A Note on Process
On April 1st, the 2017 English Pen Modern Literature Festival takes place (see all the details and link to the English Pen page below). I have already written on here about what a great privilege it is to be asked to create a new work to honour Tibetan poet and writer Tsering Woeser, and also about my own (limited) experience of travelling in Tibet. I thought it might be helpful, in the run-up to the festival itself, to share a short note on my process preparing the new work for the Festival.
First of all, I want to say thank you to Steven J. Fowler and The Enemies Project for allowing me to have this opportunity, and also to Cat Lucas and English Pen who have facilitated my access to Tsering Woeser’s writing and also have made it possible for me to communicate directly with her. My poem took a more emotional turn when I received a letter back from Woeser in response to mine.
In my poem (and performance ) I have attempted to explore an important gesture in Woeser’s poetry – that of ‘scattering lungta’ (‘lungta’ is Tibetan for ‘wind-horses’,) little pieces of coloured paper with prayers printed on them traditionally scattered by Tibetans from high places. More recently, scattering lungta has been done as an act of political protest alongside (or instead of) radical acts of self-immolation. I wrote to Woeser about my sense of these fluttering pieces of paper in her poetry as prayers, poems, protest and a gesture of hope. She agreed, pointing out in addition that lungta are also scattered at road junctions to point the way, and that the higher the mountain from which they are launched, the further and more sacred their journey.
My main process in preparing this work has been to explore the physicality of the gesture. To address the difficulty for me to approach and apprehend Woeser’s use of this gesture in her work (as well as all the other distances between us: language, translation, political context etc), I have worked from a notation of the gesture rather than the gesture itself. I have worked with a dancer friend who is skilled in Labanotation, a system of notation for any kind of movement including dance. My journey of exploring this gesture through the distancing of notation enacts my journey as a western poet to encounter in some way Woeser’s work and experience. En route, the poem attempts to raise the deep question of the relationship between language and physical experience and explores the fragmentation caused by the imposition of an alien language (Chinese) on Tibetan culture. It also attempts to approach the impossibility/possibility of a radical embodiment of symbols of protest such as the extraordinary, courageous Tibetan acts of self-immolations, nearly 150 since 2008.
I will be sharing the poem and the performance at the Modern Literature Festival next week but here is a passage from the poem that Woeser sent to me as part of our correspondence, The Paleness of a Land of Snow, a version based on the translation by A.E Clark (Tibet’s True Heart, Selected Poems of Woeser trans by A.E Clark, Ragged Banner Press, 2008. Note: my small changes to this translation reflect the correspondence between myself and the poet):
Among white flowers, she sees Dorje Phagmo dancing!
No, not white flowers, but the peaks of high mountains.
Among pale flames, she sees Palden Llamo racing!
No, not pale flames, but the valleys between ranges.
Though the great hills ripple unbroken, and mandalas circle the deities,
Though blue lakes checker the land, and trulkus are reincarnated;
Yet the white flowers wither abruptly, and the pale flames are as swiftly extinguished.
She swallows her grief (the poem continues)
Saturday 1 April 2017
Venue One, Rich Mix, near Brick Lane, London
2pm / 4pm / 7.30pm
Entrance is free but please consider joining PEN or making a donation
On 1 April 2017, 30 UK-based writers, poets, novelists, playwrights and artists will join English PEN and the Enemies Project for the second English PEN Modern Literature Festival. Each of the writers will perform new works created in solidarity with some of the incredible individuals supported by English Pen throughout the year through the Writers at Risk Programme.