Crossing the Arctic Circle does something to a person. While traversing the Equator traditionally calls for a great deal of jollity, face-painting and celebration, a journey to the far north tends to be a more sober and serious affair.
Passing into the Artic Circle – which currently sits approximately 66 degrees north of planet earth’s overheating waistband – can be a moment to check what you think you know – and also question who you think you are.
Time spent in a wilderness is an education. Lots of the strongest men – and women – have been bested by such a challenge. Space – white space – leaves room to look outwards and inwards in ways that many of us aren't able to do on a day-to-day basis.
That preamble brings us to Poet, Artist, Wife, Mother and Northern Community Mover & Shaker Melissa Davies, whose collection of poetry – the exquisite The Arctic Diaries has recently been published by Arachne Press.
Following a chance opportunity in 2018 to base themselves for a time on Fleinvær, a collection of islands forming an archipelago in the almost 400m deep Norwegian Vestfjord, Melissa and her husband were gifted a unique insight into a community and landscape that exists on the edge.
Created from stories gathered during her first arctic winter, Melissa Davies has sensitively created a collection of poems that not only capture the oral traditions of this part of Scandinavia – but has done it in a way that recognises she is an outsider and has been careful to confirm her words can only be her own experiences of being embedded within another culture.
After receiving The Arctic Diaries, we’ve been fortunate to spend some time with Melissa in the Lake District town she and her family call home – and we were eager to learn about her creative practice, her adventures and her poetry.
When did you know you when you were a poet?
"I know exactly when it was – I can even picture the conversation that led to the start: I did my MA in 2015/17 as a ‘mature student’ – and started off as a frustrated short story writer – I’d always written short stories – and it’s a chore for me.
"In the first year we did a bit of everything. Scriptwriting, poetry, short stories, prose. I had a taste of the poetry and I realised that’s it: ‘This is what I should be doing’ – and I never wrote another short story – or attempted a novel – or anything else.
"One of my lecturers – a well-known poet – was tearing my short story apart one day (as he would, because it was absolutely terrible) – and at the end I said ‘look I just want to write poetry, but I daren’t’
"He said, ‘do it’. If you can’t do it now on an MA – when can you do it?' So that was it."
And what form did that poetry take initially?
"How I really started was by writing bits of prose and then lineating it – and that’s when I realised the prose I was writing really wanted to be poetry – because you could lineate it.
"You can’t just take any prose – rip a page out of a novel and make it into a poem. It might not work – but mine really did work.
"My subjects: I lived in a bizarre set of flats in Gosforth and it was two blocks that looked at each other – and every flat had a full glass wall – almost like fishbowls.
"I felt like I knew all of these people really well, because I looked into their lives, but we didn’t know each other at all. My first poems were about that.
"It wasn’t until I went to Norway – to Fleinvær – that was like my homecoming or something. I really settled into my own voice and realised this is what I’m meant to be writing about. Everything I write now goes back to that, even when I write about the Lake District, which I don’t really do – it has to be about linking Norway and the Lake District."
Lets go back to Fleinvær – and that ‘homecoming’. And that’s what it is isn’t it? We all belong somewhere – and it sounds like you’ve found your place and that came about all by accident?
"A Facebook post: ‘Do you want to live and work in the Arctic?’ Absolutely. Yes. Totally – so I just filled it out – I can’t even remember the details.
"My husband and I were on sabbatical. We were going travelling in our camper van, so we knew we were available. We had a ‘mental’ skype conversation with the owner of The Hideaway (in the dark, while in the car). After that we agreed to head out the following November to become hosts.
"We landed there in the middle of an arctic storm at a tiny airport – that you walk out of and you’re in a residential street. A welcome to Norway I won’t forget. After the storm died down and the ferries began running again – we got to the island and basically stayed for 6 months."
Was ‘Arctic’ the hook?
