By Dani Redd
Nancy Campbell has always been fascinated by the ice-bound landscapes in the northern hemisphere. Between 2010 and 2017 she explored Greenland, Iceland, Denmark and Switzerland on a series of writing residencies which deepened her connection between the environment and her creative practice.
In 2015, she released a collection of poems, Disko Bay, which traces the relations between Northern Europe and the Arctic regions. It was described by Carol Ann Duffy as “a beautiful debut from a deft, dangerous and dazzling new poet.” This November, she published The Library Of Ice, a unique non-fiction book which explores how ice has been written, categorised and understood in multiple contexts.
Nancy has always been drawn to the materiality of language. She trained as a traditional printmaker and is fascinated by the physical process behind the written word. She has produced numerous artist’s books incorporating text and image, including the evocative How to Say ‘I Love You’ In Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet. This was written for the community she lived with whilst on residency at Upernavik Museum in Greenland. It is intended as a way of helping preserve West Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), an endangered language. She is currently the UK’s Canal Laureate, writing poems inspired by the waterways.
How and why does ice exert such a fascination for you?
I was born in February 1978, a notoriously bitter winter (though nothing compared to the one that followed, which became known as ‘The Winter of Discontent’). Those years in the Devon countryside where I lived as a child were documented by a photographer named James Ravilious, a friend of my parents. I recently saw a book of his images – sheep farmers pursuing their work in the snow, and the stark silhouettes of leafless trees — and it brought that frozen landscape back to me.
I wonder whether the cold drama of those childhood winters had an influence on me. There’s an endurance (and as Horatio Clare writes in his recent memoir, A Light In The Dark, a necessary ‘solidarity’) for humans and other creatures in the cold that I find very alluring, but I’m also intrigued by the converse — ice’s temporality, its fickleness. Ice is so strong that it can break apart huge rock formations (and so it has determined the shape of our world), and yet at the same time it is extremely sensitive — with incremental degrees of temperature change, it becomes liquid.
In The Library Of Ice, there is a strong connection between ice and the written word; you refer to the polar ice as an archive, and express a desire to learn “what words it would teach me”. So how does one go about ‘reading’ ice?
The key ‘reading’ in the book is the example I use in the passage you quote, that of ice cores read by scientists – the layers of microscopic debris and chemical traces running through the ice which reveal details of past climate going back centuries.
Before I even knew I was writing this book, I spent a long time seeking out and talking to cryologists working in Greenland and Antarctica. They read the ice by drilling enormous cores, which are sliced into wafer-thin discs to be stored and analysed. The intricate elements of the process fascinated me in the same way that bookbinding and printmaking does, actually — the creation of story.
But the metaphor of landscape-as-book is not a new one. The Scottish naturalist John Muir wrote ecstatically in his Travels in Alaska of glaciers “like the pages of a book.” I suppose the poet in me was curious to see how far this metaphor could be stretched, and what implications it would have in other contexts. And how does it play out in an era of climate crisis in which there is no longer the hope of leaving permanent records since the future of the planet is not secure?
What do you think you’ve learned from such readings?
As I interviewed artists and scientists (among them performance artist Kirsten Norrie, painter and musician Clare Carter, bookbinder Tracey Rowledge and cryologist Dr Robert Halwey), I became aware of all the different ways the landscape can be read and interpreted.
Tracey’s reflections on her residency with the Cape Farewell expedition were of particular interest to me. She was very honest about the difficulty of creating a response to the ice as someone new to that landscape who was not yet conditioned to read it, which was something I could relate to. In her work she used the action of the seawater to ‘draw’ or make marks on the paper, handing over autonomy of the work to the sea, finding a form for its voice and letting it speak.
Meanwhile, Bob told me he was sceptical that Earth could survive climate change, but if it did, its solution “very likely wouldn’t involve humans.” A terrifying thought, but the collapse of old narratives makes way for new ones. The voices that scientists find emerging from the ice itself suggests what might outlast other documents, or provide a clue to future stories when the planet can no longer support human life.
