014).)
As a poet with sizable achievements on both 'page and stage', Bell's day-to-day work is all about attempting to narrow the gap between the two disciplines. She is committed equally to the performance – the moment – and the lasting, crafted poem that occupies the white space of the page. One could say that her commitment is to poetry itself, and what it can offer – not just to one type of poet or reader (or listener), but to everyone. She states in an interview with Write Out Loud: 'I would love both groups to get their head out of their ass and explore what the other group is doing . . . Some performance poets miss out on the huge range of forms available to them, and stick to folk rhymes, whilst many page poets dismiss good performance as a kind of cheap trick.'
Bell's big project of 2014, the website called 52 and its associated Facebook page, may be achieving just this. With so many members that the waiting list reached over 200 and was closed down, 52 has hundreds of people a week writing poems to a Thursday morning prompt and then sharing them on Facebook. (Members of the public also can read the website and write poems to her prompts; it is only the Facebook group that's full.) The group is private, so magazine editors will still be willing to consider the poems; there have been several public 52 readings; and it has become, by stealth, a bit of a phenomenon in this year's UK poetry scene, with established poets, lapsed poets and newcomers all taking part.
Bell's own poetry has to fit in between all these other activities, when she can find the time and space to write. She tells Write Out Loud: '[O]ddly enough it's hard to write on the boat – I tend to sit in the local library'. As for time, she says, '[the Scottish poet] Norman MacCaig said that you can write a poem in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette – I don't smoke any more but I sometimes set the clock for 11 minutes and see what I can get in that time. It's surprisingly successful!'
At the time of writing, Bell's poems have placed second in the Wigtown Poetry Competition, third in the Bridport Prize, and first in the Manchester Cathedral Prize. Her next collection, Kith, will be published by Nine Arches Press in Spring 2015.
Navigation, Moormaid, Macclesfield, 2008, reprinted 2013
Reducing Everything to Love, Alastair Cook limited edition, 2013
Kith, forthcoming, Nine Arches Press, Rugby, 2015
Bugged, Bell Jar, online, 2010
Soul Feathers, Indigo Dreams, 2011
Birdbook II, Sidekick Books, London, 2011
Split Screen, Red Squirrel, Morpeth, 2012
Bliss, Templar, Dorking, 2012
Bang Said the Gun, Burning Eye, Portishead, 2013
Art from the Heart, Five Seasons Press, Hereford, 2013
The Poetry of Sex, Penguin, London, 2014
Double Bill, forthcoming, Red Squirrel, Morpeth, 2014
The 52: Write a poem a week project
The Waterlines website, with Bell's poems as Canal Laureate
Author page at Moormaid Press
Interview with Write Out Loud
Article in The Guardian about Bell as Canal Laureate