Startling: Interview with Linda France

As Linda France nears the end of her climate-writing residency with New Writing North and Newcastle University we asked her to talk about the work which has come out of the experience. Following her Laurel Prize-winning collection The Knucklebone Floor, Startling is a culmination of the work emerging from the last three years.

In the face of climate emergency, Startling calls for a rewilding of the self as well as the landscape, bringing about a necessary shift in our imaginations to counteract the paralysis of alarm – before it’s too late.

Left: Startling book cover. Right: Linda France headshot

Kathryn: This collection forms a culmination of the writing, learning and collaborative work you have carried out during your three years as climate writer-in-residence. Could you tell us a bit about how that experience has fed into your poetry?

Linda: It’s been a bit of a balancing act – putting lots of energy into the more public-facing activities of the residency while guarding the quieter place where poetry is more likely to happen. This is a very familiar tension for a freelance poet and one you learn to try to turn to your – or poetry’s – advantage. It’s been an incredibly rich three years, at a momentous time for us all, and I wanted from the start to keep it simple and write as directly as possible about what matters to me, which, it became clear from all the group work, is pretty much the same for everybody – a great longing to preserve our beautiful world by making the radical shift into more sustainable living.

K: There are a number of recurring themes in the collection. Time is one of them – why did these ideas of present, future, aging and passing keep surfacing for you as an important part of writing about the climate?

L: Our relationship with time is one of the unintended causes of the climate emergency. Like everything else, our culture has commodified time, monetised it and in doing so made us feel it is scarce and problematic. Time, like nature, is simply what we are – an ongoing system of processes, endlessly cycling between life and death, beginnings and endings. Although of course it’s still a challenge for us all – coming to terms with our own mortality and the fact of impermanence. Poets have been writing about time passing and death for as long as poetry has been written.

In some languages the words for time and for weather are the same, like the French ‘le temps’ – as if the roots of language carry the sense that time and weather are one thing, a reflection of the seasons. These deep metaphors are a part of the poetry of everyday life and these, like many of the world’s languages, are also currently endangered.

K: A lot of your poems simultaneously hold both fragility and fierceness, and I felt this most deeply in the poem ‘Tenderness’, which felt prayer-like in its repetition. Is this a balance you intended to strike?

L: There’s a lot about balance in the collection – even reflected in its three-part structure and recurring themes. As well as recognising our vulnerability, it’s important to remember our own agency: in an unstable fragmented world, we can still cultivate the capacity for strength and integrity. We can choose to believe more in our innate resources, trust humanity’s goodness and the possibility of healing, become part of the solution rather than part of the problem. And that’s not to say we won’t ever feel weak or despairing – yes, that’s natural, but after however long it takes to pass, you brush yourself off and come back to the centre where you may be better able to see what you need to do that might help in some way.

All over the world people are doing incredible, useful, practical things: we have everything we need to create a more sustainable future. Those with the power to accelerate adaptation and mitigation are frightened of radical change in case it involves losing wealth and status; but numbers are powerful too and capable of instigating unimaginable shifts. Research from Harvard University has shown that it only needs 3.5% of the population to stand up in peaceful protest and say ‘Not in my name’ to reach a tipping point and change direction. In the UK that would mean 2.3 million people (roughly twice the population of Birmingham). We’re at a point in the climate story where facing the enormity of the situation, being willing to be seen and heard and speaking truth to power is crucial, and, in extremity, it’s natural to feel both fragile and fierce.  Rather than ‘either/or’, it can be more fruitful to operate from a position of ‘both/and’.

K: Prose plays a substantial role in the middle section of the book. What influenced your choice here? Where did that writing come from?

L: The central section ‘Stone Meadow Orbital’ is modelled on the haibun, a classical Japanese form. The most famous example is Bashō’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which mine explicitly references. At the rockiest edges of the climate emergency, poetry can feel impossible, a luxury we can’t afford (although desperately need and long for). A variation of the lyric essay is perhaps more suited to catch the awkwardness and disassociation provoked by trying to live a congruent life in these turbulent times. I’m interested in poetic form so it was natural to explore new possibilities in that area while I was struggling to find words to say the unsayable. I’ve been working with renga, another Japanese form (usually collaborative, built around haiku-like verses) for several decades and extracts from two year-long solitary rengas are also in the book; the sense of fragments, passing impressions, sometimes more meaningful than a more traditional tightly constructed poem.

