A geographer-poet in the sub-zero wilderness

A geographer-poet in the sub-zero wilderness
Published: Nov 26, 2016
Geographer and poet Tim Cresswell’s new book of poetry, Fence, is an epic of fragments set in the vast frozen Svalbard islands in the High Arctic — inspired by a recent expedition to the Norwegian archipelago. As well as documenting his own experiences in this extreme environment, Cresswell appropriates text from the journals of 17th-century whaler Robert Fotherby and Leonie D’Aunet, the first woman to visit Svalbard in 1838. Plus, he offers the most thorough and peripatetic Wild Culture Questionnaire yet—an ardent wanderer's intimate chronicle of physical and artistic landscapes.

Whalers abandon ship off Point Belcher, September 14, 1871. Thirty-two ships were lost. >





we stand semi-circled        staring

at rust red metal poles        spaced

in regular       intervals

along an Arctic beach

hip-height        unconnected

separating us       from

the nothing-in-particular        beyond

strewn rocks



grey red black boulders in a shallow rise

80 degrees north

like Franz Joseph Land       Nunavut

protecting what        from us

or us        from






Spitzbergen        north   

further        than the Samoieds

than Siberia        Nova Sembla

the agitated sea        bristling   

mountains        cracked        split

waves spit fury        against granite capes

islands of ice broke        open

echoes of        musket shot reports

wind-raised snow columns        hoarse moanings

a choir from        the old world

ushers in        the new


July 31st 1838






blueing hands        tearing eyes

I am travelled        lost


compass gone        haywire

full of pity          movedso north


spinning        unable to read

traces        tracks in the moss


along the shore

polar bear prints


scat from a meagre meal

skeleton hand


of a seal

this fence        these rocks






I lingered by the graves

absorbed         dreaming         praying

sketched the small peninsula


returned to the ship

pointed out its         absence

on the maps


the Captain names the peninsular

Tombeaux (Grave site)   

31st July 1838






the whale is a sea beast of a huge bigness





Samuel Purchas's scarce map of Spitzbergen illustrates whaling voyages of the Muscovy Company beginning in 1611, including Robert Fotherby's.


Fence is available for purchase here.


What is your first memory and what does it tell you about your life at that time and your life at this time?

My first memories are of playing in a number of building sites and semi-derelict concrete playgrounds in Carterton in Oxfordshire. My dad was in the Royal Air Force and worked at nearby Brize Norton and we lived in air force housing — grey pre-fabricated structures which were supposed to be temporary but are still there today. I must have been about six or seven at this time and was (if my memory serves) allowed to play around outside with other kids without adult supervision. I also remember making dens in brambly ditches beside the road. By that time I had already lived in Norfolk and Berlin but cannot remember any of that. I was about to move to Singapore, where I lived between the ages of 8-10. The main thing this tells me about my life then and now is that I have never felt like I belong anywhere. Carterton was, and still is, a totally unremarkable place where I had to be a bit creative with my time or be totally bored. I remember later in life (early-mid teens) spending a lot of time imagining being in other places and plotting ways to get out. Since then I have both travelled widely and moved home about every six years, living in a number of different environments ranging from a house on a hill in west Wales, where we could not see our neighbours, to a terraced house in Acton, to the pleasant and privileged inner suburb of Boston where I now live. I remain curious about all the possible ways to live in and inhabit the world from the most urban to the most remote. I think some of that comes from being an Air Force child and living in a place like Carterton where there was nothing to hold me.

Can you name a handful of artists in your field or other fields,who have influenced you, and who come to mind immediately?

I am consistently inspired by poets who deal with our dwelling on the earth in ways that break the line between what we might call traditional poetry and what we might call experimental poetry. There is something that connects Elizabeth Bishop, Alice Oswald, Philip Gross and Jorie Graham. Most recently I have been engrossed with poets who play with hybrid and interwoven forms that work with the margin of poetry and prose, as well as academic writing. In this respect, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and The Argonauts stand out, along with Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and all the work of Susan Howe and Cole Swenson. These poets influenced the form of Fence. More recently I have fallen for the work of American poet Juliana Spahr who digs deep into what it means to live in the Antropocene. I am consistently moved by art, and particularly large-scale photographic projects such as Robert Misrach’s  Petrochemical America and Edward Burtynsky’s images of manufactured landscapes. I have always been a fan of the more abstract paintings of Turner.

When my house-master caught me reading it he took it away immediately . . . They were proud of his books but didn’t really want us reading the twisted stories in them.       

