Writers are built from obsessions. You start researching herons and, some hours
later, you have ordered your heron books and you are deep into the exploration of
this one animal. But then it's always worth being a little more self-aware about your obsessions and what's driving you.
In your application for a writers' residency you make a detailed list of what you aim at,
what you plan to observe and what for – but often you end up beguiled by unexpected phenomena like the clinging sound of icebergs melting or landsickness or the shock of being hit by a mini-tsunami. I faced all of these during my Arctic Circle residency in Svalbard, aboard a research boat. I had wanted to get acquainted with the Arctic hare, its habitat and behaviour. I wasn't lucky enough to meet one but longing for such an encounter is an equally appropriate theme for a poem. What did meet my expectations, however, was how strangers, thirty artists from all over the world, plus the members of the crew became a community; how the relationships changed in dubious circumstances, especially in danger; how certain individuals bonded with others who had just saved their lives. I wrote a lot about it, poems and stories alike, and I also edited a special Arctic issue of The Ofi Press. We included the results of my collaborations with visual artists Sarah Gerats and Viel Bjerkeset Andersen.
During my Ayatana Artist Research Program residency in Canada, I built my own bat detector and observed the nocturnal lifestyle of bats in the Gatineau National Park, even in a cave. As a result, I wrote a poem sequence for a bat-themed anthology called Battalion (published by Sidekick Books in the UK). Without proper research I wouldn't have been able to get the science right.
To be able to explore the jaguar corridor and the jaguar habitat in Costa Rica, to do field trips to national parks like Corcovado, Amistad and Piedras Blancas, and to become familiar with the Boruca culture, I applied for and won the Jaguar Luna Arts Collective Residency and also the Mauser Harmony with Nature Foundation residency. Meanwhile, I wanted to focus on how to generate participation in reforestation, clean-up and involvement tourism rather than securing a mere photograph or very lucky view of the intensely stressed wildlife. Experts have found that while ecotourism served an integral process in protecting areas, areas such as Costa Rica are being "loved to death". Many tourists arrive there thinking that taking a yoga class, surfing or white water rafting/canopy tours ultimately stop the inherent stress to wildlife.
COVID-19 had a great impact on the project, of course, but I used lockdown for doing the necessary research, and for finishing my poem sequence anyway, as well as finishing my studies in Zoology. I studied wide-ranging areas from field conservation to animal tales. I tried to make the best of the situation and to reflect on lockdown as well as ecological issues, the extended role of social media in our limited lives, the selfie-culture and artistic self-representation, the way mythology and shamanic practices might infiltrate the mundane and ephemeral. Instead of looking into the necessity and the advantages of wearing surgical masks, but certainly hinting at them, I elaborated on numerous aspects of artistic masks: their history, techniques to create them, cultures where they were widely used. Masks also gave me the opportunity to ruminate over identity, integrity, trust and betrayal, even blasphemy. Another part of the poem sequence revolves around desires and expectations, fulfilment and loss. Jaguars lured me and haunted me. Now I am looking forward to a couple of residencies. In Sweden, I'm going to do research in and around Ingmar Bergman's house on Fårö, a Baltic Sea island just north of the island of Gotland. Former recipients of this residency include Michael Douglas and Jon Fosse. I will also participate in residencies in Spain (The Valparaiso Foundation), in Ireland (Shankill Castle) and in Canada (Stegner House, Eastend Arts Council).
For me, poems are often led by music and sound (no wonder I also work as a librettist; and quite a few of my poems have been set into music, one even performed by the BBC Singers). Whatever image I'm exploring, I'm trying to do it in a way that the sounds are as loud, and bubbly, and as exciting as possible. But at the same time I don't want to be overburdened by sound and craft in order to avoid an exercise in wordplay. I need it to go deeper for me to find it the most satisfying. I often use synaesthesia and multi-sensory experiments. I find it essential to be able to balance sounds and playfulness – and to follow the poem and where it wants to go. Here, here and here are some of my inspirations.
Agnes Marton is a Hungarian-born poet, writer, librettist, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (UK) and Reviews Editor at The Ofi Press. Recent publications include her collection Captain Fly's Bucket List and four chapbooks with Moria Books (USA). She won the National Poetry Day Competition in the UK.