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Sean Borodale
Bee Journal retains the fresh urgency of its composition in an apiarist’s gloves and mask. How much time was spent editing and how significantly did your poetry change from the hive to publication?
Not much. Before BEE JOURNAL, I had been making work in a similar vein: documentary poems, poems written whilst walking - in which the act of walking generates the metabolic rate or poetic pulse of the poem, and prompts the thousands of encounters along the way - poems written in situ. BEE JOURNAL descends from these. I wanted to take the process more into the frame of the lyric poem and the keeping of bees focussed this endeavour; the form of the journal grew as I wrote. The phrasing and editing was done in real-time, there and then, between the act of observing and the act of writing. I was also interested in capturing the evolution of the poem. Sometimes I premeditated what I wanted to ‘see’ as I walked up to the hive and the poems themselves grew somewhere between this mood of anticipation and the haphazardness of real events; while the image still lingered on the retina and hummed in the ear. I typed up the poems together towards the end of the two years; subsequent editing involved mainly punctuation.
BEE JOURNAL and Carol Ann Duffy’s THE BEES mark a surge of poetic interest in bees, and more and more poets are concentrating on insects, or the other overlooked minutiae of wildlife and edgelands – why do bees make such good muses? And why now?
There must be an ancient reverence for these creatures wired into our brains and bodies, in the same way we hold reverence for cattle, horses, dogs, wheat. They render our lives rich. Bees are hospitable, amenable to human intervention. They produce one of the sweetest substances we know. But there is also intellectual scope, a projection we can explore, in the so-called colony, the society; they are ideologically adaptable – monarchy and democracy can each be related (roughly) to the complex of a colony; in this respect they have the capacity to metaphorically outlive our times and to illustrate our time. But they are also themselves, in their own shape, and this is what I wanted to see. They work a kind of alchemical process, which attracts the artist.

The future of bees is uncertain; so much depends on them. This isn’t a fad, but a sign of our times: recognition that the demise of bees signals wider distress.
Is apiculture a communal or solitary endeavour?
Beekeeping like much farming relates solitude to community, despair to camaraderie. To begin with I had the guidance of a friend, a kind of Virgil-figure on my descent into the world of the hive and the darkness of apiculture. I have met interesting, wonderful, intense, strange, always calm people, through beekeeping; urban or rural, there is always a network.
Beekeeping seems to cultivate a heightened awareness of seasonal change. Have you adopted the bees’ sensitivity to the manifold dangers of weather? And should we all?
No more perhaps than farming generally. The danger of weather is maybe the unexpected; last summer’s wetness, for example, which prevented bees’ foraging. Bees live in the weather, subject to its minutia; working with bees allows the beekeeper to track at least a non-human regard for seasonal change. Not least because here, in temperate latitudes, bees spend each short summer preparing busily for each long winter.
At one point you note that the bees are ‘not pets’, but the relationship between keeper and the hive seems to go beyond that of a farmer and his crop. Can you expand on the nature of your attachment to the hive?
There are beekeepers who truck hundreds of hives around the country; there are beekeepers who tend a few hives as part of a life in one location. Beekeeping was not what I expected. I learnt to keep calm, and then the bees were fine; not if you are tense or nervous; then they smell it and reject you. It is a process which engages all of the senses and this super-immersion in the minutiae of bees is thrilling – the change of scale, change of speed. I still keep bees, not far from our house; they are an ongoing part of my life which steadies all other things. The hive is an instrument for reading the landscape - it extends the senses slightly into the non-human. Each colony has a different personality; a tangible, distinct presence you can detect, with growing affection.
In BEE JOURNAL, your subject matter is surprisingly morbid – were you aware in advance of the precarious balance of beekeeping?
Yes, to a degree, but hope prevails. I kept (and keep) the bees in a wild little valley; much of the woodland is unmanaged, and the rest lies under river vapour and the days short in winter and summer. The presence of (vegetative) decay is high; what interests me is the way life lives on the dead and moves through the framework of the dead: bodies of vegetation, insects and animals litter the landscape. Out of this black slime and crumbling cellulose comes the sweet nectar-bearing flower bees harvest for honey. The poems follow the real-life real-time of the bees; they were the stage, in a way, for the poems’ preoccupations, which are perhaps natural tendencies on my part, but also responsive, connected to what actually happened in the two years of the journal.
How has beekeeping changed your attitude to the sting?
I have been stung three times but fear the sting when my nerves get to me. Once I walked into a swarm, but I knew I could trust the bees. I had them all over my hands, and I took off my torn gloves to brush them into the hive and they didn’t take any notice of me. The sting is a part of the bees’ integrity and vitality - it kills them to sting - and it reminds us of our potential act of theft.
You have been appointed poet in residence at the Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge. Can you comment on this extension of your site-specific work, and the move from a buzzing swarm to inanimate plaster casts
The plaster casts represent actual objects which were once, if not still, in real sites. I am interested in what a copy can convey of ‘original’ properties; how we can be touched by the shape or texture of a place or thing which is not present. They are pre-photograph and yet, somehow, transport us - we, animate life - towards the enigma of their original. Besides working for time with contemporary sculptors (in bronze and plaster), I travelled to many ancient sites across Greece as a child; I hope to align these tangible experiences with a scrutiny of the physical casts in Cambridge. I can’t say yet what the outcome will be.
Is your new hive thriving?
I hope, but perhaps with difficulty. If they make it through this winter they will be lucky - last summer was atrocious for bees.
Have you continued to write alongside it?
Yes, I continue to write at the hive, from time to time.
Sean Borodale

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