I’ve been at the Poetry Parnassus the last two days. In the evenings I’ve had to teach, so I sadly missed the Rain of Poems over the Southbank, although Jacqueline Saphra saved me a few of the bookmarks Casagrande dropped from their helicopter.
Just the daytime sessions have been amazing though. I mean, really, this is the kind of event people are going to be talking about for years: if you’re in London and interested in poetry you have to come. When I arrived I got the beautiful Bloodaxe book ‘The World Record’, which I’ve been using as a guidebook - I’m pleased to have my translation of Slovakian poet Katarina Kucbelova in it, and have already made lots of discoveries (I had no idea Karen Solie was so good).
The days have been given over to debate – the ‘World Poetry Summit’ on Tuesday and events curated by PEN yesterday. And it’s been a privilege to hear so many important global voices protesting, arguing, thinking aloud, bearing witness, and, most of all, asserting how important poetry is. Jude Kelly began to week by saying that in countries like Britain we can be very glib – that we ‘snack and browse’ on culture and forget how precious it is to many people, whilst under many regimes poetry can ‘challenge the authority of who speaks.’ It’s a theme that’s been followed through in much of the conversation about money, media and elitism.
The week has made me think about how afraid much of British poetry is of the political. Not because we’re afraid to speak truth – we have the great luxury of freedom of speech – but because we self-censor on aesthetic grounds. We’re scared of asserting or taking a political position or giving a clear, engaged message in poems in case we’re accused of ‘preaching’; of ‘bad poetry.’ So it felt important to hear the Kenyan poet Shailja Patel say we too often label poems that resist as ‘political’ and those that don’t resist as somehow ‘pure’. She told us that all art is political as it takes a position – even if that position is one of comfort with the status quo. I was blown away by her poem ‘For the Formal Masturbators’, beginning: ‘How big is your voice? / Bigger than your dick?’ and asking: ‘If you costed your words and each word cost, would you pay?’
Other stand-out moments for me have been John Kinsella’s anarchist manifesto; the Burmese poet Zarganar reminding us of the cost of freedom of speech with a harrowing account of his years of imprisonment and torture; and the Palestinian poet Radeef Ziadah reading a poem for murdered 9-year old, ‘Hadeel’, asking us to honour the child with ‘a moment of sincere resistance’. Radeef recounted how she wrote her first poem after being told: ‘You deserve to be raped before you have your terrorist children.’ She sees ‘Poetry as the anti-soundbite’; the antidote to news coverage.
And there have been joyous moments as well. I’m ‘buddying’ the lovely Romanian poet Doina Ioanid, and it’s been great to hang out with her, to see my friend Katarina again and to catch up in the beautiful, straggly English roof-garden. There are lunchtime readings there too: I listened to the hypnotic, tremulous voice of Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi and the Finnish poet Pekko Kappi singing ancient spells whilst playing his lyre. I also met the poet representing the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kama Sywor Kamanda, and was shocked when he placed a brick-thick, red bound hardback in front of me which I assumed was some kind of bible, and told me it was his Oevres Poetiques Completes. 1367 pages!!! It puts most of our work-rates into perspective…
I’m reading at ‘New World Order’ tonight at 6.45 – tickets at £5 and Doina is reading too, along with the Belarus poet Valzhyna Mort, South Africa’s Kate Kilalea and India’s Tishani Doshi, and many other amazing poets. Hope to see you there.