'I’ve always loved animals and the natural world.'Poetry Live

Gillian Clarke is a leading figure in Welsh literature. A woman whose work is studied at GCSE and A-level, the poet, playwright, editor, lecturer and passionate lover of all things natural, was recently invited by Poet Laureate Carol Anne Duffy to act as poet in residence at the Museum of Zoology. Her final commission, ‘Archaeopteryx’ was showcased at the Thresholds final showcase.

Clarke and I spoke after her showcase. We began by discussing her connection with science:
‘Being able to spend time in the Museum of Zoology was a powerful experience for me. As an English Literature graduate, I took no interest in science in my youth. However, my grandparents were farmers, and I’ve always loved animals and the natural world. My mother told me the names of every wild flower we saw, and it was my father who taught me all I ever knew about the wonder and forces of nature. 

During my residency I actually completed four poems in what I called Behind Glass, but I was obliged to choose just one to present. I regard it as the first in a developing sequence under that title. The museum’s Archaeopteryx was the first exhibit to fascinate me. I visited it first thing every day, photographed it, and researched its story. I love birds and it was thrilling to see what was probably one of the very first.’ 

Were there any stand-out moments that you remember from your experience with Thresholds?
‘In my first week Paul Brakefield (the museum’s director) called me into his office for a chat. I thought museums were like banks, where you keep things locked up. After half an hour with him I realised this wasn’t the case. It was a revelation to know that the dead butterflies, for example, will never be added to; the museum's main purpose is conservation through education and knowledge.

My main project in life, apart from writing, is the conservation of 18 acres of countryside in West Wales where we’ve saved an ancient post Ice Age oak and a bluebell wood from farming. We’ve planted hundreds of native trees, restored hedges, meadows and helped nurture the best site in Europe for the Marsh Fritillary butterfly. It’s an example of a local project in the spirit of the work of the museum!’

Nature is a passion of Clarke’s and the Museum of Zoology seems like a perfect fit. Her primary passion is, of course, poetry. On the subject of starting as a poet though, she had little to say:
‘I’ve been writing all my life. There comes a moment, often by chance, when something is published. One thing leads to another!’

And as far as tips go, even less:
‘Read. Read. Read. The poets you admire are the best teachers you can have. I’ve gotten better as a poet, I think. You get stronger and the more you know, listen, observe and read, the more control you have over your language.’

And after Thresholds?
'My next poetry collection will be a love-song to the planet (as my last collection was). This time the emphasis will be on living things. The working title is ZOOLOGY! This is happening alongside a commissioned site-specific performance piece I'm writing for Hafod y Llan, a National Trust farm on the slopes of Snowdon and my personal 'A Child's Christmas in Wales', commissioned to celebrate the centenary of Dylan Thomas' birth.'

You can read ‘Archaeopteryx’ here. You can read more about Gillian Clarke on her website: www.gillianclarke.co.uk