Poetry Parnassus, this past week at London's Southbank Centre, was a really extraordinary experience and one which I wish hadn't come to an end quite so soon. I took in a good many events, but I wish that I could have somehow gone to even more, or all of them...
On Friday, I spent about half the day at the festival. My first event was the Geography For The Lost workshop with Bulgaria's Kapka Kassabova. I'd chosen this because poetry of travel and place is one of my chief enthusiasms and the prime inspiration for a lot of my own writing. I wanted to find different ways to approach this kind of writing, and the workshop was really stimulating. We read a variety of poems and approached travel poetry as descriptions of place, as reflections of relationships, and so on. It was encouraging to see what a variety of people had joined this small workshop, too - maybe unsurprisingly given its nature, between us we'd been born on or lived on virtually every continent.
The star event of Poetry Parnassus was in the evening - Continental Shift, featuring the following poets:
Wole Soyinka (Nigeria)
Seamus Heaney (Ireland)
Bill Manhire (New Zealand)
Kay Ryan (USA)
Jo Shapcott (UK)
Kim Hyesoon (South Korea)
Togara Muzanenhamo (Zimbabwe)
This was an incredible lineup. I had seen Seamus Heaney a couple of times before, but he is a delightful reader and he always seems to choose different poems. I found his reading of the Song of Amergin, and 'I Am Raftery' in Irish, really moving, as were his own 'Two Lorries' and 'A Peacock's Feather'. Wole Soyinka had an incredible presence and body of work, only disturbed by the fact that his own mobile phone went off during one of his poems; a pretty hilarious moment. (He muttered something like "Oh my God, if this is who I think it is...") Seeing two such elder statesmen of poetry (sorry for the cliche, but what else can you call these two Nobel Prize winners?) at the same event was very exciting. As well, I was totally disturbed and fascinated by Kim Hyesoon, especially 'The Sublime Kitchen'. Bill Manhire's 'Erebus Voices', about the Air New Zealand/Mt Erebus disaster, made me cry. Togara Muzanenhamo was, I think, a late addition, but superb. He had undergone an odyssey, as two years previously he'd not been able to get a visa for the UK, and for this event his visa had only come through at the last minute. Such experiences weren't uncommon for a good few of the poets at Poetry Parnassus, I think, and apparently some failed to get a visa, again.
Seamus Heaney at Continental Shift:
On Saturday morning I went to Bill Manhire's workshop about memory exercises, which was fruitful. A few meaningful coincidences, too; he made reference to Wallace Stevens's 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," which I hadn't been very familiar with previously but had read just a couple of days before the festival. I then caught some of the free readings in the Clore Ballroom, sponsored by various publishers and journals. I loved the poem by Zambia's Kayo Chingonyi about cassette tapes - great for those of us over a certain age - and it was lovely to hear George Szirtes read 'Mapping the Delta', and to meet him briefly. (Another coincidence: on Sunday, at Poetry Review's stand where they had a free Lucky Dip, I picked up a copy of 'Mapping the Delta', to my delight.)
I also paid a visit to the Emergency Poet, which was so nice. Deborah Alma invites patients into her old ambulance, asks questions such as "Do you enjoy walking by the sea and how often do you get to do it?", "Are there any types of poetry you are allergic to?" and "What books would be on your desert island list?", and then makes suitable poetic prescriptions. I got an excerpt from T S Eliot's 'East Coker', and Wendell Berry's 'The Peace of Wild Things', both of which were quite spot-on to ease my nervous disposition. Deborah Alma also works with dementia patients using poetry, so I felt that there was a serious intent behind the fun.
The Emergency Poet's ambulance:
A little later, there was another amazing event, 'They Won't Take Me Alive: Women and Revolution'. This was a panel and reading, featuring Gioconda Belli (Nicaragua), Chiranan Pitpreecha (Thailand), and Farah Didi (Maldives). All have in one way or another been politically involved and used poetry to bring attention to the issues of their countries and the personal impact of oppression, war and loss. Again, I was really struck by how powerfully meaningful poetry is in such countries, and how even writing poetry can be a brave, dangerous act. Amanda Hopkinson read poetry by Alaide Foppa, who was "disappeared" in Guatemala in the 1980s. When 'Exile' was read, many people in the room were in tears, including myself.
I then had a quick drink with a friend, and we discussed Eliot and Pound while overlooking the Thames, and then I called it a day for poetry. I'll write about Sunday at Poetry Parnassus shortly, but must call it a night, now!