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Inspiration from Australia: news from Room 204 writer Justina Hart

We asked our Room 204 writer Justina Hart to tell us about her recent research trip to Australia:

It’s February 2016 when I receive the email from Writing West Midlands nominating me to attend a London conference, Weatherfronts, that will involve working with scientists to generate new writing responding to climate change. (Like all other alumni of the Room 204 career development scheme, I receive exciting missives like this from time to time.) I’m awarded one of the Weatherfronts commissions from Durham University, Free Word, and eco/arts charity TippingPoint to write a six-part poem, Doggerland Rising.

Jump forward to February 2018 and, having evolved the work, I’m at a very different conference, this time about literature and disappearing islands and polar regions. It’s 39 degrees and I’m in Sydney performing extracts of Doggerland Rising plus related poems and a song to Commonwealth literature scholars from the South Pacific and further afield. I share a stage with some wonderful writers: New Zealand poet laureate, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Australian poet, Mark Tredinnick, and Tahitian novelist, Célestine Hitiura Vaite.

I’m also here to give a presentation about how I collaborated with Durham scientists investigating past climate change to inform the background to my poem. Set 9,000 years ago in a part of Britain that now lies under the North Sea, Doggerland Rising looks imaginatively at what we can learn from our Mesolithic ancestors about how to handle man-made climate change. I’ve read extracts at the Hay, Durham and Birmingham literature festivals, but Sydney is the first time I have performed internationally or presented to academics.

Later that day I’m in the audience as Selina unwraps and takes apart the laureate’s Māori walking stick, Matua Tokotoko, explains about its masculine and feminine parts, and asks us to handle it – she’s on a mission to bring poetry to the ‘un-poeted’. In her hair she’s tucked a blue quill pen embossed with ‘Lichfield Cathedral’, a gift I gave her from my home town. After the conference I have meetings lined up with other Sydneyside writers before flying to Melbourne to stay with a playwright and perform my work to an environmental humanities group.

All this has been possible because I applied to the Arts Council England’s and British Council’s Artists’ International Development Fund, which helps artists develop new markets for their work abroad. My project aims to bring my climate change writing to Australia; to network with Australian and South Pacific writers with a view to generating new collaborations; and to discover fresh approaches to, and audiences for, this type of writing. Careful project planning means that a second artist with whom I regularly collaborate has been able to travel to record the work, offer media support, and create an exhibition.

The project is intense and involves 14-hour days before, during and after the trip but, as a result, I have new friends in the Antipodes and ideas for exciting new projects. And I have fond memories of leaping between sun and shade whilst lugging camera, tripod, video and audio equipment, folders, questionnaires, personalised bookmarks, business cards, cathedral quill pens and postcards, sunscreen, sun hat and sun umbrella around in scorching heat.

For more about Justina’s project and a picture gallery, see: