‘In July I’ll embark on a week-long poetry tour, travelling from Liverpool to Leeds on the Desmond Family Canoe Trail. This adventure requires much preparation, but not of the kind that usually fuels my poetry… Instead of reading and research, a training routine of swimming, skipping and paddlesports promises an unexpected route to new poems.
At school, I dreaded sport. My hand-me-down clothes didn’t fit. I had asthma. I was always the last person picked for a team. Sport appeared to be for more sophisticated students… for a start, it seemed to help if you had a good haircut. But hair was the least of my worries: I was marked out by my accent (I came from elsewhere), and later by the awkwardness of my queer teenage body. I wheezed through the lessons, wanting only to be in the library.
After leaving school, if I exercised at all, it was in a form familiar to me from English lessons: cycling (complete with cycle-clips, as recommended by Philip Larkin); walking, like all the Romantics; or ‘into cleanness leaping’ after Rupert Brooke’s swimmers. But then five summers ago, I stepped into a kayak for the first time. And it was poetry that brought me to the riverbank – I’d been writing about the old skin kayaks used in the Arctic, when I realised I hadn’t ever travelled in one myself.
It took guts to go along to a kayaking club that first time; once again I had no appropriate clothing and little confidence in my fitness. Why persist in doing the thing that, judging from my past record, was bound to end in failure?
That summer I relied on my partner to kick me out of bed at weekends. I sloped off, my body silhouetted by Lycra, destined for mortification. I was barely strong enough to carry the kayak to the water’s edge. I was left behind by other paddlers. I capsized, I paddled in zig-zags, I flagged. My clothes stank of the river. Then, one morning, like speaking another language, the different elements all came together: my body, my blade, the water – I understood.
This doesn’t mean that I go fast. Some members of my club represent Great Britain and in a recent training session, as my group lined up to practice a racing start, the coach shouted at us that kayaking’s all about aggression. But for me it’s just the opposite: the water is the place where I can clear my mind and let oxygen race to my brain, it’s time away from the page and the screen and making short-term decisions. Just as some people turn to poetry for mental clarity, I value the insights that come during my watery interludes from writing.
The Canal and River Trust has recently announced its focus on Wellness with the aim of encouraging others to find that clarity and peace on the waterways. When I set off from Liverpool on 18 July I look forward to hearing the stories of people I meet on the canal and recording some of our shared experiences on the water in new poems. At 126 miles, it will be a long journey, but without Team GB paddlers as pacemakers, I’ll be able to take it at my own speed – keeping my draft poems safe in a waterproof bag.’