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.)