Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Poetry International, Southbank Centre

IN 1967 poet, children’s writer and poet laureate, Ted Hughes founded the Southbank Centre’s (SBC) biennial Poetry International festival.
His vision was to highlight both traditional and new forms of poetry, welcoming poets from across the world for a varied programme of talks, readings, workshops, performances, music, films, family and free events.
Now nearly 50 years on the festival returns to the South Bank for four days of events from Thursday to Sunday showcasing this ancient art form.
This year’s event shines a spotlight on themes of conflict, war, censorship, oppression and shifting politics and features stories of political adversity and personal struggle.
As well as recitals and readings the packed line up features music, translation, new commissions and free events.
It includes a special focus on poets and their work from the Middle East and South East Asia, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Kurdistan, Iran and the Palestinian Territories and Syria.
Among this year's highlights will be two groups of Pashtun poets. The first are a group of Pakistan refugees who fled from the Taliban to renew their ancient craft of writing poetry celebrating nature, tribal culture and love after being forced to compose jihadist messages of war and brutality.
The other is Mirman Baheer Society, am Afghan women's literary society based in Kabul who risk their lives to write poetry, often writing under the protection of pen names.
There is also some traditional poetry from Pakistan which is being specially translated into English for the first time.
As well as the groups from Pakistan and Afghanistan there will be more than 30 other poets, writers, translators, performers and musicians at the festival from more than 10 countries who will present a wide variety of work.
Those taking part include Sahera Sharif, Ghareeb Iskander, Sasha Dugdale, Saleem Khan, Sahid Ullah Khan, Dilawar Khan, Choman Hardi, Warsan Shire, Kei Miller, Imtiaz Dharker, Malika Booker and Jo Shapcott.
A year in the making it has been curated by SBC’s Anna Selby who says she is thrilled to be bringing such an "incredible and vibrant" programme to London audiences.
“When the festival was originally set up, Ted Hughes looked at what was happening around the world,” says Anna.
“At that time his aim was to bring poets and poetry from places beyond the iron curtain and share their work.
"He wrote that poetry is 'a universal language of understanding in which we can all hope to meet' and so we thought what would he do today? What are the issues poets face today? We looked at the most pressing issues of the world today and decided to focus on the Middle East and South East Asia.
"We wanted to give poets from these countries a voice and to listen to what they have to say.
"Too often we see such negative images of these places in the news so to have something positive that represents their culture and language through one of the oldest traditions and art forms in the world is amazing.”
However, Anna admits gathering such a contingent together was not without its difficulties.
"It took about a year to put together and there were a lot of challenges,” she says. “To begin with we had to find them – however, there are about 700,000 refugees displaced in camps at the moment and finding them amongst all these people, not to mention the contacts and translators that we could work with was tricky.
"We had to track them down and then make sure it was safe for them to travel."
For some the team were able to get them out and bring them to the festival but Anna says it was not a possibility for everyone.
"For some it was just too dangerous - not just to travel but to reveal their identity," she says. "Also some poets we wanted to be part of the festival were unable to come because they couldn’t get visas – a lot of the places in some countries where you get visas have shut down or they were too expensive to buy.
“It’s meant that for some poets like Iranian Sabeer Haka we will read his work as he can’t be here himself. He is a construction worker and writes some of the best poetry I’ve read in years.”
Despite the difficulties Anna says the festival will nonetheless showcase some of the very best poetry as well as show its power to influence, inspire, and engage.
“Poets are great spokespeople and philosophers of the modern world and getting them to talk about what’s going on is uplifting and refreshing,” she says.
“Language is so beautiful and a lot of countries have strong traditions of poetry and it is the most ancient form of storytelling.
"We have a whole range of events going on over the four days so there will be something for everyone including many free activities."
These include a chance for families to bring along a poem which will be included in a special book to be held in the Poetry Library.
"We have a free session for families on Saturday called Around The World In 80 Poems which we ask people to bring in a favourite poem, story or saying," says Anna.
"It can be from your home, your country, town or community or can even be something you've made up. Those who take part will work with artist and poet Sophie Herxheimer to create beautiful poetry pages to add to a new book which will be housed in our Poetry Library.
"On Sunday writer and photographer Yemisi Blake will be leading a poetry and censorship workshop for those aged between 14 and 18.
"He will help them use creative writing and photography to look at themes of censorship and speaking out.
"It will be an amazing few days," she adds. "I feel poetry is one of the things we still keep as sacred. In any cemetery you will see poetry quoted and at rites of passage such as naming ceremonies and weddings we turn to poetry.
"It will lift your spirits or make your feel morose and it paints a picture and I hope people who come to this festival will be inspired and engaged by what they see and hear.
"Ted Hughes was a global poet and I hope we have stayed true to his vision and that he would approve of the range of countries and languages we have got here.
"It's been such a privilege to have worked on this festival and it feels like a real celebration of lots of different people, cultures and languages coming together."

Southbank Centre's Poetry International festival takes place between Thursday, July 23 and Sunday, July 26. Visit www.southbankcentre.co.uk or call 0844 847 9910 for full listings and ticket prices.

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