Where did you grow up, and did that place and your experience of it help form your sense about place and the environment in general?

The most formative place in my childhood was Carterton, and the most formative geographical experience was travelling. Moving from a grey, dull, safe town like Carterton to Singapore was an extraordinary transition for an eight-year-old. Carterton is mostly houses, and it has a number of estate agents, several unpleasant pubs where various military groups had regular fights (one pub had Perspex windows so bodies would bounce off them), a toy and model shop that I loved, and a record shop that I also loved. There was no real cinema, one teen club, several downmarket supermarkets (cash and carry!), endless expanses of playground which were made of asphalt and concrete and permanently covered in broken glass and cigarette butts. The council planted thousands of trees that were just saplings surrounded by wire fences to protect them from the vandals who had little else to do. Now they look quite nice! I did have a surprising amount of fun that was the result of necessity. I cycled around endlessly with my brother and some mates and thanks to our bikes we could escape into the world that surrounds Carterton — the Cotswolds. We cycled for miles on country roads and went fishing in the Thames at Radcot and Lechlade. Other times we would stand at the end of the airbase runway and watch planes take off and land. I became very knowledgeable about airplanes, thanks to living near them constantly and having yearly purchases of the Observer Book of Aircraft. Oxford was also nearby and I spent a lot of time there in my teens where I was infused by a sense of a different life that involved lots of books, museums and galleries.

If you were going away on a very long journey and you could only take four books — one poetry, one fiction, one non-fiction, one literary criticism  — what would they be?

Poetry: Elizabeth Bishop The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 (or, on some days, Jorie Graham's The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems.) Both geographer-poets.

Fiction: Herman Melville Moby Dick because I have not read it and really should.

Non-Fiction: William Least, Heat Moon: PrairyErth: A Deep Map. A large book about one county in Kansas — beautifully told. (Or, Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, as I could dip in and out with nuggets of wisdom).

Literary Criticism: Paul Muldoon, The End of the Poem. Endlessly entertaining.

What was your most keen interest between the ages of 10 and 12?

At the age of eleven I went to boarding school in Suffolk. It was a place called Woolverstone Hall near Ipswich, a remarkable place. It was a state run boarding school that was in the process of becoming a Comprehensive School after being a Grammar School, and was run by the Inner London Education Authority. They sent kids there who they thought might benefit from a Palladian mansion in forty acres of manicured ground by the River Orwell. The students were either from London or armed forces children like myself. Anyway, there was a rapid transformation from my pre-Woolverstone ten-year-old existence in Carterton to my 12-year-old self on the second form at school. When I arrived at school my main interests were making Airfix models of military planes, playing elaborate war games in my attic, listening to Elvis records and reading endless books — mostly fantasy novels. The urban kids at school opened my eyes to other worlds beyond military aircraft and Lord of the Rings. I certainly couldn’t get away with listening to Elvis anymore as the cool kids were (believe it or not) listening to Prog Rock. So soon I was collecting Genesis albums, trying to be good at cricket and attempting to figure out what sex was so I could lie about it more effectively. Ian McEwen also went to Woolverstone Hall and they had about a dozen of each of his books in the library. I took out First Love, Last Riets and read it before bed. It was quite a change from Lord of the Rings. When my house-master caught me reading it he took it away immediately, saying it was not suitable for an eleven-year-old. They were proud of his books but didn’t really want us reading the twisted stories in them. I have been reading Knausgard recently and much of his life at that age seems like mine only translated into Norwegian.

Image credit. >

At what point did you discover your ability with your artistic practice?

I loved learning about poetry at school. I had excellent English teachers. One was a serious Cambridge-educated scholar who taught us Shakespeare, Pope and the Romantics while the other taught us about Marxism, Raymond Williams and the role of capitalism and imperialism in Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. They were polar opposites and a perfect team. Before that I had an English teacher, Mr (Doc) Thornberry, who was quite short, wore Doc Martins and jumped on tables for emphasis as he taught poetry. We had a sonnet competition (Shakespearian) and I was a total swot and competed for grades with a boy called Gavin Thomas who usually beat me hands down. Anyway, Doc Thornberry gave him 20/20 for a sonnet about (I think) nuclear annihilation. My sonnet was about clowns at the circus and he gave it 21/20! I was hooked. Later Gavin and I would have serious intellectual arguments over the relative merits of Philip Larkin and T.S. Eliot. When I went to grad school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison (a long way from Carterton!), I performed regularly with a number of radical poetry groups including the Cheap at Any Price Poets Conspiracy and the Cultural Workers Alliance. The slam poetry scene was emerging at The Green Mill in Chicago and revolution was in the air. I was very bad but was able to perform poetry to audiences and get some good responses (laughter in the right places), which encouraged me. I was not really sure I could write poems that anyone else would find good on the page until around 2008 when I signed up for the Faber ‘Becoming a Poet’ course and was reassured that I could do this thing.

