The project enables poetry writers to post their work on a beautiful historical and a modern-day digital map

Powerful poetry project mapping national and cultural identity extends deadline to 31 October to chart Brexit emotions

An extraordinary project, which enables poetry writers to post their work on a beautiful historical and a modern-day digital map, has been charting the way people feel about identity and place in England and Wales since May 2019. 

Now the project will document Britain right up until the country is due to leave the European Union on 31 October. 

Simon Armitage, Poet Laureate was the first to place his poem ‘Snow’ just west of Marsden in Yorkshire. It starts: “The sky has delivered its blank missive. The moor in coma.” Since the launch in May, more than 4000 poems have been pinned to the Places of Poetry map and public events held across England and Wales - from Stonehenge and Bath to the Big Pit and Byker.

The plan was to finish the project on National Poetry Day (3rd October) but in the midst of a national crisis and with the current government committed to the UK leaving the European Union on 31st October, the project co-ordinators have agreed to extend the deadline to capture people’s words and emotions at this time of significant upheaval.     

One of the project leads, Andrew McRae at the University of Exeter says:

“Living and working in Britain during 2019 means having a constant feeling that Brexit could knock everything off course at any minute. It is an arouser of unpredictable passions and a generator of huge uncertainty and introspection. It is an issue that has divided writers and commentators but also families and communities with a seismic impact on the country’s culture, history and psyche.

“Like many people across the country, we did not seek Brexit, but rather it was thrust upon us. We began planning Places of Poetry before Brexit was even a word, and even when we settled on the summer of 2019 we assumed that our European traumas would have been resolved. Over the last three years the problems and angst have only grown, and when Boris Johnson nailed his and the nation’s future to 31 October, we decided that we had to extend this zeitgeist project accordingly. We will accept our last poem at 11.59 that day.”

The Places of Poetry project was inspired by Michael Drayton’s 17th-century work Poly-Olbion, a 15,000-line poem on the topography of England and Wales. The project is being led by poet Paul Farley from Lancaster University and Andrew McRae from the University of Exeter who have a common obsession with Drayton’s epic poem. Poly-Olbion was originally published with engraver William Hole’s highly decorative county maps. In this modern version, a two-layered map – where detailed Ordnance Survey data is overlaid with a map of England and Wales modelled on Hole’s 17th-century version – poets can pin their poems to the exact location they describe.

Andrew McRae says:

“It’s an effort to connect with people of all ages and backgrounds, drawing them into a common digital platform to write about place, heritage and identity. We want the map to inspire people to write poetry, whatever their perspective or experience, and fill the map with thousands of new poems about places that mean something to them. We want to celebrate the diversity, history and character of the places around us.”

Brexit has not so far been a dominant theme in the Places of Poetry project but Andrew expects significantly more on the subject in the coming weeks that could provide a valuable insight into the state of the nation.  

The Brexit poetry submitted so far ranges from Janine Booth, who pinned ‘Widening Roads’ to the A256 in Kent, reflecting on ‘lorries / carrying loads / of no-deal worries’. ‘Dover Beach Again’, by Woodwool, stretches from allusion to the Victorian Matthew Arnold, through the world wars, to the present day as it comments that ‘Europe / lies at the edge of sight.’ While in the Regal Café in Blackpool, Clayton Hirst is distracted from his vanilla slice by ‘The Daily Express’, warning of ‘benefits scroungers and Brexit scaremongers’.

Andrew says:

“Places of Poetry has also been a case-study in the complex and fragile relations between the nations that constitute our nation. One reason the project chose to focus on just England and Wales is because Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion did just that. The reasons why Drayton never made it to Scotland, despite promises that he would, remain a matter of conjecture.

“Our decision, like Drayton’s, has not been without controversy. Any time we have described the project as ‘national’, we have rightly been called out. And when the Scots discovered that they could post poems on the grey space that was Scotland on our map, we decided to accept them.

“We also have some powerful poems about borders and borderlands. One poem, ‘Border Language’ by Steven Thomas-Spires, pinned to the Dee estuary near Chester combines English and Welsh language to comment on the relationship between the nations. Another, pinned to the ancient hard border at Hadrian’s Wall, is more pointed. Titled ‘Making Rome Great Again’ and written by Joe Williams, it concludes that ‘Roman politics / seldom favoured the moderate candidate’.

On extending the deadline for poetry submissions to 31 October and including Brexit in the project Andrew says:

“Maybe most of us will have other things on our minds as midnight approaches on 31 October. But the nation’s writers and poets will doubtless find Brexit vexing them even as they try to avoid it. Places of Poetry will continue to document their words and emotions, right up to the last minute.”

The Places of Poetry project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, The National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England, and is made possible by partnerships with the Ordnance Survey, The Poetry Society and National Poetry Day. 

To find out more about Places of Poetry visit: www.placesofpoetry.org.uk 

Date: 11 September 2019

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