Tag Archives: Poetry

Six poets, three countries, transcending borders

13 May

BEIRUT: “All writers have to cross a border of some kind,” said Scottish poet Tom Pow, “real or imagined.”

Pow was one of six international poets to participate in “Crossing Borders/Bearing Witness,” a panel discussion held Wednesday evening at the Saifi Urban Gardens as part of Reel Festivals 2011, an event devised to celebrate and instigate cultural interplay between Syria, Lebanon and Scotland.

Six poets, two from each of the three countries, gathered to discuss notions of border and the “role” (if any) of the poet.

Borders and witnessing, Pow continued, are at the essence of what Reel is about: “Learn[ing] from one another and understand[ing] each other’s worlds better [through] art and culture.”

The poets met for the first time only last week and have already begun collaborating on casual translations of one another’s work. The poets were asked to give a three-minute talk on borders, witnessing or both in relation to geography, language or the past. The subsequent discussion was wide ranging.

Emily Ballou, a Glasgow-based American-Australian poet emphasized her multinational background. She said she was frustrated by the traditional ice-breaking question, “Where are you from?” since it forces upon her a thwarted sense of belonging.

“I want to be asked ‘Where do you belong?’” she continued, “and I want to know what happens when you can’t live where you belong.”

For Ballou, who is also a screenwriter and a novelist, the question of exile, whether self-imposed or necessary, is also related to the question of bearing witness.

In a reference to Syria – where the first segment of Reel 2011 had to be canceled because of the current political situation – Ballou remarked that, as a writer, she is now “bearing witness to witnesses” – to the Syrian poets taking part in the festival who are living in a place she as a foreigner has been advised not to visit.

“I can witness the pulse in each writer’s work that helps me to connect to [it] and to their experience.”

Poetry’s ability to recreate experience was also celebrated by Scottish poet William Letford, who described poetry as “language that opens up moments. The poems I love most are the ones where my eyes are opened to someone else’s perspective.”

Coming to Lebanon, Ballou said, has “infused the border question” with greater meaning, explaining that she was only now beginning to “feel a connection to Scotland, having left.” There is a paradoxical relationship between location and identity, she suggested, between the existence of geographical or linguistic divisions and of a connection that surpasses them.

Syrian poet Golan Haji referred the question to sometimes random notions of the border. Describing the “imaginary border” between Kurds and Turks, he described a man killed by Turkish soldiers. “His body was burnt black in the yellow fields” he said, “ … and just because he was on the border.” Simultaneously though, children were giving food to these same soldiers “because they spoke the same language.”

For Mazen Maarouf, notions of the border held an arbitrary aspect. A Palestinian poet and journalist living in Beirut as a refugee, he identified a strong connection between borders and memory. “I was always stereotyped by people who had a memory of the [Civil] War, because the Palestinians took part and made mistakes. I am surrounded by blocks that stop me from reaching my country.

“I never thought of borders being about geography,” he continued. “ … Borders are made not by systems, protocols or society but by the accumulation of evils that take place in life.”

Maarouf’s hope was that poetry might circumvent these borders, not by being explicitly political, but by exposing borders to be things created by history and time.

Lebanon’s Yehia Jaber also saw borders in political, social terms. He spoke of the way that, in Lebanon, the very act of naming oneself imposes borders. “When you hear a name, you can identify. And your next question is, Where do you live?”

Though Jaber described Lebanon as “a country without official borders,” he spoke of social, political and religious barricades that extend deep into society. “I feel uncomfortable everywhere,” he added. Born to a Shiite family, Jaber lives in the traditionally Christian area of Ain al-Rammeneh.

Since he is not affiliated to Hezbollah, he said, he feels anxious both in Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods. “Even in Hamra Street I feel nervous because there, there are the national parties.”

Letford took the discussion in a different direction, evoking the border between life and death. The acknowledgement and embrace of the delicacy of this border daily makes him live better. “You are linked to the person on that border,” he said. “And if you live life like that, everything is a gift.”

Syrian poet Rasha Omran remarked that “borders are not significant in my work. Ideas of borders are different now, because of the Internet. There are no longer barriers to communication.”

Omran, who directs the annual Al-Sindiyana culture festival, introduced the controversial topic of poetry’s place in modern society. Maarouf insisted that it is poetry’s role to “witness the world in a modern way.”

