Nancy’s blog: Darkness and Light

Nancy writes ‘Last year I was writing mostly about the darkness of the Arctic winter, so the invitation to consider brighter matters and participate in the programme of light effects for Nottingham Light Night made a welcome change. The Canal & River Trust commissioned a poem about the Nottingham and Beeston Canal for Enchanted Water, an event to showcase the canal during Night Light, held along Castle Wharf at the heart of the city.

Abord Megan and Tinks

The poetry and storytelling venues were beautiful 70’ narrowboats Megan and Tinkers Leenfrom Nottingham Narrowboat Project. As I settled in to Megan’s hold the crew introduced me to this brilliant project, and I was able to incorporate some of their anecdotes about onboard activities with the community into my poem ‘Elements’. (As I write this it’s just been announced that the project has received Big Lottery Funding to continue their work – congratulations to the team on this well-deserved award.)

As night fell, crowds congregated at Castle Wharf. Luminous ostriches and glowing owls could be seen dancing along the towpath, aided by puppeteers, and iridescent dragonflies and shimmering carp made from recycled materials by artist Anna Roebuck were installed in the pools before the Magistrates Court. From Megan’s warm galley I watched an archive film by Mitchell and Keyon recording the first Nottingham Tram Ride in 1902, projected on the walls of a former warehouse in a continuous loop.

Soon it was time to depart on my own circuit. One by one, the audience boarded Megan, and we moved off and chugged softly eastwards under Carrington Street Bridge, the bow cutting through the reflections of the lights on the water. The tiny galley created an intimate setting for poetry and discussion. After quarter of an hour there was a knock on the door, and the skipper’s head appeared. ‘We’re about to turn,’ he said. ‘It’ll be a bit noisy.’ The engine knocked loudly and water gurgled beneath the fenders, but a pair of swans swimming close by us seemed unperturbed, and soon calm was restored for the return trip. This was the first of several journeys: my thanks to all the intrepid individuals who joined me aboard Megan during the evening – it was wonderful to have your company and canal insights.

While I was performing on Megan, Nottingham-based poet Leanne Moden, a former Fenland Poet Laureate, was travelling the same route on Tinkers Leen. Our boats passed in the night, but before the evening ended, I was lucky to be able to join one of Leanne’s sessions, and enjoy the sensation of time and water slipping past as she told a captivating tale about a mermaid and a lock-keeper. (You can sample Leanne’s stunning performances here. Over the weekend we were joined by the poet Aly Stoneman, whose explorations of water run deep: her pamphlet Lost Lands was described by Mark Goodwin as ‘a tight river of poems with a dangerous, irresistible current.’

For the commissioned poem, I’d been researching the heritage of the Nottingham and Beeston Canal, and I’d read in a contemporary newspaper report that the passing of the Act which authorised work on the canal in May 1792 was greeted locally ‘by ringing of bells, and other demonstrations of joy’. I wanted my poem to reflect this spirit of celebration, this delight in new beginnings, which sat well with the positivity of the Enchanted Water event. The poem ‘Elements’ was also themed around another festival: Chinese New Year. We had just welcomed in the Year of the Dog, and so Light Night seemed a good time to think about all five elements of the Chinese Zodiac – not just water but also earth, fire, metal and wood – and how they play a part in the story of the canal. (Attentive readers will also find a few of the Chinese Zodiac animals within the narrative.) Read the poem here.

Many thanks to C&RT East Midlands Waterways staff for inviting me to participate in this memorable event and to everyone who made the evening so magical, including the hardy volunteers, the enthusiastic audiences, and the crew of Megan and Tinks who guided us safely and smoothly along the enchanted water.’