In the last 18 months or so, Kuli Kohli and I have spent a lot of time ‘away with the birds’ watching wild birds and running 10 poetry workshops (two online) with committed writing groups in the region many of whose members subsequently sent in poems.
We visited the Wyre Forest, Cannock Chase, the Shropshire Union Canal, West Park, in a very wet Wolverhampton, and the RSPB reserve at Sandwell Valleys, among other outings.
This was a pleasure, as you can imagine, as I’ve long written about and been involved with wildlife and different aspects of the countryside and Kuli’s a keen urban member of the RSPB with a love of birds that goes back to her days at Penn Hall school.
In the autumn we opened a submissions’ window and were pleasantly surprised to get 450 poems to sift. This took us several days over Zoom, and a fair amount of head-scratching, but we agreed on 98% of the choices. The brief was open to poets from the West Midlands’ region, or with very strong current ties, but this didn’t prevent poets from Nebraska to Nepal from sending work in.
Before Christmas we brought out the anthology, Away with the Birds, named after Kuli’s compelling poem of the same title and also hinting at a little softness in our heads. Who, in their right minds, bothers about birds? Well, a lot of us do, actually, and we found some closely-observed and life-enhancing poems written about them to choose from.
And, as we had hoped, many of the leading poets of the region sent work in. The range of subjects and themes is extraordinary and has provoked many very generous comments from contributors and critics alike. There are poems about the decline in numbers of many bird species, the losses of habitat, the destruction, through shooting, of some vulnerable species, and the general pollution birds face, in rivers and on waterways, for example.
There are noticeable gaps: few poems about farmland birds, which reflects their disastrous decline, and nobody wrote about the winter thrushes that cheer us up on chilly days.
But there were also poems of celebration, recognition and delight and one or two timely reminders that not all bird species are having a hard time. Indeed there are some who are doing well. So, in a generally unhappy time, ecologically, it isn’t all gloom.
What came through above all else, however, was the love that people feel for birds in their gardens, in the spring woods, on lakes or at the seaside, and this must give us strength to carry on fighting for the birds we care about, the birds that visit the feeder in your garden, for example, blue and great tits, blackbirds and robins.
The book is enhanced by the brilliant design work of Alex Vann and the wonderful cover photos of Kapoor Singh Boparai and Kevin Wardlaw, mostly it turns out, taken at Himley Hall, Dudley. Each of the photos happily connects to a poem in the anthology.
The weekend of 26th-28th January is the ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’. Kuli and I will be busy promoting the book with readings at Press Books & Coffee, Hednesford, and Central Library, Wolverhampton. For details go to ‘My Events’. Get along if you have time or stay in and count those birds! And send the results in to the RSPB.