A Noisy Silence

(The following blog post first appeared on http://torch.ox.ac.uk/very-noisy-silence)

It could hardly be more fitting. I arrived in Oxford to take up my role as poet-in-residence for the Post-War: Commemoration, Reconstruction, Reconciliation Mellon-Sawyer Seminar Series 2017-8 on Remembrance Day. The 11th November is observed in many Commonwealth countries as a day to recall the end of the First World War. Hostilities officially ceased at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Saturday 11th November 2017 was also the first occasion on which I could join the series. And so it was that one of my first acts in my new residency was to participate in a ritual, an act of group commemoration, as I sat with the other participants of a workshop to observe the conventional two-minute silence.

Sat. The question had been posed earlier to the group as to whether we wanted to sit or to stand to observe the two minutes. There was a long pause as we grappled with the question. What difference to our internal or external attitude would be made by deciding to sit rather than stand? The series of questions and thoughts that bombarded me in those split seconds of deciding how to answer this question were prophetic. The subsequent hours and weeks have been a matter of confronting a whole series of similar questions about my role and work as a poet for this series. But in that moment we were all posed the same question – what form should our commemoration take? And what was the significance of our choice?

In the end, conscious of my new, unfamiliar role as poet for the series, I felt I could not leave the question unanswered. ‘Sit’, I said. I was speaking for myself initially but as no-one else spoke, it became a response on behalf of the group, leaving me to wonder uneasily what right had I to make that choice? I chose to sit for a number of reasons. I am more conscious of my own body when I sit as it recalls my meditative practice and I have found a consciousness of my own flesh is an important route to re-engage feelings, and thus empathy and compassion. It also recalls for me sitting to write, to read and to listen to stories. Perhaps sitting also feels more provisional, less of a final decision, less easy to read. I remember my father, an atheist, sitting in church as a halfway, ambiguous position; somewhere between kneeling to pray and walking out. Is sitting an act of refusal or an act of respect? For me it is an act of waiting and willingness to discover. These are personal meanings and may have had quite other meanings for other members of the group but once I had spoken my preference aloud, it took on an authority, a decision for the group. Now it was out there, I had to own it.

This entire process, the work of a fraction of a second, turned out to be a foretaste of the questions and challenges that now seem so crucial to me as a poet for the series. What authority could I possibly have to write about such enormous and crucial questions? What forms and practices could I use? Was it right to use existing forms or would something new have to be forged so that the poetry coming out of the series could form a part of the whole thinking, interrogating, critical process? Were there any rational answers to these questions or would I find my responses, like the Dadaists, in the absurd and the wildly irrational?

As we sat in silence for the two minutes, I found myself struggling with other questions. Who was I thinking about in these two minutes? From which conflict? Was I remembering those who had died or also those who had been killed? Friend or enemy? And was what was I supposed to be feeling – and for what purpose? And most crucially, should I be looking backwards or forwards to current situations of conflict, trauma and suffering?

That silence became a very noisy silence. So many questions. So many voices. Some overlooked, forgotten or suppressed. Others commodified or sentimentalised. What kinds of response – poetically, personally, politically – could keep alive all of these voices? And what kinds of narrative could be shaped to make transparent all the acts of selection and repression that go into forming remembrance, personal and public?

Something else happened as I sat there. It was impossible to keep out my own memories, my personal grief for the loss of my mother who died only a few weeks before the beginning of the seminar series. Grief wells up into any space in my day at the moment anyway, and so of course, it flooded into this two minutes of silence. I couldn’t help wondering, what was the relationship between this and my participation in public acts of remembrance? Was it a continuum, with personal grief and individual acts of commemoration at one end and public commemoration at the other, or were they radically different things? If the latter, would there be any value in moving collective acts of commemoration closer to personal grief or would that be a reactionary flight from the transformative potential of group remembrance?

And so now, a few weeks later, I sit at my desk; keen to start making work for this residency but revolving these questions in my mind. It is tempting to try to capture all the questions and thoughts that have come up subsequently from listening to the various speakers who are part of this series and taking part in the debate. Or to venture some answers to them here. To set out my poetics for this residency. But that would be to anticipate the journey. My real challenge as poet for the series, I suspect, is to try to develop a poetry for activating these questions in ways that are different from the other media of the series. My work is to create – attempt to create – an experience of this profound questioning we are engaged in, not merely to describe it or venture some of my own conclusions. To paraphrase the words of American poet Jorie Graham, it is to ensure that the silence the poetry leaves behind it is not the same as the silence it came from.

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Better to remember or forget? Post-conflict commemoration, reconciliation, reconstruction

Commemoration/s

I am very proud and excited to announce that I have the privilege to be working as poet-in-residence for the Post-War: Commemoration, Reconstruction, Reconciliation Mellon-Sawyer Seminar Series running in 2017-18.* The Mellon-Sawyer Post War Conference series, organised jointly by Oxford University and Oxford Brookes University, involves a number of guest speakers and seminars looking at how we, as individuals and as the ‘public’, view commemoration, reconciliation and reconstruction post war and trauma.

