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Why the Lagan canal floats poet Jo's boat

The UK's canal laureate Jo Bell tells Edwin Gilson about how she plans to celebrate our famous waterway and her memories of Seamus Heaney

A decade ago, poet Jo Bell decided this land-dwelling business wasn't really for her and, abandoning her job and house, took to the seas on Tinker, her newly purchased 67ft narrowboat.

Well, there was a bit more thought involved than that, but judging by the perplexed reaction of some of Jo's closest acquaintances, it may as well have been a decision entirely based on whim.

"My own mother found it all completely mystifying," laughs Sheffield-born Jo. "She still wonders why I don't live in a house with a proper toilet."

Reflecting on her onshore years though, Jo is clearly certain she has made the right life choice. "Living on land is really hard to understand for me now. It's something that holds absolutely no appeal to me anymore."

Indeed Jo freely admits that she has "never been a settler". She explains: "I've gradually worked out that living on a boat is the answer to my own restlessness! The boat allows me to have the security of a house, but I can also just up sticks and move whenever I feel the need."

Hearing her enthuse about her treasured narrowboat, it's hard not to agree with her friends' assertion that "the boat has really become a big part" of her character.

And tomorrow people in Northern Ireland can hear for themselves that passion for life on the water when Jo – the UK's first Canal Laureate – takes part in the Listen to the Lagan event at Lagan Valley Island, Lisburn, She will recite original poetry proclaiming her love for the waterways, including a special Ulster-based work. The event is part of the wider celebrations, supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, marking the 250th anniversary of the Lagan navigation between Lisburn and Belfast.

It's Jo's first official visit to Ulster, and while she admits she's been swotting up on our cherished river, she also insists research only goes so far; the world of words is largely about instinct.

"Poetry is a balance between authentic feeling and authentic fact," she surmises. "You have to be accurate in what you say, but it also must come from the heart. I cannot speak with a great knowledge of the Lagan, but I can speak with a great knowledge of water, and how it is to live and work on water. I hope to bring a respectful stranger's eye to the river; I hope the poem will ring true with Belfast."

Where Northern Ireland and poetry are concerned, of course, one man looms large. Jo acknowledges the influence of Seamus Heaney on her work, and speaks of her sadness to hear of the passing of our literary giant.

"What a wonderful man," she says. "I used to run National Poetry Day, and one time I got in touch with him about some poems of his that we wanted to use.

"Sometimes poets get a bit precious about giving their work away for free, but Seamus phoned straight back, saying 'Hi, it's Seamus from Ireland here,' as if I'd have him mixed up with another Seamus! He said he'd be delighted to give us some poems. I've dealt with a lot of poets, and you don't often get a lovely man and a great writer in one place. He was both."

Jo admires Heaney's "plain, non-flashy" rhyme, and remarks that the Bellaghy-born poet was one of the successful writers that didn't "fall into the trap of making everything overly dramatic and, even, overly poetic." She cites the mantra of another gifted wordsmith, Ernest Hemmingway, when she ponders her own approach to the manufacture of poetry: "He said you must 'stare at the page until blood comes out,' which I think is suitable. I do often stare into the water for inspiration."

If that all sounds a little whimsical, then rest assured Jo is also fully in tune with the technical side of canals; occasionally to the detriment of her creative produce.

"Sometimes my poems end up sounding like a page from an industrial engineering textbook," she chuckles. "Knowledge can be a great hindrance in poetry. Recently I had to go back to the drawing board and think 'Hang on, do people really want to hear about the trapdoor mechanism that lets the water into a loch?' There may be some trainspotter types out there that might enjoy it, but most people need a sense of place and meaning; you can't just indulge yourself and talk about lochs all the time."

Some of this endearing geek value comes from her former job as an industrial archaeologist. One of Jo's tasks was to "look at historic vessels". At that stage she surely couldn't have predicted that this seemingly innocuous duty would change her life forever. She soon "became a native," buying Tinker and, using the water as inspiration, beginning to take her poetry more seriously.

"I've always written but I don't think it's any coincidence that I started to get more into it when I started living on a boat. We all have a process of discovering what we really want in life. If we're lucky, we find out what this is and, if we're very lucky, we actually get to do it."

Indeed, in her role as Canal Laureate, it seems Jo has merged her two passions into a highly productive artistic outlet. The unorthodox tag was bestowed upon her by the River & Canal Trust, who wanted to make a splash (sorry) after taking over control of the British canal system last year.

"It was them making a rather public proclamation that they value the canals in different ways, and want to integrate other things like art into that too," says Jo. "I was a little concerned because I didn't want to become a copy writer for the trust, just writing 'jolly boatman' poems."

She needn't have worried; the Trust has allowed her to write whatever she desires, and the sterling evidence will be there for all to see tomorrow. Who knows? Perhaps her reading may even inspire a few people to invest in a houseboat themselves? And perhaps, given time, Jo's mum will even come round to the idea?

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