As publication of The Arctic Diaries approaches, we spoke to poet Melissa Davies to ask about the inspiration for her debut collection and her experiences on Sørvær – a tiny island in a remote Norwegian archipelago.
Here we are, The Arctic Dairies is about to go out into the world and what am I feeling?
In this moment, I find myself thinking often about the people living on Fleinvær. The handful of residents, the weekenders and friends I’ve spent another winter with. I picture them reading it and try to imagine what they will feel. After all, every poem sits in their landscape, not mine.
Listen to Melissa Davies read ‘Bird Wife’, on location in Norway
The Arctic Diaries truly started in the spring of 2017 with a Facebook post asking ‘Do you want to live and work in the Arctic?’ to which I replied yes! Months later a Skype call with the jazz musician who founded an artist retreat on Sørvær (one island in the archipelago of Fleinvær) and in November 2018 I was on a plane to the north of Norway to run The Arctic Hideaway for two months….which turned into six. My husband and I landed in the middle of an arctic storm to quickly learn the way of life here: weather rules winter and it is futile to resist that fact.
Sørvær is one of two year-round inhabited islands in the archipelago and during that first winter we spent many of the cold afternoons of polar night with the only other couple overwintering there. It was over kaffe, lefse and boknafisk (semi-dried cod) that I heard the tales that eventually became The Arctic Diaries. The book really began to form when I realised that many of these stories—eroded through family retelling—would disappear with the passing of the people we came to call friends. Not just traditional or folk tales but vocabulary unique to the landscape, ways of living and happenings that continue to tell us how it is to be here.
However, I don’t see The Arctic Diaries as an archive. The characters I’ve written are fictional, they are not two dimensional drawings of the people I met, I could never do them justice. Instead, I hope that readers will take from each poem what they need, along with a raised awareness or reminder of what we are losing as industrial fishing and fish farming continue to devour Norway’s coastline.
Having said that, the book is also a diary of my first winter on Fleinvær. An exploration of being ‘other’ and the personal demons I was facing at the time so I kept the diary title, structure and dates.
As someone from rural Cumbria, it was interesting to see so many of the difficulties facing Fleinvær and wider Nordland county reflected in the issues facing my own home. I write about the coastal Arctic because it’s the landscape that speaks to me but many of the poems sing a mourning song familiar to the fells too. So as you dive into sea orms, crab pots and eider nests please remember, The Arctic Diaries is only the first chapter in a project that has more to give, especially as art cements a place in the forward momentum of climate activism and Europe swirls with questions of borders and migration.