Michael Alexander speaks to poet Mandy Haggith about her inspirations ahead of a new Dundee exhibition.
It was her love for a crofter that led writer Mandy Haggith to settle on the seashore at Assynt in the north-west Highlands some 23 years ago.
But the renowned poet is in no doubt that being immersed in the habitat has also become a hugely important part of her life and work.
Perhaps this is none more evident than the deeper influence of landscape in the ‘Trees Meet Sea’ multi-media exhibition which launched this week at Dundee Botanic Garden.
The exhibition consists of 14 pieces of visual art by 14 artists from the Highlands and Islands, each of which is a response to or has been responded to by a poem by Mandy.
“Over the last few years I’ve been thinking quite a lot about how the seashore is a metaphor for boundaries and edges and life in various different ways,” Mandy tells The Courier.
“I had really interesting conversations with a whole lot of artists about the seashore as a metaphor.
“It’s an edge that moves and pulses and it’s porous and it seems to represent that way that things are not black and white. Things have a grey area in-between.
“That’s become quite a big issue for me over recent years, and so this exhibition is one part of what feels like a wider part of my work.”
Conceived through residency
Mandy explains that the exhibition was conceived through a residency she did at the National Trust’s Inverewe Garden at Gairloch.
It’s part of a wider Liminal Zone project run by her and supported by Creative Scotland, exploring the seashore as a metaphor for interfaces and boundaries in our lives.
Participants came up with a group exhibition.
Mandy made a big floor piece which was “basically a non-linear poem on the floor called ‘Listen to Your Wonder Under’.
This, she says, was a “kind of celebration of how much of what trees do goes on underground”.
At the end, the curator asked her if she’d like to have her own solo exhibition.
She found this “weird” because “poets don’t have exhibitions”!
What she came up with, however, was this collaborative exhibition with other artists.
They are mostly Highlands and Islands artists she loved or had already responded to in poetry.
But she also invited them to respond to her poems. She started having conversations with other artists and it grew from there.
Who are the other artists?
The artists are Lynn Bennett-Mackenzie, Ann Coomber, Dorje Khandro Dawid, Helen Denerley, Chris Goodman, Lotte Glob, James Hawkins, Jan Kilpatrick, Kirsty O’Connor, Bill Ritchie, David Sandum, Fergus Stewart, Kathy Sutherland and Peter White.
They encompass video, painting, etching, sculpture, textiles and ceramics.
The exhibition was previously on show at the Sawyer Gallery at Inverewe Garden, which was the home of new Dundee Botanic Garden curator Kevin Frediani.
Impact of Assynt move
Reflecting on her move to Assynt in 1999, Mandy now believes she was “never really happy until I come here and immersed” in the landscape.
She adds: “It’s been hugely positive environment here and has totally influenced everything that I’ve written.
“I’m kind of driven I think by wonder. I never cease to be amazed and delighted by the things I’m still learning about the natural environment here whether it’s the woods or the sea, or the rocks and the bogs and all the rest of it.
“And constantly falling over things and going ‘what on earth is that it’s amazing, it’s beautiful’, and going and finding out.
“And that wonder that starts off with a ‘hey wow look at that’ and it turns into wondering about and enquiring into it and then discovering and learning more and more about how amazing this world actually is.
“And that drives my desire to write – to communicate that to other people, to go ‘stop look listen isn’t it amazing!
“It was one of the things that was fascinating in the pandemic.
“I’ve got myself a job at the UHI and I’ve got a research project where I use poetry to hopefully inspire other people and hopefully what people think and feel about things.
“During the pandemic it was really interesting how many people – particularly in urban environments when it all went quiet and still and they didn’t have the business of life kind of pushing them to just keep busy all the time – people stopped and started to notice how beautiful bird song is and extraordinary the trees are in their immediate neighbourhood.
“Having to do the same walk for that one hour every day and people realising that you can do the same walk for one hour every day and it’s always different.
“You always encounter different things about nature and we are part of it of course. When you connect to that it’s really good for you.”
How to see the exhibition
Trees Meet Sea is on now at Dundee Botanic Garden. An elegant pamphlet of the poems and artworks, designed by Gerry Cambridge, is available from Mandy’s website here: https://www.mandyhaggith.net/shop.asp