Last week, Helen Mort was stunned by Jasper.
The award-winning British poet, climber and creative writing professor from Sheffield, England was sufficiently awed by the snow-capped peaks and cobalt blue rivers of the Athabasca Valley, but what really left her reeling took place at Jasper’s south park gate. There, just before waving us through so we could visit the area known as Buffalo Prairie, where Cree elder Jim O’Chiese was giving a Medicine Walk as part of the May 5-8 Thinking Mountains conference, gate attendant Sylvie McKenzie offered us each a muffin. Mort was delighted.
“That would never happen in the UK,” she laughed.
Just as Jasper’s random friendliness charmed Mort, the poet’s unique presentation at Thinking Mountains captivated those who caught it. With From Summit to Stanza: The Trouble with Mountaineering Poetry, Mort argued that the act or art of climbing is incredibly difficult to put into words.
“There are a lot of poems about mountains and how beautiful they are but there’s not much about what it feels like to climb,” she said. “My paper was about thinking of reasons why perhaps that might be.”
She encountered the dilemma firsthand while writing for her forthcoming book No Map Could Show Them, a collection of poems which centre on women and mountaineering. As she attempted to put some of her own experiences about what it feels like to be on a rock, she found she couldn’t quite find the right words.
“Like a poem, a climb can’t be paraphrased,” she said.
In her short career, Mort already has an impressive number of accolades. The 30-year-old, who has been named “among the brightest stars in the sparkling new constellation of young British poets,” has been shortlisted for various awards including the TS Elliot Prize and the Costa Prize. In 2014 Mort won the celebrated Fenton Aldeburgh Prize, which garnered her $5,000 and a week-long writing retreat on the east cost of England.
Closer to Jasper, Mort has also taken part in a writing retreat at the Banff Centre, where she worked on poems that were first published in Rock Paper Fire, The Best of Mountain and Wilderness Writing (Banff Centre Press, 2013). In that volume, her works celebrate the women climbers who have endured not only the mountain, but the sexist undertones which can seep into the sport.
“Ode to Bob,” a sonnet inspired by the women climbers tired of hearing unsolicited advice from male passerby, hails the imaginary character Bob, who “never steals the morning/with a story of a pitch he climbed/one-handed, wearing boxing gloves/and never casts his shadow/on the path, dark as a winter coat,/nor whistles like a postman/from his belay stance.”
Mort’s descriptive yet approachable poetry is what has helped turned so many heads towards her collections, according to Stephen Slemon, professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta and member of the Thinking Mountains steering committee.
“She’s bringing the form back,” Slemon said.
For her part, although she admits it can sometimes have a reputation for being high brow, Mort thinks all poetry should connect with its audience.
“You get a lot of people who say ‘I don’t understand poetry,’” she said. “I think that’s the poet’s fault. The more complicated our ideas are the more of a duty we have to make them understandable and accessible.”
Which is why she isn’t going to stop trying to describe her climbing.
“Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,” she said.