What an amazing, talented and diverse line-up of poets at the Royal Festival Hall as part of the London Literature Festival and Poetry International! I felt very fortunate to see two of my personal favourites Canadian Anne Carson and American Claudia Rankine, as well as the Icelandic writer I know more for his novels Sjón and recent discovery from Trinidad Vahni Capildeo
Sadly, Iraqi poet Choman Hardi could not fly out of her country, as the airport was closed because of a crackdown against the Kurds, but she had recorded some poems for the event. It was also an opportunity to become acquainted with three new to me poets: Native American Joy Harjo, Indian poet Arhundhati Subramaniam and Chinese poet Yang Lian.
Two hours of poetry just flew by. Each poet was so different, there was no chance of being bored. All of them chose quite political poems to read, so there was a common thread. After all, it’s not easy being a ‘truth- teller’ in these times…
Joy Harjo was a revelation: making use of the spoken tradition of the Creek Nation, she sang her poetry in a mix of English and her tribal language, with a sense of freedom and extravagance which is not at all common in poetry readings I have previously attended. The poem to get rid of fear particularly struck a chord with me – you can read it here.
By contrast, Arundhati Subramaniam was full of wry humour and an understated irony very reminiscent of the British tradition. She has anticipated my surprise at her style (she must have heard it many times before) and replied with this wonderful poem To the Welsh Critic Who Doesn’t Find Me Identifiably Indian.
Sjón was adept at making Icelandic sound very melodious – and then read the English translations as well. His poems were restrained, minimalistic, almost Japanese in their conciseness and slant meaning, with close observation of nature as a metaphor for human unrest.
Vahni Capildeo was the exact opposite – a gush of emotion, opening up her guts and showing us all the vulnerability, passionate and playful and incantatory. Her experimental style must be very hard to read out loud, but she did an excellent job of it.
Yang Lian recited from a long narrative poem in Chinese, while Stephen Watts read it in English translation. It struck me how much more concise Mandarin is, but it is hard to listen to long pieces of poetry in that language, as the syllable sounds are quite limited in number, so there is a lot of apparent similarity, yet they differ by tones, which makes for an interesting sound. And no obvious falling tone at the end of a sentence, as we have in Western languages. It was also fascinating to see him referencing Syracuse and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War – although he used it to reference that contradiction and tension between internal democracy and external empire-building impulses, which has characterised so many imperialistic nations since.
Anne Carson read an essay which she described as ‘it sounds like prose but, as you know, poetry is also a mentality’. She has sometimes been described as a poet more admired than understood, and some complain that she is too intellectual, her allusions to Ancient Greek myths and German philosophers are too dense. But her poetry (and her experiments at the very boundaries of what one might consider poetry) are all about fragmentation, about trying and failing, about pinning down the elusive, about making unexpected connections. I don’t expect to like everything of hers, but she always makes me work – and makes me think – and puts wonderful ideas into my head.
Finally, Claudia Rankine read a fragment from her truly seminal work Citizen (which has changed the whole conversation about race in the US) and also from Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. She has one of those grave, impressive voices – just what I expected from her.
One slight regret: that the hall was not full to bursting, as such a fantastic display of talent warranted. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s event later that evening was sold out. Clearly, poetry still has a way to go before it reaches the popularity of politics. Or, as one person behind me said: ‘If this had taken place in New Zealand, it would have been standing room only. But you Londoners are spoilt with too many great events.’
I wasn’t allowed to take any pictures – and with those low light levels, my mobile phone would have struggled anyway. So I just included some studio portraits of the poets instead.