As the Olympic Stadium was being assembled a few miles downstream from the Southbank Centre, I proposed the idea of a global gathering of poets to coincide with Olympic year – a poet from every Olympic country, under one roof. Mount Parnassus would be our inspiration, sacred haunt of the god Apollo, spiritual home of the muses and “first poet” Orpheus, and for a week we would aim to recreate the footslopes of that mountain. Over a two-year period we attempted to identify poets from 204 Olympic countries whose presence we hoped would bring energy and integrity to this curated project – some decidedly literary, others from storytelling, oral or performing traditions, some world famous, others barely known outside their own borders (and some hardly known within them either).
It probably goes without saying that this proved to be a colossal administrative and organisational task: ultimately, we have succeeded in approaching 195 living poets and bringing over 145. Obtaining visas for so many visitors was a particular headache at a time when factions within Britain’s insecure coalition government were making loud and not particularly welcoming noises about immigration and refugees. In some senses, that kind of negativity made it all the more important to press ahead. In more anxious moments, I did worry that we were creating an utterly unmanageable nightmare scenario, an amalgamation of the Tower of Babel and the Eurovision Song Contest. But I also clung to the idea that “Poetry Parnassus” could be unique, not just in its size and ambition but in its attitude and ideology. In its daring, in fact. Parnassus thus developed into a week of readings, workshops, discussion, argument and all things poetic, including events such as the Rain of Poems – 100,000 poems dropped from a helicopter on to Jubilee Gardens.
London, it seemed to me, was always going to be the perfect city for such an unprecedented coming together, being home to communities of people from every corner of the globe, offering the possibility of connecting those communities with poets of their own tongue and background, and generating new readerships and audiences beyond the usual literary crowd. The timing also seemed apt.
It is possible that every generation since the beginning of time feels as though it has lived through momentous historical circumstances, and if that is the case then our own age has been no less momentous, with conflicts raging across Africa and the Middle East, religions at loggerheads, economic recession in the west, the prospect of nuclear proliferation, the ongoing devastation of the natural world and the spectre of climate change overshadowing the planet. A good time, in fact, for poetry to maintain its bearings, assert its validity and speak its mind. In an era of so much fragmentation and delineation, Poetry Parnassus sought to overcome barriers, ignore borders and promote the convergence of peoples of every nationality through a shared interest and a common thread.
Poetry, we are told, was part of the original Olympics, and quite possibly an actual event. But in contrast with the great political and financial behemoth into which the modern Olympics has morphed, Parnassus was conceived as a non-commercial, non-corporate and decidedly (at least in terms of medals or “winning”) non-competitive happening. Possibly even something of an anti-Olympics; if we were to have found a line of poetry to summarise Parnassus and draped it around the inside of the Royal Festival Hall, I’m sure it would have been quite different in tone and spirit to Tennyson’s “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”, the phrase engraved at the heart of the Olympic Village as an inspiration to athletes.
Poets have always been signed-up members of the awkward squad, dissenters from the norm and the expected, and poetry has always been a practice under pressure. In terms of popularity, it cannot and would not seek to compete with the immediacy of prose, or the ubiquity of the visual image, or the passive engagement of the electronic media. As poets we are few, and sometimes it feels like a siege. But poetry has existed from the very beginning and has proved itself to be highly adaptive, even if it hasn’t changed much over the course of human history.
Poetry Parnassus runs from June 26 to July 1 as part of Southbank Centre’s Festival of the World, www.southbankcentre.co.uk/parnassus
North Korea, living in South Korea
“When you got to that rank, you could do what you wanted,” says Jang Jin-sung of his old job as state poet for North Korea. The subject of his poetry was always the same – the greatness of Kim Jong-il – but he could pick his style (mostly lyric ode) and he could extemporise the facts. “[The state poets] were the only people allowed to lie – they had special permission to make up things about [Kim’s] greatness. If you look at the state poets they are all different, as none of them has the same information.”
