Poetry on the Canals – An Interview with Jessica Kashdan-Brown

Jessica Kashdan-Brown is a current Warwick Writing Programme (WWP) student, poet, and writer, originally from Bath. Her current project, the Bath Canal Poetry Route, works with the help of the Canal & River Trust to place poetry in the locks of the Bath canals, such that the poem changes as the water in the lock rises and falls.

Where did the initial concept for the project come from?

The shortcut answer to the question would be to say that the project came out of a piece of coursework we were set, for an amazing module called The Practice of Poetry. But really, the project has come out of a collection of things that are so much bigger than just that. Part of this was the brief that we were given, which was along the lines of “a public piece of poetry with an interesting concept”, but the real spark behind the idea actually came from watching the Richard II episode of BBC’s The Hollow Crown.

There’s this beautiful scene in it where Richard II writes his name in the sand of a beach during an especially powerful monologue, and at the end of that same scene the sea comes in to wash it away. It’s such a vivid cinematic moment, and I couldn’t get it out of my head for weeks afterwards. Eventually, it gave me the idea of writing some sort of poetry that responds to water movement, to nature, its shape and meaning dictated by the flow of it.

The only problem was, I don’t live anywhere near the sea. So, then I got thinking about water in or around my home in Bath and struck upon the idea of the canals, and the locks along the canal that fill and empty with the passing-through of boats. The more I thought about it, the more exciting the idea became. There are so many stories in those waterways, so much historic life, and the idea of creating something that could tap into that and become a part of it – transforming with the movement of the water – just caught hold of me.

 

What’s the process behind the lock poems, from draft to ‘publication’?

For me, the lock poems have been formed out of a very unusual writing and research process. I have tried with these poems to use as much of the place-specific history and tales of each lock as I could, which meant a trip out to Devizes to access the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust’s archives. The archivists working there were amazing: they’ve clearly spent years and years cultivating an interest in the canals and building up an incredible store of knowledge. They were so keen to help, handing me all sorts of drawings and photographs of the Bath locks, from centuries ago to relatively recent events; and pulling-out first-hand accounts from old boaters’ diaries that have been carefully preserved and filed away.

The writing itself has involved a lot of strange experiments with wordplay and line-breaks. I filled pages and pages with all sorts of compound-words, homographs and homonyms before I started writing anything. I also had to make sure I held a clear idea of what I wanted each poem to be about in my head before I started, so that I could pick the words and shape the direction of the poem based on that.

The ‘publication’ process has also been a strange one. The biggest problem with trying to work out how the poems could be put into the locks were all the heritage and environmental considerations and approvals that had to be taken into account. After throwing around a lot of ideas, the Canal and River Trust team eventually came up with the idea of a “clean advertising” method, where a pressure washer is used to “paint” letters onto a wall by removing the upper layer of dirt through a stencil.

The result looks very natural and subtle, and is environmentally friendly too. In a step towards “publication”, I went out to the Bath Top Lock and tested the method with a team from the trust, which went well. The team are happy to help carry out the full installation, so now it’s a matter of trying to find the funding for a stencil and get it done. I’ve set up a gogetfunding page for this, and we’re hoping we might be able to get the first one done by the end of the summer.

 

What value do you think these kinds of modern, public approaches to poetry have, compared to traditional forms?

The value of this kind of approach to poetry that we’re seeing more of nowadays is, I think, most easily gauged and proved by the kind of responses and interactions they get from the communities they’re placed within. From spoken word to local modern poetry readings, to poetic sculpture, film, and features in exhibitions, there is an incredible sense of large-scale appreciation and involvement that more traditional forms of poetry might not be able to access as easily.

Poetry is so often practiced and viewed as a solitary experience, but I feel like these kinds of projects open poetry up to a wide audience in a way that shows them that it doesn’t have to be that way, that poetry can be engaged with on so many levels, not just in an academic, literary one from behind a desk. In that sense, it shows poetry more fully: as something beautiful beyond just words or writing, creeping out into the realms of art, event, storytelling and even our sense of place and thought. There’s so much that is rewarding in this kind of approach, not just for the poet themselves, but for everyone who has any kind of a share in the experience, however small.


What’s the response been like so far?

It’s been an overwhelmingly positive response so far – I’m astonished. The development of this project has brought me into contact with groups like the Canal and River Trust and the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust, as well as individuals like Nancy Campbell, the canal laureate. It has also opened up links to amazing creatives and collectives in my local community that I didn’t know anything about before now, including Fringe Arts Bath, who were kind enough to feature my proposal in their #getoutofyourcar exhibition, and groups like Rhyme and Reason Poets, who have reached out to me to offer support through one of their spoken word events.

A lot of the responses have also come in through social media. I hardly used my twitter account before now, other than to quietly scope out great new reads or snippets of wit, but as soon as I tweeted and posted about the project and made into something more widely public than it was before, people started responding to it very quickly. I’ve been retweeted and replied to by passionate Bath locals I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting in person, as well as people much further afield with an interest in poetry, environmental literature and the canals in general.

It’s done a lot to show me just how excitingly creative and supportive of imaginative ventures Bath is as a city; and what’s more, how people from all over are willing to become a part of that and expand what was a localized project into a huge creative network through their encouragement and support.

 

What advice would you give to someone trying to start their own project?

Don’t be afraid to reach out and approach places and people with your ideas.

When I first thought about doing this project, I had absolutely no clue if anything would come of it, as I couldn’t imagine any officials ever approving such a strange idea. But some part of my instinct or just plain whimsy won out over any doubts I had at the time, so I decided to google the Canal and River Trust and just phone them to ask. There was no harm in asking, I thought; and I was right about that. They were incredibly helpful. They immediately connected me through to the right person and took my email address, and then someone got in touch with me that same afternoon asking for more details and expressing how interested the trust are in creative projects.

It’s been a long process since then of trying to get the project to the right teams for the right approval, and trying to make sure everyone who needs to know about it does, but it’s been so enormously worth it. So, my top tip is always: ask. Phone, send an email, even dm them on Instagram. More often than not you will be very pleasantly surprised by how positively people respond to imaginative ideas.

My second piece of advice would be that most ideas are good ideas, but you should definitely talk to people about it. Talk to your family, parents, tutors – make use of every kind of person you can with experience that might help. They can be so important in helping turn a good idea into a great one, and in making what can feel like a huge individual undertaking into an endeavour that is widely and well-supported. That goes for all writing really.

To donate to Jessica’s project, visit her gogetfunding page here. For more of her work, visit her website.

Interview conducted by Zoë Wells

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