Do you have an ‘engine’ that drives your artistic practice, and if so, can you comment on it?

I think this vehicle has several engines. One is clearly what has become a life long interest in the twin themes of place and mobility. They are both at the heart of all my academic work and my love of the discipline of geography that has fed me and clothed me. They are equally and clearly bubbling under or floating on the surface of almost any piece of poetry I write, and most of what I read. How do we inhabit the 21st Century world and how do we conduct our journeys? What do these question mean for a planet we share with other humans and the realm that is often referred to as ‘nature’? Big questions that will, no doubt, keep firing me up and driving further writing. The other engine is a love of language and all the things language can do. I can’t play an instrument or paint a picture but I can write in a number of different ways and I am increasingly driven by the look and sound of words both on the page and in the air.

Weeds growing in the pavement, the act of weather on concrete, the way words escape their bindings and become new, the endless entropy of domestic life . . .        

If you were to meet a person who seriously wants to do work in your field — someone who admires and resonates with the type of work you do, and they clearly have real talent — and they asked you for some general advice, what would that be?

People sometimes ask me for advice or offer to share their poetry with me. I always ask who they read and am often met with a blank expression. I am not sure why anyone would want to write poems but not read them. So the first piece of advice is to read endlessly, read living poets and read across national borders. The poetry world is far too limited by national borders (compared to fiction for instance). If you read widely and deeply you are more likely to write decent poems. Second piece of advice is to allow time for poems to mature; don’t be deceived by the impression you might have that you have just written the killer poem that will appear in Poetry Review (or that Poetry Review is the final arbiter on what makes a good poem). Share it with people who also read widely and write. Look at it several weeks and months later. Share it again. Become part of a workshop of people who read widely and write. Maybe a year later, if you still think a poem is good, submit it to a magazine. Do not be scared of doing this but do not believe that their judgement (which will likely be rejection) is the final word on your poem or you. They probably have 20,000 poems to read that year. Keep submitting to more magazines and if the poem resonates it will find a home. The most important thing, though, is reading and reading and reading – and then writing. There is reward in the thing itself, regardless of magazines and their choices of which poems to accept. And keep reading.

Do you have a current question or preoccupation that you could share with us?

I am currently obsessed with The Child Ballads. This is a collection of 305 ballads collected by Francis Child in the latter half of the nineteenth-century. They date from the thirteenth-century onwards. The published collection ran to 2,500 pages, partly because there were so many versions of each ballad, from England, Scotland and the Appalachians. Many of the ballads have become familiar as they have become part of popular culture or transformed into contemporary versions. It is possible to read the ballads in connected ways through particular lines and sections relating to the role of women. They are often violent and misogynist as well as magical and eerie. There are frequent drownings, mostly of women. I am working on poems based on a line or two from a selection of the ballads. I hope these new poems will tell a counter-narrative that speaks back to the original ballads. So far I have done six, so it will take a while.

What does the term ‘wild culture’ mean to you?

Wild culture means recognizing the things that are beyond the capacity of humans to control, either materially or in the world of representation. I am speaking here of weeds growing in the pavement, the act of weather on concrete, the way words escape their bindings and become new, the endless entropy of domestic life, the strangeness that results from the juxtapositions of urban life and the beauty that arises in even the most despoiled landscapes (see the work of Edward Burtynsky mentioned above). The fence and graves of Magdalenafjord in Svalbard that feature in my book Fence are both examples of wild culture.

If you would like to ask yourself a final question, what would it be?

Are your travels justified in the face of catastrophic global environmental change? Don’t expect an answer.


Originally published in The Journal of Wild Culture on April 8, 2016.


TIM CRESSWELL is a human geographer and Professor of History and International Affairs at Northeastern University, Boston. He is the author of five books on the role of place and mobility in cultural life and managing editor of the journal, Cultural Geographies. Tim's first poetry collection, Soil, was published in 2013 by Penned in the Margins. 


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