Jang’s earliest promise was at the piano – he was a pupil at North Korea’s most prestigious conservatoire, before reading literature at university in Pyongyang. This led to a job with the Workers’ party, eventually as Kim’s eulogiser. It was a privileged post that afforded him the shelter and sustenance most of the country was denied.
But eight years ago, Jang decided his “moral conscience” no longer permitted him to stay. “Here was the richest man I ever saw, in the poorest country I ever saw.” He defected to South Korea, where he now lives in Seoul under state protection, with government bodyguards. He cannot send word to his family.
He says: “I showed my loyalty through my poetry and I became a traitor through it, too”. In his brutally revealing collection Selling My Daughter For 100 Won, he portrays a blighted North Korea – poverty, corruption, hunger – with a deadpan tone horrifyingly suggestive of an opposite hysteria and desperation. The title poem (see below) is based on a scene witnessed in real life.
Now working at a newspaper in Seoul, Jang remains committed to exposing these problems to South Koreans, who he says do not fully appreciate the reality across the border. To come to London for the Parnassus is “a total move from one side of the world to another, physically and symbolically”. And it also holds special significance, bringing him to the country of Lord Byron – the only western poet he was able to read in North Korea. In their desire for the best things in life, Kim’s courtiers defied the country’s own ban on western literature and printed “a maximum of 100 copies of these foreign books for their own reading pleasure”. Jang wept when he read The Corsair. And though he doubtless looks forward to meeting the living poets, he will also visit Byron’s plaque at Westminster Abbey. NW
‘I Am Selling My Daughter for 100 Won.’
With that placard on her neck
with her daughter by her side
the woman standing in the market place –
she was mute.
People looked at the daughter being sold
and the mother who was selling.
The people cast their curses at them
but keeping her eyes downcast
she was tearless.
Even when the daughter
in her mother’s skirt
that her mother was dying
the woman kept her lips
tight and trembled –
she did not know how to be grateful.
‘I’m not buying the daughter
I want to buy the mother.’
That soldier came by
with a 100 won note in his hand.
The woman who ran off with the money,
she was a mother.
With the money
she got for her daughter
she bought a loaf of bread
and put a chunk of bread
in her daughter’s mouth
as they said goodbye.
‘Forgive me,’ she cried.
She was desolate.
Translated by Shirley Lee. By kind permission of Asia Literary Review
Either the sun or the roosters wake Nasaria Suckoo-Chollette in the morning. On the East End of Grand Cayman where she lives, the sun rises early – as do the island’s stray chickens. “They crow at whatever hour they feel like, as long as there’s a street lamp on,” she says ruefully. In summer she is up by 5am, and then it’s chores, meditation with her husband, and a two-mile walk through the birch trees, birds and butterflies at her back door.
Suckoo-Chollette needs all hours: she is by turns poet, painter, choreographer, with a day job as an education co-ordinator at the Cayman Islands National Museum. She grew up in the capital, George Town, daughter of an Indian-Jamaican father and a Caymanian mother. They did not own a television until she was 11, so she listened to The Clitheroe Kid on the radio, and read everyone from Enid Blyton to Emily Brontë. “I would read a book and my mother would talk to me and I wouldn’t hear her,” she says. “I’m very emotionally affected by what I read.”
To the Parnassus, Suckoo-Chollette is bringing her spiritual poetry, influenced by the Sufi poets Rumi and Hafiz. From slow, sly starts, she catches rhythms and pace, often in juicy phonetic Caribbean cadence. She loves the work of British-Guyanese poets such as John Agard, David Dabydeen and Marc Matthews, and her rollicking children’s poetry is tinged by Louise Bennett and Amina Blackwood-Meeks of Jamaica.
“I love that I’m going to meet all these people, and we’re going to share our work,” she says. “I was jumping up and down in excitement when I heard about this. Oftentimes poets get forgotten.” Suckoo-Chollette has been to London once before, where she met with “wet, drizzly snow in April”. An alumnus of Howard University in Washington, D.C., and of NYU, she is no stranger to big-city life. “There’s theatre happening on every corner, dance, drumming. But ... I can only do those places for a period of time.”