Perhaps it comes back to the idea of balance – wanting to ‘tell all the truth but tell it slant’, taking the reader with you, showing your workings. I think of all my books this is the most transparent – certainly the one produced the most quickly, ‘in real time’, much of it during the global pandemic and serial lockdowns. I wanted to record how I was feeling as it was happening, almost like a diary, and let the reader see how deeply I care. Staying silent feels like a betrayal, an assault, and I don’t want to us to be passing a world of lies on to the future.

K: How did you come across the idea of a ‘startling’ as opposed to an ‘endling’?

L: I wanted to counter the emphasis on endings and doomsday scenarios that dominate the media and try to nudge the thinking in a more hopeful direction. All of life is about potential – so who decides what is possible – in our individual lives and collectively? I was inspired by the slogans the students used in their protests in 1968: Imagination is not a Luxury! Be realistic, demand the impossible. Forget everything you’ve been taught. Start by dreaming. Enter the realm of the Real and Possible.

It’s the same energy I wanted to harness in Dawn Chorus, last year’s collective poem – turning our imagination towards beginnings, the freshness and clarity of a new day, new life. As well as the depressing figures about species going extinct – all those endlings – there’s also plenty of scientific evidence showing unexpected and remarkable strategies for survival in the natural world, life springing up where least expected – and so I invented the startling.

K: There’s also a lot of connection between the body and the Earth, such as the image of holding the whole world in your hands. You close the often-perceived gap between ‘human’ and ‘nature’. Is this a necessary part of nature writing, do you think? And, indeed, climate-writing?

L: When we observe ‘the natural world’ – a phrase not without its limitations, like ‘nature writing’ – we use our whole body, our five (or six) senses. When we are undistracted, attuned to the moment and the body’s organic perception, we notice more, our experience widens and deepens. This is a stronger, sounder place not just to write from but to live from, grounded in reality. Human beings are nature too. Digital technology in all its forms persuades us we are separate and distracts us from wonder and appreciation for all the things we are kin with and depend upon for our very lives.

If nothing else, we can notice the world around us, bear witness, despite all the stresses we experience and the uncertainty of our situation. When we let ourselves really see what’s going on, there’s no question of the natural instinct for kindness and compassion. I explore these ideas of interdependence and the earth as a living system in conversations with poets and climate writers, scientists, thinkers and activists in our podcast series In Our Element.  We have to keep going back to first principles, every day beginning again. This will be the life’s work of many generations.

K: Your title has been climate-writer, but reading Startling implies that ‘writing the climate’ is far more complex and wide-reaching than this simple phrase suggests. How do you feel about the ‘climate writing’ label? Has its use impacted your work at all?

L: ‘Climate writing’ is just shorthand, like ‘nature writing’, and the phrase ‘climate change’ itself. As Margaret Atwood has said, it’s no longer Climate Change – it’s Everything Change. This is the overarching issue of our time, the atmosphere we all live and breathe and die in, so the reach of ‘writing the climate’ is enormous and anything is possible. Every writer must find their own way in to thinking and writing about the issues and I’m really looking forward to seeing where poets, non-fiction writers and novelists take us in the coming years. Spending long hours immersed in these ideas, absorbing the latest research, translating it into something anyone might want to read, takes great commitment, stamina and courage, but for some of us it’s impossible now to write about anything else.

As you can tell, I’m not a big fan of labels – once something’s labelled and put in a box, it’s easier to tidy away.  What I’m interested in is meaningful and accurate writing that joins the dots by risking what’s difficult, catching paradox and staying in balance (that word again!), the result of deep thinking and honest feeling, beyond consideration of fashion and market forces. It’s heartening to see so many independent presses flourishing and fresh voices bubbling up, teaching us to see with new eyes.

I’ve been writing about place and ecology all my writing life and even though the residency comes to an end this autumn, I can’t stop writing about what concerns me. Writing helps me understand things better and I need it like I need air. If I could draw up new legislation or design and build renewable energy solutions or flood defences, I would, but I look hard at language and play with words and the page will always be my centre of operations, a springboard into whatever contribution I feel I can make to ‘righting the climate’ off the page.

Startling will be launched at Durham Book Festival on Friday 14th October. You can preorder your copy here.