Tag Archives: Poetry

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


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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Woeser, Tibetan Poet



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 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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Louise @Paris

My fascination (obsession?) with Louise Bourgeois continued during my recent visit to Paris. Surprisingly, this was not through visiting Paris’s contemporary galleries,



but rather the hours I spent at the Musée de Cluny,  the museum of the city’s medieval history, and its rooms of tapestries, carved reredos screens, and stained glass windows.



The notion of the grid as a conceptual framework is a striking aspect of Bourgeois’s work but I realised how much the notion of series and sequence features in these medieval art forms.

Notre Dame

Notre Dame

Of course, Bourgeois grew up in the workshops of her mother’s tapestry restoration business – she must have been, I realised, very familiar with this history. I remembered seeing a photograph of her New York studio with a framed tapestry panel on the wall – hmm, something in this? It was only when I got back to London, however, that I realised how much Bourgeois worked directly in this medium herself. My Bourgeois-inspired sequence of poems has just taken an interesting new turn…..

In Paris

In Paris

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Ferocious stitches: Louise Bourgeois



I visit the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition and the new Switch building. Buy three O’Keeffe prints and lie on the floor of one of the video rooms like an excited kid. Realise there is a Bourgeois Artist Room and make up my mind to come back the following week.

A week later. Hesitate on the threshold of the Bourgeois Room. Too many people. I don’t want to deal with them. In the end the spider draws me in. Not the giant one although this one is still pretty damn big.

Artist Room - Tate Modern

Artist Room – Tate Modern

Although a lot of the work is familiar, for some reason it all strikes me as much richer this time. Freed from the context of the Freud Museum (where I last encountered much of it) it seems more mysterious, more plural in meaning.  Takes me back to the unexpected intoxication of finding a small Bourgeois/Emin show in Venice some years ago.

I realise again – how do I keep forgetting? – how much she works with fabric and stitching (like Emin). The loose threads dangling from stitched lips fascinate me.

Couple 1 dangle from the ceiling. Like an adult ‘upside down doll’, two in one. The very thing I have been trying to achieve in poetry – voices sharing borders, scaffolding each other, permeating each other – done in stuffed fabric and blanket stitch.


I don’t know if this is possible to do in language – does it need this three dimensionality? Do you need to be a spinner, a worker in stitches, a spider?

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