Bill Arnott’s Beat: The Joy of Poetry, Travel and Art

I was preparing for National Poetry Month 2023, this particular year a celebration of Joy, when I was asked by London’s Royal Geographical Society to prepare a multimedia presentation of my travels, a summary of people and places with geographical significance, all of it centered on poems, and joy. “Outstanding!” I thought. This venerable group had no idea how perfect this was. I’ve always felt travel, irrespective of where we go, from a stroll outside to an overseas expedition, is all very much a poem. Joy tends to surface throughout the experience. Which in turn offers us, as writers, a choice: to simply savour it all, or perhaps, to capture those feelings on paper.

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The Geographical Society’s mandate is seemingly simple, yet entails boundless interpretation, not unlike poetic composition. On paper (no pun intended) it might seem straightforward, in this case to advance geographic knowledge and education around the world. Society members are a unique group: scientists such as Darwin and Shackleton, along with modern day adventurers including Microsoft’s Kate Edwards and globetrotting Python, Michael Palin.

The first time I visited the Society’s London base, across the street from Hyde Park, I was well into my Gone Viking excursions, trekking the globe in the wake of explorers, crossing Europe, Scandinavia and the Arctic at the time. Now, fittingly enough, as part of my own NPM celebration, I’d completed another enormous undertaking, returning to historic locales to complete the final installment of my travelogue trilogy, Gone Viking III: The Holy Grail (RMBooks Fall 2023), the book incorporating new poems along with my memoir. Aptly enough, my late literary companion for much of the trek was fellow Royal Geographical Society member Knud Rasmussen. While this adventurous Greenlandic-Dane may be best known for dogsledding the Arctic and educating the world on northern Indigenous culture, he was first and foremost an author and poet.

In preparation for my latest adventure, I joined a lecture with Kate Edwards, pivotal innovator in modern geography, what’s resulted in us viewing the world via Google. “Maps,” she explained, “are the original art form.” Which of course I categorize with poetry and song. Her words resonated. When our hairy ancestors first reimagined the world through artistic expression on cave walls by way of red handprints or sketching a mammoth, the next artistic rendering in human history was landscape imagery. A map. The physical world we know and that bit just beyond, blurs on the cusp of comprehension, where myth and lore collide and the only means of grasping it all is through poetry, song, or fantastical visual art. Expressions of joy and raw creativity, fuelled by a desire to explore, experience, to learn and to share.

Since that first handprint pressed on a wall, in its way a nonverbal poem and map (“I was here”), these art forms have been imperative, interpreting our world: topography, flora, fauna, where we scavenge or hunt to feed, clothe, and shelter our tribe. We require the effort, at times speculative and imagined, of writers and poets and makers of maps, explorers and geographers like those of a cartographic society.

This discipline, however, entails much more than plotting coordinates. Akin to creating a poem, making a map is an art and a science, open to interpretation, incorporating endless ingredients, from socioeconomic to political content, demographic to environmental. As I see it, all of us are mapmakers and poets, geographic explorers, sourcing new ways to interpret the world: location, emotion, sentiment captured and shared through innovative, provocative means. The very things that motivate me to throw books in a pack and to wander, writing it all as I go. Same as each of us. Our means and our output may vary but objectives are invariably mutual. Bringing joy, knowing joy, sharing joy, plotting paths through the words of our writing and poems, mapping unending terrain, imagined cave walls, finding and leaving our mark.

Bill Arnott is the bestselling author of the Gone Viking travel memoirs (Gone Viking: A Travel SagaGone Viking II: Beyond BoundariesGone Viking III: The Holy Grail) and A Season on Vancouver Island. He’s won numerous book awards and received a Fellowship at London’s Royal Geographical Society for his expeditions. When not trekking with a small pack and journal, Bill can be found on Canada’s west coast, where he lives near the sea on Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh land.