Words spring from frozen land

Helen Mort at camp by the Knud Rasmussen glacier, East Greenland
Helen Mort at camp by the Knud Rasmussen glacier, East Greenland

Landscape has always been an essential part of the poetry of Helen Mort but last summer when she made a trip to Greenland she found it 
difficult to put the place and its beauty into words.

“You end up resorting to cliche,” she says, “failing to explain how humbling it was to see the Northern Lights, how terrifying and exhilarating it felt at times to be in the middle of a labyrinth of ice.”

We camped on a glacier. There’s a very different rhythm of life

The Sheffield-born rising star of British poetry had made the trip to the far North at the invitation of ‘composer-traveller’ Bill Carslake.

“He was going on a trip flying over glaciers and asked if I would come and write something that could accompany his music,” she explains.

Part of a performance and educational project for 2017, it was an opportunity she couldn’t resist, although it required a Kickstarter campaign to help fund it.

Along with film director Richard Jones, they will create a piece of music, silent film and spoken poetry which will premiere at Wells-next-the-Sea poetry festival in May and there will also be an education programme in schools.

“We camped for two and a half weeks on a glacier. There’s a very different rhythm of life which is more satisfying,” she recalls.

Helen first met Carslake in Canada on a writing residency which led to her second collection, No Map Could Show Them, published last year. It explores the lives and legacies of women, particularly mountaineers, runners and campaigners, from Victorian times to the modern day.

“I have been reading mountain books since I was a kid,” she explains. “The more years I have been climbing, I have asked myself why are they all about dead men, where are the books by women?”

One poem, Above Cromford, is about Derbyshire climber Alison Hargreaves who died in 1995 on K2.

“The reason I feel connected to her is that I learned to climb in the same landscape (the poet grew up in Bolsover and has recently re-located from Sheffield to Chesterfield). Places like Stanage and Burbage stay with you like theatres where amazing things are acted.

“I write about place but always populate them,” says the writer whose first collection was called Division Street.

She is currently working on her first novel, something she never expected to do.

“I didn’t think I had the stamina. When I am writing a poem I often know its form before I start writing.

“I knew this was too big for a poetic narrative and I kept the characters in my head for a year.”

She says she doesn’t write down ideas but tends to shape them in her head before committing them to the keyboard.

A poem about autumn for Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour formed in her head while running round Linacre reservoirs in Chesterfield.

“I speak them out loud, sometimes when I am out running or even in the car. I see other motorists staring at me because I’m talking aloud with no one else in the car.”