In this blog post, I want to say a bit about the series itself – to set the scene. In future posts, I hope to engage more directly with the ideas and work coming out of the series and the dialogue it stimulates.

The series itself brings together academics from many different fields: politicians, people who have played a role in peace negotiations and leading figures from cultural policy and the charitable sector.  They will be joined by novelists, poets, artists and musicians whose work has marked war in some way. You can find out more about through its twitter account @PostWarOx.

Some of the questions to be explored in the Series include:
• Who is commemoration for and why?
• How does commemoration lead to reconstruction and reconciliation?
• What is the future of commemoration?

Equally important questions are WHO is remembered and for what purpose? And by extension, who or what is forgotten?

This first term of the series focuses on textual commemoration: subsequent terms will focus on monumental and aural commemoration. (Or, as in my title, commemoration/s to emphasise the plurality of what I hope to be exploring). Some of the events in the series so far have been an ‘In Conversation’ event between Aminatta Forna, novelist and memoirist, and Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature in English, University of Oxford, discussing how the former’s work has portrayed conflict and post-conflict and exploring the role of literature in offering new perspectives on commemoration, reconciliation and reconstruction. There have also been two panel-led workshops, one on poetry and life-writing, the other on conflict and community. In the first workshop, speakers who work at the intersection of literature, human rights, foreign policy and peace initiatives – Dunya Mikhail (poet), Philippe Sands QC (barrister and writer), Lord Alderdice (director of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict) and Professor Jeremy Treglown (Senior Research Fellow, Institute of English Studies, University of London) –  led a discussion on the role of poetry and life-writing in post-war healing. The second workshop explored the special commemorative needs that arise in the wake of civil wars and terrorism with speakers Rachel Seiffert (novelist), Professor Lyndsey Stonebridge (professor of Modern Literature and History, UEA), Professor Harvey Whitehouse (professor of Social Anthropology, University of Oxford) and Elleke Boehmer (see above). There is an opportunity to engage virtually with some of these events by podcast, subscribe here: http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/series/commemoration-reconstruction-reconciliation

Taking up this residency now has special resonance for me as I grapple with some of these issues on a very personal level in the immediate aftermath of losing my mother,  and so I am keen to direct my focus outwards as well as inwards to explore what poetry can bring to such complex individual and social matters as grief, dealing with loss, reconstruction, mobilising to action  – and perhaps, most challenging, reconciliation post-conflict. I chose as my image for this post not a picture of poppies but of grass and fallen leaves. When the poppy, beautiful as it is, was chosen as a symbol to memorialise a particular war,  other plants growing up alongside it were not chosen. That, right there, will be one of my starting points for exploration.

 

 

 

(*The Series is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in memory of John E. Sawyer.)

 

 

 

 

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Dissent: one of London’s great traditions

London’s tradition of dissent

(photo taken by me on a march last year)

 

One of my favourite words, Dissent is a sentiment or philosophy of non-agreement or opposition to a prevailing idea (e.g. a government’s policies). I am very much looking forward to reading some London-based poems of dissent as part of the exciting Worm Wood project: a rich collaboration between artists Tereza Stehlikova and S J Fowler, which has produced multiple events, an exhibition, a film and publications in response to Kensal Green Cemetery and its disappearing London context. For more info, see http://www.stevenjfowler.com/wormwood

The event I am privileged to be joining is on Thursday 24th August 7pm at Kensal Green Dissenters’ Chapel, free entry. It is part of the Worm Wood project and features a number of exciting London writers and poets responding to their city. http://www.theenemiesproject.com/wormwoodview

For many years I lived in London and taught in north-west London, not far from Kensal Green. I am therefore excited to have the opportunity to join this event and to read some poems based on working conditions in early 20th century London. Using material from the suffragette-inspired Women’s Industrial Council, and from recent reports into poverty and gender, the poems attempt to voice a tradition of dissent, although a political dissent rather than the religious dissent of the Chapel. (These poems were included in The Frock Enquiry, published by Annexe and available here for free download, if any reader is interested http://buff.ly/2eDNm5s

 

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Performing ‘Wind-horse’, a poem for Tsering Woeser

The video of my performance for Tsering Woeser can be found at the link below. (Please see my previous post for links to all the other wonderful performances and details for how to join English Pen or support its Writers At Risk programme).

In an earlier post, I wrote about my preparation for this year’s English Pen Modern Literature Festival and the creation of a new piece of poetry in honour of Tsering Woeser. In the poem, I attempt to explore the Tibetan custom of scattering lungta (lit. wind-horse), using the distancing of notation as a way of inscribing into the work the complexities of a western poet trying to encounter in some way Woeser’s work and experience. The tradition of scattering tiny pieces of paper or cotton printed with prayers has meanings and significance for Tibetans that I can only begin to apprehend and is held in Tibetan muscle memory in a way my European body can never know.

