Image courtesy of the Southbank Centre.
Today marks the start of the Poetry Parnassus, the largest poetry festival ever staged in the UK, featuring poets from over 200 participating nations. Poet and Artist in Residence at the Southbank Centre, Simon Armitage, who will be leading the event, commented: ‘My hunch is that this will be the biggest poetry event ever – a truly global coming together of poets and a monumental poetic happening worthy of the spirit and history of the Olympics themselves.’ Ahead of the week’s festivities we asked six participating poets for their thoughts on this momentous gathering:
John Kinsella, Australia
I am from rural Western Australia, and strongly believe in the local. I espouse an international regionalism, in which regional integrity and respect are paramount, but threaded together with a consciousness of international conversations in which there is no ‘other’. I believe in consensus and mutual aid, in respect and sharing. This is why something like the ecological panel becomes important for me, because decisions made in, say, a heavily polluting country like Australia affect the lives of peoples on low-lying islands where rising sea levels mean destruction. I lived for some time in the mid-90s on the Cocos Islands, in the Indian Ocean, islands only fifteen metres at their highest (sand-dune) point, and mostly not much above coral reef level. Rising seas will have drastic implications there.
I also espouse an activist poetics – I believe that poetry can bring positive change if people are able to gain access to it and use it as a conduit for dialogue and a prompt to discussion. Further, I think it can be directly interventionist, and single or communal poetic actions (poetry can be so deeply communal) can alter public opinion over, say, an ecological issue, by bringing awareness – but also by ‘discovering’ a language that articulates what is often lost in hard science or diluted by developer-corporate greed into propaganda that passes for journalism. I write figurative poems, I write rants, I write formal poems, I write open form poems. I will speak about these at the session on money and poetry, ecology and poetry, and on the anti-nationalism panel.
Anti-nationalism has been at the heart of my poetics since I was a teenager. I don’t need nation or a flag or a passport to have identity. My identity comes out of the place I write, and the place I feel a responsibility to conserve and write out of, and in some ways write to. I feel in a similar way about the fens of England, where I have also spent much time. There is a conversation to be had between the Wheatbelt and the fens, the dry and the wet.
When I was eighteen, I tried to apply for a Red Cross passport because I didn’t want to belong to any nation. I was refused one, or at least told such a thing wasn’t possible because I had a ‘nation’. A gathering of poets from around the world can be a concentration of intent. With respect to the many people, and indeed many poets, for whom nation is denied or threatened, and I understand their desire to rectify this loss or denial, I think any participation in ‘nation’ is a ceding of one’s own agency, and inevitably the agency of others somewhere somehow. States only serve themselves. When a machine gets big enough, it needs to contradict its own raison d’être in order to perpetuate itself. Poetry is a classless society for me. The fact that I am ‘representing’ Australia is absurd. I am one poet among many, and I live on land stolen from the Ballardong Nyungar people. There would have been many better representatives, but I accepted because I was offered a platform to speak freely, and speak freely I will.
A gathering of poets from around the world can be a concentration of intent. It also suffers from its own ironies – all those air-miles, all that pollution to run such an event. The argument always goes that positive end results outweigh the costs, but is this true? I think not. But given the gathering is an actuality, I hope very much that a sense of international regionalism might be fostered, and a common intent arrived at (while retaining the absolute independence and difference of opinions that make any two poets in the same space!), in terms of the threat to world ecologies and all our culpabilities in this, be we poets or not. It is an opportunity.
Pia Tafdrup, Denmark
Many publishing houses in Europe have closed down over the past few years or simply avoid publishing poetry altogether. The radio does not broadcast much poetry any more and very few poems are published in the newspapers or magazines. Poetry does not matter in many countries in our part of the world. In that light Poetry Parnassus is a surprising gesture!
The sad situation for poetry is paradoxically worst in the big rich countries but luckily it is different elsewhere. This fact can be of greatest significance as poets from all over now meet in If events like this are recurring the relevance will of course be growing. London. I do look forward to taking part in this historical experiment even if is going to be a bit chaotic as well. If events like this are recurring the relevance will of course be growing. I will never forget a school I visited in Mexico where every year ten poets visit on the same day. This event was carefully prepared during the year. More and more pupils were writing poems for every year. Together with the visiting poets the pupils recited their poems. I was amazed and I guess many readers and some poets came out of this initiative. I can only wish Poetry Parnassus good luck.
Nii Parkes, Ghana
Poetry is only part logic; with so much embodied in its sound, hearing the unfamiliar music of other languages can expand a poet’s lexicon dramatically. That is my selfish reason for being excited about Poetry Parnassus. I occasionally experience that pleasure at the African Writers’ Evening but this is on a monumental scale. Of course, I’m humbled to be selected to represent my country as well, but I am aware that an element of chance played a part in that. Like many of the poets selected, I happen to live mainly in the UK and in these times of stressed budgets, we had a natural head start in the selection process. It is one of the things that London is great at; It is one of the things that London is great at; you can find poets and people of myriad origins in this cramped, history-filled city. you can find poets and people of myriad origins in this cramped, history-filled city. But I take the selection seriously; the role of each poet is more of an ambassadorial one, to my mind, than an individual platform. The average reader rarely thinks of poetry outside of the language they speak and write and Poetry Parnassus emphasizes the existence of other poetries. As a reader of poetry in translation myself, the entire event promises to be a feast; I hope to meet poets I have read in dribs and drabs from translation magazines and – with luck – share a lot more through conversations. That is where the true harvest lies – I give a little bit of Ghana to the world and take back seeds from the rest of the world. Poetry Parnassus is a chance for culture to take its rightful place in the building of a community of world citizens and a stage for London and its visitors to hear some of the world’s most renowned poets live in the same place.
