Poems from the Road

If you were driving up the M1 recently near Nottingham and noticed a figure with a black umbrella standing in the rain just outside the hard shoulder, that was me, capturing the sound of your engine for my Poems from the Road.

This Wednesday I’ll be giving the poems their second outing, after a set at the Luxury Goods Festival in London on 2 May, accompanied by some of the recordings I’ve made.

The Menace of the Road

I started writing them a couple of years ago because I felt that the road was the last place left where we regularly encounter a flight-or-flight mechanism in modern society. The road has a menace, it’s a place of danger, yet somewhere we frequent pretty much every day because, well, we have to; just like an animal that has to go out in search of food, in spite of the threat of predators.

I feel this constantly as a cyclist. On a bicycle in the city you are living through your senses in a hyper-alert state, scanning all around with your eyes and your ears, ready to react at any moment. This affects one’s experience of time. I used to enjoy catching the bus or underground into work in London years ago. The journey acted as a kind of buffer, a period of transition from one activity to the next, giving me time to think, read, write, or just take in my surroundings. By the time I arrived home I’d be feeling fresh, even at the end of a long day. On the bicycle there is no such buffer; you are catapulted from one state to the next without time to adjust. I leave work and suddenly I’m home, but my mind’s still restless, ticking over, like it’s impatient for the next task and not ready for a change of pace.

I also get this sense of menace from the road as a driver. Driving in the dark, pulling off a slip road, realising you’re in the wrong lane on a roundabout, facing oncoming traffic on a narrow country lane, driving in someone else’s car, in another country, on the wrong side of the road, off road, in snow and ice, oil slicks and water planing, luggage obscuring the rear view mirror, the first couple of years after passing your test, and those near misses that happen every so often.

One of the most terrifying driving experiences I had was driving a loaded estate car across Germany on the Autobahn at night in the rain, which resulted in this poem, available on SoundCloud.

Recording the Road

I wanted to see what it would be like reading Poems from the Road accompanied by the sound of the traffic, to give the audience a feeling for the menace and sheer physicality of the road, so the last few weeks I’ve been on a few sound-recording trips. I quickly discovered that not all roads sound alike. Doing 30mph about town sounds slow and uneventful. The stop-start movement feels much more drawn out when you listen to it than when you’re actually doing it. Even standing by an A-road with traffic racing past at 50mph didn’t have the energy I needed. I found the sound restful in fact, with more of a gentle swoosh than an explosion of sound.

At 70mph plus the sound is far more intense, with a low restless hum accompanied by higher pitched roars. The engines are working hard, and you can hear it. Standing on a bridge over the M1 though, the traffic was too distant and undifferentiated. I needed to get right down beside it. But the trouble with a motorway is that even if you’re right behind the barrier, you’ve still got the entire width of the hard shoulder between you and the traffic. In the end, the ideal spot was a lay-by beside a dual carriageway section of the A52, where I could wind down the window and capture the sounds of lorries and cars shooting by at 70mph, so close you can feel the air being punched out of the way as they pass.

Poetry at Lee Rosy’s

I’ll be reading alongside Wayne Burrows, Anna Robinson, and Georgina Lock at Lee Rosy’s, 17 Broad Street, Nottingham, NG1 3AJ, starting at 7pm on Wednesday 9 May 2012.

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