6th October 2020
Over the course of the next year, poet and researcher Rebecca Drake will write a series of blog posts documenting her experience as poet-in-residence for Hull‘s Maritime Museum. In this first instalment of seven, Rebecca asks: How do you begin a creative project? and how do you write a museum through poetry?
It´s 9:45 and I am on a train for the first time since late February. I feel almost guilty for appreciating the peace of the carriage, given the circumstances, but as the train tumbles towards the sea through moorland and mist the quiet seems fitting, a blank canvas. Today is the first of my visits to Hull and its maritime museum in my role as poet-in-residence.
In conjunction with the Hull Maritime project, this poetry residency, the first of its kind at the Hull Maritime Museum, came about as part of the Research Employability Project scheme set up by the White Rose of the College of Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH), and Arts Council UK funding body for postdoctoral research in the North East, across the universities of York, Leeds, and Sheffield. It is an exciting opportunity for me to explore what the museum means to the city of Hull, and how the sea is also a part of Hull´s identity, while growing my own creative practice as a poet and researcher. Over the next year, I will be visiting the Maritime Museum, as well as other sites around the city, to research for a new collection of poetry inspired by maritime Hull.
Today, my first day on the job, I just want to take it all in. I arrive in Hull just after 11am, having taken a late train from York to avoid the commuter traffic (the impact of Covid-19 and the safety measures it requires is an unexpected but important element of the project). I spend an hour wandering around the city, deliberately getting lost and building a mental map from the streets up, and just enjoying being outdoors. The air is cloying, a flat wet wind has settled along the streets, but the overcast sky is striking -- grey and dazzling.
Nestled in the mouth of the Humber estuary, Hull buzzes with industry and machinery, but also with nature. Following a whirlwind tour of the Streetlife Museum (which I would highly recommend), after lunch I walk across Millennium Bridge to Sammy´s Point. This once Victorian dockyard that now houses the impressive brutalist-esque structure of The Deep – the aquarium juts out into the sea like the fractal fin of some deep sea leviathan, as if calling the marine to come into the city. From the boardwalk, I stare out at the sea, conscious of the murmur of two-metre-spaced families queuing to enter the aquarium. Heading back up the river mouth, watching the mudflats to the south, I stand with the roaring of the city carriage-way behind me, watching a curlew gleefully pulling up worms.
Poetry is a way of perceiving the world and our place within it. In my poetry I explore belonging in place and environment. What does it mean to belong somewhere, and to belong to a place and an environment? The way I see the world has been shaped by where I grew up: in the fork of a motorway junction in Cheshire, where the small earthquakes of lorries along the A road behind our house were weirdly juxtaposed with the golden low-slung sunsets of cow fields. I am drawn to writing about maritime Hull because it evokes the same sense of in-between, and to the Maritime Museum for the way it celebrates the sea in the city.
How do you write a museum through poetry? I begin with a tour by the Maritime Museum´s curator, Robin Diaper, and Schools and Community Learning Officer, Charlie Trzeciak. As they lead me around the museum, up and down carpeted slopes, and upstairs through the echoing corridors of the old trade offices, I ask Robin to tell me about the objects in the collection that speak to him the most.
There are the obviously beautiful and fascinating objects, such as the North American scrimshaw collection. Robin informs me, as we stand next to a long case piled up with these curious keepsakes of tattooed whale and walrus ivory, that most artists visiting the museum are instantly drawn to these. Then there are the haunting plaster casts of a teenage Inuit couple and the English captain who brought them south across the North Atlantic as curiosities. There are also the objects which Robin points out as the heart of the museum, the things people remember from childhood visits and return to with new generations. The intricate miniatures of whaling ships, the large collection of whaling tools which is the biggest in Europe, and the clean-boiled skeleton of a juvenile right whale. The Maritime Museum houses an entire world, within which there are a flood of stories to be told. It is certainly a daunting task, on this first day, to think about how to choose which stories to tell.
I leave the museum in the late afternoon, having stopped to record readings of my poetry next to the right whale – a surreal experience. Back on the train, masked up and sat in a disturbingly empty carriage, I write down everything I can about the museum and the city.
This is the first stage: absorb and process.
This is how I will begin to write for the museum.
Rebecca Drake is a PhD student at the University of York. Her research focuses on Anglo-Icelandic trade connections and literature, c.1250-1500, through the lens of the sea and maritime environments. Her poetry takes this research as a spring board for exploring ideas of human reference to place and environments, particularly those of the North West (where she grew up) and the North East coast (where she has lived and worked since 2012).