Britain’s waterways are gaining a new voice as we team up with the Poetry Society to announce the appointment of the first ever 'Canal Laureate'. Boating poet Jo Bell will bring a new perspective to the nation's historic canals and rivers and encourage people to see their local waterways in a new light.
Good poetry is about noticing. Jo Bell
The appointment 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.
We have worked closely with the Poetry Society to find the right candidate for the post. In her role as Canal Laureate, Jo will actively engage new and existing audiences through community workshops, performances and blogs. She will write new verse inspired by the canals and rivers and will begin an ‘anthologising’ of the waterways by bringing in work by other poets.
Jo is a poet, archaeologist and boat-dweller, working all over the UK on poetry projects large and small. As well as her recent role as director of National Poetry Day, Jo has also been Glastonbury Festival poet in residence and Cheshire Poet Laureate. Her most recent show Riverlands is about the River Nene in Northamptonshire. She is also working on a new book Fireships with poet Martin Malone. Her work has appeared in many reputed journals, in National Trust restaurants, on Radio 4 and even on a milestone in her native Derbyshire.
Jo came to the canals through her work as an archaeologist, working with historic narrowboats. “Eventually I went native and became a boat-dweller myself,” she says. She has lived aboard her 67ft narrowboat Tinker for a decade, mostly on the canals of the Midlands and North West. This summer Jo made an epic journey of 249 miles from Manchester to Honeystreet in Wiltshire over 29 days. This slow odyssey gave her “a constantly changing crew of friends, a constantly changing landscape and enough time to look at it properly. The canals are England's truest way to travel; long green lines where people go to think, to walk, to fish and to gongoozle - that's boat-watching.”
What can poetry bring to the canals? “Good poetry is about noticing,” says Jo. “I want people who already know the canals to notice how lucky we are to have them. For people who haven't really noticed them yet, I want to show them the still green space on their doorstep, full of wildlife and histories. The Canal & River Trust and Arts Council England Partnership gives us a chance to combine good public art with good public service, and to make people all over the UK take time to breathe, in their own landscape.” She urges people to follow her @canalpoetry on Twitter for news of her journeys and projects as Canal Laureate.
The Canal Laureateship is the latest partnership project between ourselves and the Poetry Society, as part of a wider collaboration. Earlier this year, Yorkshire poet Ian McMillan celebrated the launch of the Canal & River Trust with a new poem, ‘Canal Life’; while the Locklines project, managed by Chrysalis Arts, will see Ian’s words carved into new lock gates, along with those by Roy Fisher and Jo Bell. A further range of poets will join them in working with Jo, throughout her period as Canal Laureate.
Tony Hales, chair of the Canal & River Trust, said: “Many poets have been inspired by the magnificent canals and rivers that form the green veins of Britain’s landscape and they are firmly part of the national creative consciousness. I’m delighted to welcome Jo Bell as our first ever Canal Laureate and hope that her work touches people and encourages them to explore their local waterways, and maybe even craft some words of their own.”
Judith Palmer, director at the Poetry Society, adds: “Our inland waterways offer 2,000 miles of poetic inspiration, with half our population living a mere stone’s skim away. As our first Canal Laureate, Jo Bell, will be harnessing her twin passions of poetry and canal-life, and bringing people across the country more joy in both."