As the biennial Poetry International festival gets underway in London with the theme Imagining Peace, participants discuss its emphasis on the Middle East.
Emphasis on Arab world at London poetry festival
Some of the biggest names in Arabic poetry are in London this week for the biennial Poetry International festival, which focuses this year on work coming from the Arab world. The celebrations at the city's Southbank Centre kicked off last night with an event called Times They Are A Changing: The Middle East Meets the UK, which featured poets from Syria, Jerusalem and Beirut reading their work alongside British writers.
The award-winning British poet Fiona Sampson, who edits the journal Poetry Review and whose latest collection, Rough Music, has been shortlisted for both the Forward and Eliot prizes this year, was suggested for the event by the American-Palestinian poet Fady Joudah. Talking to The National before the reading, Sampson expressed her admiration for the way poets are revered in Arab countries, and for the poets' work.
"We're part of a very realist tradition in Britain," she said. "We tend to tell you what we feel or tell you what's out there in the world. Arabic poetry is much more flexible; the boundaries of what it [addresses] are much more fluid, much more dreamlike. It's characteristically very beautiful." Even when it's not read in the original language, she said, "so much survives the process of translation. There's still something very evocative and strong there."
Another difference she pointed to was popular perception: whereas in countries such as the UAE, poetry was revered as one of the most prominent of the arts, she said, in Britain it was often seen as "the most flowery and the least responsible" - an idea she, not surprisingly, rejected.
Joudah can hardly be accused of being irresponsible: when he's not translating the work of Mahmoud Darwish or winning awards for his own poetry he's an emergency physician in Texas who has also worked for Médecins Sans Frontières in Zambia and Darfur. Like Sampson, he believes in the power of poetry in translation.
In 2007 Sampson reviewed a volume of Darwish's poetry, The Butterfly's Burden, in a translation by Joudah, who invited her to talk alongside him at the Southbank Centre in appreciation of her sensitive criticism. "It was so spot-on that even Darwish himself was touched by it," Joudah told me when we spoke over the telephone. "It's a review that does not concern itself with history and geography as much as it concerns itself with the general sensibility of Darwish's art."
Joudah warns against reading all Palestinian poetry as inherently political, and instead asks readers to focus on the language and the personal vision of the writers. "I believe very strongly in the quality and excellence of Palestinian art," he said, "and I think that world literature can only stand to enrich itself by being exposed to it, just as Palestinian literature is richer from being exposed to other literatures in the world."
The festival includes readings and talks by poets from 31 countries including China, Iraq and several former Soviet states. Among the big names involved are the English writer Simon Armitage, the British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and the Syrian poet Adonis, who has been tipped as a future Nobel winner.
The UAE is represented by Nujoom al Ghanem, the Emirati poet and film director. On November 6 she will read alongside the Iraqi poet and novelist Fadhil al Azzawi, and Ramsey Nasr, a writer, actor and director of Palestinian heritage who is the poet laureate of the Netherlands.
Many of the poets will read their work both in its original language, and in translation. Sampson was excited about the cultural crossovers that the audience would be able to experience. "Poetry allows us to see how people in other cultures are thinking and feeling; how they imagine the world," she said. "It can open a window on to a national psyche. I've always passionately believed that British poetry gains from reading poetry in translation. It's really good for writing, as well as learning about human experience."
Joudah pointed out that the availability of translated works could be important creatively, too. "One can easily look back at history, contemporary or remote," he said, "and realise that there is no literature without translation, without borrowing."
He believes that the political implications of this effect are "so minuscule that it would be near delusional to talk about it", but the festival's curator, Rachel Holmes, disagreed: "What poetry brings to us is the individual perspective; that in my mind is political. It's how we find common humanity."
The reason she had called this year's festival Imagining Peace, she said, was because "it is not a romantic notion or an abstract concept to think that poets can make an intervention in thinking about and imagining the future. Poets have this great ability to imagine the conditions of what a future might look like, because if we can't do that we can't create a future that we want to live in."
Many of the festival's standout events are linked to political and geographical themes. Yesterday afternoon, the Iraq war veteran Brian Turner read from his new work Phantom Noise, which deals brutally with the reality of the conflict he was part of in 2003. Next Saturday, there will be a special evening dedicated to the post-Holocaust poet Paul Celan, which will include readings, performances of songs based on his minimalist poetry and extracts from Michael Nyman's films about Auschwitz set to a live score.
Another event focuses on poetry emerging from post-communist Eastern Europe, including the Czech Sylva Fischerová, the Slovenian Tomaž Šalamun and the Estonian Kristiina Ehi. Holmes is interested in initiating dialogue between poets who have lived through times of great political upheaval and those who are still doing so.
"We thought that would never end," she said of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, "because when you're in a situation you think how could this possibly ever be overcome." Because Palestinian poets were cut off from the rest of the Arab world, she thought it was important that the poets who would be reading during Poetry International should have the chance to interact.
At a launch event, a few days before Poetry International officially kicked off, Holmes gave a speech in which she quoted Ted Hughes, who curated the Southbank Centre's first international poetry festival in 1967. "However rootedly national in detail it may be," he said, "poetry is less and less the prisoner of its own language. Perhaps it is only now being heard for what, among other things, it is - a universal language of understanding."
The Poetry International festival Imagining Peace is on at the Southbank Centre in London until November 7. For details , visit www.southbankcentre.co.uk