Poet Robert Powell: “The concept of borders has become enlivened and electrified”

Poet Robert Powell: “The concept of borders has become enlivened and electrified”

A year ago, poet Robert Powell took part in Voicing the Bridge, an international community arts project organised in Clady on the border of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The project was funded by the Finnish Institutes following an open call for projects dealing with European identity and the future of free movement. Powell’s new pamphlet Notes from a Border River sees the artist revisit Clady.

Notes from a Border River has its roots in Voicing the Bridge, a collaborative project with Finnish artist Jan-Erik Andersson and Eileen Hutton. Could you tell us about that? 

I’ve known Jan-Erik for many years and I’d worked with him before, in 2018, when I was resident at Saari (artist residency). When the call out came from the Finnish Institute for projects to do with European identity and freedom of movement, we wanted to work together again. We thought that the Irish border would be an amazing place to work in 2019 because of the debate about it that had been resurrected by Britain’s plan to leave the EU. Jan-Erik discovered the River Finn which forms part of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and the extraordinary 18th century bridge at Clady. Eileen Hutton, an environmental artist, joined us. We thought it’d be very interesting to think about borders in general, and how nature pays no attention to human borders. The proposal was accepted and we had to start making connections in Northern Ireland quite quickly. 

How does Notes from a Border River build on Voicing the Bridge?

The main project had to be done very fast, so it seemed important to keep a record of the project as it developed. I wanted to see if I could track various themes and ideas as they arose between March and summertime, and how they did or didn’t turn into finished work. Notes from a Border River is called Notes because it’s a more informal thing – it’s a slightly unfinished product… like a scrapbook. It contains a mix of diary entries, photographs, bits of research, my own thoughts, poetic musings and, at the end of it, ten finished poems. When we started Voicing the Bridge, we didn’t really know what we were going to do. It was very much an exploration and a discovery. 

You’ve stated that Notes from a Border River is, partially, a meditation on the creative process. How is this reflected in Notes?  

I was very glad that I decided to track the process as we went along, because if I had not done that I would have missed a lot. I was curious to know, and maybe other artists and writers would be interested too, how it is that poems come together… how experience sometimes becomes art. When the project was finished and the autumn came on, I was back home in York and began to look back at my notes. I’d written some poems by then and I wrote some more. It was very interesting for me, as an artist, to look back and see how the ideas and key themes came up. I hope that’s of as much interest to other people as it was to me!

You’ve spoken of a ‘river-inspired strand’ in your recent work. How do rivers function as a source of inspiration?

I was born and raised close to the Ottawa River in Canada. That river haunted my childhood and then I became a writer, an arts professional and project manager and sort of forgot about it really. Now this theme of rivers keeps coming back. When I made a proposal to the Kone Foundation to go to the residency there (Saari), I did some research and came across the River Aura. Rivers are interesting because they’re both in present-time but also represent the flow of time. There’s always a sense of the past, and there’s a sense of time passing and, especially in cities or towns, there’s a sense of history. There’s a relationship between the river and humans and I love looking at the evidence of that. Rivers are also interesting because at the same time as they’re an actual place – and I’m very interested in the whole notion of place – they’re also a metaphor. For a poet, it’s kind of a dream situation because you’re looking at something that is a poetic metaphor about time past, time future, human life, and nature… and also a real place.

How did you work with the local community in Clady during this process? 

We couldn’t have done it without the help of local people. The Clady Cross Community Development Association and the local people opened their arms to us and helped us. We felt safe working with them that we wouldn’t make any stupid blunders in terms of politics or upsetting people. That area has a very troubled history and we needed to operate with extreme care. We also welcomed the involvement of Irish artists, musicians, and performers. I should confess that in some ways, inevitably, it’s going to be superficial and I can only hope that, as an outsider, I did have some insights. It was a two-way gift – they gifted us their welcome and we gifted, as best we could, our skills and what we could bring in a short period of time.

How have the themes you dealt with a year ago changed over the course of the past year? 

Originally, I was hoping to produce Notes from a Border River before Christmas! For various reasons, it was delayed and then the Covid-19 crisis hit. I found myself working on and finishing it during the crisis. At first, it seemed as if Brexit and the Irish border question had been forgotten, it seemed like ancient history and it struck me that maybe it wasn’t as relevant anymore. But then I realised that actually what Covid-19 is about is borders between people. The whole concept of borders has become enlivened and electrified and made tragic and part of everybody’s life because we’re not just talking about political borders but the borders that divide people. I hope it’s very much relevant because it touches on various conceptions of borders as well as the particular border of the River Finn. Of course, the Brexit story is not over yet either so I think the politics will still be alive in the next few years as well.

What do you have coming up? 

My next project has to do with going back to that first river – the Ottawa River of my childhood is arriving back on my creative scene! It’ll probably be next year at the earliest before we see that project.


Notes From A Border River virtual book launch 20/7 at 19:00. Book your free ticket on Eventbrite

Buy a copy of the pamphlet in the UK (£7.50) here. For orders outside the UK, contact Robert directly at rjp1066@gmail.com

Check out the video recap of Voicing the Bridge!


Text: Volter Rechardt, Image: Robert Powell

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