Ballou preferred to focus on poetry as “an opportunity to connect with someone through writing. I’m filtering myself, through a mask … [and] by losing myself I know more.”

“Each poem holds many others inside it,” Haji agreed. “Poetry has made me an eyewitness – even to things I did not live.”

Much as these six poets sometimes disagreed, the rapport that developed among them provided a compelling argument for the power of poetry to surpass borders and create dialogue.

The paradox of this monologue, discussion and debate – and thus the festival as a whole – is that while it crosses and transcends borders, it also celebrates them.



Artistic Worlds

23 Feb
Paul Cezanne's Leda and the Swan, now in the B...

Image via Wikipedia

To give you a bizarre anecdote of what Lebanon surprise me with today – well, lots, as usual. A university class on two of my favourite poems (Yeats’ Leda and the Swan and Donne’s The Sun Rising) began proceedings nicely. Having studied both before I had an unfair advantage over my classmates and decided to keep schtum; I was really interested to see what their initial responses would be. Not only are the subjects of these poems complex, but also their structure and linguistic styles. Leda is saturated in mythological imagery; Donne’s English comes out of the convoluted grandeur of the seventeenth-century. Even for literature students, Donne and Yeats are hardly simple. And these students did not have English as their first language. I can’t imagine reading modernist or Renaissance French poetry and finding it a piece of cake.

How did everybody react? Well, one possible cultural difference between the English and the Lebanese is the latter’s tendency to take part in everything, regardless of whether it bores or excites them. Actually it isn’t so much a tendency as an insistence. It seems to be to do with pride; it’s a matter of honour to at least look like you are involved in what you’re doing and especially to look as though you know what you are talking about. (Image is very, very important.) And so various students tossed in their interpretations, in general with an assured, almost bored air, as though the answer was unambiguously, obviously evident. And half the point of poetry is that that isn’t the case. Those who didn’t voice opinions chatted to their neighbours instead. The class has only about twenty people so the buzz of background chatterings was clearly audible, but bizarrely no one seemed put off by it, even really aware of it.

The strongest impression I got was of the students as convinced either that they were right (sure that ‘this means this’ without worrying about providing evidence) or that there was one unmistakeable right answer (and they wanted the professor to tell them what it was). Overall, an utterly different experience from any university class I’ve been in. It’s surely in part due to the fact that ‘art’ is still widely seen as a soft option when it comes to study. Many of the kids – both girls and boys – are simply taking the class to fill a gap in their credits. A far cry from England’s university system, which is all about getting you to discover your specialism. In today’s class, giving a perspective was a multitude of things but one thing it was not was a result of engaging with the poems. A way to stave off boredom, a way of interacting with the teacher (who is, after all, responsible for grade assignment) and also a symptom of the assumption that there was one simple correct answer. Perhaps because poetry is largely seen as wishy-washy (and especially if you’re a business student who doesn’t want to be reading seventeenth-century English sonnets) the focus of most of the students was on finding out the “message” of each poem so they could learn it for the exam.

This sounds like a string of generalisations, but really it is one of observations. Naturally not every student thinks in this way; those in my class, did. One striking thing, though, about the Lebanese – this is a generalisation, and one I wholeheartedly stick to – is that they are far from self-conscious.

Here’s another example from today of this self-possession. I had (rather indulgently) booked a pedicure at 5 and wasn’t seen until … 6.30. Even by Lebanese standards (and Lebanese lateness is one cultural cliché that is absolutely true) this was shonky. Luckily I was reviewing a book so I had lots to do. But as a writer it was very amusing to see how little the staff were ruffled by my waiting. Eventually the cleaner offered me Nescafe; at around 6 the receptionist came to whisper sorries – I think the enormous notebook on my lap, pen in hand and thoughtful look on my face was making them wary – and offer me a voucher. The best part of it all was that she looked down at my feet, nakedly awaiting their pampering, and immediately freaked out. Thanks to terrible circulation my feet are always blue; all the staff members (previously so busy I had had to wait 90 minutes) came to stare at my poor blue swollen toes and conjecture what my ailments might be. Nice and loudly. And nice and embarrassing for me. Still, if they weren’t bothered about excitedly decrying the sorry state of my feet with shrieks and points, I was ready to mimic their self-assurance and to at least strain for a sense of poise. Ah! The Lebanese teach me something every day.

Meanwhile hundreds have died in Libya and I hadn’t heard a word about it. The taboo for talking of things political seems to extend beyond borders.