Antarctic poems at Discovery Point

I’m delighted that the home of the RSS Discovery in Dundee has been able to arrange to borrow some of the materials from the 2019 Antarctic poetry competition, based in New Zealand. “The world’s first and only poetry exhibition in the Antarctic” aims to raise awareness of the role of Antarctica in our understanding of the climate crisis.

Discovery Point were very helpful with giving me access to the ship and to the collection in order to take photographs to accompany my submission for this unusual competition.  You can see eight of the poems and images from the competition, including my own shortlisted poem in the reception area – which is still accessible if you are only popping in for a poem and a coffee! The poems will be on display from now until sometime around March 2020.

More about the competition

More about my poem and images (with a reading)

More about Discovery Point

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The coffin road to Kilfinnan

Last month for Book Week Scotland, Stanza International Poetry Festival made postcards with short poems responding to work by a favourite poet. It was really nice to be asked to contribute. I enjoyed writing a poem for this so much, I made three. This is the one that ended up on a Stanzacard…

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the singing ringing pole

The Singing Ringing Tree‘ (Das singende, klingende Bäumchen) was a strange East German fairy-tale film shown by the BBC in the 1960s. It is also the title of a sound sculpture in Lancashire on a hill called Crown Point above Burnley.

It’s not just the simple rhyme of the title that sticks in the imagination, especially for those who saw the uncanny film as small children, something about its odd atmosphere seemed to resonate. Apparently in a 2004 Radio Times poll it was voted “20th spookiest show ever”, even though it was a story for children.

This visual poem is about an encounter with a kind of life after death. The title is a small homage to the strangeness of that children’s film.

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the singing ringing pole

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Antarctic poetry

The Antarctic Poetry Competition is unusual in asking entrants to submit both poems and photographs, and specifying that the photographs must include the poems entered! I’m excited that that one of my entries for this year’s competition was shortlisted and will be on display, along with work by all the other shortlisted entrants, at Dunedin Public Library in New Zealand from 8th-31st October.

As well as my shortlisted poem, Polar Exploration, I’ve included a selection of photographs below. These were taken on the polar research vessel RSS Discovery, a research vessel launched in 1901 during the ‘heroic’ age of polar exploration. Discovery is a connection to Antarctica which is now permanently docked where it was built, in the city of Dundee, near to where I live. Gill Poulter and Suzanne Paterson at Discovery Point kindly arranged for me to have access to Captain Scott’s cabin, the chart room and other locations aboard, and also to access some of the unique objects from the Discovery collection. I’m very grateful for their help.

Reading about the experiences of polar travellers, it seemed to me that people journeying in these regions are as much exploring something within themselves as experiencing an unknown place, or a physical challenge. In the poem I tried to riddle basic challenges which Antarctica presents to human beings alongside questions about this kind of inner journey.

 

Polar Exploration

Who are you in a place with no name?
Stranger here or home at last?
Are you an Adam now, or a wiser Eve?

What are you in a place with no life?
Curiosity of transient biology?
Are you an alien, or a fresh infection?

Where are you in a pyramid with no stones?
Smiles alive under Scott tent shroud?
Are you a moth unformed, in swaddle-down cocoon?

When are you in a land with no night?
Pacing on and on or clock unwound?
Are you awake still, or persistent dream?

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More:


Sea Symphonies

I don’t think I’ve written a poem inspired by a diagram before. This particular diagram came to my attention as part of my “day job” as a designer. Over the past couple of months I’ve been working on graphics and media for an exhibition at Dundee Science Centre about research studying the songs of humpback whales in the South Pacific. The study was undertaken by researchers from the Sea Mammal Research Unit of the University of St Andrews.

It’s fascinating work, and one piece of it is distilled in a diagram made by Dr Ellen Garland and her colleagues. It shows how humpback songs recorded by scientists over a 10 year period have not only travelled regularly in a west-to-east pattern over a 10,000km long stretch of the Pacific, but have changed year-on-year as humpback whales learn each new season’s “score” and sing it across the ocean. You can find out more about this remarkable, and as yet little understood observation of whale culture on Ellen’s website.

The more I thought about Ellen’s diagram, the more I came to feel how deceptively simple it was. I think that as you look more and gain a sense structure over time, you realise this is showing something genuinely astonishing, that had previously been so hard to see (or hear!) as to be effectively invisible.

So, here we are – a poem about a diagram… (who knows, maybe not the last.)

poem and reading by Steve Smart
original humpback whale photograph by Nicolas Job
original field recordings by Ellen Garland
montage by Steve Smart

 

Sea Symphonies

Ellen’s diagram is like a child’s quilt.
I turn her checkerboard about,
swap out strident Microsoft primaries
for shades that hurt me less,
and in handling the squares,
in redrafting with attention,
I accommodate their stories.

These colours are movements,
in many meanings of movement,
like impressionism, baroque, punk,
like skiffle,
shifting cribs of style from one mind there
to another even more far-out,
where we’re somewhere deep
in exotic waters,
for this all seems deeply exotic
to me.

The song square game is played
with cryptic southern ocean rules,
some tunes drawl short seasons,
just a few months drift afloat,
while others go pacific, spun for
a whole year swum on seaborne airtime.

She’s charting trends of alien voices,
the whales’ just discovered folksong,
sung to some purpose still unknown,
and sung untold, in all this time.
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The exhibition at Dundee Science Centre was supported by the Royal Society, the University of St Andrews, and Dundee Science Centre. It’s aimed at children, but there is lots for anyone to enjoy and find out. It launched on Saturday 28th September, and will be open for several months.


A piano, falling

I made this sound piece as a competition entry a little while ago. The competition said entries without sound effects, so I made a version like that. It didn’t get anywhere. I also made a mix with additional audio – which was what I really had in mind when I first saw the competition title (which I think is a great title!)

The full mix with additional audio is what I’m posting just now on Soundcloud and here. Text also below. Let me know what you think.

The picture is a CG image I made a bundle of years ago that seemed to fit – no performers or pianos were harmed in the making.

Thanks to: ERH at Freesound and huggy13ear at Freesound for piano and wind audio samples.

 

A piano, falling

Fourth floor. My music still unsung.
Uncertain how I got here. I know
all falls begin when yawning gravity
blackjack twists our real potential.

Third floor. Know me. Know who I am.
Half my soul’s piano – so play me sol-la softly,
Softly, Softly like old tv policemen nee-naw zed-cars,
catchee monkeys all so black-and-white.

Second floor. Coming into Grace land, Brothers,
carpets, travel goods, and bedding material.
Getting closer, the world’s air rising, our throats
fear-parched, croak, are we really going down?

First floor. Time dilates when falling, one beat
sheds sixty easy, squeezes out all our years,
flowing slowly like silk on serpentine.
Pray for a shiny handle – pray for a ripcord to pull.

Ground floor. Wo-ho-hoh! They call it ground rush,
tell virgin parachutists, not to anticipate
when you’re about come in to land because
that’s how bones end up really screwed.

Bargain Basement! An unexpected coda,
plunging beer traps left by lorry-men, we’ll pay
just a pound now, we’ll pay the ferryman,
so play my forte strong now. Play, to make us brave.

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Young’s slits

Young’s slits

A locked door
in dark woods
blindslat slits filleting
light from elsewhere.
What is outside?

Crabbit dark-oath laird
of ruddy anger
welcoming visitors
like deadly ailments
long hoped dead?

Walled garden,
too long neglected,
cosseting ancient seeds,
warm bowered trysts,
and story fruit?

Interference patterns
in imagination physics,
destructive, constructive,
both can condense
together all at once.

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