Roseanne Watt: 'What I'm trying to do is find a place to put my love for something that no longer is'
- Deborah Chu
- 8 August 2019
The poet discusses wilderness and literary tradition ahead of her appearance at Edinburgh International Book Festival
When Shetland poet Roseanne Watt was announced as the winner of the 2018 Edwin Morgan Poetry Prize, judge Janice Galloway praised her verse for its 'celebration of language, place and the mystery of being alive'. Though the works collected in her debut Moder Dy (translated from 'mother wave' in the Shaetlan dialect, and published by Polygon) range across the complex, often unfathomable dimensions of human experience, they all return ceaselessly to her native home on the island archipelago, and the language which shapes its place in the world.
In Moder Dy's 'A Note to the Reader', Watt meditates briefly upon the 'wilderness' that exists within the Shaetlan tongue. When asked about it now, she explains that this description is intended to encapsulate 'the word in all its guises; as much a place devoid of the wild as it is abundant with it.' 'For me,' she says, 'Shaetlan is strung with the tensions of that paradox.' With roots in the extinct language of Norn, which was spoken in the Shetlands until the end of the 19th century, what remains of Shaetlan's rich oral tradition is unfortunately a mere handful of fragmentary texts. 'It reminds me of a line by Iain Crichton Smith; "he who loses his language loses his world,"' says Watt. 'Whatever world or thought existed back then, I can't know it through the literary tradition, as much as I would like to. So what's left in its place is absence. A wilderness. And that's a difficult inheritance to navigate, sometimes. There's a sense of grief that comes with it, which on some level I've aligned with the grief I feel for the current state of the natural world.'
Indeed, the natural world often emerges through her poetry in Shaetlan, such as 'Haegri' and 'Mareel', which deftly weaves together the cadences of both Shaetlan and English. How does she decide to write in one language or another? 'In all honesty, I couldn't say for certain,' says Watt. 'Once it's done, I find it so hard to cast my mind back over the writing process of a poem. I could say the choice was something to do with cadence, or subject, or even pulse, but I don't really believe that's the true essence of it – at least, certainly not for every poem.' She cites the American poet Mark Doty's idea of 'our metaphors going on ahead of us' as being most akin to her own experience. 'Sometimes it's like the poems know where they belong before I do,' says Watt, 'and the rest is just about trust, and finding out how to get there.'
This sense of journey echoes throughout Moder Dy, which is saturated with a desire to return, whether to a moment in one's history, or to a much-loved place. 'In terms of time, it's really the impossibility of return that fascinates me, and the way you deal with that knowledge without giving in to grief or nostalgia,' says Watt. 'I know the version of Shetland I have in my memory is not the one that exists now, and sometimes I do wonder if what I'm trying to do is find a place to put my love for something that no longer is. But to return to a space is a different thing. It's to be drawn to the present essence of a place, I think. I know I'd much rather be there than linger on the threshold of grief in any case. It's definitely a better place to be writing from.'
And yet despite these powerful feelings of grief – for a past, a place or a language that cannot be fully restored – Watt will not be overwhelmed by them. 'You have to move through it, or believe that you can,' she says. 'It's a reminder that language is still precious and vulnerable, and that poetry might matter something in that respect. You turn your attention to what thrives in the present, and how you might be part of that process. That's the other side of it, I think, where the wildness of it is.'
Roseanne Watt appears with Niall Campbell at Rising Stars of Scottish Poetry, Charlotte Square Gardens, 11 Aug, 6.30pm, £8 (£6).