Final post: rounding up the poems

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work on this project. The visitors to the museum on the evening of May 18 2013 impressed me with their attentiveness, genuine interest in the subject matter and their creativity.

The wall of one of the ice wells. The floor (which is unexcavated) is rubble from houses destroyed during WW2.

The wall of one of the ice wells. The floor (which is unexcavated) is rubble from houses destroyed during WW2.

For me, it was interesting to talk to some of the other artists exhibiting on the night about where their work came from. There was a brilliant projection piece which allowed visitors to see their own silhouette cast in a flurry of moving snowflakes, and, unsurprisingly, a lot of melting ice. I even had my first encounter with a Victorian Magic Lantern, a primitive slide projector which must have kept people entertained for hours.

I’m very grateful to the handful of audience members who approached me after my readings to talk about my poems. I’d put a lot of work and research into the project, and it’s been difficult trying to find the balance between poems which sufficiently explore the subject matter and which still pack an artistic punch. Ultimately, I think I came in somewhere along the spectrum a little closer to the subject matter / research end, but I know I’ve dwelled a lot of images which will appear in my more personal work in the future.

The ice wells and the ice trade did make for a fascinating subject to explore, and I’ve discovered a brilliant chunk of history, a whole host of images, and some very special poems in the process. My thanks again to Celia Halsey, the ICE Project Manager and everyone at the London Canal Museum. I’ll certainly continue to follow the Museums at Night initiative, and keep a look out for future events.

This blog will remain as a record of the project (if you’ve just stumbled across it, you might like to scroll down to the first post and start from there – there’s also more information on the About The Project page). Thanks for reading!

Stimuli: Ice poems

The event last night went very well – a full round up coming soon – but I just wanted to post quickly about the participation aspect of the evening.

Visitors to the London Canal Museum had the opportunity to descend down two narrow ladders into the ice wells. The wells are only partially excavated but you can get a sense of what impressive structures they are. When visitors emerged blinking back into the light I was on hand with brown luggage tags and pencils, encouraging them to capture their ice well experiences.

Some of the poems / responses written by visitors to the London Canal Museum on 18 May 2013.

Some of the poems / responses written by visitors to the London Canal Museum on 18 May 2013.

I was impressed with people’s readiness to participate – I think everyone I foisted a pencil and tag onto wrote something, which surprised me. We obviously attracted a creative crowd! Clearly the journey of the ice from Norway to London, and the disappearance of the ice trade altogether, made an impression on people; there’s something quite emotive about the site. The luggage-label-poems made a great display along the railings at the top of the ice well.

Perhaps you’re inspired to write your own ice poem? Here are some of the stimuli I used to get people going:

  • What words come to mind when you go / look down into the ice well?
  • If ice could speak, what would it say? What stories would it tell?
  • What does ice remind you of: write a poem where each line begins “Ice is…” or “Ice is like…”
  • In her poem ‘The Swarm’, Mimi Khalvati describes snowflakes as “snow-gnats, snow-bees”. What animals come to mind when you think about ice? Perhaps you could try making some up: how would they move, what would they eat?
  • What memories do you have of snow, ice, or a particularly cold winter? Write a few words about your memories – try and be specific: what textures, smells or sounds do you remember?

Three ice poems (sound recordings)

In my best Radio 4 voice, here are recordings of a few of the poems I’ve written for the project.

As I share them, it’s got me thinking about the nature of this project – the advantages and disadvantages of having a set topic to explore. I’ll post more about this later on. In the meantime, enjoy these brief recordings.

Two ice poems

Ice Well, 1896

They say you can’t buy time. Ice is another story.
River cubes shuffled across the North Sea:
solid time, liquid time. These stony blocks are days,
these are weeks; milk that won’t turn,
meat that will keep. Leaking chips of Norway
count the minutes dogged out of Oppegård with drips;
cry out one half of themselves from mountain lake
to British counter.

It’s unstoppable, inevitable:

melting, the future – farms are coming,
machines that will draw ice from the air, a war.

These pits will outlast their charge. In will tumble dust,
houses which stand now but won’t always,
shrapnel and bomb casings, a bloodstained tea towel,
a kettle, an odd shoe – sucked into the dark,
coming to rest in puddles where ice
has taught the walls a thing or two about melting.

The Ice Sweats

This is the death trade: early mornings, early graves.
Your fingers are blood-starved,
palms and soles of your feet white-hard.
Sometimes you think you’ve turned to ice:
if you fell you’d shatter, they’d melt you.
Looking down, the ice in the wells is a tiled floor,
when you’re on it it’s the devil’s tongue –
you skid, your boots slip out.
A dozen times a day you think you’re going over:
the ice has you in its silk teeth.
This risk, the burden of the blocks, puts the sweat on.
Stacked, they are steps, landings, a staircase to the porthole sky.
They glisten, sweat their own, look sticky –
but this is not crystal honey: wicked cold,
these weeping blocks might betray you to the winch,
and the ladder would not miss you.

The writing process

My poem-writing is truly underway: I’ve read and researched myself deep into the ice. My flatmate recently arrived home to find me listening to a plate of ice cubes, and I delight nearly everyone I meet with pithy facts about the import of Norwegian ice to London.

Stimuli cut-outsThis image is of my living room floor one recent afternoon. I’d collected facts, jotted down images, sounds and snatches of stories and chopped them up so that I could shape them, physically, into the beginnings of the poems I want to write.

I’ve got ideas for about ten pieces; they’ll all be quite short, and will focus on a different element of the ice trade or of the nature of ice. I can’t promise all of these will find their way to completion, but the good news is I’ll certainly have something to read come the event on May 18.

