Poetry along the Bridgewater Canal

If you live in Central Manchester you may well have missed some of the excellent performance and arts events as part of est.1761, designed to inspire and engage local communities with the story of the Bridgewater Canal, including Take Me to the Bridgewater last year in partnership with Blast Theory. Later this year textile artist Sally Gilford will be exploring the Bridgewater Archive to uncover the untold stories of the women missing from the heritage story of the Bridgewater Canal. Next year the Worsley Delph basin – where the whole story started – will re-open to the public. Then there is Precarious Carnaval, where Brazil-based artists Lowri Evans and Renato Bolelli Reboucas (creatives for Contact’s Shrine of Everyday Things) will be floating along the Bridgewater Canal, fishing for stories and secrets from the people they meet, creating pop-up performances.

The latest project takes performance out to the local community in the form of door-to-door poet Rowan McCabe. Residents are encouraged to tell their stories about the canal and Rowan crafts a poem which he presents in their home and on a wider stage.

I meet with Rowan after his first day talking to local residents.

Why do you think poetry is a good medium for storytelling? Why use poetry to recount these personal histories rather than tell them back as stories.

Well I love stories, I love storytelling. I guess you get something else from poetry rather than  being able to tell a story. You can play with rhythm and rhyme and be more creative with the language. You can get away with being more unusual in your choice of language.  Sometimes you can take a subject that someone has given you and blow it out of proportion, either to heighten the comedy or to exaggerate the drama. It might not necessarily be a factual retelling of the story but what comes out of it is something that works in its own right as a piece of poetry and shows a different perspective.

Each one I do is different. One of the first people I met asked me to write a poem about how much he loved his girlfriend. What do you like about her? Just everything. I was really stuck but my mate said ‘that’s the story’ – you going to the house and trying to find something to write about and actually you can’t. And in the end, it became a poem about the door to door poet who visits this happy couple and by asking what they did on their first date inadvertently causes this huge argument, the first argument they’ve ever had in the relationship, and they nearly break up and it’s all the poet’s fault. It’s the enjoyment of being able to take that story and exaggerate. There’s something about poetry that’s just a lot sharper and more immediate.

When you come up with the poems do you have a favourite form or is the form dictated by the story.

Content dictates form most of the time. Nearly always by the story. What became apparent was that you don’t want anyone to be guessing about whether you are a poet. So instead of trying to go against rhyme/rhythm, I decided to embrace it, take it to the furthest degree I could. I started to do more research about different forms and rhyming schemes, which I’d always used a bit but just pushing that a bit further. So if it does have to rhyme, what are the different rhyming schemes that you can use. Who else has used them before. So for example the one about the girlfriend, that used ottava rima, it’s an Italian form that goes abababcc, but it’s brilliant for telling stories because it works in a similar logic to a paragraph. The opening two lines are the opening points, then the next four are the elaboration, then the rhyming couplet is your conclusion, and there’s something about the rhyming couplet that feels like the whole paragraph has been rounded off, kind of ended.

What excites you in the stories you are told, what is the spark for you?

I think it’s different for each person. I think I have these very strange eccentric ideas. Sometimes it’s just a phrase or an idea, and I’ll suggest something to them, like that makes us think about this, and we end up having this weird conversation about something. You have to find an angle and see what grabs you. It might just be a phrase. Or it might be the word for word what they’ve told us. You have to roll with the personality and what’s coming out of that as well.

Do you think you change how people look at poetry?

I like to hope so. It varies from person to person. I’ve had some really, really, positive experiences doing this. Getting someone from saying ‘you can come in but I’m not keen on poetry at all’ to the end of the process being ‘I need more poetry in my life’. Usually it’s a bit more subtle. When it happens it’s a special thing but it doesn’t happen with everyone. I hope so. I think usually once I start doing introductory poems, people are usually on board.

Do you show them a poem when you first meet them?

Yes, the first thing I do is tell them my name and then tell them I’m doing an art project. Then I ask if I they’ve got a minute and ten seconds precisely. If they say no then that’s it. I think it’s important to treat people how you’d want to be treated in that situation.  If they say yes, I don’t say I’m going to do a poem, just launch into my poem ( Intro-Poem-Bridgewater-Canal-Project ) that explains who I am and what I’m there for. Basically, I ask them what’s important to them about the Bridgewater Canal. I think it’s better to show and not explain.

What have you discovered about the Bridgewater Canal?

I’ve discovered that there’s a lot of quirky stories about it. I was prepared for responses that were maybe a little bit too everyday. But actually the three people I have found so far instantly had something unique to say. I didn’t have to work too hard to find something that was interesting and off the beaten track. It’s the little details I suppose that make up the bigger picture. The stories on their own are small fragments of individual people’s lives and there are thousands of people that live around the canal, and there are thousands of stories out there. It was quite lovely to hear the different things it gets used for.

 

I meet up with Rowan a couple of weeks later at the home of Andrea and Alan who live next to the canal, just up from the Barton Swing Aqueduct, a phenomenal piece of engineering that allows the Bridgewater Canal to cross the Manchester Ship Canal. They live in a terraced red brick house across a road from the canal and clearly the canal is an important piece of their lives.

We sit around a table in their kitchen, red chequered tablecloth, sun streaming through the window. They’ve always been in Eccles, went to the same school and started courting three years later, ‘forty odd years ago’. Rowan reads his poem about the Canada Geese that frequent the canal opposite:

Canada Goose (Rowan McCabe)

Canada Goose,
self-elected King Of The Canal.
You sleep on the narrow path
next to the water,
hiss loudly at people walking past,
as if it’s easier for them to swim.
I find your arrogance charming.

Canada Goose,
with your neck so black,
like a regular goose
wearing a burglar mask.
You chase rabbits
and stop traffic for fun,
standing in the rush hour road
for hours,
pretending to be lost.

Canada Goose,
you cause disorder
where anything is pristine.
Canada Goose,
you are the least Canadian thing
I’ve ever seen.

 

As Rowan reads, Andrea and Alan nod and smile as they hear the words relate to their own experiences. ‘Dead right that is,’ replies Alan, ‘bobs on really.’ Then he adds ‘Our poems were a bit different when we were at school,’ and laughs. ‘They were stopping traffic,’ adds Andrea, drawing out one of the themes of the geese in the poem. They discuss the hierarchy of swans, geese and ducks on the canal.

In return they give Rowan a poem that their granddaughter wrote. It’s a lovely moment that shows the power of poetry.

They talk about the canal. About how in 1964 Alan had helped to open the Swing Bridge ‘there’s just a handle you turn to start the engine’, about the slum clearances, the demolition of the Barton Power Station chimneys in 1979, and how the coal barges used to come up from Astley, Leigh and Mosley Common.

Rowan will be performing all six of his poems at the Bridgewater Weekender on Sunday 8 July details here.

 

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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