Grand Cayman, glimpsed (and sometime parodied) in her poems with soft breezes, breadfruit, roast corn, draws her back. But it is not a perfect paradise. Population growth means traffic-choked roads, and “You just don’t know everybody anymore … We feel it’s a bit too fast”. She is encouraged, though, by how young people now try to copy her success. “Children say things like ‘you wrote about a turtle, I wrote about an iguana’. They think, ‘You’re a Caymanian, so I guess I can do it too.’” NW
But mama wasn’t there
Still her essence wafted through
As carried on the air
Her windows they were pushed up high
Her curtains blowing through
Two steps bathed in burgundy
Stretch forth to welcome you
The sunlight white cast off the sand
Said Sunday morn to me
Sweet red roses lined the walk way up
Mingled with salty sea
Oh look how full the Dew-plumb tree
And papa by the well
Pomegranates beckon me
Paths lined with pink conch shells
That hole’s still there where Mama poured
The scalding water in
And out ran a burning crab
Claws up with menacing grin
But what I saw that touched me most
I saw my younger self
Well and strong, filled with joy
A vision of good health
Coming from the back kitchen
Hands full with coconut tart
I thank you for this vision Jah
It helps to heal my heart.
Selina Tusitala Marsh
Tuvalu, living in New Zealand
From the Auckland island of Waiheke, where Selina Tusitala Marsh lives, the islands of Tuvalu lies many miles north – past the tip of New Zealand, past Fiji, into a scattering of tiny ocean communities.
Marsh’s grandfather was from Tuvalu, a storyteller. The idea of poetry as a living thing has, she says, been passed down to her: “It sounds a bit fairy-tale-ish but it’s a family legacy that I’ve grown in to.”
There is a complex striving for belonging in her poetry, and she is adept at showing how hard the past is to grasp. “My generation is part of that diaspora generation born away from the islands that our parents came from … being twice removed from the romantic notion of sitting at your grandfather’s knee.”
The issue of language plays up this problem. Her mother spoke “Samlish”, or Samoan English, in a thick accent that sounded foreign to untrained ears: “People would think she’s speaking a different language to me.” In her latest collection, a eulogy to her late mother, she has written a sequence of poems in Samlish. But she is careful to parse the words for her readers through the use of glossaries: “I use Samoan and Tuvalu contextualised; for me that is part of the agenda.”
Racial identity is “definitely one of the overarching themes” of her work. At the University of Auckland, where she lectures in English literature, “the higher up you go … the brown faces disappear quite fast; nobody else in the department of English is of Maori or Polynesian origin.”
There is another “marvellous complication” in Marsh’s genealogy, which will be piqued by her trip to the UK for the Parnassus. In 1839, the Aurora sailed from Britain to Wellington, New Zealand, carrying Selina Tusitala Marsh’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, headed for a new life. He came from Gravesend, Kent, to where she firmly intends to pay homage: “I just want to go there and write a poem to my English ancestor.” And what does she expect of London? “I’m expecting it to be warm; people to be friendly; and I am so looking forward to meeting the other international poets. What an absolute honour.” NW
on his midnight tablecloth
as if Gibran’s Ugly
had flung Beauty’s cloak
across the waters –
its soft light muted
as if star by blue star
remembered the loss of each mother
and lit her face for a thousand years
as if matariki
leapt off calendar pages
turning in my veins
down through my fingers
bending to pluck
a purple orchid.
Matariki refers to the Maori New Year, a time of planting, which begins in June each year
“I’m a very happy person,” Evelyne Trouillot says. “I like to laugh, but sometimes what you see around you makes you want to change things. People who write, we have the opportunity to make beauty out of the misery.”
What she sees in Port-au-Prince, where she was born and raised, is hardship. “In my neighbourhood, you have the middle classes, students, and you know there are also the poor people – in all the neighbourhoods you have little shacks everywhere. [The] poverty is so much you cannot hide it anymore.”
