Canal Laureate

The Canal Laureate is a poet appointed by The Poetry Society and Canal & River Trust to write new poems inspired by the canal network. The Canal Laureate project is part of Arts on the Waterways, a wider partnership between the Canal & River Trust and Arts Council England, which aims to attract more visitors to the waterways while surprising and delighting existing communities through exciting  art projects.

Canal Laureate 2021-22, Roy McFarlane 

Poet Roy grew up in Birmingham and the Black Country, surrounded by canals. He says: “I lived, played and loved by canals and rivers and am looking forward to recapturing those stories; tales of diverse communities in urban settings who lived with canals in their backyard.”

During lockdown, Roy, like many of us, spent a lot of time outdoors. He retraced routes along his local canal towpath and developed a newfound understanding of how waterways can become sites and spaces for wellbeing and an aid to mental health.

As Canal Laureate, Roy is interested to explore how people feel about their local canals currently, and how our national and global history can be read in the story of the canal network’s development. He says: “I’ll be exploring stories of women, labour and migration in the building of these canals, and how that contributed to the Industrial Revolution with its hidden histories of colonialism and imperialism.”

Roy will be both writing his own poems, and working with various groups of canal users, including boaters, to create new collaborative works. His first project will involve a canal walk on the shortest day of the year, to be followed by return visits on the Equinoxes and the longest day. Other projects with a wellbeing, nature or history focus will follow. We have some confirmed plans for the projects he’ll be working on as Canal Laureate – but there is plenty of room for more. If you have a proposal for Roy, please contact Julia Bird at The Poetry Society to discuss.

Roy McFarlane is a poet, playwright and former Youth & Community Worker born in Birmingham of Jamaican parentage, spending most of his years living around the Black Country, and now residing in Brighton. He’s held the role of Birmingham Poet Laureate, Starbucks Poet and Birmingham & Midlands Institute Poet in Residence. He is also an Ambit and Poetry Wales competition winner. His debut collection Beginning With Your Last Breath was followed by The Healing Next Time (Nine Arches Press, 2018, nominated for the Ted Hughes Award and the Jhalak Prize). Roy has an MA in Writing Poetry from Newcastle University and the Poetry School, and is presently working on his third collection with Nine Arches Press which is due for publication in October 2022.

Canal Laureate 2018-19, Nancy Campbell

Nancy Campbell is a writer who works across disciplines, from poetry and essays to publishing artist’s books. Nancy grew up in the Scottish Borders and Northumberland and her work is informed by these landscapes and borderlines. A series of residencies with Arctic research institutions has resulted in projects responding to cultural and climate change in polar and marine environments.

Nancy’s poetry collection Disko Bay (‘a beautiful debut from a deft, dangerous and dazzling new poet’ – Carol Ann Duffy) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2016. Her artist’s books include provisoDeath of a Foster Son and How To Say ‘I Love You’ In Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet which received the Birgit Skiöld Award.

Wander this website to find details of the poems and projects that Nancy worked on during her tenure as Canal Laureate, including a week long kayak adventure and a new poem that only appears when it rains.

Canal Laureate 2016-17, Luke Kennard

Luke Kennard is the author of six collections of poetry and a novella called Holophin (Penned in the Margins, 2012). His first book, The Solex Brothers, won him an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors in 2005. His second, The Harbour Beyond the Movie made him the youngest poet to be shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection in 2007. He has also published two chapbooks, Planet Shaped Horse (Nine Arches, 2011) and The Necropolis Boat (Holdfire Press, 2012) which won the Poetry Book Society’s pamphlet choice in 2012. A Lost Expression was published by Salt in 2012 to critical acclaim and his fifth collection, Cain, came out with Penned in the Margins in 2016. His Notes on the Sonnets (also Penned in the Margins) won the 2021 Forward Prize for Best Collection. His literary criticism has appeared in the TLS, Poetry London and The National.

Luke Kennard lives in Birmingham. He was born in Kingston-upon-Thames and grew up in Luton. His Canal Laureate poems and blogs are archived on this website.

Canal Laureate 2013-15, Jo Bell

Poet, Jo Bell was the inaugural Canal Laureate for the Canal & River Trust and The Poetry Society from 2013-2015. The Canal Laureate project is part of a wider partnership between the Canal & River Trust and Arts Council England, which aims to attract more visitors to the waterways while surprising and delighting existing communities through exciting and innovative art projects.

Jo Bell was formerly an industrial archaeologist specialising in industrial remains like mines, railways… and canals. She discovered historic narrowboats and began writing poetry seriously at about the same time; and her career has since included running a fleet of historic narrowboats and acting as director of National Poetry Day for six years.

Born in Sheffield, Jo grew up on the fringes of the Derbyshire Peak District and currently lives on a narrowboat.

Her 2015 poetry collection Kith contains many of the poems written during her time as Canal Laureate. It is published by Nine Arches Press. Her first collection, Navigation includes poems of boat life and canal wildlife, and her show Riverlands with Jo Blake Cave celebrates the River Nene in Northamptonshire.

Her poetry can be seen on a lock in Milnsbridge, near Huddersfield, as part of the Locklines project.