"It definitely was for me. But when I say to people that I’m going to the arctic, they imagine snow and polar bears – they imagine Svalbard basically – and it's not like that at all. It’s coastal arctic and really different. It’s not the pristine white arctic [we might imagine]. There’s a lot of Scotland to it – but with the arctic tundra. What really is special are the tiny, tiny islands. It’s more that than ‘the arctic’ feel."
You didn’t have any experience of those conditions previously? It was just somewhere you were drawn to?
"Yeah, do you know I’ve always been drawn to the North? When I did history as a student – I was really drawn to Russia and Siberia. As a teenager I dreamt of doing a tour of Siberia. Always drawn – and it's such a cliché – why are we attracted to the North? I’d only previously been to Oslo and Bergan and Fleinvær is nothing like that.
"It was also a time for me and my husband to say: ‘Why the hell not?’ We were able to just trust and go with it. I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t gone. I wouldn’t have any of this." (Melissa gestures to the town around us before she pauses and drinks from her cup. I think she might have just surprised herself with her candour – or been reminded that the pair have done something really incredible – and done it together.)
The Hideaway is an artist’s retreat set in one of the most creativity-inducing environments you could wish for.
So you started exploring? How quickly did something register with you that ‘wow’ where is this place? Why does this place feel the way it does? Was it a thunderbolt moment?
"No, it was definitely a growing thing. I think it was probably spending time with a fisherman and his wife: Odd and Nina – it started to feel like this is a place that is more to me than just this visit. But also – I’ve been 3 times and I’m heading back next week – each time it's grown deeper and deeper – and in a new way. I’ve been as a host and as an artist and I’ve gotten to know the people on the island. It feels like the roots of it have gotten more entangled into me each time."
The First visit was in 2018/19 – but the 2021 visit was when Arctic Diaries was finished.
When did you want to start writing about the place and its people?
"That first visit we had a lot of time – and I was experimenting with my writing – but it was the ridiculous stories I would hear: about the boy disappearing, the blue pigs, about the sunfish which is a tropical fish – but was washed up on the shore of a neighbouring island.
"These stories: The sea monsters skin tangled in the trees – how can you not? I feel like if I wasn’t into poetry and I heard those stories – I’d then want to be into poetry to do something with them.
"I guess its like a chef being given a really rare truffle and wanting to do something with it?
"That’s when I thought ‘I need to write about this’. I didn’t set out to write a book. I just wrote and when I got back to the UK and I had a publisher interested – even though they’d only seen six poems and I only had ten – that’s when it became more of a conscious ‘right this is now a thing.’ I’m going to see this through"
And how did the stories come out – was it as you sat and talked with the islanders?
"Yeah…it was very organic which makes me so grateful it happened, because it so easily couldn’t have.
"Nina would text us ‘I’ve got wine and chocolate’ – come ‘round. We’d go round and we’d stay until 3 in the morning and the stories would just come out.
"I wouldn’t hear them and think ‘that’s a poem’ – it would be later, they would be going round in my head. I usually start a poem handwriting. Something will become a line in my head – I’d write that line by hand then switch to a laptop and that’s when I’d make it a poem."
Some of the poems weren’t written until Melissa was back in the UK. After the first trip, a pregnancy and new baby arriving quite rightly paused the writing.
The structure of your poems – the linear structure. There’s a real graphic and artistic element to them – even before you read the words. How do you arrive at that?
"I’m always conscious of how something is going to look on the page. It’s something I think about a lot and WHITE SPACE really excites me – it’s something I play with a lot – and I find that white space – and using a lot of white space, allows me to say things that I’m scared to say, or self-conscious of saying. It’s like you just place it there – and then you just step back – and all that white space lets the reader decide. Rather than me saying ‘this is what I want to say and I want you to understand it like this'…so that’s a big part of what I’m thinking when I write it.
"Then also there are poems like Poppel which is actually created to look like waves – because poppel is a name for waves when the tide and the wind are opposing and making crests.
"Usually I’ll write the lines, then I’ll structure them afterwards – and edit the lines to fit the structure. I have to make the line endings fit with the structure on the page and that can take a lot of editing – and sometimes it can affect what the poem’s saying.
