Poet Jo Bell announced as Britain's first 'canal laureate'


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The Independent Culture

The Canal & River Trust (CRT) is turning to the creative arts to encourage people back to Britain’s 200-year-old waterways. Among those spearheading the cultural drive is Jo Bell, the country’s first canal laureate.

Ms Bell, who has lived on a boat for more than a decade and ran the UK’s National Poetry Day, said: “The canals are one of human civilisations greatest achievements; we look at Rome and the aqueducts. People will look at Britain and the canals in the same way.”

The cultural drive, now in its third year, includes a series of contemporary art commissions such as street murals on bridges, sound installations and a sculpture walk connecting the Olympic Park and the O2.

Ms Bell said. “It seemed like a great opportunity to spread the word about the canals to a population that doesn’t know much about there.”

Her appointment was made by the CRT and the Poetry Society last year. The work of the poet laureate includes writing poetry about the canals and encouraging others to do the same. “There isn’t a huge tradition of contemporary poetry about the subject,” she said.

She has made films about the waterways, attended festivals and is planning a show to be held in dry docks around the UK. 

“If it is bringing people to look at the canals, even by just putting poems out there, then my work is done,” she said. “Many people are intimidated by poetry and don’t know much about canals, so this is my mission on earth twice over.”

Ms Bell was an archaeologist for 18 years, before becoming a poet and one of her last jobs was restoring historic canal boats. “I went native and moved onto a canal boat. It’s not an accident that I took poetry more seriously after that,” she said. She does not know what will happen at the end of the year. “Maybe they will throw me in,” she said.