A Place For Words: The River Don, Sheffield

What happened?

Chris Jones is a Sheffield based poet with a long-standing interest in, and passion for, the River Don which runs through the city. In 2007 Off The Shelf literature festival commissioned Chris to write a piece to be situated by the river, signaling the start of a walk connecting the city centre to Meadowhall along the River Don. The commission was funded by the developers Artisan and forms part of the festival's Text in the City programme. Chris wrote a series of haikus and tankas celebrating the river, which will be blasted into sandstone as part of a new build development next to the river. The piece will be unveiled in late summer 2008.

Chris is aware that he wrote a more idealised view of the River Don than he might have done for a different audience and method of publication. To write about the Don as it stands now – full of rubbish from the big flood last year – and situate that as a permanent piece of art, would in one sense mark and preserve part of the river's heritage but in another sense brand the place in a way that might negatively influence its renewal and development. It is a difficult line to walk for a writer – balancing the freedom of responding to a place even if that response is negative, with an awareness of your audience, the future possibilities of a place, and who is funding the project. Chris consciously wrote about the river in quite a general sense, thinking about its qualities of reflection, the possibilities of otters returning one day, whilst at the same time marking its industrial and social heritage.

Project Gallery

River Don

Text from one of Chris's poems projected onto an industrial building next to the River Don

Chris Jones’ commissioned poem:

Swing the water’s door
on blue sky, purling brickwork,
and sun-shoaled windows.
Buoyed on these midstream
popples, I dream an otter.
Its head is a nib
writing light, throat quicksilver.
Whiskers bristle out winter.
Black bricks and smoke drift;
the prows of lit factories
rumble downriver.
Squat, green bulbs, bitter
as smoke, I offer you figs
from Sheffield’s east end.
They have exile’s toughened flesh
and skin; it’s deep-cut bloodline.
Your small hands ripple
the washed bullion of stars,
this moon’s scratched pewter.

What made it work?

  • Selecting a writer with an existing connection to and interest in the place he was commissioned to respond to. This commission has become part of a wider body of work about the River Don.
  • A clear brief: Chris knew exactly where his poem would go and how much space there was for him to fill.
  • The writer's awareness of his audience and the constraints of working in this way.

Further information and links:

« Back to Case Studies, Literature and public art (permanent outcomes)