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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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Woeser, Tibetan Poet

Tibet

Tibet

In my previous blog post, I wrote about the honour of being asked to celebrate the work of Tibetan poet Tsering Woeser for this year’s Modern Literature Festival (held in conjunction with English Pen Writers At Risk Programme and curated by Steven J. Fowler), Rich Mix, 1st April 2017. Over the next few weeks, I am going to write about Woeser and her work, and also about my own process in preparing for the festival.

Woeser

Woeser was born in Llasa, Tibet. Her father was half ethnic-Chinese and was an officer in the PLA (People’s Liberation Army). He and his family were moved to a part of Sichuan when Woeser was only four years old. Woeser, therefore, grew up speaking Chinese and it was only when she was admitted to a College minority nationalities programme, that she really started to question her identity and her Tibetan heritage.

As an adult, she moved back to Llasa and started to study the history and culture of her land of birth. She soon realised that the official story she had been told – of a Chinese ‘liberation’ of Tibet  – was a lie, concealing a brutal conquest.

She had already been building up a reputation as a writer and journalist but now she started to document the repression suffered by Tibetan people. This brought her into conflict with the authorities and her book Notes on Tibet was banned. She was dismissed from her job and assigned to ‘political re-education’.

She moved back to Beijing, but she continues to write about Tibet in poetry, essays and blogposts. In mainland China, her books are banned and her blog shut down (although she was able to move it to an overseas server) however she has still become widely known as a respected writer on Tibet. She is kept under surveillance, her movements have been restricted and she has, at times, been placed under house arrest.

For more information about her, and the other writers supported by English Pen’s Writers At Risk programme, see https://www.englishpen.org/campaigns/international/writers-at-risk/

 

Woeser’s Work

It has been a great privilege to get to know some of Woeser’s writings, including her online journalism as well as some of her poetry and her powerful book on the significance of self-immolation as a form of extreme protest in Tibet.

I will write more about her work in my later posts about my own preparation process, but examples of her writing in English translation by A. E. Clark can be found on the Ragged Banner Press website (see link above), including the following poem:

A Sheet of Paper Can Become a Knife

A sheet of paper can become a knife
—A rather sharp one, too.
I was only turning the page
When the ring finger of my right hand got sliced at the knuckle.
Though small, the sudden wound oozed blood,
A thread as fine as silk, and stung a little.
Startling transformation,
From paper into knife:
There must have been some mistake, or
Some kind of turning point.
This ordinary paper… a chill of awe.

Woeser, October 16, 2007, Beijing

 

My Own Travels in Tibet

About ten years ago, I was able to spend a short period of time travelling in Tibet. As a tourist, my perceptions were limited and partial, but nevertheless, it was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. One of the lessons it taught me was about the politics of language. Despite the altitude of the Tibetan plateau, there were hours of fierce sunshine when my heavy clothing became unbearable. I stripped down to my long-sleeved thermal vest and rolled my trousers to mid-calf. Suddenly I found myself the object of attention. In one village, a boy doubled himself over for a closer look at the tattoos on my ankle. A line of small, black characters marching up my calf. As he stood upright again, he said to me, ‘Tashi delek…tashi delek!’ I knew this phrase so I smiled and nodded back, ‘Hello! Good Fortune!’ The child buried his face in his mother’s long skirt. Suddenly I got it. I realised why my tattoos were attracting so much interest. They were Chinese characters. The language of the invaders. Worse. They were Chinese characters for the words Power and Strength. My celebration of a mended leg-break. As jarring as a swastika in Europe. I hardly dared look at my Tibetan hosts. They were still boycotting shops, petrol stations, even market stalls if they had signs in Chinese. But the reaction of my hosts was also a surprise: not condemnation but sympathy for one whose body was branded with an alien language. Despite the high temperatures, I kept my trousers rolled down for the rest of the trip.

 

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Save the date!

The English PEN Modern Literature Festival 2017

April Saturday 1st 2017 in Venue One, Rich Mix: London
2pm / 4pm / 7.30pm – Entrance Free but membership appreciated. 

Save the date for this year’s English Pen Modern Literature Festival, curated by Steven J. Fowler, and showcasing new work to celebrate writers at risk.

Again this year, the Festival will pair UK-based writers with Writers at Risk from around the world, to celebrate and raise awareness of English Pen Writers at Risk programme, and of the individual writers supported by it.

Details of the event can be found at https://www.englishpen.org/event/english-pen-modern-literature-festival-2017/  or below. Information can also be found at The Enemies Project website, quoted here:

 ‘The English PEN Modern Literature Festival sees 30 contemporary UK-based writers present new works in tribute to writers at risk around the world at Rich Mix, London, on April 1st 2017. #penfestuk Visit www.englishpen.org.

Writers poets, novelists, playwrights and artists come together to continue English PEN’s relationship with innovative contemporary literature over an extraordinary day where each of the writers presented brand new poetry, text, reportage & performance on a day that celebrates and evidences the struggle of fellow writers around the world, in solidarity.

The 2017 festival will feature Denise Riley, Sarah Howe, Hannah Silva, Sandeep Parmar, Vahni Capildeo, Luke Kennard, Tom Jenks, John Hall, Nathan Jones, Tony White, Matthew Welton, Susie Campbell, Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, Chrissy Williams, Camilla Nelson, Chloe Spicer, Nisha Ramayya, Carol Watts, Larry Lynch, Kate Wakeling, Rebecca Tamas, matt martin, Zoë Skoulding, Mischa Foster Poole, Simon Pomery, Peter Philpott, Lavinia Singer, Sasha Dugdale and SJ Fowler.

Please join English PEN’

http://www.theenemiesproject.com/#/englishpen/

Woeser

It is an enormous privilege to have the opportunity to participate in this event and help to raise awareness of the Writers at Risk programme, and of the extraordinary writer with whom I have been paired: Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan writer whose poetry, reportage, history and cyberjournalism offer an outspoken and illuminating account of life in Tibet. She writes about forbidden subjects such imprisonment, injustice and protest, as well as about finding her own voice as a poet and commentator. As a result, she has been harassed and placed under severe restrictions by the authorities. Over the next few weeks, I will be writing here about Woeser, her work and the process of preparing for the English Pen Modern Literature Festival.

Tsering Woeser, Tiber, 2010

Tsering Woeser, Tibet, 2010

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