It was with some trepidation, therefore, that I approached the performance itself. Despite all the difficulties of appreciating this gesture, I still hoped somehow to embody it – take the gesture into my own body – as part of my performance, first by re-learning it from the notation then finally performing it by scattering fragments of the poem itself (along with a handful of Tibetan lungta) into the audience.  In my rehearsing of the gesture prior to the performance sometimes it had worked but more often it had gone wrong. Lungta really need the air, ideally the wind and a high place, to make them fly. Scattering them with my inexperienced hand indoors too often resulted in them dropping back to my feet, onto my head and once, disastrously, back over my shoulder.

Also, during the days leading up to the festival, a close member of my family became seriously ill and so on the day itself, my body felt freighted with tiredness and personal sadness. Would it be possible to scatter lungta, let them fly, and somehow make a connection with the audience in the room in this act of honouring Tsering Woeser? Would it be possible for me in London to make a meaningful gesture of solidarity and support with Tibet?

In order to reach the audience, I had to step forward out of camera shot so the final scattering is not captured in the video.  This feels appropriate as my performance of the gesture needed the energy that comes from living bodies sharing the moment together. It is not for me to say whether it worked or not. You can perhaps just hear the response of the audience at the very end. Beautifully, the video does capture the image of lungta scattered by a monk in Tibet, included at the top of the page.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k7zhtY9Y-7Y

I now have another question. If it was possible, even in the most complicated of ways, to connect with this gesture through live performance, what does that mean for the poem in its written form? Can it exist meaningfully in a form that sits on the page? I will be exploring that challenge going forward. But in the meantime, I find my twitter feed filled with news of the difficulties and oppressions that are still being experienced by Tibet and its people, and the radical protests Tibetan people continue to make. I also read of the other oppressions experienced by writers around the world as they try to shed light on injustice. I hope that as a result of this year’s Modern Literature festival, more people will be aware of their plight and will support organisations such as Amnesty, Pen International and English Pen.

Finally, I want to pay tribute to the courage of Tsering Woeser and to thank her for her powerful and beautiful words. It has been an enormous privilege to get to know her work better and to take a part in honouring her.

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All the performances from 2017 English Pen Modern Lit Fest

Last Saturday, 1st April 2017, I had the privilege of attending and performing at the second English Pen Modern Literature Festival, curated by Steven J Fowler. I have already written about this festival and my preparation for it: I had the honour of creating a new piece of work to celebrate Tsering Woeser and will write a separate note about my own experience of performing. But I wanted first to write about the day as a whole and to add my thanks to English Pen, Steven J Fowler and all the remarkable poets and performers who created new work for writers at risk around the world. Sadly, due to family illness, I was unable to stay for the whole day but I am now slowly watching each of the filmed performances. Slowly, because each one of them needs to be processed, digested, made sense of – and they deal with material and experiences that are hard to engage with. Vahni Capildeo includes, in her reading, her thoughts about what she feels it is appropriate to make poetry out of – and what it is not. Hard, challenging issues when it comes to writing about other people’s oppression and suffering. Here are all of the performances from this year’s, each one dedicated to a writer (or writers) at risk. I was keen to join English Pen to support their work after last year’s festival. You may feel inspired by these performances to do the same.

https://www.englishpen.org/campaigns/english-pen-modern-literature-festival-2017-videos/

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Getting Ready for English Pen Modern Literature Festival 2017

Lungta (Wind-horse)

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)

 

The Festival

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.

https://www.englishpen.org/event/english-pen-modern-literature-festival-2017/

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#Vispo Opening Event: New collaborations

Photograph by Alexander Kell

Photograph by Alexander Kell

The opening of the Museum of Futures Visual Poetry Event was celebrated by the Futures Camarade: a collaborative poetry performance curated by Steven J Fowler, The Enemies Project.  Pairs of poets performed new collaborative work created for the occasion. The Museum of Futures was packed for the opening night to enjoy a first look at the exhibition and to appreciate the poetry collaborations.The performances were wonderfully varied, eccentric, funny, serious and creative! Videos of all the performances and some beautiful photographs of the event, taken by Alexander Kell, can be found here:

http://www.theenemiesproject.com/futures/

 

Two Metres

…of soil by Lucy Furlong and Susie Campbell

I was lucky enough to be paired with Lucy Furlong. Our piece was both a celebration of soil – its richness and its fundamental importance to sustaining life – and an engagement with how easily it can be neglected, exploited and damaged through activities such as fracking. It was important to us to create for the audience some direct experience of the smell, texture and properties of soil both through utilising a layered/unfractured poetic form and through bringing ‘two metres’  of soil into the venue. Two metres is the average depth of top soil in the UK and is one of the reasons why graves are traditionally dug to a depth of six feet. As you will see from the video, it was not actually two metres but it was certainly nearly ankle-deep. We chose to buy a bag of top soil rather than dig our own to avoid accidentally killing any worms or beetles or roots inhabiting garden soil. After performance, the audience were invited to take away a handful of soil (in a recyclable paper envelope!) sown with the seeds of bee-friendly wild flowers and encouraged to plant in their own gardens or an appropriate public space (we donated the rest to a local pub garden then did some ‘guerrilla gardening’ in the neighbourhood with the remaining crumbs of earth. Hopefully by the summer, those wild flowers will be springing up all over London.)

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