This summer, Thames Festival Trust has been working with four up and coming spoken-word poets to bring you Boat Poets, our new Talent Development programme in collaboration with Roundhouse and the National Poetry Library. The project has seen the poets take up residence on four working boats on the River Thames.

In the second of our Meet the Boat Poets series, we caught up with Erin Bolens to find out about her residency and how she is approaching the project. Having moved to London a few years ago, the river became a space for Erin to learn and discover the rest of the city.

Erin's residency was with Bennett’s Barges, a company who supply aggregate services on the river, moving large quantities of waste or building materials, to avoid congestion on the roads. Bennett’s Barges is owned and operated by the Livett family, who have worked the tidal River Thames in London since 1710. 

Erin's work will debut with poems placed at the river piers across London in September and with performances at the National Poetry Library and on MBNA Thames Clippers.

How did you first find yourself involved? 

For me, the project felt appealing because the river has always felt like a pinpoint for me. I’m from Leeds, but moved to London a few years ago. When I first moved here, the river used to be the place I would come; it was the only way I knew my way around really. And I’d come and just sit by the river, and write, and feel like I knew where I was. So the idea of being given some time and space to do that was really appealing.

Was the river a grounding point for you?

It’s funny that when you think of nature, or think of needing some space from city life, you generally think of fields and trees. Whereas the river and water can provide that as well, but we don’t necessarily go there in our heads. I think water gives us the same grounding, soothing feeling often, and I think that’s why people are drawn there.

One of the major themes of the project is Working River. How have you responded to that?

You look around the river, and you can see how it’s been built, and I think that’s part of the fascination of it. That it is always growing, and being added to. I can’t help but think about the people who are doing that, and have done that over time, over generations. It just reflects that things are being built and things are working, rather than growing themselves like a park and trees, and things like that.

You’ve been focusing a lot on the inner workings of the river, tell us about some of the things the residency has led you to explore.

I’m starting to see how there’s so many other things going on, so many other things it requires, and so much more that it provides that’s going on. I think it’s getting out of that mind-set of being a tourist. The river is glamorised when we see couples with champagne flutes on fancy boats going up and down the river. And that is one side of it. But maybe that’s a smaller side of it than I realised.

What do you think you’ve learnt from spending time on the boat?

I went on a charter, a 4-5 hour one. I'm actually still not sure what a charter is...There's a whole language to the river that I want to explore. I’ve been thinking I need a glossary, and actually I might just write one because there’s so many.

What’s changed in your viewpoint? What have you seen in the people? 

I think what is interesting, is thinking I haven’t spent enough time on the river not to be in awe of it. And to not be really amazed every time we go on it, it’s something quite novel. It was interesting to see these people, whose life is on the river. See how it’s become completely mundane and no longer awe inspiring to them. When I was on the boat, I noticed the captain and the crew weren’t looking up, they’ve seen this every day. I think things we don’t associate in an everyday life, always have little a bit of mystery. And I think once that is our job, that mystery is removed a little bit. And that’s both pleasing and a little bit sad in a way; I guess that’s the same in a lot of different industries. 

Do you have any strong memories relating to the river?

I like being in the water, and always have. I like it the colder the better, and I’m completely up for the sea in the winter, and have done since I was a child. I really enjoy the sensation of water and cold water. Probably swimming in waters in weathers that no-one else would.

  • You can catch Erin performing with the Boat Poets during Totally Thames in September.