Rain of Poems by smokeghost, under a Creative Commons licence
The Southbank Centre in London, with its acres of inevitably grimy concrete, seems an unlikely setting to evoke the slopes of Mt. Parnassus, home of Apollo. Even less, perhaps, the area marked by columns of green-plastic colanders. Yet there, on Monday evening, were the beginnings of a fabulous clustering of poets who had crossed seas and continents, and many borders, to be part of Poetry Parnassus, created for London 2012. One, at least, had encountered severe obstacles: two nights in detention for the Cambodian poet entering the UK, while others still awaited visas.
I find I can’t produce the concise yet comprehensive narrative I had intended. Instead, let me record some remarks, some moments, to give a flavour of the first two days.
Simon Armitage—curator of Poetry Parnassus—during a discussion of poetry and money, recalled being asked to provide a voice-over for an advert. ‘Will I be reading one of my own poems?’ ‘Oh no, the creatives will provide one.’ Katerina Iliopoulou, from Greece, reminded us of Simonides and his patron Scopas, an exemplary tale of money and memory which gave us a classical frame of reference for the discussion of how poets’ work is or might be valued.
Three 25-year-old spoken word artists recollected moments of validation from a sceptical family member after a public reading, and how important that was to a sense of themselves as poets. ‘It’s not the first thing I’d say about myself,’ Raymond Antrobus chipped in, ‘because then you’ve got to take on the other person’s baggage—GCSE English and Shakespeare!’ Kayo Chingonyi said that as a young black man he was often invited to bring his poetry to young black men—which he understood, but perhaps they didn’t always want their own experience reflected back to them; perhaps they’d respond to something quite different, given the chance. These young ones said: as soon as you put your work on the internet, you have an international audience.
In the translation discussion, Pia Tafdrup from Denmark said that being translated was ‘like a love affair’. She now makes little notes and expands references for her translator as she writes her poems—but she never goes back to change things, even if a translator’s query reveals a weakness.
Hamid Ismailov remarked on the impossibility of carrying Mandelstam’s simile of ‘women’s slender white fingers’ into Uzbek: ‘our women are really tough and their palms are broad!’ Also, the triumph of finding an Uzbek sound for Poe’s raven, basing his whole translation around the reverberation that set up.
In the last discussion on Thursday, James Byrne told us about a poetry festival north of Tripoli where he’d seen 300 people make their way down steep slopes to attend. Whereas Zeyar Lynn described the slow steps towards a poetry gathering that exceeded the permitted limit of five people, and the sense of Burma’s emergence from a long isolation.
The Rain of Poems on a happy crowd in Jubilee Gardens was masterminded by Casagrande from Chile: specks in the sky appearing and disappearing beneath the helicopter, gradually materializing as bilingual bookmarks. The jet-lagged Pacific poets told me they had picked up dozens on their early morning walk today—the most literary litter.
A session on poets and the nation this afternoon was crucial to the whole concept of Poetry Parnassus. The poets were keen to disembarrass themselves of all the baggage they found uncomfortable about ‘nations’: their authority, their aggression, their exclusivity. Kapka Kassabova suggested that patriotism could only be sentimental, when it was not dangerous. (This discussion might have taken quite a different turn in Scotland, I thought.) Andrew Motion spoke feelingly of the disadvantages of being a ‘national poet’, but also, at the close, raised the notion that poets might –without being iniquitous—love their countries.
I passed the baton onto Sarah Stewart our project manager for The Written World—she’ll be tweeting from the terraces of Parnassus over the next couple of days. We are also in the business of national representation, but it’s the poem rather than the poet that we focus on. The recurrent themes are family memories, food, weather, and landscape, all things that poets carry with them, wherever they travel or call home.
Dr. Robyn Marsack