The earthquake in January 2010 tipped the city into permanent disrepair and the damage was compounded by political instability. In her poem “Please”, Trouillot writes: “each single brick/ keeps telling me of a misfortune with/ no end”. Haitian writers, she says, are prepared to put their shoulders against their politicians, to call for change. “[It’s important] to find a way to translate the feelings, the ideas of the people, because otherwise nobody will hear them. I take that responsibility very carefully.”
Trouillot’s father was a lawyer with a large library of books. To his young daughter he said, “You can read whatever you want.” She chose French poets Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard, and herself became a writer, as did her brother and sister (a second brother is an anthropologist). Two days a week she teaches French at the State University, working the rest of the time on consultancy and writing projects. “For me [poetry] was the best way to go deep into feelings. I write novels and short stories but it’s not the same.”
The Parnassus will fulfil a very specific wish created in Trouillot’s hours of reading. She is a huge fan of mystery novels, and hopes to see the archetypal country mansion where English writers tend to kill off their victims. “The main motivation was to see England, not London. I’m a big fan of Agatha Christie … and I want to put a physical space to [her novels]. I’m looking forward to seeing that.”
She almost gave up on the trip, such was the bureaucracy that seemed to stand in her way. There is no British Embassy in Haiti, so there was a circuitous route via Florida, visa paperwork and the UK border agency: “such a long process”. But eventually it came together, and as a reward she will meet a hero, the American poet Kay Ryan, who is also at the Parnassus. “I was so happy when I saw the name of Kay Ryan there, I started shouting. I have her poetry on my bedroom wall because I like her so much.” NW
don’t ask me to speak of
each single brick
keeps telling me of a misfortune with
I don’t recognize the poetry
coming out of my mouth
the words are burdened with the refuse of death
and remnants of grief
they stick to the tips of my fingers
they don’t want to leave me
like a band of spirits that has taken over me
they refuse to go
Don’t speak to me of January 12th
since that day
I’ve become a horse that they have
since that day
I serve them against my will
Translated by Lynn Selby
For a poet living in a country once known principally for its kidnappings, murders and drug trafficking, it is perhaps understandable that Raúl Henao is preoccupied with the moral shortcomings of that nation. Born in the city of Cali, western Colombia, Henao now lives in the country’s second city, Medellín. In the tradition of the poète maudit, living on the fringes of society, Henao declares himself to be an “insular or marginal poet, out of disgust at Colombia’s political and social life”. According to him, “You cannot have lived these past 50 years in Colombia without despairing on behalf of the human condition.”
Although Henao, who has spent time in Venezuela, Mexico and the US, describes the UK as “an insular nation”, he yet considers it “the very embodiment of democracy, both as a political ideal and a form of representative government that is so central to western culture”.
The idea of being in London for Poetry Parnassus, when part of the South Bank of the Thames will be “magically and brilliantly air-bombed with poems” excites him. “I like the idea of the ‘poetic games’ as a spiritual counterpart to the ‘sports games’, similar to what was done in illo tempore in classical Greece.” And what of the real Olympics? The emphasis on the “games as a liberating force” for humankind cannot be other than positive, he says. But poetry is the nobler cause. “It will always be at the forefront of the great spiritual conquests of humanity.” That is why, he says, “A poet is someone who gives life through the written word, not just someone who gives life to the written word.” AS
‘The World Record: International Voices from Southbank Centre’s Poetry Parnassus’, edited by Neil Astley and Anna Selby, is published this month (Bloodaxe Books/Southbank Centre, £10)
There remained not the slightest trace of
me in the room
My body took indistinctly the form of
was in reach
I did not succeed in looking at myself in
I could not even locate the bottom of my
Not one single hair lay on the very white
Then I opened the room door:
I had left myself outside.
© Translation by Raúl Henao, 1998, from ‘La vida a la carta/Life a la carte’, published by Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín, Ed. Hipnos