The book’s cover illustration is of an Eider Duck by artist Natasha Emily Lynch - who Melissa also met in Fleinvær.
"Eiders are really significant. There are increasingly less and less Eiders on Fleinvær - and the Eider ducks are quite a symbol of the archipelago and the residents collect the down in purpose-built wooden huts that the birds nest in. When they move on, the down is collected and made into duvets.
"One of my poems is about the duvet – because the King of Norway does actually sleep under a duvet of Fleinvær down.
"I’ve never seen the Eider Ducks, because I’ve only been there in the winter, so when I go next week, it’s going to be Eider season – so that’s going to be really, really special."
You finished the book in 2022. Did you have a raft of material – with only some that’s made it into the collection?
"There is other things. Some little stories that I couldn’t make into poems, so couldn’t put them in and that’s frustrating. Some things I’d heard I wanted to get in there, but just couldn’t make them work as a poem."
We’re talking about a book. A collection of beautiful words, but is it accurate to say the book is secondary to the motivation behind the words? It appears you had to get these words out in this environment – or it spurred you on to write your poems? Is the book almost a by-product of your time on Sørvær and being ‘published' was secondary?
"I feel that nobody writes poetry for that motivation. I feel it would be forced and a bit clunky. For it to be true and valuable it needs to be about the process. Something done for you. that’s something I’m thinking about more and more in the stuff I’m working on at the minute. I don’t even know if it’s ever going to go out anywhere else – because its super-personal.
"However to say that the book is a by-product – in this case I’m not sure, because I wanted to preserve these stories. I didn’t know I was going to write a book – but I knew I was trying to preserve something. So it was about the process – but it was also about containing these stories in something, which actually makes me a bit self-conscious – because it wasn’t entirely written for the process, but also for the end product/the preservation." (Melissa noticeably hesitates). "Sometimes it almost feels that the poems are only scratching the surface and if you read what I’m writing now you would see what I mean, it’s much deeper and more emotional."
And still very much about Sørvær and the emotions that environment actuates in you?
"Yeah, yeah. My experience of being there and my relationships with people and the awareness that I’ve gained from being there and that I’m still grappling with in between visits."
So at this end we’ve got a book launch and certainly everyone that I’ve talked with who’s read The Arctic Diaries is humbled, blown away by your words. The other side of that is no one on Sørvær is aware of your finished work? No one has read it? So you go back next week – how do you present that [the book]? If I was a resident – I wouldn’t be able to wait to read it. (There’s an audible intake of breath and tightening of lips. Together with a sudden sitting-up-straight.) What? You’re nervous?
"I’m nervous, yeah I’m nervous. Because also for the people there, for most of them, they’ve not heard my poetry before and I’m ‘Melissa the Host’ – not Melissa the Poet. That character is changing now they know about the book, but I feel quite vulnerable ‘changing’ – showing this other side that the people don’t really know – and there are lots of artists and musicians and so on [on the islands] and they’re people who probably read poetry and have been told these stories by their parents and grandparents – so I’m very aware that it’s their traditions and history that I’m playing with.
"But I don’t want people to read themselves in them, which is why I wrote the introduction. I can’t control how people read it. And the characters are very close to people who are on the island, but that doesn’t mean they are those people.
"I feel I do want to get it out there [an acknowledgement] – because I haven’t written it enough in the introduction – I feel its quite insulting to say ‘this fisherman is this person here’ – because they’re much more 2D – and also all of these people I know on these islands, there’ll be huge swathes of their personalities and lives I don’t know anything about – so I don’t presume to have captured them on the page."
What Melissa Davies has done is create a faithful and beautiful interpretation of what she’s seen and absorbed. Which I think is what poets should do? The Arctic Diaries is very much Melissa’s voice. She hasn’t tried to replicate anyone else’s voice or encroach on someone else’s story. And her work is majestic.
The Arctic Diaries is published in Paperback and Ebook by Arachne Press
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