Winning the £20,000 Edwin Morgan Poetry Prize in 2018 changed Roseanne Watt’s life. Her debut collection Moder Dy was launched at last May’s Ullapool Book Festival and since then she has read from it at festivals in Indonesia, Brussels, Latvia and Berlin. Before this year’s Ullapool festival was cancelled, she was due to return as one of four writers shortlisted for this year’s Highland Prize.
Born and raised in Shetland, Watt was encouraged in her wish to write poetry in her native dialect of Shaetlan and to combine it with her love of film (check out her excellent film-poetry on https://vimeo.com/roseannewatt) by Kathleen Jamie, her creative writing tutor and PhD supervisor at Stirling University (who is also on the Highland Prize shortlist).
In “Salt I de blöd,” the native Shaetlan speaker tells her “Dese wirds / ir my hansel tae dee.” A gift, in other words. Not an oddity, not something to ashamed of, not something to be quietly dropped. And that’s what her book is too: a gift that, with the help of a generous glossary, and some of what Watt calls “uneasy translations” into English opens up another language so that by its end, when you read the title poem, both Shaetlan and English are run down on either side of the page, neither of them a translation, both given the same weight.
Shaetlan itself contains some words from the old language of Norn, which died out on the islands in the 18th century. Moder Dy (“Mother Wave”) itself is just such a phrase and refers to an undercurrent believed to run east from Foula, taking Shetland fishermen back home. No islander today would know how to “read” the sea surface in order to latch onto it, and despite the testimony of past generations of fisherfolk, there is no conclusive scientific proof that it exists. As a metaphor for the impulse behind Watt’s poetry, though – a half-remembered undercurrent pulling one back home – it’s just about perfect.
Moder Dy by Roseanne Watt is published by Polygon, price £8.99.