StAnza 2015: Helen Mort
The Derbyshire Poet Laureate impresses at Scotland’s poetry festival with new work engaged with the natural world
On Friday night at the StAnza Poetry Festival 2015, the young Derbyshire poet Helen Mort held a packed house spellbound with poems about ghosts, whippets, running and climbing through the craggy British landscapes. WB Yeats wrote that poetry ‘makes nothing happen’, but Mort’s poetry is a world of physical activity and energy, in which the sense of Mort herself propelling herself through the difficult terrain is palpable. The poems of her first book, and the new poems that she previewed at StAnza, mark her out as a contemporary poet to watch.
Mort’s first collection, Division Street, was shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Prize and the TS Eliot prize. She added these accolades to an already impressive poetry CV, including her position as Derbyshire Poet Laureate, former poet in residence at the Wordsworth Trust, and five-time winner of the Foyle Young Poet of the Year award. At 29 years old, Mort has been described by the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy as ‘among the brightest stars in the sparkling new constellation of British poets.’
Division Street was a collection that considered closely the heritage of the miners’ strikes and the legacy of the Thatcher years, a topic that Mort, as a young writer from Sheffield, was well-placed to explore. But the new poems she debuted at StAnza revealed a renewed interest in climbing and physical engagement with the natural world. Mort herself is a keen rock climber and cross-country runner – straight after her poetry reading she was driving back down to England to represent Yorkshire in a cross-country race – and her poetry is increasingly rooted in Mort’s personal experience of throwing herself into the landscape. One of the poems she read, about meeting a fox on an early-morning run, put this view on the world across sharply: ‘What she knows of distances, but doesn’t tell, I know as well.’
Mort’s next collection will partly be about the history of women’s mountaineering. One of the pieces she read from it was called ‘An Easy Day for a Lady’, inspired by a quotation Mort found from a male climber who, on learning that one particular climbing route had been completed by two women alone, said that ‘no self-respecting man’ should now attempt it. There was a poem about a climber’s calendar, another about the strange items that people carry up Ben Nevis for charity, and one about an eagle owl that Mort encountered just last week in Edinburgh. As Mort’s poetry engages ever more in the natural world and our physical relationship with it, readers should await her next collection with bated breath.
Helen Mort appeared at StAnza: Scotland’s Poetry Festival on Fri 6 Mar 2015.