Field notes from Iona

When creative writing needs to spring from the land and the sea, notes and desk research are not enough. It took a research trip to the Isle of Iona in September 2022 to complete Blue, a cry across the waves. I’m very grateful to the College of Arts for supporting this trip with an RSA Award.

An earlier version, a 15-minute spoken word piece, was performed in June 2022 at Hidden Door Arts Festival and at Voice, a postgraduate conference at the University of Glasgow. 

Influences on the development of Blue

The idea for Blue came to me during a previous visit to Iona while developing the medieval novel for my PhD. In the Abbey library, I was reminded of a medieval myth about an apocalyptic sea flood that Iona would escape. Walking on the beach during a storm, the myth haunted me: it was a way into writing a new piece about our climate grief. 

Blue, a cry across the waves came together as a hyperreal verse narrative, set around Iona as a wild swim becomes something else. It’s a modern dream vision poem. I was influenced by the medieval dream vision poem Piers Plowman from the time when the Iona myth was well-known. I’d learned about Piers when auditing a Medieval English Literature course led by Professor Elizabeth Robertson at Glasgow. In July I presented a creative practice paper in Finland (trip funded by Publishing Scotland and College of Arts RSA Award) on my poesis process with Piers Plowman in developing my novel. Piers seems to me to be a lament: it grieves the reality of corruption and calls out that things need not be as they are. Following this tradition, Blue is a lament on loss and the climate crisis.

With the existential threat that climate change presents, the opaque quality of poetry is a helpful form in enabling language to stay in an uncertain place. When there’s a sense that words fail us, when sense and meaning is fracturing, language needs to be at the edge of something. Open form poetry can meet us in that liminal place and help us hold a complex space. 

Blue also draws on another holding place for complexity. It takes strands of late medieval philosophy and theology from the time of the sea-flood myth; it’s a natural fit. Blue borrows language and concepts from the writing of the medieval contemplative mystic, Julian of Norwich. Her work is cited by leading contemporary theologians such as Shelly Rambo[1] for a helpful framework for trauma and suffering. Contemplative non-dual thinking is also a liminal place and allows for new possibilities to emerge[2].

My PhD is in the ground-breaking programme ‘Theology through Creative Practice’ led by Professor Heather Walton, with 50% supervision by Dr Carolyn Jess-Cooke in Creative Writing. As Heather said during a cohort day in July, we can’t tell the truth about trauma if we narrate it realistically – we deny it if we try to narrate it. This is where new language needs to be found. As the author Ali Smith wrote in an article for The Guardian, ‘language is never not up for it. It’s a fight to the life’[3].

The pathway to Tràigh Bàn, Iona 

Nature as a gateway

Field notes on my last trip included the granular details of seed heads, soft autumn colours and lichens, the sounds of walking across shells, quiet fields without corncrakes, migrating wild geese calling through an open window at night. I sat on the beach, a rain shower spattering my words. I wrote in the quietness of the Abbey library where music from the cavernous abbey reached me. Here, the written version of Blue for submissions came together. 

In The International Companion to Scottish Poetry[4], the poet Meg Bateman writes that nature as a gateway to religious feeling is a distinguishing feature of some Gaelic poetry. 

Interconnecting patterns of plants and creatures abound in early medieval gravestones, crosses and artworks on Iona. Swirls and spirals of nature fill the pages of The Book of Kells, created by the monks of Iona. Richard Kearney[5] contends that early Celtic encircling plants and animals show a mystical ability to embrace opposites and anticipate the ‘coincidence of opposites’ of 15th century Nicholas of Cusa. 

Natural images also characterise the writing of Julian of Norwich[6]. Julian writes through the commonplace, through a hazelnut, raindrops dripping off thatched eaves, and through the body, towards the infinite. Her distinctive theology is a natural fit with this place of wild beauty.  

All these strands, found during my interdisciplinary PhD research, come to play in the poetics of Blue, a cry across the waves. Working on location has become deeply generative for my work.

I am very grateful for generous support from the University of Glasgow College of Arts Research Support Awards which enabled the trips to take place. Without these, Blue wouldn’t have happened.

[1] Rambo, S. (2018). Resurrecting wounds: living in the afterlife of trauma. Waco, Texas, Baylor University Press.

[2] Finley, J. (2015). Exploring the Contemplative Dimensions of Healing Trauma. CAC, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Centre for Action and Contemplation (CAC).

[3] Smith, A. (2012). Style vs content? Novelists should approach their art with an eye to what the story asks. The Guardian, Guardian Media Group.

[4] Bateman, M. a. M., James (2015). Faith and Religion. The international companion to Scottish poetry. Glasgow, Scottish Literature International179-189.

[5] Kearney, R. (2019). “My Way to Theopoetics Through Eriugena.” Literature & theology 33(3): 233-240.

[6] Herbert McAvoy, L. (2008). A companion to Julian of Norwich. Cambridge, D.S. Brewer.

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