(Photograph by Luca Marella)
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.
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.