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Nature personified with Em Strang – 18 October 2017

Not many speakers invited to Ayr Writers’ Club begin by emphasising what they are NOT going to talk about, but then, Em Strang was not a typical speaker. Instead she explained that she wanted to use the occasion – and us – as a sounding board for her current passion: an exploration of what it is to write nature poetry, not writing ‘about’ nature but writing ‘towards’ nature as a human embodiment of it.

She posed two questions: What does it mean to be a poet in the crisis-filled world of 2017? What does it mean to be fully incarnate? Weighty questions.

Many poets address the ecological problems of our world by underlining the error of our human ways with ‘finger wagging’, an approach which Em sees as more destructive than beneficial. An example of one such poem was Mother Earth: Her Whales by Gary Snyder and the reading of it was a collective experience with all present taking part in its performance, each of us reading a line of the piece in turn.

In this era of global destruction and decline, it is difficult not to be overwhelmed by apocalyptic statistics. Em admitted to finding her life informed by such facts, and the need to live an eco-friendly life, striving to create ‘embodied’ poetry which seeks to heal the gaps between ‘the self and other’; between ‘the mind and body’. For her, the starting point must be an acknowledgement of our bodies’ intelligence. She helped us appreciate this with a brief exercise where we focused on our breathing, giving us the chance to consider the difference this observation made.

The start of her journey to embodiment was the challenge to become free of ‘fear’. This has led her to experience poetry in a physical way through performance, thus connecting with a spiritual realm.

She demonstrated the contrast with two renditions of her poem Bird Woman. The first was a static reading of the piece; the second a ‘lived’ performance encompassing movement and gesture, revealing the difference between the cerebral understanding of the first, compared with the visceral experience of the second.

The conclusion of part one was her performance of Stone, a piece with two voices, presented in the near-dark room, a deep, hypnotic tale of a grieving woman living alone with nature, accompanied only by two horses. She is visited by a strange female bearing a gift, a perfect stone which alienates the horses, leaving her devoid of their presence. The second ‘voice’ speaks in an invented language one which, she later explained, is fluid and changes with each performance. Filled with powerful imagery and word pictures, for me, this piece touched on the elemental nature of life.

After the tea break, Em gave us guidance on possible approaches to the AWC ‘Nature Writing competition, for which she will be adjudicator.

The Q & A session followed, touching on a wide variety of topics: her teaching experience in Dumfries Prison for which she felt ill-prepared at first but now finds fulfilling and draining in equal measure; her two years spent walking on a private, grief journey following her father’s death; her belief that creativity springs from nature but not isolation; her definition of our ‘shadow’ – the recognition of our repressed material or ‘metaphorical sack’, consisting of secrets we shield from others and ourselves.

Thought-provoking, or what!

Thank you for a memorable evening, Em.

Carolyn O’Hara

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