My first research trip to the London Canal Museum, where visitors can peer into the Victorian ice wells, really kick-started this process. On a recent Poetry School course I learnt about the power of accurate observation – hence my recent encounters with not just the wells, but with ice itself. Some of the poems will suppose events, or characters working around the wells, but I want to ground each one by using honest, accurate observations.

Here are a few icy facts that got me writing:

  • Norwegian ice was exported to the UK between 1860 and 1915.
  • People who worked in the ice industry were said to work “one the ice”, and because of its risky nature it was known as “the death trade”.
  • The wastage from Norway to delivery to the customer was around 30-40%.
  • Cloudy ice was deemed inferior to clear ice: Americans preferred clear ice and shopkeepers preferred to use clear ice in their display counters.
  • Even after the mechanical production of ice was perfected, natural ice long retained a reputation for being of higher quality (there was, of course, no difference).

And there are so many others I could go on all day. Nuggets of gold like these have inspired me to write, but I hope my poems will use research creatively – poems aren’t, after all, text books. I’ll present a couple in my next posts, but if you want to hear the lot you’ll need to come along to the event on 18 May. There’s not just me – the brilliant Simon Barraclough presents excerpts from The Debris Field, and there will be live ice sculpture, a film installation and other artists.

Reading up

Whilst writing poems to explore the London ice trade for a forthcoming event, I’ve been reading what established poets have to say in poems about water, ice, snow and winter.

Poets have long been using water and ice as a metaphor for time passing or loss. The image of ice melting is irresistible when it comes to talking about decay, and poets frequently seize on the simple beauty (often uniformity) of ice.

One of my all-time favourite poems is Louis MacNeice’s ‘Snow’, though he gets through it with few references to the white stuff itself. “World is suddener than we fancy it,” he says. “World is crazier and more of it than we think, / Incorrigibly plural.” Beautiful!

Following a similar theme in ‘The Swarm’ Mimi Khalvati compares a flurry of snowflakes to gnats or bees – “snow-gnats, snow-bees”. She describes the flakes as “flying blind / but carrying light, specks becoming atoms.” She also makes as similar comparison of ice to poetry as I made in my last post: “They died as they landed, riding on their own melting as poems do…”

I long ago bookmarked the page of the opening poem of Gillian Clarke’s 2012 collection Ice, ‘Polar’, which is about imagining a bearskin rug into life. In the title poem “frost has got its knives out” and in ‘Snow’ Clarke tells us to “Listen! / Ice is whispering.” The collection, about so much more than its title, is a rich inspiration as I plunge into this project: for me, it’s not just about telling the story of the ice wells, it’s about listening to the ice, about watching it, capturing something of its nature.

In addition to the above, I’ve also been dwelling on a few other collections and individual poems relating to water and ice: ‘The Midnight Skaters’ by Edmund Blunden, ‘Fire and Ice’ by Robert Frost, The Water Table by Philip Gross and What the Water Gave Me by Pascal Petit.

One last poem I’ve been thinking about recently is Matthew Sweeney’s ‘A History of Glass Blowing’ (second prize, National Poetry Competition 2009). This poem isn’t about ice at all, but glass – however, it keeps coming to me because, in terms of describing the two entities, there might not be much difference. Sweeney catches the magic of glass blowing, just as there is much magic to be found in the properties of ice.

A note on where to find the poems I’ve focussed on here: ‘Snow’ can be found in Louis MacNeice’s Collected Poems (Faber and Faber), ‘The Swarm’ is published in Mimi Khalvati’s Earthshine (The Poetry Business), and Gillian Clarke’s Ice is published by Carcanet.

Poems about ice

Ice, water, tides and floes are intrinsically related to time: there’s no better medium than poetry to explore London’s forgotten Victorian ice trade.

On the evening of the 18 May 2013, the London Canal Museum will throw open its doors as part of Culture 24’s Museums at Night. The museum, taking the theme of ‘Ice’ for the evening, is also celebrating the refurbishment of its little-known Victorian ice wells.

Ice well photograph

Ther view down into one of the ice wells at the London Canal Museum.

What are ice wells? I hear you cry. Well, they’re fascinating, that’s what they are. Before every kitchen had a freezer, and before there was any mechanical technique for making ice, naturally occurring ice was kept from winter into summer. We take for granted being able to refrigerate and freeze our food, keep our homes cool and use ice packs in medical emergencies. It wasn’t always this way, and in the 1800s London imported ice from Norway.We’re not talking about just a little bit of ice here: we’re talking about huge quantities of the stuff brought over to the UK and distributed like coal or milk. When the ice reached London from Norway it was stored in deep wells like the two underneath (what is now) the London Canal Museum.Leading up to the event I’m working on a series of poems about the ice wells and the people who worked “on the ice”. I wanted to be involved in the project because I often use images relating to ice and water in my writing, and because, it seems to me, that ice and poetry have a lot in common.

An idea for a poem can be hard to capture. Something starts to happen to an idea when it exists only as thought; it immediately starts to melt, to dissipate, and if you don’t preserve the sense of that thought with words you run the risk of not being able to recall it. There’s no getting back ideas or feelings you can’t put words to, just like there’s no getting back a melted block of ice.

There doesn’t seem to be a better medium in which to explore or celebrate London’s ice trade. The ice wells at the London Canal Museum, which is just behind Kings Cross station, are the only remaining wells of their kind. Built into the London clay, they were been in danger of falling in – you could say they were starting to melt away themselves – but thanks to the a restoration grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund this has been prevented.

Museums at Night is coordinated by Culture 24, with funding from Arts Council England.