Graham Mort was born in Lancashire and gained a degree in English from the University of Liverpool.
He worked as a mill labourer, dairy operative and psychiatric nurse before training as a teacher. He taught in schools, colleges, prisons, special education and psychiatric units before becoming a freelance writer. He has worked extensively in schools and has been one of the Poetry Society's poetryclass team of poets. Residencies include work for the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, the Times Educational Supplement and the University of Makere, Uganda.
He gained a doctorate from the University of Glamorgan and now works as Director of Postgraduate Studies for the Department of English and Creative Writing at Lancaster University. A specialist in distance learning, he also leads the Lancaster University/British Council African writers mentoring scheme, 'Crossing Borders'. He has led workshops in Uganda, Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe, and has travelled extensively in Africa for the British Council. He writes mainly poetry, but has also written educational course books, academic papers and essays as well as short fiction and drama for BBC Radio. His poetry collections include A Country on Fire (1986), which led to him receiving an Eric Gregory Award; Sky Burial (1989); and Circular Breathing (1997), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Two books of poetry, A Halifax Cider Jar (1987) and Into the Ashes (1988), have involved collaboration with visual artists. A Night on the Lash appeared in 2004 and Visibility: New and Selected Poems was published in 2007. A collection of short fiction, Touch (2010), won the Edge Hill University Short Story Prize in 2011 and a new book of poems, Cusp, also appeared in that year.
‘Poetry is a wonderful educational medium, not only for language teaching, but for nurturing awareness of what it is to be alive and curious, excited about the world and our lives in it’, Graham Mort has observed, in an on-line interview (with Jean Sprackland for www.poetryclass.net). As this suggests, he is an educator whose career goes alongside his parallel activities as a poet, having been director of studies for the Open College of the Arts, and currently director of postgraduate studies in creative writing at Lancaster University. In the same interview, Mort particularly recalled a health awareness project in Gateshead during 1992, where he worked with theatre designers, performers and schoolchildren, writing a collective poem whose theme was a healthy heart. It became a performance piece, ‘where we seated the audience in the middle of the room and four performers circulated the poem around them in the way that the auricles and the ventricles of the heart pump blood. For me, it was a breakthrough project that influenced everything I did afterwards in schools’.
As a poet, Mort generally employs more traditional forms and subjects, being a fine descriptive writer about the rural-industrial lives and landscapes of his native North of England. Work, nature, war and love are his abiding subjects; this is a poet who likes to get his hands dirty. Among formative influences one can identify Ted Hughes (for his unsentimental observations of animals and birds), R.S. Thomas’s scenes of farming life and labour, and Wilfred Owen’s sense of the pity of war and its atrocities. Mort also has his earthy, pleasure-loving side, liking the direct language of Blues performers, employing the demotic when describing episodes of sexual passion. In recent work such as the sequence ‘Cuba Libre at the Café Espana’, which concludes A Night on the Lash (2004), a Spanish holiday sets free his sunlit Garcia Lorca mode, to celebrate sensuality. By its conclusion, however, the couple drive home to ‘Yorkshire towns and hills, / their stone capes drawn tight against rain / and too much hope’.
His first collection, A Country on Fire (1986), significantly opens with a man clearing a graveyard and disturbing an angry wasps’ nest; but this turns into an analogy for becoming a writer, as when, years later, he himself starts ‘broaching the word-hoard’. Rural occupations are observed, as with a man ‘Penning the unmoored sheep on the drifting fell’, who ‘puts his head down to the kniving wind’ (‘Dead Man’s Hour’). Harsh conditions give rise to some equally harsh characters. In ‘Logan’s Bitch’, a master’s blunt, caressing hand’ is ‘covered in the dirt and scars / of a lifetime’s punished enterprise on the land’ (‘Logan’s Bitch’). Childhood is also a recurrent theme, recalling ‘our labour’ as children on a local polluted river, which ‘ran brown with sewage or green / From the dye mills, fish a folk memory’ (‘Dam’). There are several Hughesian nature poems. In the most evocative, a boy leaves his house at night to observe otters, ‘Trembling at their mystery, / His blood beating out their lost echo’. One of Mort’s best-known poems is ‘A Halifax Cider Jar’, describing the skills of Isaac, ‘the last potter in Halifax’. We follow the seven processes, from ‘Digging’ in the clay soil, ‘where grass and harebells bend / Under kiln-draughting wind’, to ‘Blunging’, ‘Throwing’, ‘Fettling’, ‘Glazing’ to ‘Firing’. The craftsman is finally shown ‘Fingering the dappled glaze / Where his smile deepens’.
Circular Breathing (1997) was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, praised by the selectors for its ‘steady, scrupulous concentration on subjects’ and its ‘refusal to yield seriousness to effect’. There are some marvellous glimpses of animals (lambs are ‘picky-toed on their heat’), and of birds: ‘she hears a warbler liquefy the sun, / these notes their way of counting in the night’. And in ‘First Born’, we have a chick’s eye view: ‘That scream in the air is mine / it goes out from my skinny chest // and will not stop’. But Mort now sounds an ecological note, as when observing seals off the Scottish coast, ‘slick as basalt, nosing from the sea’s sheen / of lost whale cries and fished-out shoals’ (‘Earlsferry’). And his focus reaches wider, to a range of other victims of mankind. ‘Imagining the Woods at Katyn’ visits the scene of a Second World War massacre, and home-grown violence is endured by an abused wife, ‘her skin the litmus of his rage’ (‘Quarryman’). A sequence, ‘The Hurts’, examines the more subtle emotional injuries suffered even within loving relationships, concluding ‘it matters that we feel the hurt of loving now’ (‘Words’).
A Night on the Lash (2004), counterpoints its English scenes with a dark awareness of foreign atrocities, the ways in which the personal informs the political. ‘A Hole for Belgrade’ and ‘Blueprint’ allude to events in The Balkans: ‘The dead sprawl on settees, last gestures squandering / their hands, their blood’. And a menacingly calm atmosphere pervades ‘General Pinochet, Retired’. These pieces are interspersed with ‘Birdwatching’, and walking to bleak coastal places to gather ‘sea-coal, spars of jet, amber and amethyst’ (‘Thorpenesse’). Several of the most striking poems return imaginatively to his family roots, particularly relating to work and machines. Mort’s grandfather was a Lancashire cotton spinner, and his father’s experiences are reflected in ‘Pianoforte’ and ‘My Father’s First Day at Work’. The latter evokes an era in which horses were working animals: ‘hooves click on a cobbled yard, its hide / flinches from my hand and rain trails its silver / filaments from tinted hooves’. ‘Washdays’ is more equivocal in depicting his mother’s working tasks, including her labour in carrying himself, ‘The boy-child at ease under / her heart’.
‘Myson Midas’ is surely one of his best poems about work and workers, bringing together feelings about ‘how we co-exist with things and my own fascination with machinery’. The title refers to a boiler type, and the narrative manages to connect the recalcitrant boiler to the repairman, the almost intimate relationship he establishes with it. The man’s hands are ‘soothing it / the way a shepherd lambs a softly bleating ewe’. The process of repair is lingered upon, as he ‘checked resistances, changed sensors, untangled / wiring looms, fingered pipes to track a fading pulse’. Exasperated, he is reduced to ‘swearing in iambics at the bastard thing’. But this surprisingly tender poem about man’s relationship with machines ends appropriately with a happy couple in bed, hearing the ‘last whispers of the miracle his hands / have brailled here’. As both writer and educator, Graham Mort communicates well. His intense but scrupulous observations of nature and work are always balanced; by passion on one side of human affairs, by war on the other.
Dr Jules Smith, 2005