The Library Of Ice has a fascinating, almost dreamlike narrative structure. As Gavin Francis writes, “Inuit grammar sits with discussions of early modern science; high-pressure ice chemistry with the history of Scottish curling; the sexual proclivities of penguins with Torvill and Dean.” Can you tell me a little more about the process of writing the book, and the stylistic decisions behind it?
Although The Library Of Ice covers seven years of wandering, it was written quickly in under a year to a tight deadline. Luckily, I had already been thinking about ice and creating other work on the subject for some time. Having written poems and made visual works about the Arctic (both forms of media which are quite restrictive and condensed), it suddenly felt liberating to be writing extended prose.
I wanted to avoid recycling preconceived ideas about the Arctic. I don’t see the polar ice as any more or less intriguing than other icescapes, such as the imaginative worlds which I once saw Torvill and Dean create on Whitley Bay Ice Rink. One of the enduring memories of my residency on Upernavik in Greenland is not of exploring the outdoors but sitting on an old sofa with a hunter’s family and watching the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver as it played on TV.
Early on in planning the book, I realised how huge the subject was. There was a lot I had to cut from the final draft — for example, I don’t cover the Hindu-Kush Himalayan region, known as ‘The Third Pole’. The chapters are organised around topics such as science, exploration, hunting, ice in sport and what is revealed when ice starts to break down, break up or melt.
You’ve been to Greenland twice in the past seven years. Is there anything you find compelling about the island?
Having experienced the midwinter darkness during my residency at Upernavik, I was curious to see how the Arctic landscape would differ in midsummer. I was fortunate to be invited as artist-in-residence to Ilulissat Kunstmuseum in late August and I relished the greater freedom and the hikes in the hills around the icefjord. Without snow and ice the landscape was more static, dependable, but at the same time the contrast between the noon heat and the icebergs emerging from the fjord was eerie.
Those two visits to Greenland punctuated years of remote research and voyages of the imagination, time spent reading all I could about Greenland’s history, culture and languages. It was almost a kind of homesickness. I lived nomadically during these years — I’d put all my possessions in storage and didn’t have a base from which to operate.
In my dreams, Greenland was somewhere I might settle, like the mysterious Frenchman who lived alone on a tiny island in the archipelago north of Upernavik (no one quite knew who he was or why he was there, only that he arrived in Upernavik once a month by boat to stock up on supplies). There were practical reasons too for my longing for the north — during periods of work on residencies I could spend a few months in one place undisturbed and, most importantly, able to focus on my work. So, although I know many travellers go to Greenland for the adrenaline hit of outdoor adventure, it came to seem, perhaps unexpectedly, like a place of security for me.
Or perhaps not so unexpectedly. After all, this giant island has always attracted migrants and wanderers: the Thule people arrived more than a thousand years ago, followed by Norse settlers, then Danish missionaries, and in our own day, mining contractors from China. This desire to find a place (and means) to live was something I explored in a number of poems in Disko Bay, including The Survivors.
Is this part of the appeal of islands? That the island offers a finite place to call home, a place to root oneself, but all the same it has the tantalising rough sea at its edges and the endless possibility of escape?
What does the future hold for you?
I’m fortunate to have a place to call home now, for the moment at least! And this year as Canal Laureate I’m working within the British Isles, writing about the 2,000 miles of waterways looked after by the Canal & River Trust. I’m travelling the network on foot, and by bicycle and kayak. The poems that emerge from these journeys will be presented as part of the exhibition Of Water at The Poetry Society in London (17th December 2018 – 2nd February 2019).
Meanwhile, How To Say ‘I Love You’ In Greenlandic and other projects I created following my residency on the island of Upernavik will be on display in the Heritage Futures exhibition next year at Manchester Museum. Work on these exhibitions has been keeping me busy, but I’m looking forward to the new year and having time to finish my next book, which is the first English translation of a collection of Greenlandic songs recorded by Paul-Émile Victor in Ammassalik during the 1930s.
Dani Redd loves thinking about, writing about and visiting islands. She has legitimised her passion through a PhD in island fiction. Currently living in Bangalore, India, she is writing a book about a woman who sets up a curry house on Spitsbergen, and island in the Arctic Circle.