Évelyne Trouillot, Haiti
What is it about the idea of a group of writers and poets coming together for a week at the Poetry Parnassus that makes me think of drinking a cup of coffee while listening to the rain fall?
First, I will tell you about the long and tedious process to obtain a British visa, the obligation for me to leave my country and go to the US, to mail my documents and wait for them to return. I could tell you about the exasperated ideas that went at first through my mind; then the more sober one of power relations, colonization, all that divides and conquers; and my constant urge to revolt against domination of any kind.
I could also tell you about world borders and how one perceives A week of exchanges and readings, not to forget the world as it is but maybe to play with the idea of the infinite promises that words convey. them depending on the type of passports one carries. Are borders flimsy lines between two countries? Or places of anxiety where human beings await their fates in fear of humiliation? Going from the long and intimidating stares, through the unacceptable questioning before facing the final judgment. I could tell you about those without passports afraid to be deported. I think about the different roads that each of us will take to arrive in London.
Maybe, I could also tell you about the numerous obstacles between human encounters, about the wars that leave so many of us indifferent, about the children who are still dying of hunger while others spend thousands of dollars, on gadgets that will last as long as the latest fads.
Maybe I could tell you all that but there is something about the idea of a group of writers and poets together for a week that conveys images of richness and bleakness, of solidarity and solitude, of contentment and confrontation. Strong images of humanity not necessarily at its best, but at its most intense expression. Displays of love and laughter, of hatred and despair, of rage and pure joy.
There is something about a gathering of 150 poets and writers that makes me think about justice and hope, about the possibility of seeing the world differently. A week of exchanges and readings, not to forget the world as it is but maybe to play with the idea of the infinite promises that words convey.
There is something about the idea that is as strong as a fresh cup of coffee and the renewed urge to write while listening to the rain fall.
Ágnes Lehóczky, Hungary
Madness or magic? A zone of timelessness squeezed into seven days? A final intercontinental banquet just before Armageddon? Or is this Omphalos, the new navel of the poetry world? Babel, chaos, euphoria, amnesia? A week of wordlessness? One infinite dramatic monologue? Dialogue, discourse, recognition? Quiet corner talks and self-reflections? A global celebration of words’ legitimacy, enduringness, indestructibility? The carnival of coherence? Or the festival of babble? The feast of stutter? The ball of silence? A universal meeting of today’s mundane magi (this time no magic?)? In fact the miracle today, I think, is the mere presence of other tongues; the absent ones, their daily re-births, the still-born ones (is there such a language?). Of tongueless passers-by? Both living and the dead? It’ll be a language of worldlessness spoken by 250 vagabonds? Parnassus, a war scene or a peace-conference? Are we going to survive it? What do I expect? Spectacle? Miracles? To bump into Sappho, Eliot, W. S. Graham or Ágnes Nemes Nagy? Would I freak out at the sight of an old Beckettian face? Or helicopters taking off turning into Pegasus (lots of them in air), astronauts, thunder and lightning of poems dropped by Poseidon, acrobats, Dionysus’s rituals, the poets turning into Appollo’s archaic torsos (certainly by the end of the week), endless feasts of words? To forget my mother tongue? To pick up a new one by the end of the week? Parnassus, a war-scene or a peace conference? Are we going to survive it? This poetic cacophony, grandiose heteroglossia? An all-embracing bacchanalia on Mount Helicon (if Muses really exist)? Or a week of intellectual askesis? One colossal airless symposium with countless bottles of mineral water? Will we turn into statues of salt, unremembered, is what I mean? What will Delphoi’s Oracle have got to foretell? Will it predict peace or further wars of words about the dot on the iota? And who will win these Pythian games, who will be the victor of these psycho-linguistic walks, wrestling dragons, minotaurs, blindfold meanderings into cultural-linguistic labyrinths of (what already is labyrinthine) Southbank? Inferno, purgatory, or week-long paid lunch bags, take away dinners: paradise? And who will translate our ‘raved’ ecstasy into elegant hexameters? Will there be a washing machine somewhere? Who knows. And where will be the next one held? Poetry Parnassus on the Moon? Or somewhere in another universe?
Elisa Biagnini, Italy
I was quite surprised when I got the invitation to partecipate to Poetry Parnassus: how representative am I of the poetry of my country? The perspective to talk about poetry with writers from all over the world is quite something. I look forward to listen to Walcott reading his verses as well as to a poet from some remote island I didn't know about before. I like the combination of thematic readings along with workshops and poetry installations: a very democratic way to approach poetry! In my country, the country of Dante and Leopardi, it’s very difficult to organize poetry events, to make people understand that poetry can make their lives better, making them deeper and happier. I am sure that London will create a great opportunity for this! ■
For full details of the Poetry Parnassus please visit the Southbank Centre’s website, here.